ATHAN MAROULIS is both a vocalist (Executive Slacks, Spahn Ranch), A&R for the recording label, Cleopatra, and manages a division of Cleopatra called Stardust. He wears both hats well and my impression of him is that he is charming, well-mannered, and very refined. One of my numerous (well-hidden) tattoos also happens quite coincidentally to be the Egyptian eye logo/symbol of Cleopatra. It seemed quite appropriate therefore to meet up with the stylish Mr. Maroulis when I visited Hollywood several months ago. It is with respect and appreciation for his candor that I present this interview.
JARBOE: As a recording artist as well as a rep for Cleopatra, do you feel your criteria is affected or that there is a conflict between the ‘art and the commerce’? Does being a musician help you be more attuned to the artists in your rep position for Cleopatra – or does it not play a part at all? Do you help determine the profile of Cleopatra? The projects?
ATHAN: The conflict between art and commerce is a fight I have each and every day in my position at Cleopatra as A&R boob. I have been mistaken about alot of things in my career as an artist, but one thing I was right about was learning the business of music. When I was eighteen and performing in my first original band, I began carrying a briefcase. Many of my peers laughed at me for doing so, but I knew it was important. The case contained addresses for radio stations, contacts, zines, demo’s and my lyrics. When I wasn’t working on lyrics, I was doing all of my own management, publicity, etc. Grass roots style! The way I saw it then and now is that nobody is doing it for me so I have to do it for myself, so I learned all that I could about the biz. So in a contemporary sense, I am merely doing for others what I have always done for myself. As both artist and record company guy I see it all! From where I am I see the repulsive side of record companies, the money, words like units, product, soundscan, demographic, etc. Some of these things make my skin crawl! I like to think I am somehow making it slightly better by taking the approach that I am. As corny as it sounds, I try to give back. I try to remember what it was like having only a demo and what it was like to hear sheer arrogance on the other end of the phone from labels I called all of those years ago. I try and spread the wealth a little, put bands on comps that have worked hard but have not been on a cd before. I compile many of the collections and such for Cleopatra, so I do have the opportunity to work with new acts and fit them in. Maybe I do it because it was rarely or never done for me and I like to think that it should be that way. Who knows? On the other hand I also get a real close look at the equally repulsive side of artists. The ego’s, self rightiousness attitude, the demands, the naivete, the pretentiousness and the overall attitude that they are owed something! Many of them in my opinion simply need to get a day job and get in touch with reality. Working at a label truly puts you in touch with reality, even if it is at times a negative reality. Although I have tons of releases as an artist it would never create enough of an income to substantiate my existence. Barring any tours I have worked a fifty hour a week day job since I was seventeen, I wouldn’t know how to do this any other way. I never intended to be a record company guy and all of the cliche’s that it has, it just worked out that way. I must say aside from working with alot of the Gothic, Industrial and Experimental music here at Cleopatra, I really found my calling working on vintage titles. I take it very seriously and thoroughly enjoy the research. I had alot of fun with the Marilyn Monroe title we did on Stardust Records. I have always loved music from the 1920s to 1950s, it is where my true love is. Next is Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, which are two of my all time faves.
JARBOE: Tell me about your earliest memory of music and how or if this affected your decision to become a musician.
ATHAN: Early on I was in glee club, sang in church, etc. But that was by age seven or so? I grew up in a Greek-American household, so I can vividly recall Greek Bouzouki music at weddings and parties. In fact, that is probably why my sense of timing is so fucked up! Greek music seems almost continuous without a rhythmic structure that can’t compare to anything Western. Sort of like explaining Bebop! I remember the first piece of music I owned was 1969s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” by BJ Thomas! Maybe this is a good time to tell you that I see myself as more of an entertainer than an artist, I do believe there is a difference. So the reactions I received at a young age from singing made me enjoy the stimulation of attention. I have a funny feeling it continues in many ways to today.
JARBOE: You have a beautiful voice and excellent pitch. Have you had formal training?
ATHAN: I did alot of musical theatre in high school and early on in college. As for actual lessons, I took two of them many years ago. I stopped because I just didn’t like it! I learned more listening to records than I ever did in all of those aforementioned endeavors combined.
