If there’s a constant in the work of novelist Alan Warner it isn’t sex, travel, absurdity, chancers and oddballs, teenage girls and coming-of-age sagas, his hometown of Oban or the grim, grey, far-off 1970s. All those things feature to greater or lesser degrees, but cast an eye over a quarter of a century of written output – and talk to the man himself – and you realise that in many ways it’s music that drives him and his work.

It certainly frames the experiences of the eponymous anti-heroine in his splashy 1995 debut Morvern Callar. She wanders the streets listening to mixtapes whose track listings are detailed lovingly in the text.

There’s a lot of Miles Davis, some Cocteau Twins and, as she’s cutting up the body of her dead boyfriend, a side of instrumental wig-outs by free jazz supergroup Last Exit, whose saxophonist Peter Brotzmann is one of the novel’s dedicatees (another is Holger Czukay of cult German group Can. Warner has dedicated several other works to its various members and written a book about the band).

Then there’s Warner’s second novel, 1997’s These Demented Lands. It starts with an epigraph from the Black Grape song In The Name Of The Father and has a character called Superchicken who squeezes his beer belly into a Motorhead t-shirt.

READ MORE: Line of Duty: I'm a law-abiding middle-aged lady but I can't stop watching TV crime shows

In one of several textual interpolations, readers are treated to a rock family tree showing the (fictitious) bands on the roster of the (fictitious) Argyll-based label Archipelago Records – bands such as The Ears Of Spock, who made their “auspicious debut” in a Midsummer Night gig at “Clashnessie Caravan site”, or rockers Diesel Mary And Her Air Brakes, whose live cassette Roof-Of-The-Mouth-Mucus And Seven Sunrises was recorded at the Tignabruaich Progressive Music Festival. If only.

And so on and so on, through 1998’s The Sopranos, which follows a group of raucous schoolgirls to Edinburgh for a choral competition, to 2014’s Their Lips Talk Of Mischief. Set in London in the 1980s, it features two aspiring writers who are offered a hack job knocking out a cut and paste biography of rock star called Marko Morrell, guitarist with gazillion-selling prog rock band Fear Taker.

And now we have the curiously-titled Kitchenly 434, Warner’s latest novel and one in which Marko and Fear Taker come roaring to life in a story set in the summer of 1979, shortly after the election which ousted James Callaghan’s wounded Labour government and brought Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street. Kitchenly is the country house retreat in which Marko spends his time when he isn’t in London or New York, or touring the world with Fear Taker. It’s also the domain of his long-time friend and general factotum Crofton Clark. Crofton lives in an annex on the estate and is the one who answers the phone: “Kitchenly 434 …” he always begins.

But banish from your mind all thoughts of Redlands, the stately home owned by Keith Richards which spawned lurid headlines about sex, drugs and the unorthodox use of a Mars bar after a police raid in 1967. Kitchenly is no den of rock and roll iniquity. If there are Mars bars they are eaten in the conventional way, with a knife and fork. Instead, Crofton’s day-to-day life means dealing with the gardener and the housekeeper, and worrying about the septic tank and how to clean the moat of gunk. When Marko is in residence, he makes sure there’s milk for cereal and circles programmes in the Radio Times that his friend may like to watch. Marko likes Worzel Gummidge, Mr Benn and The Liver Birds, and he reads the Financial Times alongside the NME and the Melody Maker.

HeraldScotland:

It’s Crofton who narrates, looking back on events from years later. “I think it’s a kind of existential scream in a way, for this period in his life that he can’t believe actually happened and which has gone now,” says Warner. “And we all have these periods in our lives where we look back and think ‘Wow, I can’t really believe I went through that’.”

The novel, then, is about delusion, friendship, loyalty and loneliness; about a country on the cusp of great cultural and societal change and, of course, about music. It is very definitely a novel about music. And although it has been dubbed “The Remains Of The Day with cocaine and amplifiers”, Warner’s take on its is slightly more prosaic: “It’s more like Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances with Tetley tea, isn’t it?” he laughs.

After some years spent living in Spain and Ireland, Warner is now based back in Scotland where he teaches creative writing at Aberdeen University. When we talk he’s in Edinburgh, the city he was living in when Morvern Callar first shot him to literary stardom in the mid-1990s.

