In Conversation | John Connolly on ABC to XTC, Kanye West, China Crisis, shouting at Steely Dan & getting rejected by Fever Ray
As author behind the best-selling, critically-acclaimed Charlie Parker series, John Connolly has always found room in that world for musical references, commentary and even curation in the form of themed CDs for specific entries of the narrative.
As host of ABC to XTC on RTE 2XM, Connolly regularly dives into his vast personal collection, serving up gems primarily from the 70s and 80s while throwing out the occasional modern triumph. In the first of a two-part interview following the release of A Song of Shadows – the 13th book in the Parker series – the Dublin native weighs in on everything from that weekly endeavour to the time he raised eyebrows reviewing Kanye West for The Irish Times to braving elitist record store clerks and much more…
You’ve been presenting ABC to XTC for several years now. The original pitch was something along the lines of, ‘There are no guilty pleasures…’
John Connolly: Yeah. I mean, some stuff is crapper than other stuff…
There must be a song on your iPod where it’s like, ‘I would never tell anybody that I love this’.
I have it with me. You can look at it! I’m actually putting together a long essay on music and the music that I love at the moment, which will probably go in the back of a collector’s edition book at some point. What I’ve realised is that I like some stuff that may be considered a little bit wet. My son now loves 80s music. He’s 23, but even when he was in school he had all the Rave Dance 97 and such and even all the girls who were coming home with him were like, ‘Ooh, Human League, Tears For Fears, are they yours?’ and he was like, ‘No’. He eventually kind of resigned himself to it. China Crisis! He will have no fucking truck with China Crisis at all. He just thought it was the wimpiest music.
I’ve never heard them.
What!! Fantastic stuff! They play a gig here at least once a year in the basement of some awful nightclub on Leeson Street.
Are you always there?
I was there! It was great. But he just thought, ‘This… I’ll listen to a lot of what you play, but that’s just shite!’. And at one point they were produced by Walter Becker and so they just ended up sounding like Steely Dan, which I didn’t think was bad because I like Steely Dan.
Who you saw in New York last year, right?
I was there shouting, ‘Get back onstage and play ‘Deacon Blues’!’.
So you’re That Guy. I saw Morrissey last year and it was disappointing that he didn’t play the hits but I wasn’t going to treat him like a jukebox. You’re that guy!
Well, no, I’m not treating them like a jukebox… BUT! It’s ‘Deacon Blues’! It’s like going to see The Rolling Stones and they don’t play ‘Satisfaction’. Just play it! Look, you can play the obscure track from the second album that nobody remembers and you can put a drum solo in and I won’t mind but play fucking ‘Deacon Blues’! It’s not like Donald Fagen is turning to Walter Becker and going, ‘Hey, can we?’ and he’s going, ‘No’. Where does he get off?!
But if you look at A Song of Shadows as a set list in its own right, you’re going to get x amount of you in there but you also have to cater for the fans…
Well that’s like me going into a signing and saying; ‘Right, nobody ask me about Angel and Louis! I’m not answering.’ You’ll get a load of faces just dropping. You accept that that’s part of the deal.
Have you ever been tempted to do that?
What I’ve always wanted to do was to go in and instead of talking, have a sheet full of questions about the books and hand them out to the audience along with a pen and say, ‘Okay, at the end of it, somebody gets to ask a question and they get a book but it has to be from the sheet’. I think they’d get a real kick out of it. They’d think I was nuts, but they’d get a real kick out of it. So to answer your question from earlier, I’m not sure there’s anything I’m appallingly ashamed of on my iPod. I’ve got more Wang Chung albums than Wang Chung probably have, and I quite like Wang Chung!
Apart from China Crisis, what do you most get slagged off for listening to at home?
She’s great, though.
Not in our house she isn’t! ‘You go and listen to that shite in the garden’. I tried playing John Maus but they didn’t have any truck with him either. I don’t have my own room for music, I have to wait for people to be off watching television or something. Oh the new Susanne Sundfør; Ten Love Songs.
She had an excellent song on the Oblivion soundtrack a couple of years ago. You played ‘Memorial’ on the show recently. So despite the old-school premise of ABC to XTC, there’s still room for new music.
