Balladeer of Doom - An interview with Douglas P., Part I
Written by Helene Burkholder
An interview with Douglas P., Part I
Put yourself in my shoes, if you will: I get to do my first interview ever (a nerve-wracking experience in itself), and it happens to be with Douglas P., the man derrière le masque of Death in June.
Preparing my questions, I had 517 butterflies (I counted them) in my stomach Im a huge fan of Death in June, albeit a more recent one, and I didnt want to appear too fangirl-like, or ass kissing, or fawning over, and so on. As it was done via email, at least I didnt have to worry about making poor first impressions, or badly messing up the English language, especially with my goofy accent. I was definitely worried that hed read my questions and think Ah what kind of amateur do we have here?!
Regardless of what might have transpired through with my questions, Douglas P. answered graciously, and succeeded in making this interview remarkably intense and heart wrenching. I am truly grateful and greatly touched by his openness and affability.
The past, or when all seems lost, something unexpected happens
I look at the music that came out around the time Brown Book did (Best sellers at the time were - Hold on to your pants-: George Michael's Faith, Michael Jackson's Bad, Def Leppard's Hysteria) even on the alternative scene at the time, there were very few to almost no bands/people making music such as yours, or at least very few who have withheld the test of time. Pardon my French, but what was in your drinking water? ;) What were your thoughts about the album you were creating? Did you have any concerns it would not find an audience?
[Douglas] It's odd that you should mention drinking water because it was on a hot Summer's day in 1986, not long after I'd moved into the library of David Tibet's basement flat in Enclave Ex (Freya Aswynn's large Victorian house in North London), I counted up how much money I had on me and it was just enough to buy a bottle of Perrier water. With that I walked up to nearby Parliament Fields overlooking London and sat there drinking, thinking and looking at that fantastic and intimidating vista and tried to figure out and plan where the Hell I was going. It was the spiritual start of 'Brown Book'.
The writing and recording of that album came at a time of complete personal/spiritual upheaval for me. I was 30 years old which seemed ancient to me then, had left Jack, my partner of the past 9 years, had next to no money as I was waiting for royalties from the recently issued 'The World That Summer' album to come in, no prospects of a permanent roof over my head, I was undergoing a period of extreme occult initiation, was fanatical about my physical fitness whilst my mental health appeared at times to be in sharp decline - to the point where I thought I was literally going insane - and, eventually, I called on the services of an Occult advisor regarding those matters. Overall, prospects of me surviving this period appeared slim.
There was no concern about an "audience" other than one with the Gods who I knew had Blessed me and were seeing if I was up to their trials. I acted purely upon instinct during this difficult time in my Life, when I had the most to lose, if I was wrong and made a mistake, and the most to gain, if I had the strength and faith to persevere. I don't think that somewhat 'feral' nature, that became extremely fine tuned during that Time, has ever, ever left me.
Whilst I really like, for a whole variety of reasons, George Michael and Michael Jackson the only sounds I remember from 1987, besides the ice creaking and cracking as it defrosted in 'Herman', my old leaky VW Beetle during late night trips back from the studio that very cold Winter of 1986 - '87 were those of 'Brown Book' and Current 93's 'Swastikas For Noddy', which I co-wrote for David Tibet at about the same time. Nothing else really mattered and touched me musically from that actual period, except perhaps a sneak hearing of the then unreleased 'Fire' album tapes from Charles Manson, The Smiths and The Pet Shop Boys, of course!
Brown Book (as well as The World That Summer) pretty much abandons the more 'electronic-oriented' sounds explored on NADA!, and replaces them with darker sounds (more 'militaristic' sounds and samples). Since NADA was quite a big seller for DIJ, were there negative reactions/comments regarding this change of sound and pace? Or were the reactions positive? Do you recall the reviews at the time?
[Douglas] It was at this time that due to my transient circumstances I gave up collating reviews/press cuttings etc and had by then anyway stopped supplying the mainstream British music press with promotional copies of anything I was associated with. I was totally bored with the overall triteness of them and abhorred having anything to do with the music press. Life/Existence/Death In June Itself was too serious. If there were any reviews, and I don't think there were, they are now tucked away inside a box in an attic in Fort Nada in South Australia and haven't been looked at for over 20 years.
Reviews and mentions of 'Brown Book' that I remember came a long time later, most noticeably in the European press, until it culminated a couple of years ago in Italy when it was deemed important enough to be included in the top 600 most important/influential albums of all time. It was odd to see the cover of it alongside those by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground etc. It was odd - and good - at the same moment.
