Kurt Danielson: Life After “Grunge”

kurt danielsonYou may recognize Kurt Danielson for his time spent in the Seattle slug band TAD. Maybe he’s familiar from his involvement in the post-punk band Bundle of Hiss, or even his work with Quaranteens and Valis. Perhaps his current project, as lead singer in the band Misericords, is where you know his name.

But none of that is why we are here.

Kurt Danielson has recently been working outside of music as an author. His book “Amnesomnia,” which has now been subtitled “The Escape from the Rue Saint Denis,” is a fictional account of one man’s attempt to escape from his own subconscious underworld.

We had a chance to sit down with Danielson to talk about his forthcoming book, his writing style and living in Paris, France.

Innocent Words: When did you start writing, not music, but your short stories?

Kurt Danielson: I wrote my first short story when I was 14 years old. It was essentially an exercise in plot resolution that took place in a fictional world, and it involved a Manichean battle between good and evil. Evil won, ostensibly, but the seeds for good had already been sown, and so in the end, good prevailed. It was corny, and it involved all sorts of fantasy and sci-fi elements, and it was fundamentally very simple as far as characterization, plot, setting, tone, and dialogue were concerned. But, it was a beginning. That was when I first recognized the urge to create, and from then on, I’ve allowed it to dominate my life, for good or ill.

IW: The thing that stood out to me the most about your writing is your ability to notice the small details in a story. Does this come naturally to your writing, and do you feel it can make or break good story?

Danielson: I don’t know if it comes naturally or not in terms of my writing, but I think I am, to some extent, naturally obsessed with details. I think, and therefore I write, in terms of images, and so when I wish to remember an event or an experience that I think might make a good story, I remember it first as a montage of key images. My first desire is always to express these in an original way, a way never-before explored. Often, I later realize that what I had originally thought was a novel approach was in reality derived from something I’d previously read or heard about from someone else, but not always. But the fact is, it’s almost impossible to be entirely original. Everything is derivative to a degree. But, I do believe that if you can combine details in a novel fashion when you are forging images to express the essence of an experience, then you have at least some chance of appearing somewhat different in terms of vision, if not wholly original.

IW: Your stories are you, bare if you will, talking about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Do you think about any repercussions you might get from friends, family or the casual reader?

Danielson: Yes and no. I mean, of course, it’s always possible that if you write autobiographical or semi-autobiographical stories, as I sometimes do (a great deal of my lyrics are taken from life as well), then you must expect people to react in some way, that is, if the characters you are writing about are recognizable and still living when you post or publish that story.

Fortunately, most of the people in my life know me and expect nothing less from me than the kind of thing that most people would never confess or admit or reveal. On the other hand, I think that any art, if done well, involves some kind of risk, and if repercussions are one of them, then so be it. I accept that because if something doesn’t involve risk, then it’s not exciting in the first place, and I wouldn’t be tempted to write about it if it’s not.

In other words, without risk, you have no art. You must take chances, you must open yourself up, and you must face your experiences as they occur because the truths discovered in the context of your own real experience often express the essence of a given story. Even if I’m consciously writing fiction, details of my own true-life experiences are bound to creep into the story, and the story always benefits from this kind of cross-pollination.

Another thing is that I may at times write about real people, but I’ve learned the hard way not to use real names, and therefore, I am protecting myself from certain quite ugly repercussions. I may not be able to resist risk, but I actively resist stupidity, and, for me, that means repeating past mistakes.

Kurt-DanielsonIW: Are you going to be shopping your short stories to get published, or will it be online only?

Danielson: Yes, I intend to shop them to publishers, absolutely. Right now, however, I’m focused on writing lyrics and singing in Misericords. As soon as I can, I would like to more aggressively pursue my short story and novel writing, and part of that would be publishing. You write for an audience. It goes back to the oral tradition. You need someone to read your writing, the more the better, because the more readers you have, the more alive your words are. And myself, I wish to be read by as many people as possible, and that means posting online as well as publishing. I love the physical fact of a book: neither e-books nor Kindles can give you that.

IW: Is “Amnesomnia” still a work in progress?

