you resource for all things shoegaze & dream pop.

17 August 2012

Interview: Scott Heim, Creator of "The First Time I Heard" Series, Author of Mysterious Skin, In Awe, and We Disappear.

Author of Mysterious Skin, In Awe, We Disappear,
and Creator of "The First Time I Heard" Series
Interview by: Amber Crain

Scott Heim is a Boston-based author widely known for his novels Mysterious Skin, In Awe, and We Disappear. Anyone familiar with Heim's work knows that he is also an avid music fan and self-professed music nerd, with a special place in his heart for shoegaze and dream pop music in particular. If you've seen Gregg Araki's critically acclaimed film adaption of Mysterious Skin, then the outstanding soundtrack, heavily featuring shoegaze music, surely stood out to you; it brilliantly captures in audio format the distinctive mood of Heim's writing. If anyone could ever be called a shoegaze writer, it would be Scott Heim. To my mind, shoegaze is so much more than just a genre label. It is a word that describes a distinctive atmosphere, whether musically created or otherwise. Heim's writing occupies that same dreamy, atmospheric space that shoegaze music does, and that is a very special thing, indeed.

More recently, Heim has been working on a series of music-related e-books that collect brief, conversational first-person accounts by musicians and writers about the first time they heard a specific iconic band, appropriately named "The First Time I Heard" series. The first five books focus on (1) David Bowie (2) Cocteau Twins (3) The Smiths (4) Kate Bush and (5) Joy Division/New Order, with future books loosely planned to be based on The Pixies, Roxy Music, Public Enemy, Abba and more. "The First Time I Heard" project, aside from being a truly unique and quite a modern experience (an effort of this size would be incredibly difficult to do, pre-internet), is also an example of how a Kickstarter project, which is a truly modern day phenomenon, can genuinely work for an artist. While it's not the only successful Kickstarter project by any means, "The First Time I Heard" series was made possible in many ways by the funding provided by donations given to the project, and that is truly inspiring.

I am also extremely excited to announce that on the night of Wednesday, September 19th, 2012, Scott Heim will be taking over the reigns of my radio show on Strangeways Radio (also called When The Sun Hits) to dj a full hour of his favorite shoegaze and dream pop music, as well as sharing his thoughts about the tracks, why he chose them, and discussing "The First Time I Heard" series in between songs. This will air at 9pm CST/10pm EST on Strangeways Radio - I will make a more formal announcement about this in the near future, but be sure to tune in to this special edition of When The Sun Hits - it is not to be missed! I want to personally thank Scott for being so incredible during the interview process and for guest djing When The Sun Hits on Strangeways Radio; it means so much to me. Plus, it's freakin' awesome.

And so, without further ado, When The Sun Hits presents the following very special interview with none other than Scott Heim. Gazers, look up from your shoes for a short while - you've got something important to read.

Scott, how and when did you first discover the impact that music has on you? I think all music lovers can probably pinpoint the exact moment music became more than just background sound; I know I can. Do you recall your first truly formative musical moment?

When my sister and I were young—probably as young as 6 and 3—we began discovering our
mother’s extensive and eclectic record collection. She had a lot of 45s and LPs, (and then later collected 8-track tapes). Her collection had R&B, disco, classic rock, folk rock, the deepest of Grand Ole Opry country, soundtracks, just about everything. And I remember the passion I’d see on my mother’s face, the absolute change in her whole demeanor, when she’d play some of those records. My sister and I started playing them a lot, too, just to see which ones would make us feel that moved or enraptured. One early one that I can remember clearly was “This Guy’s In Love With You” by Herb Alpert—it seemed so loungey, so nonchalant, and yet the words were detailing this beautiful, sublime, possibly devastating relationship, laying a deepest emotion on the line. I’ll never forget hearing Alpert’s voice when he sang “My hands… are shaking” to rhyme with “my heart keeps breaking”—on paper, this might sound pedestrian, but on record it’s a devastating moment.

