Until recently, music seemed to be your favorite playground. Involved in the punk scene of Washington DC from 1987 as the bassist of SWIZ, your first hardcore punk band, then from 1992 to 1999 as the lead guitarist of post-hardcore indie rock band Shudder to Think, you have built your professional trail as a musician. Member or founder of a lot of groups like Hot One, Mind Science of the Mind, or A Camp, you are also producer for several artists, you have released solo albums, and you are above all a very famous film score composer (Boy’s Don’t Cry, Dirty Pretty Things or Silent House…). The publication of your first novel, The Dewey Decimal System is quite new (2011). Was music the obvious choice for the teenager you were, and literature a more mature artistic form? Or did you want to write fiction for a very long time?
Many have said this before, but I don’t think I ever had a choice but to do music. It just happened. What I did have was the the good fortune to have a supportive family and infrastructure, for which I am eternally grateful. And the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, as the hardcore punk scene was really peaking in Washington D.C. I got involved with that scene, and as it turns out that was a very pivotal movement in « indie rock » here in the US, so that led naturally to everything I’ve done musically.
I had always written a little bit, lyrics and such, but never done a long-form thing coming even close to being called a « novel ». My buddy Johnny Temple ran a publishing house called Akashic, known for really great noir compilations. Johnny himself had been in bands in DC that I had toured with, so was an old friend…he clearly saw something in me that I didn’t because he more or less asked me if I could give a try at writing a short series of books.
So I figured why not, tried it out, and about 50 pages in realized I was actually doing it. Johnny thought it was great, and it all went very fast and very smoothly so I’m once again very very grateful, because I realize now that I jumped over a couple of steps along the way (getting an agent/ getting a publisher etc)
Literature is by no means a more mature form of art, it’s something I’ve always had with me as a creative being…and I’ve always read a huge amount which seems to be one of the most important thing when it comes to writing. I can do music, and write books, and express myself in other ways, and I can make a living doing it so (for the last time) I am a very thankful fortunate person.
What is the most exhilarating for you now? Playing with a band, composing soundtracks or writing?
When I am enthralled in writing a book, which is like a massive flood that I just get caught up in, it’s the most exciting thing in the world, and the most depressing when things are not going smoothly. You think you’re going to die. You think your work is shit. The key, at least for me, has been to work as fast as I possibly can, to stay ahead of that horrible voice everyone seems to have in their heads somewhere, the voice that says « you suck » and « how dare you even try to write a book, you’re a joke » etc. If you can outrun that voice you can get it done, which is the important part: actually doing it. A lot of people talk about writing a book and I’m certainly not the first to discover that the only way to write a book is to just fucking write it. It will suck, it will need more work, but it will exist outside of you, it will be real. This is a huge leap.
At the moment I am not writing anything except score music, which is sort of my day job so has become not the most exciting thing in the world… and writing music for a new band, which is totally great. I’ve also had an occasional job playing guitar in a Late Night talk show band, which has been a blast, just cos I don’t have to always act as my own « quality Nazi. » But I don’t anybody should ever expect to be absolutely thrilled with their jobs all the time, that’s an impossibility and asking too much of the universe. I’m extremely satisfied as it is.
What’s this new band you are talking about, if it is not too soon to tell us a few words about it?
Not too soon, it’s myself and some friends who I’ve wanted to work with for ages…kind of a Sly Stone/ Prince/ Talking Heads/ Kate Bush space funk kind of thing. Not at all rock. Some people involved are also in american indie bands like St. Vincent, The War On Drugs, and Beirut, people who have played with David Byrne, also my friend Angelica who has this project as well, My Midnight Heart.
Do you think that to be a musician has an influence on your writing style? Did you write songs’ lyrics?
Yes I always write or co-write the lyrics on projects I’m involved with. I love doing it but it’s a lot harder than writing a book! It seems to take more energy somehow, you’ve got to really communicate something memorable, something you can live with, that can exist in a four minute song. It’s tough to make that work.
