Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Author Interview: Mark Teppo

Edited to add 1/19/10: The follow up to Lightbreaker, called Heartland is coming out soon and true to form, Mark has posted a soundtrack. Check it out!

Listen to the interview here!

Tell me a little about yourself and your writing.
I'm more of a long form writer than a short fiction guy. Farrago's Wainscot serialized my hypertext novel, The Oneiromantic Mosaic of Harry Potemkin, in 2007 (and the expanded edition of it can be found here), and the print arm, Farrago Press, will be putting out the sequel/resolution, Psychobabel, in 2009. In September, my first print novel will be out from Night Shade Books. Entitled Lightbreaker, it is the first part of Codex of Souls, a multi-book romp through Western esoteric thought and occult history in an urban fantasy setting. Both are ambitious projects for the early part of a writer's career, but they seem to be the way my brain wants to tell stories, and I'm going along with it.

I'm just a delivery vehicle for the Muse, really. Yes, that's my excuse. Though, honestly, I am at that point in my career when I still have a full-time job, and so I have the luxury of producing material that excites me foremost without necessarily being beholden to market forces. This is the way new writers find their way in, I think, by creating material that is filled with the passionate excess of their naiveté. Or, at least, that's the other excuse I keep using.

Tell me about the story that you've created a soundtrack/playlist for.
Lightbreaker is divergent from the nominal definition of "urban fantasy." There are no werewolves or vampires, and the magick is based more in actual occult history and practices than Dungeons & Dragons rules. I've never been comfortable with the reliance upon vampires and werewolves as fantasy tropes because their historical definitions don't hold up well in a modern setting. They are predators, really, and we are cattle, and I could never quite world-build them well enough that humanity wouldn't have gotten their shit together and wiped them out. It's a blind spot for me, and I didn't try to make it work. Besides, I'm fascinated with mythology, magico-religious belief structures, and whatever it was that Aleister Crowley was really trying to accomplish with all of his writings. He was either a complete nut or he knew something special, and I think his efforts--like a lot of metaphysical and religious thought--are worth examining. If I can do that while providing an entertaining story with lots of sex and death, then everybody wins.

The book itself, in a few words, is the story of a guy, Markham, who has returned to Seattle, searching for a girl, Katarina, who, a decade ago, touched his soul and left it . . . damaged. What he stumbles upon when he gets to town is the girl's new friends, who are playing with very dark magick. These guys are a secretive cabal who are attempting to punch a hole through heaven, and make mischief with what they find. Markham must (to quote the marketing copy) "delve deep into his past, calling on every aspect of his occult training for there to be any hope of a future. But delve he must, for Markham is a veneficus, a spirit thief, the Lightbreaker . . ."

Just so everyone has some reference points. I am, after all, about to geek out on a bunch of songs no one has heard in reference to a book no one has read, and I'm going to try to do so without offering spoilers. Yeah, good luck with that, I know.

What is your playlist? (Why did you choose these songs?

01. "Our Solemn Hour" - Within Temptation
02. "Collide" - Detritus
03. "Missing Link (Screaming Bird mix)" - Curve
04. "Voiceover" - Darrin Verhagen
05. "Acidburn Aesthetic" - Stone Glass Steel
06. "." - Darrin Verhagen
07. "Black Star" - Peccatum
08. "Lethe" - Detritus
09. "Agnus Dei" - Shinjuku Thief
10. "Quest" - 302 Acid
11. "Greater Than The Sun" - Covenant
12. "Shadow Path" - Shinjuku Thief
13. "The Great Destroyer" - Nine Inch Nails
14. "With Small Shards of Glass" - E.P.A.
15. "Uthul Khulture" - Sephiroth
16. "Colorless" - Venetian Snares
17. "Heaven's Blade" - Coil
18. "Procession of Souls" - Shinjuku Thief
19. "Shroud (Exordium") - Fields of the Nephilim
20. "Straight To The Light" - Fields of the Nephilim

Playlist Discussion

1. "Our Solemn Hour" Within Temptation (The Heart of Everything)

I used to write trailers for my books--big splashy write-ups done in screenplay style where I threw together enough of the high points of the book that I could remember what it was all about six months later, and to give myself a thematic overview of what I was trying to accomplish. For a long time, Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" and Peter Gabriel's "The Rhythm of the Heat" were my go-to songs for trailers, but "Our Solemn Hour" is much more fitting for Lightbreaker. Especially the first big explosion of sound that kicks everything off. Yes, this is the way the world sounds.

2. "Collide" Detritus (Fractured)

The book starts with a bang, and it's chapter four before we even slow down enough to really introduce our characters, which is either going make readers love me for not boring them from the start or piss them off mightily. Detritus' "Collide" is a drum 'n' bass symphonic overture, and meshes nicely with a chase that starts in the woods, runs through a small town, and climaxes on the lower deck of a vehicle ferry.

