Ned Beauman – Everybody’s Doing It

July 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

East London, quantum physics, Weimar-era berlin, not getting fucked for love nor money: wondering what on earth connects the spurious dots here? The answer is The Teleportation Accident – one of the freshest, most exciting and darkly comic novels written in recent years – and its author Ned Beauman.

Written in the
 uniquely ambivalent authorial voice that had Beauman’s first novel (BoxerBeetle) shortlisted for several prominent prizes, The Teleportation Accident’s blurring of fact and fiction oozes confidence, resulting in the definitive historical novel for people that detest the genre. Its creation, at this early point in his career, has cemented Beauman as both a promising voice for the future of the written word and a force to be acknowledged in the here and now.

Dazed Digital: You had some
success with BoxerBeetle, making The Teleportation Accident the ‘difficult second novel’. Did you feel the pressure, particularly?
Ned Beauman: Most of the prizes I got shortlisted for were for first novels – those are ruled out now, and
 a lot of the best reviews were mostly premised on the pleasant surprise of finding an interesting new voice, I think. So that’s ruled out as well. If anything, it’s worse than starting from scratch, but there’s an extent to which the new book is a reaction to the ways that the first was received: a lot of the things that people found annoying about the first book, I’ve deliberately emphasised in the second book.

DD: Things like the sexual content? One reviewer called it ‘gobsmackingly smutty’…
Ned Beauman: Yes, although there are no actual sex scenes in this book.

If I picked up a copy of Boxer,Beetle in a bookshop and read the blurb or the first few pages I don’t think I’d buy it. Hopefully there’s enough going on in the new book that, in the same situation, I would pay for it – and I think I would

DD: And yet the book is full of sexual imagery and innuendo – was that a conscious decision?
Ned Beauman: Yeah. So much of The Teleportation Accident is about (protagonist Egon) Loeser not getting laid that when he actually does, I made sure it happened between chapters to better emphasise the fact that it turns out not to be that important after all. None of the other characters were likely to get any action either. So, no sex.

DD: How do you reconcile topics like quantum physics, Nazism and sexual deprivation?
Ned Beauman: I was reading another book, City of Quartz, by Mike
 Davis – it’s about the history of Los Angeles – and there was a small extract about a scientist working at Caltech. Things really just evolved from there. If I hadn’t been reading that book then this novel probably would never have happened.

DD: So, there’s some 
truth in the scientific elements 
of the 
Ned Beauman: Some – but not teleportation. 
As far as I know 
there was no teleportation
 device, but it was
 such a ludicrous 
time and place
 there could well 
have been people working on it. Only in California or Moscow – it just couldn’t happen anywhere else.

DD: There are quite a few similarities between BoxerBeetle and your new novel; they’re set in similar time periods and touch on similar subjects – how do you set them apart?
Ned Beauman: If I picked up a copy of BoxerBeetle in a bookshop and read the blurb or the first few pages I don’t think I’d buy it. Hopefully there’s enough going on in the new book that, in the same situation, I would pay for it – and I think I would.

DD: A successful first novel, and a second on the way – was there a point at which you realised you had transitioned to being an ‘author’?
Ned Beauman: It happened as
 soon as I quit my
 job, a few months 
after I got the deal
 for BoxerBeetle.
 My job before was
 working three days a 
week at Another
Man, so it wasn’t
 exactly tyranny. But 
there’s no reason to
 think it will continue forever. At the moment I can afford to write full-time as long as I maintain approximately the same level of success. But at some point, maybe soon, I will want to spend more than two years writing a book, and at some point there will be some economic change which will mean not getting the same advances. I don’t expect to live like this forever.

DD: Is it possible to get by as an author just by writing novels these days?
Ned Beauman:
 I do quite a few events, but most of them are just a few hours in the evening, and festivals are pretty fun. There is a difference between the US and the UK: in the UK the publisher still puts a lot of resources into publicity, but in the US they can’t afford that any more.

DD: Being from London, have you noticed that it’s a lot more difficult out there for authors at the moment?
Ned Beauman: I wasn’t around ten years ago, but I get the impression that publishing is a lot more rationalised now – there’s less of the ‘midlist’, so unless you’re doing major things they’re not going
to keep buying book after book when you only sell a few thousand copies, and let you be subsidised forever by their really successful authors. It’s like you’re a failing line of vacuum cleaners at an electronics company – they’ll stop producing you almost immediately.

DD: There is a spattering of ‘real’ historical figures in the novel, but compared to your own characters they seem completely two-dimensional – why include them at all?
Ned Beauman: I’ve always hated those historical novels where the characters are consistently bumping into exaggerated versions of those kind of figures – I wanted to send that up in the novel. I had a rule that I could include ‘real’ characters but they’d never be centre-stage; they’d never have any real dialogue.

DD: I get the 
that the
 depiction of
 Berlin in The Teleportation Accident isn’t all it seems – is there a bit of the east-London
 scene in
Ned Beauman: Definitely – Berlin, as it appears in the novel, is a parody of what 
the east-London scene was a few years ago: everyone knows everyone, everyone’s slept with 
– it’s 
borderline incestuous. It’s one of
 the reasons I
 had them all
 doing ketamine
 – that’s not
 exactly historically accurate – and
 the character of
Brecht is based on one prominent figure in particular from that scene. My next book, though, the one
 that I’m working on now, is actually set in London.

DD: Can you tell us much about it at this point?
Ned Beauman: Not a lot – except that
 it addresses more directly some of the same questions that are touched on in The Teleportation Accident. Namely, what do you do when all the good drugs run out?

DD: You’re out in New York at the moment. Are there any parallels you can draw from that city that will work in the same way as Berlin and Los Angeles do in this novel?
Ned Beauman: I don’t think so. It’s a very different experience. The other day I was wandering around listening to the latest burial EP, but it was so jarring – it doesn’t work at all in the context of New York.
 It’s a real testament to artists like him, that they can evoke the feel and spirit of a place that’s in such a constant state of flux so vividly. It’s just unfortunate that this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to write about London and I’m not there. but we’ll see – hopefully it works.

