SW Lauden Interview by Matt Morgan and Dave Wahlman
I’m gonna do that thing where scrubs make the interview about themselves. Just give me three paragraphs, please? (DW-It’s called Me and Matty did a thing)
I met Dave Wahlman in Boston about 11 years ago ( DW-11 really? No shit). After about a year in the employment equivalent of the eighth circle of hell, I found myself working at Borders Books to hold us over until the lady graduated. Dave started working there after I was promoted to supervisor (DW- I stole everything). We clicked. He was tattooed, brash, and a little nuts. I wasn’t tattooed. The rest was close. I was the more responsible one, he was the one that would punch people (DW-Fucking shoplift in front of me motherfucker, I dare you). I was drinking a lot of beer, he was a former junky. I kept the brass from firing him when he came back from lunch one evening thoroughly shitcanned, and he kept me laughing (DW-Let’s be real, I bought Class A narcotics off a homeless junkie. I was told I assaulted one of the store managers but I remember nothing except waking up in a cell at a Mass State Police barracks the next day). You can’t pick your family… You know them when you meet them (DW-Matty is my brother from an alternate mother).
Dave brought me into this game (DW-I gots the best Kool Aid bitches). I had legitimately never written any sort of book review…anything. This fucking guy, Dave…he sends me a message a few months back that just says, “Hey, do you still read?” (DW-Matty is a twisted fuck like me, I knew he’d be down).
The rest is whatever passes for history these days (DW-What’s past is prologue). We fell back into old ways. Tons of inappropriate and hilarious text messages have been exchanged. He’s talked me out of some bad decisions and helped me down from some pretty gruesome nights (DW-Matty needs to learn how to choke people or to squat massive amounts of weight or both). I like to think I’ve helped offer him some perspective and sharpened his focus some (DW-Matty has maturity I lack and I’m man enough to admit it). We’ve been talking about doing a project together for months.
S.W. Lauden seemed like the place to start. His Greg Salem novels center around a former punk singer who turned cop…and then kinda…un-turned cop after a controversial shooting. He has some bad mojo around him, and he surfs his way through most of it with his former drummer and recovering junky, Marco, by his side. To some degree, Dave and I are Greg and Marco. Neither of us have any musical talent, of course, but the relationship feels kinda like us. So, we both pitched in here. Please enjoy.
DW: What was the genesis for the character of Greg Salem?
SWL: I grew up near the beach in Southern California. Baseball occupied my time and energy early on, but eventually got replaced by punk rock in my teens. In retrospect, it’s funny how seamless the transition from team sports to the bro vibe of the local punk scene was for me (minus the baseball bats, of course).
I eventually left to get a journalism degree and then spent some time in Eastern Europe. When I came home and started writing for the local paper, I reconnected with people from that original scene before finally moving to East LA for good a few years later. Over the years I’ve watched from a distance as old friends and acquaintances have continued to live the beach life. It got me wondering what my own life would be like if I’d never left. That’s really how Greg Salem came into existence.
DW: What made you choose the world of punk/hardcore?
SWL: I originally sat down to sketch out the Greg Salem trilogy about six or seven years ago. I was reading a lot of Nordic crime fiction at the time, by authors like Jo Nesbo and Arnaldur Indridason, and was really drawn to the social commentary that drives the action in much of their storytelling. I’m also a big fan of the Surf Noir books by Kem Nunn and Don Winslow.
I knew I wanted to write about Southern California beaches and how the blue-collar culture has eroded as more and more money flows into those communities. Punk rock was an obvious jumping off point, but a straight up punk P.I. didn’t seem interesting enough to carry the initial story I was trying to tell. I wanted something that created an internal conflict for the central character. Making him a police officer is a little cartoonish, but put him at odds with his past in a way that I could sink my teeth into. Also, it’s fun to say the phrase “punk rock cop.”
DW: You show L.A. in a light I’ve never seen before, particularly the outlying beach communities which is arguably where hardcore was born. Can you expand on that?
