INTERVIEW: SERENA TOXICAT (ARTIST)
Serena Toxicat is an enigmatic and charismatic artist who has been working in different areas of arts and literature, among other things for a long time. I have been fortunate to work with her for almost 8 years and we are joined not only by music but by a long friendship thanks to the love of cats and Lisa Gerrard (Dead can dance), I leave you this extensive interview that Serena gave me.
By Manuel Knwell
1. Well it’s a pleasure to interview you, many years ago you told me that you left in the 80s playing Punk, how was that evolution until you reached Protea, your main Ambient music project?
Thank you, Manu! The pleasure is mine. I’ve always derived varying degrees of enrichment and expansion from your interviews with artists in our greater community.
Very early on in Spokane, WA I was singing in nameless punk projects that fell apart quickly after forming, but the early tracks that stick out in my mind were ethereal ones like “Edie,” which was a song written to celebrate Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. (I had a bit of an obsession with Edie Sedgwick at the time.) In San Francisco, my hometown, I had been writing lyrics for other people’s punk bands and helping them with promotion, dabbling in handmade zines, and hanging out on Haight Street at Bound Together anarchist collective bookstore as well as downtown at places like Blondie’s Pizza, where you didn’t need an ID.
I lived in Paris during the late 80s throughout part of 90s, and accepted a mainstream recording project with two other female vocalists. There, I attended acting school at the celebrated Cours Florent, and scored TV parts, including on a sitcom and for the French version of Candid Camera. I got stage roles, print modeling gigs, music video spots, and some cinema parts, too, I scored an acting role in a Gipsy Kings video, and did some energy healing work for LGBT icon Boy George, who opened for their show in a unique stylistic pairing. I was writing plays, as well, in French, and won awards at Le Cours Florent for a couple of my monologues.
Once back in San Francisco, I joined a Spanish-American band called Gypsy Caravan, mostly singing backup and dancing. Soon after, I met a group called Apocalypse Theatre, and sang with them for the span of two cross-country tours, during one of which we accompanied a band named Switchblade Symphony.
Protea came next, in recording project form–it took a few years before I was able to translate it to stage. I worked with thereminist Joey d’Kaye, who played in the punk band Crime, bassist tara ntula from Vague, Jeff Charest AKA Kat Karsecs, a master of Albanian and Asian string instruments, ARP drone artist and engineer Matt Azevedo, and guitarist Baron Rubenbauer of The Nuns, another punk legend. Baron and I put together our own band, Ephemeral Orchestra, around the turn of the millennium, bringing in some young cellists and violinists who were talents in their own right.
I simultaneously formed Catbox Theory with ntula. Now, I’m half of a project called Starchasm with Mitsuo (Mizzo) Unno from Japan, and I continue to evolve Protea. I have guested as a vocalist with quite a few musicians worldwide, including Otto Van Kleist in France, in a budding project called Sona Nyl. You connected us. And I’ve worked with you, Manu, on tracks celebrating Coil and other songs of great literal and figurative depth–such as Jules Verne–for Verney 1826’s compilation.
- Talk about you, is to talk about the arts in general, literature and modeling, which of you feel more comfortable and why?
If I were to choose just one, it would be writing. That was my first discipline, and I continue to release books. A few years ago, my novel Ghosts in Bones came out. It deals with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa in lower-income middle-aged women.
Now, I’m focused on painting in acrylics and multi-media, have work hanging in a couple of Bay Area galleries, and just published a cat-themed Tarot deck called the Incredible Psychic Meow! I have a clothing line called Toxicat Faxionz featuring these prints, and staged my first show for the line last Friday in Oakland.
