First thing: some caveats:
1. I have never written a review for a band before, so I imagine this is going to be clunky. Don’t be surprised if you find some flowery language in here, since most reviews are like that I’m using some professional people as models.
2. I don’t know much about music. I mean, I played percussion in middle school, high school, and college, but that consisted mainly on beating things with other things. So you won’t find lots of music theory and explanation in here. It’s just me hocking a friend’s album.
3. That’s right – I have known Justin Lacy since we were Boy Scouts together, so I just want everyone to know that going into this thing. I think I have enough distance to be unbiased, though. Here we go.
According to their website, Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine started when Mr. Lacy and a group of friends played together at one of those “anything goes” open mics, performing some songs that Lacy had written. They did strange things: substituting a tap dancer for snare, using muted trumpets in tandem with synths and electric guitar, and even employing upright bass and whistling into their songs. The group enjoyed playing together, and so continued. However, this band is not your conventional band. Its main members (numbering around 8ish), are joined by various “moving parts,” making the total number of instrumentalists and vocalists connected with the band a cool 18. It is very much a machine, and as a person interested in words and their usages I find it remarkable that the band’s name manages to capture both its unusual nature and musical vibe. You feel, listening to them, that you are moving through a form of audial water: lively and cool and sort of casual, but at the same time rife with musical rip currents, little twists and inversions of the expected sounds that keep the songs tirelessly interesting. But that’s enough about the band itself. I’ve already started to get into the music. For more information on the Swimming Machine’s formation and history, click on this picture I have conveniently placed below.
THE SOUND OF THE MUSIC
Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine sound as strange and amazing as their backstory would suggest. Lacy’s vocals are rough and husky, and remind me of Johnny Cash in a lot of ways. Hold on, I know that’s high praise, but I think he sort of pulls back on the beat as he sings, creating a Cash-like slowness that blends nicely with the upbeat music behind him. His lyrics help create a connection with the mainstream folk and bluegrass music that is taking people by storm right now (especially in songs like Bottom Feeder that showcase a man dealing with raw emotion). And let me just spend a few seconds here talking about the ladies in this group. Led by core member Sophie Amelkin and including vocalists Christa Faison, Whitney Lanier, and Heather Bobeck, the female members of the group are, in my opinion, a huge part in giving the songs their edginess. The backup vocals provided by these ladies remind me of (and I hope they take this as a compliment, because it is) my favorite soundtrack of all time: the soundtrack to the Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater video game. They give the group a fifties-esque backup singer Motown vibe at certain times, further adding to the musical dynamism and eclecticism of the Swimming Machine. Take a listen to In Chiaroscuro or Bottom Feeder and you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about. You’ll fall in love with these voices.
Okay, now for the instruments. Like I said in the band bio section, the group has a lot of strange instrumentation going on. But for me, this odd assortment of sounds and melodies rarely detracts from the overall feel of the song. I don’t think I was ever distracted by the choice of instruments. Rather, new sounds would emerge and felt strangely right, like I should have known somehow that they were coming round the bend. The muted trumpet, the mandolin, the synths and whistling. It all melds together into an apt feeling that you’ve stumbled upon, well, a swimming machine moving deliberately and wetly through the ocean. I felt at points a definite steampunkiness. All metal and rubber and perpetual motion. You get me? No? Then perhaps you should check the band out.
CHECKING THE BAND OUT
Any of this sound interesting to you? Good. Perhaps you’d like to saunter over to the band’s website and purchase their debut album, Overgrown. It’s available in three ways: a name-your-own-price digital copy, a $9 CD, and a $15 Limited Edition 12-inch Vinyl. Oh, and did I mention that these guys are mostly UNC-Wilmington graduates from the school’s music program? And that the album art is by a Wilmington artist named Kate Winchell (which, by the way, the album art is absolutely perfect)? So go out and support a local, NC-based band making great music and art and giving back to the community. Do it.
Q1. Do you prefer stories where the “bad guy” is clearly defined, or do you like ambiguity concerning who is really good and who is bad? And if you clearly outline who is the antagonist, do you ever tell the readers how the said “evil” character became that way, or trust that they will accept that the character is inherently bad?
Q2. Do you find it easier to write stories that you can use actual historical events as a backdrop, or do you prefer to create an entire fictional universe to use as you want?
Q3. Which perspective is it easiest to write from? Do you find it easier to write a story where you don’t have to provide a character’s mental justifications for their actions, or do you want your readers to know the “why”?
A1. Okay, I’m going to go ahead and admit something about my writing that needs lots of improvement: the absence of a real villain. Most of my stories don’t really have a set villain. They tend to be introspective and villain-less for two reasons.
