Diamanda Galás The Singing Serpent talks experimental film collaboration Schrei 27, feminism, Yoko Ono, and some bad-ass “drag queens”

Diamanda Galás is a dark angel — “the singing serpent,” the saint of the pit. Her most notorious performance, Plague Mass, saw her ululating in a church, half-naked and covered in blood. She’s worked with luminaries from Iannis Xenakis and John Zorn through to Derek Jarman and John Paul Jones, but she describes herself as a loner who doesn’t like to collaborate. Her work, the latest of which being last year’s two-album release of All The Way and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem, has dealt with mental illness, the HIV/AIDS crisis, genocide, trauma, and environmental disaster, and she’s contributed vocals to numerous horror films.

But there’s nothing daunting or intimidating about the warmhearted, foulmouthed raconteuse I speak to down a crackly Skype line, chatting with me ahead of the US premiere (March 28-30, New York) of her experimental film collaboration Schrei 27, made with director Davide Pepe. It’s 7 AM on a Sunday morning, my time — a sacrifice I’m more than prepared to make for the opportunity to talk to a living legend.

Diamanda is in her bedroom, in her robe (“is this getting too personal?”) preparing for a gig in Tennessee. When I tell her I’m calling from Sydney, Australia, she rails against conservative critic Andrew Bolt, who panned her work after an Australian show in 2005. It’s clear that she has a unique thought process and sensitivity in relation to sound — she takes a moment to note that our Skype issues are “very entertaining, hearing one’s voice come back, like a little mouth.” Her erudition is extraordinary; she casually makes reference to artists obscure and popular, in high and low culture, from the medieval through to the present day.

And let’s be clear, she doesn’t care for your approval or anyone’s: “They said that I used to do all this soul music and I was really popular, but now I do this really esoteric work, I’ve lost my popularity — and I’m like, if it’s that easy to lose, baby, bring it on!”

On that note…

Tell me about the origins of your new work, Schrei 27?

Schrei — it means ‘shriek.’ There was a German theatre [in the early 20th century] called the Schrei theatre that was very minimalistic — there would be one or two words, silence and then movement. We know about it from writings and manifestos — Kasimir Edschmid and others. It was destroyed by Hitler.

In 1994/1995 New American Radio at Staten Island asked me to do a piece about Bedlam. Staten Island is where Willowbrook was located. It was an asylum, made notorious by Geraldo Rivera, which was closed down when they found out the patients were being given injections of Hepatitis C just to see how it would progress. I had a friend who worked there, and he saw a woman there who someone had stuck a knife into — having sex with her with a knife. He was told to shut his fuckin’ mouth or else. A horrible place.

So I was very moved to do this piece. It related to many of my other works, and I did a lot of research. For many years I had incorporated absolute silence in my solo-vocal works. The idea [for Schrei] was that the sound would be very loud alternating with complete silence, but suddenly I was told that on radio there could be no silence at all. And of course, we know this with radio, because you have the radio show and then you have, “Here’s Frito — Lay!” In the 50s people like Milton Berle had the rights to actually act out the [advertising] part and make fun of it. But that was a different time, and I got into trouble for wanting to use silences. I had to give up and say,
“Okay — but [the piece] won’t be very long!”

Then in 1996 I decided to do it as a live performance work, and it became Schrei X, now including text by Saint Thomas Aquinas on punishment, as well as my original writing. It was in quadrophonic sound — I was in a cage of microphones, and so were the audience. The piece was brief but it was very intense. When I performed it in Prague, people were screaming at me, “Shut up you fucking bitch!” Bikers had come thinking I was going to do a show with John Paul Jones [who Galás released an album with in 1994]. But these sci-fi filmmakers were really into the piece.

I’ve never been consistent with my work, that’s not interesting. I don’t see why it’s my job to do that. Everyone complained about it, but in the meantime I was watching these radioactive worm films.

Image from Schrei 27

Speaking of science, I understand you have a background in biology?

I did a pre-med program and biochemistry. The unfortunate thing is that some of the med students, myself included, decided that instead of experimenting on the mice and rats, we would experiment on ourselves. That was a terrible mistake, because that got me into this whole drug culture, people who were reading B. F. Skinner and De Sade at the same time.

