Real-life experiences fuel “fictional” first novel about why touring musicians do what they do and all of the hedonism and masochism required to do it.
Jot down notes in your spare time. Piece it together. Sell it to a publisher. Book. Author.
It’s that easy, apparently.
Certainly Edmonton-born, T.O.-based indie rock musician Eamon McGrath. Yes, he’d previously done some arts journalism and his mother is also a writer, but McGrath admits he knew nothing of the publishing world — certainly never thought he’d be part of it.
But he is now, having just released the reality informed, kinda but not really fictional tome Berlin-Warszawa Express, which was released on ECW Press Wednesday, the day before he arrives in town to promote it with a Thursday night show at the Nite Owl.
He describes it as an “absurdly quick turn of events.”
McGrath says he returned from yet one more tour with a “five foot pile of notes” that he jotted down during his many long journeys and downtimes between shows.
“And I typed out what I thought was the better content of all of it and realized there was this narrative weaving its way through everything,” he says.
“I gave it to (author and Rheostatics member) Dave Bidini and he sent it to ECW and within two weeks I had a meeting and a deal.”
He continues. “I was sick of writing and playing songs so I started writing stories in another way. And that’s just what happened.”
If you read McGrath’s gritty and entirely realistic/absurdist first-person portrayal of the life of a touring musician — specifically a Canadian on the European continent — you might understand exactly why he was sick of writing songs. Well, sick of writing them and them having to spend months at a time on the road performing them and waiting to perform them.
The fast, alternately sad, funny, invigorating, depressing, insightful, intoxicating, hung-the-fuck-over Express is a look at calling where there’s “not a great deal of glamour.” Particularly when you’re on the lower rungs of rock’s ladder, with McGrath talking in first person about the lengthy, tedious train and van trips to small towns with unpronounceable names (one in the Czech Republic he says in the book was like realizing you were in the equivalent of Brandon, Manitoba), sleeping on floors, heavy drug use, consistent drinking, relying on strangers, making friends for life, staying up all night, getting, as he calls it at one point, “Berlin wasted.”
“It makes Canadian partying look like Mormonism or something,” he says of the next level bacchanalnaiism that went on in the German capital back when he first started going there a half-decade ago.
It’s that point, that “extreme point” in his life when he was 23 and “young and stupid,” did much of his book find its inspiration from and which led tho his now frustration with the music world. McGrath, an artist on the rise thanks to the success of his 2012 album Young Canadians, toured Europe hard.
And then, rushing out a release, 2014’s Exile, he had a much more depressing experience across the ocean that jaundiced his view of, well, everything.
“It was literally the most stereotypical Canadian music industry story you could imagine,” the now 28-year-old says. “I’m like, in Paris, in the rain, at an Internet cafe, release day, 2 p.m. Paris time … and I get an email saying that the person that had signed me to the label got fired. It continued on that path for the album’s whole cycle.
“It was such a nightmare that after that I was, ‘Well, I’m done with music.’ ”
But, with a wealth of personal experiences, he wasn’t done writing, merely transferring his own observations to an expanded, more linear form where he could explore other themes that were true to the interactions during his travels. That included conversations about the rise of nationalism in the EU and even the gentrification of many of the big cities, Berlin especially, which is something that as an artist attempting to create and live in Toronto, he could certainly relate to.
Which begs the obvious question about how much of Berlin-Warszawa Express is fact, how much of it is the invention of a fertile mind?
“That was a constant, very prevalent conversation between me and my editors, like, ‘How true to reality do you want to be?’ ” McGrath says.
“But the irony is when you’re working on a book like that, the — this will sound kind of weird — but the less accurate you, the less journalistic you are to the events that unfolded in your life, the closer and more accurate you’ll be to the story you’re trying to tell …
“If it had been a journalistic thing I wouldn’t have had the same message. Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.”
And now he’s set to deliver that “truth” by proving a “lie” — that he was done with the life of a touring musician.
He’s back on the road for a cross-country jaunt before he heads back overseas for a lengthy month-and-a-half long tour with stops in places with names such as Herzogenbuchsee, Tavannes, Chemnitz and Nijmegen.
He says he conceived of the book release tour “almost as if it was another record or if there was no differentiation between the two,” with him performing and selling Express at the merch table.
“So it’s going to be a tour in support of the book as if I was supporting a record.”
In other words, he will once again return to the life of a “masochistic lunatic” — away for long periods of time from his girlfriend and his life in Canada, all for a few bucks to live on and the experiences it provides. And, to help his fellow lunatics, he’s also started a booking agency.
Which actually speaks to perhaps the larger question that the book asks, the one theme that runs throughout, highlighted by an interaction that the narrator has when he’s back in this country, working on some construction so he can get back overseas, and is forced to answer the query from a contractor about why he is a musician.
In the “fictional” interaction, the character doesn’t have a very satisfying answer, more an indignant one.
As for McGrath himself — why does he do it?
“I’ve never been able to answer my own question of why. The frustration and suffering sometimes that goes into a show or a tour is so stressful but then you find yourself doing it again and again and again,” he says.
“There is no rational reason other than you have no choice. It’s this incredibly powerful force that you’re compelled to obey.
“In its editing process, the whole point of the book was looking back on it and realizing that there was this question throughout all of it … ‘What’s the point? Why do you do it? Why do you suffer for art? What’s the end result?’
“And I didn’t want to write a book that necessarily had an answer, because I don’t have one.”
Eamon McGrath’s Berlin-Warszawa Express is available now from ECW Press or from his performance Thursday at the Nite Owl.