Yeah, you can see the connection to that kind of music. And she’s young! She’s in her late twenties and has released five or six albums. One of the tracks I really wanted for the show was ‘Keep the Streets Empty for Me’ by Fever Ray. That’s a great album, just wonderful. She’s one half of The Knife and there’s only a handful of people – literally you could count them on one hand – who, when approached to have their music on ABC to XTC, just flat-out said ‘no’ or just wanted so much money you were like, ‘Give me a break! Kate Bush didn’t want that and she’s Kate Bush!’. Anyone we want to use gets a letter explaining where we’re coming from, why I want to use the track and how much we’re going to pay. It’s not my publisher’s money, it’s my money. Most of the artists I approach find it interesting, they can see the point of that kind of cross-pollination. People who read books also go to movies, they’re generally culturally-informed, so why would they not want to listen to music? And why would you not use this as a way to introduce your music to them? But Fever Ray/Karin Dreijer Andersson said no immediately. Rachid Taha, a Libyan musician, also said no. He did this great version of ‘Rock the Casbah’ that Joe Strummer played on. It’s fantastic! I thought he’d be into the idea but he said no.
I’m really curious to see what a rejection letter from Karin Dreijer Andersson looks like.
We didn’t even get that. All that came through the ether was an icy Scandinavian ‘no’. David Sylvian, who I loved, I grew up loving Japan. I just adored them. I wanted one of his tracks and he wanted three grand or something. Hold on a minute, Jack! Last time I saw you live – and I know your stuff – I didn’t even know what you were singing! It was like going to see Dylan in the 80s! ‘What’s that? Is that ‘Ghosts’? It sounds like ‘Ghosts’ only played through a wardrobe’. You’re not getting three-and-a-half grand of my money, son. Cocteau Twins wanted too much money, also.
As a fan, that kind of rejection must be rough.
Sylvian, I was hurt by. I thought we had something, Dave! But some people are amazing. Kate Bush was like, ‘Yeah, great, what do you want to use?’. It’s the same in any field; the ones who are quite successful and are well-regarded are so for a reason and it’s because they’re not arseholes, they’re not jackasses, they’re decent human beings and they haven’t forgotten where they came from.
You want your favourite musicians to be humble, down-to-earth sorts. On that note, two words: Kanye West.
Ah! When The Irish Times used to have the Album Club and invite people into a room to review an album, I was given My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to review.
What was your history with the man?
I didn’t have any history at all. I quite liked 808s & Heartbreak because it was quite pared back and I guess it was a throwback to the kind of music I love and I could see where it was coming from. I didn’t like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It reminded me of Be Here Now by Oasis, where you’re so in love with yourself that nobody can say no. I got into trouble for saying this but I think there’s a tension between white people liking rap music. It’s like white people going to Public Enemy gigs. It’s like, ‘Hey this is great and it’s great that we can all sit in this room together…’ but that music was not originally meant to speak to you, it’s not meant to be something you can generalise your rage through, it was quite specific. I think I still have a residual discomfort, and maybe it comes from jackasses… I mean, when I’m in the States, the only time I hear rap music is when it’s some guy blaring it from a pick-up truck. It’s become a medal of rebellion for the kind of people who don’t understand it. When I was in South Africa, one of my son’s friends was trying to play me 50 Cent…
For him, though, it was kind of Year Zero. The moment you hear a piece of music you have a connection and it’s, ‘Okay that’s it, he’s my guy now’, and you follow that guy.
I had that with Limp Bizkit and Korn…
Well there’s no excuse for that!
Well the reason I admit it is because it was my Year Zero and I feel I should admit it.
Okay, but you’re over it now?
Fair enough, though that is a particularly awful admission. It’s like saying, ‘The first time I voted, I voted for Mussolini but I got over it after that!’. I remember putting together 10 classic rap albums for my son’s friend; Gil Scott-Heron, De La Soul, Cypress Hill, the first two Public Enemy albums… and I’m not going around with my baseball cap on backwards – I’m the least black person you could meet! – but there’s more to it than this! He was listening to awful white rap bands, rap metal…
Like, say, Limp Bizkit?
Limp Bizkit! Who are just appalling. Fred Durst… I even referenced him in a book; ‘If you’re a man in your 40s and you’re wearing shorts and still not getting on with your parents, the issue is with you, you know?’.
Hey, even back then I thought he was a dickhead.
