Most singers would consider an early retirement after seeing Diamanda Galás perform live. She has an operatic vocal range no combination of adjectives can describe.
Diamanda confronts the most difficult topics, from extreme isolation to the AIDS epidemic. She gives voice to the most marginalised people in society. You wouldn’t play one of her albums in the background at a cocktail party.
That being said, she’s one of the funniest and most charming interviewees I’ve had the privilege to encounter. Just don’t mention Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift in her presence.
Diamanda has reissued her self-titled second album. The A-side features ‘Panoptikon’, inspired by Jack Henry Abbott’s book In the Belly of the Beast. The second half of the album is dedicated to ‘ΤΡΑΓΟΥΔΙ ΑΠΟ ΤΟ ΑΙΜΑ ΤΩΝ ΔΟΛΟΦΟΝΗΜΕΝΩΝ’ (‘Song from the Blood of Those Murdered’), inspired by the victims of the 1967-74 Greek military junta. I caught up with Diamanda to find out more.
Do you see the two sides of your second album as companion pieces? “I do not see them as companion pieces but they were composed within the same few years, ‘ΤΡΑΓΟΥΔΙ ΑΠΟ ΤΟ ΑΙΜΑ ΤΩΝ ΔΟΛΟΦΟΝΗΜΕΝΩΝ’ (1980-81) and ‘Panoptikon’ (1983). I was asked to record them by Metalanguage Records in Berkeley.”
“That company took many risks on music very few would at the time, or today for that matter. Jack Henry Abbott’s piece was meant to show how a lifetime of institutionalisation only makes the heart harder, and the kill instinct quicker.”
“Norman Mailer’s little experiment failed. Did he think Jack Abbott would change because he smiled sweetly at Mailer in order to obtain the key to the door? I say this because I just received a note saying ‘How could you do a piece using a text by a man who would get out of prison, only to kill someone in a filling station?’ But that’s exactly my point.”
“Norman Mailer was intelligent but somewhat of a fool. He was a rich man so he didn’t know much about life. He gets this wild idea that he’s going to reform a murder, and like a lot of people in that position, they take the smile and personal attention that’s malignantly directed toward them as a sign of change. Of a new social aptitude which doesn’t exist.”
As an expert in isolation, how was your experience of lockdown? “The theme of isolation is first hand to me. It seems like a normative way of living and I still cannot see why many artists felt so deprived being alone. Lockdown is one of the only times I felt my way of life was normal. Human to human interface isn’t easy for all of us.”
You regained control of your catalogue in 2019. Was that a difficult process? “It took many years and I worked with several people to get it back. A lot of my work has been lost.”
“My recordings did freak out the distributors. I would show up in a country, perform, and ask how the record sales are going. I would hear things like ‘Oh, we haven’t ordered them.’ The guy would offer his hand to escort me out of the car and I’d tell him to get the fuck away from me. Record distributors that came to my concerts were not given gift tickets. They had to pay full price and sit at the back!”
“For so many businessmen, they assume that the limitations of their taste are mirrored in the audience. This is not true. When you consider these pedestrian persons being the filter of audience taste, it’s quite incredible. These people in general are below average thinkers.”
Your music is very extreme. Do you ever feel that you have to justify how extreme it is? “Never. Period. I cannot do anything that bores me, I am too spoiled! I have only thought of the music at all times and of myself. That’s why I followed The Sporting Life with Schrei 27; or The Plague Mass I followed with The Singer, and immediately afterwards Vena Cava.”
“I have to do what I hear, the cord changes take me there. I was composing Free Among The Dead from The Divine Punishment at Hunter’s Point, San Francisco, otherwise known as Decapitation Central. I kept hearing My World Is Empty Without You so I ended up working on both of them. I don’t see any musical contradictions.”
You dedicated much of your energy in the 80s and 90s to AIDS activism. This gave you a powerful connection with the LGBT+ community. “I have trouble with the idea of communities. The idea of ‘the gay community’ is a fiction. I think everyone knows that we are all individuals. And all Greeks know this. You put three Greeks in one room and you have another world war. We don’t agree with each other. Given the opportunity to disagree we will elaborate and digress, endlessly, and after twenty-five Greek coffees we’ll sleep.”
“However, when my brother told me he was homosexual, I was so relieved we had a great party that night, just the two of us.”
“There are human affinities. I rejoice a great deal with my gay friends. We have a filial reverence that is a mandate for any socialisation.”
“I cannot be around people with no humour. That’s why I only have two or three straight male friends. They don’t get it, they’re humourless. I’m not saying all, but most. Thinking about this question, I realised that my friends from Mexico, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Greece, all of them are gay. The women as well – although there are more straight women in that population.”
Will you be heading on the road in 2022? “I’m working on two albums and two installation pieces. It’s also very important for me to rerelease the five albums that deal with the epidemic, and release them properly. In terms of live performance, yes, I think it’s time to get back to doing shows.”
