Friday, January 30, 2015

Maggie Bjorklund Interview:
The Pedal Steel Guitar Peacock

Conducted by Anthony Servante


Maggie with Jack White and the Peacocks 
at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles

Maggie Björklund has played pedal steel guitar for Jack White's band (away from The White Stripes), the Peacocks, but the Danish singer-songwriter has since begun a solo career and released two records to date: Coming Home (2011) and her current Shaken (2014). She is touring but has taken a few moments to join the Servante of Darkness readers for a chat. 

Maggie Bjorklund Biography: 

I was born in the country side of Denmark, south of Copenhagen. It was rural country and I lived way out. Near the end of the road. Mind you the roads are very much shorter than almost anywhere else in the world since Denmark is such a tiny country, but for a child even a few kilometers separation from the classmates is a huge distance. So while growing up I learned to entertain myself and music was easy to fall into and occupy me. I loved the nature around me and took great interest in the forests and the fjord, but besides riding horses, music was my big passion from early on, and there was plenty of time to indulge in that.

Through high school I forgot a little bit about that passion; the world was so wonderful and strong and there was much else that caught my interest in those years, though I did take lessons on different instruments. But once I was out of high school and not knowing where I should go, I started looking at the music again, but wavered for a few years until there was a point of no return where I became a professional musician. And I have never looked back ever since. 

The Interview:

Anthony: I’d like to begin with your early interests in music. When did you decide being a musician was for you and why? 
Maggie: I was deeply fascinated by LP’s and the music they produced when I was a tiny child. My parents listened to a lot of classical music, and I was captivated by the music of Mozart and the story of this wonder child who could write operas and perform for kings and emperors. The radio provided some modern music, but I didn't know anyone who really indulged in that kind of music so my passion for rock and all sorts of other musical styles came later. After high school, I was a little lost as to what to do and where to go and I took dance lessons, and lessons on guitar and viola, and played in a lot of different bands. But at one point I knew that I should either get real serious, or stop, and go to university and get a degree in something completely different. I decided to go to GIT in Hollywood for a year, and that was where my life turned, and as soon as I returned to Denmark from there, I was hauled into a life as a professional musician, and have remained so ever since.

Anthony: Did you see or expect any obstacles to reaching your musical goals because of your gender? If so, how did you overcome them? If not, were you welcomed with open arms? 
Maggie:——IF my gender should be an obstacle to my musical goals then it is all in my own head. Once you reach a level of security and ability with your instrument, gender has absolutely nothing to do with how you can work as a musician. On a recording you cant tell if a guitar is played by a woman or man. That said, there sometimes is a slight difference in how men and woman play their instruments, but it is more like a faint perfume of something undefinable, a fragrance that you can not hear but only feel sometimes. Being a woman that plays pedal steel guitar has of course made me a bit more visible since it is an instrument traditionally not played by women, and even further being of Scandinavian origin is also somewhat of a novelty in the steel guitar world. But if I couldn't play, nobody would care where I came from or if I was a man or a woman.

Anthony: Tell us about your entrance into the music scene. Your first bands. 
Maggie:—— At the GIT in Hollywood I had a fantastic country guitar teacher. I thought it was so much fun to learn how to play all those styles of chicken picking and bending and all those things. I think it is the nerd in me that was happy. So when I returned to Denmark I immediately started an all girl country band called Darleens, and within a few months we were signed to Sony music in Denmark and was out on tour and recording albums straight away. I wrote most of the music for that band. And it was a blast. I had so much fun. Those were years of learning how to be a professional musician and what it entails. A good basis for my further career after that band broke up, as bands have a habit of doing sooner or later. 