First, I use my writing to deal with facets of myself, and so there is lots of ambiguity there since real life doesn’t delineate the heroes and the villains so clearly. I mean, in an election year like this one we get to see just how ambiguous things are: each side is trying to slant everything so that its own candidate is the hero and the opposition are the villains. However, both sides contain good philosophies and both sides misuse and abuse power. So life doesn’t delineate things like stories do. And since I try to use my stories to talk about real life, the war tends to go on inside the characters rather than being fought between them. That said, there has to be some sort of good vs. evil going on in order to maintain interest in the reader and in order to set the stakes high. So I’m working on making that clearer in my writing (especially in my forthcoming novella, lovingly referred to as The Dwarf Story in lieu of a title, which is a fantasy story and thus needs to better adhere to that genre’s expectations).
Secondly, my thinking is largely defined by my philosophical and religious views, and therefore so too is my writing. Specifically (as I have stated on this blog a few times), I am a Calvinistic-type Christian. Which means, among lots of other things, that I believe man is unable to truly choose goodness over evil apart from the grace of God. This doctrine is referred to as Total Depravity, and basically it means that I do not think anyone is ultimately good apart from God. Therefore, characters in my work are constantly doing bad things, or even good things for bad reasons. For example, I wrote a short story (and am still editing it and getting it ready to eventually send out to publications) called Desperately Sick in which the protagonist is a sex addict who ends up (*spoiler alert*) impregnating an underage girl who lives in the same rehabilitation compound as he. The story does not have a happy ending, and it features a pastor who tries to help the man out of his sex addiction by preaching false theology. Anyway, the man is supposed to be viewed as a villain, but not one who is monstrous. The reader is supposed to realize that he is just a man like any other, who happens to have fallen into sinful sex addiction and adulterous habits, and is unable to escape his own sin through his own power. This is part of the belief system to which I subscribe, and it is a doctrine that I philosophically struggle with, and so much of my more “serious” stories deal with it.
So there you have it. I prefer ambiguity, but ambiguity not in the sense of “what is right and wrong,” but more in the sense of “everyone is constantly doing both good and bad things.”
A2. I’ll be honest. I like to create entire fictional universes. This is for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly these two: 1. It’s fun and cool. 2. Research sucks. Being brutally honest with myself, it’s probably mainly the latter. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and so for me it is difficult to tell myself that doing the hard work of research-based novel-writing is going to pay off for me. I would not be opposed to setting stories in historical backdrops in the future, when life is a little less hectic than it is now (starting a family, trying to start an online magazine, working a regular job, trying to write, etc.). But yeah, basically I’m lazy and don’t want to spend all that time researching. However, I have spent a good amount of time creating the world of the Dwarf Story and of another untitled novel I have on the shelf, so the time saved is probably mostly in my head.
A3. First off, I do want my readers to know the “why.” For me, writing is all about communication. So ideally everything I write encapsulates some point or idea that I want to get across to the reader. I haven’t spent a lot of time reading philosophical essays on literary analysis, but I think the idea that it’s all up to the reader is ridiculous. The point is always communication, and communication only works when the author has some message that he or she gets across to the reader. If the message is missing, or if the reader fails to receive it, communication hasn’t taken place. Now, the best art allows for multiple interpretations and inspires discussion, so I’m not saying the reader should not have his or her own views on a particular story. But I do try to get some kind of statement across to the reader, and therefore knowing the “why” is often important (unless, of course, the message I’m trying to communicate is something like “reasons don’t matter,” or “the universe is meaningless,” etc. – although even in those cases the lack of an explicit or implicit “why” is itself getting the point across to the reader).
To answer the first part of your question, I think it’s really difficult to truly deal with justifications using any perspective. Even using first-person is tricky (it might be the trickiest to pull off, actually) because it can easily slip into hokey declarations of why the character did what she did. It becomes easier, at least for me, to tell things instead of showing them when using first-person. I tend to gravitate toward what a teacher of mine (and renowned author) David Madden calls “Third-Person Central Intelligence.” It’s third-person, but the author is not omniscient. Rather, it’s like a camera right behind the shoulder of the protagonist, showing everything from his or her perspective, but outside of his or her mind. I like that style because it allows me a safety net against telling instead of showing. I am forced, since I’m not inside the characters’ heads, to use description of the surroundings and actions, etc. to help the reader understand what’s going on and why. This is kind of a convoluted answer, but basically there is no easy perspective. I do prefer, though, to write from a 3rd person Central Intelligence.
There are the answers to some more reader questions. Thanks to Hannah Lundy for asking tough questions and making me think hard about some important stuffs. I plan on restarting the weekly blog post thing, so look for a new post every week. I can’t designate a specific day because my current job is not on a consistent schedule, but I can say I’ll try to have one up every week. Thanks for reading!
