You have written two novels John the Revelator, published in 2009, and Shall We Gather at the River in 2012. Before that, you have been a drummer in rock bands, (in The Tulips and the Grasshopper), then music and art journalist during thirteen years for Music Week, The Irish Times, Rolling Stone…and on RTE’s The Works, an Irish TV program devoted to arts. Have you always wanted to be a writer or was there a triggering event that convinced you to write novels?
Well, I grew up on rock music, comics, films and books. As a child I played around with designing my own hand-made fanzines and strips and stories. Stephen King was the first author I read compulsively. When I was a teenager I wrote essays and stories for school assignments. Lyrics too. I filled notebooks full of ramblings, wrote a lot of letters. I bought all the music magazines. I remember my father, a post office clerk, brought home copies of Creem magazine that had been sitting in the dead letter office for years, and it was like discovering hidden treasure. I started playing music when I was eighteen, but I kept trying to write poetry and stories. I remember feeling so frustrated because I had this immense appetite to say something, but I didn’t have enough life experience to know what it was I wanted to say. Then when I became a journalist I learned how to become more disciplined. Shortly after my father died in 2000, when I was about 33, I returned to writing stories. If I could pinpoint any trigger, I’d say that was it. The realisation that time was ticking.
Music has never left you completely. You have recorded The Sounds of John the Revelator, an album where you read passages from your first book set to music, and you performed it on stage with the Revelator Orchestra, like a rock band. Likewise, The Brotherhood of the Flood, the second album based on your second novel, is about to be released. Do you still need to express yourself in a musical way? Or did you miss being on stage?
I didn’t perform live for about twelve years, and a big part of my life was missing. The Revelator Orchestra was a wonderful accident. I love collaborating with other people; it’s an antidote to the solitary work of writing. Being on stage is like being in a fight or something: every second is heightened and intense. The adrenalin is addictive. Just recently I played drums on stage for the first time since 1996. I’m no virtuoso, but I love the feeling of playing with a band. And the Revelator Orchestra gives me permission to let the evil alter ego out of the cellar.
You have declared that “your understanding of biblical language came from rock’n’roll”. Isn’t it strange from an Irishman, a kind of blasphemy?
It’s not that strange when you consider Irish Catholics aren’t really taught the Bible, either as doctrine or literature. For a long time the Irish clergy functioned as middle-man, interpreting and misinterpreting Biblical stories for the benefit of the peasants: you weren’t encouraged to question their teachings, or investigate the Bible for yourself. Catholic doctrine is pretty limited, it doesn’t really go beyond the four gospels and the epistles, which are beautiful, but often interpreted in a very obvious and literal way. I discovered the Old Testament through gospel and blues and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Flannery O’Connor. Biblical language is powerful. It’s like Melville, or Shakespeare, or Cormac McCarthy.
“John the Revelator” is a traditional American gospel-blues song. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash are omnipresent in Shall We Gather at the River. Is it that mix between religion and rock’n’roll that leads to your so peculiar musical writing?
Well, rock ‘n’ roll came from blues and gospel. If you look at James Brown or Jerry Lee Lewis or Bruce Springsteen or Nick Cave, they’re consciously drawing on the tradition of tent-show revivalist preachers. Some of my favourite books about music draw on this kind of fundamentalist zeal, whether it’s Lester Bangs or Nick Tosches. In many ways I suppose music is my subject.
You have proposed a playlist for your second novel: ‘Blue Moon’ – Elvis Presley, ‘Lost In the Flood’ – Bruce Springsteen, ‘Old Man River’ – Frank Sinatra, ‘Suzanne’ – Leonard Cohen, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – Sam Cooke, ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ – Terry Riley, ‘The Killing Moon’ – Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Faster’ – Manic Street Preachers. Are they songs you particularly love? Do you listen to music while writing?
I like all those songs, but they’re not necessarily my all-time favourites, just songs that conjured the mood of the world I was trying to create. The true soundtrack of the book (or at least, the half that doesn’t concern Enoch O’Reilly, that comes later) is The Brotherhood of the Flood, the album I just released with The Revelator Orchestra. I listen to music all the time, but not while I’m writing. It tends to jam the signal. Although if I find myself at a loss during the process, I’ll often play a certain piece of music in order to remember the tone I wanted when I embarked on the story.
I have found the perfect soundtrack for Shall We Gather at the River. It’s the latest Black Strobe’s album, a french band, Godforsaken Roads. Do you know them? The singer is, for me, the perfect incarnation of Enoch, don’t you think?
He’s got that sort of unlikely charisma alright. A formidable looking gentleman.