Anthony: How did you transition into your current band? And can you introduce its members? Maggie:——- I started my solo career after years of being a side man for danish and international acts. I reached a point where I just knew it was time to explore the artist and composer side of me. I wanted to have my steel guitar at the center of composing and venture into unknown steel guitar territory. I love the blind spots on the map. What lies there? What sounds can you escalate that no one else have found. Its like a beautiful treasure hunt. The members of my current band are a group of danish and Swedish musicians. Anders Pedersen on guitar, Peter Dombernowski on drums, Erik Olevik on Cello. Anders and Peter have toured for many years with Howe Gelb and Giant Sand, and they have worked with a lot of international acts such as Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell. And Erik is a Swedish bass and cello player with loads of experience. I was so happy to find these great musicians in my own country. I wanted to have musicians with a bit more international sound than the average danish musician, and the fact that they have all toured extensively in america and Europe has given them a feel in the music that is very rare. I am so honored to have them with me on stage. 

Anthony: Can you tell us how your musical styles evolved into the “Shaken” recording? 
Maggie:——— On my first solo album “Coming Home” I had started writing some of the songs on the pedal steel. It is but rarely something people do in this world and I was so happy with the melodies and textures that comes from that approach. Touring extensively with my won music and of course big international acts really sharpened my senses towards the magic of the pedal steel and what it can do. So for Shaken I just walked on down the path into the musical jungle of my mind. 

Anthony: Can you list the recordings you have available and any links where readers can purchase copies? 
Maggie:——— “Coming Home” ( Bloodshot Records, found on itunes, etc ), “Shaken” ( Bloodshot Records available through all normal channels including itunes, etc ).

Anthony: Can you tell me the story behind “Missing at Sea”? It’s a haunting piece of music. 
Maggie:—— Missing at sea was based on the crazy lick of bouncing the steel bar and slides that is persistent all through the tune. When I came up with that lick I just loved the groove and the strangeness of it and building the rest took only a very short time. It came as an almost finished gem to me, and I just had to sit down and weave the pattern on a recording. I really like that it is such a dark piece of music. I am a big fan of disharmonies. They make the world an interesting place. 

Anthony: What are you working on now that we can look forward to hearing soon? Can you tell us a bit about it? 
Maggie:——- I am fooling around with a loop pedal a lot these days and coming up with some very fun tunes and landscapes that is for solo pedal steel. But I am as always constantly recording little scraps of ideas on my phone or any other device that is near by. I may not write whole songs at this point but I am gathering a scrap book of musical ideas that will be the basis for the new music later down the road. 

Anthony: Can you tell about your current or upcoming tour plans? 
Maggie:———- I am on my way out on tour later this spring and summer. I am starting with a small tour of Denmark, which I am really looking forward to. It is but rarely I get a chance to play in my home country and it will be so much fun to be on the road here. Then we head on down into main Europe and the summer will bring festivals. All together very exciting. I LOVE touring.

Anthony: Lastly, can you list for us your Top Ten Songs that have helped shape you and your music. They can be your own songs or songs by other artists or bands. And can you tell us a little about the significance of each song?

Maggie's Top Ten Song List: 

1. Wasteland ( by me, this tune was the first I wrote for the pedal steel and the fact that I was able to do it had a big significance to me going down the road as a solo artist with my pedal steel guitar ).

2. - Requiem - Mozart ( the depth of this music is bottomless. So full of emotions and dark power and it is still a big inspiration for me to listen to it ).

3. The Persuaders theme - John Barry (listening to film and TV music as a child has shaped my musical liking and I love film scores and TV themes with all my heart ).

4. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Beatles ( I have to put up the whole album; Beatles fills up a good part of my musical heart. They are the modern day Mozart. The depth of their arrangements and melodies is bottomless ). 

5. 1917 - Emmylou Harris - this song helped me through a patch of a musical dark period in my life. I was in a place where I didn't know if I wanted to go on being a musician or if it was time to do something else. I didn't listen to music in that period, it was too hard, but one day I put this song on, and it went straight to my heart rekindling my love for music, and making me understand that giving up my life in music is not an option for me. 

6. Waltz#2 Elliott Smith - so simple so full of emotions and melodies that carries you along. 

7. Sprawl - Calexico - the first time I encountered Calexico was on a festival in Denmark, and I was blown away by that strange mix of Mexican exotic-ness and Americana. The way John Convertino plays those drums has been a big inspiration for me, and I am so proud that I have been able to have him work with me in the studio on both my solo albums.

