Mark Brend’s debut novel Undercliff – Jesus Freaks, weird happenings and more

covehithe_beach1Long time Popjunkie readers, coughs, both of you, will know that I have a bit of thing for a mid 80s band called The Palace of Light. Their Scott Walker influenced dramatic pop tunes stood out at a time when the prevailing musical trends were electronic pop or Smithsy lo-fi indie, both of which I found lacking a little, well ambition.

So I was really pleased to find out from Mark Brend of the band that their that lone album is getting a reissue – with bonus tracks too – in the not too distant future. There will be more on that very soon. Part of the story is in this post on the band they morphed into Mabel Joy.

Mark also has another project on the go, his debut novel Undercliff, which he is currently selling through the ultra smart book funding site Unbound – check out these two great projects while you are at it – The Riddle of the Sands and Ruth and Martin’s album club.

Both Mark and I grew up listening to a lot of Christian Rock Music, which back then was less of the saccharine AOR pop that features on contemporary US Gospel radio stations and more influenced, if anything by the psychedelia of the late 60s and the hippies that followed that movement.

Growing up in church environment I remember many Christian hippies who would turn up for the evening service in cheesecloth shirts and sandals touting a Bible in in one hand and a copy of Led Zeppelin 3 (or the God-bothering equivalent) in the other.

Those born again hippies – many of whom were battling their own drug or alcohol-related demons – are the inspiration for Mark’s new book. As Mark explains it is a period of history that is very much overlooked. It is also Mark’s first stab at fiction, he is arguably best known for his highly acclaimed book about the birth of electronic music The Sound of Tomorrow.

Here then Mark talks about Undercliff and the strange movement that is at its heart.

When did you start writing the book? What inspired you to write fiction?

I started in 2009 but broke off for a while to write Sound of Tomorrow, my book about early electronic music. I wouldn’t say any one thing inspired me, but I’ve always been interested in how the church tried to interact with the hippy counter culture. Often when the church tries to engage with a cultural movement it does so in a rather awkward, tame, too-late-in-the-game way, and though that is true of the hippie counter-culture there were people who pursued radical alternative agendas from a Christian perspective, that went beyond a half-baked attempt to ‘christianise’ ideas that were then current.

And in the village in Devon where much of the book is set there was – for some time – a large derelict house, and I found myself imagining a past for it.

Have there been many other novels that have talked about the ‘Jesus Freaks’ from the early 70s? If not why not? There were so many great characters?

I feel there must have been but I don’t know of any. I deliberately avoided seeking them out, if indeed they are out there. Now I’ve finished mine I’d be interested to hear about any, so please let me know …

I think it is a part of history not well known outside a certain generation and certain type of church goer, which might account for why so little is written about the period. Chances are if you were in evangelical and charismatic church circles in the late 60s/70s you would have come across music or books that grew out of the Jesus People movement, but then evangelical and charismatic circles were small, and tended not to connect with mainstream culture. Also, you’re only really talking about a few years – approximately 1967 to the early 70s. It all came and went very quickly.

The other thing, of course, is the Jesus People or Jesus Freaks or whatever term you choose were in no way a unified movement – there were just different groups of people pursuing faith in a vaguely hippie-ish context – some with great integrity, others less so …

What do you think of the Christian music scene from that era? A lot of record collectors seemed to have recently discovered many long lost gems? Any favourite albums?

As with any form of music and any period, there is good and bad. Many of the Christian albums of the time were recorded on minuscule budgets and suffer accordingly. The Sheep’s Lonesome Stone – a rock opera – comes to mind. By some accounts they sounded something like Jefferson Airplane live, and they were big enough to play the Rainbow in London, yet their recordings sound very lumpy I think. The recordings re-released a few years back as the Christ Tree, which were borne out of the Trees Community are excellent psych folk – not unlike a more extreme mid-period Incredible Strong Band. It’s slightly different in that it was released on a major label, but Bill Fay’s second album, Time Of The Last Persecution is – to my ears – an all-time classic, regardless of any faith angle. Similarly Judee Sill’s two albums – major label releases but very much borne out of the Christian/hippie crossover.

It’s worth noting that Greenbelt festival (which is an arts festival with Christian roots) was borne out of this whole period, too. I think The Sheep played at the very first one.

Do you think it is hard for non-religious people to listen to some of this music?

Most Christian rock music is given short shrift by non-religious people, and very often with good reason. There’s a prevailing view that it is a poor copy of out-of-date styles manipulated for evangelical purposes – and that’s often the case. But there is prejudice against it too too, and I think that once records get so far removed from their original context that people can approach them simply as cultural artefacts you can see there is some good stuff there as well as bad – the feelings of uncomfortableness that non-beleivers often experience when hearing people singing about God and faith are diminished with time and distance from the culture that spawned the music.

Is Vine (the rather odd church movement in the novel) based on a real life group? Is there an autobiographical element to the story at all?

The Vine isn’t based on any real life group and the novel is in no way autobiographical. Having said that, when I first became involved in church circles in the very late 70s there was still a residue of this sort of post-hippie culture about – lots of long hair, cheesecloth, beards and folky music, when the rest of the world was already well past punk. I knew someone who’d lived in a Christian hippy commune until she went to university. I recall once meeting a man who claimed to have been involved with Hawkwind but had since renounced all rock music as coming from the devil, and instead embraced a rather lame folky style – I don’t recall his name so can’t check his story now. So you could say I have a vague once-removed connection with the era and culture, if not the story itself.

Is there a moral/Christian basis to the book? Or is that just the backdrop to the story?

Undercliff is just a story. But most of the main characters are people with some kind of Christian faith or spiritual agenda, corrupted or otherwise, and their motivations and beliefs drive the story.

Was it conceived as a novel from the start or did you always intend it to be a multimedia experience?

Definitely a novel first, but – without giving too much away – there’s a fictional band in the story and a cassette album, which got me thinking about doing some music for the book.

What is the key influence on the music that you have created? Will it be available in other formats?

Well, I haven’t created it yet – it is at the planning/writing stage. It will draw on what I think of as a choral folk style, with lots of acoustic instruments, and one section of extreme atonal musique concrete. It’ll be available only as a limited edition cassette and download for subscribers to special editions of the book. I guess at some point in the future it might get a separate release, but I’m not planning anything.

You have written non-fiction books in the past. Was it hard to make the jump to fiction?

Not really, no. It’s a different discipline obviously, but when writing any sort of book you’ve got to spend a long time in a room on your own, and I was already used to that. Whether I’ve made the transition successfully is for the readers to judge, though.

And you can judge for yourself by pledging for a copy, or any of the other goodies on the Undercliff Unbound page here.

And btw here is the best Christian pop song ever, which weirdly enough doesn’t mention God, Jesus or anything spiritual at all.

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