Dance Prone tells the story of band members in an American post-hardcore punk band, a narrative that plays out of 30-odd years. What drew you to wanting to write about this particular scene in America?
Back in July 2015 I wanted to write something that was close to my heart, something that I knew about intimately. Problem was I had no idea what that was going to be. Then I read a review by Robert Christgau of three different books that had each mentioned a specific gig by US hardcore / indie rock group Hüsker Dü that occurred at CBGBs in the mid-1980s. Christgau, having been at the concert, expressed his disappointment at the ability of any of the authors to capture the way the band’s sheer sonic force had moved him. It was a moment of madness really, I must have been feeling a little cocky but I took this as a sign. Hüsker Dü were one of the key players in the post-hardcore scene in America. They remain one of my favourites. In fact I originally thought I was going to be writing about them . . . that, however, was too hard, so I made up my own group of fools.
I’m a fan of this era of rock ‘n’ roll, it had a huge impact on my life as a teenager and is seminal in regard to how I think about music and musicality. How these work as a driver of personal, artistic and societal change, of identity and memory and all that. I’ve always been attracted to the aggressiveness of this music, the harnessing of anger and violence into something that induces that grand sense of disintegration, a continual breakdown of conformed identity. It is an incredibly honest art form as long as it allows itself to continually change.
Intense communications can exist between a band and its audience, and that intensity is very much present in many of the scenes of Dance Prone. How did you go about capturing the atmosphere and energy of live performance? What were the challenges of attempting this in a lengthy novel?
I spent most of my weekends from the age of 18 until I was about 40 in crappy bars listening to alternative variants of punk and indie and experimental rock. I played in many crappy bands for an embarrassingly long time, used to work in studios and mixed gigs and spent many days and weeks in vans travelling in New Zealand and various different countries. I loved being on stage and I loved being in the audience. I miss both these things immensely. But in saying that it wasn’t a case of nostalgia that had me write the book, but rather a sense of duty towards a form that I am no longer physically able to engage in.
I drew on those years a great deal. I found huge gaps in my memory, specifically when it came to recalling what it was like to be on stage. There was a huge blank in my memory. I asked around and many of my friends from the time had similar gaps. Eventually I put this down to physical and mental stress I used to put myself under on stage. The body goes into a kind of mimicked flight or fight state and I’m guessing the brain doesn’t spend much time storing what’s going on around you. It’s in survival mode. That was my first discovery when I went to write: an absence. So I set about learning to play music again like I did when I was 23, 24. I taught myself how to play the guitar like that again, the way I stood and attacked the instrument. In doing that I was amazed by the recall, not so much of playing, but of people, of venues and smells and bad things and some really good things. Traumas resurfaced (nothing like in the novel, but things that hurt at the time), old aching lines of idiocy. So the act of trying to recall, of playing the guitar to recall, that really informed a great deal of the book’s concerns and even its plot. Memory was, it appeared, hiding in the instrument.
Beyond that, the great difficulty of writing the music scenes was that simply this: music is its own language. It doesn’t need to be written about to exist and communicate. In fact music resists writing all together (unlike cycling, which was incredibly easy to capture). I always used to think watching music should be an intense, physical experience. That people should come away from a rock show bruised and a little disturbed and delighted by the sight of someone else’s blood on their clothes. I guess I used to (and probably still do to some nostalgic extent) think that without that physicality rock music is just a bunch of notes arsing around looking for reason. Hence, I wanted to capture this physical side of the music experience I had when I was younger. I wanted the reader to feel bruised rather than caressed by the presentation of harmony and syncopation.
Personal traumas are responsible for shaping the lives of your characters in Dance Prone, in particular that of the narrator’s, Conrad. Can you talk about the representation of male trauma in your fiction? I note that your first novel, The Invisible Mile, also dealt with the trauma that WWI put many soldiers and countries through.
This is not an easy question to answer. Myself, I tend to live in a state of constant nervous shock. A fight or flight state that doesn’t like to turn off. And it’s condition that derives, I have come to understand, from battling a combination of an anxiety lead by ADD and a severe depressive disorder. I live in fear of this state and have always felt, to some degree, under attack from the world around me. I’d mark this as the root of these investigations into the sufferings and traumas of the characters in these two novels, letting this lived sensation lead the narrative, tugging it by the bridle, gradually trotting it into dark waters ruled by some pretty awful men.
There is a strange ugliness to being a male, an awful weight of power (cultural and physical, potential and realised) that doesn’t sit comfortably. In both books far worse things happen to the female characters that exist in the narrative’s rear-view mirrors than they do to the male narrators. But in both instances it is the narrator that gets the chance to seek grace for their part in the traumas brought upon the women. Whether these characters receive such blessings isn’t known by either novel. What I hope however, is through these acts the text becomes an ally in the undoing of particular patriarchal strictures.
Damaged memory is an important part of the narrative in Dance Prone and you’ve spoken to me about how your own experience with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has impacted not only how you write but what you end up writing. I wondered if you could talk a bit here about how your own health experiences relate to the story you’ve written Dance Prone?
I guess the thing that people do not understand about ME is the cognitive issues that go along with the disease. There is constant, severe exhaustion, yes, and the tiredness is relentless, but that’s only the half of it. The neurological problems (caused by inflammation in sectors of the brain), these, for me, are the real issue. The resulting symptoms are similar to those seen in patients with actual physical, neurological damage. There are times where I can’t speak. There are times where I can’t see. I have violent fits of shakes that I can’t stop. There are times when I cannot make the thought that will tell my body to move. And always, always, I can’t recall or remember the simplest things.
The resulting impairment of memory came to dominate the book, its writing and content, as I found it hard to think about anything else. It’s a constant battle. I probably discarded over 200,000 perfectly good words in drafting this book. And simply because I couldn’t remember what I was doing! Today is a good day, I know what I am doing. But it is very likely I will wake up tomorrow and not remember what I have written, and wipe it out – in this way it is also a pretty violent disease for a writer to have! Which is, in a highly abstracted way, kinda vaguely punk rock . . .
Dance Prone by David Coventry, p/b, $35