Songs Only You Know, Sean Madigan Hoen’s first book, is the story of a harrowing period of his life, as his family imploded due to his father’s addiction and his sister’s depression. Hoen vividly describes the process of losing himself in obsessive behavior and cathartic live performances with his band. It’s a staggeringly powerful read.
In person, Hoen is soft-spoken; we met at Greenpoint’s BÚÐIN and discussed the process of writing this memoir, hardcore in the 90s, Denis Johnson, and much more. An edited version of our conversation follows.
When did you first realize that the story of this part of your life was a book?
I’d kind of been writing around it for a couple of years. I wrote some fiction drawn from a few of those more peripheral events, and some essays. I think that when it was time to write a first book, this was the thing that presented itself again and again. I read a little bit about first books, and people’s experiences writing them, and the energy that they bring to that process–even if they go on to do more proficient work, there’s something special about that first book sometimes. I felt like that was the kind of energy that I needed to approach this book with. And also, it was very much coming out of– The very end of the book leaves off almost where I started writing it. I was living the next phase of the book. It was a process of trying to understand and make sense of some things, too. I never had a moment where I realized it was a book. I think it was one of those things that I was very much driven to do, and then realized that I was in the middle of before I had too much to say about it.
In terms of first books, were there any that you had in mind, or that you looked to as models or inspirations for this?
It was mostly novels. The novel is kind of my supreme love, as far as literature goes. The memoirs that really had an impact on me were the two Tobias Wolff memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army. His grace in handling difficult events, and also the way he was able to mediate between the younger man on the page and an older thinker, with hindsight. Looking back without getting in the way of the story; the way he allowed that voice and that consciousness to expand in those books was super-influential. And then some of Denis Johnson’s first-person stuff, which is something every writer references. It had a huge impact on me in terms of what you could do with the consciousness of the story. Those books were always close.
It’s interesting that you say that–I know that you and D. Foy are friends, and I feel like that tension between the older narrator looking back on certain events is present in both your memoir and in his novel.
I met him in a different area of my life, long before I knew he was a writer, so we were friends for a couple of years before either of us knew that we were trying to do this. It’s funny that our books came out at around the same time. Where I’m from, there are not many writers at all, so it’s really nice to have legitimate friends, who also happen to be writers. That’s the whole thing about New York.
Your memoir covers most of your time in one particular band, and then it jumps ahead a little bit. In terms of the later years, were there stories that you wanted to tell that didn’t really fit in with the structure?
The book’s in three parts, and the first two essentially cover three years; the third part covers about five to six years. Primarily because, for me, what happened with my sister and that first band, it was almost two sides of my life, the family and the band, during those first three years. That was the big event for me, in terms of those two things colliding and what happened to my sister. I really wanted there to be a buildup to that, and a dailyness to some of the events, to set the tone, convey how much we were everyday people. It built up to that.
At one point, the draft was 700 pages. Most of that stuff that was cut was antics and misadventures; music-related hijinks and whatnot. And through erasure, that last part of the book does kind of move in a different way. It also feels like that acceleration was very much germane to the experience of those days, where everything just spun out of control. I felt like, in that way, it wasn’t too awkward to do that. But it did require pulling out a lot of stuff.
Do you find similarities between your experiences as a writer and as a musician, or do they tap into completely different parts of you?
With playing music, I started doing it so young. I just remembered this recently, actually: when I first started playing guitar, I’d become so entranced that I would drool, because I would check out so far into that state of mind, or that right-brain activity. I began doing that so young that I think it’s very easy for me to get into that state when I’m working on something that I’m engaged with creatively or aesthetically. I think I really benefitted from that. Writing–you lose so much of that visceral gratification, but I almost become more deeply involved with the process. So I think I was able to get there through all those years of music. Also, I think rhythmically, the way I want things to feel in terms of sentences and certain alliterative qualities to the paragraphs at large and things like that, I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that that comes from listening to a lot of different kinds of music, and music production and the way things are put together. The minutiae.
You cover your time in two different bands in the book. I know that you’ve played music since then; what brought you back into making music after the end of The Holy Fire?
Well, I never stopped. The book is, in a way–it’s a number of things for me to process. In one way, it was kind of a conscious attempt to say goodbye to “the dream,” you know? Like many young Americans of my time, I had that dream, romanticized about life, and I thought that it would solve all of my problems if I were only able to express myself accurately through that music, and even achieve some kind of success at some point. But that became very toxic for me, and I think the book is also an exploration of that. I think it brought me to a point… I was coming to terms with the fact that I either had to let this go or redefine it. So music is, at this point, strictly something that I try to enjoy in the moment; I try to love it for the process with absolutely no expectations beyond that, including people even hearing it. That’s the big difference between where I was with it at the time of the book and where I am with it now. That was actually a very hard place to get through, for me.
When I first heard about this book was through talking with your editor; he mentioned that he was doing a memoir with a writer who had been in a few punk and hardcore bands from Michigan. I said, “Which one?” “Thoughts of Ionesco.” “Oh my god! I remember getting records of theirs to review for my old zine.” I remember the seven inch with the hand with the fingers that had been chopped off…
Oh, wow. That was way back…
Clearly that left an impression; fifteen years later…
There’s a Henry Miller quote on the back of that record that has completely botched syntax, from the designer.
I feel like it’s a book that someone who has no background in punk or hardcore could read and understand, but there were definitely certain things in there–I hadn’t thought about Conquer the World Records in a decade. How did you find the balance of that–of not having it be a punk book, but having things in there that acknowledged that scene?
