Jeff VanderMeer has written numerous award-winning novels and is known for his “weird fiction,” specializing in fantasy and horror. For his Guest DJ set, he shares his writing soundtrack, from the late night vibes of The Black Heart Procession to the mysteriousness of Spoon. Jeff just released Acceptance, the final novel in his 2014 Southern Reach Trilogy.
For More: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/
1. Spoon - "The Two Sides on Monsieur Valentine"
2. Arcade Fire - "Normal Person"
3. The Dream Syndicate - "Merritville"
4. Songs: Ohia - "I've Been Riding With the Ghost"
5. The Black Heart Procession - "It's A Crime I Never Told You About the Diamonds in Your Eyes"
Eric J. Lawrence: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence and I am here with author Jeff VanderMeer. His numerous award-winning novels and short stories are difficult to classify, often combining science fiction, fantasy, horror, and suspense.
All of these elements can be found in his latest set of books, the acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy. Today we’re here to talk about some songs that have inspired him over the years as apart of KCRW’s Guest DJ project. Jeff thanks for joining us!
Jeff VanderMeer: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
EJL: So what’s the first track you got for us?
JVM: So the first track is from Spoon’s album Gimme Fiction. I could’ve chosen a lot of different tracks from this -- this is one of my favorite Spoon CDs and one of my favorite CDs of all time -- but the one that I chose is “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine”.
I first heard it on the day of release. I went out and bought it at Vinyl Fever here in Tallahassee, a record store that is unfortunately now deceased. And I just listened to this track over and over again, I never get tired of it.
I’m not exactly sure why, but there’s something about the combination of the music and the mysteriousness of some of the lyrics that really gets to me.
I use a soundtrack while writing and all of these five songs that we’re going to talk about are on the permanent one, some of them added later than others, but they are all ones that speak to me in some way and that no matter what mood I’m in for writing they can kind of help me conjure up what I need to conjure up.
What I love on this track from Spoon is that there’s a weird sense, to me at least, of late 18th century decadence to it. Kind of absinthe vibe in this character, this Monsieur Valentine in his coat and his boots and his black heart machine, whatever the heck that is. Sometimes I would play this song at the beginning of the day, my writing day, as I was kind of trying to get into the mood and method acting on this character.
And it’s got a great punch to it, this whole album has a great punch to it. I don’t know how to describe it except there’s moments where the music really surprises you and you think that it’s going one place and suddenly it kind of just ups the ante. And it really works nicely.
Song: Spoon -- “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine”
EJL: That was Spoon with “Two Side of Monsieur Valentine”. What’s the next track you got for us?
JVM: “Normal Person” by Arcade Fire from Reflektor.
And this is one of those kind of hilarious moments when you don’t know what you’re listening to because I first heard them on -- I think it was David Lettermen, or maybe on the Colbert Report -- before you knew it was Arcade Fire, because they did these gigs where they pretended to be Reflektor the band.
And so I heard this song and I loved it. There’s this 70’s-era kind of Kink’s piano bit on it which I really like. I’m one of those few people, I guess, who really like the Kinks mid-70’s stuff. And there that kind of feel to it. That was kind of my in to understanding parts of this album.
And then the song itself kind of extends out from the social commentary on the Suburbs CD. This idea of “would you want to be a normal person?” The idea of weirdness or something else behind the mask and the cruelty of normal people.
And then, like a lot of the songs that I like, it has a great kind of lurching momentum that really works.
Song: Arcade Fire -- “Normal Person”
EJL: That was Arcade Fire with “Normal Person” selected by our guest Jeff VanderMeer. What’s the next track you got for us?
JVM: So it’s “Merritville” from the Dream Syndicate from their album Medicine Show.
I picked this up in a dollar bin in Vinyl at a record store in Gainesville, Florida while going to University of Florida. And I don’t know what it was about it because the kind of abstract art on the cover didn’t really appeal at all, but there were song titles like “John Coltrane Blues” and “Burn” and that kind of intrigued me. And it was also only a dollar.
