It takes real courage to tackle the collective works of Edgar Allan Poe in a music project... which would explain why there have been so few takers since the literary icon shuffled off his mortal coil. When I learned melodic hardcore band Alesana had interpreted Poe's works in a rock-opera format for their third studio album The Emptiness, I was skeptical... but that soon gave way to amazement once the album's story unfolded before my eyes and ears. The twisted romantic tragedy – revolving around the characters of “The Artist,” his eternal love Annabel (based on the subject of Poe's final poem “Annabel Lee”), and his eerie nemesis “The Thespian” – plays out in song, print and sketches, forming a world that is both melancholy and terrifying. The rapid tonal shifts between the band’s multiple vocalists and the blend of classical instrumentation with aggressive punk riffs captures the balance of tragic beauty and sheer madness embodied in so much of Poe's writing.
The lion’s share of the story & concept for The Emptiness was crafted by Alesana founder Shawn Milke, who graciously offered us some creative insights about the album, their insane new video for The Thespian (which you can also watch below) and his lifelong passion for all things horror, in print and on screen. Read on, watch, listen and learn...
FEARnet: Shawn, I know you’re gearing up for the road again soon, so thanks for taking the time to chat with us.
SHAWN: I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to do this interview... my sister Melissa and I are absolutely huge horror movie buffs and are such fans of FEARnet. Melissa – who does the female vocals on our records – actually falls asleep to FEARnet every night!
That's fantastic! I hope we've given you some inspiration. And congratulations on the success of The Emptiness... what kind of feedback have you been getting so far?
Beyond our wildest dreams... this record is one we've been building towards since we formed in 2004. Dennis [Lee, also vocalist] and I, who do all of the lyric writing and storytelling, based all of our previous work on famous literature and screenwriting and we used to daydream about the possibility of actually writing our own story and structuring a record around the twists and turns.
Are fans embracing the darker, more haunting themes?
The fans love the darkness of the material, because it complements our musical style quite well. Our most dedicated fans are aware of our tendency to focus on horror – and how twisted the human mind can be – and it's been such a pleasure sharing our story with them.
I was hooked immediately when I realized you'd created a Poe-themed album. What led you to do the rock-opera thing with Poe's life and writing?
In college, I was a Writing minor and I remember having to write a paper once on Poe. It’s actually kind of strange, because Dennis and I decided to fully focus on horror for the third record when we were in Germany last year. We tossed ideas back and forth and it was Dennis who eventually said, “What about Poe?” I jumped on the idea because I’ve always loved his horrific and yet eerily romantic style of writing; his ability to make death and loss so poetic. The moment we knew it was perfect was when it hit us that Poe is buried in Baltimore, Maryland. Alesana was started in Baltimore and we named the band after Alice Anna Street in Fells Point, in downtown Baltimore.
It does sound like it was fated to happen...
It was as if Poe and Alesana were destined to be tied together somehow.
The character of Annabel is central to your story... is The Emptiness basically an expansion of Poe's Annabel Lee?
Our story's not based on Annabel Lee, but rather inspired by it. It would be quite a daunting task to simply say, “Okay, Poe it is... now let’s just read everything he ever wrote and smash it all together and make a story.” That's just not what we wanted to do. As I mentioned, in the past we've based our songs on other stories, but this time around we wanted to write our own story. Poe was merely our mentor.
What role does Annabel play in your own tale?
We named our female lead after her to pay homage to Poe for inspiring us to create our very own horrific love story. We also called the ninth song In Her Tomb By The Sounding Sea, which was the last line ever published by Poe.
That finality makes it even more haunting. Another very authentic Poe touch is the album art, which seems to portray the drawings and words of a man descending into madness. Who came up with the visual concept?
I was very hands-on during the entire process of creating this story and this record; The Emptiness is definitely my baby. I'm a musician and a writer, but I am by no stretch of the imagination a sketch artist or a painter... or even a stick figure drawer. However, the idea behind the sketches came from me. I wanted the art work to, as you said, portray The Artist’s descent into insanity. After reading the actual short story – also called The Emptiness – you can gather that it was actually his sketches that alert Annabel to the fact that he is losing his mind.
Who actually drew The Artist's sketches?
We ultimately elected an artist named Patrick Perry to design the sketches. He was amazing, he was patient and motivated, and really dug deep into our story in order to help make the sketches an integral part of our presentation.
Another thing that meshes perfectly with the story is your musical approach to this album. It suits the romantic horrors of Poe, because it alternates between an almost sweet sadness and violent rage... like so many of Poe's characters, really.
