The Golden Palominos
Control and Resolution
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1997 Anil Prasad.
Peer through any window. Even if the sun shines brightly through, chances are it's still dark outside.
Whether you interpret that figuratively, literally or conceptually, you'll get a sense of the vibe running through much of the work of New York poet Nicole Blackman, frontwoman and vocalist of The Golden Palominos. The group, led by drummer and producer Anton Fier, recently released Dead Inside. The disc finds Blackman's provocative spoken word stories combining with Fier's expansive, electronica-drenched soundscapes and rhythms. Accompanying the duo are bassist Bill Laswell, and guitarists Nicky Skopelitis and Knox Chandler.
The first thing people notice when hearing the disc is Blackman's voice. It shifts seamlessly between menacing, dreamy, stark, and desolate moods. It's the latter category the disc's opening track "Victim" embodies. On it, Blackman channels the experience of the last hours of an abducted woman awaiting a cruel fate. This conversation, chronicling the making of the record and the reactions it received, began with an exploration of how "Victim" came together.
You've said "Victim" reflects the idea that you "speak for women who didn't have the chance or the nerve to speak while they were alive." Elaborate on that.
I can't explain "Victim." The more I talk about it, the more it escapes me. I actually got two requests from poets who wanted to play that record and then perform the murderer's response. And I refused to let them do that because there's such a potential for abuse with that—such a potential to exploit it. And she's really sacred to me. I don't understand why that piece came to me the way that it did. No other piece ever occurred to me the way that one did. And she feels profoundly real to me. Out of respect to her, for whatever reason, I've been entrusted with this. And I have to, out of respect for her, treat it sacredly. So, if someone wants to do a remix, or perform something else of mine, or even cover something of mine, that's one thing. But I will not let them touch "Victim" out of respect for her. She didn't have the chance to do a lot of things. I do feel a bit like her sentinel on that. And there's no way I can really explain that without sounding strange or goofy because I'm not a very religious person.
"Victim" was a profoundly affecting piece for me. I've only performed it once or twice live and half the audience leaves before it's over. The other half stays in the room and just shakes. Anton and I had talked about some live dates and the first question everyone asks is "Are you going to do 'Victim' live?" And I didn't know—I really didn't know if it would work. I didn't know if it would insult her. I didn't know if she would let me, to be perfectly honest. I don't really feel her presence around me nearly as strongly as I did at the time I wrote it, but I do feel that piece came to me for a reason. I may never understand what it is, but I do understand that it's very special, and I understand that it has to be treated very differently. That's very important to me.
You're communicating some very strong female personas throughout the album. Tell me about the inspiration for the perspectives you share on it.
They probably comes more from an Amazon basis than anything else. [laughs] There's a lot of Amazon and Joan of Arc and Cassandra in it. I don't know why that is. It's the concept, not just of female rage, but of loyalty and female defense and the question "Why is it so fascinating to see an aggressive and violent female?" It all seem to be so incredibly resonant right now. That's because it's breaking taboos. Women aren't supposed to be that way. Yet, when women are really pushed up against the wall, they always say "Don't upset the mama bear, because the mama bear protects her cubs like no one else." There is an element of that in the animal world, so why has that been drummed out of human beings? That's really very interesting to me. Why is that considered such an animalistic thing? Why is that considered such a turn-on—especially for men? And it's really very strange because an aggressive male is one thing. An aggressive female is like "Oh, well, she's a dyke" or "She's just another riot grrrl." It's kind of fascinating to me that women are allowed to be anything except really angry or violent.
Describe your working relationship with Anton Fier and how the pieces on Dead Inside evolved.
It's kind of funny, because one plus one always equals three, really. He gave me the music to write to, and I treated it very much as a soundtrack. I would just put it on a tape over and over again and listen to it in the dark. I would just put on my headphones and lie down on the floor and I would just watch the movie. I write to soundtrack music a lot. So, it was really a very natural method for me to work with. He never saw what I had written until I got into the studio. It's not like we worked on stuff and then went in to record. We created everything in the studio and boom, he would say "Tuesday at seven o'clock" and I would say "Okay, I'll be there." And sometimes it would be Tuesday at 6:30 pm in the evening and I would be finishing writing something in the car on the way over.
There was a great alchemy that happened where I think the work went someplace that neither he nor I had anticipated. After the first few tracks it kind of urged us on into a more clear direction. I don't think that either of us could have anticipated the record would have gone where it did. But every piece kind of further shaped and focused the next piece. And certainly after we had finished the first three tracks and he was writing more music for me, the writing inspired the music—the music inspired the writing and it was all pretty much inextricable by the time it was finished. So, it got woven in very, very tight. I mean, I was shocked as hell when it came out. I kind of thought "Where did that come from?" And I think that we really surprised both of ourselves. It was really terrific to work with him because nothing that I gave him was ever too dark.