When you start experimenting on yourself you forget that, if you’re not careful, it’ll be a lifelong process. I’ve always regretted the fact that I didn’t stay there. But on the other hand if I’d stayed I wouldn’t be doing the [artistic] work that I later did, which is just as experimental. I’m happiest when I’m doing research.

…we were talking about the Schrei timeline…

So in 2004 Xabier Arakistain invited me to do the work as an installation, in blackness, in quadrophonic sound. People entered the space and Xabier locked the door behind them so they couldn’t leave even if they didn’t like the piece. It was really radical.

Xabier was a prominent drag queen. I love the word “drag queen,” because it dates me — in those days that was the word that was used, not transvestite — it meant down home, hardcore, Southern fuckin’ hellraising drag queens — who were some of my friends! They were really hardcore run-for-your-life drag queens, that got chased by truckers in the South. They had to take their platform shoes off, jump into the lake, and swim to the other side. They risked their lives opening the first drag queen bars in the South.

So that’s what I mean by “drag queen” — like my friend Bradley Picklesimer. He was photographed with me after one show and I said, “you bitch, you fuckin’ had more stage presence than me, I’ll never forgive you for that!” [laughs] He’s amazing.

Anyway, in 2009 I saw the work of Davide Pepe in a work called Little Boy, and I was moved by the fact that the work included the sound of the camera in such a way that it was almost like a surgical procedure of the body itself, of mind. It was really part of this film, there was no attempt made to disguise it, and I loved that. So I asked him to do a loop. We will be doing this in New York.

I also asked Dave Hunt to do some remixing of the work to include lower frequencies. And in addition we added photography by Robert Knoke, and paintings of mine were included that were related to the film. The images act like a slot machine, the way they have fruits that wind around, and it ends with a pineapple. The work was performed at the Spill Festival at the Barbican in London in 2011, and loops have been shown throughout Europe, and a work — in — progress shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2012. But this is the premiere of the final work in the US.

Some dance companies have used it without asking me — a lot of people have used it without asking me. But there was one dancer who did ask me — Irina Anufrieva, who is a phenomenal Belarussian dancer. She includes part of it in her work Void, and her performance embodies exactly the protagonist of this work.

There are some clips available on Davide’s website, but they’re very short…

The reason is that, true to form, it was performed in Milan recently, and right in front of us was a guy with a cellphone recording the fuckin’ film. I pointed this out to Davide, and he put his finger on the guy’s shoulder like, eh — and the guy turned it off. But it was like, for fuck’s sake! People are monstrous, just monstrous. [Davide] and I really want it to be seen properly, and we don’t want it to be seen as a YouTube thing.

You mentioned drag — which at the moment is getting really big in popular culture with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Your own performance work and your makeup can be very over the top, and I guess you’ve spent a lot of time with the gay male community…

Of course! My brother was gay, and there was a real understanding that if you couldn’t follow up a conversation in a bar or on the street, you were just out. It was like literary improvisation. But also, I lived with a lot of drag queens in Oakland that worked on the street and that were very, very tough, and I learned a lot from them. I’ve lived in a lot of different situations and I’ve learned a lot from these situations. My makeup’s been done by a lot of drag queens (laughs) — who’ve done makeup for opera singers — sometimes my makeup is kinda out there, and sometimes less so.

The popularity [of drag] is something I don’t really know much about. I didn’t know the drag queen thing was getting more popular, because I don’t really hang out with mainstream culture. So chances are, I wouldn’t like it. There is something wonderful about [the] underground mind, but when things get popular they tend to get watered down, and people start to make fun of each other to satisfy the ‘normal people’ — whatever you consider ‘normal people.’ The protagonists start making fun of each other’s ways to satisfy the curiosity and the freakshow element that is wanted by the watchers.

But I also don’t like being in any place where there are too many happy people (laughs). That’s my fault, that’s a shortcoming.

In your work, there’s a balance between personal psychic torment, and then reflections on trauma and atrocity that have happened in the external world. Are there events going on in contemporary society that Schrei 27 is reflective of?

