Interview with James from Plunder The Tombs!

Plunder-the-Tombs

Plunder The Tombs is a blog ran by the Australian gentleman James. It features in-depth writings about everything from goth to death rock, which means everything that could fit into that category or be related. His blog is an investigation into the heart of what goth rock was, as he proceeds to sift through every great release there ever was. With his expertise within the genre as a lodestar for his writings. He’s been involved with everything you could imagine, being a DJ since the 90’s in the Perth area of Australia, playing in clubs such as The Cell and Dominion, which were largely goth-themed clubs. He also helped found the 6RTR FM’s goth & industrial showcased called Darkwings. His blog also largely revolves around the first wave of gothic, which would be the years from 1979 to 1988. It is also a blog that I’ve followed or stumbled upon when browsing the internet, so I decided to interview him about everything from the first wave of goth rock, to the definition of goth rock and everything you’d ever want to know about that particular genre and the blog Plunder The Tombs. Hope you enjoy your stay and may The Sisters Of Mercy be with you.

Since your blog “Plunder The Tombs” very much concentrates on the historic background of goth rock – could you give me insight in the first wave of goth? In what way were you involved and when did you “find” the gothic music?

– In some ways that’s an awkward question to answer because I more or less started at the tail end of the first wave and worked backwards from there. This would have been somewhere towards the end of the 80s and for the most part, I was listening to thrash metal and punk at the time. It was a scene I was finding less and less in common with however, largely because of the mentality of its fan base. I was DJing some college radio at the time and if we played anything that was too slow, or didn’t have enough “Cookie Monster” vocals, next thing you knew we’d have these douchebags ringing us up to bitch about how “gay” it was and “why didn’t we play some more Slayer?”.

It was all pretty dispiriting, and next thing I knew, I found myself in the market for something a bit higher up the musical food chain. Anyhow, there was this show on TV called “Rock Arena” which I never used to watch, because it was mostly as boring as bat shit, but I found myself at a bit of a loose end one Saturday afternoon and flicked it on. Next thing I knew, there was “Dominion” by the Sisters of Mercy on my screen and Patricia Morrison thundering through Petra on this huge fuck-off horse. They played that back-to-back with the video of “This Corrosion”, and I was immediately hooked. It was all so grandiose and desolate at the same time. Exactly the kind of thing I’d been looking for. The next step of course was to seek out more of the same. Fortunately, I was doing an arts degree at the time and if there was one thing arts departments in Perth universities weren’t short of in those days, it was Goths.

SOM

So a few questions to the right people, and quite rapidly my collection expanded as I was introduced to Fields of the Nephilim, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Xmal Deutschland, Bauhaus, and of all things, Diamanda Galas. Getting in touch with people who were more than just scenesters and into the music in a really serious way yielded further and more underground gifts like Sex-Gang Children, Virgin Prunes, Christian Death, Alien Sex Fiend, 45 Grave and Clan of Xymox. Next thing I knew, I’d been roped into running a semi-regular show with these guys including the late and much missed Anthony Steer (RIP) on the same college radio I used spin the metal and punk stuff on and we were playing all this old Goth stuff at silly-o-clock in the middle of the night.

About this time alternative nightclubs in Perth were feeling the influx of the new generation of metal bands like Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers and also the initial impact of grunge and some of them like The Firm and The Asylum got it into their little heads that running metal nights would be a good idea. It wasn’t – metal simply doesn’t work well in a nightclub setting, and the result was both short-lived and about as attractive as a gorilla in lipstick, but thanks to my history on radio it got me my first gigs in nightclubs.

There was a much smaller night that regularly ran at Geremiah’s nightclub under various names (best remembered as The Cell) at the time that was much more underground and played a lot of Goth and Industrial stuff. One of their DJs was moving interstate, so I seized the nettle as it were and went “Can I have your job then?” and there I was, DJing Goth stuff in a real live honest to God (albeit very small) nightclub. In retrospect it was actually very lucky I did that, because this was about the time in the early 90s that the entire first wave of Goth collapsed in on itself – there was nothing happening overseas, and in Perth all the bands had packed up and gone home, there were no fanzines, all the other so-called “alternative” clubs were playing this insipid indie-pop shite, and there was a very dry period where while the Industrial side of things was being supported by a small number of DJs, most notably Brad Smart and Michael Hurst, the Perth Goth scene was effectively being held up only by myself – virtually no one else was playing the stuff anymore.

Fortunately, the drought didn’t last more than a couple of years before the rumors of a new generation of bands like Rosetta Stone, The Marionettes and Nosferatu started filtering through from the UK. My old friend from radio days, the visionary Nathan Baxter succeeded where I had failed to get a permanent regular Goth/ Industrial show up on RTR fm and so we started “Dark Wings”, and the show ran for something close to fifteen years, still going years after I ceased to have anything to do with it. Tom and Adrian started up a specialist record store called “Atrocity”, Erica Wardle and her business partners started up a clothing line “Elysium Empire”, new bands like Sage and Darkaan started to appear, and before you knew what had happened, the second wave of Goth had hit Perth.

adrenaline

From there it was just a short time before the Perth Goth/Industrial scene woke up to the fact that all the bigger, supposedly “alternative” nightclubs were ignoring us in favour of catering to indie-kids with stripy op-shop shirts and Elmo lunch pails. Of course, the answer was to go “Screw the established venues, screw liquor licenses” and Jeremy and Seb went and started up a night for the scene, run by the scene, staffed by volunteers and on a bring-your-own booze basis. This was the now semi-legendary Interzone, a short lived but excellent night run in, of all places, an old laser-tag venue. Once Interzone closed its doors, we took that model and led once more by the redoubtable Nathan Baxter, started up Dominion which although it would change its name and venue occasionally ended up being one of the longest running Goth/Industrial nights on the planet.