- How did you become a model, with which photographers did you work? I was in Stars—and then Look—agencies in San Francisco, and continued as an older teen to Paris, where I jumped from agency to agency, scoring commercial jobs for makeup, cars, champagne, loungewear—you name it. When I came back, I did some mainstream work for clothing companies, finally making my way to the alternative and fetish spheres. Al Baccari, Charles Gatewood, Steve Gatlin, Collin J. Rae…these were just a few of my favorite photographers. Ayda Meisami is another gem—a true fine artist. Working with female photographers was a rare pleasure, decades ago, and female-only collaborations still hold a distinct allure. I wish I’d had the opportunity to shoot with Bettina Rheims. Maybe someday!
- The spiritual aspect for you is very important, I understand that you are in a religion that is based on the Egyptians, you can tell us more of this please.I run a temple of the feline goddess Bast, or Bastet, in Oakland, and was ordained a priestess in the Fellowship of Isis at Isis Oasis Sanctuary in Geyserville. The California fires almost miraculously spared us (seemingly—I don’t think there is a literal choosing that takes place). We temporarily relocated our beloved ocelots, servals, exotic birds and other creatures, and they have just been returned to the premises.
We are trying to get the news outlets to stop using the acronym ISIS for a certain nefarious organization. Isis/Auset/Iset is rising again, and Her name should not be defiled.
5. There are two musical projects that have changed your life, one has to do with Dead Can Dance and with Lisa Gerrard and the other with Coil, what was your relationship with them? How important were you in your life and why?
A friend from the now-defunct Horseshoe on Haight turned me on to Dead Can Dance when I moved back to the city from Paris. I was stunned–just astonished. And from then on, Lisa Gerrard was my all-time favorite vocalist. To this day, she is a great role model. She is self-taught with her own language, and I can relate to that, as I am mostly self-taught with a language I developed and used for a while in my songs. I first experienced DCD at the Greek Theater, while in a psilocybin-tinged state, and have seen/heard them several times since, including at a fairly recent gig back at the Greek. And yes, Manu, I do recall when she let us know via Twitter that she liked our music!
I had the honor of witnessing Coil at the Convergence that took place in New York in 2001. There’s not much to say about the legend which is Jhonn Balance, except that he was quite jovial and interactive with the audience that night, and this was the only known time that Martin Schellard, Danny McKernan, and Matthew Gibson played with Coil live. The song “Something” still haunts me. Innovative acts like this are the stuff of quantum leaps in the right direction. If I, as an experimental artist, were not in awe of this entity, I would be a sad lump of dough.
- Do you have a musical project called Starchasm with a Japanese musician, how would you define what you do there and how it happened with a musician from another country?
Mitsuo Unno contacted me back in the Myspace days to sing with him on this project! He was–and still is—in a solo project called Tribal Snake. It was an honor, as he is quite accomplished as a musician. We work in the electronic ambient niche, among other experimental genres. It was still somewhat novel to send tracks back and forth around the known universe for collaboration. We are still together, developing and collaborating.
- I understand that you have also been an actress in a couple of movies, how did you come to this and what were the films you participated in?
Since I’ve been in Oakland, CA, I have featured in several films. I think you’re familiar with Terrence Kelsey’s horror short, “spek.ter.” I also had a part with Gitane Demone in James Leon’s feature-length film, “Dropping Like Flies.” You probably know about that one. Protea and Starchasm are on the soundtracks, as well. There is a sequel in the works for DLF titled “Ashes 2 Ashes.” I’ve done those and a few others in the past decade.
- I understand that you have lived in Paris and that you have French blood, how was the experience of living in France and what do you think of the political situation in France and in general Europe?
Yes–some of my best friends are still in Paris, and I am due for another visit! I lived there almost eight years. I didn’t grow up around French, and I was adopted, but had enough knowledge of the language from school to get me through once I arrived. Jean-Marie Le Pen was a very real, active political threat when I was living there back in the late 80s through the mid-90s. Marine Le Pen, his youngest daughter, is appealing to the French mainstream to give the poor devils a break, and just stepped down as president of Le Front National. France was the first European country to ban the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public. This, too, is an issue which remains current.
- In a sentence that is for you: Donald Trump.