There’s so many that I really wouldn’t be able to get started! Whether we’re talking about prisoners that end up having to be part of fungus experiments in order to do less time, or in order to get money for card games, being participants in these horrific, deadly experiments that of course they’re told are not deadly — that alone is pretty unbelievable.

And I can go traveling and meet up with a military guy whose company is finally getting sent home after years of war. I knew there was something way out about him when I saw him — he starts talking to me about new laser technology and torture, how you can remove a finger just like that and the [victim] suddenly sees he has a hand without a thumb. And this is to get confessions.

The fact that the technology is getting to the point that our ‘government’ taxes are used to pay for gross malignancies is very, very devastating. People like me, artists, are now attacked for being artists. On the level of taxes, we can’t claim anything anymore, we can’t claim anything that builds our work, so we can’t survive. I said, “Fine! If I can’t claim this, I’m gonna say that it was twenty trips to the gynecologist” (laughs). I’m just gonna be a big fuckin’ liar, catch me if you can!

If you’re a big businessman you do get paid, but if you’re in the military you don’t get paid, if you’re a small businessman you absolutely don’t get paid, if you’re an artist, forget about it. It’s scary, I see it happening to people I know and I see it happening to myself. There’s gross demoralization and fear about survival. How am I going to survive? I don’t know, I have no idea. Am I going to have to move to another country?

I’ve had other artists say similar things in interviews — Lydia Lunch, for example…

I saw her a few years ago in Spain and I like her very much, we have great conversations whenever I see her.

It’d be amazing to be a fly on the wall!

We very rarely meet, because I never collaborate with anyone. It’s terrible, I hope to change that, it’s a psychological thing, I don’t know why. It’s a hermit thing, a loner vibe. But Lydia, every time I’ve met her I’ve been struck by how smart she is, and how absolutely funny, really funny, in the best sense.

You mentioned that you don’t like to spend a lot of time around happy people, and maybe that’s a fault…

I don’t. The people I’ve spent time with were also people that were kinda loners, and in the old days we would sit around at cafés and make really terrible jokes, and have these absolutely decrepit dialogues. I loved it, and I was really happy. They’re all dead now, from AIDS. So there it is. I had such a good time. My friend Carl Valentino — I called him my gay husband — he and I used to have the most wonderful times. We’d go into restaurants and he would start singing. If music was playing, like a pop hit from another era, he would start singing really loudly and they’d want to kick him out, and he’d say, “Why do you want to kick me out? I’m just part of your pop…” He would outrage everyone. He made me so happy.

Things have changed since then. I’m not saying that people are more humorless… or maybe they are! It’s called wittiness. You can meet somebody like Gary Indiana — there’s someone who’s really witty — but how many of them are there? How many people are like that? This is something I miss much, and hopefully I’ll find it again.

In your artist statement for Schrei 27 you say something which struck me — “there is no separation of the mind from the body.” It’s a deep and a loaded statement — can you elaborate?

One of the things I find absolutely imbecilic and hard to figure out is the question that the press are asking — why is there an opioid epidemic? And I’m thinking, why wouldn’t there be? What’s your point? You’ve got somebody doing an impossible job all day long, not getting paid properly, so tired at the end of the day that he or she can’t do anything except go to sleep — except maybe three hours in which he or she has the blessing of an opioid so that he or she can go somewhere else other than into the inescapable reality and take a fucking holiday. And then you’re saying that that’s abnormal? What’s abnormal about it? What’s wrong with it? Why aren’t all these drugs legal? They should be.

There’s people like me — I don’t like marijuana, it makes me paranoid and it freaks me out. It’s not entertaining for me — it’s like a truth serum of a thousand spiders crawling over me. I get enough truth serum in my day, so I don’t want to add to the problems with something [like LSD] that’s literally gonna make me jump off the bridge, or ketamine that’s gonna make me fuckin’ cut my arm off.

Now pot’s legal and I think it’s wonderful, but there’s a lot of people that don’t like it — we all have a drug that appeals to us the most. So people like me would say, “No man, give me heroin, that’s a cool drug and what’s wrong with it?” And then suddenly there’s an opioid epidemic — but since when hasn’t there been a fuckin’ opioid epidemic? There’s all these industrial accidents, people working too hard in really dangerous circumstances and being badly insured, and all sorts of things happen to them. And at the same time, cellphones and computers and landlines, there’s all these ways that people can contact you to make you do something by tomorrow. And the mind is overstrained, it’s overstressed, and insanity is the result. So then, give a man something that gives him relaxation and an escape from an industrial reality [that is] his life — and then blame him for it!

