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The Immortal Diamanda Galás: Still Wild, Still Extreme

The terrifyingly intense singer, pianist, and artist talks rape culture, Ornette Coleman, and Yoko Ono ahead of her upcoming performances at Roadburn and NYC's Red Bull Music Academy.

by Louise Brown
Mar 28 2016, 3:25pm

When Roadburn Festival, the celebrated altar of genre-bending music which begun in The Netherlands in 1999, invited former Cathedral frontman and Rise Above Records label head, Lee Dorrian, to curate an event called Rituals Of The Blind Dead, no one expected the norm. He is, after all, famed for his crate-rattling devotion to hunting out records from the most tripped-out corners of punk, rock and heavy metal, who took huge risks in signing bands like Electric Wizard, Sunn O))) and Ghost to his resolutely DIY label—and, oh yeah, fronted a nascent version of Napalm Death. Following in the footsteps of Current 93's David Tibet, Celtic Frost's Tom G. Warrior. and Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, Dorrian's second time at the helm (in 2008, Roadburn hosted his label's 20th Anniversary) has seen the addition of conceptual noise artist Russell Haswell, Japanese punk legends G.I.SM and death metal pioneers Repulsion. But the crown of his curation is in inviting the haunting pianist and vocalist, Diamanda Galás.

“I became aware of Diamanda Galás when I saw her perform on the famous Friday tea-time TV show, The Tube, on Channel 4, some time back in the mid-1980s. The sheer terrifying intensity of that performance led me to want to find out more," Dorrian explained. "To say that Diamanda is unique is a complete understatement, and seeing her perform live for the first time in 1990 still counts as one of the most intense performances I have ever witnessed. 'Dark' seems like a trivial word to use when describing her music, but dark she undoubtedly is at the most extreme level.”

Born in 1955 in California to Greek Orthodox parents, there was nothing orthodox about Diamanda's journey to becoming one of the most important musical artists of our time. Trained as a bel canto opera singer, she made her first public performance in 1979, collaborating on an opera with Vinko Globokar and Amnesty International about the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman for treason. In 1982 she released her debut album,The Litanies Of Satan, a sparse soundscape of tormenting screams, incantations and poetry that showcased her famed vocal acrobatics and included an 18-minute performance piece titled Wild Women With Steak Knives. She has uncompromisingly sung about and created work around the subjects of mental health, feminism and AIDS. On her 1994 album The Sporting Life, a collaboration with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, she creates a sadistic fantasy of castration, male rape, torture, and murder. Her career is storied and impressive in its diversity; she has straddled the worlds of rock, blues, jazz and opera, working in the mediums of music, spoken word, film and literature and has done it all on her own terms.

Unafraid to step into uncomfortable territories, both in the subjects she works within and the sheer extremity of her compositions, we asked to speak to the pioneering artist whose tongue is a barbed and as brutal as her art. She cackles when discussing age, the dishonesty of the music industry, and the mediocre musicians who cling to her, limpet-like, for a shred of credibility. She is forthright, headstrong and so, so sharp. Lifting the curtain on what to expect when she takes the stage at Roadburn Festival while hinting at future projects, she takes a hardline stance on composing music with integrity, her influences, her respect for Kesha and the sexiness of Peter Steele. As Dorrian perfectly said, “To say that Diamanda is unique is a complete understatement”.



Noisey: You are about to perform at Roadburn Festival, one of the most diverse, and the most extreme, in terms of its lineup, but is it ready for Diamanda Galás?
Diamanda Galás: The festival is new to me. The people organizing it are very kind and I've only seen and heard good things, so I'm already looking forward to it. I don't know the kind of audience it will be, but listen, audiences are audiences and one does the best one can and that's all you can really. I performed for a lot of different audiences. I did something, I guess it was a punk festival. I wanted to start off with this operatic aria and I didn't really care if they liked it or not, because I was so obsessed with this particular piece of music. The response was, well, it freaked them out totally. 'What the fuck? Where am I?' I'm really interested in the music that I'm doing and if the audience doesn't like it, well, I'm a hermit, I only like to work on whatever interests me.

