Author Michael T. Fournier takes his dream band on the road
When author Michael T. Fournier published “Double Nickels on the Dime,” his 2007 book for the acclaimed 33⅓ series about the Minutemen album of the same name, it didn’t occur to him that he’d ever share a stage with the seminal punk band’s Mike Watt — Fournier wasn’t even a musician. But this unlikely bill will become a reality in New York City next week, when Fournier’s new band, Dead Trend, culminates a meta-fictional and meta-reality crossover as they tour in support of their new book.
That’s right, book, not album. You see, despite Dead Trend being the quintessential 1980s hardcore punk band, they don’t actually exist. Or didn’t, that is, until recently, when the band crawled off of the pages of the Belchertown author’s new novel, “Hidden Wheel” (Three Rooms Press). They’ll also perform live at O’Brien’s Pub in Allston on Saturday.
True to Fournier’s vision, Dead Trend sounds exactly like you’d expect a 1980s hardcore punk band to sound, with short, aggressively barked songs and angrily political lyrics. Think early Black Flag, Negative Approach, or Government Issue.
“It's amazing to me,” Fournier, 38, says of his dream gig with Watt. “I thought it would be fun to try to throw a band together and play these 30-second songs about cops or whatever. We got offered a record deal at our third show, and now we’re going to play with Watt and J. Mascis.”
In the book, a history of our current cultural era pieced together by a scholar in a distant, informationally dystopian future (following an event called the “Datastrophe”), a group of artistically ambitious twentysomethings collide in their attempts to make a splash through music, graffiti-writing, dominatrix work, and visual arts.
Fournier, who teaches English at Holyoke Community College (and once taught a History of Punk Rock class at Tufts) leans on his lengthy career as a music journalist to infuse the novel with an exceptionally authentic voice. It doesn’t hurt that he did his own time in the analogous twentysomething hipster culture of Allston, whose bike messengers, bloggers, and rock-stars-in-training he’s captured in the fictional city of Freedom Springs. There’s plenty of humor in the book, but it’s not satire.
“I'm probably just as silly as these guys,” Fournier says of the self-deluded characters. “I’m not trying to mock the whole thing. I did that for 10 years, and have friends who did that for 10 years. I feel like I'm just reporting.”
He didn’t actually pick up the drums until he was 35 while in graduate school at the University of Maine. That’s where he met Jay Grant, the singer of Dead Trend, while working together at the college radio station.
Coming at music late in his career gives him a freedom from expectations he might not have had at a younger age. “I already saw all my friends try to get big. All these bands that were really going for it a little bit, and nobody ever made it. That makes me feel less self-conscious, because basically I'm free to do whatever I want.”
The seeming “authenticity” of the music is what sold Grant, 22, on it, he says.
“Mike writes all the songs, and he's kind of like copying his heroes from when he was around my age,” Grant, explains. “It’s spot on.”
Although they play at the seriousness of the era’s self-righteous punk, there are implied air quotes bracketed around the concept. Toward the end of each set, Grant goes off on a politically inspired diatribe.
“I wouldn’t say it’s weird, but it's definitely comical,” Grant says. “I definitely feel like I’m playing a character. The sort of aggressive punk thing is not how I am in my personal life. It’s funny to me that the politics of this band are so 1986-87, especially with all the corollaries going on now. We played an event for the Occupy movement in Portland, and it was funny how Mike, months before Occupy started, had written these lyrics that were so relevant. Even though it’s about Reagan it’s all the same issues.”
The novel is concerned with a different set of politics, particularly the ways we consume information and art. Presented in a rotating series of chapter fragments that dart around among various characters’ points of view, it can be read as a commentary on the attention spans of contemporary consumers.
“Everything is fragmented, everything has to be 140 characters or less at this point,” Fournier explains. “When I started writing the book it seemed a good idea to [echo that.]”
While in graduate school he was reading Faulkner and it bled through into his writing.
“I thought having a bunch of different viewpoints bombarding the reader would be representative of what’s happening now,” he says.
The style is jarring at first, but once you get used to it, the rhythms of the disparate parts begin to coalesce, like the music of Stonecipher, another fictional band within the book. They’re described early on like so: “Songs began and ended seemingly on their own accord, with no structure discernible amidst the rumble.”
The trick for Stonecipher in the book is getting people to pay attention for them, no mean feat for a band, even a fictional one. It’s harder still for an author, though Fournier believes combining the two will make it easier.
“It's way easier to get people to pay attention to music than it is to read a novel,” he says. “It's such an investment to get people to read a novel, even a short one like mine. A band makes a nice entryway to that.”
Luke O'Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @lukeoneil47.