I think they gave him a record label just so he would stop recording music. ‘Here, go play with this for a while’. Limp Bizkit, though. That’s shocking. But yeah, he was hugely popular at the time. I don’t want to get into a Stalinist revisionism where we start knocking out commissars we’ve executed and excising them from musical history! My own library is filled with things where most sensible people would go; ‘What is that doing there? Did anybody buy that album??’. I love Propaganda. The first Propaganda album is a great example of electronic music and it hasn’t dated and I think it’s awesome. People say they’re shocking but it can’t be that shocking. I bought their 1234 album in Amoeba Music in Los Angeles last summer for 99 cents. Have you ever been to that store? You think the independent record store clerks in here and in London are sneery? You only get to work Ameoba Music if you hate basically everybody who walks into the store.
So it’s High Fidelity?
Oh yeah. They’re much cooler than you are and they’re judging you. And I’m a middle-aged man there with my basket feeling like I should have lettuce and radishes in it, and you place it on the counter and this guy picks up the Propagana record literally like there’s a used condom in there, and he looks at it and goes; ‘You know there’s a reason why this is 99 cents?’. And he looked at me like if he stepped in me, he’d burn his shoes. It’s pretty shocking. So yeah, I have plenty of things that I can’t really stand over in any way, shape or form.
Did you go back to Kanye West after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?
I’m not crazy on that album. Yeezus, which came out afterwards, is this close to being a perfect album.
Well I accept that but I’m also 47 this year. I have no business – and I listen to a lot of new music – I really have no business going in and getting the new Kanye West album. There’s no reason on any level that that album should speak to me, and that’s fine! I bought the new Sufjan Stevens because it’s about death and loss. That speaks to me! I understand that! It’s a beautiful record but you can’t listen to it without feeling sad. It’s gorgeous but there are moments where you’re thinking, ‘This is very difficult…’.
In terms of new music, what has punched you in the chest in a good way?
I do try and keep up. I think it’s to do with… maybe it’s my age but certainly the stage where I am at now with books and with music, I’ve become very conscious of the gaps in my knowledge. There are a lot of books that I haven’t read that I should have read and there’s so much new music coming out that I think it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. I haven’t read all of Dickens, you know? I’m getting there! I’ve never read Lolita. So there are books from 100, 200 years ago that I’m actively trying to read now. With music, I’m aware of these nerve connections that I haven’t made. I’m not good with jazz. I have a limited knowledge of jazz. I have a limited knowledge of classical music. I’ve only recently connected with Van Morrison.
A large back catalogue and a critical pedigree can be quite intimidating if you’re a newcomer, I find.
I think that’s very true. It’s true with books, too. I often hear of people resisting to get into the Parker series because it’s 13 books deep at this stage and they’d rather get in on the ground floor with a newer series because they can be part of the discourse as it happens. I think that applies to Van Morrison, too, for me. I came late to Neil Young, also, but I love them now.
Are you a vinyl guy?
I have vinyl, but I listen to most things on CD or on my iPod. I don’t download. That’s my thing. Books or music. It would be quite rare, maybe if it’s only available in that format. It happened with an American 80s synth band and their lead singer emailed to thank me! At that point, you’re really back at the bottom again, but I thought it was very, very sweet. The most recent things I’ve bought were the Sufjan Stevens and Susanne Sundfør albums. Actually, the other thing I’ve noticed and it’s an awful admission to make, is that I’m much more open to buying music by women than I am books by women. I’m trying to correct that. My bookshelves are very male-dominated but my music shelves aren’t.
Is there any reason?
No, I cannot understand why, but I think it’s quite typical of male readers. Male readers read men and females read everybody.
I find that if I’m trying to list my 10 favourite actors or actresses, I might struggle with the female side and I don’t know how much of that is me and how much of it is the industry and women not getting as many great or memorable roles as men. Am I a misogynist?
It’s a conditioning men have that women don’t have. You have to constantly change. The books I’ve read by women I often love, it’s not like women are an alien species, it’s exactly the same experiences and I spend more time thinking about women than most women do! It’s a vested interest. But it’s a very odd thing. I’m slightly ashamed of it…
* * * * *
Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘You can’t end an interview on that note, it’s much too grim!’, and you’d be right. However, here endeth the musical portion of our sit-down with Mr Connolly. Join us next week for a more book-focused discussion and get his thoughts on gender violence in genre fiction, the impending return of Harper Lee, the end game of the Parker series and a great deal more.