Certainly, it was still running until quite recently, long after I stopped DJing there around 2000. But this is of course long after the period that you’re interested in. You asked for some insight into the first wave of Goth, and it is a worthy question; as I read somewhere recently: viewed through the eyes of people only familiar with the contemporary Goth scene, the first wave is “a very strange and mystifying place”. Certainly, when I first got onto the scene, I spent a large amount of time being quite mystified by how on Earth one might reconcile the music of The Sisters of Mercy or Fields of The Nephilim with something much earlier like Sex Gang Children, Virgin Prunes or even, Bauhaus.

What is not commonly realized by most of the modern adherents of the scene is that the early days of “Goth” had relatively little to do with the rock-driven Sisters-Inspired 2nd wave and absolutely nothing to do with the stompy, doofy Aggrotech and Future-pop Rivet-Head culture that currently masquerades as “Goth”. Indeed, to understand the early bands on the scene, it is really necessary to forget about the “Goth” tag altogether. The original wave of bands were a subset of the post-punk scene. Siouxsie and the Banshees were undoubtedly the chief inspiration, but there were a host of other bands as well: The Birthday Party, Joy Division, Gloria Mundi, early Adam and the Ants, Killing joke and UK Decay come immediately to mind. There weren’t really any hard and fast musical or fashion rules at this stage – if the early bands were united by anything then it tended to be more of a fascination with bleak and desolate imagery, and accordingly, the variation in sounds and looks was actually quite wide.

This new breed were different from the punks that proceeded them; while punk was a nihilistic call to tear the system down, these kids seemed more interested in spurning mainstream society altogether. That is not to say that they had forsaken their punk roots altogether, and early “goth” gigs were often quite violent in a way that it would be difficult for the shoegazers / wave-your-arms-in-the-air crowd that followed a few years later to imagine. The Birthday Party in particular became quite notorious for picking fights with their audience and author and journalist Mick Mercer describes being grabbed and shaken by the shirt collar by Pete Murphy at an early Bauhaus gig. Similarly, as Terry MacCleay of Sex Gang Children recently related to me, copping an elbow in the mouth at these early gigs was not an uncommon experience. The mayhem was added to by UK Decay making the possibly unwise decision of naming one of their early singles “For My Country” which led to a number of skinheads from the National Front turning up to gigs looking for trouble.

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The Birthday Party

I guess the next important question is the term “Goth” and where it came from. It’s an important question because what almost no one remembers anymore is that virtually none of the original bands referred to themselves as “Goth” except perhaps in jest. That term seems to have appeared in the late 70’s courtesy of English music journalists to describe Joy Division’s music. Bauhaus of course added to the confusion with their first single “Bela Lugosi is Dead” which did for the scene what “Anarchy in the UK” did for Punk. Although it was meant as a joke, it wasn’t widely understood as such at the time. Ironically, the following year, journalist Dave McCulloch would later describe Bauhaus’ first album “In the Flat Field” as “sluggish indulgence, instead of hoped for goth-ness”, which in retrospect must have been embarrassing. UK Decay put the final nail in the coffin as it were, when asked to describe their music in ’81 suggested it was “Gothic” and they would produce gargoyle shaped records. Again a joke, but it stuck.

The English press continued to refer to it as such and by ’83ish the name had come to be applied to the entire scene, regardless of how the artists themselves felt about it. I can honestly think of none of the original scene leaders who wanted anything to do with the tag. As Rozz Williams (Christian Death) would observe; “I don’t think anyone with any self-respect would admit to being Goth”. Certainly, in the process of researching Plunder the Tombs, I’ve sometimes inadvertently used the term as a form of short hand and some of the early artists I’ve talked with like Richard North and Michelle (Brigandage) and Terry (Sex Gang Children) took considerable umbrage. For the record, I don’t think too many serious students of the early scene take Ian Astbury’s (Southern Death Cult) retrospective claim (largely promulgated through Wikkipedia) that he invented the term particularly seriously.

A similarly curious question is where the scene itself actually started. Even before the Goth tag got slapped on it, there doesn’t appear to be any clear line of demarcation for where things began. The Damned and Siouxsie & the Banshees are the most obvious influences of course, but then they didn’t do anything in a seriously ‘gothic’ vein until 80/81 when they released “The Black Album” and “JuJu” respectively. It’s almost like they were in turn influenced by the same bands they themselves had originally inspired.

Bauhaus is most commonly given the credit for kicking things off, but it’s not commonly realized that UK Decay’s debut release (a spilt 7″ with Pneumania) was actually released around a month before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in ’79 and the band did the same trick again a year later releasing the “Black Cat” EP before (by the narrowest of margins) Bauhaus could get out the “In the Flat Field” album. However, as Abbo of UK decay himself admits, Bauhaus “had better songs”, “Bela Lugosi is Dead” became monstrously anthemic and by the time of “In the Flat Field”, Bauhaus had signed to 4AD who had considerably more distribution and promotional power than the little labels UK Decay was working with could ever hope for.

History belongs to the victor I suppose. But even UK Decay might not have a clear claim to being there first. In their very early days, Bauhaus often opened for the now long-forgotten Gloria Mundi who would prove hugely influential on Bauhaus both musically and visually. Indeed if you listen to a track like “Dangerous to Dream” you can hear exactly the same guitar effects that Daniel Ash would go on to use in “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. As Mick Mercer would write in one of his many live photo books “Indisputably the first Goth band”. Both their two full-length albums “I, Individual” (’78) and “The Word is Out” (’79) are truly excellent and I strongly suggest you try to pick them up. Other ’70’s era bands that serious students of the early scene would find much interest in include Doctors of Madness, Rikki and the Last Days of Earth and early-era Ultravox! when they still had John Foxx on vocals.