Welcome to the first-ever Audience Feedback post on this here blog! Okay, that’s basically just a way of saying that for the past week I haven’t had a clue what to write for this week’s post, so I have used my vast network of Twitter followers and Facebook friends (read: my “audience”) to suggest some topics. After receiving a whopping two (read it: 2!) suggestions, I have decided to just go ahead and answer both of them. Actually, the first can probably be broken down into two separate questions, so I guess there’re three questions to answer. Prepare yourselves for some deep thoughts.
Question 1: Why do you write?
The easy, somewhat pretentious way of answering this question would be to say that I write because I have to. And that’s true in a lot of ways. I think there really is an internal drive in most writers to jot down their stories. Even when I’m not writing a story, I’m jotting down ideas for stories; or I’m jotting down poems; or I’m jotting down titles of stuff, character names, etc. etc. I like to write. I can’t not do it. But that’s not the only answer, and it probably isn’t the most satisfying one for anyone out there who actually cares about my reasons.
A better reason might be that I have always been an avid reader. Stories allow me to transport myself from this singular life I’m living into an endless amount of other lives and worlds. I get to experience things like space travel, growing up gay, living in Asia. The list is almost infinite, and each story makes it possible for me to get a completely different perspective on life. And so one of my goals is to give back to that community, to “join the conversation” about life and – yes, I’m about to say it – the human condition. I cringe when I write that, but it’s a true thing. I want to put my own thoughts out there in order to allow people to experience things they would otherwise not experience. Hence the fantasy and science fiction stories I currently have in the works. Writing also allows me to deal with life issues in a way that is liberating and helpful. I can organize my thoughts on a certain subject (for instance, environmentalism in the novel I also have in the works) and really explore how that subject might have differing effects on characters. So there is an intellectual aspect to why I write as well.
There is also a significant theological aspect to writing, for me. As a Christian, I believe that creativity stems from God, and that it is part of the “image of God” that humanity possesses. So writing is not only a celebration of the human imagination, but it is also a celebration of the divine. By creating stories I am mirroring the Creator, whose great story is history itself. That might sound like drivel to some of my audience, but it is a part of why I write and it is something I take rather seriously.
2. Why do you blog?
This one’s much easier. My blog allows me to be constantly writing stuff that is going to be read by people (not that many people, but the idea is there). Which means that I have a real incentive to write reasonably well, and thus I get a lot of valuable exercise of my “writing muscles.” That’s a lame metaphor, so let’s move on.
Practically, the main reason for having a blog is to generate an audience. That’s right – you all are the reason I blog! The idea is that the blog will provide a place for people to see samples of my writing and to receive updates on books of mine whenever I get them published. The blog is also a place for prospective employers to see my writing and judge whether or not they would like to hire me for any type of writing-related job. So there it is: the blog is basically a marketing exercise.
Question 3: Tell us about your recent move to the coast.
Yes, I live near the beach now. It’s been a decent enough move. There are still mounds of boxes scattered around our new duplex. And I am no longer used to the humidity and heat here. A few years living in the mountains will do that to you. And here’s another thing: they have so many ANTS here. I mowed the lawn the other day and my left ankle is now decked out with some vicious fire-ant bites. The ants must have gotten into my shoes while I mowed. Also, I’m kind of languishing in unemployment right now. I had two jobs lined up and they both have sort of flaked out on me. But I’m looking into some other opportunities, so I’m not yet freaking out.
Okay, enough about all the bad stuff. After all, the move was a good one. The duplex is bigger than our previous one, and there is a ton of cabinet space in the kitchen (this is something that Megan insisted upon). We also now have a dishwasher, a fenced-in backyard, weekly trash pickup, and we live in a kid-friendly neighborhood. It’s great. Not to mention the fact that we’re five minutes away from my parents and Megan’s dad. And only about forty-five minutes from Megan’s mom’s place. So the family gets to visit Asher more often (let’s be honest, he’s the main reason they visit, the little stinker) and Megan and I can get some much needed assistance with childcare. On top of that, even the unemployment thing has some benefits. I’ve been able to write on a more consistent basis, make a lot of headway into the Dwarf Story, and even watch a few Olympic soccer matches (Thursday is the Women’s Gold Medal Final between the USA and Japan!). So far moving to the coast has been a good experience.
So there you have it, folks. I have answered your questions. Thanks for helping me come up with something to put on here (thanks especially to Jeff Holder and Mary Fonvielle, who supplied the questions). See you next week!
The cemetery was gray, or maybe that’s just the way I remember it. It’d had the feelings of ghosts and lonely corpses even though the sky was clear and the grass was green. I remember seeing a mound of sand, all brown and soil-black, where the gravediggers had cleared a fresh space for him. I imagined that it smelled like vegetables in the hopes that maybe he’d feel somewhat at home there, in the ground. My grandfather had been an excellent cook.