Do you think America can recover from the Trump presidency? “I don’t think America will recover from Obama, Trump or Biden Biden (as I call him). The magic show continues. However, unlike the serpents among us, I will not cheaply denigrate America whilst in England, or Germany whilst in France. I learnt that from the great Harald Bullerjahn, tour manager for Depeche Mode. He said ‘Do not be like those other rock people who go denigrating one country in another. That’s cheap.’ And he was so right. This gentleman gave me a hand when I needed it. He’s one of the great men that I adore.”
Is your vocal training as intense as the research process? “I can work on my research for eight hours straight. Singing for eight hours straight is not a good idea. I’ve been recording vocals in the studio every week for a while. I go in and I’ll say ‘Ok, I’m going to take lots of breaks, I’m going to be good to myself,’ and then I sing for five hours straight.”
“I’m paying for the studio and I don’t want to waste time. If I’m on a train of thought, I don’t want to stop because if I do I might lose it. I go into the studio with a smile on my face. I get ready in the morning, go across the street, get the cappuccino. The engineer is as determined (a polite way of putting it!) as I am. I just start working – he doesn’t like taking breaks. At some point he might see me in the corner with my head in my hands and say ‘Maybe she could have some tea now.’ It took him five sessions to realise I was actually torturing myself. I plan to be very well grounded and stop singing every hour, but somehow I just can’t do it. I wouldn’t recommend it. Then I might pass out for a day.”
“One must continue to study voice until the end. Throughout the years I have discovered different uses I can make of a voice, and I expand it with them. But this would not be possible if I didn’t not continue to study. The noble savage shrieking idea might be useful for a few years at the beginning of one’s career, but four decades requires more than the wildness of beasts. I see some singers now and I burst out laughing. It takes work to be a singer. It’s not about having a catharsis in front of your best friends. In the least sense of the word, catharsis is just doing your laundry in public, and the public couldn’t give a fuck because each of us has to wash our own god damn underwear at the end of the day.”
Do you have any plans to compose for orchestra? “It is vitally important to have more than two rehearsals if I’m performing within the orchestral context. If I’m conducting the orchestra myself I’d still need more than two rehearsals. As a performer it’s my role to incarnate the paradigm I’m presenting. This is rigorous. Doing a part with an orchestra when the proceedings have not been sufficiently rehearsed does not allow me to achieve that.”
“In other words you’re standing on stage like a puppet, which is absurd. Or you have to make a point of ignoring the conductor. Conductors, in many cases, have not looked at the music for more than three hours so they’ll never be able to cue you.”
“In my new work I’m incorporating different instruments played by TJ Troy, who’s a master drummer and percussionist. There’s also trombone, violin, church organ and other instruments; so this will be a grid, of sorts, for the way I’ll work.”
“I’ve had a few invitations to work with an orchestra. I worked with Lukas Foss many years ago. I also worked with Ensemble intercontemporain in the 90s.”
Tell us about some of the vocalists you really admire. “Individuated voices are very rare,” Diamanda explained. Here’s her take on some of those she admires.
“Sainkho Namtchylak (Tuva) and Tamia Valmont (Paris). Both combine endless melody with sharp-edged multi-timbred vocalizations. Two great improvisational singers of the avant garde.”
“Klaus Nomi. As a performer he was in every sense a star vocally and musically, and theatrically. His last performance devastated me. And I just discovered him a few months ago! The tragic voice of the AIDS Epidemic. An enormous figure, who performed while dying.”
“Pete Steele, porno star vocally, the thickest, deepest, and most resonant male voice I have ever heard in rock music. His physical attributes may also be described in a similar way. Nightly do I call upon his corpse!”
“Shirley Bassey, who straight men liked to satirize because she makes their dicks soft. A luscious, nuanced instrument, a phenomenal sense of time and turn of phrase. The Queen’s snap!”
“Klaus Kinski’s Brecht sprechgesang performances. The Succubus in Art and Life Immortalized. A huge vocabulary of vocal delivery which was a result of a mania for studying every form of acting and vocal technique. As a performer, the great later practitioner of the Schrei Theatre of Germany.”
“Manuel Agujetas Spain. The Most Radical Icon of Cante Jondo, whose voice is equal to the subjects of his songs-honor killings and the horrific loss of the parents, which invites suicide.”
What can we expect from your latest project? “I’m doing a new piece called Broken Gargoyles. It’s composed of two sections. One I’ve already presented as a sound installation in Hannover in a leper sanctuary. I’m working on the second part now. It may be called Garden of the Beast in reference to the homeless soldiers of WW1 with mutilated faces. The more I read about it the more untenable it is to me.”
“For some reason, my work always concerns itself with that kind of thing. With people forced into isolation. I don’t understand if there’s a correspondence between my preference for solitude and these works. I can’t quite explain it, except that I’ve always been like this. Just don’t say I was Born This Way!”