Interview: A Horror Rock Talk With Dean Madonia
Horror music isn’t just what you hear on Halloween: country is filled with ghosts (usually of Hank Williams) and devils (that prefer Georgia), and even progressive rock can enter the occult. Pop music can get downright grizzly – especially that song where the kid gets eaten.
Dean Madonia studies this stuff. A Nashville songwriter by trade, he teaches workshops on the craft and lectures about the history of horror in music. His magnum opus is Shadow to Shadow, Dean Madonia’s Frankenstein, a two-disc progressive rock album based on Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s a compelling and often heartbreaking journey that has caught on with those who like a cerebral musical scare.
In this conversation, Dean breaks down the songs from the album and shares his thoughts on horror in music.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): You’re a big horror fan. You give lectures about horror in music. What can someone expect when attending them and what songs do you cover?
Dean Madonia: I always talk about horror in general. I love horror fiction. Harlan Ellison wrote an amazing story back in the ’60s called I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream about a sadistic, God-like robot that’s basically torturing these people on this planet. Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow, Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer. I read all the old stuff, of course, like Dracula, Frankenstein, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I would talk about the books that inspired or furthered the horror genre.
I would then probably talk about art. One of my favourite paintings is The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, which is a picture of a life raft that’s thrown together after the sinking of a real ship. It was actually a real event. He basically locked himself in a room with a bunch of corpses and posed them and painted for weeks. He locked himself in there until it was done.And then you get to music. There have always been a lot of horror elements in country. Charlie Daniels, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” – my Dad liked that song. “Phantom 309,” where there’s a ghost truck and the guy that swerves to avoid the busload of kids. Or Hugh Prestwood wrote “Ghost in this House,” which is one of my favourite songs. Alison Krauss recorded that one, too. Or David Allan Coe’s “The Ride” or “Midnight in Montgomery” – both talk about meeting the ghost of Hank Williams.
Probably two of my favourite horror songs, one of them I heard when I was a kid. It’s called “Timothy.” It was written by Rupert Holmes, the guy that wrote the Pina Colada song. He wrote it for this band, The Buoys. They were about to lose their deal and he was just trying to do something that would get people’s attention so he wrote a song about a bunch of miners that get trapped in a cave-in and they eat Timothy. And that song, for some reason, I was just a kid when I heard it, and it just stuck with me. I wanted to know every word of that song.
The progressive rock band, UK, has a song called “Rendezvous 6:02” where a guy takes a ride on a train that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s kind of like that old story A Wild Ride In a Tilt Cart where the kid rides on this cart in bad weather driven by this crazy guy and he jumps off just before it goes around the corner and runs off a cliff. It turns out the driver is a dead guy who had gone off of the cliff some years before. It’s like Large Marge from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. And then of course Blue Öyster Cult is loaded with supernatural themed songs: “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Godzilla,” “Joan Crawford,” “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” and “I Love the Night.”
Songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Angie Baby” by Helen Reddy, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – it’s more of a crazed, serial killer guy, which isn’t usually my favourite type of horror, but I love that song. There are a lot of supernatural elements in Warren Zevon’s work: “Werewolves of London” and “Excitable Boy.” And then the more modern stuff: Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” and “Living Dead Girl.” Or the perennial staples, “Thriller” and “Monster Mash” for Halloween. Everybody wants to hear those songs all the time.
Songfacts: So do you just analyze them?
Dean: I just talk a little bit about the history of music. I don’t have any notes with me right now but just that kind of stuff. The whole metal scene was made on being scary – Iron Maiden with their skull guy. It was a little bit over-the-top silly, a cultish type of vibe. Even bands that didn’t have a big occult theme like Led Zeppelin who didn’t have an occult profile but some of the members of the band did. Didn’t Jimmy Page buy Aleister Crowley’s old castle or something like that? I don’t remember if that’s true or not. [yep, it’s true]
And then the modern stuff, which I don’t really care for, the rap music, which they call Horrorcore. It’s just too much about death. It’s mean, and just screaming stuff – really violent. I don’t care for the violence. I know there’s some violence in the Frankenstein thing but it’s obviously fictional. I don’t like music, art, movies or books that are overloaded with gore. To me, that’s not horror – serial killers or any of that kind of stuff. I don’t really care for that because I don’t like songs that advocate violence. A good example is Eminem’s “Kim” or Korn’s “Daddy” or “Down with the Sickness” by Disturbed. Those are more screamo than those last two.
