I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
John Paul Jones and Diamanda Galás crumble the little gingerbread house of rock illusions with their collaborative album, The Sporting Life , detonating all the overplayed crap we’ve become accustomed to—the bland bass/drum rhythms, the singer hooting oooh baby baby, the guitar and its obligatory solo wheeze. The album opens the genre to an expanse where divisions between what is electronic and what is “natural” smear, where the instrument is only as good as its ability to scalp you.
John Paul Jones, once the bassist of Led Zeppelin, has accomplished so much musically it’s impossible to summarize. His bio takes you from his Motown recording days to his commissioned work for the Mondrian Quartet, from performing with Brian Eno to producing the Butthole Surfers … It’s only appropriate that a man of his artistic stature should be the one to introduce Diamanda Galás to the rock audience and larger listenership she deserves. Since the mid-’80s, Diamanda Galás has created avant-garde performances and recordings with her three and a half octave vocal range that no one, once they experience it, can ignore. Her voice is huge, catastrophic and loving, terrifying and vengeful. She has dedicated a good part of her work over the years to her three-part Death Requiem Plague Mass for people with AIDS, which she has performed extensively, including at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, at the 1990 Olympic Festival in Barcelona, and the Festival de Colline in Italy, where members of the Italian government denounced her for blasphemy against the Roman Catholic Church. In 1992 she released The Singer , an album of spirituals and blues songs sung in her transformative, blood-filled style.
The searing songs of The Sporting Life are a testament to the professionalism and integrity of the duo. Their authority does not outweigh the album. Along with Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Attractions) on drums, Diamanda Galás unleashes her beautiful volcano voice, and John Paul Jones masterfully sculpts the atmosphere around her. They will be touring the U.S. and Europe in the fall.
Michael Albo Just smack me if there’s anything I say that you’re sick of talking about.
Diamanda Galás Oh that’s funny … I like you.
MA Oh good. Very simply, when did you guys meet?
DG John, it’s my turn to answer. We were aware of each other’s work from various other sources.
John Paul Jones I’ve heard her music since 1982. And then I saw her on stage in London at the Royal Festival Hall in 1989.
DG That was Masque of the Red Death.
JJ Then we had a mutual friend who got things started.
DG But, I had heard Led Zeppelin for years not necessarily knowing who it was … You know what I mean, one of those things like, (gasp) “How riveting, I like that, I could sing with that.” Especially if you’re talking about Jones-Bonham, the power rhythm section. John Paul Jones is legendary. I’d been creating tapes and working very, very remotely with musicians. Usually it would start with a tape thing and then it would turn into some concerts. So when we talked, we talked about doing live performances together from the beginning, which was a little different for me. You’ve got voice, hammond organ, drums, amp, that’s it. The power trio.
MA So from the very beginning it was a very solid, spare arrangement, not too studio.
DG It couldn’t have been; not the way John Paul plays, not the way I play. What do we need all that for? It would just get in the way. It would just be like having another bitch on stage. I mean why?
MA There are no lead guitars in this album …
JJ The only guitar on this is the lap steel on the song “Last Man Down”. There’s no regular guitar anywhere else on the record.
MA Which I think is absolutely incredible. You know, when I was becoming a cognizant music listener, I didn’t know Led Zeppelin’s work as much as I knew John Paul Jones’s as a producer/arranger; and Diamanda, you were releasing your work as I became interested in the “avant-garde.” So I am interested in how your audiences, the fans of Led Zep and those of Diamanda, are going to merge. What sparks will come out of this?
JJ Well, it’s not as if Zeppelin was exactly a rock band. We were a blues band base and there were a lot of excursions and journeys into unusual areas. So anybody familiar with that shouldn’t be surprised by anything we do. With this record, there’s still definitely the energy that is found in the best of rock and roll, and there’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t been heard before. Nobody else is doing anything like this.
