As Convergence Festival Turns 25, A Look at the State of Goth In America

Diary of Dreams - Epicon
Courtesy Photo

Diary of Dreams, "Epicon"

As it goes through inevitable cycles, the goth subculture in America recharges and soldiers on. Beyond the "dead, undead" jokes inspired by Bauhaus lyrics, this dark underground has persevered for over four decades in America and Europe. Starting tonight (May 3) in Boston, the long-running and ever-moving Convergence festival celebrates 25 years of uniting goth, industrial and darkwave fans both musically and socially.

The live performances for Convergence 25 (check out the schedule here) in Boston will take place nightly at Brighton Music Hall through Sunday (May 5), along with daytime events at other venues including a tea party, whiskey tasting, cemetery tour, fashion swap and an aquarium tour. Musical headliners include Diary of Dreams (Germany), London After Midnight (Los Angeles) and Imperative Reaction (Phoenix). After-show parties will be held every night through Tuesday (May 7). This year's six-person committee — co-chairs Juliet Brownell-Lee, Tony Lee, Jared Helfer, Amy Black, tea party/group outings coordinator Nicole Aucoin and graphic designer Allen Black — have been organizing the event since last August. Aucoin has been to 22 previous Convergences.

The goth community has been connected through the Internet since the '90s, with Convergence serving as a real-world gathering place for net.goth denizens and others. The festival debuted in Chicago in 1995, and since then it has been held across North America in cities including Toronto, Las Vegas, Chicago, New Orleans, San Diego and even at a resort in Cozumel, Mexico. Convergence is unique in that it changes location every year as opposed to other musical festivals that have staked out an annual home.

What is goth today? While the fashion trappings and affinity for dark literature, movies, etc., is still there, the music and even the look has been mutating. "You ask 10 people and you're going to get 15 answers," notes veteran DJ Tony Lee. "Interestingly enough, a lot of people who are newer to goth like the music, but what they may listen to primarily we might not consider goth. But they go to the clubs and support the scene. I think the goth subculture has moved away from 'gothic' music and expanded into a wider thing."

The goth and industrial scenes have merged. "Back in 2001, you were either a goth or a rivethead, and those lines were drawn," recalls Brownell-Lee. "They really, really looked down on each other, but I'm finding that those people can't really treat each other like crap anymore. It allows for a lot more cross pollination in genres. People go and support each other shows, at least here [in Boston]."

 "I think that there's still elitism, but those people can be in their corner and the rest of us can listen to whatever we want," says Helfer. "It's so much easier to find that stuff now that the elitism can't keep it out anymore, the way that I think that it did years ago when the main conduit for the music was the DJ."

Although the first definitive goth rock single was Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" in 1979 – which technically means that goth is 40 old this year – no one has really pinpointed an actual incept date. Like-minded bands in the U.K. and L.A. were already active by 1976. The post-punk revolution of the late '70s featuring Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division was the starting point, though the 1968 album The Marble Index by Nico (of Velvet Underground fame) is considered by some to be the very first goth album. Regardless, the goth subculture and music on both sides of the Atlantic has proven to be adaptable, resilient and able to maintain its individuality without turning pop.

There have been times when the music breached the mainstream. The genre's commercial heyday was the 1980s, when artists like Siouxsie, the Sisters of Mercy and The Cure achieved substantial sales and chart positions worldwide. In the 1990s, the genre went more underground but flourished musically with a widening array of sub genres that extended beyond the obvious rock influences, including the ethereal, heavenly voices, darkwave and electro-industrial realms. The success of industrial acts like Ministry, KMFDM and the multiplatinum Nine Inch Nails brought more scrutiny to the realm.

With the dawn of the new millennium, the "mall goth" aesthetic of the Hot Topic retail chain, the co-opting of the look by many groups in the emo genre and the increasing use of goth characters in film and television thrust a spotlight on the look. Musically, electronic sounds became more of the norm, goth metal grew in popularity, synthpop and new wave experienced revivals and there was the emergence of the electroclash style sounds of witch house in the late '00s and early '10s.

Today, the idea of what qualifies as goth musically is more elusive than ever, just as many artists before would not categorize themselves with that tag. Newer artists run the gamut, from the Cure-like ethereal-ism of Drab Majesty to the aggressive synthwave stylings of Carpenter Brut and Dance With The Dead to the more pop-friendly, synth-laced sounds of The Birthday Massacre and VNV Nation, two popular acts that can serve as gateway bands for goth newbies. None of them are traditional goth rock, for sure – not many bands of that old school ilk are around as much these days – but appeal to many in the community itself. Meanwhile, veteran acts like Fields of the Nephilim, the Sisters of Mercy, Lycia, Black Tape For A Blue Girl and Clan of Xymox are still active more than three decades later.