All of which brings us back to the question of how do you reconcile the music of bands at the end of the first wave like the Sisters and The Nephs with that of bands from the very early days?

I guess most, or probably all, music scenes and subcultures go through a process of evolution or else they stagnate and die. In the case of first wave Goth though, it didn’t so much evolve slowly as experience a very sudden jolt around ’85. It really was a case of “the perfect storm” if you will; Most of the original bands like Bauhaus, Theatre of Hate and a legion of smaller acts had dissolved for various reasons – changing musical fashions and constant sneering from the hyper-snooty British musical press not least among them, and some of the bigger acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure were moving on to do their own thing, ever further removed from whatever the epicenter of “Goth” might be.

Apart from some very underground acts, what we were effectively left with, to continue the Darwinian analogy of natural selection, was actually a very small number of artists, composed of the most successful bands who had become huge, in part through luck and in part by becoming the most musically accessible. When I say that of course, I’m referring primarily to The Cult (a very dilute incarnation of early scene leaders Southern Death Cult) and The Sisters of Mercy (a band who had spectacularly risen from recording truly diabolically awful singles in a basement in Leeds in 1980 to increasingly becoming the dominant sound of Goth).

In 1985, both of these bands released albums that were complete game-changers, “Love” and “First and Last and Always” respectively, and in the absence of any serious competition, these two albums would set the course for the future of the scene, neatly dividing the first wave into an early and a late period. As the two bands’ touring schedules demonstrated, the move towards a much more accessible sound was not accidental – they (and later by extension the Sister’s spin-off The Mission) were quite deliberately trying to crack the lucrative US market. Lesser bands Gene Loves Jezebel and the Danse Society tried to follow suit although their attempts were disappointingly flaccid and embarrassing affairs when compared to their earlier post-punk inspired releases, regardless of if it got them played on MTV or not.

And so the first wave would come to an end, spearheaded not so much by a punk impetus as by radio-friendly alt-rock that sounded more like the dark bastard child of Led Zeppelin or the Doors than anything remotely associated with The Sex Pistols.

I was wondering about how your situation was when the second wave of goth arrived and what your thoughts were and are about that? What differs it from the first wave and what is unique about it?

– As I think I mentioned, I came in just at the very tail end of the first wave. I wasn’t much past 18 (the legal drinking age in Australia) and had just discovered that that there were actually nightclubs that would play bands like The Sisters of Mercy, and there were of course lots of others my own age, new on the scene, and some of these were the people who a few short years later I would conspire with on projects like Dark Wings on college radio and the Dominion nightclub. It wasn’t to last though, and just as we’d all discovered this beautiful scene, everything imploded in on itself. Although I wasn’t initially clued into it at the time, the huge legion of dark alternative bands of the early 80s had already given up the ghost (pun intended), especially after The Cult and The Sisters had effectively remodeled the genre with their much more rock oriented approach with “Love” and “First and Last and Always” in ’85. Christian Death were on hold as the front man found himself without a band and Xymox had moved onto making dance music. Only the really huge bands had survived.

Siouxsie and The Cure had long since morphed into (admittedly very good) alt-pop bands and The Cult, The Mission and The Sisters were producing albums like “Sonic Temple” and “Vision Thing” that were more like a darker version of The Doors or Led Zeppelin than anything related to early Goth. Realistically, there was only Fields of The Nephilim and to a lesser degree, Alien Sex Fiend still holding the fort. Meanwhile of course, the alternative scene moved on without us and the nightclubs began increasingly filling with Nirvana worshipers. Musically speaking, if you were into Goth it was a pretty grim period, and that’s why when new UK bands like Rosetta Stone and The Marionettes started releasing albums, it was all so incredibly exciting – just when we thought we’d missed the boat, it looked like we were going to get to experience the whole thing all over again. Of course, the bigger alternative clubs and radio stations in Australia didn’t want a bar of it, but that was fine, in the best traditional punk spirit the scene just went “Fuck them” and we started our own.

UK Journalist Mick Mercer undoubtedly helped things along, releasing his second Book “Gothic Rock: All you ever wanted to know but were too gormless to ask” (Pegasus Publishing, 1992) and more importantly its companion compilation CD that gave a lot of publicity to these newer bands, but also introduced the new arrivals on the scene to older things that had been forgotten like Sex-Gang Children, Theatre of Hate and Gene Loves Jezebel (Ironically, he’d also use his book’s conclusion to once again declare that Goth was over and spectacularly got it wrong a second time). Cleopatra Records started up in the USA too – although they would go on to shamelessly blot their copy-book in the later 90s with all manner of questionable releases, it’s doubtful that the second wave of Goth could have happened without them. By this stage, it was like there was no stopping it: The USA gave us debut albums from London After Midnight, The Wake, Switchblade Symphony and Screams for Tina. The UK produced Children on Stun, Susperia and Vendemian.

Germany coughed up The Merry Thoughts, Garden of Delight and Love Like Blood while France delivered Corpus Delicti, Brotherhood of Pagans and Lucie Cries. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Planet, Australia managed Big Electric Cat, IKON and Subterfuge. Specialist labels also started to proliferate – Trev Ghost (vocalist of Every New Dead Ghost) started up Nightbreed and there was also Projekt, Dion Fortune, Glasnost, and God knows how many others.

It really was a golden age for me (circa ’93). I was about 23. At this stage I’d moved out of home, shaved off half my hair and was busily teasing the other half as high as it would go, eyeliner everywhere, ripped fishnets and leather all over the joint, and very long fake fingernails (painted black, of course) that would erupt in all directions like an exploding ammunitions factory when I tried to open a can of Victoria Bitter. (To this day, I simply do not comprehend how Goth girls with fake nails and jeans undo their fly and get their pants down when they just really, really urgently need to take a wee). There came a time to admit though that something was definitely not quite right: most of these new bands were just going through the motions and weren’t doing anything new. Put less delicately, most of the second wave were bad Sisters and Nephilim clones. What else existed was that ambient thing that came to be known as Ethereal Wave – bands like Lycia and Black Tape for a Blue Girl who had been inspired by The Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. Gothic elevator musak.

