Mark Brend - Interview
published: 14 / 6 / 2019
John Clarkson talks to music writer and Palace of Light, Farina and Ghostwriter guitarist Mark Brend about his debut novel 'Undercliff'.
In the summer of 1972, recently divorced aspiring writer Martyn Hope returns to London, and joins a religious community called the Olive Grove. There he meets a young Belgium woman Amelia whom he begins a romance with. When Amelia suddenly dumps him and a few days later vanishes, Martyn, who is already losing faith with the Olive Grove, suspects its charismatic two leaders, Simon Hill and Magnus Eves, who are known as ‘The Two’ because of their ability to speak in one voice, of having been involved in her disappearance. After a terrifying incident in his flat, Martyn goes to Devon, where the Olive Grove own Underhill, a secluded large house and private beach, and he hopes to discover the truth about what has happened to Amelia... Threading in elements of the supernatural, Mark Brend’s new book ‘Undercliffl’ is a tautly told first novel, which makes evocative use of its main landscapes of the South London suburbs and the remote Devon coastline. Mark Brend is an established writer, whose previous books include ‘American Troubadours: Groundbreaking Singer-Songwriters of the 60s’ (2001) and ‘The Sound of Tomorrow’ (2012), which is about early electronic music. He has also been the guitarist in the bands the Palace of Light and the Mabel Joy, and has also released music on his own under the moniker of Ghostwriter. Brend has also recently reformed Farina, his band of the late 1990s/early 2000s, with whom he released two albums on Pickled Egg Records, ‘Three People’ (2000) and ‘Allotments’ (2006). They will be releasing soon on the Spanish label Hanky Panky Records a soundtrack EP, ‘Undercliff’. A video for the first track from it, ‘Undercliff, 1973’, which Brend co-directed with former Hefner frontman and solo artist Darren Hayman, is already available. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Mark Brend about ‘Undercliff’. PB: ‘Undercliff’ is largely set between August 1972 and April 1973. Was there any reason why you set it during that specific time period? MB: I was quite interested in that period in history anyway, and it related well to the story. In the late 1960s, and with all the cultural upheaval of that era, there was a big interest in spirituality and religion. There was a lot of interest in Eastern religions, but there was also a surge in interest in Christianity, and that led to a phenomenon that is sometimes called ‘The Jesus People’. They were essentially Christian hippies, and some of these people were pretty Orthodox mainstream Christians. Others, however, weren’t and that started out on the American West coast, but by the beginning of the ‘70s it had become embedded in this country as well. The early ‘70s seemed the right time in which to set it. PB: It seems that Martyn joins the Olive Grove more because he is bored and lonely and because shortly after he first begins to go there he meets Amelia, but not out of any real religious conviction. It is perhaps not surprising that he quickly loses faith with the Olive Grove. Do you think that a fair assessment? MB: Yes, I think that he is somebody who is interested in religion, but is not quite sure. Perhaps he is a bit lost and at a bit of a loose end in his life, and perhaps if that wasn’t the case he might never have joined the Olive Grove in the first place. PB: ‘Undercliff’ has on its front cover the proclamation ‘Seek the truth then doubt it’. It seems to take something of an agnostic’s point of view. Some things can not be explained but nothing is definite. Was that your intention with it? MB: To a certain extent it was. I liked the idea of exploring ambiguity where you are never quite sure if something is normal or unusual, or good or bad, or natural or more than natural, and I liked the idea of the characters being in that in-between state. PB: The book’s main message seems to be that there is no real such thing as truth. You can never understand another person totally, and what is real or not real is always ambiguous. MB: I wouldn’t want to over-theorise that. My main aim was to just write an engaging story, and the idea for ‘Undercliff’ didn’t start by speculating with that issue. PB: The story is told entirely from the viewpoint of Martyn. There are times in which you are left wondering if he is suffering from paranoia and going through some sort of breakdown, especially after Amelia disappears. How dependable do you think he is as a narrator? MB: Martyn’s reliability as a narrator is a very interesting question. In my mind what I wanted was for Martyn himself not to be entirely sure how reliable a narrator he was, and, therefore, the reader then must question if he is reliable or not. PB: ‘Undercliff’ makes fantastic use of location. Why did you decide to set it primarily in Nunhead in South London and in Devon. Were they simply places that you knew well? MB: I lived in South London for many years and near Nunhead, so I know the area well. My rendition of Nunhead is broadly correct, but the street that Martyn lives on, for example. I didn’t have in my mind a real street. It seemed like a good area. It is a slightly in-between, non-descript area and when I lived nearby it did not have its own sense of character. I quite liked that. The part of the Devon coast in the novel is an area that I am very familiar with. It is an unusual place because, although it is not that far from