While there's nothing quite like seeing your favourite band play live, the reality of life on the road for musicians can be complicated, stressful, and sometimes surreal. No one knows that better than musician and writer Eamon McGrath, who explored the world of touring musicians in his first book, Berlin-Warszawa Express.
Now he returns to the world he knows so well in Here Goes Nothing (ECW Press), which we're speaking with him about today. Given his ability to blur the line between fiction and memoir, he has given our My Story memoir interview series a cheeky spin. Though Here Goes Nothing is technically a fictional account, it borrows in spirit from much of McGrath's unique experiences as a touring musician, making it a kind of fictional memoir.
Gritty, funny, and packed with interesting characters who travel the world for so long that countries and cities begin to blur together, Here Goes Nothing is a glimpse into the pressure cooker of the long tour, and the relationships that are made or broken by it.
Eamon tells us about how his two books interact with and complete one another, why it's wise to avoid temptation to "abuse the muse", and how he manages the anxiety of writing - and releasing into the world - narratives inspired by his own experiences.
How did your book project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
My last book, Berlin-Warszawa Express, began my fascination with this writing style. I wrote that book by hand while touring across Europe in the mid-2000s, exclusively on trains alone. The stories and vignettes from that book were all highly fictionalized accounts of memories I’d cultivated from my experiences on the road playing shows in what would eventually be remembered as a relatively optimistic time in western history. I found the process really seamless, and before that book was even out, I attempted to expand the narrative scope of that writing style which became the basis and foundation of Here Goes Nothing. The two books are almost one and the same in my mind: they both felt as though they were happening almost simultaneously: as Berlin-Warszawa Express was being released and promoted and toured, Here Goes Nothing was being written, again by hand, on those tours. They almost form a continuity: one book is about the inner dialogue and self-examination of a musician spending hours on end on tour alone recalling memories from years ago, the other is memories of dialogue, conversations, conflict, and interactions with other people in your band. Of course, with that comes the unreliability of memory, and as would follow, the unreliability of the narrator himself. The timing of this release had more to do with it falling between album cycles and album releases, and it being a really efficient, strategic and convenient time to have the book come out, rather than any outlying personal reasons, or anything like that.
Did your book change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
It changed significantly. It began as a day-by-day retelling of specific instances on one specific tour, a detailed and bit-by-bit rendering of a 28-day stretch in the life of a musician on the road in the States, and evolved to be two simultaneous narratives paralleling each other and different points in time: the past and future. With that came more characters, more settings, more conflicts, more pressure to be plausible, which made the experience of writing Berlin-Warszawa Express relatively easy in the sense that it’s not much more than the inner dialogue and ramblings of a young, drunk musician. My editors at ECW really pushed for Here Goes Nothing to move in the direction of what you could actually call a novel, with a really distinct character and narrative arc, and a really magnified, more epic scope. Looking back on it all, having to adjust settings, people, places, and times, it all seemed difficult in the midst of it all happening, but in hindsight there’s a really clear, distinct view of what had to happen comparatively speaking to how the book was in its initial conception that it all makes a lot of sense in terms of how it evolved to something that’s more interesting, multi-layered and more heavily fictionalized.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I have an office in my apartment that doubles as a recording studio and writing desk. I try to avoid being too ritualistic, if it comes to writing music or books; I think you’re getting into pretty dangerous territory if you try to really abuse the muse. If I’m at a point in the creative process that’s mechanical, like mixing a record or editing a book, that’s a different story: I’ll put in a full eight hours, clock in and out, and treat it like a desk job, and I find a lot of comfort in that once you’ve moved passed the initial burst of inspiration and that immediate electric, creative release, but that explosion and that kinetic feeling of birthing something from nothing is something that you can’t force. You really have to be at the whim and mercy of it, almost like a lightning rod, and be prepared to drop everything you’re doing and hit the ground running the minute the feeling overtakes you. It’s at the point where my studio and office is so dialled in that all I really have to do is turn the lights on, and everything’s ready to go: every instrument, notebook, computer screen, keyboard, guitar, you name it, it’s all an arms’ reach away. There’s no way of really knowing when that plane is going to land and you have to be ready.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
This kind of goes along with the last question. To put it simply, I just wait. I wait and wait. The to-do list of things that are more administrative or pragmatic is just so long: there’s always shows to book, music to promote, releases to plan, mixing to finish, studio time to finalize, etc., that there’s always other productive ways you can spend your time when you’re not under the inspiration of anything. It’s actually best to get totally distracted from the fact that you haven’t maybe written in awhile or that no new ideas are coming to you, because all that changes in a heartbeat when you least expect it and before you know it you’re in the midst of another writing binge. I learned a long time ago to not get preoccupied with worrying about writer’s block or getting too wound up about coping when those more furious and energetic aspects of the process don’t come as easy because it’ll be no time when you’re going to be swept up in the storm.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a book inspired by your life?
It hits me once I see the finished product. I tend to be so focused on getting the work done that I never think about what people are going to think of me, or which people exactly might recognize themselves in the story, or who it’s going to anger or affect emotionally until I’m holding it in my hand, and then all that kind of becomes painfully clear — but by that point, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, so you have to let that more or less eat your dust behind you. It officially exists, and now it’s alive and glowing and out into the world, so it’s out of your control. Despite how tough it might be to come to terms with that, you don’t really have a choice, because it’s got its own momentum now and it’s not waiting around for you to catch up.
What are you working on now?
I’m about ten thousand words into an as-yet-unnamed manuscript about traveling through Mexico. I’m trying to think of it as the end of a trilogy of sorts, or the end of this figurative and literal journey that the narrator of these last two books has been on over the last ten or so years. If you're a musician who tours for a living, you start to wear out certain markets or territories; it’s inevitable, just from playing so much and so often. For that very reason was why I had to make a point of expanding both my touring and writing into Mexico, and then last year into Japan. You almost have to think of it like an army marching, as if your music is kind of just circumnavigating the globe, in this eternal quest for a new audience. It would follow then that the next book would have to move outside the borders of Europe, Canada, and the USA, and head into a part of the world I haven’t yet written about.
Seven full-length records, multiple continent-spanning tours, and a critically acclaimed work of fiction lay in the wake of 31-year-old Eamon McGrath, whose fierce attitude and work ethic has led him to develop a career that could rival anyone 20 years his senior. He is based in Toronto, Ontario.