This week’s topic for the Pagan Experience was anything that started with G or H. Well, when I see the two letters written side-by-side like that, I am distinctly reminded of the days of Gallows Hill.
Not a lot of people know this about me these days, but I used to be in a goth rock band, and Gallows Hill was our group name. We were named for the infamous Gallows Hill Park in Salem, MA.
I met Kevyn LeBlanc, band leader and guitarist, over MP3.com. You guys remember MP3.com? There was a time when it was the best place to find Indy music. A lot of Pagan bands made their name there; it’s where Parnassus, now Chalice and Blade, got its start. I was posting some of my independent filk and folk music, and I was contacted by Kevyn because he wanted to put The Pendragon’s Sword to some gothic guitars. It was 1999 and I was a shy, insecure young woman then. I was excited that someone liked my stuff enough to want to cover it.
That never came to fruition but that started a whole conversation and a legendary friendship. Kevyn was trying to get his band Gallows Hill off the ground and his vocalist had recently quit. He envisioned the band as kind of an American answer to Inkubus Sukkubus, and would I mind laying down the vocal tracks to a couple of songs just so that he could present sort of a demo to the public?
Our first experiment was a song written by a wonderful woman named Anderson Mar who was a friend of Kevyn’s and very influential in the Boston goth scene called “Grave Situation.” We recorded it and despite the amateur mixing job we made the top twenty of the goth rock charts at MP3.com.
More songs followed: a song about a vampire (probably an inevitability at the height of Anne Rice’s popularity,) a morbid song about the lure of suicide; a song about sex (and lesbian sex at that; again not a common thing then.) Before long I was introduced to Roy Adams, the band’s keyboardist, videographer and producer. He was starting a small record label called Dark Valley Records. I got on with him really well also, and I really loved Kevyn’s girlfriend Jessica and Roy’s lovely wife Diana, also a musician. (You can see both of them in the “Grave Situation” video.) She was doing something which was still controversial back then; she was the female lead singer of a death metal band she and Roy were working on called 13 Winters.
We used the ICQ file transfer function quite a lot because Kevyn and Roy were both located on the other side of the continent, and across the 49th Parallel, in Old Orchard Beach, ME. At the time, collaborations over the internet were rather avant garde and no one thought it would work; least of all Kevyn. But when our recording of “Solace” (another Anderson Mar song; most of our best stuff was written by her IMO) hit number three on the goth rock charts at MP3.com and stayed in the top ten for two months, Kevyn asked me formally to be the band’s vocalist and I accepted with delight. Now all we had to do was find a drummer to replace the horrible electronic drums we mixed in with Fruity Loops!
We made do with being across the country from each other and we started working on promotional materials. One of the biggest things I learned from my Gallows Hill experience is that as an artist, you spend a lot of time promoting your own work. You probably do as much promotion as you do music. We entered some Battles of the Bands competitions, submitted demos to internet radio stations, and so on and so forth. In one major internet Battle of the Bands competition I promised all the guys from my D&D gaming site Fantaseum that I would send a signed naked picture of me to anyone who voted for us if we won. And we did! (And I delivered.) 😉
I also learned that no matter what you do you can’t please everybody. Some people thought we were brilliant; others that we were talentless hacks. People have no problems expressing such opinions in the nastiest ways possible, either. The problem is that music is about opening your soul, so it’s hard not to take it personally. I guess all art is that way (I certainly find it’s true of writing also.) You either develop a thick skin or give up, which is probably why so many successful musicians don’t seem to give a damn about the opinions of others regardless of how extreme their behaviour.
We needed to get together to do gigs and do some rehearsing and recording. Then Greyhound offered a special deal called a “Go Anywhere Fare.” Just under $300 would take you anywhere in North America as long as you did all your travelling within 30 days.
It was perfect! I booked the trip and Kevyn booked us a couple of gigs. Going across the continent over five days on a Greyhound was its own adventure that’s probably worthy of another post. Long before the accident, Erin kissed me goodbye then and unbeknownst to me didn’t expect me to return. Before 9/11 I almost got stopped at the border because I don’t think the border guards believed I was going to do recording with my band; that kind of thing wasn’t common then. But eventually I did get to Maine and after a day’s rest to recover from the trip we got right to work.
