Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Fire at will - Burns Fortnight #3

Detail, Otago Muslim Association, Clyde Street

1. Fellows Welcome

This fortnight started hospitably, with an event at the Hocken Library to welcome the University of Otago's five Arts Fellows (visual arts, dance, music, children's writing and, uh, just writing).

As you can see from the pic attached to that write-up, it was a gloriously sunny late afternoon (last fortnight's good weather stuck around for another week). It was nice that my wife and kids got to come along for the first bit (before bedtime beckoned).

When the Pro Vice Chancellor was reading out the bios of the Fellows, my daughter, Lia (4), turned to me and said, excitedly, "That's you!". But I was quickly forgotten when the bio of the dance fellow was read out. "Ballet! Daddy, he said ballet!"

When it came time for the Fellows to say a few words in response, my wife had to disappear with my son for what turned out to be a toilet false alarm, so I ended up going on stage with Lia. She casually held my hand the whole time and declined the opportunity to say anything, so I thanked the people of Dunedin and the university on behalf of the both of us.

2. Productivity (& spectatorship)

Total words this fortnight: 9,121 (4,896 on THE LOCATION SCOUT, the rest on this blog)

It was a fortnight of two halves again. The first week was solid. I felt comfortable with where I'd gotten my short stories, and was itching to start my novel before February was over, so I started (techincally restarted, after last working on it in earnest in 2015) a day early.

The next four days I made good progress, averaging an additional 933 words to the manuscript per day. That's passable for any point in the novel, but pretty darn good for the first ten or so pages. This reflects the fact I had a fairly decent (7,000 words) false start behind me, and 18+ months to mull over what wasn't quite right. Oh, and in the last week of Feb I had story-boarded out the first three scenes/chapters. So, really, why shouldn't I be productive?

Then came the weekend, and my brother came down from Wellington, so I had to show him around and generally have a great time. See part 3.

Later in the week, I tried in vain to resist the combination of sunshine and test cricket occurring a 5-minute bike ride from my office. So productivity suffered. But, as I told my wife, watching test cricket by yourself is great thinking time. I think it set me up pretty well for fortnight #4 (at least the first week... I sure hope this won't be a pattern!).

I'm off to the Warriors vs the Bulldogs at the stadium this Friday. Probably won't be as much deep thinking going on there!

3. Tourism

The Mole at Aramoana (the black line across the path is a fur seal)

Looking back from the end of The Mole, with terns and gulls

White dots = albatross (including parent with chick if you zoom into the 'dot' that's just right of centre),
Harrington Point viewed from the end of The Mole at Aramoana
Fur seal and Harrington Pt Lighthouse

The view from Signal Hill

Snack at St Kilda Beach

4. M.O.R.

Something that happened in Fortnight #3, but I only properly reflected on afterwards:

People talk about two Dunedins. The students and the locals. Or maybe it's Dunedin during term time and Dunedin during the holidays.

Before Orientation started, I felt young. As in: below the median age in town.

After Orientation: way old.

That influx of 20,000 18 year olds (okay, they aren't all that young, but...) sure is noticeable. Of course, working (I'm trying hard to leave off the inverted commas) at the university means I'm at Ground Zero for the change.

What influence will being around so many people born when the Y2K bug was a thing to fear have on my writing / me? These young people fall into my generational blindspot - too young to be siblings or cousins (or direct reports, just yet), too old to be kids of mine or my peers. What interaction will I really have with them, beyond reading Critic and trying not to run over them on my bicycle?

Time will tell.

5. Open to the universe

One good thing about having had some halfway decent productivity to start my fellowship is that I feel I can start to say YES to things that pop up.

Event formation seems to be quite organic down here. At the Fellows Welcome I was asked if I want to take part in three separate things (a theatre thing, a library thing, a creative writing thing). No firm dates. No firm anything, really, but I said Yes, because that's part of why I'm down here.

