Sam Wiebe On Music

Sam Wiebe‘s latest, INVISIBLE DEAD is out now! (In the US from Quercus) We’d like to thank Sam for this awesome essay. You can follow Sam on Twitter at @sam_wiebe

Music is an age-old shorthand for who we are. It conveys culture, age, taste, values, even behavior. Music’s ability to reveal our deepest and truest character is absolutely ironclad—all Nickelback fans are morally suspect, while fans of Brahms and Dolly Parton tend to be pure of heart. Jazz fans are insufferable. Country fans are dumb.

Do we believe that?

I once heard Mark Billingham say that the “loner detective who listens to music” archetype goes all the way back to Sherlock Holmes, and probably even further. The songs change, but John Rebus’s love of the Stones is essentially the same as Travis McGee’s love of west coast jazz. It signifies something to the reader—introspection, loneliness, a certain refinement of taste. You don’t see Rebus retire to his leather armchair with a bottle of blended to listen to “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”

So there is some relationship between what we listen to and who we are, or how we see ourselves. But music in literature has other uses. It can educate, it can set a tone, add levity or tension or ironic counterpoint. It can also be used to play against our assumptions about others—why couldn’t a brooding detective brood to Shania Twain? It depends on the character and the story.

Invisible Dead is a novel about systemic violence, the kind we often don’t notice or don’t think about. The main character, David Wakeland, sets out to find a missing sex worker, and must eventually confront his own complicity in being part of a city where troubled young women go missing all too often.

In some ways Wakeland is a classic detective; in other ways he’s woefully unequipped for his job. At heart, he’s a young guy living in the Pacific Northwest, with an eclectic taste in music that reflects all of these aspects. Hopefully music helps the reader gain a sense of Wakeland’s character, without quite being able to pin him down.

Vancouver has a lot of great local bands and musicians. Mentioning Frog Eyes or Ross Taggart gives a sense of what makes the city and its people unique. My editor, Craig Pyette, told me Invisible Dead was the only book he’d ever read that made mention of The Hanson Brothers, the hockey-themed side project of hardcore legends NoMeansNo. I take that as a compliment.

The book also mentions the more obscure side of ‘90s alt-rock or grunge. Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Sleater-Kinney—that music has sentimental value for a lot of people, as it does for Wakeland. It’s what he grew up with, and he’s not alone.

Jazz gets a bad rap for being heady and obscurantist. I think it’s the best brooding music ever invented. Female jazz musicians like Ingrid Jensen and Esperanza Spalding are making some of the most interesting contemporary jazz albums. Making this the soundtrack to Wakeland’s investigation was a way to add a feminine note (pun not intended, but I’m keeping it) into a traditionally male-dominated archetype.

Between first draft and publication of Invisible Dead, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds reissued their entire catalogue on vinyl. Before that, though, tracking down good-condition records of Let Love In or The Boatman’s Call was a maddening exercise. Wakeland is a person of few possessions, so the fact that he owns these tells you their significance to him. Without spoiling anything, the records play a small but significant role in the case, and in the all-but-doomed romance he’s caught up in. No one does doom and romance like Nick Cave—I’m listening to Live Seeds as I write this.

I don’t think you can sum a person up by their musical taste, but the music they cherish—what, when, how, and why they listen—tells us something about them, and by extension, about ourselves.