For the latest interview on amodelofcontrol.com, Athan Maroulis – nowadays performing under the NOIR name – kindly gave up his time to discuss his current project and his musical past.
I’ve been following work by Maroulis since his time in the long-underrated band Spahn Ranch, so I was curious to know more. All photos were supplied courtesy of Athan Maroulis.
amodelofcontrol.com Athan, good to speak with you. Your current project NOIR has a new single out (The Burning Bridge), and the lead track seems to have a more…dancefloor oriented sound than previous work under the NOIR name. Was this an intentional thing?
Athan: After we released Darkly Near, I toyed with the idea of having something more dancefloor friendly for the next release, then “The Burning Bridge” fell in my lap. I began collaborating with Erik Gustafson (who had previously played some guitar on Darkly Near) on some new material. Erik lives in Austin and I live in NYC, so we work together via email. Erik sent me what would become The Burning Bridge in it’s fetal 2 minute demo form, I liked the hook and it just went from there.
“It took me a number of years to realize that I am not really an artist and far more of an entertainer. I’ve found that entertainers see things more clearly.”
amodelofcontrol.com In addition to the lead single, there are two more covers, both of which pretty much come from the same time period (1982). Are there particular stories behind the songs you chose to cover here and on Darkly Near?
Athan: Originally, I wanted to start to cut and stockpile cover versions of songs that directly or indirectly influenced me to make the sort of music that NOIR does. This, with the intent of creating a full-length album of covers with the possible inclusion of a few original songs as well. The concept is a bit foreign in the modern era but back in the Fifties and right up to the early years of the British Invasion, the lion’s share of artists only covered or interpreted material written by others. In fact, few recall that the first Rolling Stones album in 1964 had a total of 12 songs, 11 of which were covers. This has certainly fallen out of favor over the years, although I must confess I actually like the concept, in part, for that reason alone. The plan was to record classic as well as obscure synth heavy nuggets from the Post Punk era of the early to mid-Eighties. Then, I injured my spine and lost a mountain of time recovering.
With NOIR in need of releasing something new, The Burning Bridge EP was devised as a shortened version of the original idea, although I might return to the idea at some point. As for the pair of cover songs on Darkly Near. My previous collaborator, who prefers to remain anonymous, wanted to do A Forest, which I wasn’t completely convinced was the right idea at the time. I was nevertheless proven wrong and I like the end result quite a bit. In Every Dream Home A Heartache, was a fluke. Originally it was an ambient experimental piece that left me barren of ideas as to how to apply a vocal. Around this time I had discovered a video of the amazing Roxy Music performing In Every Dream Home A Heartache, live on German television in the early Seventies. Bathed in blue light, this performance stayed with me and when I got stuck on the aforementioned ambient piece, I placed the lyrics to In Every Dream Home A Heartache, right over the top of it in one take. It worked and was the last song I completed on Darkly Near.
amodelofcontrol.com When NOIR surfaced, some of the material at points nodded back to your days fronting Spahn Ranch, while the remainder seemed almost determined to mine new seams. It feels at times to take jazzy influences into an area where it often doesn’t appear at all. Did you have a particular concept for NOIR when it first began, or did it grow from one particular song or event?
Athan: Looking back, I suppose part of my goal with NOIR was to take aspects of Spahn Ranch, merge it with pieces of other bands and projects I have been a part of over the years, while still trying to “mine new seams” as you so aptly put it. It took me a number of years to realize that I am not really an artist and far more of an entertainer. I’ve found that entertainers see things more clearly. There was a moment not long ago, when I was in Black Tape for a Blue Girl, that I saw an audience out there that appeared older than the selfie snapin’ side of this scene, their tastes a bit more developed with a wider palate of interests in music, film and even art. They seemed hungry for something that was electronic and rhythmic without forced angst and when performed was alive with a flair for drama, maybe even slightly campy or even darkly absurd yet didn’t make them feel childish. These sort of things ran through my mind as I was conceptualizing what I wanted NOIR to be. Also, I just didn’t think the world needed another stompy boot band that counts aloud in distorted German.
As for the jazzy influences, I have to give David Bowie a nod for that. Bowie showed me that you could take completely unrelated styles of music and adapt aspects of them to fit in a foreign environment. So Bowie, who loved the crooners of yesteryear, led the way to pinch parts of Frank Sinatra, Crosby or Al Bowlly and present it in a contemporary way. So I believe when you say jazzy, you are picking up on that and I thank you for noticing. Truth be told, these singers cut songs that are darker and more seductively morose than scores of Goth and Industrial vocalists. Al Bowlly can be hauntingly heard singing a pair of songs in Kubrick’s The Shining. It doesn’t get any darker than that! Either way, because NOIR was really mine it enabled me to take control and build a world of characters as if they were in an old film using glimpses of Philip K. Dick and Rod Serling with dreamy dark New York City subway cinematography supplied by Weegee and naturally cast my own ass as the narrator. Originally NOIR was going to have a very limited shelf life, now I feel differently.
amodelofcontrol.com Spahn Ranch, indeed, always seemed a restless beast – the difference between Collateral/Collateral Damage and Closure, just eight years apart, is so big as to almost be a different band. There were so many influences – dub, breakbeats, house music, industrial, goth, torch singers, not to mention covers of PJ Harvey *and* The Equals – was the aim always to break down boundaries, or was it just an organic growth? In the decade post-Spahn Ranch, you did many things, as I understand it, stretching from a jazz act (The Blue Dahlia), to outright gothic ) and label work involving re-issuing of old material. Were these just opportunities that arose, or did you actively seek out these wildly different endeavors?
