A mixtape with a literature and Leeds, leaning... oh and, check back tomorrow for part 2 of this feature.
“Well wouldn’t it be nice to be Dorian Gray, just for a day,” mumbled Pete and Carl back in 2004 – and the people called them poets, men of letters. Despite the fact that all they’d really done was take the name of one of the best-known characters in the entire English literary canon and rhyme it with an empty cliché. At the Edinburgh Fringe, in any given year, there will be between five and ten “dark” and “stylish” university drama society adaptations of Wilde’s novella. And they’ll all be crap.
But everybody liked the idea of “Britpop meets Baudelaire” (probably the stupidest phrase to burp out of the entire bubble of hype); of two boys dressed like Dickensian urchins reconfiguring Blakean notions of Albion for the flashmob generation. Everybody wanted to take their project a bit seriously. Because the majority of people’s interest in figures like Wilde, Byron, Shelley etc. is in a simplified biography of elegant debauchery that conveniently ignores the rather boring reality of literary “genius” – education, reading, draft after draft after draft. And “literate” bad-boy musicians fit with this blueprint much better than contemporary novelists or, God forbid, poets. Even, that is, hard-drinking (Amis or Hitchens) or cult (Foster Wallace and Eggers) literary figures. Actual writers just aren’t pretty enough.
Literate: an almost impressively meaningless word – when it’s used to describe music anyway. I mean, what is the critic trying to say, that the artist in question is physically capable of reading and writing? No shit. It was a profound frustration with the way this kind of critical laziness blurs together shameless name-dropping with far more important cross-genre projects conceived by the likes of Nick Cave (indeed, Cave satirises a Libertines-esque approach to literature in much of his recent work – “I read her Eliot I read her Yeats, I tried my best to stay up late”) that made me want to start putting together mixtapes exploring the more interesting intersections between music and literature out there. That, and a desire to bring a musical dimension to the mainly literary website I co-edit, Silkworms Ink.
The Silkworms Ink “Music As Reading” mixtapes began as my way of posing musical-literary questions: can you soundtrack a poem? How do different musical accompaniments affect one’s ability to read? What can writing about music do that listening to it can’t? That sort of thing. But we’ve had a bunch of guest mixtapes in recent weeks, exploring particularly bookish back-catalogues, literary concepts through music and so on. Guest mixtapes by clever people like the poet Jack Underwood, avant-pop hero Peter Blegvad and the guy behind the best compilation of this year (the Jeffrey Lee Pierce tribute, We Are Only Riders) Cypress Grove.
I’d long admired I LIKE TRAINS’ funereal take on the 1963 reshaping of the British railways, ‘The Beeching Report’, and fancied the idea of them doing me a tape. Particularly after reading an interview in which Dave Martin explained that he ingested a great deal of literary information prior to songwriting, but only made sense of it when the song was written – used music to read, in other words. Most striking of all, though, is what distinguishes I LIKE TRAINS from a lot of the often blues-influenced artists who choose to tell stories through song – namely their Englishness, their sense of their own location. A geographical mixtape, then. And what with them being a Leeds band through and through, and Constellations Festival’s celebration of the relationship between music and other artistic modes in “one of the UK’s most creative cities” going down this coming weekend, music and literature in Leeds seemed like as appropriate a theme as any. Over to Dave…
Dave, I Like Trains
Rightly or wrongly, I LIKE TRAINS have fostered a somewhat intellectual reputation. I guess that would be the result all those songs we wrote about historical events and figures. In the process of promoting our new album He Who Saw the Deep, I have been asked many questions in interviews about how we go about writing our songs. This has led to the realisation that in order for me to bring the words to a song kicking and screaming into the world, I need to take in a lot of information and filter it into lyrics. Leaving our historical tales behind, and casting an eye on the future, the ‘research’ I undertook for the new record took me from books on the science of climate change to the bible and ultimately onto the Epic of Gilgamesh from which the album takes its name. Gilgamesh is an epic Mesopotamian poem, written on stone tablets and dealing with one man’s quest for immortality. It is one of the oldest great works of literature. I realise now that in looking forwards I’m still looking backwards, but I guess old habits die hard.
When DiS/Silkworms Ink challenged me to collate a Leeds-based mixtape whilst drawing a link between music and literature, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. I can draw clear lines between the songs of I LIKE TRAINS and various texts, but I had no idea about where my Leeds music cohorts draw their inspiration from. I decided to take this opportunity to gain a little insight into how others approach songwriting, and hopefully come up with a nice little mixtape/reading list. I emailed some of my favourite artists with a Leeds connection, asking them to pick one of their songs with a particular literary link – and explain it…
iLiKELiTERATURE (iNLEEDS) – a mixtape
1, Napoleon IIIrd – The Strong Nuclear Force
James: I started writing this after hearing the play Stardust: A Love Story by the welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis. It explains the basic principles of particle physics as a love story. At this point I was also attempting to plough my way through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as well as trying to teach myself quantum physics. I failed, but the whole thing slotted together quite nicely in the form of this song.