Veteran U.S. labels like Cleopatra, Projekt and Metropolis continue to release a diverse roster of artists, while younger companies like Dais and Negative Gain, along with numerous European labels, are heralding the next generation of artists. Regular U.S. club nights like Nocturna (Chicago), Synthicide (Brooklyn), Goth Night (Charlottesville, Virginia), FetischNacht (Los Angeles) and Ceremony (Boston) keep their local scenes going. Some cities thrive more than others. There are four other major annual festivals in North America, which skew a little more industrial than Convergence: Terminus (Calgary), Coldwaves (Chicago), Mechanismus (Seattle) and Verboden (Vancouver). The annual World Goth Day, founded 10 years ago by British DJs Cruel Britannia and martin oldgoth, inspires dozens of club events worldwide every May 22. Goth has also had some crossover into the synthwave and steampunk communities.

The general consensus among the festival committee, and the wider community, is that lately there has been a mixture of newer artists along with a revival of the '80s post-punk sound that defined early goth. There have been many classic band reunions like 45 Grave, Kommunity FK, the March Violets and Sex Gang Children. Further, classic industrial and shoegaze sounds are coming back, while synth-pop and the more recent synthwave genres are thriving.

Such diversity is echoed south of the border as well. "We've been touring in 45 countries and the last tour we did was in South America — Brazil, Chile, Peru and Argentina," says Adrian Hates, singer and core member of German group Diary of Dreams, who headline Convergence 25 Saturday night. "I just listened to the DJs at the after-show parties and — I'm not sure if that's representative for the complete country — but they really sound early '80s." He noted a lot of 4AD bands like Cocteau Twins and Clan of Xymox being played. He felt like he had gone back in a time machine.

 "If you go to Germany here right now, a lot of bands coming up sound like that time period again," continues Hates, "which I find nice because they have a fresh sound through it and use modern technologies. It gives them a little more tightness, aggressiveness and still they use the classical techniques that made the sounds so specific at that time." But Hates also notes that the '90s influences of Sisters of Mercy, Front 242 and Depeche Mode have morphed into a metallic, post-Rammstein influence as of late in his country.

Aedra Oh of FIRES – who play Convergence 25 Friday along with London After Midnight – has been involved in the goth/industrial world since 2004. She grew up in the Northeast before moving to Tennessee in 2004 and now recently Santa Fe. She says that the goth scene had a peak nationally around 2008/2009 (Nashville thrived between 2004 and 2009), then wound down a bit in the early 2010s. "I feel like it's kind of picking back up right now just because the goth scene stopped giving a shit about what something sounds like," says Oh. "Now we've got this really cool kind of thing happening where there are no two bands that quite sound the same anymore."

In describing her music in FIRES, Oh prefers using "dark electronic" as a catch-all phrase. "When somebody conjures industrial, I'm thinking cyber dreads, big rivet pants and people that are making references to robots fucking," says Oh. "I'm cool with it, but I just don't think that that's necessarily the image of what the scene is."

Echoing the current scene's diversity, the new FIRES album All Of My Dreams Are Of This Place is more rock than its synthwave-influenced predecessors and also groundbreaking in that it may very well be the first full album in this subculture to deal with being transgender. My Chemical Romance and AFI serve as big musical influences – the singers of those two bands clearly love goth. Oh also notes that goth has had an influence on various mainstream artists, including Lady Gaga and Chvrches.

"Social media has changed the goth scene in the way it's shared and digested," states Andi Harriman, author of Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace: The Worldwide Compendium of Postpunk and Goth in the 1980s. "Fashion has taken the forefront – though the goth visual aesthetic has always been important, it was secondary to the subculture's music. Nowadays, using 'goth' as an adjective to describe anything black is somewhat of a mainstream trend. But the scene has gained a lot of ground. There are goth/post-punk nights that tend to pop up around NYC and a lot of the goth/post-punk leaning artists stop through regularly to perform at well-attended shows. I think the scene is thriving at the moment as new people seem to be interested in our collective gloomth."