Only a couple of years after that, I discovered Abba, and then Queen, and my life was never the same. I spent my entire junior high years playing Abba’s albums and Queen’s “A Night at the Opera,” and those albums really made me the obsessive music freak I am today.

How and when did you discover shoegaze/dream pop music in particular? Can you describe the effect it had on you then? Does it still affect you the same way today?

That’s maybe a harder one to trace. I got into the Cocteau Twins around the time that “Head Over Heels” came out; I ordered the album on a whim because I was always looking for something new and I loved its outer sleeve. I actually write about that moment in the introduction to “The First Time I Heard Cocteau Twins.” The Twins got me into all things 4AD, for sure, but they also planted the seed of a love for any kind of fuzzy, sparkling, chiming guitar sound, types of music that perhaps could be categorized more as “blurry” than “clear.” I also loved The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Psychocandy” not long after that, so when a lot of UK bands began coming out that seemed to marry parts of the Cocteau Twins and the Jesus & Mary Chain, I fell in deep love. Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Curve, Chapterhouse, Pale Saints—all the bands we associate now with that early wave of shoegaze, I suppose.

Before we dig any deeper, can you first talk about what you have been working on currently, as well as what you've got forthcoming in the near future? We definitely want to hear more about the Kickstarter project. Not only is your project a great idea, but Kickstarter is still a relatively new (and possibly revolutionary) way of turning one’s projects into reality – how has your experience been with the platform? Would you recommend the experience to others?

For a long time, I’ve been fascinated with how music lovers remember the first time they actually heard the music of the bands or singers they still follow and worship. I realized that casual music listeners often don’t remember these powerful moments, but the “music geeks,”—you know, the musicians, and the rock critics, and the writers who type out their words while listening loudly to their favorite CDs—probably you and I and most people reading this now—have lovingly detailed, nostalgic memories of, say, the first time they heard Joy Division on the John Peel show, or the first time when Bowie came on Top of the Pops and simultaneously seduced and scared the hell out of everyone watching.

So I wanted to edit a book where musicians and creative writers just tell brief stories about those pivotal moments in their lives. Where they were, how they felt, and how the “first hearing” changed them. About a year ago, I started working on five books at once: “The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order,” “The First Time I Heard Cocteau Twins,” “The First Time I Heard David Bowie,” “The First Time I Heard The Smiths,” and “The First Time I Heard Kate Bush.” I contacted many, many artists and writers I admire, as well as some folks I only knew vaguely but wanted to know better, and I was amazed at how many great responses I got. A really large percentage of people wanted to write something for this project—and of those, a pretty large percentage came through and actually did!

You asked about Kickstarter. I was getting closer to finishing the whole project, but realizing that the costs were actually going to be quite a bit higher than I’d originally planned. The books needed professional cover designs; I needed to buy ISBNs; I needed to hire an e-book formatter; all the other little promotional costs. And I wanted to pay the contributors, even if it was something small, for their trouble. So my boyfriend suggested putting the project on Kickstarter. I made a little film (starring my friend’s gorgeous little girl Hazel, listening for the “first time” to the bands covered in the books), the project got accepted, and in a month or so it was funded. It was a great relief.

In your novels, music acts as a kind of underlying theme. In Mysterious Skin, music seems to be a way to develop your characters' relations with one another (especially in the Araki adaptation). In We Disappear, it's not as present, but you still state in the novel's appendix that listening to music is a vital part to your creative process and that you can’t write if you aren’t listening to music. Do you consciously integrate what you are listening to into your writing, or does it happen organically? If it’s a conscious effort, what are your intentions by doing this?

I will sometimes choose music as background because I want to feel a certain way when I’m writing a scene. For instance, if I’m writing, say, about something happening in the darkest of night, with a certain amount of queasy fear or loneliness, and I want to somehow make myself feel, as much as possible, these emotions so I can translate them to my words and sentences, I’ll likely listen to something like Labradford or Flying Saucer Attack or Grouper (basically, a lot of music on the Kranky label at present)… or some of the older moodier electronic records like Gas, industrial stuff like Coil, or even horror-movie soundtracks.

