Nathan T. Birk
In these post-modern times, a time when just about every form of Western music has been ground into generic dust, it’s comforting and refreshing to find a band that bravely treads through those ashes by etching a unique name for itself as a distinctively creative entity.
One such band is Washington, DC’s Tarot Bolero. Rising from the ashes of such sorely-missed and trend-setting bands as Antioch Arrow, the VSS, and Slant 6, Tarot Bolero has made a name for itself, for better or for worse (depending on whose perspective you get), by playing dramatic cabaret-pop that’s seemingly decades behind and, simultaneously, ahead of anything else around. Universally cherished and reviled, the band’s debut album, Vaudeville Rising , is a testament to that fact, a record guaranteed to polarize opinions – a sign, no doubt, that something unique and alien is brewing in these infinitely capable minds.
Aaron Montaigne, Tarot Bolero’s vocalist and lyricist, is a man whose reputation is bound to precede him. Not only was he the drummer of Heroin, one of the pioneering bands of the ’90s San Diego hardcore sound, Montaigne also led the equally-pioneering Antioch Arrow, a jagged, chaotic hardcore juggernaut that spazzed its way into goth-core waters by the band’s demise in 1995. Those expecting Montaigne to still sing like Christian Death’s Rozz Williams during a nervous fit of sexuality, however, will be surprised to hear his rich vibrato in Tarot Bolero, sounding (and looking) not unlike a sunnier Nick Cave, but still with a chip on his shoulder. No need to worry, though, because “Baron” Montaigne’s lyrics still walk the dark and spidery side of life.
Armed with yet another new lineup (the band has been through three since its inception in 1997), Tarot Bolero is prepared to hit the road this summer for an America-wide tour. During a vacation in his old stomping grounds of San Diego, Montaigne ruminated on the life of a vaude-villain.
Seeing that there are no other bands, at least to my knowledge, that sound anywhere close to Tarot Bolero, how would you characterize your band’s sound?
I guess, in a nutshell…it’s so hard, because what you hear on the record is kind of different from what we’re writing now. I’d say we’d probably be “punk cabaret” or something vaudeville. I feel like what we’d really like to go for is crooner type of stuff, like having a real strong presence in the frontperson kind of thing, and then orchestrating it. I don’t know, really.
Would you say Tarot Bolero’s sound is a rejection of modern music?
No, I’d say we’re a product of it, not so much as contemporary pop music on the radio in America is, though. I’ll hear stuff from abroad that could be classified within our genre, but I think (Tarot Bolero)’s more of a product of it, if anything. I mean, it’s not like we’re here because we’re dissatisfied with what’s going on (in American music) or anything.
Would you say it’s maybe ahead of its time, then?
I would say to people who’ve listened to bands that we were in before that we probably are ahead of our time. I would say to people in their thirties and forties that they’ve probably heard something like us before, say, in the ’80s. I guess it’s relative to what music they grew up with.
When Tarot Bolero originally began writing songs and playing out, what was the band’s modus operandi?
Since being in underground bands or whatever, we’ve been wanting to do something more than just be another underground band. So, our goals are set as high as far as how big we want to be. From the beginning, we’ve been wanting to take it as far as we can.
And how far would that be?
I guess something big, monetarily. I mean, everybody wants a lot of people to hear them. So, yeah, we want to be big rockstars ‘n’ all.
That’s understandable. Moving on, many people were expecting elements of the previous bands you guys have been in to filter into Tarot Bolero’s sound. Do you see any of those elements in your music now, or do you dismiss such expectations?
Well, live, we’re pretty crazy. That was an element of (Antioch Arrow and the VSS) I always kind of liked and we’ve always been interested in, live-wise. Musically, I’d say there’s a little bit of Antioch Arrow’s last album [ Gems of Masochism – find it!], all that artsy piano shit. Myra [Power, formerly of Slant 6] didn’t really have much to do with it as far as writing the music, so…I personally thought of Slant 6 as that garagey kind of thing, which I love Slant 6, so I’d say some of that element is in our sound. But, y’know, it was never really intentional to not have elements of our other bands. I guess we were kind of misguided as far as musical aesthetics. Now we’re kind of getting into, um, just wanting to do David Bowie-esque stuff, stuff where it’s diverse.
How would you compare your lyrical approach in Tarot Bolero to the one you had in Antioch Arrow?
I’ve always been interested in violence, like dark and weird kind of stuff, so that’s the link between then and now, I’d say. I’m a little more interested in orchestrating lyrics that are attached more to a storyline now, but I really didn’t do that in Antioch Arrow, which was more about random lyrics, things that sounded like great sentences. So, I’d probably say that’s different. But as far as themes go, I’m still interested in things like cutting up, pretty girls, sex, and whatever.
Always good touchstones. Vocally and musically, how did you make the transition from playing jagged, artsy hardcore to dark cabaret-pop?
During the latter part of Antioch Arrow, I wasn’t really happy with the music. I mean, looking back on it now, it’s nostalgic, but I wasn’t completely happy after, like, the first year we were together. Even back then, I was more interested in doing a more “musical” kind of thing than Antioch Arrow. I mean, Antioch Arrow was musical, but it was more about freaking out onstage, I don’t know, but in a thin, white-boy kind of way. I guess I just wanted something more musical, something with more of a melody, so that’s what I’m doing now.
What prompted your move from San Diego to Washington, DC? Did the move affect your musical aspirations for Tarot Bolero?
Um…maybe. I don’t really know, because I was in love, and that’s why I moved. When I was younger I really liked Rites of Spring, but while living there [in DC] I really wasn’t friends with that many people – it was like every band there sounded the same. I can’t believe that many people still play that kind of music. It seems like every band there only progressed as far as Hoover – it really annoys me.
We live in New York now, which is pretty fun and crazy, because you can do anything – you can play any kind of music you want, and there’ll be people who’ll appreciate it – whereas in DC, it’s real scene-y. I mean, I love DC but it’s hard to be in a band there that doesn’t sound like the Make-Up or Fugazi. But that’s from my experience.
Musically and socially, how would you compare the two scenes?
It’s easier to play music (in DC), because everybody has house shows there, a lot more bands there, whereas (in San Diego), there’s only like two decent bands around now. Socially, I’d say it’s pretty much the same. There’s the older kids and the younger kids, and they don’t really interact much – they just look at each other in awe. The older kids look down [on the younger ones] and say, “oh, it was fun when we all hung out in gangs,” and the younger ones look up to them and say, “oh, we want to be just like that!” So, it’s kind of the same wherever you go. I think it’s important to have a clash like that.
I guess you and Myra [Power, former guitarist of Tarot Bolero] are separated now, but what was it like playing in a band with someone you loved?
It’s not anything I’d suggest to people, because you can’t really treat that person the way you would, say, a guitarist you’re friends with. Sometimes you want to be harder on the person you love, but you’re afraid it might cause some emotional distress…I don’t suggest it. It’s just something I would never do again.
So what prompted the separation, if I may ask?
I just think nothing lasts forever, especially love – it doesn’t last forever. I think you have think it will last forever so you can give it your all. But, personally, I don’t think it does.