Gregory A. Wilson is currently an Associate Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City, where he teaches creative writing and fantasy fiction along with various other courses in literature. His first academic book was published by Clemson University Press in 2007; on the creative side, he has won an award for a national playwriting contest, and his first novel, a work of fantasy entitled The Third Sign, was published by Gale Cengage in the summer of 2009. He regularly reads from his work at conferences across the country and is a member of Codex, the Writers’ Symposium, Backspace, and several other author groups on and offline. He is currently in the process of submitting his second and third novels, Icarus and Grayshade respectively, to publishers, represented in this effort by Roger Williams of the Publish or Perish Literary Agency. With fellow speculative fiction author Brad Beaulieu, he co-hosts the podcast Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers and Fans. He lives with his wife Clea, daughter Senavene–named at his wife’s urging for a character in The Third Sign, for which he hopes his daughter will forgive him–and dog Lilo in Riverdale, NY.
I’ve been following the Night Bazaar for some time now, so I’m grateful to get the opportunity to join in the conversation myself. In particular, I’m grateful that I’ve been given permission (I have, right?) to talk about something a little off the beaten path…progressive rock music, or more specifically, progressive rock music as it relates to writing.
About twelve years ago I walked into a large auditorium at Brandeis University, deserted except for a rather ordinary looking fellow wearing a white shirt and plaid shorts sitting on the stage, surrounded by pedals and amplifiers of every description. He was playing electric guitar—loudly—and as I listened, I heard he was engaged in some variation of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. All the parts, using loops and delays.
I immediately realized two things: one, this person was weird. Two, he was one of the better musicians I had ever heard, and if I knew what was good for me, I’d start playing with him as soon as possible. And as the last twelve years have proven, I was right on both counts. Together we founded the band The Road (http://www.thebandtheroad.com), a progressive rock band with its roots in bands like King Crimson, early Genesis and Radiohead, and over the past decade we’ve been fortunate enough to play in clubs from CBGB’s and The Bitter End in New York City to Hennessy’s and Copperfield’s in Boston. We take a lot of pride in our live performances, and there’s nothing like the energy one gets from a live venue. But over the years we’ve become equally excited by the recording process—a process where one has the chance to imagine and execute the perfect version of a song, accompanied with just the right instruments and mixed and balanced in precisely the right way.
On the one hand, our interest in recording has mirrored a major change in the music industry—with the advent of iTunes and other digital download models, there’s little doubt that the days of the compact disc are numbered, at least as a major form of distribution (though, just as with physical books, it will take a long time for them to vanish completely). That’s mostly a good thing, actually; it means we can get our music to listeners directly, and can get airplay on radio stations from Boston to Budapest without having to bankrupt ourselves shipping discs from place to place. But there are drawbacks—and perhaps the biggest one, and the one least talked about, is the loss of the album.
Singles, you see, are iTunes’ stock in trade, and thanks to that fact (and Steve Jobs looking impressive in a black turtleneck during his tech presentations, I suppose), the album as such is going the way of the dodo. It used to be the case that the order and arrangement of songs in a given album—and which songs would and wouldn’t make the final cut—was nearly as important as the songs themselves. Concept albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway obviously rely on unified listening—sure, you can listen to “Another Brick in the Wall” on its own, but it really works in the context of the other songs on the album. But in the past, even albums which didn’t tell one unified story worked in part because of how they organized their component parts. Try listening to the songs of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band out of order; each song is still great on its own, but the overall impact of the album is considerably less powerful than in its original configuration. But it’s an a la carte world, baby, and we’re all living in it.
By now you may be starting to wonder whether I ended up becoming as weird as my guitarist Aaron: you might reasonably ask what the heck any of this has to do with writing generally or speculative fiction specifically. I’d respond that as my work in writing and music has progressed along somewhat parallel tracks, I’ve begun to spot similar patterns. Some of these similarities are obvious: songs tell stories, and like the best stories, the best songs present interesting characters, construct unusual and engaging narratives, and leave the listener thinking about deeper meanings long after the last note has faded away. But if songs are like stories, albums are like novels, with a sweeping plot arc, greater depth, and often an ambitious philosophical agenda—especially concept albums, on which progressive rock bands often rely. Our first album, Drift, was really more of a short story collection, a compilation of our best songs from the first six years of our existence. For our second, we wanted to try something more ambitious, and from a conversation between our bassist and myself—about our mutual interest in music and the spiritual journey—the idea for Monomyth was born.
As the principal lyricist and lead vocalist of the band, much of the writing of Monomyth fell to me, and inspired by Dante’s Inferno I developed the story of a character called Virgil who left his beloved, wandered until he found himself in a city under siege, was killed (whether actually or metaphorically isn’t clear), traveled down to Hell and was reborn. Like my novels, I developed the overall plot ahead of time, with a general outline tracing from song to song, but the presentation of each song on the album often differed markedly from the way we played it live. And while I’m the captain of my ship in my writing, deciding who does what and how at what time, an album is a collaborative effort. On several occasions my vision for a particular song didn’t work given the other guys’ takes on the material, and the order of songs changed several times as we hashed out the themes we wanted to get across. Even individual lyrics changed on occasion to accommodate changing opinions about the album’s overall direction.
Frustrating? Yes, on occasion. But much more often it was exhilarating, as I felt my initial story grow and change emotionally and philosophically, developing in ways which would have been impossible in text alone. The result, officially released in December of last year, was an album well received by critics and nominated for an international award competition. More important, Monomyth worked on its own terms as an album. I learned a great deal about music in the process of writing Monomyth, but in a way, I learned just as much about writing generally: outlines are recommendations, not requirements; songs, like chapters in a novel or stories in an anthology, are living and breathing things which change in their relation to each other; and input from others is not only acceptable but often desirable. Those are lessons I hope to apply not only to future albums, but future novels; and if I’m able to do so, I’ll owe a lot to the band…even that weird kid with the pedals and the plaid shorts I met over a decade ago in a deserted auditorium.