When I was writing “In Awe,” there were several scenes of violence and fast-moving confusion and terror, and I think then I was listening to louder, more guitar-driven stuff.

And for some reason I always come back to things like “Faith” and “Pornography” by The Cure, and all of Brian Eno’s stuff of course (my favorites being “Apollo,” the albums he did with Harold Budd, the side-two music from Bowie’s “Low,” and the “Fourth World: Possible Musics” album he did with Jon Hassell.)

Thus far, your literature has been very deeply rooted in music, especially shoegaze and dream pop, but your works are fictional literature based on characters - with musical accompaniment, if you will. However, with your Kickstarter project, the music itself plays a direct and much larger role in your work than ever before. Can you talk a little about that? Is this a one-off or experiment, or is it an intentional effort to make music the centerpiece of your creative efforts?

I did indeed want to start making music—and these collections of creative nonfiction about specific musical acts—the centerpiece of things now. I feel like I might be on a hiatus from writing novels, at least for another year or so. I’m slowly starting to think seriously about the topic and characters and plot of a new novel, but I’m also still quite excited by “The First Time I Heard” series. Right now, for instance, as I answer these questions, I have already finished (and published online) the first three books—the Joy Division, the Cocteau Twins, and the Bowie—and The Smiths will be coming probably within the next week or two. The Kate Bush is not long after that. But I’m excited, because just now I’m starting to collect essays for the next round of books in the series. I’m doing ones next on Abba, Roxy Music, R.E.M., My Bloody Valentine, Kraftwerk, and The Pixies.

What do you think of modern shoegaze/dream pop artists, any favorites?

I still listen to it all the time, although usually I’m a lot more excited by the bands that bend the genre slightly, that add new elements or instruments or atmospheres and take “shoegaze” to something entirely different. I like music that sounds something “close” to the traditional idea of classic shoegaze but could also be called things like space rock or freak folk or whatever one of the current silly labels might be. Last year, Kranky put out albums by Belong, Implodes, and Grouper, and I thought those were all astoundingly great, flirting with the broken shards of shoegaze, softening or quieting them or exploding them in screams, all very eerie and beautiful. Jesu makes music like that, too. I’ve also recently been fond of albums—for various reasons, and for various levels of “shoegaze” qualities—by Craft Spells, Minks, School of Seven Bells, Tammar, port-royal, Veronica Falls, epic45… the list goes on and on.
Can you recall any extremely notable live shoegaze acts you’ve seen, either early on or something more recently?

The three times I saw Slowdive blew my mind out of the top of my shuddering skull. I’ll never forget those. Pale Saints and Ride were both terrific when I saw them in NYC in the early 90s. Sadly, I was never lucky enough to catch My Bloody Valentine, so I’m praying I’ll still get the chance. Recently I’ve seen some pretty great reunion shows of shoegaze bands—Chapterhouse and Swervedriver were both fantastic.

(I’ll also say here that one of the biggest—if not THE biggest—thrills for me in doing this “First Time” project is that I was able to get a lot of those early 90s shoegaze bands to write pieces for the books in the series. Adam Franklin of Swervedriver wrote about Joy Division; Ian Masters of Pale Saints, Pete Fijalkowski of Adorable, and Dean Garcia of Curve all wrote about Cocteau Twins; Simon Scott of Slowdive wrote about The Smiths; all three of the remaining Lush members—Miki, Emma, and Phil—wrote essays, too. And so on, and so on. I’m still working on trying to get someone like, say, Bilinda Butcher or Steve Queralt for future editions!)

Whether or not you play music yourself (do you, by the way?), most gazer aficionados are so into certain soundscapes and distortions that they have a favorite piece of gear anyway. Is there a guitar/fx pedal/synth/whatever that you are particularly enamored with?