MA When you thought of using your voice as a guitar …
DG No, stop. I have never thought of using my voice as anything but a voice. From the very beginning that’s where I worked and it’s why I worked solo as a vocalist. I was actually thinking of the voice unmatrixed—purely an instrument to serve music. I heard it as sound-making and I don’t want any context around it. A lot of guitar players, saxophone players, and their traditions—rock, jazz, etc.—have emulated voice, tried to give their music a vocal sound. The voice has been the high end leader of music and I thought it needed to go in its own direction. That’s why I’ve trained my voice the way I did, thats why I’m able to deal with a musician like JP, the power of my sound can deal with the power of his instrument.
MA JP, were there any adjustments that needed to be made for dealing with Diamanda’s voice as an instrument?
JJ The voice is the original instrument. I mean it’s the first instrument. Every instrument, in some way, tries to achieve what the voice does. Because it is the oldest, in technological terms, it has the best interface: it’s really close. It can provide all the notes, it still has to be trained properly, but there’s least between it and the brain.
DG I’ve always believed in that.
JJ A computer instrument is on the other end. It’s the youngest and still needs a lot of work on the interface but one day it’ll get there.
MA When I first heard this record, I thought of Diamanda’s voice as both the “lead singer” and a solo instrument within the song. Her voice is messing with what I would normally think of as a guitar’s domain, taking that area and blowing it away. Blurring this idea that there’s a big division between electronics (guitars, computers) and “the natural” voice.
DG The power of the voice that I’m talking about is a different kind of power than people are used to. That’s why people say I sound “operatic.” Those musicians in the Wagnerian sense had to project the sound over the horns section, over a large orchestra. In order to be heard, you had to have the kind of resonance of the body. And the skull would cut through all that was unamplifled. When you have that kind of production and you interface it with any kind of normal amplification system, you get a sound that people haven’t really heard before. They go, “What is that? That can’t be vocal. There’s too much energy and it’s too loud in a logistical situation, so what is it?”
JJ Besides, we like to do it that way.
DG Well, there we are then. We like to do it that way. That is really the goddamn truth.
MA Some people have said that this album is very Zeppelin influenced.
DG (laughter) Of course!
JJ Well, there was only guitar, bass, drums, and vocals in that band too.
MA JP, I wanted to know if some of the most recent stuff you’ve done, like your work with Peter Gabriel, REM, and Brian Eno, has influenced you?
JJ Not really, no. I’ve always had lots of different sides to me that I needed to bust open. You certainly do learn from every situation that you’re in and on every tape. Even on “Dark End of the Street,” which was a remake.
DG It was a cover of “Dark End of the Street” by Norman and Penn. Percy Sledge did it, James Carr did it …
JJ But that song, in terms of styles, is pretty much a Motown Records style bass player.
DG Which you’ve done for years.
JJ For me it was a successful bass line because it was not just thumping around on bass in the back. You have to try and create, lead the vocal, you’ve got lots of jobs as a bass player. I was pretty pleased with the line and the way it came out. I thought it was a new take, the Motown and the Memphis style together.
DG I was playing Hammond organ and singing, Pete Thomas was playing on drums, and JP was on bass. The way JP plays is like kicking the voice to the front of the room.
MA How are the songs written? You both have idiosyncratic writing styles. Diamanda, I’ve read that you write in longhand and don’t use musical notation.
DG Primarily. That’s the truth. (laughter) JP knows only too well.
MA For the original songs, what happened?
JJ We met once in London for an evening and talked about music and our backgrounds and what we liked. Then we went away. Diamanda went back on tour and then to New York, and I went back home and started thinking about this. And I put down some riffs with a drum machine and sent them to Diamanda, who by that time was working at a studio, SIR, with a Hammond organ.
DG So I was working on voice and Hammond organ, and I sent him the tapes and the collaboration began.
JJ We got together for the recording period, just the two of us for two weeks and put it all down.
MA You guys make it sound so efficient.
DG Well I’ll tell you something, it was very easy musically because the first day that we played together it was totally happening. We listened to a tape of it and I guess two or three weeks later, we were like … fuck, yeah.
