Excerpted from The Alternative Hero by Tim Thornton. Copyright © 2009 by Tim Thornton. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What sparked the idea for this book?
The Alternative Hero actually started life as a song: I was going to do a mashup version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” replacing all the too-cool-for-school New York City DJ references with rainswept British indie ones, so: “I was there at the first Can show in Cologne” would become “I was there when Blur supported Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at Kilburn National,” and “I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988” would transform into “I had my first E in a clapped out Vauxhall Chevette in a traffic jam on the way back from Spike Island in 1990”— and so on. But then I happened to spy one of my favorite alternative pop stars having a pint by himself in my local pub on a Wednesday afternoon, and I started wondering what it would be like to befriend him, and to discover howunderwhelming his current lifemight be. So I decided to write a humorous novel that combines the twomusings: what happens when you try to meet one of your heroes, and what happens when you're consumed not only with the suspicion that you might have lost your edge, but that you never really had it in the first place? It's also an unashamed chance to reminisce like mad and slag off Oasis.
How long did it take you to write it?
I was mucking about with it for about two years, then I decided to take it seriously and it was done in about three months. Actually, “I decided” suggests a greater degree of resolve on my part—it was my agent nodding his approval that converted it from a draft of rambling bollocks into the beginnings of a book.
If you met your #1 idol in a pub, what would you do/say?
The trick here is to always say something they’re not expecting. My friend once ambled up to Mick Jones from The Clash and said, “great to meet you, the first Big Audio Dynamite album is one of my favorite albums ever!” After Mick Jones had thanked himand turned to go, my friend hooted, “and The Clash weren’t bad either!” In my case, if I met Miles Hunt from The Wonder Stuff, I’d probably kick him up the arse, tell him to listen to their second album and reacquaint himself with his own lost songwriting skills. Then run away very quickly
What about if you received a letter like the one Clive sends Lance—would you send your henchmen after him?
Ha! The thought of me actually having henchmen is what I find most amusing here. I think what I’d probably do—boringly—is strike up written exchange with the person first, just to check that I was addressing merely a Superfan after five beers too many, and not an escaped patient from the nearestmental secure unit.Without wanting to sound too arrogant, inmy band (Fink), we do get attention from the occasional nutter, but we mostly deal with it by being terribly English, smiling politely, signing whatever body parts are proffered and then garroting voodoo dolls of them in the dressing room afterwards while we finish the last of the rider beers.
What was your schedule like while you were writing this book? Were you performing with Fink at the time? You have a young daughter in the mix now, too, don’t you?
I was doing a fair amount of Fink stuff but I also had an office job where, I can exclusively reveal here, about 80% of the book was written! I’m still friends with them and they’d kill me if they found out and probably sue me for part ownership, so I’d better shut up. But seriously, the schedule for The Alternative Hero was a holiday compared with the one accompanying the writing of my new book. Yes, I have a new daughter—11 months now—and she saw to it that I could only squeeze in writing between nappy changes and visits from the pediatrician.
Do you have a favorite music festival story from your fan days?
Most of them are in the book: the friend who hid underneath a catering van for five hours to get into a festival for free; another being told to stop singing along with a massively loud headline band because his voice was so bad; me (yes, me) waking up from a drunken sleep in the middle of a thousand heavy metal fans and then yelling at them for being boring. Arecent favorite is an old roommate of mine who arrived at a festival, pitched his tent, went off to get drunk and then couldn’ t find his tent. Not just that night, but every night. He slept in other people’s tents, and sometimes just out in the open, every single night until he left the festival five days later. He finally found his own tent on the way out.
What about a favorite festival or show story from your days as a performer?
A really bad one from years ago is when we were booked for a festival on the western islands of Denmark. We arrived after a four hour drive, greeted the chap in charge, and were promptly pointed towards a makeshift stage in a children’s playground and instructed to deliver a practically unamplified 90-minute set in front of a couple of old drunk guys and a horse. I am not even remotely joking.
More recently, Fink showed up for an afternoon festival slot and we literally had to wake everyone—the security guards, the sound engineers, the audience—up. It’d been such a heavy night before, everyone had practically forgotten the festival had a second day. We played to a couple hundred stoners, wrapped in blankets, eating breakfast cereal.
How did the (real) bands wind up in the book? Did you pick and choose? Did any not make the cut?
