The telephone rings on a busy Friday afternoon, and on the other end it's, you know, the heir to the throne of Gondor, seventeenth chieftain of the Dúnedain, also known as proprietor of the small publishing house, Perceval Press. Viggo Mortensen wants to know if his musical offerings have arrived. Whoops. Hadn't checked yet. Mild chagrin is expressed, followed by a quick quest to the post box. Indeed, an unassuming bundle awaits within, containing those magical rings called CDs, exactly as promised.
The King is no flake.
Many will recognize Mortensen as the intrepid, benevolent Aragorn from the live-action cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, in particular The Return of the King, which opens December 17. Given that his heroic visage recently gazed from the cover of Newsweek -- quite the poetic juxtaposition when viewed alongside Time's concurrent cover mug shot of George W. Bush with a black eye -- it appears that we'll have the option of inhabiting King Aragorn's pop culture fantasyland for a while.
Fortunately, with a dash of intelligent charisma for both the newsstand and the multiplex -- he describes the Rings' battle-ravaged mythos as one of "mercy and compassion" -- this mass-market phenomenon doesn't ring hollow. Mortensen has appeared in two decades' worth of major motion pictures ranging from the superb (his big-screen launch in Peter Weir's Witness) to the decidedly iffy (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), but the restrictive word "actor" scarcely defines him. Viggo is a delightful rarity -- poet, painter, publisher, photographer -- a major-league movie star who also happens to be an underground multimedia artist of great breadth and diligently earned renown.
Just for instance, included in this parcel is a home-burned CD of his brand new album, a collaborative effort with enigmatic guitarist Buckethead and others, called Pandemoniumfromamerica. The thing is still warm, sent almost immediately after its mid-October mix-down, and set for release this Friday, December 5. This is an artist who likes to share. Strangely though, most publications covering Mortensen's movie work are content to parrot, simply and meaninglessly, that he also creates "jazz-rock albums." On that score, we're quite happy to break this unique new release, edging into album review territory. (This while Rolling Stone presently takes a short break from teenybopper T&A to remind us, again, that the Beatles were cool. Thanks.) Before we address his sonic adventures, though, Mortensen must be asked some important questions about his day job, such as how it feels to have finally arrived ... as an action figure.
"My son's happy about that," he replies with a bemused tone. That vital point answered, he rolls on about his iconic role with an appraisal that's at once astute and sprawling. After Stuart Townsend (Lestat from The Queen of the Damned) was dismissed from playing Aragorn, Mortensen got the call. His son and fellow musician Henry helped convince him ("I had a day to think about it, and another day to either chicken out or go"), and in short order he found himself on a plane to New Zealand, cracking the Tolkien tome for the first time. After 274 combined shooting days plus loads of pickups, however, Mortensen knows Aragorn.
"It wasn't like I was playing Hamlet and had to find my own way to do it," he qualifies. "I wasn't conscious of any other way to do it. I guess, in terms of [J.R.R.] Tolkien and [Peter] Jackson, I felt that they were equally, in a way, my directors. And, as always, with any job I do, the other director is my own conscience. I felt a connection, as well as a responsibility, toward a lot of Tolkien's source material, particularly Nordic sagas and Scandinavian literature. I also looked at Celtic material ... samurai movies, certain samurai ethics ... even Westerns, anime characters..."
His constellation of influences well considered, Mortensen nailed it, and there's already an Oscar buzz if you care about that hype. But the guy doesn't come across, at all, as the glammy type of celeb, rather as one who allows his stardom to open windows on the world from his perspective (his latest book, Miyelo, depicts a Lakota Ghost Dance) and plenty of others (publishing Yoshitoro Nara's Nothing Ever Happens, congealing Beyond Baroque poetry jams, and endorsing the odd reading by Jello Biafra). The Manhattan-born, Venezuelan-raised Dane even seems wholly disinterested in the bumped release date of his next big vehicle, the equestrian epic Hidalgo, which Disney is delivering, conveniently, about a month after this year's strangely early Academy Awards show. He does the work, they do the marketing. And he's wisely hesitant about appraising the overall import of Jackson's adaptation.
