The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative life – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is short story writer, poet and novelist Adam Byatt @RevHappiness
Soundtrack by Solkyri
My collection of 10 short stories, Mount Pleasant, is based on the fourth album of Solkyri, from Sydney, Australia.
Solkyri is a four-piece post-rock band from Sydney, Australia, and the album, Mount Pleasant, was released in February 2020. The title comes from the name of the suburb where three of the band members grew up. As a name it no longer exists. The local council wiped its name to clear itself of the violence and dangerous youths inhabiting the space.
Nothing changed except the name.
What is post-rock?
Post-rock is a form of experimental rock music characterised by an exploration of textures and timbres, structures and forms, soundscapes and riffs, rather than a verse/chorus, verse/chorus structure typically found in rock songs. As a genre, post-rock has its own musical language, characterised by each band’s take on orchestration and instrumentation, sounds and timbres, textures and tempos, crescendos and decrescendos, aural assaults and contemplative space. The sonic textures of this album blend an unyielding energy and tender moments of intimacy. A prominent radio station in Sydney, Triple J, described it as “Beautiful yet precisely chaotic post-rock.”
So what does this mean for a writer?
As a music fan (I have followed Solkyri for years in Sydney) and writer I had wanted to write a series of narratives based on an instrumental album. The post-rock genre lends itself to a narrative connection because of its instrumental focus and wide-ranging scope of song structure. What sparked my interest in Solkyri’s album was the songs were inspired by the themes of deception, deceit and false facades. These themes were the foundation of how I interpreted the music and developed the core narrative focus of the chapbook.
When the band released the first track, Holding Pattern, in December 2019, I was hooked into the song’s angular and almost aggressive tone in the opening before it decrescendos into a simmering silence, like a held breath, then leads into a crushing crescendo. I wanted a narrative to have that same sense of movement. Based on the album’s cover art, an apartment building, I envisioned a young girl running laps as a metaphor for the cycles of poverty encountered in this suburb, examining the false façade of suburban life. I wanted the reader to imagine what it means to run, to be held within social strictures, and to be left behind.
The second track released was Pendock and Progress – one of my favourite tracks – named after two streets where the band grew up. It is a song propelled by the sense of a circular pattern created through the riffs that open and close the song to create a cycle. This sense of movement in the song lead to the image of a young boy riding his second-hand bike in the cul-de-sac (a dead-end street) where he lives, faced with a cycle of emotional poverty and physical aggression. The music is quite forceful and in-your-face so the content of the story has that same aggression, melded with reflective moments for the character to serve as a contrast.
The setting of the tracks became an important factor in developing a unified narrative built on the album’s themes of deception, deceit and false facades. The band originally come from Western Sydney characterised as a working-class area and an impoverished part of the city. As the first two stories written were set in 1990’s/early 2000’s suburbia, I interpreted the remaining songs to fit with the same context. They are an exploration of the facades, deception, and deceit within a broken suburban landscape, and of the individual as representative of a broader truth: we consciously and unconsciously live falsified versions of ourselves based on where we grew up, what we aspired to be, or move beyond, or embrace or reject, and deceive ourselves in the process.
Therefore I used the music of each track, and the band’s commentary, to suggest a narrative idea. For example, in Time Away, the band describe the song as an attempt of taking “time away” from all of the pitfalls of life but the escape is never found. The opening of this song has the drum track muted, all the top end rolled off so there is no sibilance in the hi hats, and it feels like a heartbeat. My vision for this story was the father of a family who get to go on a holiday to the Gold Coast only to come home and find out he has been retrenched. It’s his heartbeat I follow in the story and the impact of the deceitfulness of masculinity.
The album’s thematic focus is reflected in the intensity and aggression of the music, yet a contained anger at times, and the stories I wrote reflect that perspective as seen in Holding Pattern and Pendock & Progress. However, the album has shades of light and dark in the sonic textures and timbres. For example, Meet Me In the Meadow is a line from a Wes Anderson film according to the band. The film has a strong romantic undertone which is also felt in the music, particularly in the soft keyboard introduction that establishes the melody. It is almost whimsical and the narrative reflects that lighter tone. It is about a relationship between a girl and a boy, exploring the dynamics of adolescent sexuality but in contrast to the music’s lightness, it hints at the darker deceits and facades young people have to face.
Two tracks, Potemkin and Gueules Cassees, are inspired by historical events. Potemkin refers to the Potemkin village when Catherine the Great was visiting a village and a façade was erected to camouflage the poverty behind the newly painted scenes. Gueules Cassees is a French term meaning ‘broken faces’, given to ex-servicemen of World War 1 who returned home with disfigured faces due to bullet wounds and shrapnel.
It was a challenge to find a new suburban context in line with the historical references. Both songs are darker and more menacing in their timbres, and are the heaviest sounding songs on the album, so I used that energy to create narratives to explore a sense of anger and brutality that affronts each antagonist in their own way. Therefore, Potemkin is about a high school student who has to face the reality of where she lives, defined by the uniform she wears.
The music allowed me to explore a specific set of thematic concerns in my writing and to go deeper into the mindset of suburbia and how it shapes us, for better or for worse, our vulnerabilities and privileges, how we are shaped, and who shapes us. To this end, these stories are the lives of nameless individuals; they remain anonymous to create overlapping aspects of shared identity. They are everyone and no one, rather than a defined cast of characters in a non-linear arrangement. Mount Pleasant is inhabited by individuals who experience joy and laughter, doubt and confusion, fear and uncertainty, revelation and resurrection. These stories invite us, through the music and the narrative, to reflect on who we are now and ask us to investigate ourselves in relation to the pasts that may or may not have shaped us and the futures we wish to shape for ourselves.
There is a track-by-track analysis of the album on my website. You can listen to the album here. Buy Mount Pleasant here.
Adam Byatt is a high school English teacher and wannabe drumming rock star, sifting through the ennui, minutiae and detritus of life and cataloguing them as potential story ideas. He describes his writing as ‘suburban realism’. He has had short stories and poems published in a variety of journals and anthologies. Adam is a founding member of The JAR Writers Collective with Jodi Cleghorn and Rus VanWestervelt. His debut novel, written with Jodi Cleghorn, is Post Marked Pipers Reach (2019) published by Vine Leaves Press. Find him on Facebook, his blog, Instagram and tweet him as @RevHappiness