Singer Sarah Black and bassist Braxton Ballew make up this episode’s featured band, Valentine Wolfe, a Victorian Chamber metal duo. That’s right, I said “Victorian Chamber Metal”. Their last album used the phrase “Steampunk Macabre” — I like that, too. Braxton said, “We also perform Dark Ambient Soundscapes. Usually, if this is too vague, we tell people if they like Emilie Autumn and Nightwish, we like to think they will like us.” Furthermore, we’re playing their song “Annabel Lee” from their new album, Once Upon a Midnight, which is themed around Edgar Allan Poe. Be still my little goth heart.
Braxton told me, “‘Annabel Lee’ is one of the songs off of our newest endeavor. It is a graphic novel plus full length album all about Edgar Allan Poe. The graphic novel tells a story and the music follows along with it. The story puts Poe in an alternate universe where all of his stories and poems are his reality and so we set his work to go with that. Also, we feel it’s a great first ‘single’ off the new album, one that has all of the elements that make a Valentine Wolfe song: beautiful vocals, brooding classical bass, and slamming drums and distortion. The visual artist who did the cover of our last album, Jacob Wenzka, agreed to take a larger role this time around. He has drawn a graphic novel for our story about Poe. The album is not strictly programmatic, but it does follow a story in a very similar way to Silverthorn by Kamelot. I suppose the idea started when we saw a sketch Jacob had drawn of Poe. It was amazing! We thought we would like to see more. We had also been setting Shakespeare to music and that prompted us to think about how much fun it would be to set some of Poe’s words to music. His poems are so lyrical anyway.”
For the Horror Addicts who are Deathstalker fans, you may recognize the namesake of the band. Braxton confirmed that, “Valentine Wolfe is a character from the Deathstalker novels by Simon R. Green. He has somewhat of a depraved nature and we relate to that!”
More than just a duo, Sarah and Braxton are married and have been making music together since 2006. “We sometimes collaborate with other musicians and especially other artists, but we like to keep the main core as just a duo. We currently live in Greenville, SC. We moved here from Athens, GA. I would say that living in Greenville has certainly had a big impact on our music. Braxton works as the Education Director for the Greenville Symphony. That huge connection to the classical world has kept us from going in a fully metal direction. We have written music for three Shakespeare plays now: The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale. All of those were made possible by us living in a city that is so supportive of the arts. We have the Metropolitan Arts Council which really brings the whole community together through an impressive array of artistic endeavor.”
With such an interesting style of music, the venues they have played are rather diverse. “We’ve played venues ranging from dive bars to art galleries. We really love playing fan conventions…it seems that’s the best overall fit in terms of finding people who are interested in our music. I think it helps we’re pretty geeky ourselves. We have played at several different conventions including Raven Con, AnachroCon, Upstate Steampunk, ConCarolinas, and DragonCon. We would love to play at Wave Gothic Treffen or Whitby Gothic Weekend or even Wacken Open Air some day! Our fans are so amazing! They are willing to travel to see us perform in different cities and we really appreciate that. One thing we’ve seen it that at conventions, especially one where we’re new, the crowd always seems to get bigger and bigger while we play. Just about every show is special-cliche, maybe, but true. I think my favorite odd story was a show where I (Braxton) was doing solo bass soundscapes with looping. A gentleman asked me what instrument i was playing, and rejected my answer of electric upright bass to tell me it was, if fact, a cello (Hint-no, it isn’t). I was still playing and looping the entire conversation, which made it even weirder.”
Their favorite bands and musicians are as varied as one might expect: “Bach, Verdi, Handel, Mozart, Debussy, Ives, Copland, Beatles, Iron Maiden, Insomnium, Opeth, Nightwish, Kamelot, Amon Amarth, Dragonforce, Ronnie James Dio. Braxton’s favorite bass player is an amazing player named Renaud Garcia-Fons. He’s also really into Francois Rabbath.”
Braxton summed up his musical tastes with a quote by Duke Ellington: “There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad, and I like both.” Braxton really only gets turned off to music that “seems to prioritize mass consumption to the exclusion of any other interesting features. But he thinks you can learn anything from anything (He listened to a Justin Bieber album for a group of kids, and was astounded at how the meaning of the song could be conveyed in only 3-5 seconds). We both think it’s better not to spend too much time concerning yourself with what turns you off, and just focus on music that really excites you.”