It was popular with the women-folk, but totally not appropriate for nightclubs, let alone ever going to be the epicenter of a new subcultural awakening. It was probably good to bonk to I suppose – as long as you happened to be a tortoise. There was genuinely interesting stuff coming out of Europe though like The Eternal Afflict and Printed at Bismark’s Death, but no matter how hard Nathan and I plugged this stuff on Dark Wings it just never seemed to gain any real traction on the dance floor at Dominion. The real trouble was, that apart from the really big bands like Corpus Delecti or London After Midnight, no-one was terribly interested in dancing to the Sister’s clones either. All anyone on the scene seemed to want to hear was the really well known and accessible 80’s stuff. It actually got to the point where I began fantasizing about whacking a hammer into the kneecaps of the next kiddie-goth who requested I play Killing Joke’s “Love Like Blood” for the ten millionth time.

It was evidently a problem in other English-speaking reasons too, and by the mid 90’s, recognizing the ever-rising popularity of EBM, the scene tried to resolve things by inventing electro-goth, or as I liked to call it “Club Goth” Goth rejigged especially to get bodies on the dance floor. Gosh! We got Aboforcen, Nekromantik, The Baroness and Love Lies Bleeding, Intra Venus (Actually a side-project for Susperia) and even Rosetta Stone got in on the act. It seemed like a neat idea at the time, but it opened up the doors to all sorts of unpleasantries, and ten years down the track, we’ve got this bullshit called Cybergoth – fucking rave music masquerading as an alternative subculture. Seriously, by ’98 I was completely over the whole thing musically, and it was only the social aspect that kept me interested. About two years later, I stopped DJing altogether. The very last song I spun at Dominion was “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” which I intended as a kind of “fuck you” to what I saw as a dead scene, but it packed the floor out which maybe suggests that quite a lot of other folk were completely over it too.

You’ve described the term “goth” quite good also, but I wonder where in time it lept from describing what it essentially was, to be describable for basically anything remotely related to goth as a whole? Do you think that people are too uneducated about the term or is it something other than that?

– That’s almost like a trick question isn’t it? I mean, how do you answer when a term that wasn’t well defined to begin with lost its meaning? I think there probably wasn’t a definite point in time when “Goth” ceased to be “Goth”, but the issue is better viewed as a gradual but accelerating process of erosion. Let’s begin with the original scene which wasn’t called “Goth” but the UK music press slapped the label onto regardless of the fact that almost all of the original artists rejected it. There was a wild variation in style back then, but these early bands that were clearly an offshoot of the post-punk brigade obviously had something in common however difficult to quantify. It may be difficult to put your finger on it, but if there wasn’t common ground, early clubs like The Batcave wouldn’t have taken off. So, an early post-punk scene, possibly united by an interest in decadence and fascination with desolation and alienation from a very boring mainstream lifestyle.

We skip forward a few years, and the big bands that remain have firmly set their sights on cracking the very lucrative American market and are pushing a much more accessible style. By the time the word “Goth” enters the mainstream lexicon the music it represents has already been very much diluted and sanitized for mass consumption. As you might expect, with the increased recognition, the sound and the look begin to become increasingly appropriated by much more mainstream acts and boundaries are beginning to blur a bit. Concrete Blonde and Shakespear’s Sister for example weren’t at all bad musically, but it sowed further confusion in the collective mind of a general public who were, for the most part pretty fuzzy on the whole “Goth” concept to begin with. And so, the scene is already beginning to drift from its moorings.

By the time the second wave rolls around, not only have things drifted, but they’ve also become hugely homogenized and commodified too. Now we have a distinctive sound and a distinctive look, unfortunately lacking most of the urgency or charm of the first wave. Bad news for creativity and innovation, but very useful for promoters who now have a recognizable branded package for sale. Suddenly, there are shops selling “goth” clothing, record stores have a distinct “goth/industrial” section and while fanzines still exist, there’s an increasingly big market dominance by glossy professional magazines like Propaganda, completely dedicated to pumping out and selling product.

Whatever the scene is by this stage, it certainly isn’t “underground” anymore. Meanwhile, the increased presence of Goth is not lost on metal band Paradise Lost either, who begin experimenting with a hybrid style and in 1990 end up releasing the ground breaking LP “Gothic” and in the process spawning an entire new sub- genre. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this – myself and some friends had toyed with similar ideas a year or two earlier only to be derailed by our drummer deciding it would be a good idea to fuck the bass player’s girlfriend, but that’s a story for another time).

Some Gothic Metal was really good – I have a soft spot for The Gathering, Tiamat and Septic Flesh among others. But much of it, if not outright awful was just serious cheese, and if we go forward in time to the late 90’s, we start to find newbies appearing on the scene in Cradle of Filth and HIM shirts, apparently under the impression that this has something to do with Goth, while being completely clueless to the fact that gothic metal is in fact a spin-off and has an entirely different subculture lurking in its ancestry.

To be fair, we gave them a certain license to do this – given the relative musical poverty of the second wave, a lot of us had begun listening to the more arty-ambient acts to come out of black metal; Mortiss, In the Woods, Limbonic Art etc, so it wasn’t really a far leap from there. Also, I will plead guilty to giving HIM’s cover of Chris Issac a spin at Dominion a few times – what can I say? It’s a pretty funny song. What was probably to my mind though, the most singularly destructive thing that ever happened to the scene was a movie called “The Crow” – to borrow a good friend’s term of phrase, the first ever Gothsploitation film. The influx of new people that movie brought into the scene was enormous. While saying that they that they “didn’t quite get it” is probably unfair, they certainly weren’t on the same wavelength as the older scenesters. Bad make up. Fetish crud.