(I also found out one of the University's leadership team is reading my blog - though maybe he was just cyber stalking me in the lead up to the Welcome and will stop now - and got invited up the clock tower in the iconic admin building. I said something about that being a great setting for a murder mystery. Who killed the Vice Chancellor? Quick, barricade the stairwell. Now I'm not sure if that invite still stands.)

Doing a stonking job with a novel manuscript is my primary objective, but doing things that make me feel like a writer again (or, heaven forbid, a thinker) should help with the novel and life beyond it. Because, hard as it is to conceive of right now, there will come a time when I need to move on to other projects. If I keep adding to the reservoir this year, I should be spoiled for choice in 2018 or 2019 or whenever I finally put THE LOCATION SCOUT to bed.

Since the Fellows Welcome, I've said yes to two events for the Dunedin Writers Festival in May, and another thing for the Dunedin Amenities Society. (Next fortnight I might share with you my theory about why it's better to live in a town that's seen better days than one that's still growing, but suffice to say one reason is things like Town Belts and Amenities Societies exist)

I still feel like I have capacity for more. In fact, I have an idea for something that I'll probably need to drive if it's to become a reality.

And I like surprises. So hit me up, universe.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

This Fluid Thrill’s (belated) 2016 Music Awards

Okay, here goes. My nine favourite albums that were released in 2016 and three other awards. And, of course, a playlist!

For reference, here are my lists from 2015, 2014, 2013 & 2012.

Favourite Albums

St Lenox – Ten Hymns from my American Gothic

Nerdy on so many counts (musically, lyrically, thematically), St Lenox is Andrew Choi, a lawyer-turned (home) recording artist. His backstory and this album (and 2014’s 10 Songs about Memory and Hope) seems to sum up the possibilities of artistic life now. So it’s production and existence is a positive message – no doubt.

But it’s subject matter is difficult to read without a pessimistic slant given events after the album’s release in October – the life of immigrant communities in the US (‘I’m going to New York City to chase the American superdream’), Politics (see: Nixon, track 4)…, Racial and socioeconomic (dis)harmony the Public School System (the title of Track 3!).

There’s a certain amount of prescience in the lyrics. ‘Thurgood Marshall’ could just as easily be talking about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Trumps Muslim Ban (and Trump v the Courts generally): 
I'll need a sermon on the mount, need to be born againTurn a new leaf, a second spring, a new and visceral reminderThat good can triumph over evil, and the lawCan be a terrifying blunt force to strike theLove of country into brave young hearts
Sonically, Choi’s I suspect this is my annual ‘fall completely for the whole schtick/sound but the love won’t last’ entry.

The Peep Tempel – Joy

I discovered these Australians early in 2016 via their song ‘Carol’, which led on to their second album, Tales (2014). I loved the dirty, driving rock sound, but most striking is the work of singer Blake Scott. He inhabits a cast of layabouts, good-for-nuthins and scary buggers in his songs, and his voice takes on a real range, sounding in one song like The Sleaford Mods, and another like Mark Lanegan.

Anyway, I was so in love with Tales I started thinking up ways I could bend the rules and put it into my top albums of the year. Then in October, they dropped Joy. Same Scott roleplaying/voice-hopping. And songs like ‘Brains’ and ‘Rayguns’ hurtle down the track. But there are slower, more bifuricated songs on Joy, too. This approach goes down a treat on songs like ‘Kalgoorlie’ (she lost her sight in a bar fight) and ‘Constable’ (‘I got ghosts in my walls and in my pockets but at least I own my house’), where the scary buggers and misery can take centre stage.

This is a band I’d love to see live. If you’re reading this guys: it’s not far! C’mon.

Big Thief – Masterpiece
It takes some cajones to name an album Masterpiece.

The title track (released as a single in 2015) was my gateway into Big Thief. It remains the standout track on the album – somehow straight-forward and lush all at once, eminently earwormable – but there are other fantastic songs here too, like ‘Paul’  - a love song turned break-up song thanks to a killer chorus rewrite, ‘ Interstate’, ‘Humans’, ‘Parallels’.

Big Thief makes to most of Adrienne Lenker’s voice and her articulate lyrics – but the secret lies in the band’s use of noise. This isn’t as a simple as a Pixies quiet-loud-quiet progression, or more recently Mitski’s chorus-goes-to-11 tic. Some songs (like ‘Randy’) stay in whispers and string tinkling the whole time. But when the noise comes, och!

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

2016’s ‘conflicted, possibly over-hyped but I honestly enjoyed this album’ entry.

Will Toledo doesn’t really add anything new to the indie toolkit. CSH is less discordant Parquet Courts. A heavier Pavement. Whatever. And the fact this is Toldeo’s 13th album and he’s only 24? Well I haven’t listened to 11 of those (I feel like it’d be like someone going back and reading the short stories I wrote before I turned 23).

But the fact this is pretty much all from one dude? This feels like proper band music, not one dude in front of a computer (cf St Lenox). A proper band with a proper appreciation for its forebears and its audience. And it’s funny.

PWR BTTM – Ugly Cherries

This is one that snuck onto the list thanks to my own tardiness. I love the song ‘1994’, but for some reason never listened to the whole album until January this year (if we’re being picky, the album was released in the US in 2015, but came out elsewhere in 2016 and I live elsewhere, so it’s fine, stand down).

And I only really ‘got’ PWR BTTM when I started watching music videos and live performances.

I don’t have that much knowledge of the queer punk scene to draw on, and I don’t want to be too reductive, but the fact that Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins can rock out in dresses and ugly makeup in front of crowds of affectionately ugly cis and LGBTIQA kids and this boring white thirty-something in NZ can listen along to the album and dig it (and sound so old talking about it), is another ‘life in 2016 and beyond can’t be that bad’ indicator.

I tend to enjoy the songs that Ben sings more than Liv’s – perhaps because his deeper voice supports heavier musical backing, but together their output makes for a well-balanced album.

Drive-By Truckers - American Band

Okay, so if the theme of this list isn’t already apparent, it’s albums that make you feel that the world isn’t ending and the present is an okay place to be.

Drive-By Truckers had always seemed a strange mix to me. Southern and kinda big-C conservative sounding, but darlings of the elite tastemakers. On American Band the truckers swerve into the oncoming lane and address the present moment. Album opener ‘Ramon Casiano’ is about immigration (He became a border agent / And supplemented what he made / With creative deportation’). The next track is called ‘Darkened Flags at the Cusp of Dawn’, nuff said. ‘Surrender under protest’. ‘Kinky hypocrite’. ‘Once they banned imagine’. You get the picture.

It’s not all one way traffic, though. ‘Baggage’ is a powerful song about hearing of Robin Williams suicide (celebs died in 2015, too, remember) and Patterson Hood’s own experiences of depression. It might just be the song that best stands the test of time.

But for now American Band will be remembered as the album where Drive-By Truckers got political and stuck the landing.

Comparative Interlude

Compare this to Sunlit Youth by Local Natives. The Natives are one of my favourite bands with a limited back catalogue. I loved 2013’s Hummingbird. It killed me. And seeing them like in New Orleans that year is still one of the best two or three gigs I’ve ever been to.

Sonically, they added some keyboards and some studious glitchiness that sounds so ‘now’ it’s a bit cringeworthy, but the harmonies are still there and the more I listened the more it sounded like the kind of The Local Natives I might ask for.

But lyrically, they pushed too far and exposed some serious naiveté. ‘Fountains of Youth’ is a transparent youth anthem that hitched its wagon to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign (‘We have waited so long, Mrs President). Listening to it now (like listening to the 30 for 30 compilation album) just makes me shake my head. ‘Fountain of Youth’ is a fake anthem – a song to rouse the already woke. It’s answers are readymade and, it turns out, insufficient. Optimism on record was not a good look in 2016.

But the Bush years ushered forth albums like The National’s Boxer, and maybe this reality check will help other bands remember the shittier side of things. Guitar music always works best when it’s the underdog behind the mic.

