Q&A: Alan Moore
The legendary comic book writer sounds off on his new project, Brian Eno, and how to make your life matter.
In his groundbreaking Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and From Hell comic series, Alan Moore shattered conventions by gilding his intricate narratives with allusions to pre-Christian mythology, obscure magic rituals, Masonic lore, and historical events, earning himself superhero-like status in the world of ink, paper, and story panels. But with his new project, the eccentric Englishman has decided to test his powers of multi-media.
Working in collaboration with photographer Mitch Jenkins and musicians such as Mike Patton and Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, Moore, 56, created Unearthing, a spoken-word biography of his friend and celebrated fellow comic writer Steven Moore that features an accompanying score and book of photographs.
Speaking on the phone from his home in Northampton, England, Moore told SPIN.com about Unearthing and also touched on the role that music in his life and work, as well as his idea for how we might come to live in a “better understood world.”
Unearthing is fundamentally a two-hour piece of storytelling. Is there an audience for the project?
Since I am me, I find it very difficult to judge how fascinating listening to my nasal, heavily-accented drone for two hours would be to somebody who wasn’t me. I can’t think of anything quite like Unearthing. Yes, there have been spoken word performances with music but the fact that it’s a combination of photographic imagery, of music, of words — I think it’s an interesting enough beast that people may find that it appeals to them in ways that they might not have been appealed to before. I know that the music is absolutely spellbinding, and the public response seems to be very good. We got huge amounts of pre-orders. We’ll have to wait and see, but I’ve got quite a good feeling about it.
Where did the idea for Unearthing come from?
It all really started with my friend Steven Moore doing an improvised magical ritual after buying a Chinese coin sword back in the 1970s. Steve thought, “Oh, I’ve got a magic sword, perhaps I should do a magic ritual with it.”
Indeed! And what he did was ask a spirit for guidance. The next morning he woke up and heard a male voice whispering the word “Endymion” in his ear, which of course sounds like dream gibberish, but then he remembered it was also the name of a poem by John Keats about a Greek shepherd boy who falls in love with the moon goddess Selene. The goddess tells the boy that he can be with her forever, but only if he’s asleep and dreaming. Gradually this myth started to take over Steve’s life in some quite unusual ways, which are documented in the story but I won’t share now. Then, around 2004, Iain Sinclair, my friend and one of the greatest writers in the English language, called up to ask me if I wanted to contribute to an anthology that he was editing called London: City of Disappearances. He said I should write about someone or something that has disappeared, that was disappearing, or that would disappear somewhere within London. The first person I thought of was Steve Moore. Steve has lived in the same house that he was born in throughout his entire life. There are probably very few people remaining in the modern world who have had that experience. He’s a vanishing breed. So I decided that I wanted to do a biography of Steve because he’s got a very strange external and internal life, and the book gave me the forum to do that. That’s the genesis of Unearthing.
How did Unearthing turn into something with visual and musical components?
Before the Sinclair book came out, I had a visit from my friend Mitch Jenkins, who is probably one of the most in-demand photographers in the world, and who happens to live around the corner from me. We’ve known each other for decades. Mitch was apparently getting a little bit bored with the endless retouching of some television stars’ irises for these super high definition portraits he was doing, and wanted to do something more creative. He asked if I’d got any text laying around that might provide him with a bit of inspiration. The only thing that I had was this my unwieldy manuscript for Unearthing. But I suggested that he might find something in there to spark his imagination. He returned in a state of photographic arousal, wanting to do a gigantic book combining text with images. And at some point, I think Mitch went to lunch with some people from Lex Records in L.A. and told them what we were doing. They suggested that there could be a musical element. So Unearthing started with a dream of Steve Moore’s and blossomed into this multimedia piece of work involving musicians like Mike Patton, Justin Broderick from Godflesh and Napalm Death, and Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai. It just keeps growing and growing. I’m fairly confident that in five years time we’ll be talking about Unearthing the musical.
The language in Unearthing has almost a musical quality. There’s lots of alliteration and attention paid to the rhythm of the sentences. Did you go back and rewrite the story once you knew it would involve spoken-word?
No. Like I said, the story was originally purely for inclusion in Sinclair’s anthology. However, I started out writing poetry with the Northampton Arts Lab when I was 17. This was a spontaneous group of local artists who put out poetry magazines, did performances — all sorts of stuff. The poetry I wrote for them was intended to be read out, so the syllables were very deftly considered. I found that using an iambic meter in my writing made it very powerful when read aloud. I’ve always written with more attention than I should have paid to rhythm. And when it came to writing Unearthing, I was self-conscious about putting a story into an anthology with a writer that I admire greatly, such as Iain Sinclair, so I was trying to show off. I really wanted that story to be the most beautifully written piece that I was capable of. So, yes, I did pay attention to the music of every sentence. And, no, I didn’t go back and change it for the reading.
There’s always been a musical aspect to your work. I’m thinking of V For Vendetta in particular, where parts were “set” to musical notation written directly on the pages of the comic and the story had references to the Rolling Stones and other rock musicians. Can you talk about how music has influenced you?
V For Vendettawas one of the earliest times when I mashed up my text with music. I’ve worked a lot with musicians throughout my career. I’ve been in a couple of local bands. And for a number of years I was doing these one-off, magical spoken word performances with my musical accomplice, Tim Perkins. But I didn’t have much direct input with the music for Unearthing. I gather that the actual recording of me reading was the starting point for most of the musicians. They built up their music around a preexisting spoken piece and I think the results sound fantastic.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Not any more. Way back in the day, when I first started and had delusions of adequacy as a cartoonist, I would listen to music. When I switched to a career as a writer, I would try to listen to music, but if the songs had lyrics they would get in the way of the words I was trying to write. So I switched to listening to purely instrumental pieces. Then, as I became a better writer, I found that even the rhythms, the tunes, the melodies in instrumental pieces were interfering with the rhythms that I was trying to create in my prose. So I thought, “Alright, can’t listen to instrumental music anymore.” Then I discovered ambient music. I’d always had an immense love of Brian Eno’s work. He’s fantastic. I’ve got quite a few of his ambient pieces. For a long while I listened to just ambient stuff, then I realized that the atmosphere in the ambient pieces was interfering with the atmosphere that I was trying to create in my work. So I tend to work completely in silence these days.
At least it only took you a couple of decades to sort that issue out.
But I got there eventually.
A recurring image in Unearthing is that of Shooter’s Hill, which is an actual hill near London. You make a lot of the idea that someone might know Shooter’s Hill as simply a hunk of dirt, but that this unimpressive bit of land was also referenced by Byron and Dickens and was an archery site during the Middle Ages. Why are those sorts of historical connections important to you?
What I’m doing in Unearthing with regards to Shooter’s Hill is overlaying people’s mundane awareness of the streets through which they walk with these rich layers of historical or metaphysical association. I think that’s important. We walk down the streets where we live and we don’t think about them. We simply feel the pavement underneath our feet or see the identical houses creeping by. That strikes me as not particularly entertaining or enriching way to live. Our environments shape the way we see ourselves. If you have been condemned to live in an area that is pretty evidently a rat-run, then sooner or later you’re gonna come to the conclusion that you’re a rat. Whereas if you believe that the streets you walk down are full of fable and history and legend and association then you might start to feel as if you were significant as well.
Does the same sort of excavation work with people as well?
Of course. To the casual observer, Steve Moore is a slender, slightly built man in his early 60s with an awful lot of silver hair and a few ornamental rings on his fingers. You wouldn’t look twice at him on a bus. But what we’re saying is that if this is just one person, and an exposure of his life reveals something so fascinating, might that be true of everybody? Might that be true of everywhere? Every street corner — if you were to examine it closely enough, and with a poetic enough eye — would yield an incredible tapestry of associations and historical or even mythological events. And I suppose if Unearthing is about anything, it is trying to encourage people to look at the world with that kind of eye — to make their experience and their world richer. Life is a lot more interesting if you are interested in the people and the places around you. So illuminate your little patch of ground, the people that you know, the things that you want to commemorate. Light them up with your art, with your music, with your writing, with whatever it is that you do. Do that, and little by little it might gradually get to be, if not a better world, then a better understood world.