"What I'm seeing a lot of with the younger crowd is there's a lot more of a culture minimalism going on," explains Brownell-Lee. "You're seeing simpler silhouettes. A lot of occult symbolism, lots of pentagrams, runes and ankhs. It's like [the movie] The Craft from 1996. What's interesting about that is it has so much crossover mainstream appeal now that that witchy, nu goth thing is very much part of mainstream Instagram culture. It's much more normalized. You'll have a 17-year-old girl, for example, dressed like a witch and into Ouija boards. That's a thing."

Porl King is frontman and main member of U.K. band Rosetta Stone, whose U.S. compilation Adrenaline was one of the best '90s goth releases. He is about to release his group's first album in 19 years, Seems Like Forever. He sees things from a different perspective. "Thirty odd years back goth wasn't really a widely used term, certainly not in the way that it is now," remarks King. "These days ask anyone what a goth is – and they'll tell you. It's become very marketable and heavily invested in. It's a brand – slick, technical and viable, clean cut, almost respectable. It strives for the attention of the mainstream. At its inception, the proto-goth bands weren't attempting to catch the ear of a 'goth market'. It simply didn't exist at least not in a clearly defined prepackaged way like it is now. That isolated, somewhat disjointed DIY spirit is all but lost now."

Friday night Convergence headliners London After Midnight have been active since 1990. Unlike many of their peers, they have sparingly released music (four albums in total, but a new one is in the works) and chosen not to put a label on their music. Frontman/core member Sean Brennan does feel that there is a difference between the North American and European goth worlds.

"Europe has always had a healthy music scene with large festivals devoted to weird music," notes Brennan. Such festivals include Whitby Goth Weekend, M'era Luna, Amphi Festival and the ever-popular Wave Gotik Treffen. "The U.S., however, doesn't really have that. It's a little stagnant in that regard. The U.S. is way too corporate-minded and can't present things to the public that would require them to think or that might be a risk, commercially. But they are ignoring the fact that the public really wants variety and different choices."

That said, Brennan, who is excited to be playing Boston for the first time, feels that the audience for dark music is always growing thanks to an influx of new fans. "We have long-time fans who have children now and their kids are fans too," he adds. "It's pretty weird but cool."

London After Midnight received mention on a 2015 cover of U.S. fashion magazine Runway (Paris Hilton was the model). "That was a great example of how the mainstream press should be in the U.S.," asserts Brennan. "The guy who runs that magazine is a fan of the music and tries to incorporate it into a mainstream fashion magazine. His actions deserve credit. Contrast that with Europe, Russia and elsewhere – I walk into a supermarket and there I am on the cover of a major magazine. From U.S. press, there's never really been a critique of the music – just my eyeliner."

Alessandro Belluccio, singer for the newer Italian group Ash Code, whose music fuses elements of post-punk, synthpop and EBM, describes the Italian scene as fragile, but he feels that the European scene as a whole has increased in popularity since around 2010, especially in Germany. "In the last ten years a lot of bands have come out of the scene," says Belluccio. "Ten years ago, if you went to a goth club you would only hear mid-level to super famous bands from the '80s on the playlists of most DJs. Now it is different. Every band tries to explore the genre with his or her own sound and attitude. Maybe traditional goth is not dead, but it has been completely revolutionized."

Referencing Convergence's latest home of Boston, Helfer moved up there from the New York/New Jersey area five years ago and started a party and booking bands. He has noticed not only Boston bands getting more recognition, but more and more groups coming through. "The shows that are coming through are not just doing basement shows – which is fine, there's nothing wrong with that – but these bands are coming through the bigger venues and getting real tour management," says Helfer. "They're not just crashing on people's couches. It's a really interesting time to be into this stuff."

"My first band Fahrenheit 451 put out a record in 1986, and it was soon after that we started hearing the term 'goth' applied," says Athan Maroulis, singer for NØIR and publicist for Metropolis Records. "That said, I have seen many changes over the years and was there for a few revivals. Now I feel like there's another revival that has been bubbling up for about three or four years. But it seems to be a combo of ex-indie people throwing down the post-punk label and merging with some dark electronic dance-oriented enthusiasts coming together to create their own darkwave stew of sorts. This, mind you, while the three decade plus ongoing goth/industrial scene still sort of limps along separate from the aforementioned. Those worlds connect once in a while, yet that's really only once in a while. I think that goth is growing again, it's just in a bit of a different form."

Maroulis sums it up easily: "Goth is in the eye of the beholder."