JJ (laughter) We’re old hats at this, we know what we’re doing. We wanted to go about making a record that we would really like to listen to. Without having to worry about other people’s expectations. We were bringing in a lot of influences and we had lots of common ground in lots of different areas.
DG Wait, this is weird … I’ve never mentioned this … Can I tell you something? In 1989, after I had done the concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, which you apparently had seen, I went to my twin cousins’ house in Phoenix and they were playing Led Zeppelin constantly. From the very first note, I went, “Fuck, here it is again, what is that?” And my cousins were like, “This is Zeppelin man.” My cousins are very heavy, and they had Zeppelin playing everywhere: a separate Zeppelin radio in the bathroom, they had one in the living room, they had one on the lawn, they had one in the dining room. And I said, “You know something, I like this sound.” That was a month after you came to my concert …
JJ We were “communicating.” Wooooooo!
DG It’s too heavy. Are there any UFOs here?!
MA Diamanda, you’ve said that your voice is “an inspiration for my friends and a tool of destruction for my enemies.”
DG Absolutely I have said that and I continue to say it.
MA You also said that rock ’n’ roll is a worthless enterprise, some rock ’n’ roll …
JJ I would stretch that to most …
DG Yes. If I only said some, let’s stretch it to most, because I think Ellington said it best: there’s good and bad music.
MA I was thinking of you conquering the guitar, conquering the idea of the rock and roller.
JJ Wow, you’re really stuck on this guitar thing.
DG He does have a fixation. Is there some guitarist that you like, Mike?
JJ Is there a phone number we can get you?
MA God! If I had known you were going to set me up with some guitar player I would have brought a list! Anyway, I was thinking that this record is sort of like cutting the dick off of the stupid annoying rocker guy. (laughter)
DG I have no trouble with that. It sounds so right coming from you, though.
MA See, that’s why I said it.
DG I have to tell you, if we’re talking, for example, about the lead singer of concept, I have never paid any attention to that, unless you’re talking about real singers. I mean, I love Aretha. Who can’t love Aretha?
MA What’s your most embarrassing pop favorite?
DG Pop favorite?
MA Like when you’re sitting in your apartment after being really cool all day and—
DG (laughter) You must not be thinking of me. Cool? Hot maybe, but not cool!
MA But what do you listen to when you guys are like, “Oh my god. I’m so sad, I think I’ll go put on …”
DG (laughter) When I’m that sad, I don’t put music on, I draw the shades.
MA Darn! You guys are really cool aren’t you?
DG Yeah, I hate to break it to you.
MA I want to talk about some of the songs. What does “Skotoseme” mean?
DG “Kill me.”
MA In what language?
DG Greek. “Skotoseme” means sangre coriala lo meti, my blood runs inside thee. It’s a very violent love song.
MA That’s what I’d say about most of the songs on the album.
DG Yes. I told John Paul that I had wanted to do an album of really intense love songs, and here was the chance.
MA But, after The Singer, this is a continuous step in subject matter for you.
DG Yes, well I had never had as much chance to withdraw from the subject matter. (laughter)
MA One thing you’ve been known for is speaking in tongues, which is mostly done in “Skotoseme” and “Hex.” I wanted to know if it’s harder when you record it. Do you still have the spontaneity that you have on the stage, when you get to the point where you’re beside yourself and you’re channeling something!
JJ This is where we differ from an album where you take a bit from here and a bit from there. “Skotoseme” was done in one take, straight through.
MA “Last Man Down” seemed like that, too.
JJ A lot of them were like that.
MA I love “Last Man Down.”
DG Thank you.
JJ She sang phenomenally for that one.
DG His playing is incredible.
MA Oh, stop you guys.
DG I’m sorry. We just have to take a moment to say how much we adore each other. Actually, “Last Man Down” was written for my dear, dear friend Carl Valentino, who was very sick at the time we recorded.
MA “Last Man Down” is dedicated to your friend, Mr. Valentino.
DG My gay husband.
MA God, that’s so sweet.
DG Well, I love him.