Danielson: Yes it is. But I’ve completely revised it since its initial conception. I wrote the first draft while I was living in a tiny, cramped, noisy, filthy one-room apartment in downtown Paris, in the second arrondisement, on the Rue Saint Denis, which is where a red light district is located in that fine city, and in fact the building my wife and I lived in was a brothel, but by the time we lived there, there were only a few prostitutes left. A decade or two before, that building contained hundreds of prostitutes, but only four remained when we moved in there because in the interim the city had decided to more closely regulate prostitution, and consequently, this enormous, honeycomb or rabbit warren labyrinth of prostitution wasn’t exactly shut down, but it was highly restricted, and the owners were forced to rent their tiny apartments to non-prostitutes instead. The rest of the building’s occupants were a mixture of Southeast Asian and Polish refugees, Parisian students, North Africans, and various other impoverished misfits. All the apartments were these tiny cubicle cells, like hovels, perfect for prostitutes, but far too small to accommodate families, but many families crammed all their members into them anyhow, including their grandparents and children and grandchildren, and they lived like insect colonies. One block to the northwest is the Rue Montergueil, which is a comparatively affluent street. That quarter is bisected by an invisible border between poverty and affluence.

In any case, I wrote the first draft of “Amnesomnia” in a tiny apartment on the sixth floor of this terribly dilapidated building. It actually caught fire once while we were living there, and perhaps that fact, more than any other, demonstrates the weirdly unstable atmosphere of the place. It was so noisy — besides continuous prostitution there was rampant gambling in the form of poker being played in the apartments occupied by the Southeast Asian refugees, and that meant noise and smoke and crowds and cigarette butts and stray bent cards littering the stairs. You also had the continuous noise of babies and small children crying and pattering through the filthy corridors, which were narrow and water-stained and usually dark. All of this was so noisy that it was very difficult to write there, but I did anyway, and it was a constant struggle not only against noise, but also against other overpowering sensations as well. For example, there were also the strong and unforgettable smells of grease and fish that many of the refugee families subsisted on, and this was aggravated by the unsanitary practice of pouring rancid cooking oil and grease into the gutters. All of these sounds and smells and feelings impinged on my consciousness, and they made it very difficult to focus on my writing.

Perhaps that’s why I was never satisfied with the first draft of “Amnesomnia.” I began to rewrite it upon my return to Seattle, which was almost two years ago, but then my wife fell deathly ill, almost dying more than once, and I had to put aside my writing in order to care for her, which I did for almost a year, until she fortunately recovered. When I returned to my writing, I felt differently about it, and I decided to change it from fiction to a memoir because I realized that the reality of my experience was actually more interesting in some ways than the fictional world I had created to contain my fictional story.

IW: How did you wind up in Paris for four years?

KurtDanielson-liveDanielson: That is a long story. A culmination of many events and bad habits forced me to make a choice, and even after I’d made the choice, the ghosts and consequences of those bad habits chased after me, and so my wife and I decided to move to France. I make it sound simpler than it really was. There were many reasons, more than I have time or space to explain here. One is that my wife is French. Another was that although I’d long since kicked heroin, I had been a junkie, and I was always in danger of relapsing, and I wanted to get away from familiar territory. First, we moved to a small town north of Seattle, where I drove a taxi, but that wasn’t far enough away, and the shadows of my habits followed me there. Eventually, it became necessary to transplant myself, as Hemingway puts it, because it can be as necessary for people as it is for plants.

Anyhow, it was very difficult to escape the shadows that pursued me, but I am safe now, and that’s why I was able to move back to Seattle eventually. Not only did I write in that tiny, filthy hovel of an apartment, but I also taught English there – over the telephone, so my students did not have to visit our apartment. We would have remained there if I hadn’t been invited back here to participate in the making of the TAD DVD, “Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears.” I had also wanted to return to see my dad, who was very ill at the time and still is, in fact. And there were other reasons to return, one of which was that I needed to reconnect with my musical roots; I didn’t know that at the time, but I discovered it in the process of returning. It took some time, almost a year and a half, but in the end I reconnected, and the fruit of that reconnection is Misericords, a development that totally surprised me, but there it is.