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October 11, 2011

Book Notes - Tyler McMahon ("How the Mistakes Were Made")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Tyler McMahon artfully crafts his debut novel How the Mistakes Were Made in two seminal music periods, the eighties D.C. hardcore and nineties Seattle grunge scenes.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"A rock novel good enough to wish you had an accompanying soundtrack."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is Tyler McMahon's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, How the Mistakes Were Made:


Obviously, music played a major role in the creation of this novel. But it wasn't just the music itself; it was also reading about it, listening to interviews, watching concert films and documentaries. Perhaps the biggest sources of inspiration for me were all the stories and anecdotes that surrounded the eighties hardcore punk scene, as well as the early nineties Seattle rock scene.

Please don't mistake this list as a comprehensive sampler of either hardcore or grunge. I'm not much of a music historian, much less an insider. There are many influential bands from those eras that don't appear here. When it comes to music, I've always been prone to minor obsessions, rather than wide surveys.

Like the novel, this list is a personal, subjective take. These songs inspired me as I wrote How the Mistakes Were Made. A few of them match up well with the book's settings. Others are complete anachronisms. Many of these songs were in my head as I invented the fictional bands, but none of those fake groups are direct stand-ins for the ones listed here.


Nirvana: "All Apologies"

Perhaps it seems a bit sacrilegious not to select a song off Nevermind. I'm sure it's pretty obvious that the central conceit of my book is that the Mistakes experience the kind of unexpected and unprecedented rise to fame that Nirvana experienced after the release of Nevermind. But it would be too easy to choose "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or another of the early hits. Besides, I've always been partial to this track.

Something about the tone of this song relates to the voice of Laura, the narrator of my novel. I love the way it suggests that every apology carries a trace of defense, and every defense holds the kernel of an apology.


Fugazi: "Waiting Room"

I was only four years old when Minor Threat formed, and about seven when they broke up. So my first real exposure to Dischord and DC music was through Fugazi. My friends' older brothers and sisters had a tape with the first seven songs from 13 Songs. I don't remember if it had a title, but there was a black and white performance photo on the cover. It blew my mind back then. It still sounds amazing.

If there's one character that is most directly based on a real person, it's Anthony and Ian MacKaye. Without any hyperbole, I consider Ian the most fascinating figure in 20th century music, if not all arts. His long struggle with his own ideals, with punk's conflicting ideologies, and with a world that doesn't know how not to commodify art—it moves me as much as any life story I've ever heard about.


Bikini Kill: "Rebel Girl"

So much of the talk about Bikini Kill these days seems to be in an academic context. There's good reason for that. Certainly, they are massively important in terms of the history of music and feminism. But I hope that, amidst the intellectual jargon, we don't forget how much they rock. In songs like this one, it's easy to see the dots they connect between the underground punk rock of the 80s and the "alternative" rock of 90s.


The Wedding Present: "Interstate 5"

What's this British song from 2005 doing in here, you ask? Around the time I started working on the novel, I had a massive hard drive crash. Some computer repair guys were able to retrieve all my documents but none of the music. A friend loaned me a CD of Take Fountain by The Wedding Present—a band I'd never heard of before. For several weeks, it was the only piece of music on my computer. As I started writing Mistakes, I'd listen to it exclusively, the volume so low that I could barely make out the lyrics. It wasn't until much later that I realized most of the songs were about Seattle.

After a while, I rebuilt a music collection. But I never could bring myself to listen to any other record while I was working on the book. During the editing stages, I'd listen to The Wedding Present all day long. Still, whenever I read passages from the book, I hear the opening chords of "Interstate 5" in my head.


TAD: "Wood Goblins"

TAD was among my favorite of the Sub Pop bands from the early 90s. Certainly, I was thinking of TAD Doyle when I created the Rumble Strips, with their girth and physicality. More importantly, I was thinking of the TAD persona—the burly flannel-clad butcher from Idaho—once the Mistakes start to enter the public eye, and reporters want to cast them as troubled trailer trash.

As a kid, I loved the video for "Wood Goblins," with all the reckless chainsaw play and flying beer. It wasn't until many years later that I realized Tad was actually a classically trained musician, and that the label had carefully cultivated his backwoods image.


Mudhoney: "Here Comes Sickness"

This is what I hear in my head when I think of Seattle rock in the early 90s. For me, Mudhoney was the Ramones of this era. Their sound was a blueprint for so many younger aspiring musicians. As a kid on the other side of the country, it was inspirational, and also accessible. They took photos of their equipment, and seemed to invite imitation.

I always pictured the sound of the Mistakes—with the fuzzy tones and simple, urgent arrangements—as similar to Mudhoney's.


The Bad Brains: "Banned in DC"

What can you say about the Bad Brains? One can't help but wonder how much of underground music in this country would never have happened without them. Still, it sometimes feels as though this band were dropped from space—like the monoliths in 2001.

In one of the flashbacks in my novel, Laura talks about how she never got to see them because of the unofficial DC ban. That sentiment is partly autobiographical, as I never saw them play until much later, once their style had significantly changed.


Sonic Youth: "Little Trouble Girl"

It probably won't come as a surprise to readers that Laura's character is inspired partly by both Kim Gordon and Kim Deal. I strayed from those archetypes as I wrote the book, and Laura took on a life of her own. Still, some qualities endured: in particular, a brand of unflappable coolness and the ability to navigate the rock-and-roll boy's club.

I like this song—partly because it features both Kims on it together, partly because it seems to be an introspective look at that tough girl image.


Black Flag: "TV Party"

Black Flag is probably my favorite group to read about. The amazing chapter about them in Our Band Could Be Your Life was one of the major inspirations for this novel. Their history is so well documented, thanks in part to the great Henry Rollins diaries. The flashbacks in my novel in which Anthony and Laura call a record pressing plant and about Laura draws the cover art are quite obviously done in homage to Black Flag.

This song has always been one of my favorites. I'm partial to their catchy, upbeat tunes. When I was a kid, hardcore was an intimidating thing. That was particularly true of Black Flag, with their logo and distinctive iconography. It was difficult to know what all the connotations were. Songs like this one were a breath of fresh air.


Screaming Trees: "Nearly Lost You"

I was a late adapter to Screaming Trees. To be honest, I only started listening to them in the last few years, during the research for this novel. Charles Peterson's incredible photography book, Screaming Life, has some great photos of the Trees. Those images got me excited about their music.

Their sound seems quite different to me than many of the other bands—lusher and more intentionally beautiful. I picture Thieves as Thick (a fictional group from the novel) sounding a lot like them—more polished arrangements, a bigger band, a dedicated vocalist.


Television: "Marquee Moon"

I mentioned this song as coming on the radio when the Mistakes drive into Montana in the middle of the book. I probably first heard it on KBGA, the amazing college radio station in Missoula. It was on the jukebox at the Neurolux in Boise, Idaho—a venue that makes a sort of cameo in the book. Television is one of my favorite bands from the CBGB era. Oddly, I always associate this album with the northwest.


Point no Point: "A Prayer"

This song always brings me back to one of the best shows I ever saw at Jay's Upstairs in Missoula—the venue that's thinly fictionalized in the first scene of my novel, as well as some later scenes. This album is hard to find, but amazing. This track is perhaps the most cinematic and beautiful.


Tyler McMahon and How the Mistakes Were Made links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
San Diego CityBeat review

Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown contributions by the author
The Rumpus contributions by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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