Dead Inside is the most collaborative project I've worked on. I knew that it was a major, complex piece going into it. Interestingly, Anton and I would do usually no more than three of four takes of every piece and then I'd pick which takes I liked the vocal passages on and he would select those lines. So, I had a lot of input on how it was shaped in the end. But even after I was done, he would take all the bits and parts and reshape it and add rhythms or he would put part of the chorus on a loop and make it a whisper track. Every now and then he would drop a couple lines of text and I would be like "Aww... Damn, now it doesn't rhyme! Now she lives in the end!" [laughs] But he usually didn't fuck with the text too much. It was nice.
Tell me about the structural approach you took to the tracks on the album.
A couple of them have a relatively song-like structure. Some of them absolutely don't. There's no way that you can call "Victim" a song. But something like "Metal Eye" and maybe "Belfast" are probably the closest to songs. It's not really up to me to decide what they are—I just make them. It's really up to media people and marketing people to decide what they are. It's not my job. People ask me "Are you a spoken word artist? Are you a poet? Are you writer? Are you a performance artist?" I say "You know, it's all just storytelling." Storytelling has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. And whether you choose to call it a poem or you choose to call it a novel or you choose to call it a song, it's all just storytelling. And that's really all it is. Whether you want to do it as a bedtime story or as a dirty joke or whatever, we're all simply telling stories. And whatever format it's in, whether it's on a record or whether it was printed or whether I performed it on stage at Lollapalooza or if it shows up in a commercial, it's still all just storytelling.
You seem less than thrilled with the way your label Restless has handled Dead Inside.
The press response to the record has been great, but I don't think Restless understood how to respond to the dance interest. There was with no dance promotion whatsoever. It was totally word of mouth. So, for them not to be able to follow up in any kind of way is horrifying to me. I am so incredibly frustrated—I was ready to throw stuff. I had DJs who said "Please get me this on vinyl—please get me some remixes. I'll play it." Even DJ Spooky said "Wow, are you guys going to be putting this out on vinyl? I'd like to be able to mix it. You guys need some remixes?" So, it was very frustrating to have all of these opportunities and not be able to have Restless understand how important it was to respond to them. They just basically let it go. Even Marilyn Manson had been playing the record before his shows and I can tell when he's played it because Restless would say "Oh, suddenly we sold 200 copies in Dayton, Ohio. What happened there?" And I said "Well, gee, check your records and see if Marilyn Manson played there." And they go "Oh, funnily enough he played there Wednesday night. How did you know that?" And I said "Well..." We also went back and forth about a video treatment. Suddenly Restless decides "No, we're not going to do a video at all" after we have a brilliant treatment and we already have people from MTV saying "Yeah, we'll play it."
The group briefly made an accompanying remix album, Dead Outside, available for free online. Why did you take that approach to releasing it?
Because a lot of the remixes that we got were done by friends of mine and by artists who just wanted to do it because they loved it. Raymond Watts from KMFDM and Pig did a remix. Chris Randall from Sister Machine Gun did one. So did Sean Beavan, who's done all of the Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson work. Scanner did one, John van Eaton did two. So, basically those all came in for nothing and Restless said "Well, we're gonna pay Mark Walk from Ruby and maybe one or two other people to do them and there's going to be a club remix and a radio remix." And what came in was very disappointing to everyone. So, I think Restless at this point was like "Aww, forget it. We're just not going to do anything with them." So, Anton and I said "Well, we've got all these remixes for nothing, we might as well just put them up on the Internet and just let everyone download them for free." So, if you see a press release from Restless saying "Restless pushes the envelope by debuting the first remix EP on the Internet," it's a scam. [laughs]
This Is How It Feels and Pure, the last two Golden Palominos albums, received a great deal of acclaim. Did you feel any pressure to create a follow-up to them?
To be perfectly honest, I didn't listen to them—really. I've never admitted it to Anton. But it's kind of like being asked to reprise a role in a film or being asked to take over for someone in a musical. Do you want to see Bette Davis do it when you have to do the remake? Part of you wants to see how it was done—what everyone else understands. But then, how else can you make it your own if you're looking at the stencil that someone else created? So, with all due respect to Anton and Lori Carson, the previous vocalist, I listened to "Prison of the Rhythm" and "Little Suicides" and that was it. It was just a couple of little tastes here and there. I didn't really sit down and listen to the records and I wouldn't let myself because I knew that if I did I was going to feel "Well, oh, this is what Anton expects from me" and I knew that he wanted something very different, which is why he asked me to work with him. For the sake of the project, and my own mental state, I didn't really let myself listen to the other work. I still really am totally unfamiliar with the other stuff he's done with the early Palominos. He gave me all these discs and I said "Thank you very much." [laughs] I was very gracious about it, but I realized that I couldn't really let myself listen to them, otherwise I would make work that sounded just like that.