What can the Roadburn audience expect from your performance?
I will be starting with a suicide poem by Cesare Pavese, an Italian poet, and it's operatically sung. Underneath it, there's an analogue synth accompaniment, but it's quite incredible. The words are incredible and they demand this style of singing, they demand it. For this festival, I will [also] be doing Henri Michaux, a very famous poet from Belgium. It's a hex of voice and piano. His idea was that music should be hammering to make the hex; it had to be precise, the words had to be communicated in many different ways so that the words would be like bullets. He was interested in doing it as a poem, as a poem was originally done in days or cultures where incantations were important and were respected. And I'll do "O Death"—I do my own version, as everyone does. They say it was written by Ralph Stanley but it wasn't, it's traditional. Actually, the words come from Scotland, and then they came to America, and then eventually changed into a cowboy song. It really is literally cowboys singing to the moon; wailing, howling at the moon, but it's very beautiful to hear. I may do some cante jondo singing, which is from Southern Spain. There will be some French songs as well, but I wouldn't say it's going to be a rock concert.

You are also showing your film Schrei 27, a collaboration with Davide Pepe. It is described as “Piercing, guttural screams of pain, crescendos of raw human sound, visceral primeval calls and episodes of silence form the extended aria of pain” and deals with ideas surrounding torture within the restricted confines of a medical facility. A lot of your compositions deal with harrowing themes of a psychological or political nature, yet very few artists expose their audience to these dark and hard-to-swallow experiences, preferring to entertain. Should your concert come with a trigger warning?
I don't know, I think what I do is entertaining [laughs]. I feel very ill, physically and mentally ill when I hear Christmas carols. I feel so angry, so much like getting out a sniper's rifle when I hear that kind of music. And Broadway shows with their sentimental songs, those kinds of things are terrifying for me because they call up memories from far back and I don't necessarily know what they are but they just break me, they break my heart, they break my soul. Iannis Xenakis, the great Greek composer, he said the same thing. He couldn't listen to the music his mother had played to him when he was young, because it was akin to thinking of someone who was disemboweled. And so for me, if I do a song that's what you'd say is pretty, my interpretation takes it to another place because it shows the death of the virgin, the animal that goes out in the spring and then gets shot by a hunter. It is prettiness that is very alarming to me, so I tend to do a juxtaposition of something that might be pretty with something that is harsh, just because I feel that they occur in life together. I do it to save myself, to protect myself so that I don't walk out like Bambi. I'm too afraid to do it and it's much better to be on guard.

What I'm dealing with are things are extremely psychological and I know they say the psychological is the political or whatever, I don't know about that, but in Schrei 27, I'm making multiphonic sounds, sometimes three sounds at the same time in different ranges of the scale, so to me that is beautiful. I can't see why anyone would call it ugly. For me, something that is ugly is unrefined, repetitious, squalid, simple, not like a country ballad but an amateur version of noise music. Ugh, that's just taking the freeway. You're taking the freeway again, taking the easy way again. No, no, no. Go down the back alleys and then see what happens.

Will you be working with any musical collaborators at Roadburn?
No, for years I've been working solo, and the problem with working solo is that there are always big objections to bringing other people on the road. This is because people have seen I can do these concerts by myself so then they think, 'Oh you don't need anyone else' [laughs]. You're not telling me anything, little buddy, I'm telling you. So right now I'm at the point where I'm at much more liberty to do what I want. My next production will definitely demand other players, drummers in particular. There's a lot of things that I'm trying to do right now, and I just can't do all at once. I just can't get my hands everywhere, physically it's not possible and I'm getting to the point where I'm having to be more social [laughs].

The idea of a “next production” is exciting, but dare we ask, having just turned 60, is there any temptation to retire? Do you worry about things like age and time?
I worry about time running out, damn right. Living in New York, I could go out and not see the bus, anything could kill you at any moment. I worry about that because I have a lot of work to do and I need some time to do it. Yes, there are times I say I'm not going to fucking work, I don't feel like fucking working, but what can I do? I cant bowl because my hands are all fucked up from hard piano. My hands are like the geography of a piano player. They make me laugh when I look at them.

