Interview: Thoughts of Ionesco's Sean Madigan Hoen Talks Memoir, Songs Only You Know
When we caught up with former Thoughts of Ionesco frontman Sean Madigan Hoen for the June/July 2014 issue of Revolver (on newsstands now, see page 20), he had just released his memoir, Songs Only You Know. The book--which was about five years in the making--delves into his father’s drug addiction and sister’s fatal depression to tell a moving, often harrowing story that’s much more than just a tour diary of the Detroit hardcore punk scene in which Hoen grew up.
Unfortunately, due to space constraints, we couldn’t include most of the interview. But that’s what the Internet is for! Read what Hoen has to say about tackling such personal topics and looking back on his band's legacy below. For more on Songs Only You Know, visit SoHo Press' website.
REVOLVER What made you want to write a memoir?
SEAN MADIGAN HOEN About six years ago, I found myself writing a lot of short stories that were basically thinly-veiled autobiography. My love for fiction, novels especially, runs deep, but I realized that Songs Only You Know was the story I needed to tell…and I wanted to tell it in my own voice, as truthfully as I could. I wanted to discover if I had the chops to write, and I knew that I’d find out quickly working on this book. So, the stakes were high—I didn’t want to fail these characters or events—and once the challenge presented itself, I felt like I had to confront it. There wasn’t any turning back. I’d previously made a lot of music, and while that can be such a visceral, emotive experience, there were feelings I couldn’t get close enough to through song. I’d kept a lot of this material a secret for years and, as I imagine is true for a lot of writers, I had a desire to connect more deeply to the world, in a way that only narrative allows. The events seemed to have structure to them, a shape. I guess I hoped my story—the relationship between my family’s struggle and my musical misadventures—might speak to someone, if I could find a way to tell that tale honestly.
Instead of focusing on your band, much of the book is about your father and sister. Why take that angle?
I didn’t actually set out to write about my bands. In early drafts, the names of the bands weren’t even mentioned. My family’s struggle had such a profound influence on shaping who I am—and, in many ways, were what necessitated the music—so that was the driving force of the book. It’s really a story about a young life and I took inspiration from books like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, well-told memoirs that succeed on honesty and artfulness. There are a ton of rock autobiographies out there by musicians people actually care about and I have no delusions about the fact that my music was utterly inconsequential to all but a very small group. But I thought the story was interesting on a human level, and that people—not just music people, but anyone—might respond to the way all these elements combusted. Honestly, I’d assumed that the music world wouldn’t take interest in the book, because it characterizes music in a way that’s more holistic than specific, but I’ve been getting notes from people saying, “That wasn’t what I expected, but I’m really glad I took the ride,” which means so much to me. I could have noted every time we played with Converge or Brutal Truth, but that’s more like a tour journal. With Songs, I wanted to tell a larger story.
Did you find it a difficult or cathartic experience to write some of the chapters?
I worked on the book very consistently for about five years, and the process intensified with each draft. It was, at times, pretty difficult work, stressful in a way I’d never experienced. I’d have these days where I’d wake up after writing all night and just couldn’t get out of bed--my limbs felt filled with gaseous substances and my head was just completely fogged. A horrible taste in my mouth. When it first happened, I thought there might be something truly wrong, but I believe it was a bodily response to the material I was processing. I’d write for nights on end, and sooner or later there’d be a come-down phase where my body and mind were just wasted. I’d been rough on myself in the past, so I didn’t think sitting in a chair and writing would take such a toll, but there were some impressively challenging moments. The last phase seems to be putting the book out there, letting people read it. I’m not sure you’re ever totally at peace with the kinds of things that happen in the book, but you can definitely make progress and I think this book helped me take a few steps in that direction.
While writing, what was the most challenging story to relive?
Anything having to do with my sister. Not only the scenes that are obviously sad, but also the scenes in which she’s happy, or goofing off. The good memories hurt more than the bad ones, sometimes, because they crystallize what’s been lost.
Thoughts of Ionesco still remains a band that different generations of hardcore fans listen to. How does that make you feel?
Heh, well, it’s certainly what you’d call a “cult” audience. Each of our records were recorded, mixed, and mastered for under $500. We cut them completely live except for the vocals. If you know what studio time costs and how records are made, you get an idea of how low budget the whole thing was. But I think there’s a kind of listener who can decipher true emotion versus role-playing, and one of the things I can proclaim about that band is that we were totally engaged with our music. I was 19, 20 years old. Afterward, I spent many years disowning my involvement with that band, but I have enough distance now to appreciate the experience. There’s some material on The Skin Historic album that I’m still fond of—especially [current Alkaline Trio drummer] Derek Grant’s drumming, which I think stands as his most inspired work, even if he’s not mentioned in the book. We were writing 10-minute songs with improvisational sections, and there was a special energy to that, something you don’t often hear in “hardcore.” I guess people who are attracted to things like My War-era Black Flag or really desperate, heavy music might hear some kind of purity in Thoughts of Ionesco. I’ll never make music like that again, but I’ll tell you: I’ve never felt anything quite like it. The band was an outlet for rage and sorrow, and there were moments of truly primal release. You can learn a lot from reaching those states; I did. So, I’m honored if someone out there feels that music. We meant it. Just remember to seek the other side of art and life— love and joy and compassion—with equal intensity, because if it’s only darkness you’re seeking, it will chew up your soul with unbelievable speed.
Do you have any thoughts you want to share about the modern hardcore scene?
I’m not very tapped into it. Even in the '90s, we were actively trying to remain on the fringe of the “scene.” I liked the wild, abstract guitarists like Tony Joy from Universal Order of Armageddon or the guys in Drive Like Jehu. I loved the band Craw, from Cleveland, and The Laughing Hyenas from Detroit. I don’t know that I can reference any modern bands that are on the edge in that way. I’m sure they’re out there, somewhere. I really dug the Metz record that came out last year, and some of those guys have roots in hardcore. I hate to indulge in the obvious, but I do imagine that something’s been lost since our species became inextricably bound to internet culture. When we were going at it, the only way to acquire our records was to mail order them or get them from us when we showed up to play your local abandoned meat locker or whatever. There’s something very tribal about that, experiential. Each city had its own local identity and nuances. You couldn’t really browse the underground--you had to pluck the Xeroxed flyer off the wall and find your way to the show, not really knowing what to expect because no one had posted any smartphone videos of what you were about to see. At best, you had someone’s older brother telling you, “Man is the Bastard is so heavy people throw up,” and the only way to find out was to be there. I’m sure things are more organized now, but I’m glad my experiences benefited from a little shadow, a little mystery.