Meet the woman Lana Del Rey wishes she could be. She’s a filmmaker, a composer, an actor, a performance artist, and she’s the sultry, crystalline voice of one of Seattle’s coolest bands.
I’d like to think I’m a pretty level-headed guy, but when I was about to pick up the phone to call Celene “Leeni” Ramadan from Seattle favourite Prom Queen, I was suddenly transported back in time to highschool to when I was asking out Jen Shields. My palms became sweaty, my heart was thumping, and I had this panicked thought of “I’m totally going to fanboy out on her”.
And why wouldn’t I? Celene is seriously cool. She’s been a big part of the music, theatre and improv scenes in Seattle for a number of years. She’s a filmmaker, a composer, an actor, a performance artist, and most important of all (to me), before it was a full band, she started off Prom Queen by herself with her own vocals, an electric guitar, and some backing tracks on a Boss pedal.
“It’s now or never” I thought, so I swallowed the lump in my throat and began dialling the phone. A couple rings, no answer. Was this going to be super anti-climatic? A couple more rings. Suddenly, a crystalline voice answers “Hello?” Fully expecting the call to go to voice mail (and thus saving me), I’m taken a bit off guard, and I stammer out a “Hey! It’s Jason, how are you?”
After getting through the pleasantries, I say to Celene that she’s been described as “Seattle’s Beyoncé” and I describe her as an “ass-kicking Nancy Sinatra”, but how would she describe herself? She lets out a laugh, “Hmm.. It’s hard to describe myself in terms of that. I think the Beyoncé thing is because we did a video album, and she did too at around the same time – so it’s kind of a joke” she pauses and thinks. “I dunno… I think I can talk about the band or the sound more than I can myself.”
Fair enough, it’s kind of a bullshit question anyways – I mean can anyone really answer that? So we shift focus off Celene herself to the band. “I think it’s best described as a thrift store band. Like, you go into an old thrift store, and you see an album there – something weird, something psychedelic; a montage of retro kitsch.” She tells me this is how she likes to describe the band, it’s the aesthetic that’s she’s drawn to. No surprise there, her latest (and probably most ambitious project) Midnight Veil, a full video-album is full of this vintage kitsch. It’s steeped in lavish glitz that makes no apologies, with everything from middle eastern exotic and the twangs of spaghetti western, to psychedelic space rock reminiscent of an eye-patch wearing David Bowie.
“So would you say you got the Harlem Globetrotters of bands?” I ask. “Yeah, man.” she says without missing a beat.
After expressing my love of what she, the band, a group of local Seattle artists, and 157 Kickstarter backers accomplished, I asked her what her favourite vignette was to film and why.
Celene begins to lament on how hard it is to choose, and then expresses how difficult they were all to film, and how stressed she was during filming. “One of the most difficult ones to film was “Lie to Me” because we had these vintage cars that were really hard to deal with. One of them kept breaking down, and it was SUPER stressful. In addition to that we had these crazy locations, and super long hours – so when we finished filming it there was just this crazy sense of accomplishment.” she pauses. “So in that respect, I think the one I enjoyed filming the most was the one I had the least to do with” she says with a laugh. “We had guest videographer come in for “Mystery” – Ty Migota, and that was a huge relief because it was a very easy shoot day, and it turned out beautifully!”
I tell her my personal favourite was “Can’t Seem to Cry”, which featured a pompadour-sporting Celene singing woefully in a milkshake joint amongst a group of Drag Queens that looked like they raided the costuming department for Bye Bye Birdie – adding on that I think the pompadour is a good look for her.
We have a quick laugh, and then I tell her how I first discovered her from a videogame trailer, which led me to downloading her first album, Night Sound. I continue to say how impressed I am with how Prom Queen’s sound has really progressed, growing from the 60’s noir feel of Night Sound to the much wider selection of vintage kitsch that is Midnight Veil.