Photo by Dylan Forsberg
The Teleportation Accident has been long listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction


Sigur Rós – A Step to the Left

June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment


Five long years since the release of the album Með suð í eyrum við Spilum Endalaust, which met with mixed reviews from fans and critics alike, Sigur Rós returned to active music-making this may with Valtari, a heady combination of ambient noise scaping and their trademark glacial sounds. It’s clear that, as a band, they’re determined not to repeat themselves, but their newest offering maintains a clear picture of the band’s musical history as well as setting a vivid case for change.

The band themselves (for the purposes of this interview, being one Jónsi Birgisson and Orri Páll Dýrason) combine a certain shyness with a charm and sense of humour characteristic of their countrymen; jokes and vernacular are lost in translation, and they don’t say a great deal, clearly confident that Valtari will answer all the questions they can’t.

First things first: between this album and the last album you’ve all been doing your own thing really – why regroup now and make this album?

After the last tour we went straight to the studio and started recording some ideas. We were working in the old studio – but we weren’t really feeling what was happening, so we took a break and then a year ago we started recording again.

If you hadn’t taken that break, would Valtari sound anything like it does?

Probably not. It was really weird – we did so many sessions. We started recording after the last tour, but even before that we had been recording choir songs at Air studios in 2007. This album is less band like; less structured.

Were you looking to make an album that was distinct from your back catalogue?

I think this album was always gonna be different, no matter what, it’s just the nature of it. It would have been boring to make the same record exactly.

It’s probably closest to Brackets… what made you go back that way – you’ve gone from being a cult band from a small island to one of the most recognisable sounds in the world…

In the universe. We don’t think too much about that – we always wanted to do this album. The first idea was to make a quiet choir album or something really weird. But then we put that on hold – but it’s always been in the back of our minds.

Why did you call it Valtari (Steamroller)?

It was a working title for one song… now it’s the title for another song; it’s confusing – it’s confusing to me, anyway.

Alex Somers produced the album – what sort of input has he had?

He’s done an amazing job – he focused us on finishing it and gluing all the parts together in to a whole. The session he had in the computer was really messy and confusing – he helped us to find a structure. He encouraged us to try things – he encouraged me [Jonsi] to sing more. This music is so up his alley.

There are tracks on the album that aren’t so different to your older stuff as others – was it something you thought was important, to leave that trace of recognisability?

It’s just kind of how we are – what we do – it’s hard to grow away from that. We’re still the same people. We’ve changed to keep ourselves happy – to make it interesting for us; we try not to repeat ourselves too much.

And are you happy with Valtari?

Yeah, really happy. It’s such a different album to make – not the classic band album where we meet up and write songs – it’s more of a studio album, more experimentation.

Is that something you’re keen to continue?

It’s always fun. I think for our next album we’ll go back in to the band, keep people guessing, maybe do a rap album.

There’s been a lot of music coming out of Iceland, from under your shadow these last few years – have you been keeping track of that scene while you haven’t been a part of it?

Of Monsters and Men are doing really well. It’s good; they don’t have that kind of “Icelandic weirdness” that people expect – it’s just good pop music and people can connect to it. People always think there’s only strange music in Iceland, but it’s just like anywhere else. Which brings us back to the rap.

There’s so much production involved, how are you going to perform Valtari live?

We have no idea. Playback? We have a few string players and two extra players – we’ll just… do something. We have some time. Maybe it would be fun to try and arrange the old songs like Valtari. It’s always going to be different to the album – I like that – to see how it evolves.

Are you planning to stick together now, as Sigur Ros, rather than going back to your personal projects and lives?

At least for a while. We’re touring all next year – we don’t know what happens after that. If something happens then it happens. But we don’t write on tour, not together, you do something on your own on a laptop: it’s kind of schizophrenic – it’s hard to focus on anything.

You’re only playing Bestival here this year – are you looking forward to that?

[Jonsi:] I’ve played before. it was awful – it was dirty and sweaty and rainy, and there was a techno band playing next to me. No, I think it’s going to be good – I like the festival, it’s cool.

Do you prefer festival shows?

It’s just very different. When we put together a setlist we think about that because most of the time there is a techno band playing in the woods. It’s hard to play quiet songs. When we play festivals it’s like a big circus – you just have to have fun and expect everything to go wrong.

Georg has said this is the only Sigur Ros album he’s ever listened to for pleasure – do you ever listen back to your previous albums?

Only when I’m extremely drunk. I listened to a little bit of this album on the plane – it’s in the in flight entertainment system. But I never listen to our albums, maybe I will revisit them ten years from now when I’m an old man.

What are you hoping other people hear when they listen to Valtari?

I don’t know – it’s kind of a more introspective album; it’s easy to listen to by yourself. Maybe not when you’re in the gym – it’s not a pump up album or a party album.

The sound of the album is closer to ( ) or Von than any of your more recent work – do you still think it’s a step forward?

No, a step back – I hope it’s not a step back; a step to the left maybe. I think people will be surprised. And we were surprised, we were kind of expecting EMI to just reject the album and we’d have to put it out ourselves.

Was it what you were expecting when you started out? Five years is a long time…

We were going to do a choir album, but after we started working on the choir we were trying to hide it in the music – we didn’t want it to be a classical album.We went to AIR studios to record the Sixteen choir, and it was really expensive top quality equipment but we ended up using a tape recorder.

Does it affect the dynamic of the group when you’re not creating songs out of rehearsals and band compositions – who takes charge of that process?

We’d been working for many years but we were a little all over the place – so it was good when Alex came in; we weren’t always there together, but Alex was always there. Sometimes it’s fun to be on your own, you can experiment more, and we’ve always experimented in the studio – we love new equipment, new toys.

Did you still have the right dynamic after you’d all been out on your own?

It worked straight away – it was really nice, and that doesn’t always happen. When I [Jonsi] went out, playing my own stuff, and came back to Sigur Ros it was like coming home.

Hot Damned!

