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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.
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
Adam Byatt, Australia, authors who use music, books set in Australia, books set in Sydney, chapbook, deprivation, JAR Writers Collective, Mount Pleasant album, Mount Pleasant book, music for creative writing, music for writing, post-rock, poverty, short stories, Solkyri, suburban realism, suburbia, Sydney, The Undercover Soundtrack, urban fiction, Vine Leaves Press
My guest this week was inspired by just one musical work – Mount Pleasant, an album that commemorates a vanished suburb of Sydney, Australia. However, the suburb didn’t vanish; the name was changed by the council in an attempt to erase its reputation for violence. But the people remained, and the environment with all its troubles. The members of Solkyri, a band who grew up there, set to capture Mount Pleasant old and new, and writer Adam Byatt found himself so moved by the tracks that he also created Mount Pleasant, in a set of 10 short stories. Music and stories, preserving a vanished place that never really vanished. He’ll be here later in the week to talk about it all.
Once a week 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 magical realist author Rohan Quine @RohanQuine
Soundtrack by Sinead O’Connor, Dead Can Dance, Suede, Lana Del Rey, Kim Wilde, Soft Cell, This Mortal Coil, Roxy Music, Madonna, The Orb, The KLF, Ministry, Genesis, Marc and the Mambas, Marc Almond, Kode9 and the Spaceape, Bronski Beat, Donna Summer, Erasure, Bauhaus, Bryan Ferry
Since women are a bit cooler than men, I’ll start with the women in the following cast of principal characters – a cast loosely spread across all five published tales (The Imagination Thief and four novellas – The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong). Aptly here, Alaia Danielle is a singer. She’s morally upright and somewhat high-tension, with cool good taste and a large, cerebral compassion. Her dignity and the humanity beneath her seriousness were partly conjured up by the majesty with which Troy by Sinéad O’Connor builds up, from controlled quietness into a world-bestriding anger that’s just as controlled. Performing, Alaia emits a wordless song with the viscerality of Diamanda Galás and the ethereality of the Cocteau Twins; but the best single suggestion of her was the sublime The Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance.
Pippa Vail is a sweet, depressive dreamer who sits on her high-rise tower-block balcony in silence, while her rich inner life seeps out across the town spread below her; her prominent green eyes look wet and hurt, as if she’s been crying, though there are no tear-stains. Evoking the swell of silent beauty she hears in the sky, from within the unending loneliness of her high-rise balcony-grave, many early tracks by Suede influenced my creation of her. Two amazing examples are Still Life and – appropriate for her high-rise location – High Rising.
Evelyn Carmello is sunny, tough, sassy and social, looming large in her small home-town of Asbury Park, near New York. Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album fed into her, but Evelyn is lighter. Starcrazy by Suede was useful as a very Evelyn example of another kind of Suede heroine: joyously functional in the real world, she’s a dirty-sexy streetwise party-girl, although that scene is mostly now in her recent past. I can also hear in Evelyn an echo or two of that cool-eyed, dirty-city classic Kids in America by Kim Wilde.
Ravens in the tower
Constant in the Chocolate Raven is a yearning for the everyday external world to transcend its qualities of dullness and flatness, to attain the colours and lights living in her mind. The music that helped create her, therefore (especially when she’s on that Dubai skyscraper terrace, creating the tower in the mountains from convulsive blasts of energy she fires across the night-time desert), was music that radiates a transcendent beauty undercut by regret that such beauty will always be up against such a deadweight. Salient examples were Song to the Siren by This Mortal Coil and To Turn You On by Roxy Music. The Chocolate Raven’s creation of the Platinum Raven is in itself a song to the siren.
In that nightclub tower where the Platinum Raven presides, events of the brightest darkness, decadence and beauty occur. The dance-floor is a cat-walk where every night those anorexic models float past us, beautifully drugged-out and weak and untouchable, forever down the runways of their airport lanes, expressionless in damage through the night-lit clouds with their make-up flashing soft in the lights, like perfection, clad in shreds of lightest silk that conceal the needle-marks. The album Erotica by Madonna was in the mix here, being steeped in this heightened feeling of darkness beneath legendary nightclub fabulousness; yet this album’s world-class attitude and sass are permeated by a simple, universal sense of the sadness and longing that enrich even the wildest pleasures and highest achievements we’re capable of while alive. The title track Erotica is a fine example – as is the track Deeper and Deeper, beneath whose easy hedonistic surface lies a perfect evocation of the natural evanescence of your every past joy and your every future joy.
The Platinum Raven’s conspirator in that tower is a DJ named Amber, whose infernal nature and allure reflect the fact that he happens to be the continuation of Rutger Hauer’s psychopathic character in the film The Hitcher. Soundtrack-wise, however, he’s evoked by what he might spin: late in the main room, Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb; then later still in the VIP room, something from the legendary album Chill Out by The KLF, such as the track 3am Somewhere Out of Beaumont.
