Ever Be Filled: An Interview with Matthew Simmons
Late last year Keyhole Press released a short book of fiction about black metal by Matthew Simmons, The Moon Tonight Feels My Revenge. Given its heavy inspiration, the texts employ a surprising and refreshing mix of thoughts about creation and duress, delivered in the eye that only Mr. Simmons could pull off. Over the past month Matthew kindly answered some q’s about the book.
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BB: How did this book begin? Was it your intention specifically to write a book about black metal, or did a specific story come first?
MS: I wrote a couple of one-man black metal band pieces for my blog a while back. (I think I was just writing about black metal bands and then noticed that all the ones I liked and wanted to write about were made up of one guy.) When I got together with Keyhole for the collection coming out next year, Peter asked if I had something shorter, a couple of stories that weren’t going to be in that collection, that we could gather and publish in a little minibook. I had a few, and I decided to use the short black metal pieces as a gathering principle and as little breaks between longer stories that, though not explicitly about one man black metal bands, felt like cousins to them. The three full stories in the book feature three individuals who isolate or world build or reject collaboration.
BB: You are/were in a one-man black metal band, yeah? How did that begin?
MS: I have a one-man black metal band called Fire in My Bag. Here’s the story of the band: a coworker and I were walking down a hallway at work. She asked if I was thinking of going to “the metal show” after work. I hadn’t heard about a metal show, so I asked her who was playing. She said, “Fire in My Bag.” I had never heard of Fire in My Bag. I tried to decipher the band’s name. Wizards who pulled fire from their magic bags? Metal guys like fantasy stuff, right? Prometheus ascends the mountain to steal fire, puts it in his bag, and gives it to humanity? Metal guys like the whole concept of someone defying the gods/God to move mankind forward, yeah? I asked my coworker if she knew why the band called themselves Fire in My Bag. She looked at me confused for a moment and said, “No, no. I have the show flyer in my bag. I’ll show it to you when we get back to the office.” An hour later I had a Myspace page for Fire in My Bag. A weekend later, I had used Garageband, my little amp, my guitar, and my Roland Space Echo analog delay to have songs on that Myspace page. I convinced my brother to create a logo. I even made a little seven-song EP with a couple of musical friends.
Really, I think the only appropriate response to a misheard phrase in a hallway is to find the appropriate place to explore all the layers of the misheard phrase. When one mishears a band name, one should start a band, make it a website, to the best of one’s ability write music appropriate to whatever genre the name seems to suggest, create band members, give them little stories, and spend hours using photoshop to make logos and images for the band. Where I really fell down, I think, is that I didn’t produce a bunch of t-shirts.
BB: So what about the aesthetic or motivation or other of black metal in particular manifested in you during the writing of these pieces? I like the idea of the long stories being isolationist, and rejecting collaboration. The image of the building of the mountain in the yard was particularly effective to me as a kind of allegory of creation, which in interesting in the light that, at the story’s end, the nature of that creation turns toward a pretty black metal specific theme: death.
MS: In that story, I think the act of creation is more black metal than the likely child murder waiting for Sport after the final period. A man is given—or takes for himself—the power to create like God and God responds by insisting the man God-up and make the sacrifice God made when he let us crucify his son. Sure, he let Abraham off the hook, but he hadn’t just watched Abraham build Mount Moriah. So, I don’t really think of the binding of Sport as an act of fealty to God—even though God sends down a pushy angel to ask for and supervise the sacrifice—but instead it seems to me to be that guy acting through his new responsibilities as a beginner god. Of course, he hesitates a little, which seems to me to be not very black metal at all. But the striving for godhood—the desire to have a chair at God’s table instead of the small car table where the subservient mortals have to sit—seems very black metal.
BB: Do you see black metal as a kind of religion? Were you raised religious? How does religion or a god affect your idea of writing?
MS: Black metal as religion for me? Not particularly. I like to run listening to really drone-y black metal, and that might be a kind of meditation, and meditation might be a kind of spiritual practice for some people. And it might be for me, depending on how high I’ve gotten of the exhaustion of running, how close I’m coming to some sort of strange tearful burst of laughter. Mostly, I’m just agnostic and afraid of death.
