Interview with Joseph Vargo of Nox Arcana by Rick Koster - October 7, 2008@ The Day

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It was pretty fascinating to get to interview Joseph Vargo of the duo Nox Arcana. How cool is that? Let me answer that for you: very cool.
You're on record stating the influence of and affection for the soundtrack work of folks like John Carpenter and Danny Elfman. I also hear a lot of ambient sounds that remind me of Tangerine Dream or Robert Fripp’s soundscapes. Were they or similar artists ever on your radar?

I'm not familiar with Robert Fripp, but I have listened to Tangerine Dream in the past. I really enjoyed their soundtrack work, especially on the films "Legend," "Risky Business," and "Thief." I also liked the work of Vangelis. Since we don't use synthesizers, our music doesn't reflect this influence. Most of our music is more symphonic, along the lines of soundtrack composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer and Wojciech Kilar. John Carpenter's work has a very definite synthesized sound, but he's also got some great acoustic sounding pieces like his piano themes for "Halloween" and "The Fog." You can definitely hear these influences in our music.
     We create and record all our own ambient sound effects and we have an extensive library of howls, cackles, wind, rain, thunder, dripping water, rattling chains, crackling fire, creaking doors, etc, as well as animals like wolves, ravens, bats and cats. You name it and we can create it, that is, if we don’t already have it.

While you have a very successful career as an artist and writer, how big was it to get the Nox Arcana albums in all of the Spirit Halloween stores? That’s sorta like when the Eagles released their latest album exclusively in Target stores.

It's great to be able to reach a mass market with our music. It exposes more people to something that they don't normally get to hear on the radio. I actually got my first big break in 1997 when Hot Topic started carrying my gothic t-shirts, posters and calendars. Once we started producing cds they distributed those as well. Spencers started carrying our cds and posters a few years later, and now they have their own chain of Halloween stores with Spirit. Nox Arcana has been their top selling artist ever since they started carrying our music. We sell to hundreds of other stores worldwide as well, and all of our merchandise is available on the Monolith Graphics website and through Amazon.

Any song that sums up your style?

We've written over 200 songs and there's a lot of diversity in our music, so it's impossible to select one particular song to sum up our style. Our music ranges from lonely piano solos and haunting music box melodies to acoustic guitar ballads, exotic mystical rhythms and symphonic orchestrations replete with gothic choirs and chanting. Each Nox Arcana cd is a concept album that embraces a different theme and immerses the listener in a soundscape that is specifically designed to conjure the mood of our chosen topic. Our themes range from a haunted Victorian mansion and the nightmarish Cthulhu Mythos to sinister carnivals, Grimm fairy tales, Dracula's castle and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. We've also got a sword and sorcery epic and a haunting holiday album. There's also a lot of diversity within each particular album, making it even more difficult to choose one song to represent our sound.

Do you have a favorite piece of dark music that you listen to over and over that you guys didn’t compose?

There are so many that it’s tough to narrow it down to just one. But I guess I’d have to say the main title theme from John Carpenter's remake of THE THING. Its one of the only times that Carpenter didn’t record his own score for one of his films. The music was composed by Ennio Morricone, who also wrote the classic theme for THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. It's a very creepy drone and great background music for exploring the shadows. John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS soundtrack is great too. I play it every year at Halloween.

Is it hard to get inspired on November 3, for example—just after Halloween—or in December when Santa and reindeer and happy people are everywhere? There’s the WINTER'S KNIGHT album, of course, where you invoke the sort of Dickensian holiday ghosts. But, I dunno, is a sunny March day spooky enough for you?

We write music all year round, but we usually work at night, well beyond the midnight hour. We don't limit our music to just the Halloween season, in fact, I'm always so busy during October that we hardly ever do any work in the studio the entire month. I think that most creative people have vivid imaginations that allow them to dream up new ideas and bring their visions to life, but we also get a lot of letters from writers, artists and fellow musicians telling us how our music inspires them.
     What drives me crazy is seeing Christmas decorations in some stores before Halloween even rolls around. I’m no Scrooge, but my holiday spirit wears thin when stores start cramming that stuff down their customers’ throats two and a half months ahead of time. Wait till after Thanksgiving before breaking out the mistletoe.

You were fairly well established as an artist and a fiction writer when Nox Arcana solidified as a unit. But did you ever imagine you could make a great living making what some folks might consider "Halloween music"?

