Arts Desk

D.C. Punk Vets Record Prog-Rock Song to Promote Novel

unknownknownsNote: This post requires a disclosure as vast and sprawling as the song it is ostensibly about.

Some people record six-minute-long prog-rock epics because they want to infuse Gilgamesh with the power of electric guitars. And others do it because their novel has just come out in paperback.

When my friend Jeffrey Rotter entered a Brooklyn studio to record a song about his debut novel, The Unknown Knowns, it was for the latter reason. "I think authors are just looking for any way they can to get attention," Rotter says. Rotter, says Obits guitarist Sohrab Habibion, "was talking about doing something musical and we thought given the nature of the story it would be really fun to do something absurd, and prog seemed like the most friendly format."

"Song of the Great Kataklysm" is crammed with themes from the book—sea life, an underwater city, volcano eruptions—as well as the goofy wordplay and outre musical references Rotter's always prized in his less-publicized pursuits. It features majestic organ lines, spiraling guitar work, and massive vocals from a heavy metal singer named Matt Payne. It is also staffed by veterans of some great D.C. punk and indie bands: Habibion was in Edsel, drummer Alexis Fleisig was in Girls Against Boys, and co-vocalist Margaret McCartney was in Tuscadero and Hot Pursuit. Payne came into the picture via Michael Hampton, a friend of Rotter and Habibion who toiled in S.O.A., the Faith, Embrace, and Manifesto before becoming a film and TV composer and often saw the metal singer on the Prospect Park playground where both their children play.

It was a playdate forged in Mordor. The players do a more-than-credible job summoning the spirit of King Crimson and Gentle Giant, but it's Payne who brings the awesome sauce, from the faux-English accent on his spoken parts to his meaty wail on the verses to the metal ejaculations with which he wallops the choruses.

Those are a subject Payne has studied extensively: "Mainly what I was working off of was Ronnie James Dio's tendency to yell 'hell yeah' and 'look out!' occasionally throughout a lot of his work," he says. His Dio scholarship does not always end happily: "Every 10 years or so someone from the Misfits calls," he says, "then cans me because I sound too much like Dio." That's not something you hear about yourself very often, I say.

"Well, I've heard it twice," he says.

"The idiom kind of requires a certain confidence that neither Jeff nor I could muster," says Habibion. Payne, he says, "seemed to actually appreciate the silliness and the seriousness. We didn't know what his voice sounded like till he got to the studio. He got up and started singing and Jeff and I just died....He seemed to know all the corny stuff that happened in that music."

Rotter says the idea to record the song grew out of an earlier plan to host an underwater reading of the book, whose main character nurses his obsession with an ancient underwater civilization by meditating below the surface of hotel pools. "That was the problem: the logistics," he says. The hotels he contacted, he says, "were pretty convinced we were gonna have a sex party."

The whole promotion thus far has cost about $600, not including the costs of a video he plans to shoot. Rotter's paid for this himself—for authors occupying the lower reaches of a publisher's "list," entrepreneurialism is beginning to become as important as a book proposal.

The novelist John Wray says he undertook a 600-mile trip down the Mississippi River when "it became clear to me that there wasn't gonna be a bunch of promotional oomph behind my second novel, which I'd worked on for six years." That voyage, in 2005, garnered him a nice writeup in the New York Times (by former City Paper editor David Carr).

"Even though that book never sold many copies," Wray says, "I still encounter people in the publishing business, but also regular people and readers who remember that article and remember that I did that. I think it's contributed to the success of my current novel which is really doing quite well," he adds. That book, Lowboy, is about a man who likes to ride subway trains; for the book's "trailer," Wray filmed a selection of subway riders reading from the book's first pages.

"Publishing is having its Napster moment if you will," says Bethanne Patrick, the host of WETA-TV's Book Studio. Even five years ago, Patrick says, authors didn't need to worry about their own promotions. There were 30 to 40 good places for book reviews, and book tours were as close as most readers got. Now publishers are loath to invest in book tours—why pay thousands of dollars and hope people will show up to a Barnes and Noble in St. Louis on a Wednesday night when you can connect with readers more often, and better, with Twitter?

Authors aren't abandoning the idea of tours, Patrick says. Rebecca Skloot, for instance, put together a tour for her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta WacksLacks [GAH! Thanks for noticing the typo, Preston!] when her publisher, Crown, said it didn't think one made financial sense. She e-mailed colleges and bookstores, friends and fans, and cobbled together a 14-city jaunt that kicked off this past Tuesday. "The reality is, in today’s market, writers have no choice but to embrace their inner PR person," Skloot wrote in Publishers Weekly.

It's worth asking why the culture of publishing has been so slow to embrace innovations such as hand-hewn tours and social media. "I can't really blame [publishers]," Patrick says, because for years "publishing wasn't even a business. It was regarded as a lifestyle. It's really changed—it is a business now."

"When you're comfortable in your tweedy space," she says, "why would you want to change?"

Say you grew up in the indie-rock scene, though, and you're considering where to place your first novel. If you're willing to do most of the promotion, at some point the example of bands like Fugazi or Thievery Corporation is going to make you wonder why you need a publisher in the first place. "I still think that there are many things that traditional publishers do for authors," Patrick says, mentioning "marketing, sales, editorial support...especially when it comes to getting a manuscript into shape to be read." Patrick has started a company called Megaphone to which publishers can outsource their social media strategies while they get up to speed, should they decide to do so (I have my doubts about this: One publicist I reached out to for this story on Wednesday still hasn't seen fit to get back to me).

"I think the key to effective publicity is bearing in mind that journalists need a story," says Wray. "They need something to write about. Simply 'book has been published' isn't really news." When we spoke on Thursday afternoon, he was on his way to a event for his book in Brooklyn where musicians he'd met on the subway would play and he would read. It was not listed on his publisher's events page, but it was easy to find on Facebook.

"All this stuff has a tangential relation to my novel at best," Wray says. "I don't have much patience for novelists who still cultivate this precious attitude about their work. the truth is if you direct a film you have to try to drum up some interest in it. If you write a video game you have to make the rounds....I don't consider that questionable or quote unquote undignified." Writing, he says, "may be an art form, but it's also a job."

Rotter says he's been happy with the PR efforts of his publisher so far, and that he's treating the song and the inevitable video (when we spoke, he and McCartney, his wife, were planning to build a volcano out of which Payne would erupt like lava) as "its own kind of project. I got to go in a studio with a bunch of friends and play some ridiculous music," he says. "It was fun to kind of switch off the taste meter for the day and admit that dual leads are really cool and there's nothing wrong with a triangle solo."

I ask him if he thinks this will help sales.

"It's worth it whether it reaches a thousand people or just two of my friends can giggle at it," he says, adding: "I'd rather it reaches a thousand people."

Listen to Rotter's song (or download it here):

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And here's a video he made about the making of the song (via his blog):
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[Full Disclosure: 1) I am very good friends with Rotter. We worked together at Spin, Microsoft, and Martha Stewart Living and one time went on a record-company junket to Nice, France, to interview a Belgian rock band. Our children are friends, too. 2) McCartney was in a band, Tuscadero, on the same record label as my group in the '90s. 3) In that group, I played at least five, probably more, shows with Sohrab Habibion's old group, Edsel, and he has put me on the guest list for an Obits performance. 4) I have been a fan of Mike Hampton's and Alexis Fleisig's work for many years. TOTALLY in the tank. 5) I was very happy with the publicity job done by the publisher for my book, which is still available, at steep discounts.]

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