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The Undercover Soundtrack – Guy Mankowski

for logo‘Armour and post-punk lullabies’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Guy Mankowski @Gmankow

Soundtrack by Savages, Manic Street Preachers, David Bowie, New Order, Magazine, Ultravox, Yourcodenameis: milo, Joy Division, Marilyn Manson, El Perro Del Mar

I think music has influenced me in a way that is perhaps unusual. One of my favourite bands, Savages, describes their music as a ‘suit of armour’. I use music to motivate me, empower me, and rouse me into a state of anger that I convert into writing. My favourite album, The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, contains a set of lyrics which are all about corruption and negativity, and about converting that anger into self-empowerment. During periods of difficulty in my life I’ve returned to that album again and again. The lyrics to my favourite song from it, Faster, capture many of the mantras I live by.

Guy MankowskiI first wanted to write How I Left The National Grid to capture, in writing, that feeling that music gave me. The mind-set of Savages and The Manics influenced my main character, the singer Robert Wardner, who uses his music to escape the bleakness of his surroundings. But the novel itself was written using various other non-lullabies.

The novel is comprised of two narratives- one, set in the 80s, following Robert Wardner’s rise and fall. The other, set in 2012, as a journalist called Sam tries to track Wardner down for a commissioned book. Whilst spending time in Manchester to research the post-punk scene I was struck by how many times the city has been bulldozed and regenerated in the last few decades. To me, the fragile, futuristic synths in New Order’s music worked as a metaphor for the fragile, futuristic living complexes that have sprouted in recent years. I felt the texture of New Order’s brittle guitars and undulating keyboard lines during the long, searching city walks I took. They inspired Sam’s more hopeful moments in his journey. I think that New Order used synths to evoke a future that then seemed impossibly utopian, given their grim surroundings in urban Manchester.

Aural utopias

In the novel Wardner fronts a band called The National Grid, who similarly try to create aural utopias on record, using whatever instruments they can lay their hands on. Magazine’s album Definitive Gaze and Ultravox’s Astradyne seemed to me the two records that had gone closest to achieving that. Neither are pristine, but their flaws make them all the most charming.
At the start of the novel Sam, and his girlfriend Elsa, are genuinely in thrall of futuristic visions about communal living, having just moved into a luxury apartment block. During the writing of these scenes I played I’m Leaving by Yourcodenameis: Milo again and again. The hard surfaces and polished textures of the song, along with singer Paul Mullen’s lyrics about living in a complex, were very evocative.

David Bowie has been quoted as the godfather of post-punk, and so perhaps fittingly his album Low was incredibly important in the creation of the book. Not least because in one scene, like in the song Always Crashing In The Same Car we see a character driving menacingly around a hotel car park, faster and faster, until a crash seems unavoidable.

How I Left the National Grid - Book ImageBrutalist surfaces

During his car journey to Manchester’s sink estates, in pursuit of Wardner, Sam listens to Joy Division’s Disorder, and he acknowledges the hard interiors of their song, as uncompromising as the unyielding, Brutalist surfaces around him. At other times he doesn’t skirt around cities, but is taken into the dark heart of them. In the scene in which his hunt takes him to a debauched London nightclub I had Marilyn Manson’s Great Big White World play in the background in the prose. The song has a synthetic, artificial, glossy feel to it, as if the arrangement is cased in Lucite. The song felt as Ballardian as the modern nightclub environment. I also used El Perro Del Mar’s Dark Night again and again as muzak during the writing of one scene in which a character experiences a comedown. The lulled vocals and the incessant repetition of that song are somehow addictive, and capture the atmosphere perfectly. This novel could not have been written without the push that such songs gave me.

Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. He trained as a psychologist at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. The first draft of his debut novel, The Intimates, was written when he was 21 and was chosen as a ‘must-read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign. His second novel, Letters from Yelena, was researched in the world of Russian ballet. He was one of the first English people to be given access to The Vaganova Academy, perhaps the most prestigious ballet school in the world. The novel was adapted for the stage and used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational. How I Left The National Grid was written after a creative writing PhD at Northumbria University under the supervision of Booker nominee Dr Andrew Crumey, and is published by Zer0 Books. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.

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