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

(the following interview was written for v man and can be found on their website here)

Mutton-chopped from here to eternity in a cultivated aesthetic that can really only be verbalized as Jack The Ripper-esque, cult author Chuck Palahniuk is now as recognizable for his look, plucked out of some 19th-century-London photofit, as he is for his uncompromising literary technique—a willingness to push forward with divisive and taboo subjects without trepidation and with obvious relish. Recently, however, he decided to lose the chops. This month sees the release of Damned, his twelfth novel to date, the newest in a long line of controversial literary endeavors that push hard and fast on the buttons of all moral authority. Still: antagonist, award-winning author, incontestable talent, or Cult Hero—label him what you will–Palahniuk is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with.Damned, out now from Random House, deals head-on with the premise of Hell; not just in ideology or concept, but as a very real place. But is there really a distinction? “Here I’m paraphrasing St. Thomas Aquinas or some other righteous somebody,” he ventures, “but ‘Hell is the path you take yourself down that’s not the path God had planned for you.’ Hell is a big detour away from your life’s mission.” It’s all relative then, so what does “Hell” mean to Palahniuk himself? “My Hell, and that of my characters, is usually—okay, always—a Hell of the physical body versus the mind or emotions. So Hell is when you guzzle sherry when you know you ought to be writing your symphony. Or when you smoke the skunkweed when you should be writing your screenplay.”
Two of Palahniuk’s novels have already been made in to big-deal Hollywood movies and he’s been afforded the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award twice (one for Fight Club, one for Lullaby). Yet despite seeing his previous titles brought to life on the silver screen with the help of Brad Pitt and Sam Rockwell, as well as what one can only assume is fast becoming a very shiny mantlepiece, the author isn’t a booming bestseller or a cash cow. He’s not, and never will be, Dan Brown. And he knows that. How does he feel about constantly being prefixed with the word ‘cult’? “You tell me.” he answers, obviously well aware of this phenomenon. “It’s not as if I’m an authority on ‘success.’ Or cults. Ask some marketing person-someone who invented these distinctions. Perhaps using the modifier ‘cult’ preserves the ‘street cred’ of a writer who has made it onto the bestseller lists.” I get the feeling he knows where he stands and that he’s more than okay with it, “But if I were a real success,” he muses “I’d have flunkies peeling grapes and dropping them into my mouth, and I wouldn’t be forced to refill my own sherry glass every three minutes.”
Whether he’s planning to lead three or four hundred gullible nitwits into group suicide or not, the cult moniker has stuck, and it does have some advantages: leeway for one. The shock-factor in his novels gets a little extra room to breathe and he’s happy to take full advantage of that–surely, it can’t be a coincidence that at a time of powerful right-wing religious resurgence, he’s chosen to taken on theology as a subject. “Good-hearted Christian readers got a huge treat with those ‘Left Behind’ books: novels set in a post-Rapture world where sinners fought violently for a final chance at salvation. Lots of blood and horror, but it was okay because they were the damned folks who were going to Hell, anyway. God hated them so it was fine to torture them as characters.” So, this novel is a counter attack? “I just think that secular humanists ought to have a similar fiction franchise where liberals get to reinvent theology.” But Damned is more than just a Fuck You to the Bachmanns and Palins of pop culture-it’s been carefully considered from all sides, meticulously plotted down to the smallest detail. “Damned follows a classic form,” Palahnuik explains, “an innocent character is thrust into a new environment and must adapt quickly. In Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret the narrator is relocated from New York City to some dismal suburban no-place, where she waits in dread of her impending menses. In The Shawshank Redemption a small-town banker finds himself in prison and must wait in dread for forced butt sex. I could name a million examples of this form, and it resonates with everyone’s first day on a new job or in a new school. InDamned I just chose the worst possible place you could find yourself.”Asking anything of Chuck Palahniuk—even if he isn’t in the room when you’re asking–feels a lot like boxing with Charles Bronson: you know what you’ve asked and you know what sort of reply you should expect. All that aside, you still can’t help but feel as though he’s just waiting for the right moment to butt you…hard…and right in the face. It’s this no-holds-barred approach to narrative and character development that singles him out from his contemporaries: it’s why Victor Mancini, Tyler Durden and Madison are all somehow more contemptible than Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman-these constructs aren’t just deeply flawed human beings (who isn’t?), but they’re flawed in such a way that it becomes hard to empathise with them, and even harder to pity them. “Is that the ultimate goal—to create a character whom readers pity?” I get the impression it isn’t, or at least it isn’t high on his list of priorities, “Quick, someone tell Ayn Rand,” he quips, confirming this impression.

At this stage of his career, Palahniuk is a seasoned professional. He knows that as much as it’s fine for his readers to dislike, or even detest, his creations, there has to be room for them to claw something back; to reclaim some relatable part of their humanity. “The three-act structure,” he’s a big fan of Dante’s seminal work he says, “and patterning the three ‘Madison’ books after the Divine Comedy gives me Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to demonstrate a huge redemption, not just for Madison, but for all of humanity. By the end of the third book, we’ll have a new meta-narrative covering damnation, redemption and salvation.” This is a bold claim—high falutin, even—but it’s not a patch on what comes next: “The secular humanist will be united with the Creationist. The Liberal will embrace the Conservative. All religions will melt together.” Here comes the head-butt: “All peoples will fell akin with one another in a celebration of joy not seen since the United Benneton ad campaigns of the 1980′s.” Black eye. “I cry simply thinking about how good those books will be. You should cry, too. Now if I can just stay off the damned sherry, I might actually finish writing the next two books.” Broken Nose.

Child of Winter, Child of Sun – Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) Interview

July 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

[this interview first appeared in abridged form in Dazed & Confused Magazine’s July 2011 Issue]

Justin Vernon isn’t Bon Iver – that’s the first thing you ought to know about him. He calls him self its ‘curator for the time,’ and suggests – rather coyly – that some day that position might be held be someone else. But, for now, Bon Iver is a project that he leads – a project often (much to Vernon’s despair) more recognised for its back story than its musical efforts. Yes, it was recorded in a cabin in the woods, yes he had just broken up with his then girlfriend and his previous band, yes he had a pretty huge beard – but that’s just not what it’s all about.

He left the that cabin almost four years ago now and, having entirely re-assessed his signature sound, all but retiring that acoustic guitar, Justin Vernon emerges – wearing an impressively well-notched belt that, without any hint of irony or ostentation, holds collaborations with Kanye West (featuring twice on his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album) and contributions to the New Moon soundtrack – ready to unleash his project’s third release: The imaginatively titled Bon Iver.