When I started looking into it, there’s a lot more horror still in music. It just isn’t making it to the mainstream and it hasn’t for some time. The last one I remember is maybe Live, “The Dam at Otter Creek,” because I think they’re burying a body. “The Dam at Otter Creek” was the last song that I remember hearing on the radio in the ’90s that has a lot of horror in it. That and Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” and “Living Dead Girl.” Most of that stuff doesn’t seem to make it into the mainstream and onto radio. I’m still looking into it but there seems to be a large sub-culture of horror in music. It’s just not mainstream.
Songfacts: Why do you think it doesn’t hit the mainstream?
Dean: It’s hard to do well. The Horrorcore stuff – that’s just yelling, saying nasty stuff, and talking about dismembering people. Most people don’t want to hear that. It’s just like the movies. You have to do something that makes people think and you have to care about the characters. It’s hard to do that in a three or four minute song, which is why I did the whole 29-track CD to tell this story. I wanted people to like the monster and Victor a little bit in the beginning and then see how they alter to the point where they just hate each other and they want the other one dead.
Songfacts: You’ve been living in Nashville for the past 12 years writing country music. Do you approach writing progressive rock songs differently than writing country songs?
Dean: Yeah, each genre has certain rules. Country is loaded with them. There’s a certain length of an intro. There’s a certain length of a song. There’s a certain amount of time before the chorus needs to hit. There are a lot of particulars for country music.
If you’re writing progressive, it doesn’t have to have all these things in it, but you find odd time signatures that you would rarely find in any other genre besides jazz. Once in awhile, a straight ahead rock song will sneak through that has an odd time signature on it. In prog rock, there are also a lot of solos. I personally didn’t want to go too crazy with a lot of long solos on this album because I believe that the ’70s were a little bit overindulgent with them. The solos got a little too long and they made people go into a small coma. It alienated the possible fans. There’s a lot of chaff to sift through to get to the wheat in progressive music. The best progressive music is my favourite music. There’s such a small body of it but the stuff that’s really good is great. I don’t want to say anything bad about anybody’s stuff.
I will say the songs that I like in the progressive genre, like “Rendezvous 6:02” is a perfect song. I love that song. It’s one of the few songs that uses an odd time signature for a good reason. The main character in the song steps through this arch that isn’t there. It’s like he goes into the twilight zone and that’s when the odd time signature comes in so it’s well used. It’s like having sex in a story or movie. If it’s there because it supports the story then it’s a good idea. If you’re just doing it because a cable network says that you’re supposed to have sex scenes in the movie then it’s usually crap and it’s just a distraction from the story. So that makes the field, in my opinion, of prog a lot more difficult to try to be musical and melodic yet introduce some of those elements without saying, “Okay, here comes the part where we count in 6/8 and here’s the part where we count in 7/8 or 20 bars.” Where it’s obviously like a math problem instead of feeling the music and arriving at the odd time singature organically. That’s hard. It was hard for me to split that difference and draw the influences of prog but still try to be musical and have the songs be melodic. The band Yes is great at it. They had a lot of hits because they’re so melodic and they write good songs, and they also happen to be a prog band. Their song, “Roundabout” and the Kansas song “Carry on Wayward Son” are two landmark, great songs in the prog rock genre, there are plenty of others, but I love those two songs.
Songfacts: Why did you decide to write a rock opera aboutFrankenstein and make that change in the narrative?
Dean: Well, I think Frankenstein is arguably the first modern horror book and it’s also arguably the first science fiction book. Those are two of my favourite subjects to read. I’ve read it quite a few times and I just love the story.