In truth, the only reaction about 'Brown Book' I really remember from when it was released was from the fans who universally disliked David Tibet's vocals on it. I recall the word "decadent" often being used in a bad way - which to me sounded brilliant! At the time I really liked those vocals so, personally I didn't agree with this criticism but, in the 20 years that have passed perhaps the fans were right and I was wrong......?
Either way, I feel the 2nd CD in the 20th Anniversary Edition of 'Brown Book' represents how I hear 'BB' these days and that doesn't feature any lead vocals by Tibet.
The thought about not sounding like "NADA!" never crossed my mind as I could only sound like whatever I/Death In June was, at that particular moment in Time. That period was so intense for me that it would have been impossible to have been anything other than how it was. This was sort of Kampf Fire Music not meant to storm the charts but, The Soul. Those who got it did, those who didn't were left in its wake and therefore didn't concern me.
I was curious if Brown Book sounded more like what you really wanted DIJ to sound like, compared to previous albums (such as NADA, Burial and The Guilty Have No Pride). Did you feel more confident/comfortable with the end result? Was Death in June from then on 'burned and reborn'?
[Douglas] I was metaphorically burned and reborn and Phoenix-like I luckily arose from the ashes! However, there was a definite chance that would not happen but my fanatical approach to matters and with much needed help from some friends, most of whom are now dead or estranged from me, I got through a very strange and tough Time. "Confident/comfortable" definitely weren't words in my frame of reference during that period. Being 'Blessed' by Wolves was the only certainty and I had to trust that was a good sign of an eventually good outcome - rather than a complete mental breakdown. But, there were certainly very lonely nights when I wept, and was almost crushed by circumstances.
Brown Book' sounds like it does because it couldn't sound any differently. It's a very special album. I know that. But, I wouldn't like to relive those days of thinking I was going mad in Enclave Ex, or of complete desolation and misery when I was a live-in security guard and sole occupant in an isolated house on Salisbury Plain, not far from Stonehenge, very aware that the house's many antiques, which I was there to protect, were much sort after by some hardcore criminals who had a habit of setting their victims on fire if they didn't get what they wanted and that the owner, who was away in Egypt, and who had become a lover before he left, was under investigation for murder and there was a very long Winter ahead of me where I started to suffer the first signs of frost bite and hypothermia and I could barely feed myself! And, and, and, and, ........ Panic Stirred The Will!
I was also curious if, at the time, you ever looked for a bigger record company to back you up? Were there people who were interested?
[Douglas] I was then manufactured and distributed by Rough Trade Distribution which was the biggest and best independent music distributor of its day and they were very sup portative and I was very satisfied with the arrangement. The thought of going with a major company never crossed my mind and I'm sure it's never crossed their mind either! It caused some financial difficulties in terms of finding the money for recording but when push came to shove I made whatever I had to happen, happen. And, that shall be the whole of the law!
In an interview on Compulsion Online dating from 1991-1992, it is mentioned that The Wall of Sacrifice was 'regarded as possibly being the last LP' from Death in June. This really surprised me, especially considering how DIJ continued to bloom wonderfully afterwards. How close were you to actually calling it quits?
[Douglas] After the trials and tribulations of 'Brown Book' the writing and recording of 'The Wall Of Sacrifice' was like the agonising pulling of teeth. It was recorded in 1988/89 and released in early 1989 and was definitely viewed as Death In June's swansong and as I didn't do any further recording until 1992, I was more than "close" to calling it quits.
To me it was my version of Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music' which, although I hadn't heard - and still haven't - had become a cultural myth in my mind of how to say "Good Bye" to everyone in one's Life or, at least aspects of it.
I then went to Australia for the first time in March, 1989 with the intention of seeing more clearly and/or reinventing my Life on all levels. 3 months later when I returned to England I was in a state of shock regarding where I was going but 'But, Ends When The Symbols Shatter?' had, unbeknown to me, already started to take shape in my head, and eventually emerged 3 years later.
So, Death In June continued and was about to enter one of its best periods, both professionally and personally. When all seems lost, something unexpected happens.