It’s a far cry from the lo-fi, beard-scratch-inclusive, acoust-a-croon of their inaugural LP – recorded in a brand new studio and accented by hints of post-rock, Peter Gabriel and Prince – Mr. Vernon’s self-titled effort is the boldest statement of his musical intent to date. And it probably isn’t what you were expecting…

What do I call you – is it ‘Bon Eye-Ver’, ‘Bon e-ver’ – ‘Mr. Bon’?

It’s pronounced ‘Bon E-Ver’ – people started calling me Bon Iver and Mr. Bon, but it’s really not nom de plume; it’s not an alter-ego. It’s not the name of a band – it’s not the name of a person – it’s a project. It’s that element; I’m just Justin.

Bon Iver is very different to both previous records – how would you describe it?

It’s called Good Winter, Good Winter – but it’s not about winter; we’re putting it out on the Summer Solstice – that’s sort of the beginning of life, of the longest life there is, you know. But it’s also wishing ‘good death’ to this place – this Bon Iver, Bon Iver. But this album is more about dealing with joy as it comes – inviting it in.

The first track is a ballsy way to start – is it meant as a sort of ‘fuck you’ statement?

There’s two answers to that, I’ll give you the second – and the second one isn’t as important: Yeah, it’s saying ‘You will not tell me what to do, you will not dictate what I do as an artist,’ but that’s the unimportant reason. I wrote that song because I needed it – I needed to thrash and chaotically deconstruct things that had become too plastic in my life. That’s why it’s called Perth, it’s like beginning, it’s like birth. There’s a chaos to that and there’s also a beauty.

It’s hard to believe that you ‘Forgot how to write songs’ – was it more about trying to avoid being typecast for the beard, the falsetto and resonator guitar?

I think I might’ve been stoned when I said that. I didn’t forget, I just couldn’t write with a guitar anymore – it wasn’t speaking to me. I had to locate a new sonic space; people talk about their “magic guitar” that they use to write songs – I don’t have one of those anymore – it takes more. It takes the studio and the gear and the microphone to have it sound the way that I need in order to write a song. That’s what I meant by that: de-construction/re-construction.

In that sense how has the process of writing songs changed for you – it’s a much less lyric driven album, so you must’ve had quite a different approach to writing it?

It wasn’t altogether different to For Emma – that was the biggest change that I’d gone through sonically, songwriting wise, so the process didn’t change that much between then and now – I just wasn’t using an acoustic guitar as much. On this record I allowed myself to go in to a different zone, but lyrically it’s the same for me as it was on a lot of the songs on the first record – more like flume than any other song. There was this vast, vague landscape you could go in to and not have any real idea what’s going on, but somehow, at the very same time, know exactly what’s going on. 

I know what you mean about it not being lyric-driven, because I agree with that, lyrics were the secondary thought. I actually worked on the lyrics on this album for much longer, over the course of years, to get them right, and to get them right seems strange because they always read like I’ve just stopped in the middle of writing. But, somehow, each song is complete in that way.

You’ve had really positive feedback for the first two records, did that have any effect on writing the record at all?

No, but it fills you with enough confidence, I guess. I was lucky that my first record was this thing that helped me out – but I didn’t care – I just don’t give a shit what people think, per say, I just know that I need to do what’s important for me and if as many people like it, then great. But I knew handing in this record that I loved it and that I’m proud of it; that’s kind of all that mattered. So I never thought about how the songs would sound – I never thought about how this would sound in a record review. I really feel super-separated from that.

You’ve got Volcano Choir as an experimental outlet – why fix what isn’t broken – why not just experiment with that and leave Bon Iver as it is?

If you’re not experimenting I don’t really know what you’re doing; you’re basically just musically jerking off a bunch of times. And nobody wants to watch anybody masturbate.

So, when you were writing the new record, you didn’t hold back at all and try to keep something that people might recognise as being Bon Iver?

Nope. Again, I don’t not care but I also don’t give a shit about pandering to something in any way other than what I need to do artistically for me. It’s way too big of an opportunity to express myself – I jut knew that was the most important thing.

Do you think Kanye West was a fan of Bon Iver or do you think he was just box-ticking by including you on the album?

He was, man. I knew he wasn’t just shining me on – he asked me to fly to Hawaii for Christ’s sake. He was in to what I was doing; he would sit me down and talk to me about the lyrics to Blood Bank and I was like, ‘Who are you, man?’ He’s a good fan and just like anybody. He just gets put in to a rap genre; he is a rapper and he wants to make rap records, but he’s smart.

Smarter than people give him credit for?

People are fucking racist. However you want to look at it, they’re afraid of a black guy with an open mouth – it’s ridiculous. And, not through any fault of their own psyche, they’re gonna pinpoint that and put him in a corner. He asks for it sometimes, but he shouldn’t have to shy away from what he’s feeling.

You played together at Coachella – how was that?

It was cool to be part of a scene like that, even thought I’m not really adding to it – I’m just up there. They gave me a bunch of white clothes and just said, ‘Go up there.’ It was surreal; it was cool to be a part of that big of a visual production but I’m not capable of constructing something like that for myself.

You’ve never been interested in making videos for Bon Iver, then?

It’s something that I’m interested in. We’ve been working on a film, this non-narrative art-video project that will be a visual compliment to the record, so I’ve been doing a lot of photography and filming on my own – it’s something that’s gripping me at the moment, but I don’t know about dancing and stuff like that. I don’t like when people are all about the weirdest shit. What I like about Kanye is he’s totally enthralled with classic art, like giant pieces of stone, but I’d rather just show up and play.

Speaking of films, what possessed you to make your soundtrack debut with a film for desperate teenage girls about shiny vampires?

That’s a weird one. I don’t know those films and the little bit I’ve seen was pretty unwatchable. And, to be honest with you, I said no to that because I don’t really jive with that shit. But, the next day, I was working on this song and I though ‘Shit. This sounds like a fucking emo-vampire-song.’ I was feeling really weird about it, but driving down this country road in the middle of nowhere I saw this farm girl and she had iPod headphones in; she was wearing a Twilight t-shirt and I decided: ‘I’m doing it’. People don’t read Pitchfork or read music magazines to hear about bands – I heard about Dinosaur Jr. for the first time because of Wayne’s World 2.

