MIKE WATT MEETS JAMES JOYCE
The Trippiest 628 Pages I Never Read:
A recent Hampshire graduate, a legendary punk musician
and their shared love of James Joyce
by Andy Wang
The first night I encountered Derek Pyle, I had been invited over to one of those houses in Hadley where people often gather to see bands play. This night was different; there was not going to be any live music performed. Everyone congregated in the living room rather than the basement. It was a day-long listening party celebrating the premier of Waywords and Meansigns, a project Derek had been inspired to work on during his time at Hampshire College. The basic idea of was to set the entirety of James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake to a musical accompaniment. Each chapter was interpreted by a different artist, with Derek acting as the project's curator and overall mastermind. British radio station Soundart Radio was broadcasting the premier, and it was blasting from the speakers.
The majority of people were sprawled out on the floor, surrounded by brightly colored scraps cut from old magazines. Huge collaborative collage pieces as big as one of the room's walls were being constructed. A hazy, psychedelic vibe was thick in the air that night. The entire audio piece was twenty-eight hours long, and many stayed until the wee hours of the morning.
Some time around dawn, the crowd started to thin. A few of the stragglers converged in the basement for a respite from the clamour. Derek and I chatted about his project and I, being unfamiliar with the source material, got a basic rundown of the plot as he explained some of the idiosyncrasies of Joyce's writing. Derek was inspired to flesh out the text into a full auditory experience because much of the source material already had a rhythmic and musical quality to it. Joyce's nuanced use of repetition and abstract content lend themselves nicely to a psychedelic album of sorts.
Derek left Massachusetts after a short stint in Boston, but we kept in touch and often manage to catch up when his travels bring him back into the orbit of the Pioneer Valley. His project gained notoriety over the course of some time, writeups from Paste Magazine and the Guardian popped up on my news feed. I learned that like-minded individuals from all over the world had begun to contribute to Derek's project, including Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE. Derek called me one night in 2016, inviting me to interview Watt about the piece he was working on. I nervously but gladly jumped at the opportunity to speak with one of the most celebrated figures of alternative music.
Mike Watt is also a James Joyce fanatic, and much of his musical output has been inspired by the writer. When we spoke over Skype, Watt told me of his first encounter with Joyce: reading Ulysses while the Minutemen were on their first European tour supporting Black Flag. Spurred by this experience, Watt recounts writing a series of songs directly inspired by Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style for the breakthrough album Double Nickels on the Dime. "D Boone (late guitarist of the Minutemen) related lyrics within the Minutemen to thinking out loud, and that's what I did, thinking out loud. Most of my songs on that album, Double Nickels on the Dime, related to Ulysses. I was only 25 years old at that time, and it made a big impression on me, so I wrote a bunch of tunes inspired by that. Finnegans Wake was a couple years later maybe in '91, I was with fIREHOSE when I finished that book, there's a couple songs that related to it."
Although working within a different medium than Joyce, Watt sees a strong connection between the music he has been involved in making and the artistic worlds he immersed himself in as a young man. As a musician, Watt culls inspiration from a wide variety of sources.
"I'm really influenced by painters and writers as much or even more so than other musicians, because you don't have to worry so much about stealing licks, but you can still draw inspiration, so there's a couple more levels of abstraction... One of the righteous connecting fabrics of the expression of art in my opinion, is that it doesn't need to be someone's boot on someone's throat — it can be these weird loose associations and inspirations."
Having naturally been influenced by Joyce's work in his own creative output, it seemed that contributing to a project like Derek's was a logical next step for Watt.
"When I was asked to do this by Derek, it was like 'Yeah!' because instead of making music for (Joyce's writing), I had been making music inspired by his pieces. It was amazing that Derek found me out of nowhere, a much younger man, and he was right on the same page as me and Raymond [Pettibon, a visual artist who emerged from the same musical era]. It really spoke to me about the value of art, which a lot of people see as a luxury unless it's connected to some sort of marketing — it's kind of frivolous. This is proof that it ain't for me. I'm gonna be 60 in December, and half of my life away it's still relevant."
While compiling his roster of contributors for the most recent iteration of Waywords and Meansigns, Derek took the opportunity to pair two of his most prolific performers to create a unique interpretation of Joyce together. Adam Harvey is a performance artist and actor who is known for his memorization and rendition of various Joyce texts, including parts of Finnegans Wake. For their collaborative chapter, Mike Watt was to provide the musical accompaniment, and Adam Harvey was to deliver the vocal rendition of the text. Raymond Pettibon, a close personal friend of Watt's, produced the album cover (pictured above) as a visual accompaniment to their contribution. Pettibon is best known for designing Black Flag's iconic logo and is himself an advocate of Joyce's writing. Several years ago, Watt read a passage from Finnegans Wake at a tribute event dedicated to Pettibon. Interpreting Joyce's text into a purely musical form, one devoid of words and lyrics, was an unexpected challenge for Watt. Watt's accompaniment was inspired by the River Liffy, a symbol that permeates throughout Finnegans Wake.
"If you know the story, it starts with and ends with [the River Liffy]. I knew the spiel from reading it and doing it for Raymond at this tribute. But then I had to think of the music because that was part of the challenge Derek gave me. He actually assigned me someone who would do the voice, at first I thought I was gonna read it. So I had to think in non-word ideas.
I was thinking of the bass, and I was thinking about the bass being in these rhythms, and in currents like the river, and the tides, and the ups and downs and the rhythms within these, rhythms on rhythms, so what I did was I started layering on basses. I used maybe 8 different basses and there's patterns that go within each other. When I read it too, that's what I get out of Joyce. He did the whole Homer thing with a lot of repetition. There's choruses, there's verses, there's bridges — it's almost like a singer himself who played guitar too, at least that's my take on it. There's a whole huge musical element already and I just tried to expand it out."
Watt's words echoed what Derek said to me in the basement on that trippy evening several years ago, expressing the same sentiment in a different (cyber)space and time. I find it strange and incredible that these far-flung individuals with the same love of words and music could come together to make a unique piece of art that marks a culmination in the creative trajectories of all involved. Today marks the one year anniversary of Waywords and Meansigns' third "opendoor" edition. Derek and his contributors have already gone through the gargantuan task of reinterpreting Joyce's tome in its entirety, twice. The third edition includes over 130 contributors from 15 countries, including Mike Watt and Adam Harvey. This edition is incomplete, and Derek invites any interested parties to contribute their own recordings. You can listen to all three editions of Waywords and Meansigns editions for free at http://www.waywordsandmeansigns.com.
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