Guest List: Matthew Rosenberg on We Can Never Go Home’s Call-to-Arms Mixtape

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In Guest List, Paste’s favorite artists and auteurs reveal the music that’s inspired some of their most seminal works.

Music plays a central role in Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon and Josh Hood’s Black Mask Studios series We Can Never Go Home. Duncan, the misfit teen wandering around the outskirts of his small town with a gun, gives a mixtape to Madison, the seemingly perfect girl with a super-powered secret, kicking off what promises to be a punk-rock, genre-influenced True Romance for the teen set.

Creator Matthew Rosenberg has a long history in the indie punk and hardcore scene, and compiled an era-appropriate playlist for the 1989-set series. Paste chatted with Rosenberg to discuss Ian MacKaye’s influence on his life and work, what the series was very nearly called, and how leaving music for comics allowed him to love music all over again.
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Matthew Rosenburg on the Role Music Plays in We Can Never Go Home

I haven’t always been a writer. My parents are writers and my brother is a writer, and I resisted that as long as I could. When I was 17, I hopped in a band’s van and I went on tour for a summer, and that was it, that was what I wanted to do. I ran a record label for 10 years, a small indie punk label. I did everything in music that you can do that doesn’t involve having musical ability. Eventually the music business, probably in a similar way to comics, will just start to break your heart, and I realized one day that I kind of hated music. I was resigned to thinking, if I’m going to be involved in music forever, I’m going to hate it for the rest of my life. I just stopped. I stopped having any sort of business with music, any involvement.

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We Can Never Go Home Cover Art by Michael Walsh

I read comics my whole life, so I just naturally fell back into another medium that is marginalized and hard to make a living in. [Laughs] I became a comic writer, and it was such an easy shift to being creative and trying to put something out of the world and being isolated while you do it. I just started falling back in love with music again. It was really amazing to sort of write all day and then go buy some records, something I hadn’t done in so long. So music is now a bigger part of my life, in some ways, than when I made my living though it.

Comics are beautiful and comics are amazing, and my only regret is that you don’t have music. You watch a TV show, and it won’t be well-acted and it won’t be well-paced, but they put the right score in and it suddenly has a real emotional impact. We don’t get that in comics, that’s not a cheat for us. It all has to be on the page. It’s great and challenging, and I do sort of long for that. But in my head there’s always a score and there’s always a song playing. In a lot of ways, Duncan is me at age 16. He would never not have music at his side, he would never not have a walkman—he can’t have an iPod—he would never not have headphones in. That’s how I am now and that’s how I’ve always been. Every page of my book has a soundtrack and I could tell you what I was listening to while I wrote it.

Someone said to me the other day that it’s such a clear romantic gesture that Duncan makes Madison a mixtape. It’s such an obvious love letter to people of a certain age, and that’s funny to me. There’s a Material Issue song that was a big inspiration for this book called “International Pop Overthrow,” about trying to get a girl to come along with him and change music, and there’s a line, “I don’t need a girlfriend, I need an accomplice.” That’s very much what this book is.

I went to an all-boys Catholic high school and there were four punks in the school. We all made tapes for each other all the time. We’d go record shopping and buy something new and if we loved it, we’d tape it for each other. And maybe it was a love letter to each other in a certain way because that school was a very shitty experience for kids with mohawks or green hair or tattoos, but it wasn’t overtly a love letter. It was a secret club, a secret handshake, to have these tapes, to give someone a glimpse into your world. The mixtape introduces Duncan into Madison’s world. In some ways it is romantic but it isn’t inherently romantic. It’s about not wanting to be lonely.

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1. “Death or Glory,” The Clash

Every issue has a title, so five of the songs are the chapter titles to the series. “Death or Glory” is the name of the final chapter. It does a really good job of painting that nihilistic view easily and simply so that a kid could understand. I think “death or glory, becomes just another story” when you’re a teenager is a very scary idea. The idea that you’re on a one-way path to either greatness or destruction is very romantic, and The Clash does a great job of telling the listener it’s probably not going to happen. You’re probably destined for banality. I think for Duncan, at least, his greatest fear is that he’s going to burn out or he’s not going to get the chance to burn out, that he’s going to be stuck in this town forever. This is tonally Duncan’s theme for the whole book.

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2. “Germ Free Adolescents,” X-Ray Spex

I wanted a song for Madison where it was sort of Duncan’s point of view on her, where she is very neat and very clean and very proper, but something’s off. The X-Ray Spex do a great job of painting the proper tidy person as obsessive or crazy. Madison is not obsessive or crazy in that way, but Duncan can tell that she’s putting on a show and it’s not right. This is sort of Madison’s theme through Duncan’s eyes.