SWL: It really is just a case of me trying to write about, “what I know.” I love the beach and the funky collection of people that it draws. You get the surf rats, the beach bums and the punks, along with multi-millionaires and transplants from all over the world. People flock there for vacations, but it’s also a place to work and live and raise families. All of those intersecting lives create a unique culture where the haves and have-nots sit next to each other at the local Mexican restaurant or bar, play volleyball together at the beach, or ride the same waves. Very few of those people can afford to live steps from the sand, but hanging out at the beach is free.
I was talking to another crime writer recently about how old school punk rock has endured along the beach in LA. It’s like you get handed a mixed tape when you’re eleven or twelve and told that this is your birthright. So there’s a new crop of Black Flag tattoos with every new generation that comes up, even if the original members of those bands are old enough to be their grandparents. There’s something beautiful about the way that lifestyle connects the generations along the coast.
DW: Greg Salem goes from notorious punk rocker to cop. Were there any real life inspirations for him?
SWL: That character was born of the collision of team sports and punk rock that I mentioned earlier. Punk rock has always been a place to explore individualism, but there’s also the potential for unwritten rules to emerge (what bands to like or dislike, how to dress, etc.) that can vary greatly from city to city. Somebody I knew once described the hardcore scene as “sports without refs.” I thought that was pretty funny at the time. Then again, we were drunk.
So, in addition to the obvious juxtaposition of a punk musician becoming a police officer, I liked the idea that Greg was always a cop in one way or another. He’s full of contradictions—fiercely loyal and capable of compassion, but definitely not above turning to violence whenever he succumbs to his own demons. Or at least that’s what I was going for. I hope it comes across.
DW: With a backstory steeped in hardcore, how involved were you with that scene?
SWL: My friends and I were more fans than “part of the scene” when we were teenagers, mostly because we were a little younger than the bands we looked up to. Punk rock was like a portal to the beating heart of rock and roll for me. That was initially about all of the Los Angeles and Orange County bands—Black Flag, X, Gun Club, The Dickies, Circle Jerks, Descendents, Social Distortion, Adolescents, TSOL, etc.—in addition to the first-wave English and New York bands like Sex Pistols, The Damned, New York Dolls and The Ramones.
My tastes began to change at the end of high school and beginning of college. I got more into post punk and Indie bands like The Replacements, Husker Du, The Pixies and, of course, Nirvana. Once the lid got ripped off, music became a little like time travelling from Big Star, Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Cheap Trick and The Stooges, to Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Fugazi and Jawbreaker—and pretty much anything and everything in between, with an emphasis on glitter, glam and power pop. I really love a good hook.
MM: Is there a particular band that, in your mind, BCC sounds like?
SWL: You better believe I’ve given this some thought. I think the answer depends on whether your asking Greg Salem (lead vocals), or his older brother Tim (guitar). Bad Citizen Corporation is not as heavy/aggro/dissonant as Black Flag, but that’s the direction Tim would have taken their sound if left to his own devices. Greg, on the other hand, always had a bit more of a pop streak, so he would probably lean toward Descendents—still punk, but a few more songs about broken hearts with plenty of killer hooks. Taking those main influences into account, and considering the era the band was set in, I think Pennywise would also be a pretty good fit for both of them.
I’d honestly be more interested to know what you pictured when reading the book(s)?
MM: Frankly, I was thinking Pennywise or some of the less-political Bad Religion stuff…So, looks like I read them right. For fun: Tim and Greg are asked to curate a music festival. What acts do they immediately agree on? What acts cause the largest arguments?
SWL: That’s a tough question, since Tim’s been dead for a long time. If this were happening in the late 90s, toward the end of Bad Citizen Corporation’s run as a band, Black Flag probably wouldn’t even be an option—but that’s who they’d both want to headline. They’d also agree on Descendents, Pennywise, X, Bad Religion, some version of Circle Jerks and probably whatever band Mike Watt had together at the time. They might argue over Social Distortion, mostly because Tim wouldn’t want them to play anything after “Mommy’s Little Monster.” Greg would also want to include more contemporary bands like Red Aunts, Lagwagon and Fugazi. Tim would insist on The Misfits, TSOL and Bad Brains. There would be heated words over pop punk bands, and there might be a reggae side stage.