3. "Missing Link (Screaming Bird Mix)" Curve (Blackerthreetrackertwo EP)

Toni Halliday's voice has always been something of an obsession for me--both in its husky weariness and its seductive allure. It's the voice of a siren who has grown tired of summoning men to their doom, but she knows no other way to find love. The "Screaming Bird Mix" was done by Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame), and he adds a layer of noisy guitars to an already caustic bombast. Markham's search for Katarina is a search for his missing link, and the combination of the relentless claustrophobia of the instrumentation and Toni's voice sums up the psychological history of his quest.

4. "Voiceover" Darrin Verhagen (D/Classified)
6. "-" - Darrin Verhagen (Zero-Stung)
9. "Agnes Dei" Shinjuku Thief (Medea)
12. "Shadow Path" - Shinjuku Thief (The Witch Hunter)
18. "Procession of Souls - Shinjuku Thief (The Witch Haven)

Darrin Verhagen has a number of pseudonyms, and so his presence on the soundtrack is heavier than it appears at first glance. His choral and orchestral work is superb, and his ability to blend ethnic instrumentation and pure noise anarchy are just the sort of sonic impact I'd love to have in a film. The tracks picked out for the soundtrack are more subdued, but no less powerful. Well, other than the E.P.A. track, but there's no way to soften that blow, really.

5. "Acidburn Aesthetic" Stone Glass Steel (Dismembering Artists)

Markham suffers from a bit of schizophrenia via a noise of voices that keep him company, and the "recontextualized" sound of Stone Glass Steel is fitting accompaniment. Phil Easter (SGS) builds his music by sampling and cutting from other works, building something new with elements that trigger other memories and associations in your mind. The mix of industrial noises, dark ambient drones, churning metal guitar, and atmospheric disturbances is schizophrenic enough, and the hints of nearly recognizable riffs from other artists is an added layer of identity confusion

7. "Black Star" Peccatum (Lost in Reverie)

This one will be more obvious in retrospect after reading Lightbreaker, but if you read Irhiel (the female voice) as Katarina and Ihsahn (the male voice) as Markham's shadow and the whole song as being told from Markham's view, then it all makes sense. Really. "I am the black star, hostess of your dead heart sun." Some relationships are just doomed, you know, just flat out doomed.

8. "Lethe" Detritus (Fractured)
10. "Quest" 302 Acid (005)

These two are mood music, downtempo tracks that try to capture some of the ghostly ambience of the book. The sort of thing you hear as backdrop during one of those rapid-time sequences in CSI where the team makes with the science and solves the crime. You don't want to cut this stuff because it's important to let the audience know that Things Are Being Done, but you certainly don't want it to drag by. A good bassline makes grunt work seem sexier than it really is.

11. "Greater Than The Sun" Covenant (Skyshaper)

It's the rolling rhythmic line that really gets me. There are several introspective moments through the book, and the persistent rotation of the world around Markham is mirrored by the looping motion of "Greater Than The Sun." The more I listen to this song, the more I realize it encapsulates Markham's journey through Lightbreaker, right down to the way the bass drops away as Eskil Simonsson sings the chorus, each recitation more fragile and naked than the last. And the title. Yeah, the title is perfect. So, in a nutshell, this is the book.

13. "The Great Destroyer" Nine Inch Nails (Year Zero)

Every villain needs a theme song, and this one is probably overly dramatic and heavy-handed, but the sonic breakdown into Autechre beat-fuckery about two minutes into the song is a great aural representation of what happens when you let a guy try to reshape the world in his image.

14. "With Small Shards of Glass" E.P.A. (Black Ice)

There is a scene in the book where the phrase "a chattering echo of a thousand knives being sharpened" is used. E.P.A.'s Black Ice is the power electronics CD of Darrin Verhagen's three-part Black | Mass. Yeah, it's an hour of howling, wailing feedback and noise. With subtle variations, of course. And the one "With Small Shards of Glass" seemed about right.

15. "Uthul Khulture" Sephiroth (Draconian Poetry)

And, when the world is burning down around you, what do you need? Apocalyptic drums and dark ambient monster noises. The fact that the band is called "Sephiroth" is just a bonus.

16. "Colorless" Venetian Snares (My Downfall)

This record is a departure from the drill ‘n' bass that Venetian Snares has been putting out over the last few years, and I think it's a fantastic new facet to his sound. "Colorless" is suffused with melancholy, but it's not quite despair. Not yet. It's mood music for the bleak part of the early morning when your protagonist has to face what he has done, and what he is about to do. "Our hands betray what we have done."

17. "Heaven's Blade" Coil (The Ape of Naples)

You can't write a book about magick (with a ‘k') and not have Coil on the soundtrack. That's like showing up to a secret furry convention without a costume. Everyone knows you don't belong. The trick wasn't a Coil song, but WHICH Coil song. The ephemeral fragility of "Heaven's Blade" is well suited for the penultimate scenes of the book.

