The Very Us Artists is a collective project of musicians, artists, and authors with the mission of coming together to create collaborative works of art. Their latest project is “Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero”, a combination book+CD where 19 short stories are paired with 19 songs and instrumentals to tell cyberpunk-fuelled tales from the dark and ever-nearing future. ThisIsNotAScene‘s Thomas Mathie put some questions to John LaSala, founder of VUA and one of creative directors behind “Foreshadows”.
First off I thoroughly enjoyed the book and thought the CD really worked with it. You describe it as “intertwined”. Did you set out to create the book and CD together, or did the CD evolve from the book?
John LaSala: I’m really glad to hear you enjoyed it so much, Thomas. That’s something we’re hearing more and more of, and it suggests that the unfathomable man-hours put into this project over the past few years were not spent in vain! The project has had a long and tortuous journey, and it came together in an unusual way. In fact, the book actually grew out of the CD! Well, sort of.
Almost all of the music was conceived long before the notion of pairing it with stories ever came up. It began as a would-be music companion to a cyberpunk role-playing game that just ran out of steam or whatever a cyberpunk RPG runs out of. Electrons? Anyway, we had all this rich musical material in our hands, unsure of what to do with it. That’s when I got together with my brother/writer/co-conspirator, Jeff LaSala, and hatched this hare-brained scheme: What if the music was a soundtrack to an anthology of short stories? It’s madness I tell you. Madness!
Wow…the music came first? I wouldn’t have guessed that, if I am honest. If someone were to ask me, I would have said the other way ’round with the music feeding off the stories. That’s amazing but I can see them providing a foundation for stories.
Yeah, on the surface it’s a total reversal of the norm. Typically, soundtracks are made for movies, TV, and the like. And with rare exception, it’s the last element added, long after the writers, actors, and sometimes even directors have gone home. So it’s a bit of a surprise for most people hear we’ve done it in reverse. However, it’s not at all unusual for authors to seek inspiration in music. It’s just not usually done in cahoots with the musicians in the first place. But Ann Patchett, who wrote “Bel Canto“, listens to opera while she writes, and James Joyce‘s infamous masterpiece is based (weirdly) on the old Irish song, “Finnegan’s Wake.” Heck, Kevin J. Anderson‘s first novel was very much inspired by Rush‘s “Grace Under Pressure”, and now his latest one has a companion soundtrack in the shape of a Rush album! Of course, long ago Rush did it the “normal” way, with 2112 riffing on Ayn Rand‘s “Anthem” which, come to think if it, actually comes in up in a “Foreshadows” story, completing the circle. But I digress.
One of the things I loved about the book and CD was the way these stories were presented in a remarkably cohesive manner, and yet they retained their own uniqueness they were their own thing. Themes like corporations dominating the landscape (both literally and metaphorically) run through all the stories to a greater or lesser extent, and yet you were working with a large number of collaborators. How did you manage this?
With great difficulty. It was complicated. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, because this project has been a labor of love, but there was even more plate spinning, chainsaw juggling, and cat herding than you might imagine. It took a lot of work to bring it together, on so many levels. But the cohesiveness of the music came about in two ways:
From the get-go, we had “cyberpunk soundtrack” on the brain, and despite the diversity of styles each musician brought to the mix, they were all more or less pointing in the same direction. That lent a certain degree of unity to the spirit of the album’s sound, but we also performed some compositional experiments during the creation phase. For instance, “Cenotaph, or We’ve Been Reduced To Lo-Fi” began as a sparse sketch of a semi-song by electronic/progressive artist Alternate Modes of Underwater Consciousness, but I arranged for singer-songwriter Colin Garvey, who is more of an acoustic blues and rock musician, to flesh out the song aspect itself. Later on, we invited Dylan Leeds to go all remix on this track, reinterpreting parts of the music in a much more drum ‘n’ bass fashion. With various different takes on the same central idea by musicians appearing elsewhere on the soundtrack, strands of sonic interconnectivity began to arc through the otherwise fairly disparate material.
Cenotaph, or We’ve Been Reduced To Lo-Fi
A young woman tries to escape her past. All of them.
Written by Mike Ferguson Music and lyrics by Alternate Modes of Underwater Consciousness and Colin Garvey, plus remix production by Dylan Leeds
We expanded on this idea even further using a theme written by the previously mentioned Dylan Leeds. What began as a haunting chord progression and piano melody was expanded further, with a handful of other musicians all lending their own additions and expansion. So much great material came out of this, we eventually realized that it would take several tracks on the CD to really explore it all. So we devised a suite of four interpretations of this theme and spread it out across the album, forming a kind of thematic backbone to the whole program, with textures and styles reflected in much of the rest of the material.