Lucy Dacus – No Burden
Speaking of underdogs and guitar music, 2016 was another strong year for female singer-songwriters and female-fronted bands. Lots of strong women taking the tropes of the swinging dicks who’ve ruled the roost long enough and subverting them while also, just fucking rocking in their own right. (Spotify’s Badass Womyn playlist is a pretty good entrée into this world).

Lucy Dacus’ debut album was one of my faves. It rocks. It’s honest. ‘I don’t be funny anymore’. ‘Troublemaker Doppelganger’. The album starts with such a head of steam and keeps you the rest of the way.

Momentum seems to be very important to how these songs are constructed. Album stand-out, ‘Strange Torpedo’, is just one long enjambment, it’s lines rolling over the end of one bar and into the next. Fantastic.  

Camp Cope – Camp Cope
Another late entry, another Australian group, another lot of kickass females making guitar music.

From the first line (‘This is the hardest ground I ever walked on’) it’s clear this is an Australian singing. I’m not sure what the accent is that Aussie singers slip into, but it’s so distinct. Georgia Maq sounds like a rock-reversion of Missy Higgins (or Sarah Blasko or Kate Miller-Heidke). A less precious Courtney Barnett. This is meant to be dismissive – I’m genuinely curious about what happens to their vowel sounds when they sing.

Anyway, back to Camp Cope. There’s some great lyrics.

‘They say the only thing that stops / a bad man with a gun / is a good man with a gun / the lies they use to control you’ (‘Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams’)

‘I’ve been desensitized to the human body / That I could look at you naked / And all I’d see would be anatomy / You’re just bones and insecurity / Flesh and electricity to me’ (‘Flesh and electricity’)

Camp Cope: a good place to go for a bit of angst.

Marching Church – Telling it like it is
Rounding out my top 9 is another dose of angst. But this is not singalong pub music. I’m not sure what a Marching Church gig would be like.

Marching Church started as a side project of Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, and it’s his abrasive, detuned singing that’s the most immediate marker of this band too. I quite liked Iceage’s 2014 album Ploughing into the field of love, but Rønnenfelt’s very audible inhalations can get a bit much. There’s more of a beat to Marching Church’s music – something a little Boomtown Rats or The Cure – and Rønnenfelt breathes in more quietly (god, I sound like such a pedant – but listen to both albums and you’ll understand).

But just when a song sounds like it’s just about acceptable to put onto your summer barbeque playlist, the beat drops and Rønnenfelt moans:

Like a spotlight in some bizarre theatre of loneliness
Fist-fucked by destiny, I'm positioned like a beggar
At the heart of life, sugar

It’s moments like this that make Telling it like it is great and remind you not everything needs to be shared.

Song of the year

‘Ya Ya Ya’ by You Won’t

This category might be better named ‘A song release this past year that didn’t come from one of the best albums but was crazy catchy thanks to liberal use of nonsense syllables’. See also ‘Class Historian’ by BRONCHO. Bonus points this year for those nonsense syllables evolving into a kind of yodel. Genius.

Amid the Ya Ya Ya's, there's a sweet love song from one misfit to another:
So your daddy was a poltergeist
Sent your little sister screaming down the hallway
Well I don’t know about the afterlife
But I can help you to forget about the old days
Guys! You had me at the yodelling.

Best concert

Low at Bodega, Wellington

I was curious how Low’s slow, melodic drone would feel live. Well, it felt amazing. It sounded recording studio quality, without feeling canned or pat. Those harmonies. The long, noisy interludes. Tremendous.

Earworm of the year

‘Jet’ by Paul McCartney and Wings

I blame the Netflix series ‘Love’, where Paul Rust joins a bunch of people jamming at a party (including Mark E Everett from Eels) and they play this song. As far as songs to continually slide back into, there’s a lot worse. And the fact it’s total nonsense means there’s always something new to chew on.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Consumption diary – January/February 2017 (part 2)

For music, see my Burns Fortnight #2 post.