As far as being a musician, yes certainly both the punk ethic of doing it yourself, and doing it cheap and fast, as well as the film score thing, which is all about speed and not looking back…all of this has contributed to my approach to writing prose. And the end result may not be perfect, there may be stuff you’re not totally satisfied with, but you did it and that’s the point.
If your novel would become a movie, would you like to compose the score for it ?
There is talk of making all three novels into a TV series, we’ll see, the chances of this actually happening are quite low but possible. And no way would I want to do the music. Never. I would not make new choices that give the narrative a different perspective. I would be so grateful to see somebody I respect do this work.
Can you explain how you work as a score composer by the way ? Do you need to see images from the movie before composing or do you have ideas as soon as you know the storyline?
I need to be alone with the picture. I need to study its contours, its tempo (all editors cut to their own clock, consciously or not, and it’s part of my job to find their “pocket”), the way the camera moves, etc. I then need to map out a speed for a certain scene, only then can I start applying different textures and seeing what works. I find I need to begin work in terms of sounds and colors rather than melodies; the instrumentation comes first, and then the themes or motifs.
I am lucky to have a fantastic studio in my home, and a studio in Brooklyn which has a very different atmosphere. The project will usually dictate where I begin. My Brooklyn space is dirty and raw, my home studio clean and comfortable, cocoon-like…the work that comes out of these locations will be affected by my surroundings, and I put what energies the environment contributes to my mood and my body in the music.
Unfortunately it’s a very small percentage of the actual time spent as a composer. As lucky as I am to be doing this work, it is not for the weak-stomached. There’s a point in every project where you flow, and all the politics and drama associated with the movies power dynamics can be ignored. Until you get to that point however, you are forced to contend with a lot of bullshit: figuring out who you need to please, discovering how to communicate with hitherto total strangers, dealing with monstrous egos, financial people, directors and producers who feel the need to be abusive because of their own insecurities or fears. Sadly, about 80% of the time spent is on the politics and interpersonal aspects of a job. The creative part is dependent on having solved or avoided potential problems, gotten past blockages that were there before you came on the job, etc. You need thick skin, and you need empathy and patience. Sometimes it’s hard to muster these skills. Sometimes you don’t feel like it. But the fact is the composer is one of the last people on the production chain, on an expensive product that has been under construction for years in some cases, so a lot of anger and negative energy has built up by the time you enter into the fray. There are degrees to this and sometimes it can be a relatively smooth and mellow process, but it’s inevitable that the composer is asked to correct aspects of the film that people have been unhappy with for ages, and this might well be impossible to correct musically. So again, my relationship with this film music work is a complicated one. There are days when I just want to say fuck it. But then something beautiful happens to counterbalance this.
You have written a text in « The First Time I Heard » book series about David Bowie. Can you tell us about it? Was David Bowie one of the first musicians who made you want to play music? Who are the others?
David Bowie certainly. My parents had a Miles Davis record that scared the shit out of me, I didn’t understand it at all. It felt evil, but in a wonderful way. Really it was punk rock that made me do it. It was just so irresistible. I learned much much more about music and musicians as I went along (for example Sly Stone or Kate Bush, who are two of my favorite artists), all of that came later, and I learn about new stuff every day. But it was punk, it was Black Flag, X, the Circle Jerks, Fear, Minor Threat, Void, the Bad Brains…this is my DNA
You have formed a band (A Camp) with your wife, Nina Persson, and contributed to her solo album Animal Heart, released in 2014. Is it easy to work with the one you love?
We have a fantastic working relationship, it’s one situation where we never fight. We’ve been working together as long as we’ve been together as a couple so it’s just a natural thing. I doubt if this is super common but it works for us.
You have contributed to the tribute record Monsieur Gainsbourg revisited in 2006. Do you know well France and French artists?
I had an apartment in the Bastille for a while in the ’90s, and then again near Rue Oberkampf. My wife and I were engaged there New Years 2000, and we had our honeymoon there. Most of our good friends are gone now but there was a time when I spent a lot of time there. I studied French for 6 years and if I wasn’t so shy I would try to write and speak the language probably quite badly. My good friends used to run what is now Maison Kitsune and the Kitsune record label but again it seems that people tend to leave Paris eventually for whatever reason.
