An Interview with Anthony Jones
Words By Anthony Jones and Andrew Jimenez
Anthony Jones and Joel Woolf are a music + lit duo from Sydney, Australia and Oakland, California. They pair literary noir and sci-fi with original music. Along with this interview, we’re also featuring their piece “Kim Kardashian,” which you can listen to here. You can also listen to more of their work here.
First, what inspired you both to create these audio stories? Tell us how the team came about.
Joel and I went to college together. At the time, I was interested in creative writing, and he’s been a musician for the longest time, and we were friends primarily first. He was an exchange student from Australia in Los Angeles—and we kept in touch afterwards, we travelled–but we were friends for a really long time before we actually ever decided that we wanted to collaborate together. I just had the idea of wanting to work with him, so I floated the concept of taking one of my short stories and narrating it and just handing it over to him to see what type of soundtrack that he’d be able to come up with, and the first one we did was really cool. I think we both enjoyed it, and so we just kept doing it over the years until we got to this point.
Where’d you guys go to college?
Well, I went to UCLA, and he did a study abroad year at UCLA. He was going to university, I believe, in Sydney, and he was studying in their jazz department, and so he did a year with the UCLA jazz department. That’s how we met. He was a saxophone player, and then, I think after college he got more into music production, and he did some courses in scoring music for film. So, that’s kind of been his journey.
It’s interesting that you said that he went to school for jazz, because I really hear a jazz element to the soundtrack of the stories, especially “Alpha Tango Monorail.” Even though it’s more of an ambient sound, I can still hear the jazz influence.
Interesting, yeah, you’d have to ask him about that. But that wouldn’t surprise me. I think his background–at least in the beginning—in music, was largely in jazz.
So, aside from cultivating an atmosphere for the stories, how do you see the interaction of the music and the reading affecting the experience of the story?
I think the music is the most critical part, actually. The way that I think about these stories is that I think people can listen to them on two different levels. I think you can listen and try to be very conscious of the story, following the plot and being immersed in that action. Or, I think you can also listen to these and sort of zone out. You can listen to them the same way that people might listen to music at times, where it’s just sort of a background noise that is putting them in a state where they can let their imagination wander to all types of different things that maybe have nothing to do with actually, consciously, paying attention to the story.
So, I sort of see it as that, as kind of functioning on both of those different levels. Then, depending on if the listener wants to allow their mind to wander off, or if they want to stay more concentrated on the actual narrative, I think it can be a pleasant experience either way, because of the music.
That’s interesting. A lot of my friends will listen to books on tape, but listening to books on tape is hard for me because it’s difficult to pay attention when someone is just speaking at me without some kind of visual representation there. But what I found when I was listening to “Alpha Tango Monorail” is that the music actually helped me focus on the words, and it felt like the music was an essential part of the piece. Do you find that to be the case for yourself?
Totally. I have the privilege of being able to hear the story without the music, so, when I listen to just the narration, it totally pales in comparison. I think Joel does such a good job of figuring out the inherent emotion of the story and then creating music that really takes the listener on that emotional journey, enhancing particular elements at some points. He really sets out to write a complete piece of music from beginning to end, and in the case of “Alpha Tango Monorail,” that’s like a 30-minute piece of music, so it’s a really long piece of music. It definitely has a very cogent emotional journey that I think maybe you get from the narrative, but probably not. And so I totally agree with you. I think that the music enhances that, and probably emotionally can help a listener focus in on the story being told.
Absolutely. And it’s interesting what you said, too, about the music, and Joel’s ability to find the emotion of what’s going on in the story, because there are moments of sadness that you can hear reflected in the music, moments of anger, and you can really tell that this is a piece that was composed specifically for this story.
Oh yeah, totally. Joel is priceless.
When you’re planning a piece, do you write the story and then Joel adds the music second? Or do you ever do it the other way around?
Mostly all the stories that we’ve done have been me sending him short stories that I’d written previously and thought might do well as an audio piece, but the one piece that we did where he sent me the music first (and then I wrote the story) was actually “Kim Kardashian.” That was the only one that we’ve done it that way.