DW: How much research did you do into rural weed growing?
SWL: I dug around online and read some fascinating articles, but the weed operation was really secondary to the cult aspect for me. There’s a dark side to the Hollywood star machinery that preys on broken dreams and failure. It might be the reason we have so many good-looking bartenders and cater waiters in Los Angeles, but it could also give you drug dealers and streetwalkers with theater degrees.
DW: I know backwoods weed growing can be vicious. I kept hearing Copperhead Road in my head as I read Grizzly Season. Does it really get as bad as land mines?
SWL: “Copperhead Road” is a complete novel all on its own!
Things can get pretty out of hand in that world, and lord knows people will go to some crazy extremes to protect their cash crop. That said, I really hang my hat on the fact that I write fiction and will sometimes make choices solely for dramatic effect. It might just be a funny quirk in my writing, but it’s important to me that the stories maintain a sense that almost anything is possible—even if I don’t always pull it off. I hope it works for the people who read my books.
DW: Will weed ever be legal in California?
SWL: I honestly find it amazing that it’s not legal already.
DW: Magnus Ursus has a real Charlie Manson vibe. Intentional or accidental?
SWL: Manson has loomed large in the dark corners of LA’s counterculture for decades, as an object of adulation, fascination or morbid curiosity. It’s hard to imagine writing about a cult set in Southern California without drawing on the strange folklore that surrounds his clan and the heinous crimes they committed.
That said, I also wanted Magnus to be a bit more of a huckster. His background isn’t so much rooted in black magic or spoiled hippie idealism, as it is in good old-fashioned money-hungry opportunism. He’s as much a businessman as he is a cult leader—and a sick son of a bitch with one hell of a violent streak.
MM: As a guy that was surprised by a pregnancy, I found it interesting that Greg didn’t freak out to the degree that I did. Can you discuss the relative ease with which it seems Greg accepts impending fatherhood?
SWL: That was tricky to write about, mainly because he’s already dealing with so much other intense shit in GRIZZLY SEASON. Without giving too much away, I think it’s important to note that six months elapses between the moment Greg gets the news and the next time we get to hang out with him. He’s past the shock and on to worrying about how he’s going to support a family without a steady pay check. That part definitely freaks him out!
MM: Sometime between the publication of BCC and GS, we began to be inundated with videos of police officers shooting unarmed civilians. How much, if any, did current events inform your treatment of Salem’s shooting?
SWL: It’s a cliche that writing is about making choices, but I’m learning it’s true. I inadvertently set an interesting challenge for myself by having a couple of over-arching storylines that unfold over the course of three books, in addition to the immediate mystery and action. One of those is Tim’s death, and the other is the police shooting involving Greg.
In hindsight I realize what a risk I took as a debut author because readers didn’t know whether or not I’d deliver on those promises. I wasn’t trying to write “ripped from the headlines crime fiction” and I wasn’t trying to be a tease, it’s just how the story spun out from my head. So it’s understandable that a few people were frustrated by the lack of resolution around the police shooting in “BCC.” I hope those readers, and others who are new to the series, will be satisfied with how those threads continue to play out in GRIZZLY SEASON.
DW: Do you have a complete arc in mind for Greg Salem or are you just seeing where he goes?
SWL: The arc for the three original Greg Salem stories was pretty much figured out from the jump, but things have evolved over the course of actually writing the books. For example, Greg’s sidekick, Marco, didn’t really exist as a fleshed-out character until something like the fourth or fifth draft of BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. I thought Greg was turning out to be a little self-serious (which is not uncommon for lead singers), but it became clear to me that he needed some comic relief. Luckily, I had a junkie drummer hanging around who fit the bill perfectly. Writing lines for Marco really let’s me tap into the brain-dead drummer that dwells inside of me.
MM: You’ve mentioned that you established overarching themes for the Salem trilogy. Any Grizzly Season reader knows something about where we are headed in book 3, but with the working title of HANG TIME, is it safe to assume that we will get to spend some time examining Greg’s younger days, including his brother’s death?