Enoch O’Reilly is a kind of independent evangelist, a preacher who could be found in the USA. He says he’s not sure to believe in God, that his God is Elvis, and that he believes in the power of words. The more he lies to people, the more he is listened to. Is he a false prophet talking to false believers?
That’s one way of looking at him. He might also be considered a wanna-be rock star or presidential candidate or local councilor. The current generation of Irish politicians are no more than snake oil salesmen: amateurs, incompetents, jumped up village idiots who display no values, no integrity, no motivation but to stay in power. They lie to our faces and sell us out at every turn. Worse, they don’t know how to dress themselves.
Is religion always so pervasive in Ireland nowadays?
Not any more. In the space of a decade, Ireland became a secular country, but the legislation, and the continuing marriage of church and state, doesn’t reflect this, hence the controversy over our abortion laws and same-sex marriage. The church is holding on for dear life, trying to maintain a hold on our educational system. But the churches are half-empty on Sundays. In a generation or two, practising Catholics will be a tiny majority. The church did a lot of good in this country, but it also abused its power. I’ll be glad to see the back of it, but I’ve no illusions: whatever replaces it won’t be any better. That’s just the way it is with mechanisms of power and social control.
A lot of Irish writers have emigrated through the history, because they felt oppressed. Have you been tempted by exile? Is it possible to say and write everything in your country now?
Well, it’s different now. It’s not so hard to travel, New York is only seven hours away. I’ve got three daughters, so thus far I’ve been kept in Ireland by the desire to stay close to them, but when my youngest turns eighteen I intend to travel and live abroad. Ireland can feel very small at times, but there’s nothing stopping any writer from getting out if he doesn’t like it. Flights are cheap.
Where would you like to live, if you’d leave Ireland ?
Let’s see… Berlin, New York, New England, Barcelona, Malaga, Morocco, Rome, Turin, Paris, London… I love cities. Probably because I’ve spent so much time in the country or in small towns…
Is Ireland, on the contrary, a king of paradise for writers? And I don’t speak only about the specific tax system that has attracted several French writers.
Ireland is no kind of paradise for anyone. It’s a physically beautiful country, and I love the people, but it’s been run into the ground by a cabal of short-sighted, spineless, conniving, two-faced crony-indulging cretins. We have tax exemption for artists, but the vast majority of artists barely make enough money to qualify for the minimum taxable rate. Plus, compared to most European countries, our road tax, property tax, VAT and Universal Social Charge, plus the many other taxes they seem to invent on an annual basis, are extortionate. The cost of living is unbearable. There’s an unbelievable amount of anger in the country at the moment. We’ve been ripped off, sold out and strip-mined in order to pay off the banks and appease the EU and the IMF. The only way to survive is live carefully. The latest proposed Irish Water taxes have incited people to the point of revolt.
Enoch O’Reilly is not a friendly character but his voice is very seductive. Did you want to express that the important thing is not what he says but the way he says it, like all the political or religious charlatans?
Precisely. Enoch is all about style over content. He craves recognition, but really has nothing of substance to offer in return. I suppose it’s a kind of reflection on the devaluing of celebrity in recent years. Until the late 90s there was a sort of covenant: if you produced something great, you were rewarded with fame and riches. Then, somewhere around the turn of the millennium everyone wanted to be famous without actually producing any work of merit. This was indulged and exploited by the mainstream entertainment industry.
He pretends that “he will give the people what they want: bread and circuses.” Even if the action of your novel takes place in 1984 (why in 1984?), when the economic growth had not already taken place, do you think that your contemporaries have succumbed to materialism and consumerism?
1984 seemed like a key year, a crossroads between the old world and the new, a collision between the retro and the futuristic. I remember it as a kind of analogue sci-fi era. As for materialism and consumerism… You have to remember, until the mid-1990s, Ireland was effectively a third world country. Nobody had any money when I was growing up. It was understandable that when the economy began to thrive, Irish people would get a little drunk on it. It was the first time we had disposable income in the history of the state. As a writer, I didn’t benefit much from that era, and either way, it didn’t last very long. This so called age of austerity has created an entire generation of working poor.
You live in Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, I guess. The nature is very important in your novel. The river is almost a character in itself …Do you think that the Irish people moved away from their (super)natural eerie background, from their mythology, that they are less dreamy? Is the economic crisis of 2008 has brought them closer to nature and fantasy?
Ireland is like any European country on the surface. People are concerned about the fundamentals: money, food, shelter. They shop in Aldi and Lidl and Tesco, they put petrol in the car and oil in the tank, they struggle to pay the mortgage or the rent. But I think there still endures a sort of racial appreciation of the supernatural, of art and music and words. It seems to come right out of the ground. Once you leave the suburbs, you see a very ancient land. That hasn’t gone away.