People who took the whole vampire metaphor literally. Really silly shit. I think when I read in one of the glossy magazines at the time an advert for customized vampire fangs was when I realized that the last train for Stupidville was about to depart. Seriously – look at the soundtrack to that film. They got the makeup and the leather thing OK, but the music? Good a band as Nine Inch Nails are, to try to peg them as “Goth” is simply deranged. The ongoing marriage of the Goth and industrial scenes didn’t do it any favours either. Flash forward to ’99 and we get the Columbine shootings which a very lazy media, ever in search of a sensationalist story attributes to “Goths”. These guys were into industrial metal bands like KMFDM and Rammstein (both of whom were appalled by the massacre) and nothing to do with Goth at all.

The media looks suspiciously at Marilyn Manson who also has very little connection to Goth and next thing we know? It’s like “Blam!” Goth is any of those weirdos who wear black. So, Marilyn Manson is Goth, The Cure (who’ve morphed into alt-pop for most of the last two decades) is Goth, Emo is Goth, and I’ve even seen people into Slipknot or black metal and even some idiots into Insane Clown Posse who think that what they’re listening to is in someway “Goth”. Once you’ve reached the point where no-one outside the scene knows what it means, and no-one inside the scene can agree what it means, pretty much anything goes.

As Goth clubs continue to combine with the Industrial scene, lazy DJs eager to pack the dance floor take the route of least resistance. Now EBM is Goth, Future-Pop is Goth, Aggrotech is Goth, and now we’ve got this fucking abomination called “Cyber Goth”. Kiddies in fluro fake dreads, leg warmers and goggles. Seriously, you don’t need to be Einstein to see that this has nothing to do with “Goth”. It’s fucking dance music. Admittedly, If I must have dance music then I’d choose this by preference, but if I wanted dance music in the first place, I’d have gone to a fucking rave and not a goth club. Just sit and watch this crap. This is not “Goth”, it never was “Goth”, and it never will be “Goth”. Send it right back to the rave where it belongs.

Before we’re over with the whole ordeal of the different waves, I would like to ask you about your zine that didn’t make it off your desk. What was the zine “Small Pleasures” all about and why did you decide to scrap it?

– That’s a genuinely surprising question, and I really didn’t think I’d ever find myself talking about “Small Pleasures” ever. Failed projects generally don’t make for good press you know? Twenty-two years later who would have thought? “Small Pleasures” was a concept that seemed like a good idea at the time. This would have been back in maybe 89-90 when I was still very new to the scene and it’s probably safe to say that my musical understanding of what was going on was probably vastly overshadowed by my enthusiasm. Really, I think I just wanted to put impetus into a scene that seemed to be in hibernation.

It wasn’t a very smart time to start up a ‘zine in Perth, because it was precisely the time that all the local bands had dissolved and nothing new was coming in from foreign climes either. That left us with a bit of a drought of material to write about, so it ended up with me recruiting a number of people I knew from uni, and indeed most of the ones I ended up DJing the ludicrously late night Goth show with were involved, and we basically took all our favorite albums and wrote mini-reviews of them and why we thought they belonged in an essential “Goth” record collection.

I found all the original transcripts again while clearing out my filing cabinet a few years ago, and reading back on it, it all seemed terribly naïve. Real “WTF was I thinking?” type of naïve. I would guess that people who had been on the scene a bit longer would have found it terribly amusing for all the wrong reasons, which is why I say I’m glad it never made it off my desk. It was all a bit adolescent and embarrassing. That said, naivety by its very nature never recognizes itself does it? The real reason the project got shelved was much more pragmatic.

Co-ordinating that many contributors took literally months, and some considerable pain. Once we had content there were technological issues. The best machine any of us had was a 386, no one had any desktop publishing software, or a real scanner. Once I realized that the only way to do the art work was to either go the photo copier & Clag route or to use a friend’s hand scanner at his work over the weekend on the front cover in multiple bits and try to paste it back together on what then passed for a computer, I was over it. Project terminated. Call that thing a “scanner”? These days there are probably bar-code readers with better resolution. If you like, the Plunder The Tombs blog is everything I wanted to do with Small Pleasures 22 years ago. Personally, I think it does it far better.

Which is why I’d like to ask you a little bit about the posts on your blog. Your first post was about the obscure death rock band “Burning Image”, but what kind of ideas did you have about the blog in general, more so than it being what you wanted your ‘zine to be?

– Actually, the first post I ever published was about X-Mal Deutschland on September 11th 2010. The Burning Image post wasn’t published until a few months later. There initially wasn’t much of a concrete plan behind Plunder the Tombs. I was pretty “meh” about a lot of the blogs that were already out there, and the few genuinely good ones like Return to The East and Phoenix Hairpin now very sadly seem to have ground to a halt. What I really despised though were blogs that just provided a download (often to something still licensed I might add, and thereby ripping off the artists the blog purports to be celebrating) and bugger-all information.

So, although I may not have had definite vision for what I did want Plunder the Tombs to be, I also had some spectacularly bad examples that I knew I didn’t want to be. If bad examples are good for anything then it’s as educational material. To understand what it did become, it’s probably useful to understand what motivated me to create Plunder the Tombs in the first place. You see, after becoming hugely disillusioned with what the Goth scene had become, I basically all but walked away from it for almost a decade. I spent most of the early parts of the 21st century exploring Electro Clash, Black Metal and Post-Rock, and my visits to Goth clubs became less and less frequent, not helped by the realization that I was quite literally old enough to be some of the new kids’ Dad. (I recently met one of the newer Goth DJs on the block – she was 22, which means she was born the year I started DJing, which was quite the little mindfuck.