SWL: Yes and no. Since this was originally planned as a three-book series, there has to be some satisfying resolution around the overarching story lines. And for those readers who enjoy the punk/rock band aspects of the Greg Salem books, it looks like there will be a lot of that in HANG TIME—which is good for me because it’s fun to write.
At least that’s the intent. I’m really trying to let Greg lead the story and show me how it should end, which adds a wildcard element. It’s interesting to think that the final product isn’t 100 percent in my control, since all of this came out of my head, but that’s how it feels at times—like a collaboration with a fictional character. Writing is weird.
MM: Hang on…you just said, “…originally planned as a three-book series…” Have plans changed?
SWL: Wait. You’re actually reading my responses?! That’s NOT what we agreed on.
I plead the fifth.
MM: Greg is largely based on an incorrectly reassembled jigsaw puzzle version of yourself as a lead singer…but Marco is the drummer. How much of you is in Marco? He’s an exceptional character (and I’m happy that you expanded his involvement). Can you discuss the genesis/growth of Marco?
SWL: The jigsaw puzzle includes pieces from my own experience, in addition to pieces of people I’ve known, people I’ve admired, and a few people I’ve disliked over the years. But broad strokes? Greg and Marco combined are a pretty accurate representation of my personality—totally in control meets totally out of control.
The funny thing is that I’m actually a drummer, so my perspective on musicians and bands is very much from Marco’s vantage point. And I have definitely embraced some similar drummer clichés over the years, especially if you like Keith Moon from The Who and Animal from The Muppets.
These days I’m probably more like Greg, simply because I finally out grew most of my self-destructive tendencies a few years back.
MM: Who was the better drummer: Keith Moon or Animal? (We’re talking full package here, not arbitrary things like “musical ability.”)
SWL: Aren’t Keith Moon and Animal one in the same? I always assumed that Animal was based on him. Either way, I’m going with Keith Moon. That guy was so perfectly imperfect in every possible way, and one hell of a showman. A true example of what a human being sounds like playing an instrument to the absolute best of his ability, and making a lot of original choices along the way. And I’m not just talking about all of the later concept rock The Who made. His drumming on early songs like “I Can’t Explain” and “Pictures Of Lily” is mind-blowing.
MM: Can you talk a little bit about Junior and Eddie? The influences that created them as characters and the path that the development of those characters has taken? I mostly ask because I have a crush on Junior. And, at least 20% of that crush is because I want to be Eddie’s son in law…
SWL: I decided not to give Greg any immediate family, so I needed some solid characters to keep him grounded to his blue collar roots. In my head, Junior is Greg’s past and his present—always there to check his ego and remind him who he really is. Eddie is a flawed father figure who provides a glimpse of Greg’s possible future as an elder statesman in his hometown. Junior could be his future too, if he ever stopped dating twenty-somethings and went with the girl that has been there for him all along.
I love that you have a crush on Junior, but is it possible that you just want to inherit the “L Bar?” It’s cool, you can be honest with me. I won’t tell her…
MM: Hell no. People get shot there, man. You have recurring themes of substance abuse and addiction in the Salem books. Can you discuss your personal experience with these illnesses?
SWL: Drugs and alcohol are hopelessly intertwined with the history of rock and roll. So the substance abuse in BCC and GRIZZLY SEASON is meant to explore the dark side of that lifestyle and the lasting effects it has on family, friends and the music scene as a whole.
Personally I was like a less extreme version of Marco, but for Greg it’s something completely different. He was a straight edge kid with some pretty serious anger issues as a young man. He didn’t even start drinking until after his junky brother died, but it’s been a struggle for him ever since.
MM: Are the support settings (like, paddleboard AA) based on things that you or others in your circle have experienced? Do you believe in the 12-step programs? With Greg’s on/off-ness, it can be hard to tell.
SWL: As far as I know I made those paddleboard sobriety meetings up, but you never know. They aren’t AA meetings, strictly speaking, but there are hundreds of twelve step meetings in Southern California on any given day—so why not get sober on the ocean, right? Seems like a great way to work that nervous energy out of your system, and it makes it harder to overdo it on coffee and cigarettes.
