Posts Tagged Mogwai
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Not The Booker shortlister Iain Maloney @iainmaloney
Soundtrack by Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, The Corries, Mogwai, R.E.M., The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who
Like a lot of authors, it was music that got me into writing. It’s quite surprising (or maybe not) how many of us once harboured dreams of rock stardom. My first pennings were song lyrics but over a clichéd adolescence sitting in my room with a guitar and too many candles, I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be the next Kurt Cobain. My lyrics morphed into poems until the urge towards narrative took hold and I turned to novels. Music never left me, though, and has informed everything I’ve written since.
My debut novel, First Time Solo, is entirely dependent on music, both as an aspect of the story and in the writing process. The main character, Jack, is a jazz trumpeter and, while training to be a RAF pilot in 1943, starts a band with three of his comrades. Music as a social lubricant, music as a shorthand between friends, music as a means of exploring other cultures, music as language, music as the backdrop for romance and more, all these are woven through the staves of the novel but for me, writing it, music was the window to the past. Before the war starts, Jack is a teenage boy, lonely in his bedroom with only his records, the radio and his subscription to the Melody Maker to keep him company. That’s an emotional world I can inhabit, but what about the reality, the differences between the 1990s and the 1940s?
Historical fiction set after the invention of the gramophone is easier to write than that set before. Listening to a modern performance of Greensleeves does not immediately transport one to the Tudor court despite Henry VIII being suspected of its composition. Listen to Nat King Cole perform Straighten Up and Fly Right or Cab Calloway scatting through Nagasaki, however and you’re dropped into the bedrooms of teenagers in the 1940s with a crackling wireless and heavy 78s or the dance halls that defied the Luftwaffe. Jack’s internal monologue is seasoned with the music he loves and, in order to find his voice, I had to hear what he hears, think how he thinks. I didn’t go so far as to learn the trumpet – though I wanted to – but without jazz record shops and Youtube it would’ve been much more difficult to climb inside the mind of a teenager during the Second World War.
For my second novel, Silma Hill, things weren’t so straightforward. Set in a rural Scottish village in the 18th century, there was little music I could draw on directly. I write with music playing but modern romantic re-imaginings of period ballads didn’t give me the tone I needed, as much as I enjoy songs like The Corries Come O’er The Stream Charlie. For a Gothic tale of witchcraft, torture and death, I needed something stronger. I found it in Mogwai’s soundtrack to the French zombie TV drama Les Revenants. Haunting, brooding, the threat of violence never far away, yet beautiful, moving and melancholy, the instrumental tracks rising and falling like waves of emotion gave me an atmosphere in which I could build my world. Songs like Wizard Motor get inside your head, unsettle you and never leave. When you’re writing horror, that is the ultimate goal.
My third novel, The Waves Burn Bright (to be published May 2016), is the story of a family torn apart by the Piper Alpha disaster. It is set between 1980 and 2013 so finding suitable music was easy. During my research phase early R.E.M. tracks like Finest Worksong brought me back to the late ’80s with style, jangly guitars and a political sensibility underpinning everything. The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, I gorged myself on the cream of ’80s alternative until a thought stopped me like a scratched 12-inch. I was recreating my ’80s, not my character’s. I switched off the music, sat back and had a chat with Carrie, my main character. It turned out she wasn’t much into music. Background radio, that was fine, but she didn’t buy music. One of those people who goes ‘I like that song, the one from that advert that goes “dum dum dum dee dah”.’ Strangely this absence of music in her life – so very, very different from me – was the moment when she became whole, three dimensional, real. After that awakening the novel rolled out of me. Sometimes silence is profounder than any song.
Of course I couldn’t let it go at that. She may not like music but that wasn’t going to stop me getting some in there. Her father, Marcus, wallowing in the misery of his recent divorce, returns to the music of his youth – Pink Floyd, Yes, and The Who.
Music, for me, is inseparable from the act of writing. It sets the mood of the piece, shapes the characters, sometimes even dictates the action. David Mitchell once swore himself off writing about music, calling it ‘An excuse for me to write about writing without writing about writing’. Music isn’t a metaphor for me, it’s as vital as air. I couldn’t live without it, and I certainly couldn’t write without it.
Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and is currently based in Japan. His novels First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now on Freight Books. His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright, will be published in May 2016. A poetry collection will follow later in the year. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker prize. He is also a freelance journalist and reviewer, sits on the editorial board of Eastlit Magazine and is Reviews Editor of Shoreline of Infinity. His website is here and he tweets as @iainmaloney
I’d like to bet that many readers of this blog went through a teenage phase where they wrote lyrics. Or is it just me? Well, it’s also my guest this week. He says the lyrics phase was superseded when the urge to create narrative took over, but music remains central to his creative life. It has formed many underlays for his novels, including the shorthand between friends, the backdrop to life events, the tunnel to the past. One major character came alive when he realised that music wasn’t a big deal for her. Funnily enough, a significant musical touchstone is Mogwai, who was cited just a few weeks ago by Philip Miller, one of his stablemates at the imprint Freight Books. There must be something in the water. Anyway, his name is Iain Maloney, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, twice-nominated Arts Writer of the Year, poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller
Soundtrack by Mogwai, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Boards of Canada, Neurosis, Converge, Laura Veirs, Bat for Lashes, Gallows, Isis, The James Orr Complex
Friend of the Night
When I write I listen to music. Often I spend a while finding the right music to write to. Sometimes if the music is wrong, I can’t write. For some reason, The Beatles, who I adore, are bad writing music, as are Pixies. But Mogwai are a constant: and The Blue Horse would be a very different book without the existence of Friend of the Night (from the Mr Beast album). It was as important to the conception of the book as Neurosis’s I Can See You or indeed the first disturbing day-dream that led to me writing the novel.
I love Mogwai and listen to them a lot, but Friend of the Night is for me their masterpiece. If you have not heard it: it has no lyrics. The deep and resounding melancholy of its melodies, there are at least three and they intertwine gorgeously, are lifted by its main theme, played on piano, which signals a chime of hope and light. When the piano rings by itself, it is singing a cracked but steely song of survival and beauty. The song has forward purpose, it is not depressed. It has succumbed.
This how I wanted the main character of The Blue Horse, George Newhouse to be: damaged and distraught, but deciding to live on, deciding to keep walking forwards, even if he was walking into darkness. The pianos chime amid the splendour of the sulphurous guitars – and from the start of The Blue Horse, Newhouse, widowed and lost, has a flame of hope and life.
Whenever I lost my way writing The Blue Horse, I played Friend of the Night – the story of The Blue Horse is contained for me its 5 minutes, 30 seconds. It is rare when a piece of music seems to, in mere notes, explain and also confirm a feeling, an emotion, a sensibility, in some way, while also transcending and providing illumination. Sometimes I feel I could write a book about this piece of music: in some ways I already have.
Loss and rapture
The Blue Horse circles around loss and memory, around survival amid the darkness of the world. It has a earnest Gnostic undertow (although perhaps no one’s noticed it yet…) and a belief in other worlds at its core. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was played over and over as I wrote. Its main melody is not only incredibly beautiful, it seems to be speaking of something valuable and divine that has been lost. There is a grieving in its notes. When the full theme is played, around two minutes in, I often find it overwhelming. The fingers are lifted from the keyboard. That sense of being overwhelmed by both beauty and grief was a vital one in The Blue Horse. In the chapters where Newhouse remembers his wife – swimming in the Atlantic, driving through rural Ireland – this is playing. When Ruth appears to him amid blood and magic in Venice, this is playing.
The Blue Horse goes to some dark and broken places. I did not write the book from beginning to end – I often wrote at night or in scraps and moments while travelling. I dotted about in the narrative. Playing certain songs would help me leap back into those places.
I knew Newhouse, a curator at a major gallery in Edinburgh who is searching for a lost painting, The Blue Horse, would end up in darkness, in living nightmares, in some unpleasant mental and physical spaces. Converge’s Dark Horse, from their Axe to Fall album, has that sinister equine spirit in its title, of course, and ends with their lead singer shrieking. It is also tremendously powerful, punishing, its opening two-note call always a deranged spur to action. I would put on Dark Horse while I wrote two chapters in particular: when Newhouse, bereft and drunk, sees an apparition in Leith docks. And secondly in a club he is led to by Flintergill, a sinister agent. The club in Edinburgh is full of the powerful and the influential, and involves orgies and dark sex as well as drink and intrigue. The punishing but exhilarating riffage of the second half of this song fuelled the relentless tone of that place and those people.