I don’t go for that, so I don’t understand the press making it into such a big deal. The only thing that’s a big deal about it is that the medicine’s so hard to get, and everyone who takes it is considered a criminal or a loser. And that it has side effects that are pretty difficult, like stomach problems. It’s a pity that all the money that’s been spent on developing Viagra isn’t spent on things that can help people with their stomach [problems] from taking opioids. They certainly don’t spend the money on preventing breast cancer, but they do on Viagra.

So I think that unfortunately, opioids are the remedy for industrial society, and they always have been.

And these drugs have always been prescribed to firefighters and soldiers. Then, when the soldiers come back, they can’t stay in places unless they’re clean and sober — so where do they live? In their best friend’s garage. But that’s 25,000 returning military guys in San Diego? They have no money and no place to stay, and they’re supposed to be clean and sober. That’s a big ticket, man.

So this also goes to questions of transcendence, and the human condition. Your work often engages with religion and religious ideas — do you have any kind of spiritual practices or beliefs yourself, or are you a materialist?

A materialist? No, that’s Madonna (laughs). If I got a lot of money — and there were a couple of years when I got a lot of money — I would definitely wake up and buy a lot of things, as a fix. But that ended quickly, and it doesn’t work anyway because as soon as you order the shit, it’s over.

I wish I were religious — I truly wish I were religious. I’m an atheist, and my whole family have been atheists.

The only time I’d ever [engage with] Greek Orthodoxy would be to fight what is happening to the Greek people. They are being disenfranchised. They’re so poor that they don’t have a place to live, or to sleep, and nobody seems to care — especially the Greek leadership. I was there last year doing a performance, and the first thing I did was go to a homeless shelter and buy a dryer for some of the old people. That’s all they wanted — they didn’t want any money, they just wanted a washer-dryer. I wrote an essay in the Athens Voice [newspaper] saying, if you’re gonna go to Greece, the first thing you should do is go to a homeless shelter and give money to the culture that has propagated some of the greatest works in the history of art, that has influenced everyone. Do that before enjoying the art culture, please! I didn’t think that I should be paid for doing a performance unless I could do that.

Speaking of contemporary conditions, we’re in a time when women are really speaking out about the trauma that men have inflicted on them. You draw on traditions that speak of pain and suffering, like blues, and the amanes

The amanes are male and female, they’re not women’s songs — and blues are also.

Amanes is a cry or a call to the mother by the soldier who’s dying on the battlefield. There’s a song called Prósfygas , which means ‘refugee,’ in which a man is asking: can the little boy sing me an amanes while I’m dying? Here a person has been put on a death march through the desert, separated from his wife and his daughter and put on a death march with the other men, and knowing he’s going to die he wants to hear an amanes sung.

The amanes is a series of melodies from which improvisations are derived that [relate to] rebetika songs. It was really composed by the Assyrians, Greeks, Gypsies, Arabs, Armenians, Yazidis — all these people who used to live in Turkey, but were exterminated by the Turks. Turkey now has all these institutions with names like the Institute for the Study of Turkishness, and they teach the amanes as Turkish music. It’s criminal, it’s so sad, because the Greeks don’t have the money to do that, and they certainly don’t have the money to teach.

In terms of songs of women’s pain, though, does the #metoo moment have resonance for you?

I get a lot of those moments. But because I wasn’t able to kill the motherfuckers that perpetrated their shit on me, I felt a sense of disgrace that they were still living. But you know, I come from a different time. That’s why I praise Aileen Wuornos so much, because she killed these fuckin’ guys. I was thrilled. She’s my hero, that’s the kind of woman I would put on my plate as far as #metoo.

But [today] is a different time period, so I encourage all these women to put these guys on the plate. Some of the guys I had experiences with, I don’t even know their names now, and I don’t know where to find them. My idea was, I had this list — but then it became financially impossible for me to do it, and it became very clear that if I did what I wanted to do, it would be me that was gonna be in the joint for years, not them. And who was gonna defend me? Maybe today it would be different, but I doubt it.