Did he send you a whole, completed piece of music? Or did he send you a sketch of an idea?
He sent me a sample. He sent me like a minute-and-a-half sample of just that eerie, atmospheric, almost X-Files type sound.
It does really have an X-Files kind of vibe to it. So what is the process like? Is there a back-and-forth? How long does it usually take between you sending him a piece and him sending you the music, and is there a back-and-forth after that?
Yeah. Typically, I’ll record the narration, send it over to him, and he works pretty quickly. He’s finished pieces of music in as little as a week, sometimes it’ll take a couple weeks. And then he might send it back to me, and I’ll listen. Sometimes I have some very high-level notes, just like, ‘Maybe let it breathe a little bit here,’ or ‘Can we get to the climax a little bit quicker.’ But he’s definitely the expert when it comes to the music, so it’s pretty much hands-off on my end, and then that’s it. We have a pretty simple cadence. I’ll send him a narrated file, he’ll come up with the music, send it back to me, and then it’s usually me saying, ‘Oh yeah, it sounds great.’
How does this collaborative process differ from when you’re writing on your own? Do you write your stories differently when you’re working with Joel than you would if you were just writing a piece on that isn’t meant for audio?
Definitely, when I record the stories, I do a lot of editing, just because in saying the stories out loud and thinking about what the audio experience is going to be like for the listener, there winds up being inevitably a lot of superfluous words or descriptions that I feel aren’t really necessary. I’m not a professional voice actor by any stretch, but there are certain emotions that you can convey with the tone of your voice as opposed to describing them with exposition, and so a lot of that stuff will get cut as well. So, I think it just makes it easier to be more succinct, as a writer, when I know that it’s going to be an audio piece.
That’s interesting. You almost have to be a little bit more self-critical when you’re reading it aloud.
Absolutely. And I try to get to the action a little bit faster, just to keep that momentum going, because I’m very aware that people have limited attention spans—and I think for good reason. I mean, there’s so much good content out there that if you’re engaging with something that you feel less than ideal about, why would you stick with it? There’s so much other good stuff out there. So, try to get to the good stuff as fast as possible.
That makes a lot of sense. And it’s also quicker to read something silently to yourself than to listen to something.
Totally, and there’s also a limitation from the sense that we have to work within fairly small word counts, because very quickly we can get to ten minutes of audio or something like that, and that’s a lot of music to do and that’s a big task to ask someone to listen to. So, we try to work with stories that are around probably 2000 words–that’s the sweet spot. That’s not super long.
No, it’s not. That’s just a little bit more than what would be considered flash fiction.
Right. The latest thing that we did was a flash piece. And what we’re starting to move towards, I think, is experimenting with really short word counts—like 500 words or so—and allowing for spaces where Joel can take the music into a totally different direction and have it just be about the music for like a minute. Like, no narration. So almost like a story-song hybrid. That’s what we’re interested in exploring.
Is it like the story will take a break for a musical interlude, and then pick back up again?
So, both “Kim Kardashian” and “Alpha Tango Monorail” are speculative fiction. Do you find that the collaborative process naturally lends itself to this kind of work? Or is the speculative fiction something that you just would naturally write anyway?
I think, originally, it was a topic that I was exploring anyway, especially the speculative-noir nexus point. Sci-fi noir, speculative-noir—that’s sort of been a go-to genre of mine for a long time. And I think we’ve done some other types of stories along the way, but I think musically, what Joel is interested in just happens to sync very well around that type of content, so we’ve stuck with that. It’s just easier sometimes, when we’re explaining to people what we do, to say, ‘Oh we do literary noir, or literary sci-fi,’ and to stay closer to that genre just to help explain to people, ‘This is what we do.’
We’re constantly having that battle ourselves at F(r)iction too, because we publish things that are considered literary fiction, but also we love genre work and publish a lot of genre fiction. And we’re always trying to find our identity because, what does that mean? The larger literary society feels as though genre is something that’s lower on the totem pole than literary fiction, and that’s something we disagree with. We think that all writing is genre writing. But it does make it a little bit difficult to find an identity.
