How many wannabe authors write pseudonymous soundtracks for their mediocre self-published novels? I’m guessing just me, for The Weapon of Young Gods by Low Tide (2008).
I don’t live in the moment. I’ve never understood phrases like “stuck in the past” or “nostalgia is death.” I love history, and I’m fascinated by patterns and parallels in my life and other lives. I think about the past a lot, personally and generally, and while sometimes I get hung up on things I can’t change, more often I find meaningful creative fuel and identity when looking back. That was definitely the case when I started writing a novel circa 2006. It didn’t come out of nowhere—I already held a pro design job, but belatedly entered adulthood at 30 with a marriage, a mortgage, and no extracurricular hobbies when Honey White ended—so I wanted to explore some ideas that were larger than three verses and a chorus.
Assuming grown-up responsibilities makes some people wax nostalgic for all the time they wasted being young, pretty, and bored. That happened to me after graduating with an English BA, but five years of office jobs balanced out well with band gigs at night. I’d crammed my few nostalgic impulses into half-hearted short stories when unsuccessfully applying to grad school writing programs, but I didn’t try refining them until I saw Rian Johnson’s “Brick” film. That stylized slice of sunshine noir was the final spark I needed to begin writing what became my first novel The Weapon Of Young Gods. It proved extremely difficult; I was trained as an analytical writer, so tackling fiction was a spastic plague of false starts. I couldn’t find the right headspace until one late night when I spontaneously barfed out twelve pages while listening to a band called the Mermen. Their instrumental epics worked wonders, so I tried other bands like Tortoise and Explosions in the Sky, which were great but not for sustained inspiration. I needed background ambience that evoked dreams and memory—the novel’s non-linear setting and plot were shaping up that way—but I never found the perfect fit until I realized I could make it myself.
Yours, Mine and Ours
I had lots of rough, unused recordings to build on, many via my Honey White bandmates. In early 2004 I’d recorded Billy doing drum demos, but they’d been gathering digital dust, so I unearthed those for all-purpose percussion. We’d also helped Brian record some percussion to sample on his increasingly eclectic solo songs. We spent a memorable July Saturday at the Corridan art gallery, tracking weird sounds while surrounded by an abstract art installation. Brian took some of those recordings and I kept the rest, but I admit that I didn’t fully appreciate what he was doing. Latter-day Honey White tunes were often longer and slower, but I still loved snappy, conventional pop-rock and tended to favor those in rehearsal and at shows. However once I started recording solo, I understood Brian’s approach, and tried applying it myself. I didn’t come close to what Brian’s now mastered in his band the Neuro Farm, but the idea was liberating: irregular arrangements, atmospheric layers, and no pressure for lyrics.
My new approach did have an obscure precedent: in 1999 during a Mojo Wire hiatus, Bryn and I taped some loose, unformed jams—him on drums and me exploring my echo-bass. We named our side project “Low Tide,” made five tunes, pressed about three CD-Rs, called it “Dive,” and promptly abandoned it once the Mojo Wire started up again. Low Tide wasn’t truly my solo project, but it was close enough, so reviving that name seemed appropriate for my not-truly-solo book soundtrack with significant contributions from Brian and Billy. The actual recording process was pretty quick. I began in November 2007 by melding new echo-bass tracks into a short, punchy, yet unstructured piece I named “First Set,” because it sounded like breaking waves. It took about 3-4 hours total, establishing a good production baseline: if something sounded “done” after the first rush of inspiration and tracking, then it was done. I did fix some things, but all the little imperfections added character. My main goals were 1) could I listen to it while writing, 2) could the songs fit the storyline, and 3) could I develop character themes? Surprisingly, the answers were all “yes.”
Finessing the Fossil Record
I pulled titles from the text, but if those didn’t fit I went with what each piece sounded like. “Last Train Leaving the Abyss,” grooved menacingly, “Starting Fires” crackled with compressed drums, and “It’s Quiet Up Here” enjoyed the solitude of altitude. Some tunes are unique: “Backwards Fear” was a lone major scale amidst minor key dirges, and “Fending Off Implosion” burbled beneath some Brian-ambience. The sequence matched the novel’s plot, but several recurring musical phrases connected the album front to back. The main theme, from opener “Calaveras Desagradables,” frequently showed up later: arpeggiated in “The Morbid Frieze,” disjointed in “Concussions,” and beaten stupid at the end of “This Won’t Hurt a Bit.” That latter song, like several others in the sequence, also continued an earlier opposing theme (from “Accidental Recon” and “Immortals on the Loose”). Four songs were unfinished Honey White demos: “Concussions” and “Leave the Rest in Ruins,” crippled by manufactured percussion, come from “Tempting Fate,” a song I didn’t properly finish until years later with two different bands. “Immortals on the Loose” and “This Won’t Hurt a Bit” trample on the skeleton of “Hold Still,” a Honey White studio outtake.
The finished Weapon Of Young Gods album was both a massive departure and logical next step from Honey White. I had to prove to myself that I could make music alone if I had to, and this did the trick. Creatively, I got as close as I ever had to replicating the mix of echo and reverb that my brain perceives as “passing time.” Like all of my self-produced recordings I struggled with it near the end, but overall it turned out well enough to earn a low-profile release in March 2008. Ambient instrumental albums aren’t chart-busters, so I limited it to about 10-20 hard copies, uploaded it to iTunes and called it a day. I didn’t expect it to age as well as it has, though. Of all the music projects I’ve been part of, this is the one I listen to the most for the pure pleasure of it. It’s well-sequenced, but many songs work as individual pieces, and the album itself has an identity apart from the novel it’s nominally attached to. It works as a soundtrack, too—most songs still evoke the story and characters, zapping me back to late nights bashing out undercooked fiction.
What A Novel Idea
I haven’t mentioned the novel much because it was irrelevant while I made the album. I wanted to make the music, but I had to write the book for the same reasons I wrote songs: once it was done, it purged multiple angsty hang-ups from my system. The story’s idea spawned the music, but the story isn’t necessary to appreciate it—which is untrue in reverse. I’d only written about half the chapters, so nothing was definitive and the music was great fuel for completing a first draft in 2009-2010 and then a rewrite in 2012, when I finally self-published the thing. I have no idea if it’s good; it reads like something a 20-year-old white American man-child would write—except of course I was 30. At worst it’s a first novel: a compilation of amateur mistakes and hopeless clichés. It may be just another cheap, self-aggrandizing pile of vomit in the sea of vanity pressed-pulp, but it’s my pile of vomit, and I can’t disown it. I’ve whined about that elsewhere, though, so I won’t repeat myself other than to say writing this novel helped me create a far more enduring work: a soundtrack album I’m still really proud of. Some days I can’t believe I actually did it.
Play this album: