“When I find myself useless by my own standards, I’ll take my life. I will take a swan dive off the World Trade Center hopefully on top of someone I hate,” Type O Negative’s Peter Steele quipped while promoting his greatest commercial accomplishment, ‘96’s October Rust. Coming on the heels of ‘93’s fascinating Goth-metal breakout, Bloody Kisses, this gloomy rhapsodic follow-up gave the band an East Coast stronghold fortified by Steele’s naked Playgirl photos. But Steele never got to end his own life by way of his own hand, as jokingly promised.
A well-schooled, well-mannered giant of a man, Steele’s imposing frame hid the fact he was a sensitive individual with a waveringly thick Brooklyn accent. Born in the Red Hook section of Kings County, the heavily-pierced body builder seemed to be straightening his life out before dying of heart failure, April 14, 2010.
Expressing his insecurities through song, the ex-drug abuser was a composing vocalist-bassist who spent free time routing, welding, and doing home improvements. The sixth child of a Russian-Icelandic family whose grandfather’s cousin was Josef Stalin, he was the youngest and only male offspring. Taking guitar lessons at age 12, he moved to bass six months hence.
This interview took place at a Brooklyn eatery when Steele was 34 years of age. He died at the tender age of 48. He will be missed by a legion of Goth fans still unearthing Type O Negative’s worthy catalogue.
You seem to be a diehard romantic affably posing as a loony psycho-killin’ Goth rocker.
I am. The Goth term was thrust upon us by the media. People, in general, need to know where to put product. It’s like trying to hammer a semi-circular piece of wood into a circular hole. We kind of fit, but kind of don’t.
Do you think because you’re a big man with a deep baritone register that you’d have to contrast that image by being an incurable romantic? Otherwise, you’d be exploiting what’s obvious.
Ah, genetic engineering. I’ve always been very sensitive. That’s always contrasted greatly with my physical appearance. Sometimes people are taken aback by the contrast—which I find pleasing. Someone who’s big is expected to act a certain way. But when I act nice—I’ve become a good actor (insert sarcasm)—people are impressed.
You talk a lot about getting your heart broken in song.
Everyone does, though. Everyone gets screwed over. It’s part of being young. I’ve had many different girlfriends. I prefer tall women so I don’t have to bend down to kiss them because I have back problems. The incomplete evolution rears its ugly head. (laughter)
Is ‘My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend’ based on a true romantic tryst?
First, there’s the lesbian snicker. Then, there’s the comically absurd statement about what people’s beliefs are and what the true situation may be. The song was actually based on a few true life experiences which turned out to be quite pleasant. There are no philosophical implications. It’s purely flesh and fantasy. You definitely have to be up for (the menage a trios).
You’ve picked a few ‘70s tunes to cover on the last two albums: Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and Seals & Croft’s ‘Summer Breeze.’ How’d they fit in?
Both songs are only four chords—which is all we know. Those are obvious choices.
You use lush instrumentation to lather each track.
Reverb drowns out all the errors. What people think is Goth and genius and depth is just layers of mistakes. The reason we cover those songs is because being born in 1962 with five older sisters, each with their own stereo, I was always subjected to different music. The light sounds of the ‘60s/‘70s became some childhood favorites. When you hear these songs on the radio, I think of fond memories and good times. Like Frank Sinatra said, I wanna do it my way.
When will you do a Sinatra cover?
Like ‘Old Green Eyes’ (mocking Ol’ Blue Eyes)? Maybe we’ll save that for last.
Do your fans misunderstand or misinterpret your satirical sense of humor?
I’d say yes, especially since my humor’s based on sarcasm. You need a working knowledge of English to even pick up on it. When I’m sarcastic with people in Europe, sometimes they print it as I say it and it looks very strange. It’s all a mind game. Five years ago, I got completely screwed over by a woman and realized I had nothing to live for so I might as well use myself as a tool to see where my breaking point is.
You became the perfect existentialist.
If I don’t break, I’ll go far. That which doesn’t destroy me makes me crankier. People think I’m into metaphysical spiritualism. But I’m a serious science book fan and like physics and chemistry and ‘How To’ books. I refuse to pay money for something I could potentially do myself. When I’m home, that’s vacation. I like to work on my house and cars. I have weights to work out with. In-between, I like to eat, sleep, and shit.
Was the weightlifting…
Purely vanity. Low self-esteem. Feeling like a piece of shit all my life probably because I’ve always been really tall. But as a kid, I was kind of heavy. I was the perfect punching bag. I was big, but didn’t know how to fight back. I looked 15 but I was 10. I was completely introverted playing with HO trains in the basement. At 15, something happened, my balls got really big, I grew a foot, and gained a hundred pounds—but it wasn’t fat. The people who picked on me became best friends. Of course, with friends like that, who needs enemies. What I really wanted was a girlfriend. I was 19 and felt unattractive. Even to this day, the mirror is my worst enemy. I was born 24 inches long and 10 pounds. My mother said it was like giving birth to a pumpkin.
You’ve become a touch political on the last two releases.
Yes. I’m definitely pro-government. But there’s a pro-life party. I’m pro-death, for capitol punishment, pro-abortion, pro-Euthanasia—kill everybody. I have many sides.
Conversely, there’s an emotional conviction that’s more personal than social.
Having five sisters taught me quite a bit about women. I’d rather be around women than men. My best male friends are in the band.
Do you write and arrange all the band’s songs a la Pete Townshend of The Who?
It’s an understanding the band doesn’t have a problem with. I write ‘em, tell ‘em what to play, and the band doesn’t have a problem. If they want to add something, that’s ok. As long as it doesn’t stray away from the point.
What’s your archetypal song?
Hard to say. All my songs are like my children. Some are bad, but you love them equally because they all stem from myself. The whole first Type O record, I exposed my weaknesses to the world. I told them I got fucked over. It was therapy. I didn’t think that album would actually be pressed. It was a demo the record label gave us 30 grand for. Capitalist that I am, I took the money and handed them the tape. For awhile, people thought I was a psychopath.
How was October Rust a learning experience?
I learned to listen to my heart and not the business minds of people who’d rather do things for financial gain instead of a dignified reason like personal satisfaction. I’m going against the wishes of the record company and sometimes the band. I’d rather prostitute myself and be to blame for my own destiny. The record company wants more sensationalism, more sex, perhaps a pornographic booklet. I’m on a small label thriving on sensationalism. They need shock value to sell albums. I hope I’m passed that. The highest form of art is civil engineering and architecture. It’s not just something that looks good, but also is functional as well. Art should have function. It shouldn’t sit on the wall and do nothing.
Art should have an organic function. Paintings should be so imposing they change the room.
Definitely to make a statement and not sit there.
Timothy Leary was an interesting role model. He lived his life, didn’t try to be politically correct, and did his thing. He never backed off of advocating psychedelic drugs.
In this society that kills creativity, you need some kind of emotional rollercoaster to just stand outside the prism, look at the colors, step back inside, and remember what you saw.
What about drug abuse inside the art community?
I think people do drugs because they have too much time on their hands. Lately, with technology, the quality of life’s improved. Two-hundred years ago you tended fields for 12 hours, drank wine, and went to sleep. Life to me is work, coming from a father that implanted that in my head. If I wanted to, I could make my life one continuous party schmoozing. But I’m not the life of the party, I’m the death of it.
Photos by Mark Weiss for weissguygallery.com.