I ask Celene if this was a product of going from a solo act to a full band. “Yeah that was part of it” she starts. “I knew I could pull off a lot more with backup. It’s hard if you’re just one person to make something so grandiose sounding. With a band, I’ve really felt like I can do more.” Thinking myself very clever and creative, I ask Celene to tell me about the band, but to describe them as if they’re members of the A-Team. Much to my chagrin, Celene proceeds to tell me that is generally how she describes them to people – like super heroes. I let out a cry of defeat, and she laughs, and I solemnly tell her to proceed.
“I’ll start with Tom Meyers, our drummer, who also recorded and mixed most of the album. He has amazing ears, and we have just the most epic recording sessions – he just has such a way of finessing the sound both in the studio and at our live shows. In addition to all that, he also knows how to dress – he just looks so good all of the time.”
She then turns her attention to Jason Goessl, the band’s primary guitar player. “Jason does most of the shows that we do and travels with us on tour, and he’s just incredible! He just loves playing, he’ll do three shows in a night with a smile on his face. He’s probably the best technical guitar player I’ve ever met – he can do any style.”
And finally, on Ben Von Wildenhaus, Prom Queen’s other guitar player (who should get the award for world’s most badass last name in my opinion) – “Ben was actually the very first member of Prom Queen as a band. I met him while doing shows around town – we were sharing a bunch of bills as two solo acts. I was blown away by his performance, and I asked him during one of our shows if he’d like to play together sometime, and he said “Yeah!” That was really when Prom Queen became an actual band. He’s totally amazing.”
Celene then tells me how things just clicked with her and her other bandmates, how it all just came together perfectly. “You know those movies, where from downbeat one the band is perfect, and you’re like “whatever, that NEVER happens”? That TOTALLY happened with this band. We barely have to rehearse – we just walk in and do it. I sometimes feel REALLY guilty about calling a band rehearsal.” “So would you say you got the Harlem Globetrotters of bands?” I ask. “Yeah, man.” she says without missing a beat.
Photo Credit: Wittypixel Photography
Curious about the pathway from solo act to all-star band, I ask her: “Was it that initial contact with Ben that got you thinking about a band? Or how did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to take Prom Queen from a solo act to a band?” “I was invited to play this Elvis tribute show.” Well, that’s one way to start a story. “It’s called “Elvis Alive”, and it’s at the Triple Door, which is a HUGE stage in Seattle, probably one of the biggest. So I thought about just going up there alone, and thought the stage was just going to swallow me, so I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if I got a couple people up here with me?” you know, to play this music with me.” “Moral support?” I offer. “Yeah! And so I asked Ben to do it, and then my friend Troy stepped in on drums, and that was the first time I ever did it as a band. It just sounded so great, and felt really good on stage, and I just realized I really wanted to keep doing it.”
Photo Credit: Wittypixel Photography
It was at this point I felt it was ok to ask Celene something I wasn’t sure was true or not. I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit folks, full disclosure: when you go to interview someone, for those not in the know, generally you research the shit out of them so you don’t sound like an idiot when you’re talking to them, or ask them something really dumb.
As part of my internet stalking campaign of Celene, I came across that she’s also a celebrity impersonator for a living. I ask her if this is legit or not. “Yeah, that’s legit.” I tell her that’s amazing and ask who she impersonates. “I do a lot of Cher. I’ve done Britney Spears, Katy Perry, pretty much any female pop star you can think of. It’s for singing telegrams actually, and a way for me to make some additional income. I know, it’s a totally weird job.”
“They don’t make you jump out of any cakes, do they?” I say jokingly. “Yeah! I have jumped out of a cake before.” I nearly drop the phone. “That stuff still happens?” I ask. “Yeah, it was like for a 90th birthday or something. I was so terrified that I’d jump out of the cake and give the guy a heart attack and kill him, so I was really nervous about jumping out too loudly? I guess.”
No doubt, I’m sure accidentally killing someone doesn’t give you too many good reviews on Yelp. “He actually had his back turned though” she continues, “I remember his daughter had to go “look over there! Someone just jumped out of the cake”, so she had to tell him what just happened.” after laughing about this obvious snub to her grand entrance, I ask her “has anyone ever recognized you?” “Yeah, Seattle is such a small town in some ways, so there’s been a number of times I’ve shown up in character, and I look out and see somebody I know and go “Aww dammit.” you know?”