I'm very sensitive to things I see, hear and experience and things get filtered almost automatically. I'll see a painting and something of that painting will naturally bleed through something that I'm writing. It's like I'm just transparent that way. I can't quite shut things out. My friends know this—they know that anything they say is fair game. I throw a very, very wide net. If someone pisses me off or leaves a message on my answering machine, they know not to be surprised if part of it shows up or is alluded to in a piece later on—not that I'm ripping anybody off. Often I will call people and say "Hey, I liked what you said about that. Do you mind if I use that in something?" And if they say no, that's fine. But things just sort of get passed through. So, I was a little conscious that I didn't want to be listening to anything from the other records that he had done with Lori because I didn't want to hear any of those influences popping up in what I was doing. And also, I didn't want to be restricted by it to look at the song structure and say "Okay, well she's working in A-B, A-B, A-B, A-B rhyme. I guess that's what I'm supposed to do." I had also never really written a song before. I didn't really know how to. I don't understand anything about formal song structures. Anton's like "Well, what about the bridge here?" and I said "What's a bridge?" I had no idea. So, I thought it was probably better to approach it as an outsider.
The album has provoked extreme reactions from people who love and loathe it. How have you handled the criticism?
I can't get upset over it. Big damn deal. I just say "You figure it out! You tell me what it is. I don't know!" When Lori Carson said she didn't like the album because it was too dark in Raygun, I thought it wasn't a big deal. But again, I didn't want to step into someone else's shoes when I started working on the record, because at the time when we started doing Dead Inside, it was supposed to be me and Lori and another vocalist named Stina Nordenstam. We were each going to do a few tracks. And for whatever reason, I had heard that Lori was busy working on her solo record and wasn't able to do it, and it turned out the way that it has.
Lori wrote me recently to say "Now I really like the record. I didn't like it initially when I heard it." So that's all fine. Initially, she was saying something like "Well, tenderness is not really Nicole's strong suit." Whatever the emotional connection she was going for with her two records with the Palominos, she thought that we had totally missed the mark on that. And what I don't think she understood at the time is that we weren't trying to hit that emotional mark. It was going in a very different direction. So, she initially heard the record as being a failure, and we thought of it as being an entirely different kind of success. She didn't quite understand the intentions behind it. She thought it was just violent for the sake of violence and cruel for the sake of cruelty. She didn't really understand the direction that Anton and I were going in and the issues that we were trying to work with.
As for other people, they either love it or hate it too. All you can ask of your audience is that they pay attention. And if they're so moved that they despise it or they have a religious experience, then you know that they've done their job—they've really paid attention. I got an email from a kid in Hawaii who said "My God, this record changed my life. It makes me want to write" and one from a girl who said "Your record is like food. I have to listen to it all the time. I can't listen to anything else." There's also one from a friend who said "You know, I listen to Dead Inside driving to work, which is about an hour's drive, and I listen to Antichrist Superstar by Marilyn Manson on my drive home." [laughs] It's pretty amazing when you hear stuff like that. It's like "Wow, I'm now part of their life!" It's a pretty weird thing.
I find that a lot of people are playing it for friends or putting tracks from it on mixtapes—it's kind of being introduced hand-to-hand. I think friends introduce it to other people that they think will really understand it. I get a lot of email from Nick Cave fans, Diamanda Galas fans, and a lot of industrial fans. So, I think that folks are hearing about it from other reliable sources and when they're introduced to it that way they kind of know what they're getting into. They understand what it is they're getting. I mean, come on, the record cover is totally black. It's not a party record. [laughs] Although, I have heard of people playing this at cocktail parties. That's pretty interesting. I've heard of lots of people having sex to this record, which I just don't understand. I can't imagine people having sex to this record. It's kind of like people having sex in your bed while you're on vacation. It's kind of a sleazy feeling. [laughs] I heard from one friend of mine who has a used record store. He said one couple came in and bought the record because they heard it was really great. So, they went home, they had sex to it and they brought the record back to the store the next day. They said it was too upsetting. The woman ended up crying. I thought that was pretty great. It's like they played the record while they were mounting each other? [laughs] I couldn't figure it out.
Does your art act as therapy?
Not really, because it really doesn't change anything that happens in my life. I mean, it doesn't make anything better. If anything, it's kind of like the way that children play with dolls. You know, they'll play with action figures and blow up a bridge to get out their aggressions or they'll play with an construction set and crash the whole thing with their big monster truck. So, there is an element of almost play therapy—of making the characters of the dolls you hold in your hand do the things that you can't do. There is an element of control through the character in the story because you can't make your life work the way that you want it to. But I can make sure that the child gets out safely in the end. I can make sure that someone recognizes the impact of their actions. So, it is like having your own little diorama. It's like playing with marionettes. There is some element of resolution—you get to play God, basically, if you're doing anything artistic. You can decide what glob of paint goes where on the canvas. Is she thin or fat? Is she beautiful or ugly? Does the house go up in flames or does it stand forever? You can basically create your own little universe and decide what happens to it. But it doesn't mean that that's going to have any influence or impact in real life. It doesn't really for me. As powerful as I am on the record, it doesn't mean that I'm going be able to catch a cab in New York City when it's raining. [laughs]