SOUNDTRACK TO A NOVEL: JEFF NOON ON MUSIC AND WRITING
I wrote Vurt while the Manchester music ‘scene’ was at its height in the early 90s and my writing was really influenced by music at the time. So I want to take a bit of time here to talk about bands I remember, to explore that musical inspiration and to talk about where music intersects with my work in various ways.
Manchester has always had a really good, vibrant music scene, especially since the punk rock era in the late 1970s. That was the period when I first felt a deep personal connection to the city in musical terms. So, when I came to write Vurt, it was that earlier period that I really used as my source. I always think that the spirit of groups like Joy Division and The Fall and The Buzzcocks haunt the novel. But I think the number one band for me, as far as the actual writing of the book is concerned, was US band The Pixies. They really fueled the energy of the book. I would play them as loud as I could stand, especially the Doolittle album. That primal cry stolen from a Salvador Dali/Luis Bunuel film: ‘I am un CHIEN Andalusia!’ Amazing.
Also, at the time I was listening to other American bands like Dinosaur Junior, Pavement, Sonic Youth and early REM. I was also heavily into the more experimental On-U Sound, created by the British dub producer Adrian Sherwood. Things changed for my second novel, Pollen: by then I had really discovered the melancholic joys of house and techno music, and I think the novel reflects that change. Pollen is a much more tangled book, more fertile, a very overgrown, edge-of-wilderness narrative. I remember that I had moved into a tiny attic bedsit, and the person who’d lived there before left behind just one record: ‘Dream of a 100 Nations’ by Transglobal Underground. It was double vinyl album, very much of its time in an ethno-techno kind of way, but I used to play it a lot as I was writing Pollen. I would work late into the night and play the music as quietly as I could get away with, so as not to disturb the people next door. So: very loud Pixies for Vurt, and very quiet Transglobal Underground for Pollen.
Musical influences beyond Vurt:
Beyond, music has also influenced my other novels and writings. For example, Needle in the Groove, the Ghosts on the B-side initiative and other projects. Music has always been a central part of my life, and my work. Every word I’ve ever written has been influenced by music in some way. I always think that the linking of punk rock with dub reggae was the key discovery, for me. I loved how dub producers such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and King Tubby would dissolve and melt away an existing track to produce a new piece, usually by exposing the drums and bass, the bones of the music.
This new mix was usually released as the B-side of the original song, so the listener heard two versions of the same material, one full, one sparse. It was the beginning of the remix culture that was later so important to the creation of house and techno music. In Britain, this dub innovation fused with punk to produce the post punk sound, and that was the period when I was most involved in bands myself, playing the bass and writing lyrics. So words and the bass have always been linked together, in my mind. But my early novels used music only as a backdrop; they were not directly interface with music. That happened later, when I was halfway through writing my fourth novel, Nymphomation.
I had contributed to an anthology called Disco Biscuits, which featured stories about or set within rave and dance culture. The book caught a bit of a zeitgeist wave and did well, so the editor, Sarah Champion, took some of us on a reading tour of night clubs. It was strange; a bunch of writers turning up at a club and reading, whilst music could be heard from the next room. Anyway, one night – I think it was in Leeds – I was waiting to go on whilst another writer read on the stage. The techno through the wall was interfering with the writer’s words, and in my mind they fused. And at that moment, I had a vision. I turned to Sarah and said: ‘I wonder if you could do a dub version of a story?’
When I got back home I opened up the existing document of Nymphomation and started to explore the idea of remixing a passage to create something new. It was a very crude process in those early days, just moving words around on the screen to produce a randomised text and then looking for a new story within that. But it was interesting, and it showed me a way forward: that through the process of remixing a new insight or approach or point of view could be produced on an already existing text. And over the ensuing years I’ve explored that approach in many different ways.
My next book was Pixel Juice, a collection of short stories. Wherever it felt suitable in terms of a story’s subject matter, I applied various musical techniques to the text: remixing, segueing, sampling, and so on. Really, this volume was the testing ground, the laboratory for what I later called dub fiction. The next novel, Needle in the Groove, took this process even further: the whole book was infected, as the characters are, by a musical drug, so the language was remixed in the same way as the characters were by the music that they were playing. Form equalled content. I also worked on a CD soundtrack of Needle in the Groove with the musician David Toop. It was fascinating to watch him at work in his home studio. I had never actually seen digital music software being used before, not right in front of my eyes.
I was amazed of the way in which David could so easily manipulate musical material, using a series of gates or effects, such as EQ, filter, reverb and echo. And I wondered if I could invent a series of ‘gates’ that would affect text in a similar fashion. This led on to Cobralingus, an experimental book that pushed sampled texts through a series of effects, such as Explode, Find Story, Dissolve, Randomise, and so on. Now I should state that all this processing took place inside my head; there was no actual software involved. It’s slightly easier these days, with a few devices available on line. But I really like the hands-on approach. I was acting more like John Cage painstakingly slicing up lengths of magnetic tape with a razor blade than a modern digital musician.
For people who want to conduct their own experiments, I recently wrote ‘Ghost on the B-Side’, a guide to remixing text and producing dub fiction. This can be found online here.
On my own music-making experiences:
In terms of my own musical abilities, I have some musical training, and I played the bass in various post-punk bands. I was always starting bands that usually lasted for a few gigs only or even just for a couple of rehearsals, before collapsing. I can recall The Shrinking Violets and the ibeats; there are many others I can no longer name. I also played guitar in Manicured Noise, who actually went on to make records after I left. But the bass remains my favourite instrument, to this day, especially as revealed through the abstract beauty of dub. My other great love was writing song lyrics, and I think a lot of my later writing style came out of that particular medium. In fact, some of my lyrics have turned up, remixed, in later novels; for instance, the fictional band’s lyrics in Needle in the Groove were taken from earlier songs. These days, I like to mess about on my computer with software synths and sequencers. It’s just a hobby as yet, I never play anything to anyone. But it remains a dream: one day, I’d really like to put out an electronica album.
Music as background, writing with and without:
Writers seem divided on whether they write with or without background music. But I can’t write without music. I simply wouldn’t know how to do it. Music is the great art form, as far as I’m concerned. And I always think that musicians get there first, when it comes to experimenting and pushing art on to another level. Their imagination seems boundless, and technology has kept up with their ideas; whilst us writers are still stuck with our clunky word processors! So, yes, music forms the soundtrack to my work, and very often intersects with the text itself in some way or other, so that I often find myself writing in rhythm to the music. I’m quite happy for this to happen. But I don’t usually seek out particular albums to listen to, in order to mirror a work in profess; I just go with my current mood, and let the rhythm and the melody and the story lead me, wherever they may.
My own Vurt track-listing:
Lastly, I’ve put together my very own track-listing to get you in the mood for Vurt, composed of music that I think particularly resonates with the book…
1) The Pixies: Debaser
2) Joy Division: Decades
3) The Fall: Totally Wired
4) The Buzzcocks: Breakdown
5) Pavement: Trigger Cut
6) Sonic Youth: Hot Wire My Heart (Or, Hot Knife My Heart, as we used to call it!)
7) Prince Far I: Plant Up (From ‘Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3’ – my favourite ever dub album.)
8) And most definitely Neil Young: Expecting to Fly (‘There she stood on the edge of her feather...’)
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Both the 20th anniversary edition of Vurt and the reissue of Pollen are published this month. And you can find out more about Jeff Noon and his books, by both Jeff and Team Tor, on Torbooks.co.uk here.