Is Donald Trump a supremely unfortunate joke or a surefire threat to our country’s safety and the security of the world at large? It depends who you ask. With the reckless “Cheeto” in power here and his nutty, albeit less orange, analogs in Europe and beyond, I, personally, fear for the entire planet–for people of color, for women, for religious and gender minorities–and for the fate of the actual planet: Gaia. Earth. After tweeting what came across as a martial invitation to Kim Jong-un a few short weeks ago, I’m going to say both, but especially the latter. Can Dennis Rodman save the world from either leader? It sounds like part of a movie plot, but believe it or not, he just might. I recently went to Canada to get to know my sister, as I learned I had siblings when I discovered facts about my birth family that led to a meeting three years ago–and found myself apologizing for Trump’s existence to every new pair of eyes that met mine. There are those who laugh at the US there, and many who are scared of us. I don’t blame any of them one bit.
- Where is your love born for cats and animals in general?
The first voice recording of me as a child is a Mother Goose rhyme that goes: Hey diddle diddle, The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon. I have just always loved kitties. We had dogs growing up, and I adored them, too. Animals are no longer living in balance with the planet, and that is our fault. As Trump denies climate change, this will only get worse at their expense.
Working with the wild felines at Isis Oasis gives my life a greater purpose. Some of my best friends are bobcats, ocelots, servals, jungle cats–and cats in general.
11.You sang in the pyramid King’s Chamber, how was that experience of singing in a sacred place like that? And did you feel like the leader of Killing Joke who recorded a record in a pyramid in Egypt, you recorded in more sacred places in other parts of the world?
Yes, as Killing Joke would likely tell you (all levitation, exorcisms, and demons aside), there is a weight, a resonance, a sense of history and a sacredness in this space. As you might expect, electronic effects cannot replicate it, as all 16-second delays are not created equal. This event was the highlight of my career as a singer and as a priestess. I have sung in a few temples and cathedrals around the world, and those moments were very humbling, as well.
Do you work as a coach, for what purpose do you do this?
I was certified as an NLP life coach several years ago. My specialty is helping artists decide what they want and walking them through the planning and execution of their steps, as well as aiding people who want the best tattoos for themselves and their lifestyle. I help them decide on the designs, plan the process, find the right artist–but more than that, find a place for this unique type of art in their lives. Some people shouldn’t have (visible) tattoos at all. Most career paths in this country are still behind–thousands of years, if you think about it–in terms of what they will accept.
- Have you collaborated with many musicians I imagine during your musical career, which are the ones that you have felt comfortable and proud to have recorded and why?
Oh my Goddess, many! If you look at the above question regarding Protea, you’ll see just a few.
- How did your fondness for tattoos grow and which tattoo artists have done work for you?
Either a person will stop at one tattoo because of the pain or just a general lack of enthusiasm, or they’ll continue on. I’m not fully illustrated, but certainly getting there! The passion organically grew. I received an empowerment from a rinpoche in Seattle in 1995. The resulting souvenir was the mantra of Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion, in a lotus mandala on my left shoulder. Taken aback, my Buddhist teacher asked me if the tattoo was permanent. I replied, “There is only impermanence.”
Amy Justen was my main tattooer for a while, until she left the state. The other artists people may know include Chris Conn, Freddy Corbin, and Colin Stevens. I love Gordon Combs, Shannon Archuleta, and Mary Joy Scott, as well. There are too many to name!
- I understand that you are a journalist by profession, have you worked on it? And what are your books about?
I actually haven’t done too much in the way of journalism–just a little here and there in the world of performing arts, including with Sidewalks Entertainment for television. I am primarily a novelist, a playwright, a lyricist and a poet. My books are about touring with quirky goth bands, anorexia treatment (or lack thereof), and the struggle that many patients endure, as well as spirituality and metaphysics–and, of course, cats.
- You feel like a medium that through you the ancestral peoples speak and communicate with this universe.