I’ll be honest—I made a list. Not because I wanted to mention as many bands as possible, but because the telling of the story necessitated constant examples, and I needed a reliable pool of names to pick from, so that they were always relevant and I didn’t repeat myself. Most came from memory—I recall the 1989-1992 indie music period better than almost anything else in my life, it made such an impact on me—but I did have help from friends occasionally. Sometimes I had to consult very basic literature on the subject: one of the book’ s characters appears at two different gigs in towns very far apart, on the same night—so I needed to consult the Melody Maker upcoming gig list from a 1992 issue to find the two most appropriate shows. Not as straightforward as it sounds.
I think most bands get a namecheck, but when I first met the sales chief at my UK publisher, a nice chap who knows his music, he said, “so, d’you mention Spear of Destiny?” Aaargh! The bastard had picked one of the only bands I forgot!
The scene where Clive discovers that the girl he’s on a date with has very different taste in music— and basically ends his romantic evening as a result—is utterly hilarious. Do you feel that a person’ s taste in music is emblematic of who they are? Do differences in musical taste make for bad couplings?
Definitely. Perhaps not at first—one can be blinded by the most preposterous differences in the initial throws of passion—but they’ll certainly bugger up everything soon enough. The scene you mention actually shows Clive doing one of the few mature things he does in the book, which is to take a breath, foresee the future, and stop right there—although as it comes across in the story, he appears to be succumbing to an alarming pretentiousness.
Music is crucial to the relationship question, because music is everywhere. If you have a different film taste, for example, it can be manageable, as long as you remember never to set foot in a cinema together. But wherever you go, whatever you do, you’ll both hear music. And if you’re waiting in line after a hard two hours in IKEA, and Coldplay comes on, and one of you says, “aw, this is great” and the other says, “Christ, not this fucking garbage!”—you’re in trouble.
What’s the deal with Oasis?
It’s too baffling. By virtue of one decent album and the hyperbolic frothings of the British music press, they’ve managed to become—and most mysterious of all, remain—a cool band. Whereas the truth should be transparent to any half clued-up music enthusiast: they’re simply the new Status Quo, as ground-breaking as Billy Ray Cyrus and with all the charisma of a tree stump. More incriminating is Noel Gallagher’s shameless habit of randomly laying into other artists while being interviewed; I’m amazed he doesn’t get a taste of his own medicine more often.
I mean, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Oasis are single-handedly responsible for the decline of British rock music . . . actually, sod it. I am saying that.
Regarding music today – any artists you feel are overhyped, along the lines of Oasis? Any less well known artists/groups that you feel are worthy of more attention yet remain overlooked by the music press?
I’m not overly convinced by this new brand of “easy” soul/pop, as pedaled by the likes of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson. I may have totally missed the point, but I think it takes more than a brash, soully female voice and a few parping horns to make a pop song. I’m pleased to see Elbow doing so well—I think they’ve now made a few inroads in the USA too—and I’m one of the remaining few species on the planet who consider the Arctic Monkeys to be underrated rather than overrated.
I would also quite scandalously offer that Fink’s latest album, Sort Of Revolution, is deserving of far higher praise than it received in the dear old United Kingdom, and I continue to be bewildered by the lack of globe-straddling success awarded to the Danish rock band Kashmir, a group who could squash both Coldplay and Snow Patrol with their flimsiest little fingers and even give a few bruises to the mighty Radiohead.
What music did you listen to while writing THE ALTERNATIVE HERO?
Actually, none of the music that the book talks about. It distracted me. I listened to a lot of Arcade Fire, although I know they’re a bit old hat now, and while I was racing to complete the novel Iwas almost constantly playing In Our Bedroom After The War by another Canadian band, Stars. So you could say The Alternative Hero is part Canadian. Am I allowed to say that?
I gave the old tunes a damn good spin while I was editing, though. It’s funny how some stand the test of time, and some rather painfully don’t. Most surprising was how well Pop Will Eat Itself has aged. Perhaps it’s because it was so rubbish the first time around, now it sounds almost visionary.
What are you working on next?
The official answer is my second novel, Death of an Unsigned Band, which is due out in the UK next summer. It’s a desperately depressing tale of a struggling group who do something rather horrid in order to lift themselves out of their career quagmire. It’s Arthur Miller meets Spinal Tap, or if you like, Albert Camus meets Tenacious D. I don’t think anyone’s agreed to publish it in the USA yet, but then that’s probably because I only finished it about four hours ago.
The unofficial and more truthful answer is actually my third novel, which is about how a seven-year-old UK Top 40 obsessive inadvertently conspires with an escaped lunatic to make his 1981 summer holiday more interesting. I started writing it this very afternoon. No one has agreed to publish it yet anywhere in the world, for fairly obvious reasons.