I was really insecure about that at first. The rock and roll memoir is such a commercial entity right now, and anybody who was in any band whose name you might vaguely recognize seems to have written something. I really wanted to approach this from a literary perspective. In the earliest drafts, I didn’t even list the name of the band; I wanted it to have more of a universal, everyman/everyband quality to it. Which was pretty much just me being embarrassed of my past, as much as I draw a lot from those experiences.
Eventually… There’s so much music journalism and blogging, and that serves a certain purpose. You’ll get blogs referring to bands that I’ve been in as “legendary,” or something, which is such a far cry from the truth. I was interested in writing about that subculture in a way that I hadn’t seen done, which is to try to convey… I just did an event with this poet, Diane Wakoski; she’s 76 years old, a national treasure. She paid me one of the highest compliments I’ve received on the book, which is that she said something to the effect of, “I’ve never understood why anyone would want to make or listen to that music, but reading your book really helped me to understand that need, and that drive in a young man.” And that’s really what I was trying to get at, you know? As well as describing that world for people who hadn’t seen it, because I’m not sure it exists in the same way any more, post-internet and everything. I would talk to people who weren’t involved in that world, and the questions would always be, “So you just drove around in a van and showed up to people’s houses and warehouses and basements; how did this work? What was it?” I thought that could be intriguing, for somebody who wasn’t there.
It definitely put me in mind of that period–if you got a flyer for the right show, or one of your friends did, you’d be there, but if not…
You really had to work to find that stuff. And the excitement of grabbing a flyer and showing up and not knowing what you were going to get. I loved that.
In the book, you talk about not talking about your family about what the band was doing; do you find a parallel between that and not naming your bands in the early drafts of the book?
Yeah; that’s an apt observation. Almost pathologically, I was a person who kept separate worlds. My family didn’t know the name of my band or what state I was in, and my bandmates had no idea about the chaos going on in my home life. To the extent that I could, I was living two separate lives. In a way, that want to not even mention the band in the early drafts was a symptom of that. And ultimately, one of the many things this book was for me was a joining of those two things. Now that it’s out there, I just did an event in Detroit, and I got people coming out of the woodwork from my past.
I was going to ask if you’d been back since then.
One of the most intense things I’ve ever had to do was to go back and do an event. It was in Dearborn, the town I’m from, and to see these people in the crowd who I never imagined seeing again, and who didn’t know any of this stuff about me…
As a matter of fact, when I was driving there, Mike Warden from Conquer the World called me; we were passing each other on the freeway at night. His quote very much illuminated the whole issue for me. He said something like, “We never knew what was going on with you. We just thought you were crazy.”
In so many ways, this has been a process of me putting it all together, and trying to stand behind it as well.
You talked about fiction earlier, and your bio mentions stories that you’ve written. Have you been focusing more on fiction since finishing this, or are you doing more work with nonfiction?
I was writing short stories the whole time I was working on this. More as a reprieve; now that I look at them, I’m not sure if I’m even going to use them, but I wanted to stay close to that. I’ve begun a novel, and that’s something I’m going to explore with my full heart and all my faculties. I’m hoping I don’t have enough memoir again to write this kind of memoir. I would be interested in doing some kind of wild reportage, travel or something like that. I’d be really open to that, but I’m not pursuing it right now.
When did you first end up in New York?
And you’ve been here since then?
Yeah. I pretty much just packed up my car and drove out here with no plans. For whatever reason, it turned out to be exactly what I needed. This city will teach you a lot of lessons very quickly. And what a place to be, if you’re trying to learn the ropes as far as being a writer. I’m very grateful for that.
Is there anywhere in particular that would be your dream location to report on?
Right now, I’d actually be really interested by the idea of going to Russia and finding some strange cultural niche there and digging into it in an immersive style. I’m attracted to places where there’s tension.
Given that music plays a significant part in the book, I was curious about what you’re listening to these days.
I’ve really been enjoying the latest War on Drugs album. I really like the backdrop they set with the atmospherics, yet there’s this familiar, almost 70s troubadour kind of thing.
I need to spend more time with it. I loved their last record; this one, because of the difference in mood, it’s taken me a little time to respond to it as well. I think I just need to spend some more time with it.
I’ve had some friends say that as well. For whatever reason, I fell into it just as much as the last one. They have kind of a consoling sound; my nerves have been pretty frayed, so… I’m really into the ambient/experimental artist Tim Hecker. That’s been really big for me lately.
His stuff is fantastic.
I’ve been listening to a lot of that. And a lot of old stuff. I always have some artists’ catalog that I’m investigating as a whole, and entering their world again.
In terms of the events you’ve been doing for the book, I was curious as to where you’ve gotten the strongest response. Has it been more from readers in New York, or readers in Michigan, or…
I had a really nice reception in New York, over at PowerHouse. It felt like people from my new life, and also people who had an appetite for literature, who felt enlightened by that sort of conversation. Whereas going back to Michigan, there were a lot of people there who were present for different reasons. It’s such a concern; someone without inclinations towards reading literary prose might just read this story and say, “Oh god–this is just a horrible, depressing ride.” I’m very much someone who is always fascinated by art that tries to make something beautiful out of something utterly horrific. There’s that kind of compact, for me, between an author and writer. I’m not sure that that translates as well to people who aren’t readers, if that makes sense. That was what was hard about going back. I don’t think it’s a particularly commercial book or anything; to just hand this off to your fourth grade English teacher, who’s shown up–I have no idea how to even take this. There’s a lot of stress in that. But New York, I felt really good.