big towns and quite big cities, it can feel very remote. A lot of the beaches on the stretches of coast there between Sidmouth and Beer are not accessible by road. There are no facilities and no ice cream shops or toilets or anything like that. They are just empty beaches which you have to walk to get to, so you have got this remoteness while at the same time it is quite close to civilisation. There are areas of undercliff along the coast, in particular at a place there called Branscombe. Undercliffs are formed where a section of the cliff breaks away and makes a sort of plateau above the beach, but lower than the main cliff. They are unusual places. You walk through the undercliff at Branscombe and you don’t really know where you are. You know you are not on the beach, but somehow you are not quite on the mainland either, and that in-betweeness seemed to be a good image for the questioning nature of the book. PB: Is there a big house there as well? MB: No, the house is made up. There is nothing there. The local village in book was also based on a place called Salcombe Regis, but when I was getting near finishing the book I realised that i had changed a lot of it, and it wasn’t really right to call it Salcombe Regis anymore, so I made it an imaginary place PB: There is an important scene set in the Half Moon in Herne Hill in South London, which at Pennyblackmusic was our regular Bands’ night venue for three or four years. It has gone now, but it was for a long time a much under-rated venue in London. How did you know it and did your own bands used to play there? MB: I often went there for gigs and lived in several houses nearby in the 1990s. In the 1980s, when we formed the Palace of Light, we were writing and recording in a studio called Cold Storage in Brixton. The Half Moon was just up the hill from there. We actually got our first ever gig there, and the day before we were due to do the gig we realised that we didn’t have enough songs and we weren’t ready, so we went round and left a note for the proprietor saying that we couldn’t do it (Laughs) . We couldn’t show our faces for a while there afterwards. PB: ‘Undercliff’ is almost impossible to define. It has been described as a ‘supernatural thriller’, but could also be seen to be a horror novel, a crime story, a religious allegory or a tale of an obsessive love affair gone tragically wrong. Was that your intention? MB: I didn’t really think in terms of genres when I was writing it, and that actually created a problem for me in getting it published. It took me a while to find a publisher. A lot of publishers read it thinking that this is a crime novel, and then they didn’t think that it was enough of a crime novel, and then there were others who read it thinking that it was going to be a supernatural thriller, and then they didn’t think it was supernatural or thrilling enough (Laughs). These days fiction writing is very much broken down into genres. A lot of the fiction that i enjoy comes from the mid 20th century where the ideas of genre are a lot less pronounced, and unintentionally that was an influence on me. I didn’t set out to write within a genre, but at the same time I didn’t set out to write without a genre either. I just tried to think of a story that I thought would be interesting. PB: You have recently reformed Farina, your old band the late 1990s/early 2000s. Are you back together permanently or just to release the soundtrack EP? MB: We are hoping to do more. We started to write some new songs again last year, but then the idea came up to do the soundtrack EP. We are finishing that off at the moment, and we hope it will be ready for release in late June or early July. The soundtrack will be entirely instrumental and after that we want to move on to doing full songs. Whether that will be for an album we don’t know yet, but we have several new songs written and there will be more to come we hope soon. PB: The video for ‘Undercliff, 1973; was directed by yourself and Darren Hayman. How well did you know Darren before? MB: I have known Darren for some time. We were introduced through a mutual friend about fifteen years ago. I have collaborated with him on a few occasions, and I recorded one of the tracks for ‘Thankful Villages’, his recent project. For the video I went down to the Devon coast, and took a lot of footage and stills of the area. I also threw in a lot of archive photographs, and I gave them all to Darren with the music. I gave him no instruction or guidance at all. I just asked him to react to the raw material that I gave him. He asked me to send him as much as possible. He said, “You can’t give me too much,” so I sent him several hundred photos of things and about an hour of footage, and then he came back with a first edit. We adjusted it a couple of times after that, but didn’t have to do much to it. A lot of the look of the video is down to him. PB: You are now writing a second fiction book. What is that about? MB: It is set in a similar part of Devon in a fictional village in the early 1960s, but which is slightly more inland and it starts off with a localised earthquake in that village. The quake opens an ancient grave from the 19th century, which unfolds a chain of frightening events. PB: When do you hope to publish that book? MB: It will be a very slow process. I am probably not even 20% into it yet. I would love to get the time to crack on with it, but I think it will be a few years yet. PB: Thank you.
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