Black Unicorn Confidential: An Interview with Voltaire

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“I am part of the scene ... The party is at the front of the house!“

One of the most beloved artists in the goth scene over the last two decades has been the unusual, Cuban-born Voltaire. With his first club hit, “When You’re Evil,” from 1998’s The Devil’s Bris, goths got something they desperately needed: an artist with a sense of humor. Goths are painted as brooding and mopey, which is mostly true when they’re around other people, but they perk up when it’s just them, and they often poke fun at themselves. Voltaire’s wickedly biting humor conveyed something that few artists had managed at the time: He was comfortable enough with his goth cred that he could make fun of it.

In 2000, he MC’d the annual net.goth gathering, Convergence. The 1,000 attendees learned something else about Voltaire: Unlike most of our idols, he embraced us openly. While most performers treated the event as just another festival and hid out in their rooms, Voltaire drank with us, caroused, danced (to my DJ set!), and spent the weekend as an attendee—albeit one who eventually played an amazing set. He also introduced the weekend’s surprise guest, goth superstar Batwing Candlewax. The attendees went home adoring Voltaire. Candlewax, although awesome, hadn’t hung out with us.

“I am part of the scene. I don’t know what backstage looks like. The party is at the front of the house!” explained Voltaire when I spoke to him before his Oct. 14 show at Area 51. Gesturing with a cigar, he notes that he enjoys being out on the floor and makes himself available to attendees because they “keep me from having to get a real job.”

It’s hardly true that he doesn’t have a real job. One of the hardest working men who ever sported a custom skull-emblazoned sweater, Voltaire not only plays tours, but also the science fiction convention circuit. He parodies popular sci-fi, like Star Trek, to an all-ages audience larger than he can attract to 21+ clubs, boosting his popularity with the kids. But wait, there’s more! The 44-year-old is also a comic book creator, an author and an animator who teaches stop-motion, and has made independent films and ads for MTV, SyFy and Cartoon Network. He designed a line of vinyl toys based on his not-so-cuddly teddy bear character (Deady), held a recurring role in the AdventureQuest Worlds video game, wrote music for The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and animated SyFy network’s 14-episode Chi-Chian.

His fifth film, Odokuro, voiced by synthpop legend Gary Numan, is currently making the film festival rounds. “I’ve yet to be accepted to Sundance, so I have my fingers crossed that this will be the year,” says Voltaire.

Some criticize Voltaire’s songs for sounding alike. While arguably a symptom of having such a strong, distinctive style both vocally and musically, this rings false when you listen to his full repertoire. Early CDs featured bouncy songs about cannibals, revenge, zombie prostitutes and aliens—reminiscent of Tim Burton soundtracks—but Voltaire’s music explores other territory, too. 2008’s To the Bottom of the Sea was a traditional musical, albeit one featuring more pirates, death, devils and evil than your average Rodgers and Hammerstein fare. 2010’s Hate Lives in a Small Town was his stab at country music. “I spent my adult life saying I hate country. I recently realized after rediscovering Johnny Cash that I didn’t hate country, I just hate what country has become. I mused that it might be fun to make country songs that could have come out 40 or 50 years ago,” he says. He even released a CD of kid-friendly songs, including the child-empowering lullaby “Goodnight, Demonslayer,” written for his son Mars, who never has to fear monsters under the bed.

Voltaire’s latest album returns to his roots. During planning, Voltaire turned to his fans and took requests. “People said blues, cabaret, steampunk, heavy metal,” he says. When a fan described his music as “the audio equivalent of Riding a Black Unicorn Down the Side of an Erupting Volcano While Drinking from a Chalice Filled with the Laughter of Small Children,” Voltaire found his title and decided to do everything requested, including the title track, “an acoustic cover of a song Iron Maiden forgot to write—metal with acoustic instruments,” he says. The tour, The Black Unicorn Cabaret, with The Hellblinki Sextet and This Way to the Egress, whose members also support Voltaire, is a vicious cabaret of gypsy punk, snake-oil vaudeville and gothic wit.

He insists that, per his wife, he’s “self-absorbed,” right before launching into a discussion about the Occupy Wall Street protests (“I completely agree with their stance … I just sadly don’t think it’s going to change anything …”). Despite the fact that he’s gorgeous, intelligent and bitingly funny, what stands out is his delight in getting to make a living doing what he loves. “I never expect anyone to like what I do. I write songs I would want to hear. I write books I would want to read. It always pleasantly surprises me and boggles my mind when people enjoy what I’ve created,” he says.

When I asked what’s next, he wasn’t sure. Whether it’s the Cuban big band voodoo album I hope for or his Oh My Goth! web series, it is certain that it will be appreciated by his “small horde” of fans.

Visit Voltaire.net to hear his music, see many of his films and stay apprised of future releases. 

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“I am part of the scene ... The party is at the front of the house!“