I grabbed Ben Vendetta’s book “Wivenhoe Park” on a whim from Nashville’s Howlin’ Books in 2014. The cassette tape cover art immediately drew me in and from the description on the back, I knew it was right in my wheelhouse. Six months and many ’80s alt-rock record purchases later, I’m happy to say that reading his book enhanced my music knowledge tenfold. The story itself is like a much darker version of a John Hughes film, set in ’80s England and told through the lens of a confused teen named Drew.
I talked to Ben about “Wivenhoe Park,” ’80s alt music, and his upcoming novel Heartworm due out later this year.
Modern Vinyl: How close did your life resemble the main character, Drew, in Wivenhoe Park?
Ben Vendetta: It’s pretty autobiographical. Names and locations have changed a little, but it’s mostly the same. I did, during that same time period, go to study at Essex (UK) and Drew’s best friend Johnny is a dead-ringer for my friend Marc who lives in New York now.
MV: There are a lot of club scenes in the book; are those accurate to how the nightlife in Essex was in the ’80s?
BV: It was pretty accurate to how the scene was at the time, yeah. I remember that back then bars would close at 11 but clubs would sell these overpriced cans of lager and stuff, you know. I thought I nailed it and a lot of people who were there at the time have told me that I nailed it from what they remember, as well. I was pretty happy with all of the feedback I received.
MV: I can see that. The writing felt really natural to me, even knowing nothing about Essex.
BV: That’s good to hear. I didn’t want to dumb the book down at all, but I still wanted to give a look at the music and scene so that anyone could understand it.
MV: Has anyone you based characters on contacted you after reading the book?
BV: A few. My friend Marc loved the book, which was important to me since the best friend in the book was based on him. I’m long out of touch with some of the girls mentioned in the book, so who knows about that; they were kind of composites of different people. No one’s come after me saying “this is a bunch of bullshit” or anything.
MV: What were you doing in the states before you went to the UK?
BV: I was studying at the University of Michigan, but like in the book, which was set in high school, my thing was being a cross country and track runner. That was kind of my main priority, music was more in the background. I was still into music though; it’s kind of hard to explain, but back then everyone would buy albums as opposed to things now like Record Store Day where everyone you see is really passionate about it. In high school, every party you went to had records in crates so it was much more a part of everyday life. I was definitely more into running and competing for the college team, but then I kind of got fed up with it and decided to let the music stuff take over my life.
MV: Growing up, were there any memorable record stores in your town?
BV: Ann Arbor (Michigan) was a great place to grow up in. There were two or three really good new record stores and a few really good used stores. There was also a college radio station that played new wave for like two hours on Sunday nights, so you could always find that stuff floating around the shops.
MV: In the book, it seemed like you had a solid background in the popular British bands of the time.
BV: Between college radio and the local shops getting in British music magazines, I kept up with what was going on. Melody Maker, NME, The Face, those were some of the magazines I would look at in the stores. It was much slower getting news that way as compared to now, but I was definitely lucky to have that available.
MV: Out of all the bands you talked about in the book, which ones do you still go back to regularly?
BV: The Jesus and Mary Chain, without a doubt. Also Echo and the Bunnymen and Psychedelic Furs, as well as The Smiths and New Order. Primal Scream for sure, but they’ve really changed a lot over the years. I also still like a lot of the goth stuff, Sisters of Mercy for example. Everything that’s in the book is still in my current rotation.
MV: Do you feel like some of the newer indie bands are reaching into that sonic space that artists like JAMC or The Smiths started in the ’80s?
BV: I’ve been noticing a lot of that lately, yeah. Off the top of my head, there’s a band in Austin called Ringo Deathstarr who have a huge JAMC and My Bloody Valentine influence. Ceremony from Virginia, they have a little more of a New Order feel. I’m hearing a huge revival of ’80s post punk all the way to ’90s shoegaze.
MV: ..and a band like Ride had a Record Store Day release this year
BV: Yeah, and they had a reunion tour! That was a huge deal for them to reunite.
MV: As far as newer bands, who have you really latched onto?
BV:I really love this band called Weekend, and especially their second album, Jinx, which is really phenomenal. I’ve seen them live and they’re great. Also Ceremony and Ringo Deathstarr for sure.
MV: Have you always bought records through the ’90s to present day?
BV: I didn’t get a CD player until like, 1990 maybe. I tried to hold out as long as I could, but then import vinyl got so expensive compared to CDs and a lot of stuff started only coming out on CD, so I had to give in a bit. That’s also why I was so excited to get that Dandy Warhols first album on vinyl at RSD this year; that was never pressed on vinyl in 1995, it was CD only. The American labels seemed to steer away from vinyl in the ’90s. The last few years I’ve really got back into buying it, so it’s kind of gone full circle.
MV: Do you have a preference?
BV: I’m pretty happy with all of it. I noticed that some of the CDs from the early 80s sound worse than later ones, maybe the technology came a little too fast or something. As far as digital, I approach it mostly out of convenience.
MV: How many records do you think you have in your collection right now?
BV: My music collection isn’t too crazy at the moment. I have about 1200 CDs and 700 records or so. I think I have more CDs just because I had more money to buy CDs when they became prevalent. If I was 10 years older I’d say my collection would be way more vinyl.
MV: Can you tell us a bit about your book coming out later this year, “Heartworm”?
BV: The idea is that I’m going to do one more after Heartworm and make it a trilogy based around the main character, Drew. Wivenhoe Park was Drew being 21, this is Drew around 30 and at a crossroads between being consumed by rock and roll while his friends around him are doing more grown up things. Without giving too much [away], it’s a darker book that deals with the bigger problems you face growing up. If we’re talking JAMC, I think Wivenhoe Park is more Psychocandy while Heartworm is more like Darklands.
MV: Do you have a name for the trilogy?
BV: Not quite yet. I’m still working a few things out. I’ve got some other things I’m working on, like a graphic novel based around an ’80s band that isn’t “Drew” related so I plan on taking a break from the story for a bit.
MV: When you get into the “Drew” head space, does any weird nostalgia creep in?
BV: Absolutely! In writing both books, I was listening to music from the era all the time. I write really well to music and I need it going while I’m writing. It’s like my gateway drug; a glass of wine, put on a Bunnymen album and go to work.
MV: Out of all the Echo and the Bunnymen albums, which one do you lean towards?
BV: To me, the first four are the best. The rush of Crocodiles is so great, but Ocean Rain is such a beautiful album too. They’re two extremes of a band, I can’t really narrow it down to one.
MV: What music in particular drove this new book?
BV: I was listening a lot to a ’90s band called Whipping Boy, who’s second album is called Heartworm which was the inspiration for the book title. They’re also kind of characters in the book. Initially, I pitched an idea to the 33 1/3 guys to write a novel about Drew and the band but it didn’t make the shortlist, so I just turned it into a continuation of the first book. I’m also good friends with the guitarist from Whipping Boy and he’s helped out a lot with reading early drafts of the book.
Thanks for talking with us Ben and we look forward to reading “Heartworm” when it’s released!
You can find out more about Ben and his writing at Elephant Stone Records.