But my standards were a little bit different — mine were like, you fuck me and you die. That’s how I judged myself, and I judged myself very harshly because I didn’t kill any of these guys.

So #metoo is great. But one thing I didn’t like, I have to admit it: I didn’t appreciate these men, these models, that got up and said, “Me too, these photographers molested me.” I’m like, bitch, give me a fuckin’ break, this is a women’s moment right now. Would you just leave it be, would you just let the women do this? Because after all, we’re talking about a male-dominated culture that did this to women, so just lay back a minute and you’ll get your turn, but don’t just jump on the fuckin’ bandwagon when it’s taken women so many years to even give voice to these horrors.

The photographer trying to fuck the model is the oldest Hollywood story in the book. At the moment we’re not talking about [male] modeling, we’re talking about a secretary who goes to work, who’s asked to dictate something for her boss, and is raped. Modeling is a rape industry — for example, models today are often sent to Saudi Arabia to fuck some sheikh and it’s part of their job. Male models are next. But can we have women models talk first?

There were a lot of drag queens in my life when I was on the street. They had knives in their teeth, they’d be like, “You motherfucker, come over here and I’ll cut your nuts off.” It was a man against a man, equal physical strength. That’s a different situation, and it should be classified as a different situation. It’s like, don’t step on my fuckin’ turf already, just take your turn.

A lot of people will disagree with me, but I don’t give a fuck. Disagree! Then what?

You’re very much an artist of transgression, but in this day and age it can feel like transgression has been co-opted in the service of consumerism — for example, mainstream artists like Rihanna using S&M imagery in video clips.

She would! (sarcastic) She and Beyoncé would. Beyoncé will do anything to make another dime. Madonna started it with that, with her crapola, but at least Madonna, at the beginning of her career, was definitely pushing the envelope for the homosexual community.

I don’t use the word ‘gay,’ because the word ‘gay’ used to mean a little curio of a girl on a swing (laughs). I know a lot of homosexuals and I don’t think of any of them as a curio on a swing (except for a few!). But my brother always used the word ‘queer,’ and ‘faggot.’ My friends all use the word ‘fag’ — they prefer that. So I have trouble with the word ‘gay.’

I had a press agent, the most dour Catholic you could ever possibly meet, and she and her girlfriend always used the word ‘gay.’ I said “You know what, can you two bitches cut it out? You are the most humourless, the most unwitty, the most un — gay person I’ve ever fuckin’ met!” Man, that was the end of the relationship. I’m around all these really clever fags and I have to listen to two bitches talk about how they’re gay. I didn’t have the stomach for it.

So Madonna — at least she was pro-queer, to the point that she lost some gigs because of it. She trashed a lot of straight men because she felt like they were banal — and they were banal! So at least she started out that way. But you got all these other artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna — I feel like Tallulah Bankhead when I’m talking about these broads: “Oh god, isn’t that marvellous! Whatever next?” Whatever suits them, they’ll become — I don’t know, they’d say they were transsexuals — because of the audience.

But I don’t know anything about it, because those of us with vision don’t work that way. And those of us without [vision] work on a kind of a chart, a culture chart, which says: This is what’s hip now, this is what’s gonna be hip tomorrow, so let’s anticipate what’s gonna be hip tomorrow and sell some more records.

So that’s what I see their shit as. And the idea of Beyoncé saying she’s a feminist makes me laugh so hard. You should see how many women go around saying, “Oh no, Diamanda, Beyoncé’s a real feminist!” I said, “Really? and she’s hanging out with BJ, RJ, or whatever his name is [Jay-Z] — she hangs out with him, and she’s a feminist? Take that wherever you want, just don’t talk to me!”

I mean please, that’s sad. If that’s who the feminists are following, we’re in trouble!

There are artists coming to prominence in the past few years who are clearly influenced by your work — Anna von Hausswolff, Chelsea Wolfe, Zola Jesus. Do you follow contemporary music, and are there contemporary artists you’re inspired by?