I do worry about not getting everything done but as far as retiring, I don't believe in that and I think that when people do, they get dementia. You take an active mechanism that needs to be oiled, and by stopping it, you kill it, so it's not possible for me. Why does it have to be this rigmarole prescribed by someone else? If you're an artist there should be other rules to survival. That kind of work is very intensive, I used to say it's like digging nails into the flesh, and it's not the same as another nine to five job. The way to kill someone is to make them completely useless to themselves, to any society, other than the ones who live on a golf course.

People are so concerned with age. I always say I am younger than springtime and I'm older than God. When I was very young, I felt very old because I was completely out of touch from everyone around me. We are told as women we're old when we're 20. That's a real cruelty. I've always felt younger than springtime and older than god when I am working; if not I feel like anyone else, I feel like I don't know where I'm going. I don't know what I am, that's a horrible thing.

Going back to your suggestion that you would work with other musicians on your next project, you've been fiercely independent and worked only rarely with others. Do you have a wish list of artists you would like to work with, or do they hunt you out?
They hunt me out. I have so many invitations and I can't do them all. I'm just too busy working on my own work and actually some of them are certainly interesting, but there's a lot that really need to learn something about music first. I listen to some of the tapes, and my god, are you on anti-depressants? Well, you shouldn't be. You should know how truly awful you are so you don't get these positive ideas about asking me to perform with you. You should learn music, then get your picture taken. Not the other way around. There's this ambitiousness that's very odd, it's almost like people play music to get their picture taken.

It would be easy to presume that many musicians would love to work with you to give themselves an edge—working with Diamanda Galás would be a great coup for cachet.
That's so lazy. And you know, my father used to tell me there is only one method, the Socratic method, and that is a first class method. It says clearly that there are no shortcuts. Ornette Coleman used to say 'Well, you guys think that I'm playing all this free this or free that, are you crazy? I came out of the blues, I learned the blues, I learned a lot of other music very well as well, and that is why I was able to take it this far'. He said that. 'I've been able to take it this far because of that, not just because I picked up a horn and suddenly I thought I was a genius.'

What the fuck is this attitude? People have been playing for one year, they picked up the guitar and everyone told them they were brilliant. Put those drugs down that make you so happy, man. Put those anti-depressants down, put them down and listen to what you're doing. Listen to the great musicians, of every field, not just the field you aspire to. It's easy for me to say this because I spent so many years learning and I'm learning so much, all the time.

You mentioned Ornette Coleman— are there other musicians they have inspired you? You have always kept that close to your chest, even going for far as to tease the press by throwing them off the scent by name-checking jazz singers such as Patty Waters. What does Diamanda Galás listen to on the radio at home?
[Laughs] The only thing you ever hear on the radio is Beyoncé, I guess they bought the radio station. I often really don't want to hear any music at all because it's already in my head so much. If I'm working on something, I want silence because in my mind there's all these notes, it's so claustrophobic. I'd like to be able to shake my skull so I don't hear anything sometimes.

But you can come across something and say, "Oh, that's extraordinary," but I'm really bad at names. I want one day to write a list of all the singers and instrumentalists that I adore, because people would be so shocked to hear that one of my favorite singers is Carmen McRae. Her phrasing was amazing and people don't necessarily expect to hear that. They would expect to hear something like Patty Waters and I'm the one who brought that up [laughs].

I brought her up constantly because I was so offended that nobody knew her. I made up a quote and I implicated myself in it intentionally so that people would pay attention to her and I said, without Patty Waters there would be no Diamanda Galás or Yoko Ono. I admit that I invented the quote and it's not true in my case. I don't know if it's true in Yoko's, but the fact is that the press, being who they are, repeated it about a 100 times now and I just laugh every time.

Was it true that Yoko Ono saw you perform and then said in an interview that you took your lead from her? I remember you saying once that it made you so angry.
That's the reason I put Yoko Ono in there, to teach her a lesson. Yoko, at her son's advice, came to two of my shows that were entirely in black. She invited me to her performance and isn't that funny, it was all in darkness. Oh, fuck off, won't you? This woman can't sing, she had a few vocal sounds, but you have to have 400 sounds at your command if you're going to go to Mars. There are millions of singers who created such extraordinary work and she is not anything next to them. I heard so many different kinds of music so my influences are just so many that Patty Waters is not really one, but she was an eye-opener, that's for sure. I loved her and I love Annette Peacock and my god, the list of singers I like is huge. Hendrix is my first inspiration, and Chopin. Oh I will tell you my favorite male singer, of all time, and that is Peter Steele. Oh my god. That voice goes beyond sexy. It is sex.