I put on this album and it just absolutely blew me away. I’d never heard of the Dream Syndicate before, I didn’t know that they had done a Lou Reed-ish album called Days of Wine and Roses that kind of put them on the map. I didn’t know that this album was kind of underrated because they had kind of gone to, I guess what you’d call, kind of almost, going from a Lou Reed to more of a kind of countryish alt-rock, kind of almost Cowboy Rock I guess you’d call it. Kind of a sensibility.
It’s an amazing album from the guitar point of view. Almost all the songs have this slow burn into these dueling guitars and this amazing guitar sound. And “Merritville” is one of those songs.
It also has outlines of some terrible crime or event in it. I know that the lyrics, when I found the lyrics, say what that crime is. But I prefer to think of it vaguely. That there’s something not being said. There is enough space in the lyrics to assume that there’s also something else going on. So I really like that sense of mystery, but it’s really the guitars here and it’s really Steve Wynn’s voice. It just has that sense of authenticity to me that just rings true. I listen to this a lot, especially late at night when I’m writing, it’s just perfect.
Song: The Dream Syndicate - “Merritville”
EJL: That was The Dream Syndicate featuring lead songwriter Steve Wynn with the song “Merritville”. What’s the next song you got for us?
J: It’s “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” from Songs: Ohia from their album The Magnolia Electric Company.
I saw them at the Club Downunder here in Tallahassee on their tour for this CD. I think this was really the first time that I really loved the song. The clarity and the depth of the guitar playing was phenomenal. Every song felt like it came out of the depths of this kind of dark deep blue pool of water, but again with the startling clarity.
Then the song -- in part because Molina, the lead singer, he was stripping parts away from it and he was stripping the sound down at times and then building it up again in a way you can’t even necessarily get on the recorded track -- became a more haunted song the farther along you went in the live performance.
I write in the Southern Reach trilogy about a lot of characters who are haunted by things and so I have quite a few, I would say, like ghost story songs. And some of them are like real ghost stories and some of them are not literal. They’re figurative. But this song again, you know, I played it over and over again while thinking about the characters of Control and Authority who is haunted by a lot of things and there are things he doesn’t know he’s haunted by too.
Song: Songs: Ohia - “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost”
EJL: That was Song: Ohia with ghost story “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost”. What’s the last track you got for us?
JVM: The last track is the song I’ve probably listened to the most over the years. I mean I’ve probably listened to this song 200-300 times, which sounds kind of nuts but there’s something about the combination of the lyrics and the music itself that I just find touching and beautiful and kind of awe-inspiring.
And “It’s a Crime I Never Told You about the Diamonds in Your Eyes”, which could be the most pretentious title ever or the best, in this case it’s the best because the way they sing it.
The Black Heart Procession from their sumptuously titled album 2. I first heard this song on our local college radio station and I went out and I bought the four albums that they had out by then because of it, which were 1, 2, 3, and 4. And this song, I keep talking about this kind of lurching quality, there’s a kind of lurching loveliness to it in a sense that reminds me of being out late at night in a city, it seems kind of empty because, you know, it’s so late. Or some kind of desolate place and maybe you’re a little drunk and everything seems more beautiful and melancholy because you’re drunk, but in an almost comforting way.
And so to me this song, with it’s very simple but very profound lyrics, is kind of a song of lost love, looking back recognizing a mistake some point later in life.
And whenever I write late at night I listen to this song, and it opens up some kind of creative space. In fact, in Acceptance, the third book in the Southern Reach series, there’s a scene where Control’s lurching from bar to bar on a bender because he’s had a lot of stress in his day and I imagine this song playing in his head. In an early draft of in the later section I actually had a line from this song, but unfortunately we had so little time to acquire permission, so I just took it out and replaced it with something far inferior unfortunately.
EJL: Well Jeff, thank you so much for joining us on KCRW.com.
JVM: Thank you so much for having me.