2, s k e t c h e s – Softly into our Graves
Matt: Being from Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe has always been a feature in my literary life. I am fascinated by Poe’s ability to create such dark and vivid scenarios in verse. It’s a trait I have tried to replicate in my own writing, and feel that I have come closest with this. I wanted to create something harrowing but sombre.
3, The Wedding Present – Brassneck
Dave: Brassneck was a favourite character of mine from the weekly British comic The Dandy during the 1960s. He was a fantastic humanoid robot who fought crime. Wouldn’t we all have liked a childhood friend like that? In the song I use the word as a nickname for the person to whom the narrator is speaking. It could be seen as a term of endearment, I guess, in that someone who has a ‘brass neck’ could be seen as being a bit cheeky or impudent. But in the song the protagonists are heading towards the end of a love affair so the use of the name could have other meanings...
4, I Concur – Your Words, Your Dialect
Tim: This is based on something I came across on Radio 4. It was a story about two people (possibly brothers) in Mexico who reportedly were the last people able to speak a language called “Zoque”. The issue came from them having a disagreement and refusing to ever speak to each other. So unless they made up, the language would completely die out.
5, The Rosie Taylor Project – Lovers or Something Like It
Jonny: I find titles the hardest part. I always think of Henry Miller’s admission that Crazy Cock typified his own struggles with titles. In an overtly personal song, an overtly personal title can do things to your stomach – which is why I am forever indebted to novelist and butterfly-catcher Florian Zeller. The “next Zeller on the to-read list,” a blind purchase, when I saw the words “lovers or something like it” – it was much like seeing Charlie Chaplin for the first time as an adult, I wondered how it had escaped me up to now. This is literature as mediator and communicator, where there would have otherwise been an omission or an internal kaleidoscope.
6, Lone Wolf – 15 Letters
Paul: I’m a really big fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Many of my songs follow some kind of fictional narrative, and this song is very much inspired by The Tell-Tale Heart. The song is sung from beyond the grave by a man who has been murdered by his (already mentally-unstable) wife. The man had 15 letters in his name, and his wife was never able to pronounce it, even at the time of their wedding, embarrassing herself in front of his family. It got to the point where it was going round and round in her head and she was losing sleep over it. She felt the only way to find peace was to erase him and his name from her life. However, as in The Tell-Tale Heart, the guilt is a harrowing replacement for the man she murdered.
7, Sam Airey – Row upon Row
It’s not a direct link, but I recently read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which is in fact exactly that. It’s the true story of a young man left to bring up his younger brother in the absence of parents who tragically both died of cancer within six months of one another. Death itself is the recurring theme in the song; the lyrical refrain “death does no favours for people like you and me” was partly inspired by the novel.
8, Duels – The Wild Hunt
Jon: I could have picked any of the songs on our last album, The Barbarians Move In, as they were all inspired by Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic England where communities have begun to reform, but based only on memories of a language and culture.
9, ¡Forward Russia! – Some Buildings
Tom: The literary link here is fairly oblique – I’ve always been influenced by religious writing, despite being an atheist myself, and this song is probably the one that most directly references the bible. I love the language and structure of the King James text: all fire and brimstone and aching melodrama. The theme of death and rebirth is a pretty universal one, but I think that all the best literature touches on the universal at some point. And you don’t get much more universal than the bible!
10, I LIKE TRAINS – We Saw the Deep
11, Vessels – Meatman, Piano Tuner, Prostitute (feat. Stuart Warwick)
Martin: The song is based around Stuart Warwick, the guest vocalist and lyricist on the track. I asked Stuart about his inspiration and he said: “I guess (like most of my songs) it’s about intimacy and vulnerability. Whilst the lyrics were assembled quite randomly, when I was singing it I had in my head the image of a young pretty girl dancing for an elderly man. Whilst this girl pretends to be assertive and powerful, she is well aware that the old man’s eyes penetrate her in ways she couldn’t imagine. It scares, disgusts and arouses her. I love that book The Butcher by Alina Reyes. It’s such an evocative story of sexual awakening. The words practically drip off the page, it’s so vivid and sensual.”
12, Glissando – Always the Storm
Elanor: I read a passage from The Rainbow at the beginning into a little tape recorder in a windy, dark, very autumny garden. We were recording the song over a few days and I was reading The Rainbow at that time, and I realised how the two sat alongside each other – and the passage from the book actually opened up the meaning of the song I had written already, so it got its name from the passage.
In Part 2... Dave iLT emailed some literary questions to the above artists, the highlights of which, along with an iLiKELiTERATURE (iNLEEDS) list of recommended reading, can be found up on DiS tomorrow.