Who would you say are your contemporaries? Your performances are often so varied that it is hard to categorize your music; you are, as Lee Dorrian said, truly unique.
I don't know what contemporaries means because, again this is a problem for me, does this mean within an age of 30 years, 20 years, within a generation, you mean people who are actively doing incredible vocal work? It's hard to say. I do a lot of different things, especially with the piano. The piano was my first instrument, far before the voice, so I don't say I'm a singer, but there are a lot of singers out there who are doing things that are very interesting. As an artist, the reason I have to keep the voice so flexible and strong is because the things that I hear command a force and a vocabulary of sound. I don't hear singers doing this kind of huge vocal vocabulary, and it's not their job. Ester Phillips certainly didn't need a huge vocabulary of sounds, it's just that I need it; more than I need electronics or more than I need an amp. That's why I studied so long and continue to study. I'm re-learning all the time and I'll take a lesson or two, and I'll say "Holy shit, whatever made you think you were a singer? You are on some kind of trip."

I have interviewed so many musicians and I find that great virtuoso players are the ones that admit to still taking lessons, while the mediocre ones think they are the bee's knees.
Most guitarists never want to talk about that as they wouldn't want to tarnish their image as being born with a fucking guitar up their ass. When I hear a guitar, that's what I think—"Baby, you did it again, you stuffed that guitar up your ass again and that is why you are playing horrible notes instead of the right ones." My god, heaven forbid. I can't stand to go to some of these concerts with these horrible male singers who walk around the stage as if they're modeling. Baby, you should try modeling until you learn to sing because I'm not hearing anything. Your band is playing its ass off and you're just standing there, or moving around or jumping into the crowd. Whatever it is you're doing, I'm down with that, do whatever you want but show me something.

Another example of you being so unparalleled is that you have never conformed to the music industry conventions. You have broken all the big boys rules by relentlessly playing what you want, around themes that are often uncompromising and controversial. Has it been difficult?
I wouldn't play the big boys rules and I know what they are and I know how idiotic they are. I've had tours cancelled at the last minute, I could not do anything about it because I did not have the money to hire a lawyer who would charge me such an enormous amount of money that I would just go full broke. I know those rules and they do exist and I just can't. It's not a moral issue. It's a musical issue. It's about what I hear. I can only play what I hear. I can't play something I don't hear. I would be bored, forget about it. It's not their music, it's my music. It fucks me off. Fuck them. You big fat pigs that have a reliable income and don't know anything about music. They don't know anything about what audiences are actually interested in and they just pull the same old horse shit over and over again. These are not people that interest me.

It's interesting to talk in these terms at the exact moment that a pop artist like Kesha is being denied the right to create by “the big boy rules”. I know her music is not perhaps what you would choose to listen to, though.
That doesn't matter. That does not matter. Those good old boys, they should get in one of those circle jerks with a razor blade and have a blast. It's a tale as old as time, and there are so many ideas that are called to my attention when I think about this but it's part and parcel of almost every business there is. This fucking rape culture. By rights you should have a shotgun and then you get to go and serve your sentence that all these women go through. Nobody believes them. Even the most pedestrian people make up incredible lies about women. This situation makes me very angry to hear. And what they always say is that's she's trying to get a name for herself. For what goddamn reason would someone want a headline like that? A person doesn't want to grab headlines for saying someone is abusing them. That's not an attractive headline.

I'll tell you one thing, I praise her greatly. I have tremendous respect for her because this is not a popular move. This is not something you do to get friends and I really admire her. I think it's remarkable. It's an age old truth that comes revisited, and it's not good.

Diamanda Galás will perform at Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, the Netherlands as part of Lee Dorrian's 'Rituals Of The Blind Dead' on April 15. Her film 'Schrei 27' will be shown on April 16.

Closer to home, Galás will also headline two dates of this year's 2016 NYC Red Bull Music Academy at Harlem’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church on May 10 and 12 with a show titled 'Death will Come and Have Your Eyes'; tickets available here.

Louise Brown is a UK-based editor and music journalist; follow her on Twitter.