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’s post is a return visit by author, editor, journalist and musician Andrew Lowe @andylowe99
Soundtrack by Blanck Mass, Glass Animals, Johan Johansson, Kris Kristofferson, Leodoris, Mark Pritchard, Mogwai, UNKLE, YouTube tropical island ambience
Kris Kristofferson came first. At the end. A slow pull-back, with Nobody Wins playing over the scrolling credits.
I’d had the Savages story pinballing around my brain for a while, but hearing Nobody Wins gave me that final scene. It underscored the logic of the story, seeped into the characters and themes. It unspooled the narrative backwards, giving me the focus to go forward.
If some kind director (Shane Meadows or Danny Boyle, please) makes a film of the book, I would insist they pack the soundtrack with the music I used to fuel the writing. Because, for me, music isn’t a lubricant or a catalyst. It’s central to the story of a novel’s creation; as crucial as the ramblings in my notebook app, the epiphanies in the supermarket queue, the drafts and redrafts.
I know some writers like silence or white noise or Brahms or Schubert or Eno, but I can’t make it happen like that. I need the mood of the music to match the tone of the scene, and, while I’m at it, I like to transpose the tunes into a fantasy soundtrack of the movie of the book. (Actually, let’s go for Ben Wheatley.) With Savages, that meant the wall-of-sound headrush of Blanck Mass for the final five chapters, Mark Pritchard’s ominous minimalism for the bad blood of the mid-section, and the cataclysmic crunch of Johan Johansson’s The Beast for a pivotal scene that I wanted to read like the slow and pitiless turning of a torture-rack wheel.
Savages is the story of Joel Pearce, a suburban GP who’s looking to shake up his routine. He receives an extravagant gift for his fortieth birthday: a ‘desert island survival experience’ and, despite being a creature of home comforts, he rises to the challenge. Together with four friends, he travels to a remote tropical island in the Philippines for three weeks of indulgence and self-discovery.
It doesn’t go well.
Savages is, I hope, a thriller that plunges the reader into deeper genre waters. I wanted to write something instant and high-concept and broad, but smuggle in plenty of literary layers and contemporary obsessions. (Self-improvement, male identity, ageing, post-hedonism, the blurring of the fake and the real.)
I read plenty of genre thrillers; mostly crime and psychological. When they’re good, they can be very, very good, but when they’re bad, they can feel like dressed-up research or algorithm-friendly templates, hacked out from the walls of the deepest data mines.
Over the last year or so, the most interesting books I’ve read have dabbled with fusion. The author has taken a little from this genre, a dash from that, and moulded their story into a lateral but nourishing whole. I’m thinking of Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays (sci-fi romance), Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (one man and his dog and the human condition), Adrian J Walker’s The End of the World Running Club (post-apocalyptic existentialism).
With Savages, I wanted the fusion to come from a tweak to the three-act convention. Act One is character study; family and relationship drama. Act Two is a psychological thriller; mounting tension, known unknowns. Act Three is all-out action thriller, bordering on horror. And it’s all served up with a twist inside a twist which came from that Kris Kristofferson eureka! moment.
I don’t only use music as a writing backdrop; it always seeps into the story when I’m out and about, under headphones. With any writing project, I usually have a signature song that follows me around; something that seems to connect with the story’s ambience and conflict. For Savages, it was Toes by Glass Animals, with its furtive, feline slink and talk of “divine ape-swine”. (The song is a perfect fit for the setting, as it’s clearly inspired by HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau.) I also loved the brooding sensuality of Leodoris’s Run, those honking synth stabs hinting at whatever evil lurks deep in the febrile vegetation, and the way its title chimes with one of the book’s recurring ideas: progress, forward momentum, running, the urge to run when there’s nowhere to run to, the limbo between fight and flight. (UNKLE’s Panic Attack helped here, too, as did Mogwai’s Glasgow Mega-Snake, a glistening guitar meltdown that I used as pre-writing psyche-up.)
And when I had to glue myself to the writing chair in the middle of a dark and dismal winter, and cook up scenes of heat and light and powdery beaches, I turned to old YouTube, where some kind soul had stuck a static camera under a palm tree and captured an uninterrupted hour of the kind of desktop-background fantasy island described in the book. Outside my window, the North London streets glittered with frost, but in my writing cave, I was transported, tapping away to the sounds of chirping cicadas, rustling palm fronds, cresting waves. The soundtrack helped me to create an authentic bucket-list dreamworld, which I could take great pleasure reshaping into a nightmare.
Andrew Lowe is an author and editor who has written for The Guardian and Sunday Times, and contributed to numerous books and magazines on film, music, TV, sex, videogames and shin splints. He divides his time between various rooms of his home in London, where he writes and makes music (as half of electronic duo Redpoint). He gets out of the house by running, cycling and coaching youth football. Savages is out now in ebook and paperback. Audiobook coming soon. His website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him as @andylowe99