I’m sharing a DJ booth with her at the next Descent in about two weeks though which should be fun). But I’m getting off-track. One day in 2010 I suddenly clued onto the fact that I actually was still interested in Goth music, but after almost two decades of DJing the stuff, while I had accumulated a huge collection, I was only still listening to the older stuff. This, bands like Sex-Gang Children, Virgin Prunes and Rozz-era Christian Death, I realized that I was still really passionate about in a way that I hadn’t been with anything since. This set off a train of thought – “What was there out there that I’d missed out on the first time around?” and I dragged Mick Mercer’s first two books off my bookshelf for the first time in years, dusted them off, and quickly realized what a huge volume of material there actually was lurking out there.

Looking around on the net one of the first things I found was that Anagram/Cherry Red had released a compilation of pretty much everything Blood and Roses had ever recorded which I bought immediately. To my delight, it was absolutely jaw-dropping. One of the best albums I’d picked up in years. In fact, it’s still one of my favorite albums. How had Blood and Roses been lost? What else could be awaiting discovery? Needless to say, I was determined to find out. In real life, I work in a research unit (Before you ask, my work has absolutely nothing to do with music), so I decided apply those skills to document my findings. And although I try to write Plunder the Tombs in a light-hearted vein, that’s exactly what it is – a museum and a research project.

As I looked through your posts I wanted to ask you about the first year of the blog’s existence. How did the year progress and what did you accomplish in that year alone? Do you have any favorite posts, or any posts that garnered a lot of attention from people?

– The first year was certainly an interesting experience, not least because although I’d written some material for small local fanzines before, I’d never tried anything like this, and certainly not in media that would reach beyond Perth. At first I was just writing for myself, and I wasn’t really sure anyone else would be that interested in my “pontifications” on early “Goth”. From recollection, I wrote most of the first month’s postings in one big hit so I’d have some material published before I tried to promote the thing. This probably explains why most of the earlier posts were relatively short as I tried to both get out material and co-ordinate a definite style for the format that posts should appear in. More recent posts tend to be vastly longer and take a very long time to put together, which is partially the reason why the rate of posting has dropped.

That first month though, Plunder The Tombs got just over 700 views which was far beyond what I’d ever expected. A very nice err…side effect if you will of starting Plunder the Tombs was the unexpected fact that I felt it gave me license and a reason to actually contact artists and journalists or authors associated with the early scene. I’m actually a fairly shy person, and without this I would never have dreamed of bothering these people because I just would have felt like some kind of pathetic fanboy, which in many ways, I probably am. One of the people I’d been able to meet online was journalist Mick Mercer who very generously gave some beautiful publicity to my blog on his website and by January 2011, my monthly readership had reached near to 3000 and has generally trended upwards ever since.

The other thing that happened in the first year that caught me completely by surprise was that I started getting contacted by people who had been in some of the bands I was writing about. I think Moe from Burning Image was the first in December of 2010, and he graciously thanked me very nicely for giving them some promotion. Initially I was flattered, because I’d never expected that kind of attention. Again, I’d never done anything with the media reach of a blog, and it had naively never occurred to me that people who’d actually been on the battlefield so to speak, would Google their own and often long dead bands. Of course they would. Wouldn’t you in their position? As I say, very flattering that they would consider my ramblings worthy of attention, but that communication really stopped me in my tracks and caused a total change of attitude.

Suddenly I realized that what I had considered a “museum piece” actually wasn’t some static thing about mummies or pyramids or whatever. I wasn’t abstractly writing about ancient history as I’d initially thought but in fact, the concept was brought sharply home to me that most of the people I was writing about were very much alive, and to my shock, some of them were taking a quite active interest in my doings. That completely changed the way I wrote. My aim was to preserve the artists, and the artists obviously deserve a modicum of respect. In those first few months, I probably tended to shoot a bit from the hip. After the realization that some of the people I was writing about were actually reading my output, I became much more prudent. That’s not to say that I’d call something “Magnificent” that I thought was utter shit, but after artists started getting in contact with me, the posts got a lot more thought put into them.

Not that any artist I’m aware of has expressed any anger at what I’ve written, but it bought a real understanding that words have the power to hurt, and that was never my intention. That level of thought meant that it took very much longer to produce a post, but I like to think it improved both quality of writing and consideration to the artists’ feelings in general was both achieved and important. Do I have favorite posts? Hah! Some have been fun to write, and some of what I feel have been my best have been very difficult. Overall though, the best ones have been those where I’ve actually heard from the artists, or where the artists have linked back to Plunder the Tombs. That’s always the best – not what I originally intended, but I certainly won’t be complaining.

As 2010 came to an end you put out a 2-CD compilation with bands that you fancy yourself. It was titled “The Atrocity Exhibition”, but what was the original thought behind it? Did you want to end the year with a bang?

– I suppose it was a kind of end-of-year present to my original readers, although that was a happy accident to some extent. After the first three months had been so prolific, I found that I had enough bands to fill two CDs with the better quality of material I had uncovered. I just thought that it would be kinda cool if my readers could have a best-of what I’d written about in a format where they could listen to it in their car or whatever when they weren’t online. So I took one track from each of the 26 artists that I’d liked best in those three months and compiled them into something I felt flowed well musically. Of course, this was technically on the fuzzy side of legal, but I doubt anyone has suffered financially from it very much, if at all.

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The Atrocity Exhibition compilation by James

Rather, I much prefer to think that these sample tracks might help people discover bands they really liked and inspire them to go out and buy the full albums in the case of artists who were still in print, or to go enthusiastically searching through the second hand bins at their local record shop or flea market in the case of those who had been long deleted. I might add that one of the earliest policies I took on board with Plunder the Tombs was that I wouldn’t be one of those blogs who just provides downloads to entire albums – I just think that is really disrespectful to the artist.

