Andrew Stevens interviews Erik Morse.
EM: I conducted a lengthy interview on the subject of “noise” with Tav a few years ago, a feature that would be printed in Betsy Sussler’s Bomb Magazine. During our numerous conversations, it became apparent that we shared a particular philosophy toward art and “underground” culture that would lend itself to an interesting collaboration. When the opportunity arose to publish something for Creation, it seemed appropriate that we do some kind of creative text together. Ultimately, while we did lots of the research as a unit, the idea of splitting the “book” into two volumes, the first his history and the second my novella, found its way to the surface.
EM: This particular musical lineage is certainly a factor in both books. I’ve always been drawn to aural experiences that are atmospheric — those kinds of sounds that might emanate from oceanic tides, violent weather patterns, radioactive weaponry, or the inexplicable EVPs of a haunted house, etc. — but also intimately connected to the secret rhythms of the body — the beat of the heart, the insufflation of the lungs, the spasm of the bowels, all of which produce varying audible frequencies. Bands like Spacemen 3 and Panther Burns are two modern, “rock-ist” manifestations of this human fascination with psycho-acoustics, or, maybe, the human desire for sound-worlds. And these aural experiences can be traced back through thousands of years of human activity from the Celtic bagpipe or Javanese gamelan, the West African Griot or Japanese Gagaku traditions, the radiophonic glossalalia of Antonin Artaud, et cetera, where the aesthetic distinctions between sound and music are often elided. Of course, for my part of Mondo Memphis, I was also interested in bringing a certain noirish literary tradition into this psycho-acoustic narrative. Because there is something quite sinister and even deadly about extreme sound-worlds.
3:AM: To what extent were you a fan of Tav’s work?
EM: I’d been a fan of Panther Burns for a few years. I should add that I wrote the Spacemen 3 book while a college undergrad, so I was still learning and absorbing massive amounts of musical history along the way. But Tav’s work really struck something deep inside me, as did a lot of Memphis-based music — Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Elvis, Charlie Feathers, James Carr, Chris Bell, Otis, Isaac Hayes. I am seduced by certain kinds of musical production, so a good slap-echo or tremolo or spring reverb can be a narcotic experience for me.
3:AM: Tav’s from Memphis, but you’re not. What brought you in?
EM: No, I am not from Memphis, but I am a Southerner. So I was both an outsider and an insider, a tourist and a native. The music of Memphis certainly was what drew me, at least initially, to exploring the city’s history. But, simultaneously, I was digging into a lot of urban theory and literature, predominantly Eurocentric texts like Benjamin’s Arcades Projects, the Situationist tracts of Debord, Sloterdijk‘s Spheres trilogy, Baudrillard‘s America. With the exception of the last in this series, all of these seminal texts on urban space were dedicated to the European experience. Even American writers who explored the urban focus almost exclusively on the coasts — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Aside from the works of particular noir writers or noir-inspired artists, like, for example, Jim Thompson, William Eggleston, Harmony Korine or Cormac McCarthy, there were few cultural artifacts dedicated to the suburbanized metropolises of Middle and Southern America. I don’t mean the traditional literature of the American South. The Huck Finn-lineage. I mean a kind of postmodern literature of the South that celebrates intertextuality, technologization and decay, boredom and artifice, tourist culture.
3:AM: Dreamweapon, for a rock biography, was unusually concerned with Bataille. You mention your intentions with Situationism in an American setting and the book refers to the psychogeography of Memphis. A progression, perhaps?
EM: I think the concept of Situationism, for the purposes of our little book, was just an umbrella term or perhaps a narrative reference for some kind of alternative, “underground” history — a history from the streets, which would look quite different in Memphis than it would in Paris. Nothing we wrote attempted to engage with theory, particularly my contribution, which was fiction. I suppose Bataille’s novellas had some sort of influence on me when writing Bluff City. But likely his biography as well. The Acephale and College de Sociologie were imbued with themes of secret societies, the occult, ritual, performance. These are all a part of the American Southern Gothic tradition, though the tradition is often remanded exclusively to a pre-modern, non-urban South. In point of fact, many of the Gothic, ritualized practices of the “Old South” still exist in cities like Memphis and New Orleans. And it’s through this form of cartographic study — of underworlds, clubs, neighborhoods, trade routes — that we were able to discover them.
3:AM: Bobbie Gillespie’s a fan of the book. The Primal Scream LP Give Out But Don’t Give Up was drenched with the Memphis vibe, from the cover down to the Horns. Yet their next suite of albums were more laced with urban commentary.
EM: I love that album, though from I what understand, it received quite a lot of bad press at the time, likely because it was the follow-up to Screamadelica. In retrospect, I think Screamadelica is a much more “dated” entry in their discography. I don’t know how much of an influence Kevin Shields had in those later albums, but it’s apparent he brought something hard, edgy and urban to a band that had gone through many different phases of experimentation. Something I think is admirable.
3:AM: It’s interesting you mentioned Harmony Korine earlier. There was, of course, the J. Spaceman soundtrack for Mister Lonely and I suppose you could draw lineage between him, with Julien Donkey-Boy, and Werner Herzog, who had his own recent take on Southern Gothic in the form of Bad Lieutenant, albeit in a Nawlins setting.