Yeah, I agree. And I think, as far as agents are concerned, or a lot of publishers, they very much need you to be in a genre for them to be able to understand who you are and where you fit. And I think probably most writer—or most people—they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t perfectly fit in a genre, and I don’t really want to, and yet you’re forcing me to do that from the business end.’ And it makes sense, but there’s something that’s deeply dissatisfying about putting yourself in a box.
For sure. All right, let’s talk about “Alpha Tango Monorail.” How did this story come about? Was it at all influenced by our current political climate?
You know, it’s funny. I actually wrote this story nine years ago. I wrote it because I’d just been through a really terrible heartbreak, and it was in some ways like an attempt for me to try to make sense of that. But Joel and I were talking about doing a longer piece that was episodic. So I was going through my old files and remembered writing this story, and I was like, ‘Oh, this could be interesting!’ I started reading it and thought, ‘Wow, this really is very pertinent, based on our current political climate.’ Obviously, I added and I edited and I shaped it to definitely fit our current political climate a little bit more snarkily, but I have lines in the first version talking about Senator Adams, the political figure, that he was real estate heir. That was that just one of those things where it fits so perfectly, and yet I wrote this nine years ago, so was it coincidental? Trump was still active politically back then, so maybe I had that sort of figure in my mind, even back then, but it’s hard to say.
I did recognize that overlap and wondered if you were influenced by that at all. And also, the descriptions of the relationship in the story were just so vivid and emotionally raw that I wondered as I was reading it how much of it was based on real-life experiences as well. So it’s interesting that you say you had just gone through a really bad breakup before you made the story.
It was one of those breakups where I just felt responsible in some ways, and was just trying to figure out, ‘Okay, how was I responsible for what happened, and how can I try to get to a place where maybe I can glean some self-awareness so this doesn’t happen again?’ And so I think this story was really part of that healing process that I was going through at the time, in my mid-twenties.
And the emotions that the company creates too, I think, is a really great metaphor for that kind of thing. You know, where, after a really bad breakup, or any kind of sort of emotional trauma, you can sit there and be like, ‘I have this shelf full of emotions, and which one am I feeling more of right now? And how much control do I actually have over the way that I feel and the way that I react to those feelings?’
Hmm, yeah, that’s interesting.
How’d you come up with the codenames for the emotions?
You know, I was just trying to be silly, honestly. I was just trying to come up with absurd things—just trying to find some comic relief in an otherwise pretty dramatic story. I don’t know, they were just like silly word combinations. So I thought, for confidence, ‘Concord Beta Mousetrap.’ I don’t know, I just thought that was funny.
I think they’re definitely humorous, and they also add to the air of mystery around the story, and contribute to the noir quality of the piece.
I really enjoyed the premise that honesty is what destroys everything in the story. Honesty is what destroys Washington, honesty is what destroys the central relationship. Do you think that honesty is impossible in politics, in relationships, in life in general?
It’s a really good question. I mean, I think it sort of gets at another question, which is ‘What is honesty?’ Because I think people you know can communicate their thoughts verbatim and say, ‘Well I’m being honest, I’m telling you what I’m thinking,’ but I think there’s another layer of honesty that the story tries to get at, which is emotional honesty. To talk about, ‘Okay, what emotions are causing the thoughts that I’m having, and I’m going to be upfront and clear about the emotions that I’m experiencing as they’re related to the thoughts that I’m expressing.’ And so, I think that type of honesty is far more dangerous.
I think it is kind of possible. I’m not sure. Even in our most intimate relationships, to sort of shed light on our inner emotional world, and to be as honest as possible about what’s going on, it can be terrifying. It can strengthen, but it can also destroy a relationship. So I think you have to be careful with it. I don’t think it’s something that we should strive for 100% all the time, but certainly it’s an important element to any relationship. And I’d like to think, in an ideal world, it’s an important part of any political climate, for the people that are at the fulcrum of power to try to strive for that.
Have you ever considered collaborating on a strict work of realist literary fiction?
I guess that gets back to our conversation earlier, like what does that mean? What is ‘straight’ literary fiction? I’ve always wondered about that, you know, when people call something ‘literary fiction.’ Like, what exactly are we talking about? So, what does that mean to you? I’m curious.
To me, personally, usually what I consider to be a realist piece is something that doesn’t have any kind of fantastical quality to it. They’re usually relationship-based in some way, whether that relationship is romantic, or whether it’s something that’s based on work life, or some kind of political drama. But usually there’s no kind of fantastical element to it.
Yeah, I think that makes sense to me. I mean, I don’t tend to conceptualize stories in that way. If we’re going to talk about our dreams, like the dreams that we have when we sleep, probably the most boring dreams that we have are the ones where we’re at work, or having a normal-ish conversation with somebody, or we have chores, or, ‘Oh man I gotta remember to pay this bill.’ Those are boring dreams that probably don’t illuminate anything about our subconscious or inner characters, and I sort of think the same way about stories. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of really well-done pieces of literary fiction, in the way that you’re describing, but at the same time, I think I tend to think in more extreme ways, and bigger, more intense metaphors. I don’t know that, at this point, I have much interest in writing a story like that. So, probably not. I probably wouldn’t do that with the audio fiction. Although, maybe, you never know.
That’s cool. If you’re not interested in something, then the reader’s not going to be interested in what you’re writing, either.
Right. That’s just not the way that my mind works. I know plenty of other extremely talented writers, who seem to naturally gravitate toward that. I just really never have.
I’m the same way too. I love stories that take imagination. I don’t really like reading stories about somebody not doing well at work, or interpersonal drama. Drama for drama’s sake is probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to storytelling.
Yeah. Those things, they tend to feel—I’m over-generalizing here—but a lot of those stories that really dive deep into the intricacies of, let’s say, a conversation, or an interaction, or something like that, they just tend to feel kind of neurotic to me. Whereas, I was just one of those kids, and maybe you were similar–—ike, the Greek myths captivated me from a very early age, and X-Men captivated me from a really early age. Just these big, dramatic, psycho-dramas.
Or fairy tales, which seem to have, at times, no logic whatsoever. And stories just end, for no reason. I love that.
Yes, me too.
You said that you were a teacher for a while, so my next question has something to do with that. What have you learned through this collaboration that might be helpful for writers who are just beginning? How has the experience changed your view of creating fiction?
That’s a great question. I think early on, if I was ever in a position to give advice to a young writer, or to just provide my perspective on what it’s been like spending a decade-plus trying to be a creative writer, I made a fundamental mistake really early on. And this was back when I was in college, too—probably my late twenties—I think I had the wrong mindset. And basically, I was under the impression that if I could just have enough time alone, that I could get the job done. Like, if I could just set aside enough time that I could spend by myself, writing, working on a project, that was the most crucial thing. That’s what I needed. It was just time for me to be in this solitary space, putting words on paper and creating manuscripts or whatever.
In my view, that was totally mistaken. What I really should’ve been doing was looking for places and points of collaboration, and meeting people like yourself, and really try to network and grow a community and share my work and get feedback and interact with other people’s work. Try to really think about, ‘What are they doing well, and what can I learn from them.’ So, yeah, I think having this collaboration with Joel has shown me that even with adding one other person, how much better the work can become. That’s really what I’ve learned. Growing a community, adding as many different collaborators as possible in some cases, and really having that mindset as opposed to just trying to do it on my own in a kind of obsessive, egotistical way.
I really would agree with you on that point, and it seems kind of antithetical because writing is something that generally is a very solitary process. But I think that collaboration is a huge part of the writing process—whether that’s collaborating with the writers who have come before you, whose books that you really admire, or finding a writing group that really understands what you’re trying to do, or a collaborator like Joel, who can add a whole other element to your storytelling. Collaboration, and community building is, I think, a huge, and not-very-talked-about element.
Absolutely. And those have been the points of the most joy. Seeing what kind of music Joel comes up with, or just getting other people’s opinions and constructive criticism on my writing—that’s helped me to grow the most. And that’s been how I’ve kind of shifted my perspective. I think to some degree, being an English major in college, and reading about these literary figures that I admired, I think the story was told incorrectly about how they got where they were. I think, to some extent, there’s this narrative about the solitary genius who goes off into a cabin in the woods and creates this amazing manuscript. That’s just wrong, and maybe that can be done, very rarely, but I think having that in mind can be dangerous, honestly. Because with more isolation comes more negative emotion and the greater chance for mental illness, and so I think it’s just way more important to be fully enmeshed in a community of people that you value and respect. It’s just more pro-social, it’s more mentally healthy, and ultimately, it leads to greater quality in the creative work.
I would agree 100%. So, speaking of community, are there other teams, or any person that you know that’s creating this sort of literary experience?
There are. There is definitely a growing trend in the audio fiction or audio drama space in the world of podcasts. In fact, in October, I’m going to be going to PodTales, which is this first annual audio fiction conference in Cambridge. So there’s definitely a rich world. I think the way in which other people are approaching it is a little bit different than how Joel and I are approaching it. I think a lot of people in the audio drama space are doing it really like a radio drama, and so they have multiple actors, they have sound effects. In some cases, it’s really, really well done.
Joel and I are doing it slightly different in that it’s more literary, I think. Whereas the other stuff is a little bit more genre, we do the story, plus music, and that’s it. And a lot of the other audio drama podcasts, they don’t nearly have the same emphasis on the music side. But I do think that we fit into this growing trend, which is the audio fiction and the audio drama podcast.
That’s interesting. I feel like that medium has a lot of potential for growth. Because people really do enjoy fiction, and they also really enjoy podcasts. It almost seems like there could be a resurgence of the old-school radio drama.
There totally is. I think that’s happening right now. I saw some report on podcast trends in 2018, and audio fiction, audio drama was like, third or fourth most popular. It’s more popular than you’d think. So, it’s super interesting. I mean, have you ever listened to Welcome to Night Vale, for example?
I have, yeah.
So, the people who did that podcast created their own production company called Night Vale Presents, and one of their more recent ones was called Homecoming. Have you heard of it?
Amazon wound up buying it and creating a show–Julia Roberts is in it, and other people. And so you’re starting to see more and more interest in that space, and how it can translate to screen, so I think it’s a really interesting medium with a lot of potential, and that’s something that Joel and I are definitely excited about.
So, what’s next for the both of you? More collaborations are in the works?
We are in the process of making our audio fiction into a monthly podcast, and so syncing that with things that we’re releasing–with F(r)iction, and then sharing that at this audio fiction conference that I’m going to in October. And just looking forward to being more interconnected with that audio fiction world, that’s definitely interesting to us. And I mentioned earlier on trying to figure out how to produce pieces where the music takes more center stage, and there are interludes where the music can kind of grow and develop. That, to me, would be really interesting.
And we’d like to do live shows. I mean, we’ve been trying to figure out a way to come up with just a little tour for a long time, because we think it would be really cool for people to have this experience live. It requires a bit of planning, because Joel is in Australia. He can’t just pop over for the weekend to do a show or two. So, we’re trying to figure out a way to get six or seven shows put together, where it would make sense for him to take that vacation time, and come over. But we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.
That makes sense. That would be really cool.
As you can imagine, we run into a kind of a challenging thing when we talk to music venues, where they’re like, ‘Well, what is this?’ Like, ‘Well, we don’t know!’
Yeah, what kind of show is that? Is it a reading, is it a musical performance?
I would envision it being like moments of the types of stories that you’ve heard with the musical soundtrack, but then to have big chunks just be Joel’s composition, so that kind of ambient, trance-type music or whatever comes out of his brain. So, yeah, I think it would be cool to just sort of put people in that mental space. It’s very hypnotic, very engaging, just on a musical level, so I think it would be really cool to kind of go in and out with the story, but have the music be the constant.