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A Musical Journey with David Mitchell and Hari Kunzru

Throughout our online event with English novelists David Mitchell and Hari Kunzru on July 23, many of us found ourselves frantically jotting down misspelled names of musicians, albums, and obscure musical genres as we tried to keep up with their listening recommendations.

Mitchell, who has most recently penned the psychedelic rock portrait Utopia Avenue, and Kunzru, the author of White Tears, are old friends. The two have spent years swapping music to write to—first, through the mail and then digitally. To keep score, we’ve transcribed some of their thoughts about music from the late Sixties and beyond, bolding musicians, band names, and album titles for easier reading.

Beyond their answers to the questions below about music to write to (and music to write about), you can find songs from, and in the spirit of, Utopia Avenue, compiled by David Mitchell, in the following Spotify playlist:

Why were you drawn to write about the late Sixties? 

David Mitchell: As you know, the music in ’67 and ’68 was a very fertile time. The band I wanted to hypothesize or curate or create couldn’t have plausibly existed before ’67—it has this hybrid of folk, pub, R&B, and psychedelia, with a swinging Ginger Baker jazz drummer, which couldn’t have been proposed in ’64 or ’63. They would have been implausibly ahead of their time. And then, in ’67, ’68, on and above the surface of things, music and counterculture and politics were interacting—they had this feedback loop with one another. Music was a medium of transmission…

One of the things that a novel is is a time machine. It’s a form of wish fulfillment. I was born too late to have been immersed in that SoHo milieux, in that time. Not a chance now, it’s gone, and was long gone even before they would have let me in. But to recreate it in fiction, to recreate it in reading—well, it’s the closest I can get to it.

How do you get the texture of the 1960s to feel so accurate?

David Mitchell: [To Hari] Have I told you my idea of the IWATH during our twenty years acquaintanceship at all? An IWATH is a semi-acronym for “I was there,” and it’s a word I need to describe one of these little facts or experiences or sensory things that only someone who’s in a given area of human activity, or in a time and place, or in a vocation could know. It’s not the kind of thing you can find easily by looking at a Wikipedia page. And I’ve found the magic number is three. If you’ve got 3 IWATHs in a scene, it kind of smacks of authenticity.

Were there musicians that inspired the characters in the novel?

David Mitchell: I wish I had Hari’s phrase for [the character of] Jasper—that he just sort of floated in from space. So there’s a sort of Bowie-ness to him there, there’s a sort of Nick Drake rawness and introspection, flashes of Hendrix. It’s fantasy football but for bands, really. [The character of] Elf is much more so Sandy Denny. There a good biography of her called I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn. Then Ginger Baker and his jazz sensibility fit into my drummer, Griff. [The character of] Dean is very Ray Davies drawn.

Hari Kunzru: The other one for Jasper I was wondering—do you know Skip Spence, his record Oar? He was in Moby Grape, a West Coast psych rock band. He had a breakdown and was institutionalized, and while he was institutionalized, he made a solo record which is very strange and fractured… it’s a very, very beautiful record.

David Mitchell: This has been a great session for your recommendations alone! You’ve done it again, dude, thank you so much. I was slightly thinking of Fairport Convention as well. I like their youthful lack of preoccupation with “what genre are we.” That’s something I feel that a writer needs as well.

I still kind of feel bemused by notions that, for example, you can’t have an immortal in literary fiction. You can’t have a dragon here, because dragons disqualify you from being able to occupy a certain shelf in the bookshop. Surely it all depends on what you do with the dragon. These late Sixties bands just didn’t worry about genre at all, and I love that spirit and tried to infuse that spirit into Utopia Avenue.

Can you speak about the influence of music in your writing?

David Mitchell: It’s both nothing and everything. It’s nothing because I’m a writer and I rarely—I guess until this book, which is about nothing but music at one level. That was its core mission statement: How can you dance about architecture? How can you make a film about a writer? How can you write about music?

And so, music’s influence on this particular book—the book wouldn’t exist without music, so it’s kind of above influence. But at the same time, it’s a very different art form, so it’s also true that it has not much influence at all, I guess—maybe the composer sections of Cloud Atlas.

Yet, the pendulum swings back. Music is my home art form. I listen to it every day, and every day has it. I’ve listened to music all my life, as have we all, and the number of things that music is, the things that music is for, has multiplied down the decades.

Are you consciously choosing which music to write to?

Hari Kunzru: I wrote a novel called White Tears, which is about ’20s and ’30s blues music, and obviously I lived inside that for several years and it became a kind of increasingly weird and cosmic space for me… There’s a set of pieces of music that seem to produce a kind of concentration in me, and they don’t officially change with each book. For a long time, it was the Brian Eno thing that David mentioned. And then for many years, David and I have been swapping writing music. And my observation is that David’s writing music does make me feel it relates to him as a human and as a writer. There’s a lot of space. He likes things with delicate connections. He often sends me solo piano pieces.

David Mitchell: You have reciprocated very fruitfully with Kankyō Ongaku, the Japanese ‘80s Fairlight synthesizer composers.

Hari Kunzru: Yeah, everybody should go seek this out. It’s a 1980s genre of Japanese environmental music, largely made for the background of shops and things like that, that people have started to re-release.

What are you listening to right now?

David Mitchell: [speaking to Hari] You got me into Brian Eno. You got me into Music for Airports all those years ago. And you did say something very cool, which was: it’s stimulating enough to drip-feed artistic, creative essence into you, but it’s not interfering enough to pull you out of it. It’s perfect writing music. I’ve recently discovered Rostam Batmanglij. He was a multi-instrumentalist for Vampire Weekend. His new solo album [Half-Light] has influences from his Persian background and from elsewhere as well. It’s a beautiful piece of work.

Hari Kunzru: I just got a record deck for the first time in a long time and all my old vinyl from London I’ve been reunited with after about a decade… I’ve been listening to Michael O’Shea, a London-Irish Soho character who was a street musician in the late 1970s. Two members of Wire came across him busking on a corner on a homemade zither. They gave him an open invitation to record at their studio, and he didn’t turn up and he didn’t turn up. Then one day, without warning he arrived at the studio and said “I’m ready to record.” And they pressed play on this thing, and he made this extraordinary, ethereal, hour-long improvisation.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Posted in SAL PresentsSpecial Events2020/21 Season