in Interviews | 06 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Ghost in the Machine

An interview with Jeff Noon

in Interviews | 06 MAY 99

James Roberts: How did you come to writing?

Jeff Noon: I started out as a painter - I might as well say it. Writing is something I came to gradually. I messed about with lots of different things in my younger years - dance, music, bands - but mainly concentrated on painting. I have always felt that I wanted to communicate on a broad level with as many people as possible, which is why I moved away from art and began to concentrate on writing. My work was in any case moving away from complete abstraction into storytelling, using elements of popular culture. I had been doing acting, stand-up, stuff like that, and I found that I could bring a lot of that to bear in my writing.

No matter how mad my work gets, underneath I think it has a human heart beating away quite rudely and crudely. I am never going to push it completely into the avant-garde, but I am very interested in taking real life experiences - how people live their lives in the real world - and pushing them right up against the malleable edge of the avant-garde. That interface is the most exciting area. Sonic Youth, for example, exist on that interface. Kids who listen to Sonic Youth can go through that door, beyond which is the 'pure' avant-garde where there's some very exciting music, or they can just stay on the interface, and there are a lot of interesting things going on there too.

What is the avant-garde? Does it still exist?

My main experience of it these days is through music and I would safely say that in music the avant-garde definitely does exist and is very healthy. Particularly in the outer margins of dance culture - where dance music meets the 'traditional' avant-garde. You can actually talk about the traditional avant-garde these days! Free Jazz, improvised music, for instance, is a traditional avant-garde and it's still strong. There's also Modern Classical music. If you made a Venn diagram, and had two big circles representing avant-garde music and dance culture, they'd intersect in the middle. Then there's another circle coming in, which could be something like easy listening. Who could have predicted what would happen with easy listening? It's kitsch and it's crap, but where those three circles intersect is interesting. You might get a renewed interest in krautrock and that's another circle that can come in and intersect. You could listen to some bands and think 'yes, that's exactly where they are - at the intersection of avant-garde, krautrock, dance and easy listening'. To me, something like that is what the avant-garde is these days: it's finding those little areas of interest that have never been touched before - you can safely say that avant-garde and easy listening haven't, and now they have. That's what I mean by avant-garde.

How about in terms of writing?

There's a difficulty with writing. If you take all the art forms you can make a graph of how easy it is to experience the avant-garde. I would suggest that music is probably one of the easiest. You can go to a concert, sit there for an hour and be bombarded with sheer noise. You may hate it, but you will experience it. An avant-garde film might last half an hour before people start leaving. With an avant-garde book, people can bear one or two pages. There is a problem in writing of what you might call 'the unreadable book'. It is something I grapple with - and some people manage to solve it. But what's the point of creating an art form for a tiny, tiny minority these days? All those experiments should have been taken care of at the start of the century. These days we should be talking about educating people, about reaching out.

There's a lot of talk of crossover in the art world at the moment, but can you really take processes from other media and make them work in a meaningful way in your own?

I absolutely detest the visual art scene at the moment. I think it's up its arse in a way that it has never been before, so the desire for artists to crossover will be great - obviously people will want to reach out and search for other means of expression. I wrote a book called Nymphomation (1997) in which there are several chapters talking about the same thing - the playing of a National Game. Each time this chapter is presented, the language starts to break down - it's a very simple correlation between the breakdown of society and the breakdown of language. As I was writing, I noticed it could almost be Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. There are about six of these chapters in the book and most people will recognise the final one as being on the way to becoming Jabberwocky. When people asked me about it, I used to say 'Oh it's a reverse dub'. I was just making it up, to get people going. I said I started with Jabberwocky and then broke it down bit by bit and then I turned it around and presented it in the wrong order in the book. Just saying that put the idea in my head - you can actually do this! I was tremendously excited by this idea - you can take one of the most important artistic discoveries of the 20th century - dub - and apply it to writing. Pixel Juice (1998) is the first movement along that line of thought. I began thinking about the dance music that I love and DJ culture and wondering 'what else do they do?' The great techniques of dance culture are Dub, Remix, Segue, Scratching, Sampling, and I began to think about the literary equivalents of these techniques.