Gainsbourg I have loved for so long, his body of work is so huge that it’s impossible to discuss. He’s a genius and obviously a complex/ controversial figure. The French understanding of hip hop is probably the greatest in Europe, and in dancers like Les Twins you have perhaps the best contemporary b-boys in the world. I could go on, I’m not that well versed in French pop beyond the brilliant Phoenix, Air, Justice and of course Daft Punk…I remember having a « punk » record by a band called Telephone when I was much younger, I think they’re French?
Also perhaps one of my top ten writers is Boris Vian. I am in awe of him and pretty scared about the Gondry movie that in english they’re calling « MOOD INDIGO » (yikes) , this version of his immortal L’Écume des jours. I feel a special affinity with him as he was also a musician, like to play with genre, and had some advanced ideas about race.
The Dewey Decimal System is very hard to classify in a distinct literary genre. It is a kind of pastiche of a black literature with a hard-boiled hero, a sci-fi spy novel mixed with dystopian elements. Where did your inspiration come from for such a frenzied story? Did you want it to look like nothing else or did you like to pay tribute to different genres you like as a reader?
I saw a black guy who looked a lot like a man I once knew sleeping on the floor of the Rose Reading room in the NY Public Library, wearing a nice suit. It was dark and something had happened. That image came to me and I started working with it, I did the cheapest trick one can do which was to simply start there and have him wake up, and see what happened. And to whatever modest degree it worked. I never knew what was going to happen next, which was the entire point of it, it’s what made it fun. It’s hard to imagine outlining a novel as some writers do, though I’m sure that they wind up with a much more controlled end product. I wasn’t interested in control, I wasn’t capable of it. And of course having read so much I just ripped off everybody I loved. Not unlike David Bowie. That’s how you do it, you rip off everything you love and run it through your own prism and hopefully get something unique.
The parameters, or the rules/ frame I had been assigned, were extremely helpful. I knew I needed to write a noir-y dystopian thing, so within those goalposts I got to play with whatever came to mind. It would be scary to write something without such parameters but that’s what most writers do so I guess I’d better learn how!
You live in New York and in your novel NY is devastated. It has suffered from terrorist attacks, a flu pandemic, those who could have run away and those who couldn’t try to survive with a lack of water, food…Was it funny for you to describe what could happen in a close future, in areas you know well, or was it the expression of your biggest dread?
The setting came about because by the time I reached the second page I realized, how could this guy be in here? And also I hated the idea of everybody having the fucking internet and mobile phones and everything. This made things easier to plot. The dystopian thing has become a real genre which is amazing, because (and I certainly didn’t contribute to this) the dystopian thing became a massive deal about a year after I wrote this book, which was 2009, with the Hunger Games etc. And it’s really quite a cliche at this point, it’s fun how different writers approach it but there’s just so much of it now. So I do look forward to creating a new world for my next book, and I’m happy with the way I wrapped up the whole thing in the third book in this series.
Do you consider your novel as a post 9/11 novel?
Yes it has to be, because being exposed to an event like 9/11 (and everybody has a 9/11 story which I respect but especially if you’re a New Yorker nobody wants to hear) showed us how it was possible…how it could all just be destroyed, what it might smell like, what your mouth would be filled with, what it might feel like, how it would look. The experience of 9/11, since we are so conditioned by Hollywood and particularly computer generated effects, almost looked like a CGI rendition of somebody blowing up the World Trade Centers. In this sense it did not seem « real », and this was probably a protective measure our psyches took, but I’ve heard many people describe the same thing.
These books are fundamentally about empire who overreach, and about human xenophobia and clannishness. That if you reduce people to the basest level they will return to ethnic/ religious/ social distinctions and want to destroy the « other. » By creating a character who had his foot in a couple different worlds (he’s black, educated, multilingual, an intellectual, yet also a military person) I’ve allowed him to sort of move between clans.