This new record has some scattered 80s sounds to it, did that rub off from Peter Gabriel or just from music that you listen to?

I think there’s bits of that sound that one Korg and one keyboard can give you; it just breathes a certain sonic space – it’s a digital snapshot of an analogue-synth-sound. It’s just impossible to replicate.

I was half expecting you to break out in to Purple Rain mid-song…

Good… I almost did…

The place name’s on the album, do they relate to the content of the songs at all?

Yeah, they all do, take ‘Towers’ for example: ‘Towers’ is the name of the dormitory that I lived in in college; it’s made up of these two towers – North and South – my girlfriend lived in one and I lived in the other. It’s about falling in love, but also about what happens when you’ve long fallen out of love and those reminders are still there. You drive by them, these two buildings, and you look, and you realise that we really built that up. That we really built that love into these things, and for a long time afterward looking at them really made me feel sad; to see these empty buildings that I don’t go in to anymore. But then, as time goes on, they start to become kind of joyous in their own way: you can look at them and think ‘that love was great and these buildings still stand tall’. But there’s also an element of the fact that they’re just buildings – they’re gonna fall down one day, and they’re not that important because there’s new love in your life and you’ve got to break things down that get built up.

Carrying on in the vein of location, it’s pretty well documented that For Emma came from a very specific place – is there anything since that even comes close in terms of inspiration? Is it weird to think there are probably people sat with their fingers crossed hoping that your life fucks up again?

I definitely saw that out there. But not everything in my life happened in those three months; you live your life and you realise it’s not that important. That’s why it’s taken three years to make this record – it allowed so much of that stuff to come in without the need for suffering. It was more about just exploring feeling in general rather than some specific hook up that I had. There are specific things on the record but they’re more joyful than they are anything else.

You’ve got a bunch of tattoos of elemental symbols, do you feel like you’re letting down that ideology people associate you with for the sake of technical progress? Do you ever feel like just going outside and shooting something to address the balance?

I want music to sound good, but that doesn’t always mean make it sound better. What’s better? The 80s came and all of a sudden people had this mastery of technology – and guess what happened – music started to sound glassy and impure. People have said this record ‘doesn’t sound pro,’ but it sounds pro to me. So I let them re-mix it, but mine sounded better. This is exactly how I wanted it to sound. I mixed it, I spent years mixing it, and it’s like…it’s done.

Bright Eyes – An Interview With The People’s Band (Dazed Digital)

February 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

It’s a difficult life for Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, being the flagship band of what’s probably the most respected indie label on the planet; there’s the pretty constant weight of expectation and the inescapable fact that people – least of all music fans – don’t respond well to change. With that in mind, being renowned for your deeply personal brand of brooding lo-fi folk, putting out an album that not only reeks of optimism but is also 99% electric guitar is a bold move. A move that I’m sure not everyone will appreciate. Still, perhaps the rumours of their impending retirement have eased the burden slightly…

Bright Eyes

I caught up with the indie holy trinity (on behalf of Dazed Digital) at the bizarrely plush Landmark Hotel to shoot the breeze about CD sales and sorbet.
(click the link to read the original abbreviated publication).

DAZED DIGITAL: After what I saw on wednesday, you seem at the top of everything, and still seem to be having fun with it…so are you still set on retiring Bright Eyes after this?

Mike Mogis: Wednesday?
Conor Oberst: [to Mike] He was in Nottingham.
Conor: No…probably not. Definitely not. We’re not retiring Bright Eyes. We just say that every tour.
DD: A lot of people do….
Conor: We’re just trying to get the word out…sell a few CD’s.

DD: Has it been working?
Conor: Well, we won’t know until this coming week, you know.
Mike: When we got done mastering the record, Conor said something to the effect of “we’re just starting to get good” – and I do kind of feel that way. As a live band we’re taking ourselves more seriously; we practice more and we’re getting better as musicians; we’re better than last time we toured as Bright Eyes. I think it’d be a shame to stop.
As long as everyone wants to do it we’re going to continue to do it. We’re all good friends, close, we’ve been close for years – it’s comfortable. As long as we can make good music I think we’ll continue to do it, you know?

DD: If this [The People’s Key] had been the last album, would you have been happy to end it on that – was it what you wanted it to be?

Mike: I think in and of it’s self it’s a good…
Conor: [to Mike] Wait, but you just said every album should be your first and last album.
Mike: In and of it’s self it’s encapsulated well, I think. I’d be sad if it were the last album – but that’s more for personal reasons than the content of the album.

DD: People always love to hear the old stuff, but there seemed to be a pretty positive reaction to the new songs when you played them – how do you feel people are receiving it?

Conor: I don’t have a very good idea, you know, ‘cos I don’t get on to any sort of social media at all.
Nate Walcott: They seemed to clap.
Mike: Yeah and people were yelling out new songs, mostly Haile Selassie, both nights.
Conor: I guess there’s always going to be a familiarity factor with the old material.
Mike: Yeah, people cheered songs from Digital Ash that they never cheered on the Digital Ash tour.
Conor: I definitely feel like people tend to like…
Mike: Songs that they know?
Conor: I think they tend to like our albums like two years after they come out…they hate everything we do right when we do it.
Nate: Mystic Valley Band’s gonna take a little longer. People will like that in, like, ten years time.
Conor: Well, no one hated The Valley Band more than The Valley Band…so we had that going for us.

DD: With that in mind, you’ve got a pretty huge back catalogue now – on Wednesday you were playing songs that were older than some members of the audience…

Mike: It’s true, Falling Out of Love, I think you [Conor] were even quite conservative saying that it was 16 years old, because the record came out in ’96. I remember Ted Stevens playing me that song during the first Lullaby recording.
Conor: I think I was like fifteen…sixteen.
Mike: It was on a tape he had when we were recording Blanket Warm which was in 1995 and he had it on a cassette tape – we were driving in his Oldsmobile.
Conor: Are you getting all this?
Mike: It’s not important…it’s his way of saying “Come on, shut up Mike”.

DD: Is there anything you try to avoid playing? I mean, there are things that I wrote when I was 14 or 15 that I wouldn’t be happy with people reading or hearing now…are there things you just don’t want to play?