MA When I heard, “Do You Take This Man,” I could easily imagine a drag queen impersonating you.
DG (laughter) It wouldn’t be the first time! I have a few Diamanda imitators. They do a beautiful job.
MA About the “Sporting Life,” it’s the most controversial song, are you guys prepared to have a warning sticker on the album?
DG Yeah, we probably will. We don’t think about that.
MA Diamanda, you’ve said that you sing almost possessed by different voices, but they have never seemed so clearly defined as they are in this album.
DG It’s funny, when we were doing “Sporting Life,” I was singing the different voices very fast. I stopped and JP said, “Do it again, and see if the voices can be even more distinct from each other.” Remember that? You were pushing me in that direction, this very high energy shift that goes moving between the voices like that.
JJ We had to separate them out in the mix, although the characters were very well defined—one comes out of here, one comes out of there. We had to re-glue afterwards.
DG That was the only way to do it. It would have been appalling if I’d sang all of the Spanish character first, then the next. There’s no way that would make a coherent performance.
MA In “Baby’s Insane,” one of the lines was so wacko: “It stinks of Velveeta when it’s put on her tongue.”
DG No, “It stinks of Velveeta there’s one under her tongue”—I woke up one morning and a cockroach had climbed into my mouth. (laughter)
JJ I’m glad I’m staying uptown.
MA In “Dark End of the Street,” and “Tony,” there were lots of people walking down dark, trashed, empty streets.
DG In terms of the lyrics there’s a lot of real loneliness, someone looking for someone that they love, lurking through the street, they’ve stopped eating and sleeping …
MA At the same time, it’s a fortifying album. Being single, I found it strengthening after walking around and seeing two million couples draped all over each other, to go back and listen to you and feel … strong and alone.
DG You better be careful. JP is happily married.
MA For 28 years.
DG (laughter) You guys will have to have a dialogue about that!
JJ Going back to something that you said before, how our collaboration sounded so efficient and almost cold … but as an artist, you have to have an efficient framework, otherwise your art just gets bogged down. Basically, we know what we’re doing and that doesn’t lessen the work.
DG I would say our work is cold-blooded, not just cold. There is a little bit of dirty pool in there. I wrote “Tony” to a man named Tony who I no longer like.
MA I love fucking people over publicly like that.
JJ I think “Hex” is more of what you’re talking about. I love what Diamanda is doing in that song, that idea of a properly developed curse as a song style. Which is common in other cultures.
DG It’s the essence of Greek culture, it’s theater, it’s musical forms. None of that would exist without the idea of revenge.
MA The first album I bought of yours was Plague Mass when I was 19. And, among your various voices, selves, I’ve always thought of at least one of the voices as being positive, HIV positive. My friends who know they are positive (I’m not going to say whether one knows or not, really) are a lot like this voice. They are present, no frills, they would be screaming if they could. Are there any spots on the album from an HIV positive perspective?
DG “Last Man Down.” Carl Valentino has AIDS. I told John this and we did the piece, the day after I talked to him on the phone. How could that not be a part of my soul? It’s a constant.
MA JP, now I’m speaking as just the typical yutz. I imagine there are some people who have not stopped solely associating you with Led Zeppelin, with wild women and whatever, with this rocker image. And now you’re associated with Diamanda Galás. She deals with these issues of female anger, gay anger, and AIDS. How does that strike you?
JJ People’s associations are personal. I’m more worried about your first association, than the second, really, the whole rock, rockin’ image. It’s almost a cop-out to say that I have worked with both artists on purely a musical level.
MA I think many people have seen you as disenchanted with that whole image.
JJ I was ready to be associated with something that has more wealth and I think these songs are more worthy than an awful lot of rock ’n’ roll.
DG And another thing that we have in common is that whole outsider perspective.
JJ And I do like strong women.
DG He has three daughters. They’re really incredible. When you have one daughter, that’s luck, when you have two it’s choice, when you have three it’s like a real “Hex.”
MA Is there anything else you want to tell me?
JJ No, I just can’t stop thinking about the cockroaches.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee