at Length

Finch (Original Soundtrack)

—Murder by Death

Left: author Jeff Vandermeer. Right: Matt Armstrong, Adam Turla, Dagan Thogerson, and Sarah Balliet of Murder by Death (photo by Wit).

With books recently joining  music and movies in the digital world where they can all be consumed on the same portable electronic devices, it shouldn’t surprise us that books are going multimedia in new and interesting ways.  Yet somehow the idea of pairing a soundtrack to a novel still seems counterintuitive at first glance. But at first listen, the pairing sounds both natural and inevitable.

This sort of adventurous forward thinking is to be expected of  award-winning author Jeff Vandermeer, who is just as likely to appear reviewing or being reviewed in the New York Times Book Review as he is to be name-checked by the tech-faddish Boing Boing.  His Ambergris trilogy has spawned three soundtracks and two short films, not to mention numerous nods in numerous critics year-end lists.  The final novel in the trilogy, Finch, is a menacing and strangely poignant story of John Finch, a noir-ish detective who must solve two unfathomable murders amidst a backdrop of alien occupation and corrosive nostalgia.

And what better musical collaborator for a postmodern detective story than Bloomington, Indiana’s Murder by Death, a darkly earthy rock band that would be comfortable drinking in the same post-apocalyptic dive bars Nick Cave and Tom Waits might find themselves, and who take their name from an eccentric 1976 mystery film.

At Length was able to join Vandermeer and Murder by Death’s Adam Turla in a conversation about why novels might be a better pairing for music than film, the pros and cons of postmodern genre mash-ups, and how rock and roll can be like a poetry exercise.

Click here to read the first 50 pages of Finch.  At the events on page 46, click play below to stream the accompanying track from the soundtrack.

At Length: So how did this all come about? I know from the note at the end of the book that Jeff, you were already a fan of Murder By Death’s music. Did you approach the band about doing the soundtrack?

Jeff Vandermeer: Yeah, I did. There had been soundtracks to the previous two Ambergris novels, and I had been listening to a lot of Murder By Death when I was writing Finch, the third one.

AL: Adam, were you guys fans of Jeff before he asked you to collaborate on this?

JV: I don’t think they knew who the hell I was! [Laughs.]

Adam Turla:I didn’t know who he was, but one of my best friends who I grew up with is an avid science fiction and fantasy reader, and he knew who Jeff was. I told him about the project and he said, “You should do it.” And our publicist had heard of Jeff.  So I said we’d read the manuscript and go from there. And we read it and liked it.

AL: Did you guys talk much during the writing or recording process for the soundtrack?

AT: Well, there was the initial back and forth, of course. Just after we told Jeff we liked the book, we had to talk and see if it was a reasonable project, if it was something we could actually pull off.

JV: But there was no expectation of anything on my part. It was totally their inspiration for what they should choose from the book. I didn’t even have an idea that they were going to take specific scenes until they told me later on, which I thought was awesome.

AT: We had never done anything like this before, so we decided to approach it in the sort of way that we would have for a movie. We just took scenes and said, “What would the score be here?” Or maybe not so much what would be playing if this were an actual movie, but how can you evoke the images or scenes through music?

JV: And that makes sense from my point of view because I was thinking very cinematically about Finch as I was writing it, though I don’t always think this way. So in a weird way the Murder By Death soundtrack is also the soundtrack to the movie in my head. This would be perfect for the beginning of a soundtrack to a movie version of Finch, too. Absolutely dead-on perfect.

AL: One of the things that intrigued me about the project is that the sense of time is so different between books and movies. Both movies and music tend to exist in time, and you can’t escape from it, but with a novel, time is more elastic. Also, it takes a lot longer to just get through a novel, so an album’s worth of music wouldn’t quite sync up.

JV: But I think there’s a very real similarity between novels and music in this respect, which is to say that I think that the listener and the reader bring a lot of their interpretation to it in a way that you can’t with a movie. You can interpret things in a movie, but not in the same way because the images in a movie are already given to you. So you might have lyrics in a song, but they’re suggestive. The listener is still filling in information and bringing their own interpretation, just like when they read a book. So in a way it’s more immersive than a movie but in a different way. Like you say, there’s a long time scale when you read a book as opposed to listening to a piece of music, but they’re both equally immersive if you let them be.

AL: I approached preparing for this interview in a couple of different ways. First, I listened to the soundtrack as I was reading the book, but then I also went back and listened to a couple of specific scenes with specific tracks playing to see how they synced up in time. I thought that “Memory Bulb 1” worked really well – it’s a short part of the book and the song has a tendency to sync up. It seems like the three parts of that memory-dream are reflected in three sections of that track. I was curious how much you had thought about the timing.