Three weeks was effectively what we had to work with to do all of our gigging, rehearsing, recording and so forth, so we needed to make the most of it. Within 24 hours of arriving in Maine we filmed the graveyard sequences for the “Grave Situation” video. Within three days we were rehearsing; within five we were recording. A week later we filmed the footage for the “Solace” video (which I hate, by the way. I think it’s a terrible video and I think I look terrible in it with the bad lighting. But be that as it may . . . )
We took some time to have fun, however. We explored the oak forests and the beaches. The guys made sure I got to eat proper Maine lobstah and chowdah. We had quite the mixture of accents between my BC drawl, Kevyn’s languid Connecticut, Jessica’s Kentucky belle (I came home with a touch of that and it took me three months to stop saying “sofa” and “soda” for “couch” and “pop,”) our roadie Chris’ choppy Bostonian and Roy and Diana’s native Mainer (this is the cast of characters from the “Grave Situation” video.) I could barely understand a word Chris said and felt like a complete idiot about it!
We went into Boston and down to Salem, MA, where I toured the Witch Memorial and visited Laurie Cabot’s store. It was like visiting a Witch’s Mecca. We didn’t get to see the Witch Museum because it was the off-season. But we did make it to Gallows Hill Park, and we saw the hill where the Salem witches were hung. I could see why; it was a place that was high up enough to be seen for miles. Now it’s a children’s park, with a playground in one part and a skate park in another. I got the sense that the ghosts of the dead were pleased that this place of sadness had been changed into a much happier place.
We did a backyard gig as sort of a dress rehearsal, then we traveled to the bigger one in Hartford, CT. We joined two other Pagan metal bands there. I don’t remember the name of one of them but we got on really well with the group called Divine Cycle. Their favourite song of ours was our Silent Hill video game tribute “Mark of Samael.” This was before the days of Malukah and of the popularity of YouTube and no one else was doing that kind of thing then, so it had mixed reviews. But we had a great time! Having decided that yes, there was a future for our band, I went home and we made more plans to work together.
It was never to be. Roy and Kevyn, never on the easiest terms with each other, argued. Jessica left Kevyn and he had to move. He lost his job. Roy quit the band in favour of 13 Winters; I guess it worked out the best for him because they’re still recording. Kevyn decided to move to Seattle so that we could continue to work together on Gallows Hill and our other studio projects like Avalon Burning (which was a sortie into the newly-minted “genre” of “epic metal”; we were in the process of recording a rock opera around R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy.)
But the Canadian border guards took exception to Kevyn’s appearance and wouldn’t let him across the border. Kevyn struggled to get work and then I was in a car accident and I lost my job because I couldn’t work for three months due to soft tissue damage. Eventually Kevyn had to move back to Connecticut, where his mom lived. Our last track we wrote as a band was “Tears of the Jackal,” a kind of sympathy-for-the-devil Kemetic piece for Anubis.
I was really disillusioned with music at that point. I felt slapped in the face by the Universe. I suppose our story is no different from so many others; so many bands who almost made it. It’s disappointing because I know if we’d managed to hold out we would have been hugely successful because so much of what we were doing, which was avant garde then, became extremely popular five years or so later.
As a footnote to the story, this past year Anderson Mar died suddenly in a tragic fire. We put together a tribute video using one of the songs she wrote, which is in my opinion the best Gallows Hill song, “Dead Love.”
I sometimes wonder if I might do better to pursue a future in music, and I stab at it half-heartedly every now and then. But my heart was broken. Besides, at forty I’m an old lady as far as music is concerned. I knew when I grew up I was going to be a writer or a rock star. I tried to be a rock star, and I came within sight of the goal before I fell on my face. I hoped to be a novelist but I’m having real trouble breaking into speculative fiction, which is what I want to do. But at least I’ve succeeded in writing a book!