EM: I attended a Herzog talk at NYPL some years ago and I thought he was the most extraordinary thinker. Though he never read Heidegger, his philosophical proximity to something like Being and Time was uncanny. It’s interesting to see the connections between Harmony and Herzog, because on paper they could not be more different. Herzog seems to be part of this very Wagnerian, blood and soil tradition; he loathes irony and postmodernity, and stubbornly seeks the ‘larger’, more metaphysical questions. Korine, on the other hand, began as a kind of enfant terrible hipster, documenting New York street punks and producing those highly affected, art-action docu-films. I think perhaps they have a shared interest in the limits or edges of the human — something that, critically speaking, might be called the post-human. Those animal-like creatures — the freaks — dispossessed by cultural normativity and forced to inhabit the margins. But I think that Harmony is actually much more influenced by Eggleston and his Stranded in Canton project. They are both native Southerners living in Tennessee, traveling through its suburbs documenting a transmundane population — those ‘unheroic’, insignificant figures who are not the typical subjects of regional literature, film or art.
3:AM: Did you have any input into Tav’s book Ghosts Behind Sun, which concentrated on the musical underbelly of the city?
EM: Some. We did a lot of research together, unearthing lots of archival information of forgotten crimes and scandals, shuddered restaurants and clubs, lost heroes and villains. We also conducted loads of interviews with all of these extraordinary figures who embodied very different, but synchronous, histories of Memphis. A lot of these people were transformed into fictional characters in my novella.
3:AM: Having written for frieze, Bookforum, The Believer, MOJO, Wire etc. your previous work was cultural criticism but Bluff City is, as you say, a novella. How did you make that leap?
EM: I appreciate that you consider the Spacemen book cultural criticism and not just biography. There’s often a stigma attached to “rock books”; namely, that they are vacuous, cut-n-paste jobs assembled from capsule reviews that feature little original thought or research. A glorified press release. I suppose lots of them are. For me, writing about music is just one particular heuristic in which I can explore limit-experiences, like narcosis, sensoria, psychotopology, glossolalia. But fiction and “theory” have always been my true literary passions. And those writers who merge the two, Bataille, Blanchot, Benjamin, Pynchon, Nabokov, Artaud, continue to inspire me most.
3:AM: How did you arrive at the Memphian noir motifs which adorn the book, “the Elvis conspiracist, the rock musician cum alchemist, the rockabilly femme fatale who might be a prostitute, hired gun or ghost”, highway motels, secret societies and so on?
EM: I was writing from a certain outsider’s perspective of Memphis, an artificial experience conjured by and sustained for the consumption of the tourist. Sometimes I think there is too much emphasis on the value of authenticity when it comes to narratives of the South. The farmer hero, sons of the soil, the courtly gentleman, the religious zealot. But a city like Memphis, as an idea or as a narrative, is as indebted to the tourist attraction or fantasy as it is to the populist’s history. A history from the street can be as much a projection of desires, fantasies and connivances as it is a ‘real’ description of the past. Jim Jarmuch’s Mystery Train is a great example of this discursive indissolubility. The myth of Memphis was what lured musicians like Charlie Patton, B.B. King, the Presley family, Johnny Cash, etc. etc. to travel there. It promised a certain urban dream to poor farming families throughout the region, like so many cities which draw outliers from the far nooks of the world with promises of a better life. I’m intrigued by these fantasies and how they often disintegrate into nightmares. And what you have left are these simulacra of the American dream.
3:AM: Any final words before the tape runs out?
EM: During work on the Memphis book, I rediscovered an obsession I had since childhood for exploring the psychological expressions of interiority. Memphis, as a nexus of various Southern geographic landmarks, like the Mississippi River, the railroads, migration pathways from Mississippi up to the North, is always illustrated as an exteriorized environment. Again, the Huck Finn effect, the South as a series of natural, wide-open spaces. But, in reality, like so many other urban centers, the story of Memphis is also based on famous and infamous interior spaces, what I like to think of as hyper-interiors, to borrow Baudrillardian terminology. For example, the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, Graceland, the recording rooms of Sun Studios or Stax Records, the narrow sliver of Beale Street, the Monarch club. Despite their larger-than-life roles in Southern history, these places are all cloistered or inside spaces, often much smaller and exclusive than one might imagine. History is often produced in very small spaces. Again, this observation forced me to think of the narrative of place as the result of an architectural fabrication.
Now, in the same vein, I’m working on a novel based on the early twentieth century mansions of California. For all of the descriptions of LA as a sprawling, horizontal metroplex, there is an incredible emphasis on interiorizing the frontier throughout its history, so you have the eschewing of the train system for the automobile/interstate, the proliferation of the roadside motel, the increasing popularity of the Hollywood sound-stage over exterior location shooting. Some of California’s most extraordinary stories come as a result of its excessive architecture, either in the form of mansions like Greystone or Winchester or the Ennis House or in the master-planning of Disneyland or Hollywoodland or even the Bonaventure Hotel, which Fredric Jameson so eloquently described as the site of a new postmodern space. There is a vital link between the suburbanization of the South and the West. It is in the increasing enclosure and domestication of the frontier.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is Cities Editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 31st, 2012.