But that was really just laying the groundwork. The second phase was about mixing and mastering. One of the primary songwriters on the soundtrack, Bilian, was also my co-producer. Together, we worked meticulously on mixing, embellishing, refining, and a whole slew of other “-ing” words to bring the material together. We worked diligently to ease each track into the sonic world of Foreshadows without robbing them of their individuality. And the magical finishing touch on that process was performed by Nathan James from The Vault Mastering Studios, who gave the whole thing a sheen of spit and polish, including the steel tips on the ass-kicking boots where appropriate.
On the fiction side, it was no less intense. My brother, Jeff LaSala, was the lead editor, while I played second-in-command, and we paired each author up with a different track on the CD. From there we instilled in them the counterpart notion of “cyberpunk anthology” and let them have at it with two specifications: know that you are all writing stories in a shared but yet-undescribed setting, and let the music be your guide. Each author chose to work with the music in their own way, and in some stories I think the connections seem quite intimate, while in others the relationship between story and music seems more spiritual or thematic.
But the relationship between the stories themselves was a more complex affair. There were no guides, no “setting bible,” but by keeping in good communication with the authors as they wrote, ideas were borrowed and shared between them. We even set up private message boards to help promote free communication and collaboration. So when author Brian W. Matthews mercilessly snuffed out half of Portland with Mt. Hood’s pyroclastic flow, he did so for everyone’s Portland, and a local crime-lord known as The Blade figures into at least two other stories in some way. These little ideas grew like infections, infiltrating others’ stories, but typically in the details more so than the basic plots. So just like the soundtrack, each of these stories was created on its own, but not in vacuum. There was a sense of awareness to their neighbors, with just enough overlap and cross-pollination to string tenuous connections between each story. It was a delicate dance, but I think we pulled it off.
That was a very long answer, but you asked how we managed it. Like I said, it was complicated!
I really love the two specifications you gave to your writers, namely “know that you are all writing stories in a shared but yet-undescribed setting, and let the music be your guide” and think Jeff, yourself and the rest of the crew have achieved something truly fantastic.
As I read through the book, one theme that I totally loved, was the way corporations have replaced sovereign nations and were waging their own wars. This is so now, considering how big the big corporations have become. Think Apple, they are worth more than some countries now. This is remarkably prophetic and futuristic and yet so conceivable. Where did this idea come from?
Well, the idea comes straight out of reality. You’ve hit the nail on the head: it’s the now that we wanted to evoke, the familiarity of current trends. So I wouldn’t say we’re prophetic so much as we’re simply cognizant of what is already under way and where it could lead if things continue to get out of hand. Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero isn’t meant to predict the future; it’s forecasting an imminent, imaginable future with some decidedly dystopic overtones. And megacorporations are hallmarks of cyberpunk antagonism. With Foreshadows being at least ankle deep in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, it was natural to make domineering multinational corporations such as Steelweather Industries and the B-One Corporation a part of the world’s political landscape.
The book and the music are distinctly cyberpunk, and this is something I really enjoyed. Who influenced the stories and songs, from a cyberpunk perspective? William Gibson?
Were there any other influences other than cyberpunk?
Interesting question! I think it’s safe to say that even if it’s indirect, William Gibson is an undeniable influence on just about anything labelled “cyberpunk.” And where it’s not, Neal Stephenson probably picks up the slack. But I don’t know that any of the writers, at least, were really drawing from specific cyberpunk influences. In fact, for most of them, this was their first foray into that particular subgenre. But you know what? Let me put this question to some of the contributors to see what they have to say!
Ed Greenwood (author of story #9, “Best Served Flash-Frozen”): One of the things about being older than dirt itself is that I’ve been writing s.f. and all sorts of fantastic fiction for almost fifty years now, and reading it for even longer. Which means I was (occasionally) writing “cyberpunk” long before the term was coined or anyone recognized it as a genre. In my case, a series of short stories featuring crazy shops on Queen Street West in Toronto that were a lot more than they seemed to be. My influences for those stories were literally everyone I’d read up until then. I enjoy every Stephenson that comes out and liked the early Gibson books, but I can’t say that they influenced me at all when writing my “Foreshadows” tale. I drew my inspiration from the piece of music sent to me, and some thoughts about what multinational corporations might do with nanotechnology in the real world, based on news reports of what they were experimenting with (which in turn were based on their press releases).
I was, however, influenced by my mother, my father, all of my teachers, turkey dinners.
Ali Kilpatrick (composer of track #19, “Unto the Interface”): The sound I was going for was partly influenced by Vangelis—though not Blade Runner in particular—but that’s about the limit of any cyberpunk influences. I’d say more came from the ambience of Brian Eno and strangely enough, organ music, in terms of harmonies and how the individual parts work together.
