- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Do not bother to lecture Mo Daviau on any ideological problems you might have with indie rock as a construct. She has heard them all.
“Indie rock is absolutely the music of privilege,” Daviau, 38, says, calling from her home in Portland, Ore. “It is overwhelmingly white. You do not have to play your instruments well or have anything that someone might call talent. You just have to feel the right to grab the stage and do your thing. It’s the music of kids who grow up in a house where all their (lousy) artwork is on the fridge.”
The former Austin resident even addresses this head-on in her debut novel, “Every Anxious Wave” (the title is from a Sebadoh song). It is 2010, and her protagonist, Karl Betnder, is a 40-year-old bar owner whose 1990s indie rock band the Axis he describes as “part of an indie scene that attracted clean, artistic children who got good grades.”
Daviau sighs. Is indie rock the culture problematic? Sure. But the music?
“I still love it,” she says. “I am twee as (expletive).” We agree that there really should be promotional T-shirts for “Every Anxious Wave” with the book’s cover on the front and “#tweeaf” on the back.
Daviau grew up right in indie rock’s mid-’90s sweet spot, the sort of kid who grew up in Chula Vista, Calif., reading Sassy magazine cover to cover and went on to be a college radio DJ at Smith, where she became addicted to acts such as Unrest, Elliot Smith and Beat Happening.
“College gave the language to talk about the music that I liked,” Daviau says. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is called indie rock.’”
She became a serious Sebadoh nerd, chilling out to such no-fi albums as “Winning Losers” and “III.” (She eventually contacted Sebadoh frontloser Lou Barlow for his blessing on the title. He was cool with it.)
So it’s not too surprising that “Every Anxious Wave” starts with some serious rock-nerd wish fulfillment. Our man Karl discovers a wormhole in space-time, so what do he and his pal Wayne do with it? Rig it so they can go back and see some rock concerts they always wanted to attend, or relive some of their own moments on stage.
The two start charging thousands to quietly send fans back to the shows of their dreams: “The Smiths, London, 1985; Rolling Stones in the UK, 1967-69; REM in Athens, 1980-83”
Karl’s taste tends toward the severely indie: “Galaxy 500, 1990, Boston; Unrest, 1993, Arlington, VA; Stereolab, 1998, Chicago.”
They have rules. Don’t touch anything, don’t talk to anyone, the usual don’t-mess-up-the-timeline stuff. But Wayne gets more ambitious. He wants to stop John Lennon’s murder … except he and Karl manage to send him back to 980 Manhattan rather than 1980 outside of the Dakota. D’oh!
When Karl meets and falls for Lena, a young, heavyset physicist with a very particular fondness for the Axis whom he recruits to help get Wayne back, “Every Anxious Wave” turns into a sort-of love story, complete with more time traveling, ancient tribes, a future filled with very bad things indeed and people who may or may not exist. Think “Back to the Future” as imagined by, well, a former college radio DJ.
To her credit, Daviau introduces the wormhole right away and doesn’t get too hung up on how it works. “My hardcore sci-fi friends don’t think I go hard and deep enough into the mechanics of the time travel,” Daviau says, “but that’s how Karl perceives it: He doesn’t care how it works, he is just happy he can time-travel.”
Daviau landed in Austin in 2000, picking up a master’s degree in library science on top of her MFA from Michigan. “Then I did improv at the Hideout for like 10 years,” Daviau says.
That’s actually a big hunk of her advice for young writers. “You want to improve your dialogue and learn how to write funny? Take an introductory improv class. It’s totally intuitive, there’s positive peer pressure to make yourself be funny, you will get funnier.”
Daviau left for Portland in 2014, but the roots of the book go back to a question she used to use as an ice breaker at bars: “If you could see any rock show at any time, what would you choose?”
At some point, she just started writing, building characters and places very loosely on her own experiences. (She pictures Milo, the lead singer in the Axis, “as looking like Ian Svenonius” from the DC punk bands Nation of Ulysses and the Make Up, while the bar Karl owns is based on one in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village called The Iron Horse Inn.)
“I definitely relate the most to Karl,” Daviau says. “He’s a doofus, kind of emotional, music person. But he’s also a caretaker. He owns a bar because he wants to take care of people.
“Lena is every woman I’ve come across who was in the sciences who sort of seemed beat down by life,” Daviau adds. “Maybe if people had treated her better, her career would be going better. There is a terrific book called ‘The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club’ by Eileen Pollack, and I didn’t read it while I was putting the book together (it came out in 2015) but it is completely in line with Lena’s experience.”
Our chat drifts back to indie rock. Daviau is a serious Elliot Smith fan. “Oh yes, I was absolutely one of those people,” she says. No wonder Karl and Lena head back to a Smith show.
“I am proud of and appalled by how static my taste has been all these years,” Daviau says. She is absolutely, positively not alone, and “Every Anxious Wave” is for all those no-longer-kids who got good grades just like her, who throw on Beat Happening and think a little too much about how great the 1990s were.
Which they were.