Memories and remembrance
I saw Laura Veirs live at the ABC in Glasgow around the time of the release of her album The Year of Meteors. One song, Through the Glow, stuck with me. It played a lot while I wrote. The lyrics are elusive as well as detailed. The intangible power of memories and remembrance, of dreams and changeable mental images, is key to the story of The Blue Horse. In its gentler moments, when Newhouse feels a sense of life, when he sees beauty in nature and friendship, when he meets another woman, Tyler, Laura Veirs would often be playing, as would Bat for Lashes’s wonderful Moon and Moon, and a fine, tremulous, beautiful song by The James Orr Complex, Fade Grey to Fade Blue.
Gallows’s Grey Britain is a fine, fine album, one of the best rock albums made by a British band in the last ten years. I played it a lot. The Vulture, a song in two parts, one acoustic and gentle, the other vicious and heavy, a razor-blade across the face, was perfect for writing The Blue Horse: darkness and light. Doom and violence. It fed into, most notably, the chapter Rudi. Rudi, Newhouse’s great friend, tumbles – aided by possibly malign spirits – into the abyss. This song tumbles into an abyss. It is also riveting and bewildering…a bit like that chapter. The Vulture sings of a country that is beset with devils, real and unreal: like Rudi’s life in that pivotal chapter.
Reach for the Dead
The Blue Horse exists in this world, or a mirror image of it: in real Edinburgh, there is no Public Gallery, and in the real world, there was no Pieter Van Doelenstraat, a Dutch painter of the 16th century. I knew the novel would also touch on the occult and the sublime. Boards of Canada’s album Tomorrow’s Harvest came out in 2013, just as I was editing the novel for the first time. Its beauty and bleakness – it appears to ‘about’ the inevitable end of human civilisation (if a wordless album can truly be about anything) – played as I wrote chapters, such as at a drunken party in Edinburgh’s New Town where Newhouse encounters an apparition in the bathroom. BOC’s music is limber and fluid but also unsettling. There are snatched, half hidden voices. Subliminal whispers amid the electronica and analogue arpeggios and crescendos. It is not as it seems. When I listen to BOC I can imagine walking into a mirror, or meeting myself on the street. At some times – late at night, when writing – it seemed to point my writing in new directions. When Newhouse’s mentor, Dr Martinu, is killed by his own doppelganger, it may have been because this haunted, insistent music was playing as I typed. He was originally going to have a heart attack and fall into his own open fire. A weirder fate was given to him by this music.
The final chapters of The Blue Horse are at the Venice Biennale. Newhouse, by this point deranged and befuddled, comes closer to finding The Blue Horse, and it comes closer to finding him. The novel ends in fire and blood, in visions and transcendence. Isis were a tremendous, visionary American guitar band. They released two albums, in particular, Oceanic and Panopticon, which remain among my favourite. I write to them all the time: they are muscular, dynamic, and possessing a kind of super-heavy sense of intense beauty. Like a wall of ice collapsing into a polar sea. The final track of Panopticon is called Grinning Mouths. Like many of their songs, it begins in serrated, fuzzy riffage, thunderous beats and bellowing. Then something remarkable happens – four minutes in, the music takes flight. Something clears. The music is simultaneously super powered and inundated with a new light. It becomes driving and extremely beautiful. Aaron Turner, their lead singer and songwriter, is still bellowing, but tunefully, with soul. The move from ugly to serene, the song’s incredible sense of momentum and flight, powered the final scenes of The Blue Horse in Venice. Whenever I lost what was happening in the city on the water, I played Grinning Mouths again. It solved things for me.
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and author of The Blue Horse, which is published by Freight Books. He has been Arts Correspondent for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times in Scotland and The Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His short stories have been published in The Herald, Gutter Magazine, The Island Review and Head On. His poetry has been published in Gutter, Valve Journal and the 2014 Fish Anthology. He lives and works in Edinburgh. Tweet him on @PhilipJEMiller