Sean Michaels is the author of Us Conductors (Tin House Books), a featured title in the 2014 Summer/Fall Indies Introduce promotion. Michaels was born in Scotland, grew up in Ottawa, Canada, and currently lives in Montreal. In 2003, he founded one of the earliest music blogs, Said the Gramophone, and his writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Believer, The Walrus, Pitchfork, and McSweeney’s.
“Sean Michaels has chosen an engrossing subject in Lev Termen, the Russian scientist and spy, most famous for his invention of an unusual instrument, the theremin,” said Liberty Hardy of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “Michaels details Termen’s rise to fame, his trips around Europe and America to demonstrate his creation (bankrolled by the Russian government and not without its costs), as well as his new life in the States and subsequent incarceration in a Russian gulag following a shift in relations with his homeland. Us Conductors is engaging throughout. A fascinating look at a fascinating man.”
What drew you to Lev Termen’s (Léon Theremin) story?
Sean Michaels: It was a true story that felt like a beautiful lie. It was a hidden story of espionage and electricity. I love when truth seems imaginary (or when the imaginary feels true), and I love to visit places that seem off limits, secret. More than anything, however, I was drawn to the mystery of Termen’s heart: who was this man who drew music from the air, who loved and loved and lied?
If you were hand-selling your debut, how would you pique a customer’s interest?
SM: I’d tell them about the theremin — this strange century-old instrument, played without touching. I’d fly in on a zeppelin, unfurl maps. I’d whisper something about love, music, spies, and kung-fu. I’d sing an eerie song.
Your tour includes performances by thereminists (which we have to say we love). Is the theremin a widely played instrument? Any bands or musicians in particular you can recommend for our readers?
SM: For a little while, the theremin was the most famous musical instrument in the world. In the end it mostly vanished, because of the Great Depression, because of patent disputes and Termen’s mysterious disappearance. Instead of being the centerpiece for symphonies or new jazz compositions, it was reduced to a sci-fi sound effect. Bands love it for its racket: hear it in the Pixies’ “Velouria,” in songs by Wolf Parade, or in versions of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” But truly the greatest contemporary players are the musicians who revisit the classical compositions the theremin was first designed for. People like Vienna’s Pamelia Kurstin, the Netherlands’ Thorwald Jorgensen, New York’s Rob Schwimmer, Philadelphia’s Mano Divina. (Rob and Mano will be appearing with me on tour.)
Are you working on anything now?
SM: I’ve started a novel about wagers.
Can you tell us a little about your music blog, Said the Gramophone?
SM: Founded in 2003, Said the Gramophone was one of the first mp3blogs, and for a little while it was among the most popular. All mp3blogs do the same thing — they help people discover new music, they let them download songs for free. But Said the Gramophone was always very peculiar: we write stories about songs. Stories, prose-poems, limericks, dreams. We try to explain the images we hear in these songs, the way our spirits meet the music.
We were among the first places to ever write about artists like Arcade Fire, Tune-Yards, Grizzly Bear, Feist, and Beirut. We use metaphors way out the wazoo. And our audience has become very loyal.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
SM: I love to visit small bookshops. I love the sense of bright-hearted human beings sorting and curating and annotating. Shakespeare & Company in Paris absolutely bowled me over — that maze of treasures. I love TYPE Books in Toronto and Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal. I can’t wait to visit more American stores on this tour.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
- Peter Norman’s Emberton
- W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz
- Daniel Pinkwater’s The Last Guru
- Martha Baillie’s Search for Heinrich Schlögel
- Dean Garlick’s Chloes
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?
SM: Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter
If you were imprisoned in a Siberian gulag, what three titles would you want to have with you?
- Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
- John Gardner’s Grendel
- Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House Books, Paperback, 9781935639817). Publication Date: June 10, 2014.
Learn more about Sean Michaels at usconductors.byseanmichaels.com.
ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As With Indies Introduce Debut Authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.