I’ve wanted to do a concept album for some time. I just didn’t know what I was going to do it about and so this started as a side project. I asked a few friends what they thought aboutFrankenstein. Obviously the story’s in public domain. I don’t think I have the writing skills to write a compelling story and the concept album with music and lyrics. It was a lot of work just to reinterpret this one. Maybe I’ll try an original concept album sometime but I thought that Mary Shelley’s novel would be a good opportunity to explore a lot of complex and deep emotional territory. The same reason that she wrote the book in the first place.
Songfacts: And why did you decide to make that change in the narrative with the monster telling the story instead of Walton writing the letters to his sister?
Dean: The story is really complicated for people that aren’t good readers or don’t read a lot of older fiction because of the archaic language and that Chinese puzzle box narrative with Captain Walton writing letters home to his sister about Victor Frankenstein’s ordeal. So I tried to straighten the story out chronologically. I had to make a chart to figure out when everything happened because it jumps around a lot in the book.
I considered first having somebody do one of the singing parts where one person is Victor Frankenstein and one is the monster. I didn’t want to be held hostage in the future by any person who maybe wasn’t one hundred percent into it or might change their mind or be unavailable later. So I thought, “How can I make this story all told by the monster?” The way that could happen is that he’s telling it to somebody else. I decided to make it a genetic researcher because I feel like that’s the modern significance as a cautionary tale of Frankenstein – just be careful what kinds of seeds you plant because the fruit might not be as sweet as you want it to be. So by having the monster telling the whole story to the genetic researcher, I made it so it could be just one vocalist. I also didn’t want it to become a musical so that was another consideration.
Dean: Yeah, pretty much anywhere I could write. I had Frankenstein on the brain. I even wrote it in my car while I was driving recording music and lyric ideas in my phone.
Songfacts: So describe the songwriting process for it. Did you take that long on purpose?
Dean: Well, I live in Nashville and I’ve been writing country since 2002. I basically came to a point where I felt like I needed a break from trying to write a hit every single time I got out of bed. I felt confined in that country-pop box that you have to write in to even have a chance to get a song on the radio. Writing country and pop music is like riding in a small car for a long time. You have to get out and stretch your legs. I felt like I’d been riding cross-country in my Corolla [laughs] and I needed to get out and stretch out a little bit. I felt like I could do a lot more lyrically and musically then I was allowed to do within that box. I decided to just start it as a side project and then at some point it took over. I don’t know when but it took over full time. I basically told all my co-writers that I was taking a break for a year just to finish writing and start recording this album. So I didn’t really want it to take four years. It’s just with my touring schedule and the fact that I’m a Dad, (I’m even a scout leader if you can imagine such a thing). I’m just so busy. I hardly see my family at all. So I couldn’t just throw myself into it as if I was in my early 20s and single with no obligations. I think I kind of did that anyhow. In fact, I might have at one point jeopardized my relationship with my wife because I was just so focused on this CD and trying to finish it up.
Songfacts: “Running from the Moon” is when the monster first comes to life and Victor is terrified of its hideous exterior and abandons the creature. What was the process for writing that song?
Dean: [Long pause] That particular song, I had it in my head. I read that book so many times. I had it in my head that Victor had worked himself to the point of exhaustion trying to do this thing and then when he realized that it wasn’t what he thought it was going to be, he completely has a meltdown, freaks out, and he’s just trying to get away. I tried to imagine what that would be like. The point of it is that once you create something like that it can’t be undone. Just like someday when they make the first human clone. Well, that will be the answer to a lot of questions that people have, but it can’t be undone.
So I really wanted to write something that was kind of freaky. I actually had the intro for that song as an instrumental. One day I had that idea and just put it down. I used that intro verbatim and then I tacked on that second half of the song.
A lot of the songs were like that. Some of them I started with the lyrics. Some of them I had an old song that sounded like a horror song to me that I thought would be perfect for a particular scene. Bits and pieces, like the monster.
That one, I felt like the madness of the intro sounds like somebody going crazy or at least it makes the listener uncomfortable, which is the feeling I was trying to convey. It’s an odd time signature and it makes you a little twitchy until it resolves into the 4/4.
Songfacts: “When He Plays His Guitar” is when the monster witnesses the blind elderly man that lives in the cottage play a guitar for the first time. How did that song come about?