Christopher Dinkins (author of story #16, “Anodyne Fading: The Wolf Without”): Like John said, Gibson and Stephenson certainly inform the genre, and I’ve read a number of other cyberpunk works, as well. But for my story, it was a combination of role-playing games and Jacobean drama. Twenty years ago, I was fascinated with RPGs like Cyberpunk and Shadowrun and their ideas about body modification, including the subcultures that might emerge. A little earlier than that, I read Webster‘s play “The Duchess of Malfi”, in which one of the characters is a lycanthrope—that is to say, he thinks he’s a wolf. I did some research on real-life lycanthropes, people who are convinced that they’re animals, and what I took away from the research was how sad they seemed, not really happy as humans but unable to function as animals. All of the above came flooding back to me as I thought about a cyberpunk character whose relief from pain was fading quickly, as the music and title suggested.
Brian W. Matthews (author of story #17, “Lament,” and co-author of story #4, “Graveduggery”): While Gibson didn’t directly influence my stories, I did try to get into the cyberpunk mood by watching Blade Runner and listening to the Ghosts of Zero soundtrack; they were the settings within which my characters acted. But specific influences for my writing or themes? One obvious one would be Stephen King, but what horror author doesn’t say that? I suppose a larger influence would be Stephen Donaldson, a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and mysteries. He often explores themes of responsibility and the consequences a person must face for his actions.
Take Jager, the main character in “Lament.” His story arc revolves around those two principles like planets around a star. Then there’s “Graveduggery.” In my parts of the story, which was co-written by the immensely talented Jeff LaSala, each of my three protagonists made a conscious decision that can (and does) have lasting consequences. How many of us can look back on our lives and not relate?
For me, cyberpunk was simply another setting—albeit a fascinating one—through which I can help understand and communicate the human condition.
Jeremy Simmons (composer of track #18, “Deep In The Deep: Reaction Diffusion Dies Tonight”): I wasn’t thinking so much about “cyberpunk,” per se, but more of the underlying setting of it: a high-tech futureworld gone to seed. I was imagining machinery, digital and mechanical, still whirring away but rough and ratchety, computers of an older vintage humming at their own business, practically ignoring us in favor of their subroutines and the humans who overstate their importance in it. There is a sadness voiced in digitized and metallic song, but it’s a voice nonetheless.
Joe Rixman (author of story #5, “Love Simulacra”): I come from a film background, having worked in Hollywood a few years and written numerous screenplays, so my stories tend to have a pretty visual flair, which lends itself to Bilian‘s music perfectly! While Stephen King influenced my early writing, I can also add Joseph Wambaugh‘s early works to those I spent much time digesting and absorbing. My current major interest is in classic noir, and I thought that my story, “Love Simulacra,” was an obvious femme fatale idea begging for release. So, hopefully, it comes across to readers as a cyberpunk/film-noir hybrid, which was what I intended.
Jaleigh Johnson (author of story #13, “Made In Brazil | Living In Japan”): A big part of my inspiration came from the music but also the title of the track, which became the title of the story. The editor gave me the option of changing it, but that title, “Made In Brazil | Living In Japan,” was what started me thinking about two artists from different cultures, about two mountains in an environment growing increasingly artificial, and that led me to the history of different styles of art, and so on. The title planted the seed.
Alan Norman (as Thee Crumb, composer of “Anodyne Fading: The Wolf Within”): I suspect that anybody who makes electronic music has been influenced in some way by science fiction, even if it’s only in a retro-futurist way. By that I mean, that optimistic ’50s idea of the future that seems almost naive now. From the ’70s on, it seems that most science fiction took a decidedly dystopian view instead. I guess that sort of thing seeps into my music a bit, but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind when I was making my track for this. My musical influences are more ’70s prog, ’90s Warp records, and more recent experimental stuff such as Wolf Eyes than anything else—although I listen to a vast amount of other stuff. Incidentally, although I am a massive science fiction fan, the only William Gibson book I’ve ever read is Neuromancer.
John, my sincere thanks to you and your contributors for this interview. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, almost as much as I enjoyed the book and album. My best wishes for your project, I really hope it is a success!
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Thank you, Mr. Mathie! But yes, after all this talk, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning the third tier of this multimedia project: illustration. It was the last element to come along in our creative process but quite an important part of the product’s final identity. We’re all still in love with the cover art by Michael Komarck, a true master of digital paint. His work really captured that mixture of wonder and hidden horror that is the spirit of “The Ghosts of Zero”—it sets the stage nicely. But portraying the individual stories are the 19 interior illustrations by the prolific and talented Talon Dunning. While the music of each tale sets the mood, and the written word fleshes out the details, nothing encapsulates it all more succinctly than the leading imagery.
Lastly, I should note that we’re not finished experimenting with this collaborative process, nor done exploring the world of “Foreshadows.” We have begun to populate a new section of our website, called Webshadows, with more music, stories, and imagery—all free content, all a part of the Foreshadows experience. Where the book and album leaves off, Webshadows carries on, building further multimedia adventures atop the foundation laid forth in “The Ghosts of Zero.”
Have a look, have a listen: www.foreshadows.net/webshadows.