I personally believe that people should do whatever it takes to be comfortable in their own skin. AA works for some people I’ve known, but so does tennis, therapy, religion, playing music, bouldering, knitting, reading or writing violent crime fiction— whatever it takes to stop destroying your own life and the lives of those around you. Get rad on your own terms.
And stay in school, kids.
DW: I loved BCC. It felt like the raw demo of a band. GRIZZLY SEASON feels like the same band with an indie label behind them so the story is still raw but polished somewhat. How has your writing evolved between books?
SWL: Thanks so much, man. I think you’re on to something with that demo analogy.
I’m guessing that BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION has that vibe because I was honestly writing it for myself. At that point, the outlines for books two and three seemed like a pipedream. But then I started poking around the publishing world a little and decided that I should at least try to see if a small press or agent would be willing to take a look at it. I was pretty thrilled when a winding path littered with rejections eventually led me to Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Books.
Writing GRIZZLY SEASON was a different challenge because I put a lot of pressure on myself to make Greg evolve in a way that felt real to me given all of the terrible things that happened to him and his friends in BCC. Doing that while trying to maintain a similar tone and voice was difficult to navigate, but I’m hoping it forced me to grow a little as a writer. Time will tell. I’m currently working on the third Greg Salem book—with the working title of HANG TIME —and so far it hasn’t gotten much easier. The struggle is real!
DW: I came to Rare Bird Books through a book called HEAVY by JJ Anselmi. Rare Bird is a really cool company. How did you find them or vice versa?
My connection with Rare Bird came through another LA publisher, Prospect Park Books. I’d sent them my manuscript and one of the suggestions in their feedback was that I submit it to Rare Bird Books because of the dark subject matter and punk angle. They were kind enough to introduce me to Tyson and we’ve been working together ever since.
Tyson and I are both musicians and we have a lot of the same influences and experiences in common. It also seemed like he understood Greg Salem without much explanation, which was important to me. I’m really happy that this series found the right home with Rare Bird.
MM: Rare Bird had two novels release, in quick succession, featuring protagonists stumbling upon rural marijuana crops. The novels (yours and LET THE GOOD PREVAIL by the Miller brothers) have little in common other than that feature and high quality, but I’m curious if there was ever a discussion with your publisher about the similar set-ups.
SWL: I noticed that too and thought it was funny. I haven’t discussed it with Tyson and I haven’t read LET THE GOOD PREVAIL, so I have no idea how two books with some similar themes came out back-to-back from the same publisher. One thing’s seems certain: If you want to write a novel about illegal growing operations set in California, you’ll probably want to do it sooner rather than later. I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before marijuana production, distribution and sales will go corporate.
DW: What are you listening to these days? What are you reading these days?
SWL: If my kids are in charge, which they usually are, I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift, 21 Pilots and Ed Sheeran. One artist I’ve gotten into on my own in the last couple of years is a talented and prolific Indie rocker named Ty Segall. And I really like Frank Turner, an English troubadour who straddles the line between the punk and folk worlds. I’m also a pretty big Ryan Adams fan.
Recently I’ve also gotten back into The Replacements catalogue because I have a story in the upcoming anthology, “Waiting To Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak Inspired By The Replacements.” The collection was edited by Jay Stringer and will be available from Gutter Books on Oct. 15.
As for books, I do weekly author interviews on my blog, so I devour a lot of amazing Indie crime fiction. Some great recent reads include “Under The Dixie Moon” by Ro Cuzon, “Nothing Short Of Dying” by Erik Storey, “Genuinely Dangerous” by Mike McCrary and “Iron Goddess” by Dharma Kelleher. In the last year I’ve also really enjoyed “All Involved” by Ryan Gattis, “Young Americans” by Josh Stallings and “Cry Father” by Benjamin Whitmer. There are a lot of other authors I could mention here (Joe Clifford, Rob Hart, Sarah M. Chen, Danny Gardner, Eric Beetner, Tom Pitts, etc.), and my TBR pile is growing every day.
Thanks for having me!