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We Can Never Go Home Variant Cover Art by Rex Banner

3. “What We Do Is Secret,” Germs

I’m not a huge Germs fan. I didn’t grow up loving the Germs. I sort of got over them pretty quick, but that song is great and think it’s one of the most badass song titles of all time. As soon as I started working on this book, I wanted to make sure that idea of “what we do is secret” was incorporated into the story, so I put it on the tape. It’s the title of chapter one. We Can Never Home: “What We Do Is Secret.”

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4. “Harmony in my Head,” The Buzzcocks

The Buzzcocks are the band that got me into punk rock. When I was a kid, 10 or 11, I was listening to terrible stuff. My older brother took my Walkman, put in a tape that was one side Buzzcocks, Singles Going Steady, one side The Clash, London Calling, and he duct-taped my Walkman shut and told me he’d break my Walkman unless I memorized both records. The Buzzcocks became my gateway into punk rock at a very young age, and “Harmony in my Head” is my favorite Buzzcocks song.

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5. “Machine Gun Etiquette,” The Damned

There are a lot of songs on here that have a line or a moment that speaks to the characters in a really simple way, sort of a little mantra. I was never that big of a Damned fan either, I really just got into them again recently at my old job. My friend who worked there was a huge fan and she played them all the time. There’s a line, “No more getting pushed around now that we’ve gone underground,” and the first issue is sort of about that.

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We Can Never Go Home Variant Cover Art by Rex Banner

6. “Ex Lion Tamer,” Wire

Wire is a really interesting band. They reinvent themselves all the time but stay true to what they are. They seem really unconcerned with what the other bands that are striving for success or longevity are concerned with. So around 10 or 12 years into Wire’s career, which is obviously a long career, they were touring and they weren’t going to play any of their old material. They just weren’t interested in it. There was a Wire cover band called Ex Lion Tamer and Wire took them on tour as openers, to make sure fans got to hear the old songs because Wire got sick of hearing them yell about it, and that’s one of the most badass things I’ve ever heard. So this other band, just young kids, would get up and play the hits, and Wire would get up and play whatever they wanted. [Laughs] It’s rally clever and it satisfies maybe no one, but it’s a really good “fuck you” to anyone who only wants to hear the hits.

The song is another shot at suburban complacency, and in my head it’s a little bit of a shot at the reader. Not in a mean-spirited way, but there’s a line, “Next week will solve your problems…Stay glued to your TV set.” With the escapism of entertainment, the other side of it when you’re writing a book about going out into the world is that having people sit around and read it is not the end to the call to arms that the story should be. So I wanted to include a song on the list that was essentially “stop living vicariously through fictional characters and actually do the things you want to do.” I’m sure that is not evident to anyone who reads the book, but that was my thing.

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7. “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” Mission of Burma

The greatest song title of all time, and also the title of chapter two of We Can Never Go Home. It’s kind of self-evident and self-explanatory when you read it why that’s the title. I feel like the first issue of the book kind of establishes who the characters are and what we’re going to do, so I wanted to make it clear in issue two that now we go full speed ahead, and that song is as full speed ahead as you get.

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8. “Attitude,” Bad Brains

This song is my definition of what being punk and not giving a fuck is all about. It’s just an anthem for people who don’t really care what other people think. It’s a good touchstone for my characters and it’s always been an inspiration for me.

I got really nervous about the [album cover art-themed] variant covers. I grew up in punk and hardcore and the Big Black one is maybe not in everyone’s wheelhouse, but [planned] these assuming everyone knows what they are, and I’m like, Oh, this is comics, people don’t necessarily recognize them. So when people are like, “Oh Bad Brains! Oh Minor Threat!” I feel much happier than having people think that I designed really strange covers for no reason. [Laughs]
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We Can Never Go Home Variant Cover Art by Rex Banner

This one’s actually a weird one. I try and figure out who my characters are in a bigger picture, and what they’re like, and what they sound like and what they do. I don’t know if it’s important for the book, if it’s important for creativity, but that’s how I function. I try to figure out who they are in the world. And very early on I realized that Ian [MacKaye]’s talking part in “Out of Step,” that’s Duncan’s voice, that’s what he’d sound like and that’s sort of what he’d be like. He sounds young as fuck and he’d be kind of bored, really. [Laughs] That’s always struck me in the Minor Threat records. He turns this switch where he’s just talking to you, and he doesn’t sound fired up, and in a split second he’s back to barking the lyrics and screaming. And that’s what I imagine Duncan sounds like, and that’s sort of his disposition. He’ll snarkily and gently explain to you why he doesn’t care about the things you care about, and if that’s not okay, he’ll be screaming in your face.

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10. “Stand Still,” Gorilla Biscuits

One of my favorite bands of all time. It’s just a song about not fitting in in your house, sort of the same idea as the Wire song.

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