Is there a style of music that they’d like to try? “One style that we would like to explore more of is film scoring! We have written scores for plays so far and have done short movies for the internet, but we would love to do more! Braxton especially is a huge fan of what Philip Glass did for Dracula and we would love to do a film score for a feature length silent movie. We’d love to do an old one or a completely new one that is just in the style of an old one!”
Both have been making music for quite a while. “Sarah started on piano in elementary school and kept up with that up through college. She got a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Composition from UGA. She has been taking voice lessons with Lisa Barksdale most recently. Braxton is a late bloomer-bass guitar at age 14, double bass at age 18, composition at 20 (apart from a few aborted attempts in high school). However, he’s kind of old-he’s been at this for about 20 years as a pro.”
What has it been like to produce their latest work? “It’s always exhilarating and terrifying. You get an idea that sets your passion on fire, and it becomes an obsession. At the same time, you hope and want your peers and your audience to get into what you’re doing. The hardest part is waiting. Works of quality take time. Sometimes, you want to just work and work and work, and the hardest part is knowing when you pass the point of diminished returns. The most fun part has been playing the new songs live, and seeing the savage joy they trigger.”
How has producing their latest album been different than their previous work? “There are two basic differences: we blended the composition/performance approach. Generally, in the classical world, you write a piece, sending it out into the world more or less fully formed, and then you learn and interpret the piece through rehearsals and performances. Sometimes you get to revise in a rehearsal, but not often. This time, we played everything we wrote either live or in the rehearsal studio several times through. It enabled us to add small and significant touches to everything. On our first two albums, we wanted to explore EBM and electronica. As such, there’s synth basses and other electronica textures we play with. For Once Upon A Midnight, we fully embraced our inner metalhead. There’s still electronica, but almost all limited to double bass (there’s a bit of piano here and there). So while we’re still very much a band who loves electronica, I’d say this album is definitely gothic metal.”
Music is so much a part of their life, working together as a couple and a band, there’s little time for diversions. Sarah said, “Not working with the band? We didn’t even realize that was an option! We are a married couple and we spend just about every waking second involved with some aspect of music making. It is nice for us because we both have the same passion and drive to immerse ourselves in a non-stop musical adventure. We do also enjoy reading and movies. That is where much of our inspiration comes from. Braxton says pretty much just music, books, and movies. I’m into video games, too. I really have ambitions to make a silent movie one of these days.”
They do occasionally listen to podcasts, but only “sporadically, and we listen to those done by people we know. Jim Ryan is a good friend of ours who has several podcasts he is involved with. Here’s a link to his podcast on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/every-world-news/id328217881 I think the only ‘celebrity’ ones we subscribe to are Mr.Deity and when they were active, DGM’s Hot Tickles. We’re much more likely to check out the individual episode here and there; most of the time, we’re listening to demos, sketches, or inspiration. We really want to make time to listen to more podcasts because Neil Degrasse Tyson also does podcasts and he is so interesting to listen to!”
So, what is next on their radar? “We need to finish up the recording and mixing on this current project but after that, we’d love to travel around for more shows. We played at several conventions last year, but we want to try to get to twice as many this year! So we have some great new music that we are finishing up and the next step will be sharing that new music with as many people as we can reach.”
They have some great, practical advice for new bands. “Watch the Ira Glass video on the gap between taste and execution as much as you can. If you want to make this your main source of income, limit your debt as much as practical. Follow your own instincts as a fan-in other words, what kinds of shows do you like going to? What kinds of sounds, experiences, etc, do you value; that is, more importantly than even money: where do you invest your time? If you can get a clear answer to those type of questions, you can get a pretty accurate road map of your trajectory. Oddly, don’t obsess too much about being ‘good’. Everyone defines that differently. As long as the best show you play is your next one, that’s a pretty good way to think about it.”
Listeners can find out more about Valentine Wolfe on their home page, ValentineWolfe.com, and listen to their wonderful music on Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, last.fm, and YouTube. You can also stalk them on Facebook, but beware, they might just stalk you back.