Interview with Joseph Vargo by Alexandra Dimitriadou - (Greece) January 2011◄ Back to Index
Tell us a little bit about how Nox Arcana started out, how you met William Piotrowski and decided to form the project with him, and your course in the music field so far.
After performing in several rock bands in the 1980s, I had produced two albums of gothic-themed ambient orchestral music with another musical project here in the Cleveland area in the late 1990s. Although the cds were well received, the music was limited by the skill and imagination of the other musicians involved. I left the project in 2000 and formed Nox Arcana a few years later to create the type of dark cinematic music and concept albums that I had always envisioned.
William is the son of a good friend of mine. I've known him all his life. He developed impressive musical skills at an early age and by the time he was 15, he had taught himself the basics of digital recording and engineering. His mindset was very mature for a 15-year old, so I discussed the possibility of forming a musical project with him. Within six months, we had written, recorded and released our first cd as Nox Arcana. The album Darklore Manor told the musical tale of a legendary haunted mansion that harbored sinister occult secrets and a dark family curse. The release met with success and critical acclaim, so we continued creating new concept cds based on other gothic themes. To date, Nox Arcana has 12 full-length albums, in addition to 3 collaboration cds with other musical artists.
William left the band in 2009. Will you continue with Nox Arcana as a solo project, or are you considering including other musicians into the band?
Yes, it was great collaborating with William, and we are still good friends, but after graduating college he decided to pursue other interests, so I will continue to create new music alone. I wrote and recorded almost all of Blackthorn Asylum by myself and I've written, recorded and produced the last two Nox Arcana albums, Winter's Eve and Theater of Illusion, on my own, so I've become used to working without a partner. I've also created two other cds with my friend Jeff "Buzz" Hartz. The albums Zombie Influx and House of Nightmares are geared specifically to a horror audience.
Your albums are all concept albums, covering metaphysical subjects such as vampires, paranormal activities, legends and fairytales, as well as traditional horror authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, E.A. Poe and Bram Stoker. What inspires you to choose a theme for an album, and how do you proceed in approaching it?
All of the themes for my cds are topics that fascinate me. I have always held a strong interest in the paranormal, horror and the occult, both in literature and film. Lovecraft and Poe are two of my favorite writers, mainly due to their dark subject matter and their artistic creativity.
When choosing a subject for a concept album, I begin with a mental list of ideas that inspire me and have broad themes, so that the music can cover a wide variety of emotions. I compile a list of ideas for each theme and make brief notes for each song title concerning the mood, instrumentation and tempo, then I begin composing music with those ideas in mind. The ideas and song titles usually change quite a bit from the time they are conceived to the time the album is finished. I also develop the album art and stories for my original concepts.
Our first cd, Darklore Manor, offered an original twist on the classic theme of a haunted mansion. The music was a mixture of orchestra strings, ghostly choirs, piano, pipe organ and harpsichord to create a dark, Victorian elegance. Our next cd, Necronomicon, was a much more sinister and powerful theme, so we used low horns, drums, and chanting choirs to accent the ominous orchestrations. There were also a lot of narrative intros to explain some of the cryptic history and deities of the Cthulhu mythos.
For our third cd, we went in a totally different direction, because I didn't want any limitations on our style. I had always wanted to do a more serious and haunting Christmas album filled with songs that conveyed a dark, tranquil beauty, so I developed my ideas into the concept for Winter's Knight. We added some acoustic guitars, Gregorian choirs and even guest vocalists on a few tracks. We included our own renditions of medieval Christmas carols and created an original story arc about a ghostly knight that haunts the ruins of a fallen cathedral on the eve of the Winter Solstice. It was a huge risk and I really didn't know what to expect, but our fans really embraced the album, and Winter's Knight ranked in the Top 10 on the Billboard Magazine holiday charts two years in a row.
By then, we had established ourselves as a diverse band that covered a wide range of musical styles and moods. We were mainly a symphonic instrumental project, but we also incorporated vocalists, narratives, sound effects and eventually even rock music. I still have a long list of themes that I would like to cover, so the future is wide open for me.
In 2004 you released the Necronomicon album, a musical tribute to the Lovecraftian pantheon, which was complemented by captivating imagery and a detailed narration on your website, explaining the Cthulhu mythos to the fans. What is your relation to the Cthulhu mythos?