19. "Shroud (Exordium)" &
20. Straight To The Light" - Fields Of The Nephilim (Mourning Sun)

Mourning Sun was on the master playlist for writing the book, and it was always welcome when it showed up on the rotation. "Shroud (Exordium)" and "Straight To The Light," especially (and, really, the first is a long intro to the second). The way the sound builds across the breadth of "Shroud (Exordium)" to that final angelic chorus is just incredible, and I wish--every day--that I had the money to buy an obscenely huge sound system just so I could experience that progression in the bone-shaking way it was meant to be heard. The transition to "Straight To The Light," that opening guitar riff, is the end of the book, that instantaneous cut to black, and if it was up to me, the screen would stay black until the song was over before the credits ran.

What does music mean to you? To your writing?
It's critical. Both as a means of fueling the muse, and a means of adding texture. We are ultimately responsible for how the words make the scene work, and being able to find music that suits the intent and the impression of a scene enables me to better articulate what I'm trying to do and to find an emotional kicker to the text. Some film directors are more aware of the music than others, and they understand that it's another layer of meaning--much like the lighting and the framing of individual shots--and to poorly execute this layer is to dress the film shabbily. Ridley Scott, with Bladerunner; Michael Mann, with Miami Vice and Heat (really, the whole Miami Vice phenomena came out of marrying sound to visuals); David Lynch, with nearly everything he's done, but especially Twin Peaks; early Eric Serra, with some of Luc Besson's early films (The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita); Peter Gabriel's work for Birdy and The Last Temptation of Christ: these guys have all done great work marrying soundtracks to the visual presentations.

When I used to story-storm late at night, I would put on some film filled with eye-candy, turn down the sound, and put the headphones on. Total sensory overload, and every time I'd stop writing in my notebook and look up, my brain would have to parse the music and the visuals. It would always keep me off-balance, always seeing and hearing something not-quite-right but always exciting. Occasionally, I'd find marginalia in my notes that would record songs for scenes, pairings that worked well and left me with the germ of an idea.

Music, like film, is communicating via a different sensory avenue than the word, and frankly, we don't steal from it enough. We're happy to heist stylistic tics from other writers, but I don't think we pay enough attention to rhythm (or lack thereof) or visual cues in other media.

5. What kind of music do you like to write to?
Writing music is very different from soundtrack music. My primary writing space is the commuter train, and the music serves two functions: propelling me forward and drowning out the constant chatter of the other three people at the small table I'm sitting at. The playlist is noisy, metallic, and operatic: filled with things that are labeled Teutonic Industrial (Rammstein, mostly), Big Broken Beat (Clark, Detritus, Enduser), Rhythmic Noise (Tarmvred, Iszoloscope, Empusae, and Ah Cama-Sotz), Symphonic Metal (Within Temptation, Nightwish, After Forever, Sirena), Tribal Illbient (Monolith, Sephiroth, and This Morn' Omina), Black Metal (Fields of the Nephilim, mostly), and Industrial Angst (Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Otep, Die Warzau). The current playlist has about 700 songs, and I just let it spin on random.

If this story was made into a movie, who would you want to do the soundtrack?
Either Darrin Verhagen or David Dando-Moore.

Verhagen writes these evocative film scores and dance company soundtracks that are a combination of ambient soundscapes, tribal raves, cataclysmic waves of emotional angst rendered as chaotic noise, and cinematic downtempo stuff. A lot of the first draft of the Lightbreaker soundtrack was huge chunks of his records, under his own name and his various aliases (Shinjuku Thief, Shinjuku Filth, E.P.A.). His work always evokes a lot of imagery and wild scenarios.

Dando-Moore records as Detritus, and his latest record, Fractured, is an smashing collection of Big Beat downtempo instrumentals that make Massive Attack look like a bunch of octogenarians noodling around with primitive tape loops. I wish Hollywood would discover him for the next Bond film, as his tracks would add an extra level of aural eroticism and bang 'n' snap to every scene.

I just watched Michael Mann's Miami Vice again the other night and was quite taken with how Mann used his soundtrack in place of actual scene sound. Having the right guy providing "mood music" can create an emotional impact of a scene that doesn't require words.

Anything else you'd like to say about music and writing/creating?
One of the ideas that I've never been able to figure out how to accomplish effectively is a series of novellas and EPs. Writer and musician produce an object that is a story with a soundtrack. You listen to one while you read the other. Brian Evenson did a spoken word disc for Ant-Zen a couple of years ago called Altmann's Tongue. He read from his stories and Xingu Hill and Tamarin made creepy dark ambient noises underneath. It's a very cool disc. But I'd like to separate the two a little more, and have the music be a pure soundtrack to the reading experience, and not marry it quite so closely to the text. Package it all up in an overly thick DVD case (CD on one side, short book on the other, much like the current PC game cases). I think both writer and musician, provided the pairing is good, could find fuel in the creative efforts of the other. That's what it's really about anyway: fuel for the creative engine.

Nicolas Chevreux at Ad Noiseam has just made available a PDF magazine to accompany Raoul Sinier's latest record, Brain Kitchen. Formatting aside, it's exactly the marriage of art, word, and sound that I was thinking about. Visit the Brain Kitchen.

To learn more about Mark, visit his website.

Next week, I interview author Mandy Roth.

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