Athan Maroulis will be always linked to Spahn Ranch and Black Tape For A Blue Girl, but the past few years he got involved with NØIR. Sound-wise this project is less comparable with his previous bands. It rather sounds as the juxtaposition of different influences, but in the end it has something intimate and subtle. The newest EP “A Pleasure” features the input of programmer / producer Erik Gustafson, keyboardist / vocalist Kai Irina Hahn, keyboardist / vocalist Demetra Songs and cello player Tracey Moth.
(Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)
Q: Athan, you’ve been involved with many different bands and projects since the mid-’80s, so what does NØIR mean to you? And how much of the ‘young’ Athan Maroulis do you recognize in the experienced artist you’re today?
Athan: After an early period of transition, NØIR eventually came to represent something rather liberating. NØIR affords me the ability to drive the direction and style of the material while also remaining a collaborative forum where I can work with people I admire.
I remain somewhat similar to my younger self, I still enjoy the process of writing lyrics and performing, while also maintaining the determination of my youth, sans the anger. I would like to speak to my younger self and give him some good advice about life and music. Looking back, I have learned far more from my failures than I have from my successes.
Q: I got the impression NØIR originally started as a solo-project with the contribution of some guests while it later finally evolved towards a real band. What is it all about and tell us a bit more about the input and impact of the other members? Who’s doing what? And what about the song you did together with Jean-Marc Lederman?
Athan: Originally, NØIR had certain aspects of a solo-project, that was long ago, these days it feels like a real evolving band. Although I planned it as a short-lived project back in ’12, I brought in Kai and Demetra in 2013 as live members, both have been in the band ever since. Later, Erik Gustafson, who had played some guitar on the “Darkly Near”-album, became a full-time collaborator on “The Burning Bridge”-EP in 2016.
As a whole, electronic dark music is rather one-dimensional, I find that different contributors help add new color to the sound. Jean-Marc Lederman is a great example of that, he and I tried working on a project a few years ago, ultimately what came of it was the “Luxury”-demo. Erik completely reworked the song and added guitar, Kai did some backing vocals and Tracey Moth brought her cello to the party. Although juggling contributors from Austin, Brussels, Brooklyn, Boston and NYC was a challenge, I am really pleased by the results.
Q: What are you trying to achieve –eventually exorcize, with NØIR generally speaking and more specifically with the new EP “A Pleasure”?
Athan: For better or worse, I am always exorcising ghosts from the past. After Spahn Ranch broke up, I stopped making music for 10 long years. Afterwards, I joined Black Tape For A Blue Girl for a few years before starting NØIR, which is likely my last planned ensemble (although one never knows?) I’ve dabbled in a number of genres over the years and I believe NØIR is my opportunity to bring them all together under one banner.
At this stage of my career, each release becomes very personal. “A Pleasure” took a few years to assemble, as much as I enjoy the creative process, I have less patience for coordinating what is necessary to bring a release to completion. The title, “A Pleasure”, is partly sarcastic while also acknowledging my fetish for simple pleasures even amidst such turbulent times, the lyrics on the pair of new songs reflect that. The word ‘pleasure’ itself, was on my mind quite a bit during the process, then thrown into a conceptual stew that only exists in my mind. The title is also a nod to Roxy Music’s album “For Your Pleasure, while “A Pleasure to Burn” is a line from Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, the cover image features Julie Christie the star of the 1966 film.
“Luxury” is a song about serving the needs of bloated urban excess in New York City. I added the Fad Gadget cover because it fit the central concept of upheaval and raw pleasure. Ultimately, I achieved what I set out to do, which was to make a mini concept album. I was also surprised to find out that “A Pleasure” is already by far the best-selling NØIR release to date.
Q: It’s not an easy thing defining the ‘sound’ of NØIR, which in my opinion sounds like the juxtaposition of multiple influences and elements. Where does this ‘sound’ comes from and what are your references and criteria to create this ‘sound’?
Athan: Other than playing violin briefly as a child, I’ve never played an instrument, nor can I read music or understand keys. Although I can write, arrange, choose sounds and edit, my collaborators have been pivotal to my success and sound. I have many influences from the 1930s through the 1980s, although I believe the sound of NØIR is an amalgamation of each band I have ever been in. As for defining the sound, somebody once called NØIR ‘dark sophisticated pop’, perhaps that is right or perhaps that is foolish? For me NØIR is defined as a place where I can absurdly merge the imagery of old film stars with pulp novels while masquerading as a 1930s crooner in a contemporary electronic backdrop. It’s pure absurdist fun.
Q: NØIR appears to like recording cover versions. What does that mean to you and how do you manage making a cover version like the one from Fad Gadget released on the new EP?
Athan: NØIR cut “Back To Nature” for a compilation called “Under What Flag: A Tribute To Fad Gadget”. Naturally, other bands have covered the song in the past, it remains one of Frank Tovey’s best songs and that is why I did it. Aside from my admiration of Fad Gadget, it was a chance to experiment with a more aggressive approach to a NØIR song. I believe Erik Gustafson did a fine job producing the track, so much so that I decided to add it to “A Pleasure” because so few people heard the aforementioned tribute album and I wanted to recycle it.
I enjoy doing cover songs, I couldn’t give a damn if it is not en vogue these days. Keep in mind, nearly all music from the 1920s through the mid-’60s was dominated by cover songs or interpretive material, the artist brought their own approach, phrasing and style to the song and I still believe there’s room for that in 2020. NØIR has also taken part in tribute albums for Depeche Mode and Cabaret Voltaire, at some point I might collect all the cover versions by NØIR and release them as a full-length album.
Q: From a marketing/commercial perspective, I find NØIR to be a complicated band. Your debut album “Darkly Near” was released seven years ago, so why does it take so long to release a new studio album? Do you think there can be an impact releasing new studio albums at an irregular basis? What comes next?
Athan: Spahn Ranch made five albums and four EPs in 7 ½ years, while also maintaining an exhaustive touring schedule. I really don’t know how I did it back then? These days, I am simply not a very prolific writer, so each release has purpose. The streaming era has prompted a number of bands to release singles or EPs, a shorter format for times of shorter attention spans and this has influenced me and suits me very well. I still like the idea of doing albums, it is simply that the game has changed, I believe artists can treat each release as individual complete works, regardless of length.
While NØIR has six individual releases on Metropolis Records, only “Darkly Near” is an actual album, I’d rather not wait for an album of material and instead have released EPs and such. I am ultimately planning to do at least one or two more albums with NØIR, yet I am not in a rush. I don’t feel as if I have anything left to prove, that, in and of itself is liberating. As for releasing albums at an irregular basis, I think there are other ways to keep the audience engaged such as compilation appearances, videos, performing, social media and so on. Again, the game has changed and there are no rules.
As for what comes next? NØIR was slated to perform at a few upcoming festivals, then the Corona virus naturally changed everything. Like everyone else, we wait and hope for the best for the entire world. Once the world begins to turn again, NØIR does have a new song on the upcoming “Electronic Saviors”-compilation ironically entitled “Death Is Easy,” and we are planning a new video for the song “Luxury” from “A Pleasure”.
Additionally, I wrote the liner notes on a Leæther Strip boxed set that will be released sometime this year and I am working on recordings with the New Zealand-based project Acclimate. Lastly, a toast to one and all, to the rapture of being alive! My sincerest thanks for supporting my releases over the years.