The irony here of course being that if it wasn’t for such blogs, I’d have immensely more trouble sourcing deleted material to research, so while I thank them for their existence, I personally didn’t want to be another one of them. Apart from my own compilations, the only music Plunder the Tombs will ever offer for download are things that are extremely rare, never released, or very, very deleted with no serious prospect of re-issue. If any artist has a problem with something of theirs I’ve made available, they only need to say the word and it will be taken down immediately.

Since you say you’ve picked up a lot of steam since 2010, how did it feel to enter 2011 and what would you say that the year has given you? In what way did you “pick the cherries” for the upcoming posts and how did the pressure of actually delivering something above what you’ve written so far, affect you?

– 2011? I’ll go out on a limb here and guess you meant 2012? It’s actually been quite a difficult year as competing priorities with work and study conspire against the blog. Also, as the style of the blog has developed, the posts have tended to become much longer and much more in depth , so these things tend to take much longer to write. You are right of course that there is a pressure to deliver, and this is frustrating, because it does greatly slow down the amount I can write, but on the more positive side, the quality of writing and research increases as a result.

That Sisterhood post was so complex, that it took an outlandishly long time to finish. Your question of how do I “cherry pick” is an interesting one, because I don’t really. There’s such an enormous amount of material sitting on my hard-drive that is often still unheard by me that for a while I even considered drawing names out of a hat as to what I would write up next. In reality though, what tends to happen is that I will load a large number of albums onto a USB stick and listen to nothing else for a couple of weeks while I drive to work. If something strikes me as particularly good, then it probably becomes the next post. That said, just as often, I deliberately decide to write something up just because it’s really obscure or because it’s a major band I still haven’t covered.

What kind of albums do you have in your collection and which ones are a must to have?

Since I converted my entire collection over to MP3 a few years ago (I had to do this through necessity because CDs were stealthily but surely taking over the lounge room). I conveniently filed them as Goth and Industrial, Metal and Punk, Electro, and Everything Else. That last category is actually pretty diverse and includes all manner of things from Arcade Fire, Brian Eno, Tea Party, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Nikki Sudden, Heirs, Velvet Underground, Usurper of Modern Medicine, Warpaint, Price Rama and Abba. Abba’s actually very important for those miserable days when you’re feeling a bit down and desperately trying to find something uplifting you want to hear and the little man inside your head whispers “Jeezus you own a lot of fucking depressing music!”.

Albums that I consider a must have? I’m assuming we’re talking about Goth Stuff? I’m going to have to think hard about that one…

In no particular order:

Gothic Rock (Jungle, 1992): Excellent Compilation put together by Mick Mercer as a companion to his book of the same name. Quite simply the best introduction to the genre anyone could wish for. If Mick hadn’t released this when he did, I often wonder if the second wave of the 90’s would have taken off at all.

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Floodland – The Sisters of Mercy: (Merciful Release, 1987): Well this was obviously going in here because up with Replicas by Tubeway Army (Beggars Banquet, 1979) it would easily be one of my favourite albums of all time. It’s huge, it’s bombastic, it’s pompous, it’s ludicrously overproduced and the result is impossibly magnificent. For an earlier, rawer version of the Sisters, Some Girls Wander by Mistake (Merciful Release, 1992) is an excellent compilation of all their early material before Wayne Hussey joined. Alice, Temple of Love and Body electric are all on this along with stacks of other goodies. While we’re at it, you might as well grab First and Last and Always (Merciful Release, 1985), not because it’s one of my favourite Sister’s albums, but as I’ve said elsewhere – was one of the two albums that completely turned the direction of the scene for the second half of the 80s, so worth owning for educational purposes, but also Marian and Some Kind of Stranger are two of The Sisters’ best songs ever.

Love – The Cult (Beggars Banquet, 1985): I’m not a huge fan of most of Ian Astbury’s doings, but this album, for all its psychedelic tendencies is both brilliant, and the other album that along with First and Last and Always was instrumental in moving the original scene further away from post-punk to something increasingly accessible. Also the last Cult album before they got it into their heads to become a hard-rock stadium band. Even if the rest of the album was total rubbish, it would still be worth owning for She Sells Sanctuary alone.

The Nephilim – Fields of the Nephilim (Situation Two, 1988): Probably the best thing they ever did even if it doesn’t have Sumerland or Preacher Man on it. Also the last great album of 80’s Goth. People used to make no end of fun of The Nephs when they first appeared in cowboy drag, but the enormous influence the band would exert upon the second wave in the 90’s made sure that the Nephilim got the last laugh. “”I’d rather be King of the Goths than sods of them all” as Paul Wright would once observe.

In the Flat Field – Bauhaus (4AD, 1980): If The Nephilim was the album that closed the door on the first wave, then this was the album, hot on the heels of Bauhaus’ debut single Bela Lugosi is Dead (Small Wonder, 1979) that really kicked it off in the first place. The compilation album Bauhaus 1979-1983 (Beggars Banquet, 1986 in two volumes) and the live Press the Eject and Give me the Tape (Beggar’s Banquet, 1982) are also totally worth owning.

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Night Time – Killing Joke (EG, 1985): Killing Joke have always held a tremendous influence over the alternative music scene, but it’s rare that they’ve ventured into Goth territory. With Night Time however, it’s almost as if they’d looked with distaste at the hordes of early 80’s Goth Bands and went ” Oh for fuck’s sake guys – this is how it’s done!” and promptly released not only one of the all-time best Goth albums, but also the best Goth album by a band who in themselves weren’t especially gothic.

