Guest Post “We are the Music Makers” by Eric Muss-Barnes

“We are the Music Makers”

by Eric Muss-Barnes

gothic rainbow book-coverBack in 1997, when I published The Gothic Rainbow, the first volume in my duology, The Vampire Noctuaries, it was the only novel I had ever seen with a musical playlist in the back of the book. I’m not saying I originated this idea nor do I proclaim to be the first author to create a playlist. I’m saying I was the first, to my knowledge. Feel free to correct me if you can prove anyone did such a thing before 1997.

Today, I wouldn’t call musical playlists “common” for novels, but they are far more prevalent in 2013 than they were 20 years prior.

When I first got into music, like most teenagers, I was into Top 40 Pop Music. Between radio, and movies, and MTV, that type of music was the most commonplace. It was easy access. Simple to find. Artists being played in the American Bandstand and American Top 40 genre have evolved over the years, but those tunes have been the predominant staple of American teenagers since the 1950’s. During my high school days, I was into Madonna and Prince and Michael Jackson and Van Halen and Cyndi Lauper. That was my style of music.

Then in 1987, my whole musical world changed.

I started skateboarding with a friend from high school named Attila (no, that wasn’t a nickname) and he was into all sorts of punk and industrial music. We’d go skateboarding and he’d bring along a boom box and play The Sisters of Mercy and Front 242 and Front Line Assembly and Siouxsie & The Banshees and I was totally blown away by this music. Especially industrial acts like Nitzer Ebb – I’d never heard music like that before. It was amazing! It was danceable like pop music, but so hardcore and aggressive like metal, but it was all electronic and didn’t have guitar solos and stuff. I was floored by this. Discovering a new band is a great feeling, but to discover entire genres of music you had never heard before transcends into a life-changing experience. Plus, it was so great for skateboarding because the music was so aggressive and technical, exactly like skating. A little My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult provided the perfect soundtrack for a skate session. It’s great. It’s great. I’m the white rabbit!

Skateboarding to that music is how I got hooked. This style of music was truly “underground” because it was harder to track down. You needed to make more of an effort to find these bands. I started watching 120 Minutes on MTV and listening to college radio. (Incidentally, to this day, Cleveland still has the absolute greatest variety of college radio stations I know. Los Angeles doesn’t have anything like it. I can still stream 88.7 and 89.3 and 91.1 over the Internet and hear all the great Cleveland stations from John Carrol, Cleveland State and Case Western.) I became immersed in that musical scene. As time went on, I started clubbing, and going to shows, and making music videos for local bands. I even started a music video program on cable access called Shellsongs and showcased bands from Nettwerk and WaxTrax! and Projekt and any other labels that would send me videos of alternative acts.

By the time I started writing The Vampire Noctuaries, I was steeped in that scene and had become exhaustively knowledgeable about the people, the atmosphere, the culture, the music, everything. That was my crowd. That was my social life. That “counterculture from the underground” (to quote KMFDM) was where I met all my friends, and where I was introduced to all the girls I dated, and where I went to parties, and where I spent my weekend nights. That club scene became my universe.

Being an author, immersed in a world of pale clubkids covered by black lipstick and fishnet and shadows, writing a vampire novel was just a natural progression from the atmosphere within which I was living.

One of the major differences between being a fan of Top 40 music and being an underground clubkid was how important music became to us. This is something the Top 40 kids never understood, but we knew intimately. When your favorite band is Bon Jovi, you get to see one show every three years from nosebleed seats in a massive arena. Your musical heroes remain distant. Untouchable. Removed. When your favorite band is The Dead Milkmen or Nine Inch Nails, you got to see them every 6 months in a club that seats 800 people and go stagediving and hang out with them at the afterparty. Energy from the band and the crowd becomes symbiotic. You become a part of the music scene. Shows are intimate. Connected. Our counterculture microcosm was a completely different experience from the fans of commercial radio.

As a result of these experiences, The Vampire Noctuaries became filled with gothic and industrial music. The Gothic Rainbow contains references to over 180 songs while the sequel, Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival has a list of over 90 songs.

How much does music play a part in The Vampire Noctuaries?

The first line of the first book reads:
Allyson called it “The Killing Game”.

A reference to the song by Skinny Puppy.

To this day, I remember how excited I was, the first time I read a book with a song reference in it. It was in the book “Yarrow” by Charles DeLint author gothic rainbowand the reference was to “Don’t You Want Me” by Human League. (Actually, there was a reference to “Clampdown” by The Clash before that, but I was only 15 years old and it would be another year or two before I discovered music as cool as The Clash.)

Perhaps I found it so exciting simply because no other books I had ever read made any pop culture references. Most books just existed within their own little universe with few references to the real world around us. Sure, I had read urban fantasy before. But somehow, having a character walk past McDonald’s just wasn’t the same as listening to music. The emotional connection we feel to music makes it a far more visceral thing to mention. When a book finally broke that barrier and suddenly a bit of pop culture and music was part of the story, I was completely enthralled. The novel felt so much more “real”, because now the author was referencing things I was familiar with, instead of just creating imaginary euphemisms for reality.

That became my goal with the songs in The Vampire Noctuaries.

I wanted readers to really feel those scenes. I wanted the music to truly act as a soundtrack and an emotional buoy to help readers float through the sentiments of the landscape. Every song is very deliberate and chosen for the lyrics, the emotional tone, or often times for both.

Once the book was released, the sheer volume of music helped to get the book noticed in places that would ordinarily ignore it. For example, when I sent a copy to the alternative music magazine Outburn for a review, they initially refused to cover the book, since they were a music magazine, not a literary magazine. After reading the book, the editor realized how relevant the book was to the music scene and not only was I offered a two-page interview, but they started distributing it in their catalog. Thus the mere presence of so much music in the story started to make the novel stand out, in places it ordinarily would never have appeared.

The most exciting part about including all the music was the opportunity to meet various musicians like Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie & The Banshees and Toni Halliday of Curve and give them copies of my novel. I never heard back from them. I don’t know if they read the book or not. That’s not the point. The point is, I gave it them.

I’m very grateful to all the wonderful musical acts who inspired and helped to shape the world of The Vampire Noctuaries and even if you never read my books, I highly recommend that you purchase these songs and albums and add them to your collection. I can only hope that someday, the admiration might come full-circle, and one of my novels might be quoted in a song lyric of a fantastic musician. That would really be something. We’ll see what the future holds.

What has been your experience with music references in books? Do you remember a song reference that got you excited, because you didn’t expect the author would know that band? Were you ever impressed by how befitting a song was in a scene? What do you think is the best use of music you’ve read in a book?

~ by Sumiko Saulson on August 18, 2013.

2 Responses to “Guest Post “We are the Music Makers” by Eric Muss-Barnes”

  1. My experience with music in books is that any work of fiction that references a pop culture song is going to be crap.

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