"Certainly, movies doing hugely well like this one, it's a complicated thing -- I don't know what the hell that is, the consequences of that," he openly admits. Rather, he's fondly reflective of his participation in it all.
For Mortensen, this journey of several years has involved "just being patient. Having the patience to rely on your reserves that you didn't know you had, and relying on others. The lesson to me was always to look to the others and try to find a way to work things out together, because otherwise it's going to be a much longer journey than it already is. You could count on this amazing teamwork from the crew and the cast -- it goes beyond anything I've ever experienced."
And how will doing something this iconic influence his future work?
"I have no idea. I mean, probably, the next role I do is not going to involve swords, armor, and elves and hobbits, I guess, but other than that I'll keep doing what I've done and hope to get lucky and get a good role."
In the meantime, the guy isn't slacking. He has his critics, the harsher of whom tag his prolific works as vanity projects of an actor. But from his various books to his spoken word recordings to his exhibitions, one can't fault Mortensen for a lack of creative ambition. One listen to The Other Parade, his rereleased 1998 album with Buckethead, ex-wife Exene Cervenka, and a host of others, reveals total artistic fearlessness (Mortensen plays a motorcycle muffler on every track). Its haunting, post-industrial abstractions make Einstürzende Neubauten sound like 'NSync -- and, if taken in the wrong mood, they may encourage a listener to beat on the disc itself. But there's absolutely no lack of energy and presence.
This presence is even more stirring on Pandemoniumfromamerica, the new collection of fourteen wide-ranging tracks. Taking lyrical cues from William Blake, Rumi, and Jonathan Swift (whose "Holyhead" gets murky, standout treatment), the album could almost be called the dissonant but similarly adventurous Sgt. Pepper of its age, or, more rationally, the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. (Mortensen enjoys effects processors.) Produced by Travis Dickerson (Thanatopsis, the Fire Ants), it's a wild ride of truly poignant depths ("Gone" with father and son on plaintive piano, "Shadow" sprouting malevolence from melancholy) and ostentatious highs: the ... er ... folk ballad "Half Fling," which closes out the project and tweaks the ear most amusingly, features hipster hobbits Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood, who also play on several other tracks. Buckethead dug the hobbits and the hobbits dug Buckethead, and Mortensen has called the whole endeavor "a mutual admiration society." Also, if you've ever wondered what it might sound like to stuff Wood in a blender -- I confess to some curiosity -- your answer has arrived.
I love this album. It's consistently surprising, a homespun marriage of harmony and chaos, poetry and politics. Pardon its wankery and note that it is alive. Dig in, and you'll find the exclamations of Noam Chomsky ("Cuba on Paper"), to whom the album is dedicated. You'll find the charming, atmospheric reading of "Red River Valley" seemingly culled from outer space, the Mediterranean romp of "Fall of Troy," and the prescient, post-9/11 angst of Blake's whispered words in the title track. On "I Want Mami," Mortensen has even graduated from the muffler, now transforming the wheelchair into a musical instrument.
Now if he just changes his handle to something catchy like "V-Go," the fellow might prove quite the pop star.
"Back to Babylon" (an excerpt)
"Pay at the window for re-heated, prejudiced incantations. Take them home and enjoy with wide-screen, half-digested, replayed previews of solemn national celebration. Then sleep, by all means; we'll need all the energy we can muster for compiling this generation's abridged anthology of official war stories, highlights of heedless slaughter, to burnish our long and proud imperial tradition. At some point, by virtue of accidentally seeing and listening, we may find ourselves participating in our own rendering. Few of our prey will be left alive enough to water the sun with their modest, time-rubbed repetitions, to rephrase their particular, unifying laws. Our version of events has already made its money back in foreign distribution and pre-sales; all victory deadlines must be met."