Dean: I was trying to think about what it would be like for somebody like the monster who’s basically just a giant baby to experience music for the first time. It describes in the book that he’s just overcome with emotions that he doesn’t understand. It just made me think about the effect of music on people in general.
I tried to keep a lot of the ideas more general instead of Frankenstein specific. They do tell that story about Frankenstein but you probably would have to be somewhat familiar with the novel to understand what’s happening on my album. The movies are always terrible as usual [laughs].
I thought about a particular guitar player that I worked with who is amazing. He can just sit there and play for hours on the floor of his room, and just playing by himself for hours and hours every day. I kind of had him in mind when I was writing it.
Songfacts: “Fool’s Gold” is when Victor has just learned of his brother’s death and returns home to clear his housekeeper’s name that is accused of the murder but he sees the monster and realizes what has really happened. Describe the songwriting process for that one.
Dean: I thought of the title first for that one, which made it easy because I was thinking of the saying that silence is golden. I was thinking, “Well, what if silence isn’t golden?” When does that happen? Most of the songs on this album have more than one meaning. They have a meaning for the story of Frankenstein but that song is also about speaking out about injustice that you see. If you don’t say anything than you’re part of the problem. I felt like if silence is not golden than it’s like fool’s gold. People sometimes get a mantra in their head like “silence is golden” and they follow that like it’s some kind of a law, but you have to use your brain on every issue.
Frankenstein was concerned that:
Number One: Nobody would believe him if he tried to blame the death on the monster.
Number Two: He figured that everybody would hate him if they did believe him about the monster – they would hate him for making the monster.
And Number Three: He believed that the justice system would clear Justine Moritz of the murder but the monster planted a locket on her to incriminate her. She also confesses to the murder because back then they used to be, and probably still are, rough on you to get a confession. So she just confessed to the murder even though she didn’t do it and she ends up being hanged.
It’s basically about not trusting everybody else to do the right thing. If you know the right thing and you have an answer, if you’re a witness to something, then you need to come forward and help out. You can’t just expect that it’s going to get cleared up by other people. That’s also the message.
Songfacts: How did you come up with the song “Shadow to Shadow?” It’s when the monster demands Victor to create a wife for him and you named the entire rock opera after it.
Dean: Yeah, I thought “Shadow to Shadow” best summed up the monster’s plight. Every foray that he makes into the public is met with some sort of minor or major disaster. He’s been shot and yelled at and chased with a broom. He’s been misunderstood and hit by the son of the blind guy. People judge him. It’s true not just for the monster but this is for any people that are disenfranchised. It’s about prejudice. They judge them by how they look and if they’re good looking or not good looking. They judge people if they are rich or poor. They judge them based on their nationality or skin colour, so this song is for all people. The shadow to shadow thing is the monster constantly having to stay out of people’s sight and hide in the shadows, and it’s kind of the way he lives from shadow to shadow.
Songfacts: “Pale Student,” “Frightful Fiend,” and “Did I Request Thee?” are spoken word songs of quotations from the novel. How did you decide which ones to include in the rock opera?
Dean: That was kind of rough. I always loved the “Frightful Fiend” and “Did I Request Thee” quotes. I think I’d heard them before I had read Frankenstein. One of them is from Milton’sParadise Lost, which is one of the books that the monster reads. I had actually selected a lot of quotes from the book. I decided to just use those two that Mary Shelley had also quoted so I didn’t feel as bad about quoting them because she quoted them, too. And then the first quote is from the introduction to the 1831 version where she explains how she came up with the idea forFrankenstein, so I thought that should go right at the beginning. It sums up a lot of the feel of it.
Songfacts: What song took the longest to write?
Dean: Oh, that’s a hard one. “Running from the Moon” was certainly one of them. And “Into the White” because I added another part in that song after I thought it was done. Most of the rest of them I wrote quickly, surprisingly.