I think that what they’re all doing is admirable. They are really doing some strong work, and, not incidentally, I think they’re very unusual in the field of women, that they would praise other women. Because women for years have not done that, and the reason they haven’t done it is because they were dreadfully afraid that they would be seen as having been influenced by that person. Whereas so many of the girls who say that they’re influenced by me don’t seem to be worried about that, they seem to take pride in that, and I think that represents something new in ‘feminism in the music business.’ I admire them for saying that. It’s beautiful.

Anna von Hausswolff is doing a lot of really interesting things and so is Zola Jesus, and so are so many women. And they haven’t been influenced by Yoko Ono! [laughs] There was a generation of women who felt that it was really important for them to say that they influenced everyone, that it was not possible for anyone to have existed without them. Yoko Ono lied and said, “Without Yoko Ono there’d be no Diamanda Galás.” I thought, “Bitch, you don’t know anything about how press really works — now listen to this one!”

I talked to a guy who was writing a book about Patty Waters and I said, “I’m so happy you’re doing it, because that woman deserves all the renown in the fuckin’ world.” I only listened to one song of hers, and by listening to that one song I realized that all things are possible. I felt that with Annette Peacock also. But I wasn’t influenced by them, I was inspired by them. I didn’t study every work they did, because I was listening to instrumentalists like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and so many musicians like that. I was developing this big range, and I was listening to opera singers.

It was a totally different world they were in than I was in. So I decided to teach Yoko a lesson and I said [to the press], I want you to use the following quote: “Without Patty Waters there would be no Diamanda Galás OR Yoko Ono.” (laughs)

Now, shit, Yoko, the quote is all over the place! It’s not true about me, but it doesn’t matter, because it was more important for me to teach Yoko a lesson. Bitch, I know how it’s done.

You had a long break from releasing studio recordings, which I understand you spent with your parents. Then in 2017 you released a studio and a live album, and now we have Schrei 27. Is this a reflowering for you, and is there more in the works?

What happened is, I was not doing well with Mute Records at all, since 2008 and before. That’s because they sold to BMG — they sold me, Nick Cave, Nitzer Ebb. And they didn’t even tell me that they sold me. I started getting royalty statements that I owed BMG all this money, and I wasn’t getting paid, and it was shocking.

So what I did instead was, I did a lot of gigs in Europe. We were recording all the gigs, and I have so many recorded concerts that I haven’t put out — because in 2012 I found out that Mute had sold my back catalogue of 12 records, lots of videos and everything, to EMI, who sold it to Universal, who sold it to EMP, and I could no longer get a hold of it. Since 2012 my life has been total hell trying to get the stuff back.

But in the meantime, after my father died, I went to live with my mother, who I discovered was dying. She’s alive now, but at the time she was dying. I’m a Greek, so there’s no choice, there’s no question — I lived with her.

And I went and worked on a new work called Das Fieberspital, which means ‘the fever factory,’ ‘the fever hospital.’ I worked in the studio on that, and I worked on two other pieces, The Devils of the State, and The Blind Man. These were connected works written by the German Expressionist poet Georg Heym, who died before World War One. He was a really visionary poet, amazing.

So I started working on a new work that I’m going to be able to run as soon as I get the funds to do the final rehearsal — it’s going to be manifest in many different ways. I was asked by Mute to collaborate with them again and I absolutely said no, no way — you don’t steal from me the first time and then ask me to give you work that you’re going to steal from the second time. It became a pretty awful situation, and I haven’t had a platform on which to work. Now I have distribution for these records, but I’ve recorded so much material live that I either continue putting that material out, or I spend my time on this new work.

Being with my mother didn’t stop me from recording — it was that I didn’t want to put the work out until it was complete. The work ended up being 75 minutes, a very intense work with a lot of multitracking of very strange vocal sounds and a lot of electronics, a lot of stuff that took a long time to do. Not to mention learning the German texts in German. Very hard texts and very old texts — not modern German but an older German, from the end of the 19th century.

But I’ve met with some people, and I think things are going to be looking up, and I’m very happy about that, because I’ve spent a deal of money and it’s a good time to get a little bit of help.

But I’m not complaining about any of this, because you know what: nobody forced me to do the kind of work I do (laughs). Nobody!

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