Conor: Yeah…
DD: You want to keep quiet about that one?
Conor: No, no. I think there are some songs that, you know, stand the test of time better than others for sure.
Mike: When I was preparing for this tour I was listening to all the albums and some of them still… some off Letting Off the Happiness…some of them I can see why you wouldn’t. I mean, they’re good songs but they come from a mind, a mindset, that I don’t feel…
Conor: Still in.
Mike: Like, Pull My Hair. That can still be played today for some reason…it’s kind of fun.
Conor: I think some songs, too, go out of favour; I feel like I’ll get sick of a song for a while and I wont play it then it’ll make kind of a comeback.

DD: In that same sense, you’ve been around for so long now – a lot of your fans have grown up with you. As your records have got more stable and more focused and you’ve got more stable and more focused, they’ve (hopefully) done the same. But there’s always going to be people who hang on to what Bright Eyes was. To them Bright Eyes is like a sort of Peter Pan figure…how do you feel about that? They’re always going to want you to be that…

Conor: Yeah, I feel like there’s an inherent desire from fans of music, and this doesn’t just have to do with our band, I think it’s pretty much across the board. I mean, people resist change; if they like something then they want you to keep doing it over and over again. Which is very, like, kind of short-sighted in my opinion.
Mike: You want to see what they’re going to do next. Take it in a visual art – like a painting or a sculpture. I mean, if they make the same one…
Conor: [to Mike] I feel like that and you feel like that, but I think a lot of people feel like “Oh, I like that, give me more of this certain thing”. There’s this weird time when someone does something that’s on a new record or whatever when there might be…it takes a while to get used to whatever differences there are.
Mike: It takes a little bit of time for fans, not just of us, but of a particular artist, to accept a stylistic change. And, I guess with Bright Eyes, we purposely create change with every record. With our fans they’re either very patient or very forgiving. Very.

DD: You say a stylistic change, but I think it’s been a bit more than that hasn’t it? Since 2005 there’s been a sort of shift – in this new record I hardly heard the word ‘I’ once. It’s gone from being really introspective, and maybe self-indulgent, to being more about things that are going on externally. Was there anything that prompted that…any event? Or just getting older?

Mike: Lyrically speaking, I obviously didn’t write them, but I’m in the band and I listen to them a lot. I think the songs are written from more of a universal perspective on purpose. With the earlier records being a little more confessional and maybe having some autobiographical elements to them, there’s something just more personal about them. This is more open-ended and I think a lot of people respond to that sort of music. When it’s not so cut and dry you can put yourself in to a phrase and take something totally different out of it than anyone else would take and how they would emotively react to that; you can put your personal life and agenda in to this idea or this thought or saying and you get a lot out of it. And, honestly, you can connect with a lot more people that way. I think that that was a conscious choice with this record – to try and draw in more people – it’s a slightly more positive record. We’re trying to spread positivity. That’s not something that we’ve actually thought too much about before. Not in a bad way, because we’re nice people, you know?

DD: You’ve put something out there consistently since 1998, EP’s or albums, and this has probably been the longest we’ve gone without Bright Eyes for a long time. What was it about this record that took longer to write?

Mike: Between Cassadaga and this record Conor:‘s been a part of, and written, three other records.
Nate: I think it was necessary. It wasn’t that it took so long to write this record, but it was necessary.
DD: Do you think it helped – that time apart?
Conor: Have you ever…umm. It’s like…have you ever eaten a really fancy meal that’s like…when they send sixteen courses?
Mike: [to Conor] No…not really. I guess the closest thing would’ve been in Japan?
Conor: Oh, well, if you eat a real fancy expensive meal they send like sixteen courses or whatever – but they’re all just bite-size. And every so often they send a palette cleanser, which is some weird sorbet. I feel like we had to…
Mike: Cleanse the palette?
Conor: Eat some sorbet…in between our duck pâté.
DD: Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk sorbet?
Mike: Monsters of Folk, yup. What did that taste like, Mystic Valley Band sorbet?

DD: This record, I think, you can probably see separately in a lot of ways. It’s much more of a rock record than the others were. I’m sure that’s taken a lot of time to cultivate? I mean, it’s a progression from Cassadaga but it’s completely different to Letting Off the Happiness or Fevers. Have you tried actively to preserve any of what Bright Eyes has been in The People’s Key, or just tried to write a record?

Mike: Not necessarily. But I do remember when we did Beginner’s Mind, we did think about it a little bit…that’s the only song where Conor actually plays acoustic guitar.
Conor: That gave it an old school feel.
Mike: [to Conor] I remember you saying you didn’t want it to sound that good. You said, “make it sound like a 4-track or an 8-track recording” so we used kind of a crappy mic. But that’s the only thing I can think of.

DD: That electric guitar is sort of the first thing you notice. If you listen to the whole album for the first time you really notice that it’s electric most of the way through. When I was listening to it for the first time it sounded like a Metallica riff on Firewall.
Mike: That’s hilarious. [to Conor] That’s what you always called it.
Conor: I feel like I have enough confidence in the sort of essence of our band or, like, the sound that we all make when we get together. I think that we can use whatever instruments and it’s gonna maintain the spirit of the band…the essence of the band. I guess I didn’t worry about it. I definitely didn’t worry about it not sounding like a Bright Eyes record.
Mike: If you listen to Letting Off the Happiness, the production on pull my hair, that particular song, I’d be happy with some of that production aesthetic right now. I was like “Woah, that’s fucked up sounding”.
Conor: I think we always do the best we can with what we have. Or try to do the best we can. I don’t know…it’s funny when people describe, or act like, we’ve moved away from making lo-fi records when we were trying to make as hi-fi records as we possibly could. It’s just we didn’t know what we were doing and we didn’t have any nice shit, so it didn’t sound that good – you know what I mean? It’s not like we were saying “This is cool lo-fi music”. That’s probably the only time, on this one record, where I was like “Try to make it sound shitty”. It’s ridiculous, I think, to want to – in that sense – go back in time…I just think you do the best you can with your interests and what you have at your disposal, as far as equipment and people.

DD: Where are you at now in terms of your interests? You’re doing a lot of stuff like the ACLU show a little while back. You can feel that on this record, I think.