AT: Yeah, that was what we were trying to do, but as far as actually timing it out as you listen to it, that’s something that we just hoped might happen for the people who did choose to read it at the same time. We just realized that some parts really worked that way, in a whole Dark Side of the Moon way, syncing up that record to the Wizard of Oz. I remember doing that as a kid and saying, “There’s just no way this is going to work.” (And of course I got high or some shit like that.) You’re watching it, and you want it to work so bad, and there are those parts where it does, but for the most part it’s just, “Yep, there’s music playing over the movie.” The idea of that sort of thing is that you want it to work, so I hope that people will find those moments where it clocks in perfectly. But I don’t think you can really write for that, because people read at different speeds. It’s not like a movie where the monster jumps out of a closet and the music is all “da-DAAA!” So we went for mood and just trying to take those scenes and go, okay, this is the sound of a parade, this is the sound of a mushroom breathing in and out, and just going through each element and trying to capture what we thought that would sound like.

JV: I really like the idea of people listening to the memory bulb tracks as they’re reading those sections of the book for a couple of reasons. First of all, they’re probably the most difficult sections of the book because they’re stream of consciousness and the music sort of carries you along, but also – though the book can stand on its own – there’s a lot of images in there that are hardwired from the other two books of the series, and it’s weird because the music that they did that was the correct emotion if you know those references. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but that’s the way it comes across. So there’s this awesome overlay that the text can only do for some of the readers. So I like that idea.

AL: One thing I really loved also about the two memory bulb tracks is that those two sections of the novel, not unlike the way a theme will occur over and over again in a score for a film, bleed in and pop up at different times throughout the rest of the book.

JV: Well I find it very interesting, too, because there are those recurring motifs in the music itself and then there are the recurring motifs in the novel that are pulled from those sections, specifically because every time you encounter them it’s in a slightly different context, which means they have a slightly different emotional resonance. It’s like a journey where the same things mean something different later. The music does a nice job of conveying that. At the risk of sounding too… whatever, I just love that soundtrack to death. I can’t think of the novel without thinking that.

AT: Thanks, man. Speaking of the recurring motifs and themes, one of the things we were able to do with this soundtrack is something we’ve talked about doing but never were able to do entirely, and we liked the idea of having a theme for an album, but we’ve never really brought back the theme in other songs really, but we did it on the Finch soundtrack. There’s “Finch’s Theme,” which is the first track, with just the guitar playing it. Then later on the album, in the middle, there’s “Finch’s Theme” with the band playing – a lot of cello, some drums and whatnot. Then, later – and this is more obscure but it was really fun to do – I think it’s in the “Shootout” song, the song is in 5/4 but the theme is a waltz, it’s in three. And I actually played the melody on guitar in 5/4 over this sort of weird keyboard thing. It was really fun to do that, because you write the theme and you hear it one way in your head, and you’re playing it the same way and your hands are used to playing it a certain way. But it was really fun to transpose it into a totally different key, a totally different song, and a totally different time signature. And it was just cool and fun to make a musical homage to your own song. It’s fun to write it into a song where it wasn’t even supposed to belong.

AL: One other track that I thought really worked when reading the actual scene, and for very different reasons, is the track “Party.” The instrumentation is pretty much spelled out in descriptions of the band playing in the scene in the novel, and there are even descriptive cues about how they play. It’s the closest we get to stage directions for the band.

AT: That’s how we took it.

JV: That was pretty awesome. It was really a weird experience when I heard it for the first time, because it was really close to what I had imagined it would sound like.

AT: That’s really funny because I pictured it differently when I read the book, but when we tried we ended up with something different. We took the book and it said “trash can drums,” so we made a drum set out of pots and pans and trash and stuff; and there’s cello, accordion, and singing. So we wrote a couple of versions, basically impromptu, but the one on the record was the one that sounded most natural with those instruments, as well as really fun. It’s really fun to have a parameter like that – it’s like a poetry exercise.

AL: Like writing a sonnet.

JV: The funny thing about it, too, is that I listen to a lot of instrumental music when I write, so now I have the soundtrack to write to for the next stuff that I write, as well. And also the book is beginning to get picked up by foreign publishers, and some of the translators are actually requesting the link to the music. They want to see what the mood of the music is because they think it might aid them in their translations a little bit, with the flow of the language and the story.

AL: That’s really fascinating. So they use it to more accurately translate the book?

JV: Well, especially for the cadences. In some places it’s easier for the translators, because my style fits the styles of writers they may be used to in their country because of the way the language is constructed, but in some it doesn’t. So sometimes they ask a lot of questions because they’re not sure of certain things, with the rhythm of it, so that’s one reason why.

AL: Both the soundtrack and the novel are inherently postmodern in the sense that they both play with genre to get across a more complicated or composite effect. In the novel, there are a lot of detective fiction structures to tell this story, along with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and spy novel elements. In the soundtrack, you can take the song “Shootout,” which starts out with sort of a Morricone-esque guitar and then it suddenly bursts in with that old-timey matinee organ, as if Bela Lugosi were suddenly appearing from around the corner.

AT: That’s exactly what we were doing.

AL: Could you talk about the pros and cons when you mess around with genre to create a work of art?

