DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR
by Michael Bloom
Working in close proximity for long enough, bands may grow to resemble close families. Shared tastes may spread from music to aesthetics, to lifestyle, to metaphysics. They may get to where they finish each other’s sentences. They learn to both prop each other up and stay out of each other’s way, as if by instinct. And when they play, they become more than the sum of their parts, a confluence of sound where it’s uncertain who played what note when, and may not even matter, it seems so perfect.
Dreamchild has a leg up on that, being already a family. Personal as well as musical partners, a married couple (no kids, but three CDs and two cats), Cheryl Wanner and Frank Gerace do all that and more. Especially the jaw-droppingly rich ensemble sound: without keyboards or a rhythm section, they weave intricate lattices of grandeur and passion. They may not precisely rock, but what they do instead can wring you just as dry. Part of it is a profound understanding of looping devices, multiplying her riveting voice and his guitar synth into near-symphonic force. Part of it is the archetypal sublimity (and, admittedly, frightfulness) of the tales they choose to tell. And part of it, I’m convinced, is just the X factor of serendipity. I’m not the only one who thinks so—they’ve become a prominent center of gravity for the Boston goth community.
And then there’s the advantage being a family has on your working relationship. They wrote two new songs barely a week before their last gig, and had them both ready for presentation by show time, all to their usual high standards. So that was a natural starting point to begin our conversation the next evening.
Noise: Frank, do you have conceptual input, or are you now solely responsible for chords and orchestration and texture?
Frank: It varies from song to song. If we’ve got something kicking around that has a mood and a structure, a melody and a wordless vocal, or sometimes no wordless vocal at the time, then it’s fair game for both of us to suggest concepts and ideas.
Cheryl: The writing process varies. If it’s harp-based, I start it, usually. If it’s heavily processed guitar-based, Frank started it, usually. Sometimes I will spontaneously get a set of lyrics, sometimes I will spontaneously get a melody. But it’s always collaborative.
Noise: It has occurred to me that so many of your characters are criminals.
Cheryl: They are, aren’t they? I will say that at one point an Irish gypsy read my palm, looked at both of my palms, and said, “Well, you’ll be happy to know that you were supposed to be a psychotic murderess, but you got over it.”
Noise: Sometimes one gets one’s crazy out in art to keep it at bay in your daily life.
Cheryl: I think that’s a very healthy thing, yeah. Also, ask any great Shakespearean actress, it’s really enjoyable to play Lady M in the Scottish play, or play Ophelia, because they’re mad! Playing characters who are insane or frightening or deranged in some way is interesting and dramatic…
Frank: And there’s a bigger adrenalin rush.
Noise: And fewer constraints on you , because nobody can say, what’s your motivation?
Cheryl: Why? I’m mad, that’s why! What do you think my motivation is? Now I must kill you! [laughter]
On Lullabies for the Dead there’s “Medusa,” which was improvised in the studio, and is all me layering voices on. Frank came up with this amazing ending, and we then had to go and add it on to the recording before we released Lullabies for the Dead, because it was so insane and wonderful.
Frank: There’s a lot of stuff that we’ll do in the studio that is going to be impossible to recreate live, but we try and get as full a version for live performance as possible. But we have absolutely no restraints…
Cheryl: We have no restraint whatsoever anyway. [laughter]
Frank: What it comes down to is, if we hear something and think it sounds right. We’ve added drummers on a couple of cuts, and we don’t have one.
Cheryl: Or the church bells, for example.
Frank: Right, things we can do without, but still when you actually have them on the recording add something else to it. We definitely go with the theory that live and studio are two completely different worlds. It’s like the difference between live theatre and cinema, and I think we do both. We treat our live show as a live performance. People always say they’re going to “see” a band, and we want to make sure there’s something visual there for them. And we have a pretty good understanding, after years of doing this, of what works and what doesn’t, what size gesture you have to make to really deliver what you’re trying to get across. And yet when it comes down to the studio, it’s much more cinematography in the back of the head when we’re thinking about how to present the textures of the song. You can do stuff like have the big close-up and have somebody just blink, and it has layers and layers of meaning.
Cheryl: You can’t whisper a soliloquy in the theatre, you must project. But on film, whispering a soliloquy is very effective.
Frank: And in the studio you can have something whispered in the background that’s really going to make the piece that isn’t necessary to do live.