The Present, or Following a Dream
The 20th anniversary re-edition of Brown Book is absolutely superb. How did the whole process of re-releasing it go about? Did you design the box and contents? Logistically, it must have been extremely difficult to coordinate
[Douglas] First of all, I design and always have done, 90% of all Death In June/NER releases. Soleilmoon in America have links to manufacturers of stone items so I was immediately attracted to the idea of reinventing some of the DIJ catalogue along those lines. Between us we came up with the stone box 20th Anniversary Edition of 'The World That Summer' in 2006 and in 2007 this great stone circle release of 'Brown Book' 20.
Was it difficult to find the right people to manufacture the boxes and patches? I'm asking because, since you are having problems with the album to Germany, did you have problems finding manufacturers to make and ship those items?
[Douglas] There were no problems of which you allude to. Between the manufacturing firms involved in India, the Czech Republic and the USA it eventually all came together very well. However, there were times when there was a lot of hand wringing and general fretting! Luckily, it was all worth it when it did all fall beautifully into place! It is a really brilliant piece that surpasses my expectations both visually and audibly. The 20th Anniversary Edition of Death In June's 'Brown Book' is something I'm very impressed with and proud of. Anyone who owns a copy should be too.
And speaking of Germany (*sigh*) Brown Book was placed on the B List (which means no import, no export, no promotion, no sales authorized) in Germany. Would you mind explaining to our readers how this happened What did the authorities base themselves on to reach this decision? Was this the case with the original album when it came out in 1987?
[Douglas] Early in 2007 I was told that 'Brown Book' had been placed on the B list of banned artworks in Germany known as the 'index'. Having had no direct contact with the German government on this particular issue - as legally it is seen as being completely separate issue from the 'Rose Clouds Of Holocaust' case - I don't know the actual reasoning behind this decision so can only guess that someone complained to a state authority about its content and that state authority was obliged to investigate how corrupting, or dangerous or politically unacceptable 'Brown Book' was.
Certainly when it was originally issued in 1987 after a few weeks Rough Trade Deutschland returned about half of their initial order of 1,000 copies to England because they thought they would get into legal difficulties. At their request I wrote a letter of explanation to aspects of the album that seemed pertinent to the then West Germany and after they presented this they were then told by the authorities that 'Brown Book' was deemed 'art', they had nothing to worry about and they re-stocked their quantity and went on to order a lot more copies besides. So,...?
What happened in between then and now was the reunification of Germany and since then there have been a never-ending stream of problems concerning censorship in one form or another that don't appear to go away. It is, after all, naive to think that everyone was happy with the dissolution of the communist state of East Germany and all those members of the communist party, the secret service Stasi, the red youth and whatever other parts of that repressive regime didn't simply disappear overnight. Germany has been at war with itself politically since 1918 and Death In June got caught up in that.
Compared to other albums that came out at the time (as previously-mentioned), Brown Book has majestically held the test of time. It doesn't sound like 'an album of the Eighties', you know? You must be incredibly proud of this achievement
[Douglas] I'm proud of it regardless of whether or not it did sound like "an album of the Eighties'". But, in truth, it has to be - it was written between 1986-87 and so I think it can't but be influenced by its Time and surroundings. Perhaps it's a truer vision for some people? Some late nights or early mornings when I was driving back from Alaska Studios listening to cassettes of cabaret songs from the Weimar Republic I'd see groups of American GIs in full camouflaged combat gear walking through the streets of London. It was really weird, as I was normally dressed then in a uniform of a different Time and place, and I wondered if I wasn't seeing some sort of speed/hunger/lack of sleep hallucination of my own making! As it turned out they were extras from 'Full Metal Jacket', the latest Stanley Kubrick film being shot somewhere in the wastelands of the capital. That was my 1980's London when I was recording 'Brown Book'.
Do you still live in the Riverland area of South Australia? It seems like a very laid back, bucolic way of life. What is a typical day for you?
[Douglas] I wondered if anyone would pick up that location reference when I was doing that particular interview. In fact, when I was answering those questions I was holidaying on my partner's brother's property in the S. A. Riverland which is about a 4-hour drive from Adelaide. This property is so big I can drive around it on a motorbike when I need a break from doing DIJ work/'family things'! I actually live in the S. Adelaide Hills about 20 minutes from the city itself.
The idea of "a very laid back, bucolic way of life" where I stroll around the garden strumming the guitar and being the Balladeer of Doom is an ideal I can only strive for! I'd love it to be a sort of Beatles in Rishikesh retreat, and sometimes it has been but, on the whole the closest I get to that are the vegetarian meals.