I re-wrote the lyrics a million times on all of them. I tweaked it daily. I went through all of the lyrics and tried to delete stuff that was unnecessary or make the song better. I always release an album and then ten years later I look at it and say, “Why did I say that? I could have said this.” I really went through this one more than usual so I’m not going to do that hopefully [laughs], but we’ll see.
Songfacts: What’s your favourite moment in the entire rock opera?
Dean: [Long pause] I feel like track 26, “Spark Redux.” I do take quite a bit of time establishing that Victor really does love Elizabeth on “The Sweetest Part of Me,” which is track 23, and then her murder. There are three songs in a row about Victor dealing with her death. In the first one, he laments her death. The second one, he laments but he’s going super insane. That “Spark Redux” song is a pivotal moment. Victor screams his own name at the end. And then next comes “Into the Cold,” where Victor just totally loses it and he’s going after the monster. I felt like if I was an editor – I would have said – if I was a label exec, I would be telling me, “Look, dude, there are three songs about the same exact thing. Why don’t you take two of them and make them into one long song or dump one of them?” I liked all of those songs so much that I just had to keep them all. It takes about 12 minutes to get through it in real time. He’s just losing it slowly with each thing. It’s kind of like the five stages of grief.
Songfacts: Do you think in the end the genetic researcher listens to the monster’s cautionary tale and actually learns something from it?
Dean: I’m going to say in the real world, no. In my story, I’d like to believe that she gets the message.
I’m not anti-science. I love science and science fiction. If you read enough science fiction, you don’t get so scared about all the stuff that’s going to happen in the future because you have already read about the topic a long time ago and it’s not that big of a surprise when it happens. You don’t turn into a Luddite like a lot of people. I’m not against science but I did want it to be a cautionary tale. I just believe that there are a lot of people with good intentions that develop technologies and then there’s always somebody else who has an idea on how they can use it in a way that isn’t possibly the best moral choice. For instance, the technologies we use for war. It’s the same thing with cloning. There’s a lot of potential for abuse with cloning and there’s a lot of potential for amazing breakthroughs, too.
Let’s put it this way, if you consider Star Wars, most people watch it and they see Luke Skywalker and Han Solo as the heroes. But there are a handful of people that think, “Hey! That Darth Vader and the Emperor, they had a pretty good idea. We should probably use that.” That’s the two kinds of people there are in this world. So I like to believe that the genetic researcher is the Han Solo and that she’s the fan of the good guys and that she would get that. But, at the same time, she’s probably going to go through with the cloning because somebody else will do it if she doesn’t and she might as well get the glory for it.
I’m working on a graphic novel. It’s going slow because I had a lot of things come up. I’m just trying to promote the CD right now and see if anybody likes it before I finish the graphic novel. If I was really ambitious then I would make the novel. It’s 200 years of time that this monster’s lived. He’s probably had a lot of different occupations and adventures. It could be an amazing series for a graphic novel – the whole 200 years that the monster lived between the time of Victor’s death and the time he meets this genetic scientist. It could flashback from her and his life leading up to that. It could go on forever [laughs]. 200 years of storylines.
Songfacts: Yeah, that’s a really cool idea. You’re also an artist so what inspired you to come up with that idea for the graphic novel?
Dean: I just kind of always wanted to do it. When I was a kid, I used to draw comics all the time. But I was a slob and terrible at lettering. I never planned it out well enough but now they have all these programs where you can put the text letters in afterward. So I can do the artwork completely separate. I was always a fan of Night Gallery, I thought it would be cool if I could show all the artwork in the lobby for this thing and have a full show sometime but that’s a ways off.
Songfacts: You wrote the song “(I Called Her) Tennessee” that Tim Dugger ended up recording. How did that come about?
Dean: A friend of mine was producing this kid, Tim. My friend has a production company and sends a lot of his artists over to write with me. Tim came over and we wrote this song and it just turned out great. It was one of those songs where we didn’t have the title first, which makes it harder to write sometimes. He just wanted to write a song about partying and spring break and I was like, “Well, I lived in Fort Lauderdale for 20 years so I know a little bit about that.” We ended up writing this song in our first writing session. When we got to the chorus, we were trying to use a lot of imagery. We were getting to the end and we needed a hook. I remembered that we had written that when the character in the song met her she was sitting on a UT blanket. I thought of some people that I’ve known that we just called them by their state name: “Okay, there Michigan. Hey, Alabama.” And it was like, “Hey, I never knew her name so I called her Tennessee,” and we both looked at each other and were like, “Yes!” So that was like a gift. It just came.