JARBOE: Is there a vocalist you appreciate that has inspired you in your own endeavors?
ATHAN: So many! Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Bowie, Billy Eckstine, Charles Brown, Ivie Anderson, Sam Cooke, Edith Piaf, Bryan Ferry, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Maria Callas, Jim Morrison, Russ Columbo, Lucienne Boyer, Arthur Brown and many more!
JARBOE: Bill Laswell once commented that I sing in an ‘old fashioned way’ since I use so much vibrato. I listened to a lot of Sarah Vaughan at one time. She was of course known for an amazing vibrato. With no conscious effort on my part, I began making vibrato a distinctive part of my singing style.
ATHAN: Yes, I have the vibrato thing and maybe one day I will learn how how to control it!
JARBOE: What can you tell me about your specific original lyrics writing style? How much subtraction takes place before the final form?
ATHAN: Years ago they were poems turned into lyrics. It is rare that a poem of mine can remain in its original form and instantly become song lyrics. Poems seem so anything goes, but lyrics are not. I was quite a Sylvia Plath freak in my teens, I think it still shows a bit. Lyrics are the last remnant of my poetry days as well as being the closest thing to writing a diary. I try to write about the way my mind actually views the world. An example would be driving along knowing I need to change the water pump on my ’61 Dodge, while viewing an old lady at a bus stop (who probably has some great stories about the old days), wondering if I left the coffee maker on at my bungalow, while the guy next to me swerves because he is on a cell phone, during a thought of a scene from The Third Man, ultimately ending while I am looking at a red light and trying to figure out what kind of red it actually is called? That is at least the kind of thoughts that race through my mind in a 5 second burst, so I try to get that on paper. Subtraction…good way of saying it! As I am sure you know, certain words just don’t work and others need to be substituted to have that flow. I would say a minimum of 40 to 50% is subtracted to create the final work.
JARBOE: Tell me about The Blue Dahlia.
ATHAN: The Blue Dahlia is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I have always been a freak fan of crooners from the 1920s to the 1940s, yet always felt intimidated. I wanted to do a authentic sounding album that evoked the imagery of The Coconut Grove, Film Noir and the real Los Angeles of the 40s. Retro? Nostagic? Whatever? I wanted to do it! The challenge scared the shit out of me! Honestly, rock based music is frighteningly simple in comparison. I have no training or knowledge of music, so it is all instinct to me. I hooked up with an arranger/producer by the name of Skip Heller. Skip put together a great band for the project that includes DJ Bonebrake from X and exotica pioneer Robert Drasnin, to name a few. The album has a jazzy vibe while still maintaining a little dark feel, you didn’t think I could totally dump that did you? Anyway, I am quite proud of it and the self-titled album released in May on Stardust Records.
JARBOE: How influenced by nostalgia/Hollywood/movies is your personal musical interest?
ATHAN: Heavily influenced! This has been an ongoing interest for me ever since I was about seven years old. From the simplistic genius of films and music of yesteryear to the design of homes and automobiles it was just better. Better quality, more thought out, more permanent and not ultra disposable as so many things are today. Yes, there was a certain amount of that back then as well. But even disposable was still a beautiful soda bottle.
JARBOE: Where could you live besides L.A.? Please elaborate.
ATHAN: Well, a few places. I would like to go full circle and settle down permanently in NYC. I regret never having lived in Berlin because I love it there. I think I could live in my ancestral home of Greece. I love parts of upstate New York very much. I think thats it? Vienna?
JARBOE: If you could go back or forward, in what year would you most like to live?
ATHAN: I reckon because of The Blue Dahlia, it would probably be either the 30s or the 40s. Probably best to say after the war in 1945. One of my favorite reasons would be something you may not like, but I love the way women dressed back then.
Femininity was quite different and most of the men were slobs and didn’t even appreciate it, I guess the same goes for now. Women in hats/veils, seamed nylons, nice under garments, dresses, etc. I just love the differences in the sexes and like to see it very clearly. So to me it must have been wonderful. Of course the auto’s, music, etc. The eye openers would be racism, probably being called a greaseball or wop and probably digging ditches for a living.