Air Guitar chronicles Josh Denslow’s attempts to understand his life by paying close attention to the soundtrack. Just like in the movies, the music tells you everything.
Those first few minutes before I write (anything) are filled with desperate attempts by my brain to find something to distract me. This desk is too messy to write, I should color coordinate the spines of my books. Or: I wonder what it would taste like if I mixed Frosted Mini-Wheats and Chocolate Cheerios in a bowl with milk? (I eat a lot of cereal.) The worst black hole in which to plummet is to look at the recent responses from online and print literary journals listed on Duotrope or to check my Submittable account to see if any of my submitted stories have gone from Received to In Progress (as if that will tell me anything).
Side note: I checked both of those sites the moment I finished that paragraph. And I SERIOUSLY considered the cereal mix.
Some distractions are inevitable though, so I don’t fight them. Before I begin anything, I read all of the reviews posted on Pitchfork that day and then listen to some of the songs. I link to emusic to save what I like for future download (I’m stingy with my emusic credits and never impulse buy there) or I save the albums to my Amazon wish list. I also read the Official Mystery Science Theater 3000 website which isn’t music related but I’ve been doing that for over ten years, and I don’t plan to stop any time soon. If you’re a fan of the show and are impressed by such things, I have every box set of episodes that they have released to date. But I digress.
Now I’m almost ready to write. But there’s one last thing. I may take up to a half-an-hour to figure out what to listen to. I need something that will fit the mood of the piece. (Not really, but that’s what I tell myself. I mostly like scrolling through my iTunes library.) Here’s one rule I have for writing music: NO LYRICS. Since my brain is always looking for an excuse, I’ll let the lyrics interfere with my process. And by process I mean doing whatever I possibly can to get words on the page each day. I have an 80% success rate.
Over the years I’ve cultivated quite the collection of instrumental rock and jazz and metal and some really weird stuff in-between. Of possible interest: To write this column I listened to Nisennenmondai, a hypnotic Japanese “girl” band that I saw open for Battles a few months ago.
One of my major music accomplishments was that I got Rebecca to open up her palette and allow some truly beautiful instrumental bands in. Her favorite is one of the most achingly lovely, most played bands in my collection: Mono. I can now put links on her Facebook wall about the new Mono release (this September, by the way) and she will respond with things like: I.AM.SO.EXCITED. We had a conversation last night about how much we would pay for tickets to see them perform with an orchestra. Neither of us blinked at $150 each. My heart swoons.
Instrumental has now become synonymous with writing. With being creative. I listen to Mogwai in the car and think about a story I started that morning. While walking at lunch, I have The Benevento/Russo Duo on in my headphones and become excited again (finally) for the rewrite of my novel. And at night, when I’m getting ready for the next day and Rebecca is doing a relaxing yoga pose (!), Mono plays in the background, summoning a slow building excitement for the fresh start the new day will bring.
Here’s the mix I made Rebecca a few years ago that turned the instrumental tide:
1. Your Hand in Mind by Explosions in the Sky
(They have the loud/soft formula down, but I really love the martial snare hits. And unlike a lot of instrumental rock bands, they have this wonderful sense of hope. This is a great start for a mix CD, gets you excited about what is coming next.)
2. Gardermoen by Julia Kent
(Julia is the cellist for Antony and the Johnsons who I’m sure will come up again in this column. On this CD, she composes everything on the cello with loops and percussive tapping. It’s amazing.)
3. Bowsprit by Balmorhea
(This is my go-to Balmorhea song. Some of their stuff can get too reserved, but the staccato attack on this song brings in some much-needed edginess. They are so pretty that I was convinced Rebecca would love them. We saw them open for Mono and Rebecca thought they were boring. But she fell in love with Mono that night. More on that later.)
4. Probability Cloud by Bill Frisell
(This guy is a heavyweight in the guitar world. He has an echoing tone that I could identify anywhere. He spent years playing noise jazz with the likes of John Zorn, and then settled into a laid-back almost Americana solo career. When he teams up with violinist Eyvind Kang, as he does on this track, the results are always surprising. If you were going to get one recent Bill Frisell album, History, Mystery is the place to start.)
5. Tunglip by Olafur Arnalds
(Icelandic composer. Genius. His roots are in classical music, but he’s clearly been listening to current music. I saw a live video of him performing and he did that creepy genius thing where he stares off into space, as if he’s channeling the music rather than performing. That’s it exactly.)
6. Canon by Clogs
(Dude, I know everyone likes The National and everything, but this side project is infinitely better than anything they will ever produce as that band. Clogs are mysterious, tentative and exciting instrumental music that makes me wonder why they even waste time doing The National at all. Sorry to The National fans out there.)
7. Golden Porsche by Mogwai
(I haven’t been as impressed with more recent releases. They seem to be attempting to pull off in three minute songs what it used to take them ten minutes to do. But when they are on, they are cinematic and full of attitude. Happy Songs for Happy People is probably my most listened to album over the years while writing.)
8. Homesick by Big Lazy
(I saw this band open for Firewater many years ago. They have swagger. There’s something dirty about them. But they can really groove. I tracked them down and bought all of their CDs directly from them on their website.)
9. Fat Man Blues by Marc Ribot
(My favorite guitar player ever. Here he is in all his solo-guitar glory. Sloppy and beautiful. Note: Rebecca does not like this song at all. In fact, I believe she’ll say it’s the only one on this mix that she skips. If she ever puts this mix on anymore.)
10. Genius and The Thieves by Eluvium
(The mastermind behind the wispy electronic group Eluvium did an album of all solo piano. Wonderful, simple compositions with melodies that linger.)
11. Burial at Sea by Mono
(My heroes. My favorite instrumental band of all time. Some guy told Rebecca and me the other night that members of Mono cry sometimes during performances. I have no idea if it’s true, but I hope it is. Rebecca wasn’t sold on them at first because of some of their heavier moments (she’s never been a fan of metal) but when I dragged her to see them live, she was overcome. They are magical. And their ability to make their guitars sound like string arrangements is unsurpassed. Many have tried and failed to reach Mono’s heights.)
As far as mix CDs go, I think this is the best one I’ve ever made for Rebecca. I queue it up all the time in the car, at the desk, on my walks. So I guess I made this one more for me than her. Some notable exclusions are Dirty Three, Benevento/Russo Duo and the Bad Plus. Maybe I’ll make a follow-up one day.
Though Rebecca probably doesn’t listen to this much, I’m grateful that she gave it a chance and that some of it worked its way into her heart.
See you next time!
Josh Denslow lives in Austin, Texas where he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane with his wife and his brother-in-law. He is a staff editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a blog editor at The Lit Pub. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Black Clock, Pear Noir!, Cutbank, Wigleaf and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, among others.