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February 21, 2019

Brendan Mathews's Playlist for His Short Fiction Collection "This Is Not a Love Song"

This Is Not a Love Song

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

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Mathews demonstrates in these stories an uncanny ability to inhabit characters with just a few well-crafted sentences. A master impersonator, Mathews employs a variety of voices, capturing the subtle nuances of dialect and pop lingo to explore with psychological acuity the doubt and insecurities that plague these varied individuals...Mathews excels at portraying the emotional pain felt by those without a clear place in the world and the universality of self-doubt. The versatility of literary techniques shows a writer in the process of sharpening his unique voice."

In his own words, here is Brendan Mathews's Book Notes music playlist for his short fiction collection This Is Not a Love Song:

I listen a lot of music while I write. My first novel, The World of Tomorrow, was set among the big band jazz world in late-1930’s New York, and during the years spent working on it, I listened to a lot of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman. The music helped me feel the texture of that time, and I began to think of the book’s structure as a riff on Basie’s swinging style. As a bandleader, Basie gave each of his musicians a chance to solo before drawing them back into the larger rhythm of the song. I aspired to so the same with my characters. But music wasn’t just a means of research or kitchen-table time travel. Those years were also full of Neko Case and Al Green, Boubacar Traore and Arcade Fire—music that created moods I could get lost in while trying to conjure moments within the novel. At the same time, LCD Soundsystem’s eight- to 10-minute songs boosted my confidence about writing a 500-page novel, and I started counting on the sudden, thumping synths of “Dance Yourself Clean” to shake me out of whatever stupor I’d fallen into.

The stories in This Is Not a Love Song are filled with the music that played while I wrote in libraries, coffee shops, and at our kitchen table. The title story revolves around the indie music scene in Chicago—my home from 1992 to 2003—and the playlist below nods toward some of the bands that helped me imagine the central character, Kat Conboy, into being. The playlist also includes songs alluded to in the collection’s other stories, where they whisper from car stereos and blare from boomboxes.

Liz Phair, “Never Said”
On her 1993 debut Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair sang about lust (“Flower”), breakups (“Divorce Song”) and bad boyfriends (“Johnny Sunshine”), but also about ambition and disappointment and the rules for surviving the predatory band dudes who populated Wicker Park, where “This Is Not a Love Song” is set. Exile in Guyville made Liz Phair suddenly famous and set loose a wave of (mostly male) detractors who criticized her musical chops, her stage presence, her suburban upbringing—in short, her authority and authenticity, which were questions that I wanted the story to explore.

Veruca Salt, “Seether”
“This Is Not A Love Song” mentions a band called Violet Beau—like Veruca Salt, a name lifted from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Veruca wanted an Oompa Loompa; Violet turned into a blueberry). Reason enough to include the song here, but I also add it by way of apology: Back in my Chicago days, I once mouthed off at work about Veruca Salt—I used to do that sort of thing—only to get an icy stare from a coworker. I later learned that she was dating the drummer. I’d like to say that was the only time I ever put my foot so squarely in my mouth.

Bettie Serveert, “Tomboy”
Carol van Dijk’s voice—brash and plaintive, smart and tough—was part of the chorus of voices that echoed in my head when I thought about Kat’s music. Bettie Serveert is based far from Chicago (they’re Dutch), but I did see them at Metro, touring with the Swedish rockers Komeda (“There’s a pa-pa-pa-pa-party going on…”) sometime in the mid-'90s.

Blake Babies, “Nirvana”

The acoustic version of “Nirvana” (Juliana Hatfield electrifies it on her solo album) could be one of the songs that Kat picks out on her guitar late at night, her notebook full of lyrics open in her lap. It’s a song about being in pain but also about the power of a good song:

Here comes the song/I love so much/Makes me want to go and fuck shit up
Now I’ve got Nirvana in my head/I’m so glad I’m not dead.

The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”

In one of the story’s overheard moments, Kat sings a few lines from “A Day in the Life” (a very few lines, to avoid calls from copyright lawyers). When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band celebrated its 40th anniversary, Aimee Mann said in an interview that most of her musician friends would pick “A Day in the Life” as their favorite Beatles song (it wasn’t one of hers). But I like to think that maybe Kat was one of those friends that Aimee Mann was talking about.

Led Zeppelin, “Ramble On”

I went to high school with a lot of guys in black concert t-shirts scribbled over with Led Zeppelin’s vaguely druidical symbols. Some of these guys also played D&D and read Tolkien, and all of that provided an inspiration for Kat’s classic-rock-loving brother Gerry. “Ramble On” sets us in Mordor, where Gollum and Sauron conspire to steal away…“a girl so fair”?!? Not until Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies would you find someone playing so fast and loose with his source material.

Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”

This could have been the alternate title for the collection, which is full of stories about the ragged way that people fall out of love. The song is beautifully made and sonically restless, and songs like this push me to experiment with structure and voice in my own work. I’m a longstanding Wilco fan, but I’ve been a fan even longer of Sue Miller, who is married to Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Miller was the co-owner of the late, great Lounge Ax, one of Chicago’s legendary clubs, the setting for a scene in the title story, and a place I spent more nights than I can count.

John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things”

When I lived near the corner of North and Wells, many of my nights ended at the Old Town Ale House—and this was the song that was always on the jukebox. I love it for Coltrane but just as much for the way McCoy Tyner shapes and then disassembles the piano chords. Hearing it always brings me back to the dimly lit, smoky bars where the characters in “Salvage” scout for artifacts and drink in their off hours.

Superchunk, “The First Part”

“The First Part” is from Superchunk’s 1994 album Foolish, which like Rumours and Shoot Out the Lights is a breakup album, made shortly after two people in the band had split romantically. This song gave me the title for the story “How Long Does the First Part Last?” one of the collection’s North Carolina-set stories (Superchunk formed in Chapel Hill, where I went to college). Though it’s never named in the story, this is the song that’s playing on the mixtape while two of the characters spend their last hours as a couple.

Vampire Weekend “Diane Young ” / Velvet Underground, “Sweet Jane” / Anita Baker, “Sweet Love”

Two bands name-checked by the dads trying—and failing—to impress their babysitters in “The Drive,” and one song alluded to but unnamed when one of the dads mentions his prom. “Sweet Love” was the theme of my senior prom, a night that peaked when Mike Tyson and Robin Givens emerged from an elevator to briefly crash the party. A strange turn of events, but it was Albany, New York in the '80s and took our excitement where we could find it.

Public Image Limited, “This Is Not A Love Song”

I tell my students that you’ve got to cite your sources, so here’s the song that provided the title for the collection. I love the way that the title, as a denial, forces you to search for an alternate definition: if not a love song, then what?

Brendan Mathews and This Is Not a Love Song links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Winnipeg Free Press review

The Berkshire Eagle profile of the author
WAMC interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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