Conor: Umm. Well, I think, you know, that was in response to what was going on in Arizona and also in Nebraska – it’s kind of going on everywhere in America right now. This really, barbaric, shortsighted…
Mike: Backwards?
Conor: Backwards, xenophobic fucking craziness. And that…I find that repulsive and offensive.
DD: It’s kind of coming through here as well…it’s fucked up.
Conor: To me, if there’s a theme in the record, I think it’s the idea that we’re all the same. People try to make it sound like you’re some kind of idealist, a daydreamer, if you think everyone should live together. But I think you’re just practical – I mean, think of all the misery we’d save if we just got over all our stupid hangups. Im not saying we should all sit around in green grass and comb each others hair or anything. Just not murder each other for no reason. Maybe not just exploit every vulnerable segment of the world.

DD: Thanks guys – I’m going to get in the shit if I take up any more of your time. Oh, Conor:, happy birthday for Tuesday and good luck with the album.

Conor: Thanks man, really.

The People’s Key was release on February 14th 2011 – the day of their first London show in three years and one day before Conor’s 30th birthday.


September 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Toby Litt (credit: Katie Cooke)

Having gained somewhat of a cult following over the last two decades for producing gripping novels and short stories that are, at once, as self-contrasting as they are socially introspective, British author Toby Litt talks to Alchemy Index about his newest book and meeting JG Ballard, but not about being called a ‘bald accountant’ at a London book signing or when he was a New Romantic. Stories for another day…

ALCHEMY INDEX: Your eleventh book; that’s quite a feat – but for an author who names his books alphabetically, it’s something else – we’re up to ‘K’ now, have you struggled with any of the titles so far?

Toby Litt: The titles themselves? Yes. I was expecting Book I (I play the drums in a band called okay) to take a lot longer to write than it did. In fact the stories, as they went along, were all called ‘tourbusting’ followed by a number. I thought a whole book of them would take me twenty years to write and end up as Book T. So, when it arrived quickly, I had to think of a title beginning with I. I was reading about Japanese literature, where there is a genre called ‘I books’. One of the most fAIus of these is called ‘I am a cat’. So, I thought I’d make this an ‘I book’ and give it the simplest, most direct title I could. What would Clap, the character, say if you asked him what he did? He’d say…

AI: Do you ever think about abandoning your current christening system? I mean, which really wins out in the end: the need to follow suit or the idea of putting together a relevant and interesting title for your latest novel?

Toby Litt: I think about abandoning everything. Almost every day, I consider what it would be like not to write. And some days, I’ll even get in the car, head out east, get as far away from the desk as I can, then end up scribbling notes in a lay-by on Canvey Island.

AI: I imagine sometimes it can take almost as long as writing the book to come up with a title that, by all accounts, just feels right?

Toby Litt: The books take different AIunts of time to write, though it may seem as if they are coming out at regular intervals. Hospital took about seven years, start to finish; I play the drums took over ten. But I’m writing other things, and I do set books aside for long, long months and sometimes years.

AI: Your newest novel, ‘King Death’, has more of a slant toward Corpsing or ‘deadkidsongs’ (two of your earlier and slightly darker books); what pushed you to pen another book in that vein? You know, rather than, say, one more upbeat like ‘I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay’?

Toby Litt: I tend to react against myself. Whilst writing one book, I daydream about all the other books I might be writing instead. And then, sometimes, I end up writing them. I began ‘King Death’ with a couple of little things – the image of Kumiko’s hair (Kumiko is one of the two main characters), the image of a heart on the roof of Borough Market, the idea of a couple splitting up but continuing to communicate through the tiniest details of what they do and don’t do. Over quite a few years, these things came together until I had the basis of the story.

AI: Going back to that sense of darkness in your writing… In even the most simplistic and seemingly innocuous scenes (of books like deadkidsongs) there is an overwhelming feeling of impending menace and dread – is that something you aim for consciously?

Toby Litt: deadkidsongs was a book that I simply wanted to be as intense as possible, in every way. I don’t think I was aware of trying to create a sense of dread. But I knew the story was building and building – intensifying and intensifying. Once you’ve established that a character is really dangerous, all you have to do is sit them down beside another character – an innocent, likeable character – and the tension is there.

AI: You also focus a lot on childhood and growing up – the rites of passage that take someone from child to adult or boy to man – what do you find so interesting about that kind of personal evolution?

Toby Litt: Evolution’s an interesting choice of word, because the boys in deadkidsongs are obsessed with the death of the dinosaurs. They see evolution as a reason for being as violent as possible. Because if you’re not maximally violent, then someone or something is going to think you are weak and kill you. I think, honestly, I’m more interested in the states themselves – of boyhood, of manhood – than of the transition between them. I’m fascinated by how one state can exist within another, simultaneously. I don’t really believe that grown-ups are grown up. The world is far easier to understand if you realise everyone is still a child.

AI: The ending of deadkidsongs left me (my colleagues, and my friends) with a bitter taste of uncertainty on our tongues; I realise it’s a bit like asking a magician to explain his tricks, but could you offer some insight in to what that ending really meant to you and to the characters?

Toby Litt: You make me feel like I’ve created a Club of Uncertainty. I thought that the ending was very clear, and that everything you need to understand the book is there in the book. The serial number on the final page, the one that’s crossed out, that’s one important factor. From that you can work out who has written the book, and who they’ve written it for, and why they’ve written it.

AI: So, it wasn’t intentional?

Toby Litt: If the book’s ambiguous, reread the book.

AI: The sincerity in your characters can make them loveable and abhorrent in a single moment – do you think that juxtaposition reflects your feelings about humanity and society in general?

Toby Litt: Oh Lord. How can I pretend that they don’t? I have my own ideas about ‘humanity’ and ‘society in general’, but I find them quite boring ideas. I think, within my head, lots of other ideas exist at the same time. They float around and occasionally take form. I’m an anarchist. I’m a Marxist. I’m a fascist. I’m apolitical. I’m a hippy. All these statements are true, at one moment or another.

AI: At Latitude Festival 2008, when you read from ‘I Play The Drums…’ it was received well and came with a few good-natured anecdotes from your end about exactly how Jewish this book was or wasn’t. But afterward there were some rumblings at the tempo and tone; some people who might have only read one or two of your books know you as ‘Toby Litt: Deep, Dark and Mysterious’ – what’s your take on that?