Songfacts: You’ve also had songs placed in movies. “Honor is Ours” is in Foodfight! and “Just Like Love” from your old band, Pretty Little Horses, is in the movie, The Stream. Explain how that all happened.
Dean: This friend of mine, Keith, also has a production company. I write some stuff for him, too. He had an in with this company, Threshold Entertainment. They wanted some songs for this movie [Foodfight!]. We actually wrote about five of them – Keith Ridenour, myself, and my friend, Scott Avery. We wrote about five songs and Keith wrote with some other writing groups, too. He got a couple of other songs in the movie but we got this one in. I looked at the scenes and saw the description of what they wanted. They described that slot as somewhere between Prince and Pink Floyd. I was thinking, “Well, I kind of get what they are saying.” They were probably trying to do something like “Another Brick in The Wall.” It has the same kind of hi-hat pattern almost like a Prince song. So I tried to do a Prince hi-hat drum thing with a Pink Floyd delayed guitar thing. I thought that scene was going to be the easiest one to get because everybody wasn’t going to be all crazy about it.
At that time, people were still all worked up about the war so I was trying to think of it from the soldier’s point of view, even though the song was written for cartoon characters. I just tried to forget about that and think about these people going to war. They could die and that’s what we’re writing about. My friend, Scott Avery, basically ended up writing most of the lyrics, though. We talked about it and sent drafts back and forth, but most of it was just him.
Pretty Little Horses, I did that album with a friend of mine, Greg Curvey. He’s in a brilliant band in Chicago called The Luck of Eden Hall. It’s a psychedelic band. We’ve known each other for years and we hadn’t seen each other for awhile. We ran into each other and I was saying, “We should record something.” So we did that as a long distance collaboration. He ended up getting a chance to work on the film, The Stream. He’s actually the composer that did the whole score. They asked him for a pop song and he gave them “Just Like Love” from Pretty Little Horses.
That’s another side project I did during the time that I was doing Frankenstein so that was another thing that made Frankenstein take longer because I got sidetracked with that project. I really like that project and I was happy that it got in that movie. They actually just got picked up for worldwide distribution now. It’s going to be on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes as well. I’m hoping that maybe someday, we’ll record a Pretty Little Horses 2. I’d like to see a little bit of interest somehow through this movie and maybe spark a second album.
Songfacts: So, last question. You also play dueling pianos shows. What has your experience been like doing that?
Dean: I started playing dueling pianos in 1998 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at Howl at the Moon. It was basically an extension of somebody telling me a long time ago to do it instead of getting in bands all the time, which takes up all your time. If you’re a writer, what you want is to have the most time available to write and record. When you get in a band, you have rehearsals, you have people leaving, and you have to move the equipment. If you do it solo, it will free up a bunch of your time. I was still in some bands but not traveling and playing six nights a week.
I started doing a lot of solo stuff. When I got offered that job at Howl at the Moon in Fort Lauderdale, I took it because it was basically going from being a solo act that was carrying around a full PA, a piano, a guitar, and microphones, to being the guy that walks in with a microphone and just sits down and plays piano. It’s basically the most money you can make for the least amount of time. It was the next logical step in my plan to free up time to write and record. It’s been good to me so no complaints.
Songfacts: I think that’s everything. Is there anything else you want to add?
Dean: Not really. I was fully immersed in this album for four years and I’m just coming out of it now. I have some kind of post-project hangover from it. I’m just trying to get back into my normal writing schedule and spend more time with my family. I feel like this is my best writing. I stretched out as far as I have the ability to stretch out on this album. I think I wrote the best possible songs as I could based on the subject matter and my writing/recording chops at the moment and hopefully people will listen to it, like it, and eventually I could own Halloween the way Trans Siberian Orchestra owns Christmas!