I was raised Episcopalian, which is a pretty non-intensive kind of Christianity. Kind of groovy, and carpeted in pea green shag. (Possibly this is why even at my darkest, I turn towards a sort of oddball whimsy.) But I stopped going to church as a teenager and my folks didn’t disown me or anything. (Add to this that my father is, as of the last decade and a half or so, an ordained Episcopal minister, and you’ll understand why I like them so much.)
I remember the Nicene Creed, though, and have always liked the way it sounds. I like the phrase, “…eternally begotten of the father…” quite a bit—the rhythm and rhyme of it. I’m sure that for the first few years, I said the Nicene Creed without actually ever understanding what it meant. Sound first, meaning much later. A lot of times, stories I write begin with phrases that sound interesting to me, and everything that follows is an attempt to find meaning in a beautiful sounding phrase.
BB: Does that writing out of sound require a lot of revision for you? Does the sound dictate the idea? Do you find it hard to write about music?
MS: I rewrite a lot of sentences the first time through, so invariably the first finished draft is sort of the third draft. But the sentence that inspires is almost always the same no matter how much tinkering I do. And I let those sentence direct the story and inform the story, but I wouldn’t go as far to say dictate. (This word processor kills fascists.) A sentence has to be a little flexible if its going to allow a story to grow from it. I think I’ve come across any number of dictator sentences, though, and this is likely why the folder on my desktop called “Writing” includes about 100 or so unfinished documents—a title, my name, a sentence, a followup, maybe another, maybe another, and empty white space that will never, ever be filled.
I don’t really write to music. Sometimes music without words or music in a language I don’t get, but mostly not even that. I spend most of my time writing talking to myself and negotiating with my cat, trying to find a spot on my lap where he can sit without it getting in the way of my elbows and all that. I can edit to music sometimes. The Moon Tonight was edited to the music of the three artists listed in the book’s dedication: Lotte Kestner, Boduf Songs, and Grouper.
BB: Does writing operate as a way or rebirth or keeping alive for you? Anything particular you read or saw or did that influenced the book beyond the metal?
MS: Not to brand myself as not-quite-serious-enough-to-really-be-an-artist or something, but I write only because I love it. Some part of he process—exploring an idea, poring over a draft, looking at a finished story, seeing a story published, or getting a reaction to a story from a friend or a stranger—makes me happy. And the most fulfilling part is different for each story, I think. I’d muddle through without writing. I could always spring for cable, or maybe start taking hallucinogenic drugs habitually to fill my free time. I’d still live, so I would never say writing is keeping me alive. Or birthing me anew, draft after draft after draft. I think writing has helped me think about the way I communicate with people, has helped me understand why I say what I say and they say what they say. But in the end, it just makes me happy when I write.
I don’t know that I can track back the things I was reading when each of the stories was written. “Baka Is the Night,” for example, is pretty old. (Originally published in Bust Down the Doors and Eat All the Chickens #8 from the fall of 2008, but was around for at least a couple of years before that.) I can see some things floating around in the stories, though. Donald Antrim follows me around. Ray Vukcevich does, too. I think both of those writers are sitting around somewhere in The Moon Tonight. There’s a movie about the band Half Japanese that includes David Fair describing how one plays guitar. It’s the first 40 or so seconds of this video:
BB: How was putting this shorter collection together different than putting together your upcoming full length collection Happy Rock?
MS: In both situations, I had a through line to follow. But with Happy Rock, I looked at a couple of stories I had written and said, “I think I will write stories about living in Upper Michigan,” and then I acted accordingly. With The Moon Tonight, I had a quick deadline—Keyhole wanted to put out a small book this year—so I went through existing stories and found pieces that felt to me the way listening to Xasthur felt. So one was a product of diligence and discipline first (Happy Rock), because those were the primary skills I needed to produce the book. Write on a schedule (mostly). Don’t be distracted by stories that don’t fit the thread (mostly). Don’t cheat a story into the thread by taking a story that doesn’t fit in the setting and hammering it into place. The Moon Tonight was the product of an examination of my reasons for liking one-man black metal bands and an objective reading of finished work to find stories that fit into whatever I came up with. So, POTATO and OTATOP, maybe.
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The Moon Tonight Feels My Revenge is available now from Keyhole.