In college I played drums. I was in three different bands and I think I was actually quite good. I always say that at one point in my life I realized I was good at two things—playing drums and writing—but I guess I made the choice that writing was possibly had the potential to be more lucrative and less soul-destroying. I think I may have made the wrong choice, as I’m constantly feeling my soul destroyed by the self-doubt and paralyzing laziness that comes with trying to write novels. Who knows—I’ve made a lot of friends in bands I love, and I’m just hoping that one day one of them says “do you want to practice with us” or “why don’t you play guest drums on this track on our upcoming record”?

How do you feel about the state of the music industry today? There is no doubt a massive change underway; how do you see it and do you feel it’s positive at all? Would you view the Kickstarter project as part of/a result of that change?

Not sure I can provide the best answer for this, except to guess that if it’s anything like the world of publishing, and bands and musicians are losing contracts and labels and fans in the same way that perfectly good, talented, challenging novelists have recently lost book contracts and the like, then I’d imagine many musicians are also feeling deeply depressed and wishing, like many writers are wishing, they’d taken up home repair or airline piloting instead.

When it comes to record label releases versus DIY (Bandcamp, Soundcloud and the like), what is your stance, if any?

I’m getting more and more excited by DIY stuff. Anymore, with so much music downloaded from iTunes or eMusic or something like Bandcamp, I’m not even sure many people pay all that much close attention to label releases. I certainly have a small group of labels for which I’ll buy literally everything—Kranky and n5md are few of those, and often Darla and 4AD and a few other very small ones like Wayside & Woodland—but other than those, I don’t know if I really pay all that much attention to the label anymore.

Do you prefer vinyl, CD, cassette tape or mp3 format when listening to music? Do you have any strong feelings toward any of them?

I prefer CD mostly. I buy a lot of things on mp3, though, just because I have limited space in my house. Again, though, on labels I love, I usually get the CD as well. And I’m a sucker for remastered box sets by bands I love. Of course I had to get the recent huge Kraftwerk box, the Smiths Complete, the weirdly packaged Durutti Column early albums on Factory, the Dead Can Dance Japanese audiofile remasters. Even Ride’s “Nowhere” with the hologram on the front—I had to have that!

The true mark of an obsessive music nerd (hey, that’s a compliment around here!) is the intense love of ranking things and making lists. Yes, I must ask you to do it – Name your top 10 shoegaze/dream pop acts of all time. (I know - so hard!)

Oh my god. Is that even possible? I know I’m going to leave someone out. And I just don’t know where to categorize the bands! Like, I love love love The Sundays—are they considered Dream Pop, and if so, wouldn’t they look weird in a list with MBV?

I suppose my list is pretty predictable, as it’s mostly “first wave” shoegaze. I’m not even sure what order to put it in. Or what bands… I mean, has anyone ever decided if Swervedriver is really “shoegaze”? How about “15 Essential Shoegaze or Shoegaze-Related Albums That Everyone Must Have”???

My Bloody Valentine, “Loveless”

Ride, “Nowhere”

Cocteau Twins, “Heaven or Las Vegas”

Slowdive, “Souvlaki”

Jesus & Mary Chain, “Psychocandy”

Swervedriver, “Mezcal Head”

Pale Saints, “In Ribbons”

Flying Saucer Attack, “Further”

Curve, “Doppelganger”

Bowery Electric, “Beat”

Seefeel, “Quique”

Lilys, “In the Presence of Nothing”

Lush, “Split”

Chapterhouse, “Whirlpool”

Bailter Space, “Robot World”

What are your goals for 2012?

Finish more of these “First Time” books, and think a little harder about a new novel of my own. Travel somewhere I haven’t been. Be a better friend to my close friends and the person I love. Stop getting so stressed and depressed about the state of the world and about the dangerously scary push toward backward-thinking conservative American politics.

What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by?

I never can think of a good answer for this question. It’s always changing, I suppose. When I need an answer for this, I usually read the lyrics of a musician I love to the point of worship: late-period Mark Hollis, for instance.