The Skinny is Ten: Theremin Lies the Truth

Over ten years The Skinny has grown into Scotland’s cultural barometer, so we will throw our hands in the air and throw a party. Author Sean Michaels witnessed our very beginnings so brings his magical and melodious new novel to our gathering

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 02 Jul 2015
  • Unbound 2015: Theremin

The Skinny is ten years old. Moving on towards teenage days of angst and acne, hormone-fuelled drama and faces filled with broody disdain. The Skinny is ten years old. We've spent a decade covering the artistic scene in Scotland and now in England too, shouting out for the next big thing, throwing spotlights on local artists of all descriptions and offering a one-stop guide to everything that's going down in the beautiful and bizarre cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Manchester and Liverpool. 

The Skinny is ten years old and we'll do honour to the occasion at this year's Jura Unbound with a night just for us (and you). A night of words and music; laughs and libations. We shall assemble a harmonious crowd unto Edinburgh to hear tales and good tunes, drink and live a little. Testament to everything The Skinny stands for. Or leans drunkenly against the wall for. Or lies prone on the grass outside the Spiegeltent for. Whichever. You are invited.

Back in its earlier days, when it was young and crazy and not quite so wise as it is now, The Skinny had a writer named Sean Michaels. Sean mostly covered the music scene, dipping occasionally into the literary section too, and made a name for himself as one of the first journalists in the UK to write about the likes of Arcade Fire, Beirut and Feist. Sean's highly anticipated début novel Us Conductors hits the UK this month: a freewheeling, fascinating tale from the 20s about the inventor of the theremin and his adventures across continents, skipping in and out of danger, prison and love. He sat down with us to discuss, in his syrupy convivial Canadian tones, his book, his time writing for The Skinny, his appearance at our upcoming Jura Unbound event and his general thoughts on music, life and art.

The Skinny: You sound much more Canadian than I was expecting

Sean Michaels: Yes, alas my original accent was a fine Stirling brogue but I lost it upon moving as a wee lad to Canada.

So your novel, Us Conductors, tells the tale of the inventor of the theremin – what drew you to tell his story?

I think I found myself drawn to it from a couple of different directions. One was just learning about the strange, tumultuous, catastrophic, inspiring story of the theremin's inventor Lev Sergeyvich Termen and seeing what a colourful, and tragic, and hopeful, and odd tale that was. How it felt like a story that someone had to have made up. I've always liked true stories that sound as if they're fibs. And the more I learned about it, the more I found it intersected with the kind of story I'd been imagining in my mind. It was a story about true love and untrue love – maybe the idea of lying about true love – and also about the intersection of music and life and science and human beings.

And then there was an experience I had almost ten years ago. I knew about the theremin as this strange gizmo you hear in the background of weird psychedelic rock songs or indie rock gigs, but then one night I was out for a drive in my parents' car listening to the radio and I heard this just gorgeous piece of music, this opera aria. This singer was just singing with this incredible voice, so fragile and perfect at the same time. And then at the end of the segment the presenter explained that we'd not been listening to a human singer but to someone playing on the theremin. That realisation that this really queer instrument that felt more science experiment than musical instrument, that this could produce sound and music as beautiful as that – that was something that stayed with me and kind of haunted me until I got down to putting pen to paper and writing.

As someone who has written about music and literature (for illustrious publications such as The Skinny), it makes sense that you would blend those two interests in your prose.

Yeah, though I think it was mostly happenstance. I've actually wanted to be a fiction writer longer than I've wanted to be a music journalist. I'd been writing stories for years and then I landed on a story that was very musical and that was the thing that sort of took off, so it feels like completing the circle of my work.

A lot of your work as a music journalist has focused on locality, on bands emerging from a specific place, and that relationship between place and music plays an important role in Us Conductors too.

When I started thinking about this novel, I really got excited about the idea of a novel that takes place in Russia and New York, the Soviet Union and the Jazz Age, that's about classical music and jazz but also about electricity and people falling in love and having a thrilling, electric time in a period that was so full of all these new discoveries and new types of music. I felt a really strong connection between that and living in Montreal as the Indie Rock scene really exploded there, and then in Edinburgh and having the same kind of experiences going to gigs there and in Glasgow while you're still so young and everything feels so new and exciting, and I was seeing bands like folk bands and indie rock bands, but also bands with this electric flame to them that was scary and exciting. I really wanted to capture that younger and newer experience I had had, a book set almost a hundred years ago that nodded to that very contemporary feeling. I wanted to write a book that took place in the 20s but evoked some of the music of the 80s, so all the chapter titles are nods to the post-punk, new wave era of that kind of time. If the book were asleep, its dreams would be of Kate Bush and Joy Division.

So on to your upcoming Jura Unbound event. You'll be there to celebrate the 10th birthday of The Skinny, reading from your novel, perhaps accompanied by a theremin?

I'd love if we could do that, I did a book tour of the United States last summer where I read with thereminists all around the country. It's a really vivid rendering of the book and it's fun.

How did you get involved with The Skinny?

I saw a notice in a café, before it was The Skinny, during its earlier life as Noise. I went to one of the first meetings in a pub – just a whole whack of people – and there was such a hole in the cultural landscape in Scotland for this kind of alternative paper that was just concerned with grassroots and what was happening at the humblest levels. And it was so exciting being there when people were trying to build this, I remember getting our first big name interviews, getting the chance to interview MIA when she was promoting her first record. It felt like we were kids pretending to be grown-ups, making this paper and putting it out. I'm just so proud of the tens of thousands of words that have filled those pages now and how it's become such an institution in Scotland.

The Skinny & Sean Michaels party kicks off at 9pm Sun 23 Aug in the Spiegeltent, part of Jura Unbound http://edbookfest.co.uk