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In Conversation with Hugo Race for Rock & Roll Writers Festival

On Sunday 9 April, Rock & Roll Writers Festival, Australia’s only literary festival celebrating the relationship between writing and music, comes to Melbourne and the Abbotsford Convent for the first time. We speak to musician and writer Hugo Race about his recently published memoir ‘Road Series’ – an on the road diary covering Melbourne’s 1980s punk scene and travels through Europe, South America and Africa. Race, a former member of The Bad Seeds will speak about ‘Road Series’ and the art of the memoir as part of a panel discussion with Rob Snarski and Jenny Valentish.

How has retuning home affected your writing? Was the move back to Australia a trigger for you to look back and write a memoir?

When I moved back to Melbourne, I found I had more time on my hands. Most of my musical work happens in Europe and suddenly there was this space to fill. There was also the question of what do with my archives, which had been in storage for years, since the late 80s. So, I started going through this archive of papers and photos and old magnetic tapes in a moment when I wasn’t constantly traveling with music and this allowed reflection on a lot of things like, what is this life and the point of it all? I’d been in Europe for over 20 years and things had changed pretty dramatically during that time. I’d also just come back from the first trip to West Africa and I was inspired to write about it. Mali was actually the trigger for ‘Road Series’, but time out in Melbourne gave me the time and space to start writing seriously.

‘Road Series’ isn’t your classic rock and roll piece of writing. It’s broken into 14 stories and is at times journalistic. There has been a renaissance of rock musician autobiographies of late. Was it important for you to not follow that more traditional memoir formula?

I aimed to write a book that was more than a music memoir that went much further than that format and reflected my own sense of reality. The reason I was traveling around so long with music was out of the curiosity and desire to see the world and live in the experience. With ‘Road Series’, I was trying to write a book, which can stand alone irrespective of what I do in music. I had this particular vantage point – that through music I was invited into or found myself in situations where I was on the inside, and that gave me a lot of space to talk about many other things besides myself or music per se – a subjective view of the world as I saw it.

Were you making a conscious effort to not make ‘Road Series’ feel nostalgic?

I wrote from the point of view of being there in the moment, reliving the scenes in my mind. It was a conscious decision to do so, but that realisation came through the writing process, it wasn’t the point of departure. I didn’t feel nostalgic when writing, it all felt totally real to me except that for maybe the first time I was looking much deeper into it.

Was there ever a thought to spend more time writing about your time with the Bad Seeds to pander to those fans?

No, but I wouldn’t rule out returning to some of the scenes in the book for further exploration – but I would probably fictionalize to have more freedom.

Have you always kept a journal or similar? How do you preserve a sense of clarity and detail on events from 35 years ago that match the freshness of recent observations and experiences?

The scenes from decades ago, I approached through jagged memories and wisps of information from the archive. It was detective work, using mnemonic associations from images, objects, songs and bits of writing in old notebooks. Powerful talismans can trigger all kinds of memories you don’t consciously know you have. Our minds constantly archive information, they never stop doing it and this has been posited as an explanation for dreams. We think beyond language, our memories are often non-verbal, but they are with us and in my case, I just needed a reason to access them, like writing a book, as well as time to process it all.

What’s your bigger inspiring force, individuals or places?

I think individuals translate places for us and give them meaning. We are reflections of each other while the planet and the greater reality is transpersonal. In the end, we’re nothing without each other.

While writing ‘Road Series’, did you come across passages you thought could be a song instead of an excerpt from a memoir?

No, but I sometimes thought about the way I was writing in musical terms of rhythm and cadence and tonal shift. Last year I did a reading with the band True Spirit in Berlin and I thought there was a real flow.

Do you prefer autobiographies or biographies? Would you rather hear it from the horse’s mouth, or get the dirty laundry the subject doesn’t want aired?

I much prefer the autobiography but only in so far as it is honest. I tried to be candid in ‘Road Series’ and reflect the reality of what we do. There’s no time for whitewash as we are all increasingly transparent. The autobiographies of Miles Davis, Art Pepper, Malcolm X – these are incredible books. And there are many others. Real life is infinitely deep, infinitely shallow and totally subjective.

Was your creative process for writing your book the same as for your song writing?

In some ways, in the sense of intention and intuition and the setting of moods but writing carries much more explicit information while lyrics work with the power of suggestion. I found parallels with the process of making an album in the overall dynamic of sequencing incidents and chapters but really, I’d never done anything like ‘Road Series’ before. Depicting your life in song and in writing are different levels of exposure. It took me a while to get used to the idea. With music you have a kind of veil drawn across, so I had to invent a different kind of filter to allow myself to write with any kind of freedom.

What are fans of your music and writing likely to discover about you at Rock & Roll Writers Festival?

That I’m a mass of contradictions.

What are you working on next?

An album of music and songs that we recorded in Istanbul late last year with friends from the Turkish band Baba Zula, and the release of an album of covers of John Lee Hooker songs. Both very psychedelic projects. And some other things I can’t talk about yet but which I hope someday to see the light of day.