Cheryl: But the other thing is, because we both use looping sampling devices and do not come with anything pre-recorded when we play live, it adds to the excitement and risk factor, because you step on that box and it doesn’t do what you’re planning for it to do, then you must improvise and do something different, and that keeps it fresh and exciting for us. I think that makes it exciting for an audience as well because it’s unpredictable exactly how anything’s going to sound any given night. The pre-recorded thing just doesn’t work for either one of us, we like to just go out and see what happens in the moment.
Noise: Old songs don’t stay in your repertoire.
Cheryl: We will occasionally resurrect them. At the sad demise of Skybar we did resurrect “Medusa,” because that was always a favorite that we played there. But yeah, we’re not even playing anything from our most recent CD at this point, let alone the two preceding ones, because we’re all about the upcoming one now.
Frank: If we ever reach the point where we can do a two-hour set, then we can start bringing more of the older ones back and fill the thing out. But it’s really keeping things fresh, moving forward, trying new stuff, and then dealing with that time constraint that’s placed on you by the current approach of “you must play in bars” and places like that, and the expectation of only a 40 minute set and then two other bands.
Cheryl: When your songs are morbid little goth pieces that are six to ten minutes long, it eats up a 40 minute set fairly quickly.
Last night we played at the wonderful Nave, the Clarendon Hill Presbytarian Church. And it’s marvelous because it’s such a transcendent environment to perform in. As a singer, to have those acoustics is incredible, and looking at those beautiful stained glass windows and singing “Ave Maria” was just a phenomenal experience.
Noise: How do you feel about presenting a Christian prayer in a church?
Cheryl: Absolutely fine. I’m very drawn to that iconography, and Marian imagery in particular, emotionally and poetically. People have said, “Oh, it’s a goddess song.” No, it’s “Ave Maria,” that’s what it is.
Frank: Marian devotion is big in the Catholic church.
Cheryl: Frank is a lapsed Catholic, and I was raised as a Methodist, and there is nary one whit of ceremony or ritual to speak of in Methodism, it’s very… methodical. [laughter]
Frank: Give me the old Catholic stuff, with shitloads of incense, a big pipe organ…
Cheryl: And plainchant! Plainchant melodies adapted to modern hymns, that’s the way to go! Ritual is something that I think is beautiful and moving and powerful.
Frank: The only awkward moment I can think of with “Ave Maria” was the first time we did it at the Skybar, to a room full of neo-pagan gothic folks combined with the usual inebriates who haven’t been able to get up and leave the bar since dinnertime. And people are going to start hurling forks and knives at us! Because all these faces look so blank while we’re doing this, and I thought, it’s all over now, this is it! [laughter] And when it was finally over, there was this dead silence, and then there was all this applause!
Cheryl: But you know, if it’s profoundly moving to you, for whatever reason, on whatever level, that’s going to come across to people, I think. We’re influenced by lots of things, historically and mythologically, and this is just one element.
Frank: And it’s an element too that is part of the whole gothic scene. Most of the goth crowd has heard their fair share of chant and they’re not going to be put off by something like that.
Cheryl: Laura Wilson, on her wonderful long running radio show on WMBR, Bats in the Belfry, always starts with chant.
Noise: Frank, I know that you have written a book about Celtic mythology, and I wondered where you stood.
Frank: I would say neo-Platonic polytheist. It’s just looking at the gods, the goddesses, the whole Pythagorean idea, the harmony of the spheres, music as an ordering force in the universe. That material gives you a number of different perspectives to work with artistically. You can work with the spiritual aspects of it, you can work with the story aspects of it that carry the spiritual message within it. And I think that presenting the dilemma in the stories in song form presents an opportunity to the listener to respond directly to it.
Cheryl: The other thing that it’s akin to to me is, maybe fifth grade, I had a music teacher who put on a recording and said, “Listen to this, and write about what it sounds like.” And it was “La Mer” by Debussy. And I immediately got the motion of the water, I got all of it, without knowing what it was, because I’d never heard this piece of music before. One thing it did is, it introduced me to one of my absolute favorite composers. But the other thing it did was make me realize sometimes you don’t need words. Because I was very much into the use of language and kind of precocious about it at that age, and I thought, okay, sometimes the music will completely get the concept across to you and you don’t have to have any words at all. So that was life changing, and I thank that teacher for that, because that was really remarkable to have someone not tell me what it was and say, “Listen to this, and what does that evoke for you?”
Dreamchild would like it known that their next appearance will be as part of the Gotharama festival in Providence, RI, taking place over most of the next two months (exact date TBA).