8. Vertigo - Bernard Herman - the film score is a master piece as is all his scores. I have learned so much listening to his music. What can I say, I LOVE film and TV music. 

9. High Ball Stepper - Jack White - He is a musical genius and having the honor of having worked with him has been such a path of learning and growing as a musician for me. I’m really proud of the steel guitar I put on this track. 

10. Picacho Peak - Howe Gelb - such a beautiful haunting song that goes straight to the heart. Having the honor of playing music with this musical icon has been an adventure and a milestone in my musical life. He is an amazing and unique artist through and through.


I am always impressed by the songlists by my musical guests here on the blog. Maggie's list covers the spectrum of eclectic favorites, from classical to TV and movie themes. Very amazing selection. 

I'd like to thank Maggie Bjorklund for joining the Servante of Darkness for this interview and providing this thoughtful song list. I'd also like to thank the readers for stopping by to meet this talented artist. Please treat yourself to some enthralling mood pieces from her solo works (click here). You won't be disappointed. 

Until next time, this is your host, Anthony Servante.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Deadstock by Ian Rogers
Reviewed by Anthony Servante 

[Originally published in The Black Glove: Horror Culture and Entertainment 12/04/11]

Introduction: As a preview of the Weird Western critiques I'm working on, I republish this review of Deadstock by Ian Rogers, which echoes the elements of the critiques to come. 

Welcome, dear readers, to my fifth installment into the workings of Horror in literature today. This month we trod the dusty trails of the Weird Western, from Ghost Rider to Samuel Dryden and his sidekick, Raisy. We’ll take a peek at the genre of Western novels and see how the Weird Western tweaks it. Horror fans need not be Western fans to enjoy the supernatural bent of “Deadstock” (2011).

We connote the literature of the Western with Cowboys and Indians (alright, Native American Tribes People), Trailblazers and Gunfighters, Ranchers and Banditos, Wanted Men and Bounty Hunters, a lawless land prospered by Easterners, Children of the Mayflower seeking to expand their colonial roots by ‘Going West’ into the American Frontier; we think of cattle drives, the burgeoning of new towns, shops and saloons, the new Sheriff, pioneers settling down on “Injun” territory, some surviving, others being massacred for pilfering Indian lands, the railroad looming large across the frontier, reaching from coast to coast. The Age of the West marked its turf between 1849, the Gold Rush, and 1886, the surrender of Geronimo, the final and fatal attempt by an Indian to strike back at the White Man, interlopers and squatters on Native American country. With Geronimo’s failure to reclaim Apache soil, the Wild West ended and the Industrial Age began.

We acknowledge authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour with Romanticizing the Old West. They give us heroes and villains, damsels in distress, and the anti-hero, an outlaw admired and feared by the law-abiding citizens of the New West. But the Romantic Age is a two-edged sword: Whereas the Wild West deals with good guys and bad, the Weird West breaks new ground by turning to the Supernatural for its villains. While Western literary heroes such as the Lone Ranger, Shane, and Lash Larue kept readers fascinated with the genre, Lon Williams in 1951 introduced Lee Winters, a Marshal’s Deputy who fought demons, ghosts and terrible Greek gods. A few years earlier, the Ghost Rider, created by writer Ray Krank and artist Dick Ayers, took on vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night. Ayers revived the character in 1967 for Marvel Comics, who later turned the character into the fiery-skulled anti-hero on a flaming motorcycle, while AC Comics purchased the rights to the original western hero garbed in white, renaming him The Haunted Horseman.

Ian Rogers continues the tradition of the Weird Western in his latest work. Rogers writes, “Stonebunny Press recently published my first foray into the Weird West, a novelette called "Deadstock." No one knows who or what is killing the cattle at Groom ranch, but Sam Dryden, with his supernatural greenwood gun, and Raisy, with her ‘deck’ of knives, are determined to find out. What they discover is more horrifying than either of them ever dreamed, and the secret may be one that takes them to the grave.” As the story unfolds, elements that comprise the mystery can be discerned. 