I recently did a piece based on a text Michael Bracewell sent me for a collaboration. The first part 'Start. Inlet' is pure Mike Bracewell. The second part is 'Purify', in which I isolate the best images and get rid of all the 'of's and 'the's and 'and's, and leave only the things that interest me, a series of poetic images. Then I 'Randomise' it, mix it all together on the screen, then I 'Enhance' it, taking the random mix and trying to find some scrap of meaning in it, and at the same time I 'Sample' Manchester street names. So you start to get another story coming out of Mike's piece, maybe using the same language and having the same atmosphere, but a completely different story. In the next section, 'Decay', it starts to lose letters and a new meaning arrives. The first sentence was originally 'dust, the near future, Saturday night'. Now it says 'dust, the near future, Saturn'. It's suddenly jumped, and you're in space. 'Decay' breaks things down so I build it up again with more input. 'Increase Sense' - that's trying to tell a story, well-written, that people will be interested in. Take that, 'Purify' it again, so it's a series of words, nothing more, and out of that create the 'Outlet' and 'Save' which is a perfect sonnet in iambic pentameter - everything rhymes. When you read the whole thing you can see how, after working through a complete mess, moving in and out of sense, a sonnet has come out of Mike's text. Sometimes the pieces end up as stories, as a joke, a riddle or an image. The overriding instruction is that the final piece, the 'Outlet', has to be brilliant, if at all possible. Which is to say that the techniques of the avant-garde can be used to create something that will welcome people in. It marries the two together and I think that's what we have got to do at this point in history.

So the important element is the goal as much as the process?

You have to put the work in. The processes I use break the language down and then work it up again, then you can work the relationship and move through a narrative. Many writers have experimented with breaking down language, but I have the overriding principle that the end result has to make sense - maybe that's why ultimately I will never be avant-garde: I am too much in love with extracting beauty from chaos. You can start off with the back of a Cornflakes packet, it doesn't matter. Some of the experiments fail and have to be abandoned. Beauty is a dirty word in the field of experimental writing. But that's a good thing about electronic music, you can be quite playful with it. Think of someone like Mike Paradinas - there's a lot of messing about with electronic gadgetry going on, but the final piece can be quite jolly almost, playful and full of musical jokes. The mingling between dance, electronica and easy listening is a very fertile area for artists of all media.

Is there anything from visual art that you have brought into your writing?

Lots, but it's more boringly down to earth. Being able to paint images with words, for example. When I was 20, writing a page of prose seemed like an immense task compared to getting some paint onto a canvas, and that challenge appealed to me. Writing excites me so much: I desire language - Language Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. I am very interested in the idea of transcendence and epiphany in the stories, but I try to do it through language rather than event. I wrote a story called 'Crawl Town' at the end of which a girl makes her escape and looks into an object that had preoccupied her for years. Instead of saying 'and then I looked into...' she says 'and then I set my eye to ignition' and the story ends. If you can set up a resonance in the readers' minds then the language does the work for you, the language makes the escape. You have to write on the word level. Going back to painting, Bill Clark, my art teacher at school, used to say that painting is a series of marks - don't think about the big thing, just get the marks right. Writing is the same, you need to get the words right. Many texts are written by storytellers - there's nothing wrong with that - they tell you a story, show you the wood. What I am trying to do is say, 'oh, look at that tree, isn't it interesting, it leads on to that tree'. Eventually, if you show people enough trees they will get a map of the wood in their heads. It's a deeper way of writing, but much more time consuming. Oil paint is a very malleable medium, which is why people still like it, and I used to think that writing wasn't like that, but it is. When you first write a word there is a moment when it is still drying, before its meaning is set into place forever. While it's drying you can move it around. With the remix techniques, I am trying to lengthen the drying time of a word.

