Interview: ‘Headz’ Author J. J. Colagrande

Have you ever been to a music festival, looked around, and thought, "I could write a book about this"? Well, a few months ago I noticed a post on my friend's Facebook wall with a link to a novel called Headz and realized someone had beat us to the punch.

Headz features characters you may feel like you've met who converse in a setting you've almost definitely experienced. It takes place as the characters make their way to Oracledang, a Chicago festival. This highly political book creatively tackles several different issues we're struggling with. After enjoying this highly readable take on Shakedown streets, Deer Creek references, the new-age thug/hippie hybrid, and a gang of nitrous wielding thugs called the Falafia, I had to sit down with author J. J. Colagrande, and ask him a few questions about it.

HeadCount: What inspired you to write Headz and how long did you spend writing it?

J. J. Colagrande: Imagine a music festival as a setting for fiction – yay! Right?? There are so many nuances, characters, and themes, especially for our generation. Headz took me five years; I  worked every day for four hours. Then it took two years to find a publisher. We have a 200-page novel and an additional 100 pages online at Headz is designed to remind you of people you know and leave you with the beautiful feeling that's it's almost showtime.

You seem to be intimately acquainted with the politics and demographics of music fests. Tell me about your involvement in this scene. Have you been going to shows and festivals for a while? Who are your favorite artists?

I was raised in the New York City early-'90s hip-hop indie punk scene. I used to see the Beastie Boys, Primus, Fishbone, Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Dave Matthews Band, Fugazi, Sublime, Biggie Smalls, and De La Soul in small little clubs like The Ritz and Wetlands. Then I moved to Florida and discovered Phish and the Dead in '94. I really liked the wanderlust spirit of traveling around to see concerts with thousands of other like-minded heads. Lately, it's all about music festivals, which have brought all these genres and subcultures together. Last summer, as a music journalist for Bacardi, I went to All Points West, Bonnaroo, Rothbury, Mile High, and Lollapalooza, all while working full-time as a professor. I'm like Indiana Jones: teacher by day until I hear the theme music, then I'm off to a festie. The bands I'm most impressed with nowadays are Passion Pit, Girl Talk, Crystal Castles, and the Disco Biscuits. Now you'll see me slinging books outside a festie. Sold 1200 so far, which isn't easy.

Are these characters real people that you've encountered over the years at festivals?

They are composites of you, me, her, him, us, them, and that weird alien wookie we all know. But really, I have to stay true to the craft of fiction. These characters are unique and 100-percent organically and certifiably themselves.

I laughed out loud at the festival name. How'd you come up with Oracledang?

Music fests all have wacky names, no? Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Oracledang. Why not? But here's a HeadCount exclusive no one knows: Oracledang is really an anagram of my last name. Mix up Colagrande and you'll get Oracledang! Kind of a Jim Morrison-MoJo Rising thing. Oracledang also connects to this girl I know...

The book definitely takes a jab at festival drug peddlers, specifically those involved in the nitrous trade. Are you trying to send a message here?

Not so much send a message as try to tell the truth. A writer is driven by the truth. It's all about painting an accurate portrait. Writing is about ripping off the masks, illusions, and veils to get to the secret truth of individuals and societies. It's the dirty stuff that makes for good fodder.

There's been a lot of controversy surround N20 on the scene. What are your thoughts on the gas trade?

Personally, I think nitrous is no doubt a bad vibe. The energy is dark. The vendors are crooks and gougers. The whole shhhhhhhh sound gives me a headache. The aftermath of the area is also sad, the ground littered with balloons. That's not to say I haven't huffed a balloon or two in my life. I have a saying: Sometimes I choose nectar and sometimes I choose poison. Although I know nectar will sustain and ultimately fulfill me, I still choose poison because of my desire. No one's perfect. We all have, or have had, our vices.

Lightning Round: Phish or the Dead?

Phish: 75 shows.

Dollar grilled cheese or a five-buck strawberry banana smoothie made with a solar-powered blender?

Double Yum!

What's the next fest I might see you at?

My body will be at Ultra, my spirit at Coachella.

The Headz website is full of all sorts of extra goodies. You'll find blog posts, interviews, and Myspace pages for all of the characters.

The book and website, although a work of fiction, depicts a wonderful world that over generations has been very real to hundreds of thousands of people. During the five years of composing and revising Headz, almost 60,000 words have been deleted. Many anecdotes did not fit into the narrative arc of the compact and crowded novel, but still feel relevant and entertaining. As a result, we created this website, dedicated to 58 deleted scenes, bonus features, and first person monologues. What we are trying to do with Headz is grassroots, just like the scene it portrays, and just like the characters that inhabit its world. Shore Morris, one of the novel’s characters, probably explains it best. Still, more than anything, this is a story about music festivals, coming-of-age, love, and rebellion. Enjoy it!