H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos is one of the most influential concepts in modern horror. To this day, many people believe that Lovecraft's creations, the Necronomicon and it's fictitious author, Abdul Alhazred, are real. Of course, they are not. They are simply ingenious products of Lovecraft's dark imagination, as the author clearly explains in his essay "History of the Necronomicon." There are several books that claim to hold the text of the ancient Necronomicon, but they were all published decades after Lovecraft invented the legendary tome for his stories. Over the years, numerous other authors and screenwriters have expounded upon Lovecraft's concepts, altering many of his descriptions and taking liberties with the his established mythos, resulting in many conflicting and confusing ideas.
My concept with our Necronomicon cd was to pay tribute to the Cthulhu mythos, describing the pantheon of Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones exactly the way Lovecraft envisioned it, and disregarding all subsequent works by later writers. I did extensive research into Lovecraft's cryptic descriptions of his ancient diabolic deities as well as the history of the Necronomicon and compiled a precise account of each of the major characters. I wanted to clarify Lovecraft's concepts and introduce his work to an audience that may not be familiar with it, or may have misconceptions about it. The artwork that accompanied the cd was designed to look like pages from an ancient tome of magick, illustrating rituals and monstrous, otherworldly creatures.
One of my personal favourites is the Transylvania album, which I believe returns the vampiric legend to its traditionally dark, horrific atmosphere, as well as its historical background. Do you believe in the legend of Vlad Dracul?
With Transylvania, I really wanted to delve into the dark folklore surrounding vampires, capturing the horror and romance of Bram Stoker's novel. I used the story of Dracula as a basis for the concept, then added a few other gothic elements, such as witches, ghosts, stalking wolves and living gargoyles.
Bram Stoker did a great deal of research into European lore and compiled the tales into an original story that has become a literary classic. His novel defined and established many of the ground rules for vampire fiction. In fact, the original title for his novel was "Vampire," but he changed it after discovering the legend of Vlad Dracul, otherwise known as Dracula. Vlad was an actual Romanian Prince who reigned in the 15th Century and used savage acts to defend his homeland from the invading Turks. He became known as Vlad Tepes, meaning Vlad “The Impaler,” after impaling thousands of enemy prisoners on tall spikes along the roadsides as a deterrent to anyone who dared invade his land. Over the centuries, several sinister stories arose, claiming that Vlad drank his enemies blood and that his dead body vanished from its tomb, but these claims are unfounded and are most likely embellishments of fiction and folklore.
In truth, Vlad Dracul did exist, he did impale thousands of his enemies, and he is respected in his homeland as a hero for his actions. He was a strong leader who used brutal tactics during brutal times, but he was not a bloodthirsty monster with supernatural powers.
Vampires have become a significant part of popular culture lately. Do you see this trend as a positive thing, and is there any part of it that you follow (books, TV shows, films etc)?
I love anything with a supernatural mystique that embraces the dark romance and erotic danger of the classic vampire tales. Unfortunately, many of the vampire books and films that have become popular in recent years have strayed from the classic concepts. There are a few basic rules that should never be broken. Vampires are immortal undead creatures, they are weakened by sunlight, and they are driven by their lust for human blood.
The Twilight series of books and films has become extremely popular in recent years, but it lacks the essential gothic elements of good vampire fiction. It is basically a mindless teenage romance fantasy with several poorly conceived supernatural elements thrown into the plot. It panders to a young female audience and has no real moral or literary substance. But worst of all, it paints vampires in a very mundane light. The Twilight "vampires" don't sleep in coffins, live in castles, wear gothic clothes or turn into bats, instead they drive cars, sleep in beds and wallow in teenage angst. The worst part is that they frolic in the daylight, playing baseball and attending high school classes, while their skin sparkles in the sunlight. It's detestable tripe, but sadly the book and film sales show there is a huge audience for this type of watered-down vampire fantasy.
You have collaborated with Michelle Belanger, who is a well-known occultist, for the Blood of Angels album, as well as for a track on Winter's Knight. How did this collaboration come about, and do you also share some of her other interests?
Michelle and I have been friends for many years. We met in the mid 1990s at a Renaissance fair in the Cleveland, Ohio area, where we were both merchants vending our own products. I was selling my art on posters, calendars and t-shirts, and Michelle was promoting her magazine, Shadowdance. Because of our similar interests, we struck up a friendship and we eventually worked together on my 1998 Born of the Night calendar. I had the good fortune to hear Michelle sing on a few occasions and was very impressed with her voice. When William and I began work on Winter's Knight in 2005, I approached Michelle about performing on the cd. She graciously accepted the invitation to sing our rendition of the medieval ballad "Past Time With Good Company," and did a wonderful job with the song. We later discussed doing an entire album together and the next year we set aside one week to write and record Blood of Angels. The creative energy was extremely high and we really pushed ourselves to complete an entire album, from start to finish, in about 60 studio hours. Michelle's concept dealt with the mortal descendants of the Watcher angels who carry unearthly magic in their blood, allowing them to revel and excel in artistic pursuits. The concept really seemed to encapsulate our own creative work environment for the project.