Damian West is a gangster whose gauntness of expression indicates much danger and paranoia. The sound of the inside of Damian’s head was well suggested by the colossal charisma of The Fall by Ministry. Another contribution was made by the claustrophobic immensity of that slick little slice of hell, Mama by Genesis.
Angel Deon (in some novellas called Scorpio) is an androgynous creature whose spiteful sleek depraved face radiates decadence and damage from its sharp beauty. He is shadowy, effete, both unhealthy and luminous; his head is a fantastically dark cavern of jagged riches, and musically he’s pure Marc and the Mambas, plus tons of the darker output of Soft Cell and of Marc Almond solo. To locate my creation of Angel, I’d pinpoint somewhere between two stunning Mambas tracks: The Animal in You; and My Former Self.
Lucan Abayomi is a charismatic gang-leader, drug-dealer and Angel’s boyfriend, whose smile spells trouble, violence, sex and danger. He was partly born from that dubby bass in lots of dubstep from around 2006, redolent of nocturnal high-rise housing estates, lonely concrete spaces and bass speakers booming out of car windows. We can hear part of his origins in two by Kode9 and the Spaceape: Nine Samurai; and Sine.
Shigem Adele is an effusive, flamboyant nightclub host, a lovable and neurotic survivor, whose warmth can illuminate a roomful of people. He was born somewhere between two classic electronic dance tracks: the haunting anguish and defiant beauty of Why? by Bronski Beat; and the iconic sensuality of I Feel Love by Donna Summer.
Kim Somerville is newly in love with Shigem, being quiet, observant and loyal, with a tinge of thoughtful pessimism:
In an absent way he sings along to the lyrics of the track playing quietly on the club’s sound system; and I am struck by his voice, which is clean, vanilla, supple, pure and filled with earnest beauty. It’s a voice of great wholesomeness, picturesquely sad and honest, redolent of goodness – and a little white lie, I think.
That was inspired by the voice of Erasure’s Andy Bell, always to be heard with Vince Clarke’s keyboards, as in the beauty of two representative Erasure tracks: the grandeur and exuberance of Run to the Sun; and the sombre grandeur of Crown of Thorns.
Finally, my narrator Jaymi Peek. Most of the time he’s subtle or elusive in nature, being a humorous clear lens and benign observer. In his broadcasts, though, he becomes a charismatic and empowered face who projects himself addictively into the imaginations of a global audience – the assaultive power of which is suggested in Double Dare by Bauhaus, whose message never dates. (I hereby stake a musical claim: the first 15 sentences of the long paragraph at the bottom of this page, narrated by Jaymi, constitute what must be the most precise verbal description ever written, by anyone silly enough to try it, of the exact sound of the first 40 seconds of Double Dare.) As with the Chocolate Raven’s projection of the Platinum Raven, one of Jaymi’s missions in his wildly varied projections is perhaps to help himself (and us) to transcend all that needs transcending. Echoing the Song to the Siren that I mentioned above for her, I shall therefore end here by returning to that song for Jaymi too – but this time it’s Song to the Siren by Bryan Ferry, from 2010. This is a sound so rarefied by its own expensive exquisiteness that its surface feels laminated and sterilised from all reality, residing forever in some elite suite of perfection above us, with nowhere higher left to go before the air would run out altogether…
Rohan’s novel The Imagination Thief and four novellas – The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong – aim to push imagination and language towards their extremes, to explore and illuminate the beauty, horror and mirth of this predicament called life, where we seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time. He’s on Twitter at @RohanQuine and has a website www.rohanquine.com
authors, Bauhaus, Bronski Beat, Bryan Ferry, Chocolate Raven, contemporary fiction, Dead Can Dance, Desert Island Discs, Donna Summer, drama, entertainment, Erasure, Genesis, horror, Kim Wilde, Kode9 and the Spaceape, Lana Del Rey, Madonna, magic realism, male writers, Marc Almond, Marc and the Mambas, Ministry, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Platinum Raven, playlist for writers, Rohan Quine, Roxy Music, Roz Morris, Sinead O'Connor, Soft Cell, Suede, The Imagination Thief, The KLF, The Orb, The Undercover Soundtrack, This Mortal Coil, undercover soundtrack, urban fantasy, urban fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
My guest this week writes urban fiction imbued with magic realism and horror. His characters are drawn directly from soundtracks, from music that expressed their desperation, loneliness, fragility and streetwise sass – Sinead O’Connor to Madonna; Dead Can Dance to Suede and Soft Cell. He is Rohan Quine and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, contemporary fiction, Dead Can Dance, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, horror, Madonna, magic realism, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, Rohan Quine, Roz Morris, Sinead O'Connor, Soft Cell, Suede, The Imagination Thief, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, urban fantasy, urban fiction, writers, writing, writing to music
- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
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