If Jack Kerouac and David Foster Wallace survived the apocalypse, they'd be sitting in a movie theater in western Massachusetts watching a Rita Hayworth movie and writing songs about it. Oh, and they’d call themselves Darlingside, whose literary lineage runs from Beowulf and Milton to Melville, Wallace, and Lahiri. On their new album, Extralife, the band meanders through the desolation of a world devastated by the ravages of human misuse of resources. Almost every song wanders around images of brokenness and life following a catastrophe of our own making. The songs stroll peripatetically through surreal landscapes looking for hope and new life, and the stream of consciousness of the lyrics carry us along with the singers as they encounter this new world.
The title track, for example, opens with the stillness of a world destroyed, but contains within it the seeds for a new life: “It’s over now/The flag is sunk/The world has flattened out/Under the underground/I’ve always found/A level further down/Extralife.” “Singularity” paints a bleaker picture: “Someday a shooting star is gonna shoot me down/Burn these high-rises back into a ghost town/Of iridium-white clouds/Matted close against the ground/I take pictures of cement/For history books on Mother Earth.” Toward the end of the album, Rita Hayworth makes her entrance in the song of the same name. Is this song supposed to give us hope? Does it mean beauty lasts beyond the devastation of our world, even if only in our memories? Does it mean that Hayworth’s signature fieriness and beauty give us hope against loss? The song is a psychedelic incantation that entrances us momentarily: “Crash course/American dark horse/ Starfire Red in a colorless sea/Checkmate/Incontestable mandate/Oh I want to know what it’s like to be loved/Like a heartbeat/Coco Chanel, Rita Hayworth/Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor.”
I caught up by phone with band members Auyon Mukharji and Harris Paseltiner and chatted with them about books and reading and the literary influences in their songs. Mukharji revealed that “Eschaton,” from Extralife, was inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Paseltiner described using Mark Forsyth’s book, The Elements of Eloquence, to design writing exercises for the band.
What books are your nightstand now?
Auyon: There are two books by Mark Forsyth that we’re both reading right now: The Elements of Eloquence and Etymologicon. The former explains some of the tips and tricks that Shakespeare, Milton, and other writers use with language.
Harris: Great writing and great turns of phrases are often plays on words. But great writing can be broken down into rules that have been around since ancient times. Great writing will take a simple sentence and use it to express a complex thought. We use chapters from The Elements of Eloquence as exercises to write songs; so we might look at the section on hendiadys and try to write using that literary device.
Auyon: The book is a bit like a seventh-grade grammar book on steroids. There are a couple of other books I’ve been reading, too. One is A Short History of Drunkenness, which is a fun, short read, full of stories about famous, and not-so-famous, people who have gotten drunk and how they’ve gotten drunk, and what they’ve done while they’re drunk. I’ve also been reading this novel about Indonesian history by Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound; I read it on the road, and I’ve learned a lot about Indonesian history from it.
Harris: Yeah, I have also been reading Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, that a friend of mine from England, Tom, gave to me. I always have a novel going, too, and the next one I’m going to start reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden. My wife has been trying to get me to read him; she’s a big fan of his. I’ve also been carrying around James McPherson’s The War That Forged the Nation, a compilation of some of his essays about the Civil War.
What’s one book you won’t leave home without?
Auyon: Our bags are small, so there’s often no room for a book. I’m trying not to acquire things these days in my attempts to simplify. I find that when I read books, it’s the ideas, the memories of them that I take with me; I don’t necessarily need to have the book with me forever. When I’ve been reading a book for a little while, and it’s one that I love, I’ll pass it along to a friend. Can you could count the Economist as one long book? (Laughs.) I always have a copy of it with me; I am always trying to catch up on reading the issues I’ve missed. I skip over the articles on business and finance and read the short, page-long obituaries; they’re literary fuel.
Harris: Yeah; our bags are so full of cords and pedals that we don’t have a lot of room. I do usually carry one book that I’m working on. I do carry a Kindle, but there’s nothing like holding a book in your hands.
What kind of reader are you? Print or electronic? Do you feel like you have to finish every book you start?
Auyon: I try to avoid too much screen time, though I tend to read a lot on my phone, mostly blogs about food and cooking, or news. I read print books. I get the most reading done on tour since I can read during all those hours in the car. To me, reading is a luxury. The books I read are those that folks I trust have recommended to me or that my father or friends have given to me. I usually finish books, but my process of selecting books to read means I’ve chosen the ones I really want to read in the first place.
Harris: I read mostly print before bed, especially if I am reading a novel; I try to avoid reading on the screen before I go to bed. Almost all my reading through the day is on the screen, and, in general, that’s nonfiction I’m reading then. I realized about ten years ago that I can read anything I want, whenever I want; that gave me a lot of freedom. I can start or finish anything I want to. I often get interested in one subject — like producing — and I’ll read everything I can about it, but those can be parts of one book or article that might lead me to another article or book I want to read. Completing something is rare for me. If it’s not fantastic in the first 50 pages or so, I don’t feel like I need to finish it. One of the great things about reading is the freedom it gives you.
Fiction of nonfiction?
Auyon: I enjoy fiction laced with a good amount of nonfictional detail. Beauty is a Wound is that kind of a novel; full of details about Indonesian history.
Harris: Nonfiction during the day; fiction at night. The books that have inspired me most in life are novels — and there’s also a lot of great poetry that’s inspired me. The books that draw me in most are nonfiction.
Favorite fictional characters?
Harris: That’s a hard question; there are so many, and I don’t think I can choose just one. Do you know that novel by John Gardner, Grendel? I read it when I was about 15. I love Beowulf — I have been reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of it — but I loved seeing how in Gardner’s novel a character who is a villain, Grendel, is a sympathetic character.
Auyon: There’s no way I can choose my absolute favorite character. One of the first characters that had an impact on me was George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. My older brother has a moderate learning disability, and growing up I helped take care of him. Seeing this play out in fiction was magical. The works of Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri, especially The Namesake, have also been important to me. Seeing members of the Indian diaspora write about their own experiences was a huge influence on me when I was starting to write.
If you could invite three authors, living or dead, to lunch, who would they be?
Auyon: David Foster Wallace would be one. He seems like such a nut job, but just getting into his head would be fun.
Harris: Herman Melville. I’m a big Moby-Dick fan. Part of his inspiration for the book came while he was living in the same part of Massachusetts where we went to college [Williams College] — and I’m not sure how much is legend and how much is true, so I’m not going to talk about it for print (laughs). Just getting to pick his brain about his epic work; he combines such different styles of writing in one book — one section is science writing, another is full of details about whales, another is straight-ahead narrative. I’d like to talk with him about his angle on approaching the mystic nature of the whale.
Auyon and Harris: J.K. Rowling.
What one book has shaped you as a writer?
Auyon: There’s not one book, though Infinite Jest and Lahiri’s books have influenced my songwriting, as I said earlier. I read Bob Lefsetz’s blog, The Lefsetz Letter, all the time. He’s a prolific writer, and he’s very opinionated.
Harris: Same for me; there’s not one single book. I tend to read magazines like Sound on Sound, which is devoted to producing, and Tape Thoughts. Books that are involved in the creative process appeal to me. Perrine's Sound and Sense is a great book about the layers of language involved in writing and how to put words together.
Auyon: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: I feel that the book is enormously instructive in helping you to create space for yourself as an artist. As a young artist, I’ve found this book is a great tool for helping to tame the inner critic. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has also been significant to me.
What one book should the president read?
Auyon: When the President Poops, which is a book that my brother, Aroop, and I wrote. It’s a children’s picture book that came out in the fall and should be easy for him to read.