This sounds similar to the way that much electronic music is becoming more minimal structurally, but there's a greater investment in the texture of individual sounds.

I think it is the way to go, especially in music and writing. I think painting has done that. It has always been one of the first art forms to do things, and that's a curse. Writing and music are still youthful in a strange way. The individual texture of notes is important - I remember reading an interview with Photek in which he said that one drum track had taken 15 hours to programme each cymbal. He could have employed a really great jazz drummer, because that's what it sounds like, but the fact that he has put those hours in means something. Likewise, Derek Bailey makes his music out of the bits that other guitarists don't bother with - the clicks and scrapes and finger buzzes - and it becomes a personal language. If you learn the language it makes a lot of sense, if you don't then it's just noise. If you listen to Plastikman, for example, there is a spirit at play. It is a very shadowy thing and you can hardly grasp it at times, but it is there. It is not machine music: there is a human, like a ghost, in the music. You might buy an electronic music record that's crap, but you put on another, maybe with the same sounds, made on the same gear, but it's got the ghost in it. That's because an artist is at work, rather than someone pressing buttons.

There has been an opening up of the consciousness of British people to contemporary art and that has to be applauded. But the visual education of people in this country is a complete accident. You have to be interested in art before you ever encounter any, rather than being taught the basics of it. Vision On was what turned me on to art! The key thing to get across is that artists are responsible people and not trying to take you for a ride. I say to my friends, and it really annoys them, that every work is an act of genius unless proved otherwise. The 'unless proved otherwise' is very important, but to approach a piece of art in any media you have to assume that the artist has attempted to say what they want to say to the best of their abilities and ask what this can bring to the viewer. I think a lot of critics start with the idea that everything's crap until proved otherwise. I found that if I went round with a more generous idea in my head then I opened myself up to a lot more experience. It's led me down some strange paths, especially in music, and you find that when you have gone a certain distance it's very hard to get back - once you are listening to, say, Evan Parker, it's very difficult to get anything rhythmically, lyrically or harmonically from the latest Blur track, although you can appreciate it as a great pop single.

Brian Eno has changed most people's conception of what an artist is - he has made people aware that an artist is the person with ideas and doesn't necessarily have to be the person to put them into practice. He's been a catalyst for something as Pop as U2 or as extremely avant-garde as Discreet Music (1975). Being an artist is more of a state of mind, technique comes later. I taught myself to write novels and if you read my books in order you will see me coming to terms with the form, experimenting with it.

There has been a boom in the formation of artists' bands in Britain recently, but depressingly, the majority have tended to be guitar rock bands - it seems that many artists just see music as a way to live out their rock fantasies.

It doesn't have to be like that: I saw Autechre in Manchester recently, and after the support band finished with their lights and videos, a roadie came on - a traditional roadie with a pony tail and skinny jeans - and moved a wooden table onto the centre of the stage. On it was a mixing desk - a little grey box with knobs - and he put two wooden chairs behind it and then walked off. Autechre came on: two young men each carrying a laptop computer, which they plugged into the mixing desk, and started playing. All the lights went off, there were no videos, and all you could see were their two faces in the reflected blue light of the screens. They were mixing, pressing keys, looking at each other's screens, and it was a complete mystery to me what they were doing. Either they were creating an incredible sound on the spur of the moment, or they had just pressed a 'play' button and they were acting - both of which are interesting. To me that was a spectacle in a real sense. When you can do what Autechre do, with incredibly complex rhythms and beautiful overlaid melodies, what's the point of guitars any more? Why do you need clod-hopping rock drummers when you can programme the kind of fantastic drum tracks you get in dance music that extend right through space? The sophistication in the technology releases the spirit.

Jeff Noon is the author of four novels - Pollen (1993), Vurt (1995), Automated Alice (1996), Nymphomation (1997) - and Pixel Juice (1998), a collection of short stories. Needle in the Groove and Cobralingus will be published in 2000.