December 8, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Every year I fall in love with a publisher. This year, Canada's Pop Sandbox (along with Red Lemonade and Europa Editions) stole my heart and mind.
KENK is as much art project as graphic novel. The book is literally drawn from over 30 hours of documentary footage, with frames used as artwork and the dialogue pulled from the film. This collaborative effort works exceptionally well to create a complex and sympathetic portrait of "the world's greatest bicycle thief," Igor Kenk.
How do you profile a man who is obsessed with music, without using music to get inside his head? No idea. That's why I worked iTunes like a carthorse for one long year, shuttling music through the interwebs for my collaborators— producer and editor Alex Jansen, illustrator Nick Marinkovich and layout guru Jason Gilmore—while assembling what would become KENK: A Graphic Portrait. I'm not sure what Igor Kenk, the world's most prolific bike thief, and a man of no small musical opinions, would make of this list. But Kenk has a way of surprising me.
Jay Reatard, "Before I Was Caught."
What's in a title? Kenk operated for years as Toronto's public enemy number one, and the book is pretty much a summary of those years. Before Kenk was caught, he was a legend, an outlaw and a myth. Somehow, this song reassembles itself in my head to form Kenk's epitaph, by way of a line from poet Henri Cole: How can I /protect myself from everything I want. While we were young, Jay Reatard died way, way too young. Kenk has his artistic DNA swirling around it somewhere, and that should count for something.
Sofia Gubaidulina, "Bassoon Concerto: III"
"Classical music is dead dogshit." This, and countless lines like them, was how Kenk summed up the likes of Mozart and Brahms. He had an enormously sophisticated musical knowledge, and couldn't stand anything that wasn't vital, and that didn't break the rules. Gubaidulina, a Russian Tatar from Cristopol, wasn't a self conscious modernist—her compositions came from real, experienced agony, and broke the rules because pain doesn't know any better. Over this CD, Kenk bonded with the woman who would become his stalwart companion—Jeanie Chung, one of North America's finest accompanists.
The Dwarves, "Let's Fuck"
Listening to punk seemed necessary while making this book—partly because I love punk, and partly because it's a punk book. The Dwarves' Blood Guts & Pussy checks in at a speedy 25 minutes, and "Let's Fuck" pretty much sums up Kenk's (highly effective, as it turns out) seduction style, it seemed like the perfect album, and the perfect song, to write swathes of the book by.
Fuck Buttons, "Ribs Out"
Distortion, as my wife constantly points out, is very hard to do well. Distortion seemed immensely important to me over the course of writing this book, mostly because I was trying to create something as discordant as an MC5 concert at which everyone is jacked on codeine and NyQuil. This track, from Fuck Buttons' brilliant Street Horrrsing, does distortion perfectly. And when the screeching ape starts going, well, apeshit, things get transcendental.
Teenage Death Star, "I Kiss Your Sister"
When I was working on my previous book, about American pop culture in the Muslim world, I encountered these maniacs in Jakarta, Indonesia. Good grief, what a band! As I shuttled with them to underground punk shows on the fringes of that febrile city, I realized the true meaning—and danger—of outsider music. There are still people in the world who risk their lives for their musical convictions. I wanted KENK: A Graphic Portrait to be infused with their esprit.
Laibach, "The Hunter's Funeral Procession"
Kenk claimed to loathe this band, a group of industrial musicians hailing from Ljubljana, Slovenia. The band formed during the 80s, as the death grunt of the Tito regime started pulling Yugoslavia to pieces. A hyper-capitalist hyper-communist ethos resulted, and Laibach summed it up with their aggressive, theatrical bombast. Kenk went to their shows, and was influenced by the underground arts movement they were once members of: FV Disko. While in Slovenia researching Kenk's past, I came across an exhibit of FV materials, fell in love with the distinct photocopy style that was its hallmark, and we made that the underlying design element of the book.
Two Koreas, "Nostalgia for Vietnam Nostalgia"
This Toronto band, formed by critics Jason Anderson and Stewart Berman, is a skuzzy, wry take on Pavement meets Gang of Four. Both men are very good writers, and it shows. They also passed Kenk's store about a several times a day, and have no doubt had several bikes stolen by his minions. I like to think that they were shaped by him, like the rest of us in downtown Toronto were.
Panda Bear, "Take Pills"
Nick (Marinkovich, Illustrator) and I would pore over visual inspiration for the project—Socialist Realist poster art; Soviet avant-garde painting; a superb tome called East Art Map, which details Eastern Bloc underground art. Later, we would trade music on DropBox—I'd love powering up my computer and finding some nugget of brilliance waiting for me in the morning. This record, and in particular this song, was the first thing I posted for him. Come deadline, it became both inspiration and injunction.
The Stooges, "TV Eye"
Has anyone written a book without listening to The Stooges? For literature's sake, I hope not. Something about the paranoia of this song—She got a TV eye on me/ She got a TV eye—made perfect sense in the case of Kenk, who always believed he was being surveiled. It's like the old joke: Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not watching you. Also, Kenk and Iggy Pop are the same person.
Sleigh Bells, "Rill Rill"
Nick sent Sleigh Bells' Treats down the internet pipeline, and it powered me through the final stages of nitpicking, housekeeping and editing. Like a preteen Bieber fan, I have a tendency to play songs I love over and over again. "Rill Rill" helped me get the tone of the final section of the book just right—mournful, elegiac, but with an edge of industrial nastiness.
Die Antwoord, "Enter the Ninja"
Something about this track and the attendant, truly disturbing video, stuck in my brainbox right as we were fidgeting with the final touches. Part performance art piece, part rap, part provocation, Die Antwoord slammed into the Internet like a transport truck filled with Chinese firecrackers. They became an instant sensation, especially for a South African like myself, and the dozens of in-jokes and cultural references resonated in a powerful way. Again, I wanted KENK to be steeped in their spirit, and I was listening to their stuff as our comic-book-meets-journalism whizzed off to the printers.
Richard Poplak and KENK links:
Austin Chronicle review
Boing Boing review
Comic Attack review
Globe and Mail review
Graphically Inclined review
Quill & Quire review
Things I Like review
Toronto Star review
Art Threat interview with Alex Jansen
CBC News interview with the author
The Excerpt interview with Alex Jensen and Nick Marinovich
Inkstuds interview with the author
NOW magazine profile of the author
She Does the City interview with the Alex Jensen
The Walrus Blog essay by the author (on writing the book)
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
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