But these books are about what our former President Eisenhower called the « industrial/ military/ congressional complex. » What might happen if this is taken to it’s extreme logical conclusion. This is something I explore more intensely as the series progresses.
I despise what my country has become since 9/11. I mourn what could have been. We are an empire in decline. 9/11 was a tremendous opportunity to turn things around, and we failed that test entirely and destroyed ourselves and many many other countries/ families/ peoples in the process. I have nothing but disgust for the « Freedom Tower », with all of it’s 1776 (get it) feet.
Do you think you would survive long in the environment you describe?
Nah. I’d just kill myself.
Dewey, your major character, refers to a system he has created, composed by rituals (turn left or right, clean his hands, swallow pills…). Do you have a system to survive yourself? Do you have rules you try to respect when you are creating?
Yes. We share some compulsions. I need to be in the same very specific places, though I travel a lot (my wife who is Swedish and I have a place in Sweden so we divide our time between Harlem NYC and there) , under the same very specific conditions. I hate sand, I hate the beach, I have nightmares my mouth is full of sand, and this comes into play in Book 3.
You have named your hero Dewey Decimal, after the classification system of books in libraries, because he has become the librarian of a famous NY library. He loves literature and paintings. So you are not so pessimistic if you think that there still will be art defenders after chaos?
Not at all pessimistic, just trying to be realistic. He’s a good guy despite his violent tendencies and the terrible things he’s done. I just believe, and this again is just based on math, that the people with the biggest guns and the money are not the good guys.
Within a decade, the richest people in the world will have inherited their fortunes….not worked for them. This is something that hasn’t happened since something like the 14th century. Greater minds than mind have wrestled with this subject, but this can’t be positive news for the rest of us.
Dewey is a very disconcerting character. Moving as well as violent, he has forgotten who he is and the reader can’t take what he thinks for granted. He is paranoid or he is really in danger? He is hypochondriac or is the risk of being infected high? The reader is only sure of one thing, he is so funny !(even if he doesn’t know he is). Did everybody appreciate your special sense of humour?
Well thank you I think he’s extremely funny. Which is just a posture, as all comedy is, to protect yourself from pain. He is both paranoid and in danger. He is both a hypochondriac and a potential sick person. He’s very smart, and he’s had kind of a shitty life, and he’s decided he wants to stay alive.
You have chosen several songs for the French edition to be the soundtrack of your novel : Songs of Sly and the Family Stone, Steve Reich, Black Star, the Viscounts, Mulatu Astaqe, Wu Tang Clan, Miles Davis, Jay Z & Alicia Keys, The Stooges, Robert Rodriguez (which goes from rap, minimalist music, funk, rock’n’roll, jazz, to hip-hop). Can you comment your choices?
Minimalists like Steve Reich were extremely important to me to get in the « zone ». I would sit down and put on this music and instantly be focused. It still works, I did it today while doing my taxes! It creates channels in the brain and quiets other channels. It’s magical music. All of the other artists mentioned have meant so much to me that it’s hard to say much besides I love what they represent. i was also attempting to approximate what Dewey would have been exposed to in his environment growing up, just as I was.
The Dewey Decimal System is the first novel of a trilogy. The second one, not yet translated in French, The Nervous System, was published in 2012, and the last one is about to be released. Without revealing their plot, can you tell us some words about them? Do you think that your writing style has changed?
Yes I’ve learned a bit about writing…hopefully each is better than the last but I don’t know. I like to think so. It was important to me to do these books in very quick succession, which was made complicated by the joyful occasion of the birth of my son just as I finished THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM.
Things don’t improve for Dewey, really. He is boxed in tighter and tighter until he has to start making choices about who he wants to be aligned with. We learn the details of what actually happened in New York, and why. Just as Dewey had to delve into the world of the Russians and Ukrainians, he has to do the same with the Koreans, the Chinese, and eventually the Saudis and what is left of the American Government.
Even if you are not writing at the moment, don’t you have any ideas of what could be your next novel?
I don’t. Thought I like this building a lot: http://thinkberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Pyongyang-0307-0391.jpg
Interview published in New Noise n°24 – november-december 2014