If there’s one thing anyone can agree on about music that falls under the Goth umbrella, it’s that it has roots all over the place: classical, metal, classic rock, electronic…the list goes on. Personally, I’m always thrilled to stumble upon a musician who not only is a product of these styles, but seems to embody them. I caught up with Michael Shulman, a hard-rock violinist who plays his violin like Alexi Laiho plays guitar, to discuss his musical style, current projects, and how he gained recognition through an unusual avenue: playing violin in New York subways.
Lily: You studied violin as a child in Russia, but have said that you didn’t like being made to practice, or the repertoire that was picked for you. I think a lot of beginning instrumentalists might agree with that one -what made it change for you when you came back to the violin as an adult, and was it difficult arriving at the style you have now?
Michael Shulman: I liked playing as a child as well as my repertoire actually, but I wasn’t in the right state of mind to do systematic and meticulous daily practices, which the instrument such as a violin requires. Let’s just say – my mind was somewhere else… I also liked being outside and to have a lot of fun with my friends. Naturally, when I grew up and left my home-country all that innocent fun ended and that, in itself, eventually helped me build-up my adult mind and perception of the world in large. So in a way, it was like a trade-off. My playground/playtime became my stage and I have the best of times when I’m performing. But the calmness of a balanced adult-mind makes it fun for me to actually practice and I still like learning new things.
So even though, to start music early is essential for harmonious artistic growth, I say that studying as an adult will be far more constructive if a person has a high determination to succeed.
My own style was always somehow embedded in me, naturally. It’s very instinctual. All I did was to keep polishing it through the years. Not to make it sound too easy though – it was a lot of hard, merciless work bringing my true sound from the base of my feelings on through to the speakers.
Lily: Do you think that being a metal violinist gives you advantages in the music industry? What encouraged you to explore the darker side of the violin?
Michael Shulman: There is always an element of the “cool” factor when you are doing something original and unexpected. That does help getting people to notice/pay attention. But the real artist doesn’t really need a “style” to express him/herself, though. A great artist makes his/her own style. Personally I do try to build my own foundation, and just like a painter using colors I like to use variety of sounds and characteristics which of course are rooted in the musical history of our world. Breaking out from the constraints of a particular style while maintaining your own integrity and identity is probably the greatest blessing an artist can have. I hope I’m heading in that direction myself, but being a child of such a progressive modern age I do respond to the frequencies of our everyday-life. Today’s music is the direct representation of the spirit of our times, just like it was in the times of Classical music etc. I am addicted to the sound of distortion, energetic sounds and sharp beats, and like mostly everyone have to have at least a minimum amount every day. It excites me. There are exceptions to the rule of course as well as there are times for musical calm and meditation. Keep in mind that my own understanding and interpretation of music is very personal. I do my best to translate how I feel into words.
Lily: What other musicians do you admire? Are there any bands right now that you would like to collaborate with?
Michael Shulman: I am a huge music aficionado. I try to be in touch with current musical acts as well as learning about artists I might have missed-out on.
I am very open to all sorts of collaborations with the artists that I know and like. Many dreams go unfulfilled though, like in a case of Michael Jackson or Type O Negative. There is also a difference in my mind between some artists that I admire and the ones I’d like to collaborate with. I’m only interested in sharing the experience with somebody when I feel that I indeed have something of value to add to the mix. Personally, I think it would be a lot of fun to jam with Buckethead, Yngwie Malmsteen and Marty Friedman. It would be interesting to write music together with someone like Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Tuomas Holopainen (Nightwish) or Satyr Wongraven (Satyricon). Then again, if the right opportunity will present itself – I will consider it.
Lily: Since 1998, you’ve put out 10 albums, including, most recently, Home. That’s incredible. Each of these albums is wildly different, including everything from folk melodies to classical music, but always showcasing your signature “shred violin”. Do you have a favorite of these albums, or is it like trying to pick a favorite child?
Michael Shulman: Well, actually “Home” is number eleven. The “discography 1998 – 2010” has ten albums and was released last year with only a couple of these discs ever being available in some shape or form before. The simple truth is that in 2010 I had a near-death experience, and that shock of feeling my life slipping away shook me-up so much that it greatly changed my approach to life and it also made me realize many important aspects that I wasn’t aware of before. I was very frightened, to say the least. The thought of passing without leaving a trace, artistically, was adding to my despair. So much was sacrificed in order for me to play my music, yet I still haven’t made a “name” for myself. This way of thinking directed me to look back and re-evaluate some aspects of my life as an artist. I realized that I had a lot to share with a vast library of recordings kept in my ‘private archives,’ many of which I kept to myself because I was a perfectionist and to me – nothing was really ‘good enough’ to release to the public. That all changed however when realization crept in that I might not have time for a better opportunity to share my music. I wanted to leave something behind. A ‘legacy’ if you will… It was also only fair to the fans, who perhaps were wondering how my progress as a musician grew over all those years. Most of those recordings were done under extreme circumstances and without ‘quality control’ and were conceived for variety of reasons. Some were early demos that I worked on in hopes to re-record them one day, some was music improvised live. There were actually a lot of really cool things that I re-discovered. When I started assembling the music into albums, I got very lucky with a lot of wonderful and talented friends/fans who volunteered to create the artwork. Nina Red in particular made an outstanding job with no less than three CD covers. Unfortunately, she wasn’t available to make the layout for my “Home” album. However – that made me discover another ultra-talented graphic-design team “Mandem” who did an excellent job for it. Speaking of “Home” – I think it’s my absolute best work so far. Even though I recorded it under big physical, mental and financial pressure – I really poured my heart and soul into these songs. It actually is a concept album about a lifespan of a person. This album is a great introduction to my over-all style and sound. It really is all about the songs this time, even though there are some excellent/exciting “Shred Violin” solos as well. This also marks an official entry of me not only as a violinist and multi-instrumentalist but also a vocalist. As for my older recordings – personally, I’d listen to “Shulman/Tonne” – ‘Rebirth In Color’ anytime, with pleasure. “Paganini XXI Century” Demo has lots of nice tunes in it. Also, “Spartan” mini-CD – however short of an album – is a very good composition.