Athan: Soup to nuts, Spahn Ranch was together approximately 7 1/2 years, sometimes I look back at the pile of work we completed along with the insane amount of touring and I just can’t believe that we survived it. Matt Green and I were the constant members throughout, Matt was truly the one that was responsible for driving the stylistic side of things. While I liked bending genres, Matt was the one actually vested in altering directions from album to album. In fact, on our first album Collateral Damage (renamed Collateral for the Euro version) my vocals were distorted and very industrial, then on The Coiled One it was Matt who talked me into singing again. After Spahn Ranch, I moved back home to Brooklyn in ’00 and decided to take a break from being a singer. (The Blue Dahlia was a vocal jazz project I did in LA in the late 1990s).
I went behind the scenes of music for awhile, wrote liners notes on reissues of jazz, blues material like Miles Davis, B.B. King and others, I even worked for Metropolis Records for a few years. Then, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, asked me to join the band and after a 9 year break from singing I began fronting the group. I cut an album, multiple singles/EPs and toured for about 3 years with Black Tape, then it just stopped cold. Since BTFABG had a rep of taking 5 year breaks between releases, it was a perfect time to start my own thing and NOIR was born. Although I can see how these outlets or vehicles all seem wildly different, to me they are all a part of the same river fed by different streams. I collect, admire and study many different eras of 20th Century entertainment so I suppose I’ve tried to express myself through as many of these periods as possible. Many years ago the goal of building a body of work appealed to me, looking back it made me feel alive somehow.
amodelofcontrol.com It has become fairly clear that your influences are perhaps far wider than some others in the industrial/electronic scenes. What were your formative influences, and did your upbringing in Brooklyn have a hand in it?
Athan: I’d say you are probably correct but that is because quite a few of my influences have very little in common with the industrial/electronic scenes. I think it is part of the reason I’ve never been allowed to sit “at the cool kids table in the high school cafeteria” of this scene so to say, even after all of these years. It’s a bit like the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where once the body snatchers know the ones that are still human, they point at them and scream. Then again, it’s all part of what drives me. With that said, I’ve always been influenced by film, especially the early years. In fact, I originally planned to be an actor but thought the life of a band singer was a bit more of a direct path and I “thought” it would be easier.
As far as music, I began singing and speaking at the same time. As a child my mother was fond of both Nat King Cole and Hank Williams, Sr., so I knew many of those songs by age 10. My early teens were ordinary, I grew very fond of the Doors during their revival in the early 1980s, then David Bowie carved me a new path which led to post punk favorites like the Psychedelic Furs, Bauhaus, Joy Division and more. All the while I had an appreciation for Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and so on. As for some of the R&B singers, I may not be able to sing like a soul singer but I’ve learned much from it. As for Brooklyn, the Brooklyn I grew up in was a different world from the bearded hipster yoga Brooklyn the world now knows. I’m a second generation Greek/American and the part of Brooklyn I grew up in was somewhat ethnic and middle class, we all had heavy NY accents, observed many Euro traditions and my generation was the last of that in some ways. I must say, I had a fantastical childhood and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Sadly, that Brooklyn is gone and yes it was quite an influence. It was like growing up in a living and breathing 1940s movie.
amodelofcontrol.com You’ve done some A&R work for labels in the past. What would your advice to aspiring bands nowadays be from an A&R perspective?
Athan: I tried answering a similar question the other day in an interview. It’s really important to make as much as you can out of the time you have to do this. Much like an athlete, albeit different, it does have an expiration date. Hard work, touring and keeping your ego in check are all important but so is understanding the basic business of music. Lack of knowledge in regard to publishing, contracts or even balancing a tour budget will bite you in the ass. Also don’t try to bullshit about what you’ve done, especially to a veteran of the music biz, it just makes you look like a bag of feces.
amodelofcontrol.com You’ve been involved in making and releasing music for over three decades. How have things changed in your eyes over that time, and do you still discover new music that excites you even now?
Athan: In fact, this year marks the 30th Anniversary of my first release with the band Fahrenheit 451, I hope to reissue this before the year is out. Parts of the game remain the same, I’m not nuts about some of the changes in the music industry as a whole but I have to roll with them if I am going to play the game. A very good friend of mine named Patrick Orth recently reminded me to try to stay open to new music and I try. In fact, sometimes I REALLY have to try hard in this climate. That said, I am always on the lookout for things, I do after all, rep a few bands on the side and help them secure record deals so I must remain open. As for all of those years, ultimately, I am just a survivor and always have been. This will all come to an end sooner than later, but it’s comforting that I myself can make that decision.
The Burning Bridge EP is out now on Metropolis