The symbolism of the Weird Western jumps out at the reader from the get-go. The Marshal Jacobs rides out to meet our heroic duo dressed in black, a foreboding sign given that he’s beyond 60 years old, an abnormal age for this period when 50 years was the common life expectancy. Statistically, only 2.5 men reached the age of 65 in the late 1800s. That means 97.5 men didn’t live much longer than their forties on average. In contrast, Dryden has “babyface” looks, signifying an uncanny youthful appearance of innocence to an inward grittiness or hardboiled-ness; Raisy has “flaming red hair”, denoting a temper and an infernal nature (she pack knives as weapons—an ancient armory; note also Dryden’s ancient pistol). And the Marshal seems only interested in checking their weapons, as if he were waiting for a pair of riders carrying such ware. Raisy also carries a cat (August Finch—named for a fortune teller), a ‘familiar’ in the days when the colonists feared witches. Add to this contrast in ages that a man and woman travel together out in the Wild West, and we get a glimmer of Adam and Eve tossed out of Paradise into an unknown world of sin and evil. Even as they approach the mysterious ranch, Dryden points out, “He didn’t understand why anyone would want to settle in such a godforsaken place.” These are foreshadows of evils to come.

Against the naturally torrid and hellish heat of the desert, there are the supernatural elements subtly described, an inversion of Nature. At the ranch, a young girl plays with a scorpion, the symbol for death, and even as Dryden warns her of the danger of such play, she snatches up the insect and tosses it into the water to drown. Whatever evil has infested the ranch, it has had its effect on the child as well as the other children. She loves saying ‘devil’ again and again, while her pa, Chester Groom, refers to Dryden as “a gift from God.” The Groom family also seems to be suffering unnatural aches and pains, and abnormal behavior is displayed. Even though the cattle at the ranch are mutilated, the vultures avoid the carcasses. Nature is unbalanced. As Dryden and Raisy burn the carcass of the steer, “They stood in silence as the steer went up in flames. The heat blanketed them, but they still felt a chill, as if there was a part of themselves that could never be warmed.” Even the term ‘deadstock’ is the antonym of ‘livestock’. Something evil has inverted the natural order. Our heroes, too, are warned of the evils upon them: “[The supernatural threats] have been brought back against the natural laws. They will not rest until order has been restored.”

The symbolism and supernatural elements come to a head as the mystery of the deadstock becomes clearer to our heroes and they understand what must be done to put nature back in balance. Horror fans will not be disappointed with the final battle.

The novella captures the West with descriptive details of the desert, the small town, and the Groom ranch. The dialog also echoes what we have come to expect from western-speak without relying on clichés. Because the visage of the old west looms so large and accurate, the sci-fi and horror elements work within the framework to create a good counter-balance between the normal west and the weird west. Deadstock is a welcome addition to the Weird Western tradition. Dryden and Raisy can be placed with confidence alongside Joe R. Lansdale’s Jonah Hex, Ray Krank’s Ghost Rider, and Lon Williams’ Lee Winters. I look forward to further rides into the Weird West with Ian Rogers.

--Anthony Servante

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Grotesque in Modern Horror
Anthony Servante, PhD

Chapter One
Toward a Definition of the Grotesque and Irony

The noun Grotesque comes from the Italian word "grotta" for underground, what we would call sewers today. The distinction between lit places above-ground and dark habitations below-ground served critics who focused solely on darker works in Art and Literature. The adjective grotesque describes facets of such works. The various approaches to defining the Grotesque include perception, imagination, and irony. 

Let's begin our definition with some examples of perception.

Human perception includes touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. The tactile sense is responsible for our sensory understanding of tangible or concrete "reality", real objects in the real world (a chair, for example). Even in the dark we can determine the chair's properties by touch: back, seat, four legs, wood, height, et cetera. The Grotesque enters when touch fails or falters to perceive what is no longer real or misconstrues the properties (thinking the chair is a dog, as an extreme example). The failure of the tactile is more subtle than an error. When a person has a leg amputated, he can still feel the leg, even though it is no longer there, no longer "real". This phenomenon is called "phantom limb pain". Therefore, the experience of touching something outside of reality we can refer to as grotesque perception. 