As I said previously, we don’t limit ourselves to just making music for Halloween. Don’t get me wrong, Halloween is definitely my favorite holiday, but my concept has always been to create moody soundscapes for a variety of dark themes. I've produced and worked with other bands in the past and the formula I developed has been very successful. My other artistic outlets stimulate the visual senses and imagination, so making music was another form of this creative expression. I always wanted to be a professional artist and I feel very fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love, but I’ve also worked very hard to get where I am. You can’t make your dreams a reality without determination and diligence.
     We’ve gotten letters from fans who say that they use our music for everything from gothic weddings to romantic bubble baths and our cds are played in every major haunted attraction across the country. This year a company designed their entire haunted attraction after our Darklore Manor cd, and Busch Gardens created a haunted wedding performance using only our music, while Universal Studios chose our Carnival of Lost Souls cd as their main theme last year. It’s amazing the amount of work that goes into creating events like these, so we really love it when our music is part of the program. We have a great following throughout Europe and other countries as well. But with international notoriety comes some unwanted hassles. We’ve run into a lot of music industry weasels who try to exploit our success. Some German rapper named Bushido actually stole three of our songs and rapped over them, then released them on an album that went platinum over there. We’ve run into things like this in the past, and I despise talentless, cowardly thieves who steal from true artists and try to take credit for their work. Needless to say we are taking legal action against him and his label.

How did you meet William and was there an immediate connection—not just musical but also thematically? I know he started working with you when he was in his teens.

I am actually very good friends with his father and I've known William since he was very young. He's always been into music. When I decided to create Nox Arcana, he was only 15 and was just beginning to work with music editing programs on his computer. When I saw how quickly he was developing his skills as a studio engineer, I asked him if he wanted to work together on a new project. As far as our themes go, I develop all of our concepts, but William has a terrific grasp of the subject matter and brings some great ideas to the table.

The book The Legend of Darklore Manor is about to come out, plus you’ll have your latest CD, Phantoms of the High Seas, out on Oct. 13. Talk a bit about those projects.

The Legend of Darklore Manor and Other Tales of Terror contains 13 sinister short stories as well as the novella base on the first Nox Arcana cd, Darklore Manor. Several of the other stories, which were co-written by myself, Joseph Iorillo and Timothy Bennett, were written specifically for this anthology, while others were previously published in Dark Realms Magazine. The main story centers around a team of investigators who explore an abandoned Victorian mansion that harbors restless spirits and a deadly curse. The other tales deal with sinister dolls, urban legends, living gargoyles, witches, ghouls, secret societies and various other dark themes.
     The new Nox Arcana album, Phantoms of the High Seas is based on legends of pirates and ghost ships. The music is a blend of epic pirate anthems, haunting melodies and eerie sound effects, telling the musical tale of high adventure, ancient curses and buried treasure. Almost all of our cds hold hidden riddles in their cd booklets and this one is no exception.

Do you ever worry that there is a finite number of dark or creepy topics from which to draw inspiration.

Honestly, no, not at all. I have so many more ideas for concept albums that I don't know if we'll be able to cover them all in my lifetime. Our fans are also constantly suggesting themes for our cds. We’ve covered my favorite gothic themes with tributes to Poe, Stoker and Lovecraft, so our future concepts will focus on original storylines along the lines of Darklore Manor, Winter’s Knight and Blood of the Dragon. We're only limited by our own imaginations, so the possibilities are endless.

What DO you do on Halloween?

I throw my annual Halloween Horrorama party. It’s like an elaborate murder mystery with a supernatural twist. I’ve been doing this since 1990, and each year covers a different theme, ranging from witches, mad scientists and evil toymakers to cursed pirates, sinister cults and Lovecraftian horrors. It an exclusive invitation-only affair and costumes are mandatory. Guests take part in a dark mystery and must search every room of the house, from the attic to the cellar, and sometimes even the yard, in an attempt to resolve the case. They must also solve puzzles, decode secret messages and find keys to locked doors, picking up clues along the way. It’s great fiendish fun.
     This year the guests will discover that they are the last descendents of a sinister curse that has claimed the lives of their ancestors. They have been invited to a remote mansion to try to uncover dark family secrets that have remained hidden within the house for several generations, As the night progresses they will encounter several ghosts from the past that will aid and thwart them in their attempt to unlock the secrets of the house and lift the evil curse before meeting a grisly fate. If things don’t go right, some of my guests might not be coming back next year.

Any other comments?

Have a great Halloween.

Thanks for your time and efforts, Joseph. I'm really enjoying the music!
Best, Rick