The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell (novel, audiobook)

Hard to mention this without it sounding like a massive humblebrag, but I remember talking to David Mitchell about this book (he was nearly finished with it) when we were both at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2011. Reading it now, there's a lot in the Crispin Hershey section that borrows strongly from Mitchell's experience at Australian writers festivals (mostly those that pre-date 2011). And there's a New Zealander in the novel BUT he's a dude from the Chatham Islands who is granted the secret to immortality in the 1st half of the twentieth century, so safe to say NOT modelled on me!!

Mitchell is a go-to writer for readers who want chunkiness and can live with the unevenness that is part of the bargain. I enjoyed it, but all the references back to other Mitchell novels felt too much like a self-congratulatory version of the Shanghai Knights effect (oh, so they're in Victorian England, so they have to meet Arthur Conan Doyle etc). It's worse in that the big conceit of The Bone Clocks (there are these two warring factions of immortals and lots of other people have psychic abilities) has now retrospectively infiltrated Mitchell's back catalogue. Most significantly affected/diminished are Black Swan Green and The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Yes, so a book about which it is easy to feel conflicted.

The Ask and the Answer - Patrick Ness (novel, audiobook) - Book 2 in the Chaos Walking trilogy, read a couple of years after I really enjoyed Book 1. This one felt more static, and as a result, longer, than the first. But still a pretty great exercise in -building (world-, character-, patois-).

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline (novel, audiobook)

The first two hours (audiobook, remember) felt like 90% exposition, but I enjoyed it anyway for its unabashed geekiness. Take a step back and it's a bit uncomfortable to think about how Halliday, the deceased game designer who kicks off the hunt for the key to his fortune, is essentially vehicle for Cline's wish fulfilment. Gee, if only everyone in the world loved the same stuff I love? What if there were hordes of Gen Y, Z, AA and BB kids who devoted 12 hours a day, as Wade Watts does in Ready Player One, to absorbing 80's sitcoms and mastering arcade games? What if everything I know and all my useless skills actually became valuable?

Some problems with pacing, characterisation, and the ending, but I enjoyed this book more than anything I've read in the past year, so there.

10th of December - George Saunders (short stories)

Re-read this to help me think about short stories and oblique angles. Also, gearing up for reading Lincoln in the Bardo next month.

Hicksville - Dylan Horrocks (graphic novel)

Another re-read, another effort to re-centre myself as I geared up for a new/renewed writing endeavour.

The Man Who Could Fly - Rudolpho Anaya (short stories)

Short stories from 'the godfather and guru of Chicano Literature', chosen because of the title story. Interesting without being uplifting or massively transportative.

More Than This - Patrick Ness (novel, audiobook)

Chose this instead of finishing the Chaos Walking trilogy because a) I didn't feel like more sci-fi just yet (though it's not that sci-fi) and b) I was curious what Ness's other YA stuff is like. I'd describe More Than This as emo.

Visual media

This will be an incomplete list as I haven't been keeping record of what I watch, but I think it's a worthwhile exercise this year.

* Films

The Last Valley, Platoon, Sneakerheadz, A Few Good Men, Goodfellas, Trouble with the Curve, Silence.

Silence was the only one I saw in a theatre. I went to a 2pm session on a Friday - one of the affordances of fellowship life - but it was research for my novel. No, honestly. Maybe I'll explain one day.

But Silence. Um. Cinematically, it's essentially a series of torture scenes connected together by shots of greyscale people huddling in one place or another and the crickets and air conditioner hum soundtrack. It's been described as a Scorsese passion project because it was the works for 28 years (and because it was never going to be The Wolf of Wall Street), but maybe it took so long to come to fruition because of a lack of sustained passion?

It's a one-note film that goes for more than two and a half hours. If I had a passion project, it's would be some massive overreach - a symphonic shambles of ideas. But that's just me, I guess.

(And isn't any novel written by 99.9% of writers a passion project, in that it's something the establishment doesn't really want from you. That's how I see my work, anyway.)

* TV (a misnomer - I wonder if we'll ever get around to calling it something different?)