Isn’t Shall We Gather at the River? also a book about the influence of family, or the lack of family, on people’s fate?
I think so. So many people miss that. It’s about the sins of the father, the absence of the mother and siblings, the dangers of isolation to the soul, and what happens when the ego runs rampant, unchecked by friends or community. Enoch’s great tragedy is that he let Alice Stafford disappear from his life. They couldn’t have been lovers, but they were kindred, twins who should never have been sundered.
You have given talks about the connection between Irish literature and punk rock, and you have compared Iggy Pop with Cuchulainn. Can you explain us your point of view?
I think Irish poetry and music and mythology often get rendered in a sort of sepia-tinted, soft-focus tourist-board way. But what I respond to in those old myths is the humour, the madcap exaggeration, the anarchy. Whenever I read Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Tain, particularly the passages describing Cuchulainn’s warp-spasm, it reminds me of seeing Iggy and the Stooges. That unbridled rage and energy. Same with the early Pogues or John Lydon with the Pistols or PiL.
As a novelist, do you think you are in line with an Irish literary tradition?
No, I don’t think I am. I love Flann O’Brien and Beckett and Yeats, but I never gravitated towards O’Flaherty or McGahern or any of the domestic realists. I appreciate their craft, but I don’t share their aesthetic. I feel a lot more kinship with the younger Irish writers: Rob Doyle, Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride, Paul Lynch, Sara Baume, people like that.
Your novel is impossible to classify. It is full of mythological, biblical, musical, film references. It is a kind of hilarious horrific gothic surreal book. In the same way, you wrote about your performances on stage with The Revelator Orchestra: “We go from tragedy to slapstick to psychodrama. It takes people a few minutes to get their heads around us: ‘Is this a rock ‘n’ roll band or a weird theatre troupe or a spoken word act?” Do you have the desire to build a “total” work?
A ‘total’ work is a good way of putting it. It’s like I’m pursuing an ongoing project, trying to construct an imaginary universe using words, music and images. To me, it’s all part of the same wellspring. Whether the ideas are made manifest through live shows or graphic novels or novels is just a technicality. The important thing is the content, the ideas. The world that David Lynch created with Twin Peaks, using film, music and text, had a huge effect on me.
Is your first novel as strange and « total » as Shall We Gather at the River? It has not been translated into french yet, can you tell us what it is talking about?
John the Revelator is on a much smaller scale, mainly because I was still learning the rudiments of writing. It’s a tiny story about a boy and his mother, about parasites, and crows, and Biblical language, and nature, and the terrifying power of nightmares and visions, about Rimbaud and John of Patmos, about friendship and betrayal, and ultimately about making peace with the death of a loved one. I haven’t read it all the way through since checking the final proof six years ago, so I can barely remember it. It’s a bit like a dream told to me by a younger brother.
And what about your third? Are you writing it right now?
Yep. I’m right in the throes of a third book. It looks likely to be a short story-cycle. But I won’t know its true shape until the final weeks. That’s something I’ve learned to surrender to. The book always seems to exist in a state of crisis, like it might capsize at any moment, until near the very end.
Do you want that your readers cry from laughing or from despair?
I want them to feel as many emotions as it’s possible for a person to experience through the transmission of the written word, maybe culminating in some kind of appreciation of the ineffable mysteries of existence. A tall order I know!
About Shall We Gather at the River, Richard Hell wrote: “This book is majestic and squalid at the same time, as if the Bible were actually about Elvis. The rhythms and music carry you like a baby on a raft on the river, but it’s the precision of the words that cinches you.” Such a compliment from a musician writer must have been exhilarating for you, no? Do you read the reviews about your work in general? Do they affect you?
The Richard Hell quote made my day. I loved his music, his sartorial style, his intelligence. I first learned about Huysmans’ Against Nature through Lester Bangs’s interview with Mr Hell. When I was in my 20s, that downtown New York CBGBs mythology was inspiring. I longed to be part of a community of punks, poets, guttersnipes, artists and writers. People who created something for the hell of it, not because some marketing drone had located a niche in the demographics. Regarding reviews, if somebody takes the time to write a well-though out piece I always appreciate it, regardless of whether they like the book or not. But in all honesty, they have no influence on the work, mainly because they’re always — by nature — retrospective.
As a journalist, what question would you like to ask to yourself?
That’s a hard one. I am totally stumped!
Isn’t it annoying that the singer of Bauhaus has the same name as you?
Yes! It really irks me. I don’t like his music. At all.
Interview published in New Noise n°25 – january-february 2015