Michelle is well-known for her books The Psychic Vampire Codex, Psychic Dreamwalking and The Vampire Ritual Book, among others. She and I share many of the same interests and opinions concerning politics and religion, but we don't discuss our actual occult or spiritual beliefs. We both share a strong work ethic and believe in working hard to attain the goals we envision, but Michelle's techniques are far more metaphysical than mine.
Apart from a musician you are also a very gifted illustrator and horror writer. Tell us more about your other artistic occupations.
I began my career as an artist, painting images of gothic fantasy for books, magazines and cd covers. In 1991, I established my own company, Monolith Graphics, to sell art prints, calendars and t-shirts of my own design. Over the next few years, the business grew and we branched-out into various other artistic avenues. In 2000, Monolith Graphics published the book Tales From The Dark Tower, an illustrated collection of 13 gothic tales based on the characters I had created in my gothic paintings. The anthology delves into the mysteries surrounding a medieval tower inhabited by cursed vampires and other lost souls. In addition to creating the artwork for this book, I also wrote and co-wrote several of the stories. Later that same year, we launched Dark Realms Magazine, a quarterly periodical that explored the shadows of art, music and culture. I created all the magazine cover art and also wrote numerous articles on various paranormal topics, such as the crystal skull, Grimm fairy tales, witchcraft, hauntings and creatures from folklore.
In the following years I created The Gothic Tarot and worked with my partner, artist Christine Filipak, to produce Madame Endora's Fortune Cards. We also published the art book, Born of the Night, which contains over 100 of my gothic fantasy paintings and drawings. In 2009 we published a new book of horror stories, The Legend of Darklore Manor and Other Tales of Terror, which contains 13 sinister stories including the novella that chronicles the grim history of the haunted mansion that inspired Nox Arcana's debut album.
I am fortunate to have several artistic outlets for my imagination. I find writing, painting and creating music to each be very gratifying in their own way.
You are the creator of The Gothic Tarot, which quickly became one of my most frequently used decks, as it does an excellent job of combining gothic imagery and symbolism with the arcane knowledge of the Tarot. How did you decide to do a Tarot deck, and what was the basic principle in creating and assigning images to the cards?
I had always wanted to create my own Tarot deck that would appeal to people who shared my gothic interests. In 2002, I began assembling images for The Gothic Tarot from my existing body of work. I had over 200 paintings and illustrations to choose from when I began assembling images for the major and minor arcana. I use a lot of symbolism in my art, so some of these existing images were a perfect fit for various cards of the tarot. Dracula reigned supreme as the Emperor of The Gothic Tarot and Lilith became the image for the Empress. The kings and queens of each of the four suits were represented by various vampiric characters, while living gargoyles were used to depict the knaves.
I researched and studied the history of Tarot cards while I was designing The Gothic Tarot and decided to pattern my cards after early traditional decks like the Tarot of Marseilles and the Rider-Waite deck. Much of my existing art had to be altered to capture the exact meaning of each card, but I also had to create several new pieces specifically for the deck. Some simple alterations included adding cups, wands, pentacles and swords to the artwork, but some paintings underwent drastic changes in composition and color scheme in order to convey images that were appropriate for certain cards. I worked closely with my partner, graphic designer extraordinaire Christine Filipak, to transform my paintings and illustrations into The Gothic Tarot. I later worked with writer Joseph Iorillo to create a companion book, The Gothic Tarot Compendium, which gives details behind the artwork and reveals the cryptic symbolism of each card.
Is the Gothic Tarot linked to your other work, and if so, in what way?
The deck contains images from a period spanning over 10 years of my life, so it represents a large portion of my artistic career. However The Gothic Tarot is not linked to any of my writing or music. I can relate to several cards though. For example, I think that The Chariot really represents the choices people make for their own destiny. We can either see ourselves as riders on an uncontrollable course, or we can take hold of the reigns to steer our lives in the direction we choose. Most people are content to just sit back and enjoy the ride, but the only way to achieve your dreams is to take control of your life's course and direct your own destiny.
Monolith Graphics has also published Madame Endora's Fortune Cards. Tell us a little more about them, where they are based and how they are used.