Visual acuity also follows a similar path as the tactile experience. What we see in a mirror is not us: it is the inversion of ourselves. That scar on your right hand appears on your left hand in the mirror, but your mind accepts that they are both the same hand, when they are not in fact. In another example, when we turn a picture of rivets upside-down, they appear to be dimples rather than protrusions. This also holds true of the moon's craters, which are actually mounds, depending on your view or perception. So, the Grotesque here relies on what the mind accepts as real. 

Aural, olfactory, and taste perceptions can be understood along these lines without going into too much detail. We hear things that aren't there or things that are there but heard as something else (it must have been the wind, a cliche by now). We smell something good and it tastes terrible. Something that looks terrible (a fried grasshopper or escargot) but tastes delicious. Our perceptions lean toward a reliable interpretation of reality, and when they fail, we perceive grotesque dimensions that can only be entered by a failure of perception. 

The human imagination takes over when perception fails. You are riding your bike, a bug flies in your mouth, and you gag till your vomit. It turns out you merely swallowed a leaf. This is a grotesque experience. Someone taps you on the shoulder, you turn around, and no one is there. It turns out your sweater shifted and it felt like a tap. You imagined an unreal bug and an unreal person, but for an instant, they were real. This false reality is the Grotesque. It is the face at the window staring at you when you know there's no one there. It is the person you glimpsed in the kitchen when you know you are alone in the house. (In no way do I include medical conditions as schizophrenia that cause people to hear voices, as this enters chemical understanding, which is not necessary here). We imagine things to fill the gap left by the perception's failure. 

Which brings us to Irony. When we intent or cause the perception to fail by word or gesture, we manipulate how the gap of misperception will be filled. In Wayne C. Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony, he establishes four steps for defining irony, the most important being "reconstruction" of "intent". As one example Booth uses Chaucer's line, "My wit is short, you may well understand." He just called the reader "stupid" (intent). The reader must deconstruct "well understand" short wit to mean "You only understand stupid (short wit) things" (reconstruction). Chaucer appears to be complimenting the reader when he is in fact mocking him. 

As such, when the writer intends the reader to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning from his writing, he is employing Irony. So, in this sense, we are not using the classic definition of the word, which is incorrectly defined as the opposite of what is said, calling the fat man thin, for example. This is sarcasm, one of the tools of Irony, not irony itself. 

To recap: the Grotesque is an experience brought on by a failure of perception. The experience can be either imagined or initiated by irony. Either way, the gap left by the misperception must be explained or filled, per se. Booth further details how one fills the gap of misperception:
"Four steps to reconstruction:
Reader must reject the literal meaning – recognize a dissonance between what he reads and what he knows
Reader must try out alternative interpretations – eg that guy must be crazy
Reader makes a decision about the author’s knowledge or beliefs
Reader chooses a new meaning based on his beliefs about the author."
(A Rhetoric of Irony 1974)
Let's consider Night of the Assholes by Kevin L. Donihe. Our initial perception is Night of the Living Dead. We are wrong and reject it. It must be a typo. No, the author intended us to misperceive it; therefore, Night of the Assholes is legit. The gap (no Living Dead) is filled by Assholes. The irony is that the author intended the work as a parody of Night of the Living Dead. Keep in mind that we are examining these steps slowly; for many, irony is perceived in an instant, while, for others, it takes a few seconds before the "ohhh" moment is realized ("My wit is short, you may well understand", remember?). So, now we have a working definition of the Grotesque and Irony.

How then do we apply the Grotesque to works of Horror? Well, quite simply, we first need to distinguish the tools of Irony (parody, absurdism, satire, sarcasm, et cetera) as well as distinguish the sub-genres of the Grotesque (horror, terror, weird, strange, odd, bizarro, supernatural, et cetera).

Which is where we will pick up in our next chapter.

Chapter Two
The Grotesque, Horror, and Sub-Genres