Lily: Do you have favorite songs to perform, either that you’ve composed or that others have composed?
Michael Shulman: I am still rehearsing my new material, and time will surely tell which songs will really translate well into a live setting. So far I have been enjoying performing “Home,” “Last Tango On Earth” and “My Own Private Universe.”
Lily: How many violins do you own, and what make are they? What about strings?
Michael Shulman: By default, I am using E.F. Keebler electric violins. They are the best on the market and absolutely are worth any money. I have two of his models. One is a custom hand-made 5-string ‘Black Dragon’ and the new retail-model ‘Warhorse’ which sounds even better. For electric violin – strings play a lesser role than on acoustic.
Lily: What do you like best about being a musician in this day and age?
Michael Shulman: I guess it’s easier for fans to reach you, but it also makes the whole experience seem less mystical.
Lily: You sing on some of your albums, and also dance during your performances. Do you have any other artistic interests (writing, drawing, etc) or pursuits?
Michael Shulman: Actually I am in the early stages of teaching myself to dance and to sing. That alone is years of work, right there. Not to mention that I would still like to improve on a violin. I’ve only scratched the surface… But I am interested in writing, especially considering that my next album will feature full-length songs with lyrics. But first, I want to make sure I have something worthwhile to say. I want to speak from the deepest of myself and touch the heart and soul of the listener. So I will really take extra-care this time.
Besides music-related activities it would be nice to pick-up painting and photography again. I would also like to try out making a motion picture one day. Of course I am greatly interested in Martial Arts, Kung-Fu in particular, and hope to keep on practicing all my life.
Lily: You have quite a few fans in the Gothic subculture. Metal is pretty much a given, but do you consider yourself a Gothic artist?
Michael Shulman: Really? That’s good to know. I’m not too keen on genres and labels, there are so many little nuances – it can easily become confusing, but sure, if I had to generalize – I’d say there is a great deal of “Gothic” feel and imagery embedded in my music. I am a fan of “Gothic-Metal” and I appreciate “Gothic” culture a lot.
Lily: In other interviews, you’ve said that you taught yourself to play violin while wearing gloves so that you could play outdoors in the New York winter, and that you never compromise your unique style of playing even when playing classical pieces. That takes so much dedication. Do you have any advice to offer to aspiring musicians?
Michael Shulman: There is no quick remedy that will automatically help… I will say this – try to forget that you’re playing an instrument as you make music. Let it be all “you.” An instrument is nothing but a tool that will obey your spirit. Learn how to command it and mend it into something that you want to express. Be honest with your self-expression. Remember, you may try and fool anybody, but never yourself. Have a lot of patience, be ready to sacrifice everything. Don’t expect to receive praise and gratitude from your passion. Do it for your own sake and to help others with no expectations. Music is after-all not unlike Love.
Lily: Are you working on any new projects right now?
Michael Shulman: My main project right now is the promotion of my new album “Home” – I endured hardships to make it and I still endure hardships to be able to promote it. I need to get as much exposure as I can right now – namely: TV, Radio and Magazines. I have a free Promo containing three new songs available in my Shop (http://blackviolin.com/shop/index.php).
It’s an important transition right now for me not only as a violinist/dancer but also a “new-born” singer, tirelessly working and perfecting everything. I want all aspects of my performance to be on the same level of excellence.
I am also planning to start saving money to buy a computer-studio recording set-up so I could start working on my new album this Summer. This is where the help from fans and their support is crucial. 100% of all my album sales so far went into my live performance/recording set-up. I have big plans. I’m lucky to still be here and hopefully to have a chance of success on an International level.
Lily: Okay, last one…people often talk about the “Big Four” of metal or Goth (the ones I see a lot are Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, or The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees, respectively). Do you have your own personal Big Four?
Michael Shulman: My understanding is that “Big Four” has to be connected style-wise. Since I have so many favorite styles, it would be impossible for me to think of something particular, unless specified. However – if I had a choice to assemble any 4 acts together (of all times) to see them perform live (each of them I’d give an hour and a half of playtime, no less) – I’d say (in no particular order) – Michael Jackson, ‘Queen’ with Freddy Mercury, ‘The Beatles’ (circa “Revolver”) and ‘Agatha Christie’ (Агата Кристи, a Russian Rock-group).
Michael can be found online at his website, www.blackviolin.com, or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Michael-Shulman-Official