Madame Endora's Fortune Cards are different from the traditional Tarot deck. The imagery and meanings are based in folklore, ancient mythology and mysticism from several different cultures, taking wisdom from each of them. The deck is centered around the artwork of Christine Filipak, which has a very feminine, Art Nouveau quality to it. I created several images for the deck as well and Christine and I created the meanings and spreads. The 48 cards are divided into five oracle groups, The Royal Court, The Realm Of Fable, The Bestiary, The Treasury, and The Elements, representing the various physical and spiritual forces that surround us. In addition to the detailed meanings in the instruction booklet, each card also has a brief fortune written on a scroll on the face of the card, to allow a quick and easy interpretation.
Madame Endora was a regular feature that we created for Dark Realms Magazine. The articles covered a wide variety of divination methods and provided insight into different myths, legends, folklore, and spiritual belief systems. The card deck was simply a way to combine all of these ideas to create a modern oracle offering the wisdom of the ages. The fortunes offer sensible and inspiring advice based on inner reflection and personal relationships. We get numerous letters from people who use both of our oracle decks, The Gothic Tarot and Madame Endora's Fortune Cards, telling us that the readings they get are amazingly accurate.
Are you yourself a magical practitioner, and if so, which path do you follow?
No. Although I find the subject to be extremely interesting, I've never known anyone that could provide proof of any one path that led everyone who followed it to health, happiness, power or enlightenment. I believe that visualizing your goals and sending mental messages to universal forces are positive actions, but I also believe that you must take physical action toward achieving your goals. Sometimes this is just as simple as working hard to attain your desired results.
I do believe there is an underlying connection between all life, but the universe is a vast and mysterious place filled with wonders that our mortal minds cannot fully comprehend. No human possesses the key to unlocking the infinite mysteries that surround us.
My outlook on spiritual matters is simple: Don't waste your life searching for answers that are beyond human reach, just live life to the fullest, without regret.
Do you view the themes you present as based on mere fantasy, or do you believe there might be some truth hidden behind them?
The stories of Lovecraft, Stoker and Poe are obvious works of fantasy fiction, so I enjoy contributing to the mystique that surrounds them. The fairy tales of the brothers Grimm were collected from European fables and folklore. Many of these are based on allegedly true accounts of witches, ghosts, fairies, goblins and other creatures of legend. This is where the boundaries of fact and fiction become blurred. Some of the other themes I've explored, such as ghost ships and haunted houses, are based on documented cases of paranormal encounters, so I feel there is a certain basis of reality behind them.
Many of the original concepts I've created deliver morals based on universal truths and various spiritual beliefs. The concept album Theater of Illusion combines the realm of stage illusion and the realm of ritual magick, while Winter's Knight and Winter's Eve blend Pagan and Christian customs to deliver positive messages of hope and redemption for the winter holiday season.
Have you ever had a paranormal experience that you would like to share with our readers?
Unfortunately no. Many people I know and respect have had strange encounters with ghosts, psychic phenomena and even UFOs, but I have never had any personal experiences of my own. I have an open mind to the unknown and paranormal, but I guess I'm just never in the right place at the right time. I would love to have a first-hand encounter with the spirit realm or any extraterrestrial beings.
Your latest album, Theater of Illusion‚ is about stage magic. What inspired you to choose that subject?
Our music has always been very popular with magicians, and several professional illusionists have used various Nox Arcana cds to enhance their acts. As a lifelong fan of all magic, I was inspired to create a musical tribute to the mysterious realm of illusion, blending spellbinding stage magic with ritual practices. The cd invites listeners to enter a realm of magic and dark fantasy to discover the mysteries that lie in wait beyond the veil of shadows.
The setting for this concept album is an old Vaudeville theater, hidden beyond the threshold of dreams and nightmares, where mystifying acts are performed by phantom magicians. The 21 tracks take the listener on a musical journey throughout the theater and provide a cinematic soundtrack for the eerie acts that play out on stage. The music ranges from haunting melodies on piano, harpsichord, and music box chimes to dramatic orchestrations accented by gothic choirs and pipe organ. Other tracks offer exotic, mystical rhythms and hypnotic narratives to create a spellbinding atmosphere.
What are your plans for the future? Do you have a new album in the works, and can you reveal anything about it?
I am currently working on writing the sequel to Tales From The Dark Tower. The new book, Beyond the Dark Tower, will be the second in the Dark Tower trilogy. I've also begun working on the next Nox Arcana cd, which will be based on the Dark Tower mythos. Later this year, I will begin work on the third and final Nox Arcana winter cd. I already have some tracks written for both albums, but I'm looking forward to being able to completely immerse myself in the studio for a few months.
Thank you very much for accepting to interview with us. On behalf of our readers and myself I would like to wish you the best for your future artistic endeavours. We are looking forward to the new album!
It's been my pleasure, Alexandra. Thank you for the opportunity to reach your audience.