Ju Ju – Siouxsie and The Banshees (Polydor, 1981): Siouxsie and her cohorts were often pretty scathing towards the Goth scene they’d been so instrumental in influencing, but there was certainly a period when they briefly decided to stop just influencing and actually do a spot of “gothyness” in their own right. The big singles here that everybody knows of course are Spellbound and Arabian Knights, but the entire album is splendid. There is a lot of Siouxsie’s best that isn’t on here, but decent Siouxsie compilations are so easy to find that I doubt anyone would have serious trouble getting their Hong Kong Garden fix.

Only Theatre of Pain – Christian Death (Frontier, 1982): The album that along with 45 Grave’s Sleep in Safety (Enigma, 1983) pretty much launched the whole LA Deathrock scene. Both are essential although very different albums. Actually, all of Christian Death up until around Atrocities (Normal, 1986) is worth having, but Catastrophe Ballet (L’Invitation Au Suicide, 1984) is especially interesting where you can clearly hear the influences from both sides of the Atlantic beginning to merge.

Pornography – The Cure (Fiction, 1982): The final and best instalment of The Cure’s early “gothic” trilogy. (The other two being Seventeen Seconds and Faith (Both on Fiction, 1980 & 1981 respectively). The album is one of the most iconic moments in Goth. After this, The Cure would spend most of the remainder of their career playing their own brand of happy if introspective alt-pop. That a band capable of recording Pornography would end up presenting the world with something as banal as Friday I’m In Love (1992) though seems almost criminal. That Robert Smith would keep the teased hair and make-up after the Pornography tour also explains why so many newcomers to the scene back in the day would often arrive completely confused as they tried to reconcile what on earth a song like Why Can’t I be You? (1987) could possibly have to do with Goth. Hopefully most of them eventually worked out that the correct answer was “Nothing at all”.

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Closer – Joy Division (Factory, 1980): Probably better thought of as proto-Goth than Goth per-se, but so profoundly influential that it clearly belongs here. This was their second album and was released posthumously after Ian Curtis’ death – many would argue that this spot rightly belongs to Unknown Pleasures (Factory, 1979), but it’s largely a matter of personal taste. Why not grab both?

Garlands – Cocteau Twins (4AD, 1982): Something softer here. Without Cocteau Twins and their later label mates Dead Can Dance the whole Ethereal Wave thing would never have happened. Unfortunately, either band was vastly better than the great majority of those they would later influence.

I guess that would pretty much sum it up for what I would consider the essential albums for any early collection of Goth. A lot of people would say that the Black Album by The Damned (Chiswick, 1980) should be here too, but it just never did it for me. The Birthday Party and The Cramps possibly should be too, given the enormous number of psychobilly-style Goths they influenced, but since both bands would probably punch me in the teeth if I called them “Goth”, I’ll leave it to readers to do their own research.

There are just so many more I could list that while less influential are very much favorites, but then we could go on forever, no?

The short list: The Botanic Verses – March Violets (Jungle, 1993, a compilation), Jack – Bone Orchard (Jungle, 1984), Demos Volume 1 – The Danse Society (Dark Entries, 2011, the demos from the 1984 album Heaven is Waiting), I, Individual & The Word is Out – Gloria Mundi (both on RCA/Victor, 1978 & 1979 respectively), Talk About the Weather – Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (Red Rhino, 1985), Fetisch and Tocsin – X Mal Deutschland (both on 4AD, 1983 & 1984 respectively), Lilith – The Vyllies (Out of Tune, 1985), Masque of the Red Death Trilogy – Diamanda Galas (Mute, 1986-1988), Medusa – Clan of Xymox (4AD, 1986), There’s probably a lot more, but they would be the favourites that immediately spring to mind.

I would also like to ask you if you could explain the difference between Death Rock and Goth, since I bet some people (including me) are very interested in hearing your take on it!

– I don’t think you can do that do easily – there are subtle differences of course: Early Goth rock was more influenced by Glam Rock and Early Deathrock more closely attuned to Horror Punk, but these are largely superficial and it really comes down to what side of the Atlantic you happened to be on. By the time that Christian Death toured the UK around 1984, it’s fairly obvious that both sides are borrowing from each other. More recently, some bands are preferring the term “Deathrock” simply because the term “Goth” has become so contaminated.

Secondly, I’d love to ask you about books that cover these subjects. You mentioned some books earlier, but what are your given picks when it comes to getting to know these phenomenons and genres as a wholly?

– Good well written and well researched ones. Whether it’s about the music or the subculture. There are a lot of these. There are also a lot that will advise you how to make your house or your diary look more “goth” and these and their authors need to go to the flames. A complete disgrace to the scene. I think at some point in the future Plunder the Tombs will do a review of these.

We entered on the subject of you being a DJ many times before, but I was going to ask you – what makes a good DJ within these genres and where do you normally play in these days?

– You have to understand that in the context in which you are working. On specialist radio, your mission is to entertain your audience and to introduce them to whatever is new and cool. In a dance club your mission is to pack the floor. In a pub night your mission is to play great music while people drink and have a good time. Descent fitted the last category – if it had been in a dance format I don’t think I would have bothered coming out of retirement. But now I’m Djing again for the first time in ten years and have all the freedom I’d ever wished. If you happen to be in Perth, drop by.

Finally, I would like to thank you for your patience and lengthy answers on the questions I’ve asked you. What would you like to close this interview with, do you have anything you’d like to put out there that needs to be put out?

– Yes! The time of Goth has been and passed – bury it deep and respect it. There is a whole new generation of dark rock – O Children, Zola Jesus, Dresden Dolls, Emilie Autum, Fever Ray, and the list goes on. Unless they are very silly, don’t ever expect to find them stuffed into “goth rock”, they are all much better than that dead genre. Call yourself anything – dark alternative, dark rock, dark cabaret, rock noir, anything – but if you’re smart, call yourself anything but “Goth”. For god’s sake move the fuck on.

Go and visit the blog Plunder The Tombs for even more material!

Plunder-the-Tombs

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