Patrick [Thompson, lead guitarist] and I, who are the primary songwriters, had already written about half of the songs musically when we realized the material was feeling very – for lack of a better term – theatrical. It was right around this time that we decided on Poe. It was a pretty exciting moment when we noticed how well the feel of the music paired with the subject matter. Incorporating the string quartet helped to really make the story sound the way it felt: beautiful and eerie all at once. Every step in creating The Emptiness just seemed to fall perfectly into place.
The video for The Thespian does a great job capturing that same feeling, but also shoots off into some bizarre, unpredictable visual territory. Tell us the story behind that film...
We knew right from the start that the task of bringing the story to life inside of 3½ to 4 minutes would be daunting. Our director, Stephen Penta, and I spent countless hours on the phone throwing ideas back and forth. We ultimately decided that making the music video a period piece – such as the story is – would cause us to lose a lot of what we were trying to say, especially while working within the restraints of a budget. So while the video does visually bring The Emptiness to life, it does so in a more twisted way. It leaves the viewer asking, “When does this take place? Is this a dream? Is it not? Is she dead? Is he alive?” The important thing was to make it apparent that someone is losing their mind. The scene at the kitchen table is where I believe the whole story is revealed: The Artist is stuck between what he is chasing, Annabel, and what he is running from, The Thespian.
Those confrontations gave me the impression that you're portraying light and shadow aspects of the same character, even down to the different vocal styles. Am I reading too much into it, or would you say that's a good call?
I love the fact that you would even care enough to consider reading too much into it… that means the story is doing its job. I thank you for that!
It just seems to me that The Thespian, the dark side, wins out in the end.
You could say that The Thespian wins in the end... because he represents madness, and it is this very madness that leads Annabel to killing The Artist. Ultimately, however, nobody wins: The Artist loses his mind; Annabel loses her lover; and The Thespian and the evil he's attempting to create is thwarted by Annabel’s realization that The Artist is no longer who he once was.
So everyone's doomed... I think Poe would have approved. Did you and the director draw on any specific visual influences in creating the look of the video? I can see elements of classic horror films like Nosferatu or Vampyr in there.
Luckily for me, Stephen Penta is also a huge horror movie fan. But I would say, just as in music and a lot of forms of art, while the influence is certainly there, it becomes something unique in the end. In my opinion, influence and inspiration have bred some of the greatest artists in history. Everyone needs a starting point but it’s where you take the influence that leads to great things.
Very true. The scenes in the kitchen and the hallway seemed to synthesize some of David Lynch’s imagery, for example...
Yes, there's definitely some Lynch in there. One of my favorite things in horror is the idea of someone being chased by their own fears, which is what led to that climactic hallway scene.
That's also a recurring theme in Poe's works. Besides Poe, what other horror authors inspire you?
Stephen King, hands down, shaped my taste for horror. I remember lifeguarding one summer in high school at a condo pool where about three people swam every day. I read countless books that summer, highlighted by about twenty King stories. He's such a master of horror, even when he's telling stories that do not directly involve the traditional elements of horror, like The Body, or Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption.
In what ways has King influenced you creatively?
He led me to really explore different types of horror and the other ways that we, as readers or viewers, can be led to fear. I’m actually working on my first novel and have certainly been using the elements I’ve learned from authors such as King.
How about movies? What horror films are on your favorites list?
My favorite horror franchise of all time is Friday the 13th. Jason Voorhees is a badass, and I was very excited when he defeated Krueger in Freddy vs. Jason.
Interesting... so Freddy doesn't make the cut for you?
I love the A Nightmare On Elm Street franchise as well... because it haunts you in the one place you think you will always be safe, which is in your sleep.
Any favorites among the more recent crop of horror?
My favorites in recent years are The Ring, Saw, Hostel, Silent Hill, The Strangers, and Paranormal Activity. But you can’t go wrong with flicks like Drag Me To Hell, High Tension, and the Halloween remakes. Hatchet was pretty awesome, too.
You're an equal-opportunity horror fan, then…
The thing I love about horror is the many ways it can entertain: gore, twists, fear, torture, comedy, cornball. There are so many things to like about different styles of horror; it's the ultimate film genre. Horror is something I have been obsessed with since I was little... I might have been one of the only kids to have pictures of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger hanging in my bedroom.
I'm positive you weren't the only one... you'll find a lot of kindred spirits here. So, you've explored one man's personal fears in this album, but what about your own fears? What scares you the most?
Heights and death. I'm terrified of both. I don’t like most bugs either...
As an artist, do you find yourself inspired by the things that scare you?
Very much so. When I’m writing and I’m trying to get inside the mind of a character who is frightened, I immediately try to put myself in a position where I would be terrified. But honestly, being scared can be a lot of fun.