The OA, Fargo (Season 1), Abstract, Luther, selected episodes of The West Wing, and so much Paw Patrol (I wish there were more girl dogs but when I asked my daughter, whose favourite is Sky, she wasn't fazed).

  • Roughly ranked in order of appreciation.
  • Entire series run to present day, unless otherwise noted.

Simmering tensions - Burns Fortnight #2

1. Consumption diary – January/February 2017 (part 1)

1.1 Music

Tomorrow (!) I'll post my 2016 music awards - only 2 months late. It's not as if they mean anything. And every day I'm discovering more great music that came out in 2016, so it's just one big exercise in arbitrary memory capture... But, tomorrow!

As for what I've been listening to these past two months, here's a link to my January Playlist (10 songs; 3 of which feature artists in tomorrow's awards).

And here's a bumper February playlist (33 songs) - see what happens when I write full-time?

1.2 - I'll cover books, film and TV is a separate post...

2. Them's a-countin' words

Total words this past fortnight: 8,101 words (short stories: 3k, novel: a sprinkling, others: 4k+)

This fortnight wasn’t as productive as I'd like because of its second week. I got sucked back into some Wellington nonsense. Hopefully it's settled now.

At the start of the fortnight I felt as if I might get the 1st draft of 3 stories completed by the end of Feb, but I'll end with one 1st draft, one half (and that probably needs a hatchet taken to it) and another fractional effort. I also wrote a poem!

3. The news (drip)feed

Maybe you know, but most likely you don’t: THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS will be published in the US. It’s coming out in September from Milkweed Editions, a full four years after the NZ and Australian versions. (Aside: I have no idea how the Romanian version has done, so don’t ask). The TMM page on Milkweed’s website went live recently here.

I really like the US cover. The blurb is a placeholder as certain authors read the book in the hopes of getting someone with US cachet to provide a blurb. There’s one writer in particular that I love (or at least, I love his work!) who is reading it, but the whole blurb economy isn’t something I want to get too tied up in thinking about.

As for the pages in between the covers, it’s so long since I was done with the edited manuscript I feel about it the same way I feel about my life before parenthood (my daughter is also 4). I would do many, many things differently – but that’s only natural. I am perhaps most pleased with the sweep of it. I may not have done everything the right way, or done justice to the chances I gave myself, but I wanted something chunky – both in terms of size (100,000+ words) and being composed of largish, relatively distinct sections. So chunky: check!

Just as THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS (historical, more intricate/plotted) was a reaction to A MAN MELTING (contemporary, off-the-cuff), I’m volleying my next book back across the net. THE LOCATION SCOUT (working title only) takes place in the contemporary world (though it has its historical preoccupations/anchors). It won’t, I don’t think, be “chunky”. It will still bear the traits of my thematic maximalism (of which my ten-year-old story ‘Copies’ is perhaps the most emblematic example), but it will be more focussed.

4. O-tago

Last week was Orientation Week here at Otago. Before then, I felt as if I was below Dunedin's median age. Now, I'm well above it.

I really liked the 'summer' Dunedin and I think I like the term-time Dunedin as well. They are both very different, but at heart they're the same. Like the original and acoustic versions of 'Layla'. (Not that any of the recent arrivals to town would get that simile. God, I feel so old.)

The weather the last two weeks has actually been summery and I've been riding my bike as much as I can and playing around with the panorama setting on my phone.

From near the Soldier's Monument, Highcliff Rd, Otago Peninsula

Spot my bike

St Kilda Beach
We went up to Christchurch for the weekend as my wife's extend family had an impromptu get together. It was easy to jump in the car and drive 4.5 hours up and back (it's easy when the kids sleep at least!) and it's always interesting driving up that way and passing places from THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS, or that inspired the fictional places.

So, one month in - how am I feeling about Dunedin and the Burns? Great. The only thing holding me back is myself.

Time to throw myself into THE LOCATION SCOUT. Got my Sharpies, got my index cards, got my Blu Tac. Time to plot this mother out!