Toby Litt: Another Club of Uncertainty. I’m sorry to disappoint. Really, I am. I try to make each book as strongly itself as I can. Just because I write something like a romantic comedy, I don’t think that discredits the darker things. Quite the opposite. Isn’t a writer more interesting when – halfway through their book – you don’t know which way things are going to go? If you’re always a Dark Writer then the reader is cosily secure in knowing that things are going to go badly.

AI: While some of your work does venture a little more on to the light-hearted side of things, I Play The Drums… is definitely the most far reaching in to that category – what made you decide to write a novel like that?

Toby Litt: I didn’t really decide. And now I’m tempted to say one of those silly things novelists say about the characters having a life of their own. The truth is, I loved writing about the four guys in the band okay. The first story about them came off the top of my head. I was really surprised when I wrote a second story to go along with it. I’d never written any kind of sequel. Certainly not one involving the same characters. Then, a couple of years later, a third story came along. The guys were a little older, a little more damaged. I realised I could write about them very gently, just by checking in every now and again to see what had been happening. So, in a sense, they were alive in my head – and they still are. The answer is, really, I wanted to hang out with those characters. It was my way of being in a band without being in a band.

AI: A lot of your writing, books like Adventures in Capitalism for example, have a real sense of wider knowledge…I mean, you can’t satirise something without having a firm grasp on your target. Growing up in (fairly) rural Bedfordshire at what point did you start to come by these bigger ideas? What influence did they have on you and your writing?

Toby Litt: I think I came at big ideas via pulp. At the Ampthill Festival, in the mouldy 1980s summers, there weren’t books by Roland Barthes or Gilles Deleuze in the cardboard boxes beneath the fold-out tables. There were books by Erich von Daniken, T Lobsang Rampa, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. So, those were what me and my friends picked up and read. I liked the questions that science fiction raised. Things like Tharg’s Future Shocks in 2000AD – which were often little puzzles about time and space. When I first started reading philosophy, a lot of it seemed to be about evading the question. It took me a while to realise why the questions it was raising were interesting. This wasn’t until I was in the sixth form, studying Classical Civilization. Recently I’ve found these pulp ideas are making their way back into philosophy. If anyone’s interested, I’d recommend they check out the periodical Collapse magazine, Volume IV, about ‘Concept Horror’.

AI: On the subject of Bedford, your book Beatniks – a novel about being young in the area and the desire for escapism often found in those of us from rural England – was hailed by some critics as a modern On The Road; I’ve also seen comparisons to Douglas Coupland a few times, though I’d be tempted to put you somewhere between Kerouac and Easton Ellis in a sort of authorial Venn diagram. In the literary world, in terms of their writing, to whom do you feel you most relate and are most influenced by?

Toby Litt: I was certainly influenced by Coupland when I started out – although often influenced in a way that led me to do something opposite. Beatniks was partly my answer to Microserfs. I wanted to show how some young people live in a backwater or eddy of time. We’re not all at the bleeding edge of technology. Some young people are just proudly reaching 1973. The biggest influence has probably been Henry James, though this is probably harder to see than Coupland. I think I share a lot of his fascinations. You could see Beatniks as being a novel, like Daisy Miller or The Europeans, as being on the ‘international theme’ – that is, about relations between England and America. The characters in Beatniks are besotted with American culture of the 1950s. We follow them as they meet the place in the mid-nineties.

Other influences have been James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark, JG Ballard, Thomas Bernhard. And, for short stories, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges.

I realise this list probably sounds massively pretentious…

AI: Have you met with any of them at all, or any other interesting or prominent figures in the literary world? If yes, whom were you most taken by?

Toby Litt: Muriel Spark. She was the writer I most admired. And she told me she liked my writing, too – which was the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. I only met her on a few occasions, but she was someone you felt you had to live up to.

I only met JG Ballard once, to interview him, but he has become a model for me. His writing is amazingly ambiguous. Sometimes it seems so obvious as to be banal. Sometimes I think we don’t understand what it’s about at all.

AI: As well as being a practising author, you also lecture in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College; loaded question: which do you find more rewarding? Is it important to you to help set up a new generation of talented and relevant writers for the future?

Toby Litt: The diplomatic answer is to say I find them rewarding in different ways. And luckily it’s also the true answer. Writing, just writing, even though it is for other people in the end, can seem extremely selfish. Teaching allows you to try and help other people along. You’re able to make some suggestions – for a new approach, for an author to read – and you can have a huge influence on a beginning or developing writer.

AI: What’s next for you? Is book L (12) already in the pipeline – any clue as to the title?

Toby Litt: Life-Like.

I don’t doubt that at all. And that terrifies and excites me.


September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

“These days nobody wants a real job. Every one just wants to be Alexa Chung”

Enjoying my cup of tea and strawberry tart at my favourite Soho café, Maison Bertaux, taking in (Mighty Boosh star) Noel Fielding’s artwork isn’t so much a leisurely activity as it is a necessity.
It’s more of an optical assault than an exhibition – wall-to-wall paintings, sketches and scrawls aren’t enough – the strange shapes and intense colourings are merged together by bizarre, frantic (and occasionally profound) writings in black marker, the whole thing surrounds you in a way I find oddly intrusive and disconcerting. But still, as I’m getting to the custard (commonly known as the epiphany portion of the tart construct) it’s not the encroachment that’s bothering me – it’s the actual body of artwork.


Now, I’ve seen The Mighty Boosh so I know that ‘out-there’ is kind of the norm when it comes to Noel; but, much like the later Boosh episodes, the whole thing feels a little forced. Well, almost the whole thing. Between the abstracts and the doodles of Morph and Chaz with their cocks out (poor Tony Hart) there’s a single painting and corresponding sketch that stand out; one medium-sized and ornately framed, one small and unassuming, and they stand out solely because they don’t try to.

Byzantine Gallo

The whole situation’s very Joseph Heller, but these two works – with their colour, style and simplicity – conjure a vision of deep-rooted trouble that none of the more obtrusive pieces can really convey. It’s very much a Bryan Ferry themed event, with 90% of the writings and a lot of the art work being focused on the Roxy Music front man, but if you’re passing by – or having some of their world famous pastries – check out Vincent Gallo; that’s where the magic is.