An Egyptologist once said that my vocals sound like what came from the priestesses and priests of ancient times. We can’t know for sure what they sounded like, of course, but these chants do come quite naturally to me, as do the corresponding emotions, and even some of the syllables and words–at least, this is what was told to me while visiting Egypt. It wasn’t always a charismatic “speaking in tongues” type of thing that was happening there, it was also a spontaneous channeling in full beta consciousness. In any case, this was expressed in the form of toning at the Hathor temple and worshiping at many other sacred sites. I am far from the only such medium, and this is a very natural part of the human condition, not rare at all.
- Do you have even more dreams to fulfill in this life and what would they be?
Oh, definitely! Several. It would be amazing to have my own cat sanctuary. Of course, that requires land, money, vets, and a lot of volunteers.
- Name me the five most important records in your life.
Only five? Hmm… The Mirror Pool by Lisa Gerrard, This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End in Tears, Diamanda Galás – Masque of The Red Death, Coil – The Remote Viewer, Spleen and Ideal – Dead Can Dance.
- Name the five films that influenced you the most in your life.
Again only five? Les Ailes du Désir Wim Wenders and Bruno Ganz, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel, Kūmāré by Vikram Gandhi, Frida by Julie Taymor, and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.
- If you had to make an analogy of Protea’s music with a painting, what would it be and why?
A painting is better seen than described, but I liken it to a mysterious flower in a cozy dungeon with a crystal divinatory pendulum and a cup of catnip tea.
- What do you think about copyright?
It has its uses. There is the concept of music belonging only to the wind, but we have to protect our asses, too.
- How would you describe your life in general, do you feel full or is there something you want to have?
My life is very rich and full. I do need more money, though. I’ve given away too much in the art world–more than I care to tally. I’m sure you feel the same way at times. Who doesn’t, except maybe the 1%. We all deserve to make a living from our art, but this is not a society that values artists.
- The love in you in what things is reflected beyond a relationship of pair.
One word: Cat.
- Have you read Blavatsky, what do you think of her?
Yes, back in the 90s during mystery school. She was a pioneer, but I recall her being denounced as a racist. Of course, that is a disputed point, and her supporters will say she was not racist at all, while others will contend that she was, in fact, a racist and an anti-Semite–and that this made her a major influence to the Nazis.
- What countries would you like to meet and why?
I have been meaning to go to Tibet since way back when tourism was not so heavily restricted. I still want to go to the surrounding areas. I’d like to help the manul/Pallas’ cat population in Mongolia, visit the cat cafes in Japan, and of course meet Mitsuo at one of them!
- What are your favorite painters and the pictures you love and how do you describe your painting?
I love Laurie Lipton’s intricacy, Kendra Binney’s whimsy, Margaret Keane’s eyes and persona, and dark classics like Bosch, Van Gogh, and Renoir (the last especially for his Girl and Cat). I am intrigued by the art of Carl Olof Larsson, Louis Wain, Susan Herbert, Théodule-Augustin Ribot, Arthur Rackham, Carl Kahler, Omura Koyo, and Alfonse Mucha–all different stripes, if you will. I love many artists.
- What are your favorite metal bands and have you singing in any of that style.
I’ve only dabbled in black metal vocals on my own. I like metal bands that metal purists probably wouldn’t even call metal. I prefer the symphonic and neoclassical genres. I think Yngwie Malmsteen got that ball rolling.
- What are your most important spiritual masters, what have they taught you in this life?
The Dalai Lama, Loreon Vigne, Olivia Robertson, among others. They taught me so much more than spirituality and metaphysics, especially Loreon, who was like a second mom to me.
- Any message you want to leave us, thank you.
Join with any organizations you can to help destigmatize mental illness. So many of us suffer in needless silence. Same goes for domestic violence. Be kind to animals and each other. Is there anything more valuable to this world than kindness?
Links Serena Toxicat: