Arguably the world’s most rock’n’roll author lifts the lid on the music that inspired him and his psychotic characters
Too often ‘rock’n’roll’ is a phrase used to describe fields that are anything but. We’ve had rock’n’roll poets, rock’n’roll artists – even rock’n’roll chefs. Los Angeles-born Bret Easton Ellis, however, is an author who’s been provocative and experimental enough to earn the rock’n’roll tag in a way many bands never do.
While self-appointed ‘moral guardians’ were quick to condemn his most famous work, American Psycho, and its yuppie axe murderer Patrick Bateman on an initial mis-reading, time has revealed that the book dealt challengingly with themes of isolation and alienation. Perhaps more shocking than the murder pages were the chapters of Bateman’s ‘music criticism’, defending some of the ’80s’ most ghastly musical criminals. Later, in Glamorama, Ellis married the ugly excesses of fashion and celebrity culture with terrorist attacks, eerily pre-empting the rise of both to inhumane extremes.
Back this summer with new novel Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to the nihilistic, drug-fuelled Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis continues at his provocative best. NME sat down with the ‘rock’n’roll’ author to find out what makes him – and his books – tick.
The musician who inspired my first book
Elvis Costello and his song ‘Less Than Zero’
“Why did I name my first book after an Elvis Costello song? Who knows? I was working
on this project starting when I was 16 and it was the ‘Less Than Zero’ project. I was like most white, upper-class educated boys: I was obsessed with Elvis Costello. That was his main audience in the US. That title seemed very evocative to me. It had various other titles, but ‘Less Than Zero’ ultimately seemed like the best title for the book, even though I had this much older professor who really loved the book but tried to dissuade me from using that title because he thought it was lame. He suggested Winter Vacation. Elvis Costello became the man for me for very many years. And then he didn’t. Which happens, it happens to a lot of people, it’s just the nature of things. Very few people sustain massive careers for a long time.”
My first album
‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles
“I don’t know if this is true but this is my story. I didn’t buy it so much as I won it. There was a contest on a local radio station and I was the 11th caller. And I won it. I was going to buy it but this was the week before it was released and this was an advance copy of ‘Hotel California’… so I consider that my first record.”
The album that inspired my latest book
‘Imperial Bedroom’ by Elvis Costello
“Imperial Bedrooms [a sequel to Less Than Zero set 25 years on] is an Elvis title too. Once I’d figured what [main character] Clay would be doing and realised it was a Hollywood novel, the main myth of Hollywood and how it runs on exploitation and that then I was going to delve into sexual exploitation, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to use an Elvis Costello song and boom – it was ‘Imperial Bedroom’, I added the ‘s’. It was the perfect title.”
My first gig
X, Los Angeles
“The first concert I remember going to on my own was a band called X who I followed a lot when they started out in LA. They were playing clubs, not venues. That led on to The Go-Go’s, Elvis Costello, The Psychedelic Furs, Squeeze, those were the formative concerts that I remember going to when I was a kid.”
The worst music I ever heard
Genesis for American Psycho
“You don’t spend three years writing pages on Patrick Bateman [the American Psycho] without having a bit of you in him. Everyone likes to say, ‘Oh, Patrick Bateman is just like an axe murderer’ or whatever… well, he is for 15 pages, but there’s 385 pages about a really lonely and confused guy who is trying to make connections in a world that won’t make them. He’s lost in this consumerist nightmare that he thinks is going to fix things. Hello! I was there. But while the genesis may have been from me, divergences happen. My favourite band in that period was The Replacements, Patrick Bateman is not into The Replacements! He’s a bit of a frat boy and at this time Huey Lewis was pretty popular, so were Genesis and let’s throw Whitney Houston in there – it’s hard to remember there was a time when men would buy Whitney Houston records. They were not bands that I love, but I realised it just had to be Genesis. I really wanted these music chapters, so harrowingly I bought all their records. It was just mind-blowingly boring, numbing!”
My favourite lyric
‘The Boys Of Summer’ by Don Henley
“(Mock anger) Fuck! Fuck! Oh fuck! You cannot ask me that, this is torture! Oh my god! OK, I guess something from ‘The Boys Of Summer’ by Don Henley, I like all the lyrics. There’s a palpable ache to that song that has not diminished after almost 30 years of being out. That song still has this piercing quality to it. It’s not the ominous, doomed southern California romanticism of that song, it’s the lyrics. Very simple, about love that has been lost.”
The music I would put in a film of my book
‘Champagne Supernova’ by Oasis
“My book Glamorama [a tale of terrorists who use the globe’s fashion elite as a cover for their activities] is like a movie that is being staged by people who aren’t on the page… there’s a big set-piece where the main character Victor Ward is in a house that the terrorists were using in Paris. They abandon the house but leave one of their members there who has betrayed them. ‘Champagne Supernova’ by Oasis is blasting through this empty house as he’s moving up the stairs towards this horrific scene that is about to happen. That seemed very movie-ish to me. It was something that would be playing on the soundtrack of the movie that Victor was a part of. All the music in Glamorama is soundtrack music.”
My musical hero
“Boring answer. I notice a lot of American bands take him as an influence now, as he well should be. The Hold Steady, The Gaslight Anthem, Frightened Rabbit. ‘Born To Run’, though I love the lyrics to those songs, ‘The River’ is when he is refining his storytelling. ‘Nebraska’. I love his lyrics, like: “In Candy’s room there are pictures of her heroes on the wall/But to get to Candy’s room you gotta walk the darkness of Candy’s hall”.
The record that saved my life
‘Boxer’ by The National
“It is the most wrenching record I’ve ever heard in my life. Now let’s talk about why.
I had an inordinately painful – for many, many reasons – year and a half, about two years ago. Life was not something I wanted to involve myself in at all, but I had to. Then
I discovered ‘Boxer’, so I put it into my car one afternoon. I’m talking about a time in my life when I was wishing my windows were tinted because I was weeping at every stoplight I came to. It was a really rough year. That album was incredibly reassuring in many, many ways. It had bleakness to it, it also had a kind of a hope to it. That combination got me through those really bad months. It was all I listened to, the constant soundtrack. I can’t listen to any more. It just takes me back to that period.”
The band that doesn’t give me a boner – but who I still love
“I love Coldplay. I adore them! I will not go back on that. I love every album they’ve ever made and I love just about every single fucking track. Can I get super-passionate, can I get a boner for them, can I get an orgasm listening to them? No. Can I listen to them endlessly? Yes. They just don’t drive me wild in a way that a band with less songwriting talent can.”
This article appears in the August 7 issue of NME