“I never want it to be super huge. I’ve always loved the idea of a cult following, a small group of really devoted fans. I want Midnight Veil to be somewhat of a cult classic.”
After learning that people jumping out of cakes still happens, and isn’t just some punchline in the movies, I figured it was about time we started talking about Celene’s tattoos. I ask her to tell me about them, the usual what she has and where.
“My first tattoo is an 8-bit heart, which was the name of my first album for a side-project I do (author’s note: Celene is referring to her chiptune music, where she goes by Leeni), and it’s located on my upper right arm, and it has headphones on it. I got it in 2007 or so, when I had just finished that first album, and it was a token of that.
I did that again with my second album Labyrinth, and got another pixelated, videogame-looking tattoo on my left forearm. My friend Gabe made this awesome design, and it’s a pixelated heart with headphones, and has these pixelated vines over it – it was a darker album so it has this all black design.
Photo Credit: Wittypixel Photography
I thought I’d do it every time I put out a new album, but I’ve stopped that plan because I’ve released 7 or 8 albums now so I’m not sure I can fund that” she says with a laugh. “Besides those, the only other tattoo I have is a tribute to my late father, he passed away in 2004. He used to have a house in Maui, and we scattered his ashes there. Then 5 years later my friends were getting married in Maui, so I thought “What a great way of going there and do something fun with my friends, and celebrate this marriage.” So during that trip, I made an appointment to get a tattoo in his honour on the island.
I got three hibiscus flowers, which represents me and my two sisters, and it has these initials on it, and it has the words “awake” because he was a poet and wrote a poem called “Awake” – which I ended up writing a song to.” It’s clear that Celene’s tattoos are all incredibly meaningful to her, and represent some pretty major milestones in her life. I ask her if there’s anything next, possibly a Prom Queen tattoo? “The genie bottle from Midnight Veil perhaps?” I posit. “Yeah, the genie bottle would be cool. I definitely just want the words “Prom Queen” somewhere though.”
Photo Credit: Wittypixel Photography
I was incredibly focused on two things at this point in my chat with Celene. 1) To not keep asking her music-related questions, and 2) To not fanboy out on her. I will come clean however, and say that I failed miserably at this endeavour. “Ok, I lied. I’m going to go back to the music.” I say, guiltily. “I just had to say that what I really like about you and Prom Queen is that it’s obviously not a gimmick, and you’re not trying to be something you’re not. It seems incredibly sincere.”
Celene agrees with me and expresses how much she loves the productions of mid-century exotica and old Phil Spector stuff, and that this is just the music she wants to make, not the music she’s trying to make. I ask her if it’s safe to say that she creates the kind of music that she wishes she could hear, that she wants to hear, something that she’s not finding.
“Absolutely. That’s exactly what it is. Midnight Veil is exactly the type of album I wish I could find.” she says with utmost certainty. “That’s what I like about it the most. I think I’ve made a few albums where I’m happy with the end product, but it wasn’t as exciting to me as a listener. Whereas Midnight Veil, as a listener I’m very excited about it, and if I found this album I’d be like “Oh, this is great!” I don’t think I’ve ever really felt this way about an album, and that’s important to me.”
I ask Celene if this is important to her, what does she hope Prom Queen becomes, and what does she hope people get out of it? “I never want it to be super huge. I’ve always loved the idea of a cult following, a small group of really devoted fans. I want Midnight Veil to be somewhat of a cult classic. I want some people to just have it in their collection of albums that they always go back to. I want some culture behind it, and some people that really connect with it on a level that makes it more of a timeless thing.”
With Prom Queen’s kitsch flare, this doesn’t strike me as surprising – and with their instrumentals that echo a past of pinup girls, 60’s housewives, and femme fatales, and a vocalist with a sultry, crystalline voice that would make Lana Del Rey jealous, it’s hard to not imagine a future where someone at a party introduces someone to some “classic Prom Queen”.
You can buy Prom Queen’s music (and get a Midnight Veil DVD) at their site, promqueenmusic.com, or on iTunes. Full disclosure: the author absolutely fucking loves this band.