There is no really 'typical' day at Fort Nada! However, most days would begin between 8.30 - 9.30 a.m. with a strong coffee and viewing what problems await me on the internet, my least favourite form of communication, followed, at least during the Spring, Summer and early Autumn by a 250 metre swim in the pool that Albin Julius and Boyd Rice know so well. After that, I deal with business via the computer or my writing desk or recording/designing/plotting/scheming new projects or general day-to-day work around Fort Nada. It's a large property that needs constant attention in one way or another. The days go quickly and after my partner and I have eat between 6 -7.30 p.m. I have about an hour's sleep and then stay up until normally Mid Night - 2.30 a.m. usually ending it on the internet dealing with whatever's come in since the morning. The time differences around the world guarantee perpetual correspondence.
From what I understand after hearing you describe your early years on the DVD Behind the Mask, it seems that your life now in Australia is a million miles away from your life in England. Would the Douglas of 'the Brown Book days' would have believed it if you had told him 'You'll be moving there later on in life', or was this something you already had in the back of your mind?
[Douglas] First of all, I think you have to view it like this;
I have always known Australians and they have figured large in my Life from the earliest age, I have never felt at home in England, and at the age of 17/18 I thought I would move to Paris to live. But what happened was that I eventually ended up living in Amsterdam for several months until I had a spiritual Epiphany on LSD, all my belongings were stolen and my money ran out and I went back to England to work towards what I truly wanted to be. In the early 1990s I lived on and off in the EUR district of Rome that, coincidentally, Mussolini built and eventually I found 'Fort Nada!' by randomly driving around the Adelaide Hills during Yuletide 1993/94 in search of something I wasn't sure of - until I found it. Then I saw it and it, and everything else, fell into place! It was really following a dream, or slightly unclear vision, on pure instinct. Over a period of time the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place and gradually, over a period of a few years, Life began to make sense. Or, at least more sense than it had done in decades. And, achieving that was always in the back of my mind.
The future, or making waves big enough to drown most fishwives and their acolytes
I was re-reading the Death in June entry in Wikipedia the other day (Like millions of others, I waste too much time at work clicking from one entry to the next ) and something jumped out at me, which I hadn't noticed before: It refers to The World That Summer, Brown Book and The Wall of Sacrifice as "a triptych". Is this indeed how you see those albums? And if so, is there the possibility of a 20th anniversary re-release of The Wall of Sacrifice? 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary for this album
[Douglas] Personally I've always seen 'The World That Summer' and 'Brown Book' as brother albums and 'The Wall Of Sacrifice' as standing on its own. That's certainly how it felt at the time but, I realise over the years other people have perceived these 3 albums as a triptych, perhaps representing ideas along the lines of 'Hope', 'Struggle' and 'Resignation'. Certainly things changed for me on all levels after those last albums of the 1980s. Nothing would be the same again.
Realistically 2009 is a long way away so who knows what's in store for that year for 'The Wall Of Sacrifice'. 2008 has only just begun!
The new DIJ album is coming out in the next few months! This will be first Death in June new material since your participation on Alarm Agents in 2004. What can you tell us bout it? Do you have a release date?
[Douglas] Really I feel it's the first Death In June album proper since 'All Pigs Must Die' in 2001 as I didn't write any of the lyrics for 'Alarm Agents'. I let Boyd Rice do all of that and concentrated on the music for 'Alarm Agents' which was great and I'm very pleased about. With 'The Rule Of Thirds', however, I do everything and there are no guest musicians with the exception of my sound engineer Dave Lokan who helped out with guitars on one track.
'The Rule Of Thirds' should be out in March, 2008. The general consensus between those select few around the World that have so far heard preview copies of it is that it sounds like me but, doesn't sound like me and is really stripped back to the most pure Death In June. So,.... who knows? I feel all that - and more!
I hate asking this question, but here goes: Do you see a day when you will retire completely from the music scene?
[Douglas] When the blood sucking negatives of this 'business' (as opposed to those who want to be involved at any cost in this true art and contribution to Euro-culture) continue to abuse their relationship with me and relentlessly nag and snipe there are definitely days when I feel like shutting up the Bunker forever. But, realistically after 31 years of making waves big enough to drown most fishwives and their acolytes I'm only too happy to continue to outlast them all. Especially after recording 'The Rule Of Thirds'!
As Borat, honorary member of the Englefield Green Posse, would say; "Why not? Is nice. Great Success!"
Heilige! Douglas P.