JV: Well, when you do it on the fiction side, you’ve got to make sure you’re really committed to it. I don’t know how it works on the music side, but when you deal with these kinds of noir story elements, you’d better really bring it. You’d better really combine it in a really organic way with everything else, otherwise it’s just like, “Oh, there’s this detective plot, and this fantasy setting, but they don’t really go together.” The thing that really blends them together is this idea of Ambergris being this kind of failed city, like a Baghdad or a Beirut. Then the detective has to navigate through this failed state, and that’s the glue that binds it together – the political and those other aspects of the genre. But the detective story is definitely the spine that gets the reader interested. You start with the murders and all that and it sets up certain expectations. And then because it does, and because you’ve got people wanting to find out what the hell is going on with that, you can do a lot of other stuff off of it. That’s where a lot of that cross-genre stuff comes into play. The reader is going to have more patience, because you’re stringing all this other stuff off this single question that they want answered.

AL: Adam, what do you think are the pros and cons of playing with genre in a musical sense?

AT: I think I always try to be really careful in order not to mimic something. But then if I’m going to mimic it, I want to make it really obvious, like in that part of “Shootout.” I’ve always wanted to have that musical moment where you go “Here’s the monster! Look out!” and this was a perfect opportunity for it. And to actually have someone transforming in the text only helped. So it was cool because it was something we had talked about doing for nine years. Finally, there was the right circumstance, because it can really only work in an instrumental setting. It was really fun in that regard. But like I said, if you’re not going to go for it all the way, you really have to be very delicate. A lot of our reviews, either very positively or very casually, have lumped us into a thing where they say that we have a sort of Western influence on our albums, though we weren’t trying for that consciously. People will occasionally say, “Oh here’s another one of these Western rock bands.” And we had a reviewer say, “They’re one of many Southern gothic bands.” The first time I saw that, I had never heard of Southern gothic. American noir is another term I had never heard until someone described us that way a few years ago. And I was like, “Oh, that’s kinda cool,” but that also implies that we’re not a rock band. So I prefer to keep things fresh. I like to borrow ideas a little bit here and there, and try to keep original, try to keep them Murder by Death, keep them within my writing style, so I’m not just making copies. You know, Americana is pretty big right now. In the last couple of years I’ve seen a big return, with all these punk rockers trying to make folk records. There’s a lot of that out there right now. But if you go too hard in that direction, it sounds very disingenuous. If you’re going to borrow themes or style, you need to just make it your own, or you shouldn’t write about something that’s not really you, I guess. At least from a songwriter’s perspective.

JV: At the same time, with the noir stuff, I’ve read mysteries since I was a kid. It’s not something I’ve ever written before, but something I’ve really enjoyed. So it’s hardwired into me as a reader. And I was also doing a lot of reviewing of mysteries, which made me do a lot of analyzing to take them apart to see how they were put together. So that really helped. I wouldn’t even have to think about what are the mystery tropes, I would just do it. Another thing is that over the years, as a writer, you steal stuff. You steal stuff directly. You say, “I like how this is working,” so you plug it right into whatever you’re working on, which is what I do. I usually take it out again, but I do that to see how it works, and that’s another way of internalizing some of this stuff. So if I see a technique I really like, I’ll steal it, put it in something I’m working on just to see how it works, take it out again, use it somewhere else again.

Another thing, too, is that you’ve got to have some sort of authenticity of setting. The section that we were just talking about with the shootout is based on going to some pretty skeezy neighborhoods in Romania with our editor friends. If you can taste the rust of everything it’s because I’m describing a real place and just transposing it. You don’t have to have been in a shootout to write about a shootout because a lot of people don’t survive those things. But you have to have some level of authenticity.

AT: It’s really important that when you’re writing fiction, and that’s what our song lyrics frequently are, the listener has some expectation that you’re able to sing about this stuff and they can believe it. Sometimes when you’re trying to do fiction within lyrics, that’s where you’re going to get criticism for the fantastic, because there are those occasional people will say, “I don’t believe this,” or “I don’t get this – this is ridiculous. You can’t have done this.” But it’s fiction, it’s a whole genre – look it up. I guess if you still just say you don’t believe it, I’m not selling it well enough, then that’s fine. But I think for the majority of people, you have to bring them in a little bit, just enough that they believe you, and that’s enough. Most people are willing to jump in and ride that bitch to Valhalla.

JV: The thing about the storytelling – that’s another reason I thought they’d be a good match. You hear the lyrics when you listen to the songs, but when I actually looked at them on the page, I was like, “Damn, these guys are really good storytellers.” And that actually makes a difference in how you can sync up with a work of fiction.

AL: Jeff, I have one final question about the intersection of music with your novel. Was the character Duncan Shriek any kind of reference to Duncan Sheik, the singer/songwriter?

JV: This is really terrible, and if you guys love him, then I’m damned forever. But I saw him in concert and he was really, really bad. And I thought, well, I need to at least get something out of it. So I took the name and I changed it. [Laughs]