So how did Kitchenly 434 begin? “Fear Taker are a band who have existed in my imagination for 15 years or something,” he explains. “It goes quite far back. I have this little world up there. It’s probably not healthy at all. But it’s what I kind of live in and I draw on it for my fiction.”

READ MORE BARRY DIDCOCK: A River Called Time: ambitious, thought-provoking and sometimes baffling book

The inspiration for the house itself lies even further back. In the 1980s Warner was studying in London. One summer he took a trip with a friend into the countryside of Sussex and, quite by accident, encountered the stately pile owned by rock guitarist Jeff Beck.

“It’s not about Jeff Beck, it’s not based on his house, but it was [based on] that experience of looking in on that lifestyle from the outside,” he says. “It was quite a strange thing to consider and I just got to thinking about the practicalities of it all, like the septic tanks and the washing lines. And the curtains. Is that a very Scottish thing, do you think?”

There is certainly a great deal of discussion about curtains and when (or even whether) to open and close them, I venture.

“Aye, well think about it. I don’t live in a huge, big house, but when do you pull the curtains? You’d get lazy, wouldn’t you? It’s a parody, in a sense. I’m kind of like taking the piss in a subtle way.” But, he adds, “like almost everything I write it started out somewhere else. It was originally going to be about an assistant of a rock star who’s sent up to Scotland to evict some tenants from a house he owns who are being difficult. So it was about eviction. Its original title was Marko Sent Me North.”

In the end, Warner came to be far more interested in the ‘me’ than in Marko. “The Crofton character became more interesting to me in the setting. I wanted to write about music and that whole rock star culture, but as usual in a tangent, in a strange way … [so] it became about a deluded individual, but an individual who I really sympathise with. It’s about a free-loader, about free-loading on society in a way, and it’s a symbol I suppose for being some kind of writer or artist in society. You start to wonder about your exact role in it. I think Crofton is in that position. He’s a sycophant and he seems to get by on this concept that as a super-fan he has special privileges. But in a cruel way he doesn’t.”

Did bringing Marko and Fear Taker to life require a deep dive into 1970s prog rock – or was that a knowledge base Warner already had? “Sadly it was,” he says. Even worse, “to my dismay prog rock became quite acceptable and fashionable in the groaningly long period it took me to write the book.”

On the other hand Warner is, at 56, very much a child of punk, someone with a Year Zero approach to music and an inbuilt antipathy to anything recorded before 1977. Anyone of a similar vintage will know all too well that it takes time and effort to unwind from that position and appreciate (whisper it) drum solos, 12-string guitars and posturing, long-haired frontmen. So in another sense, Kitchenly 434 is also an anti-rock novel – at least anti that sort of rock which produced double albums in gatefold sleeves with science fiction-themed covers and preposterous titles (hello Rush, Yes, Hawkwind etc.).

“There’s part of that in me, I suppose,” says Warner. “Growing up in that New Wave period the bands that were really exciting for me were bands that challenged the audience. That’s what stunned me as a young person. Take a band like Devo or The Fall or Public Image Ltd – or even Miles Davis – that gave off this sort of contempt towards the audience.”

Devo, an American quintet of subversive jokers who took to the stage in boiler suits, come in for particular scorn from Marko in one passage. “I wanted to show that he was really threatened by that. I wasn’t there, but I remember when Devo played Reading [1978, alongside Status Quo and Lindisfarne] all the hippies tried to bottle them off because they genuinely didn’t understand what was happening. They were brain frozen by it. What is this? When you think about it, these guys in reflective industrial suits going through these quite choreographed moves, it must have been quite powerful early on for people who had grown up in the 1970s.”

Another real musician who features in the novel is Gary Numan. He’s the pin-up of choice for Nat and Rose, two teenagers from the nearby village who intrude on Kitchenly and, in their way, help bring Crofton’s world crashing down. As he does in The Sopranos, Warner uses teenage girls here as vital agents of change.

“They’re disruptors, I think,” he says when I ask him to explain the appeal. “They’re an electric shock … Without flying the flag there’s also that patriarchal society thing. You throw young women into the mix and they inevitably challenge something quite quickly, or are challenged quite quickly by male attention – that attention, their position, and also their vulnerability creates a drama.”

It seems odd to hang the tag ‘elder statesman of Scottish letters’ on a man who can talk knowingly about bands like Joy Division and Devo and bring teenage girls so vividly to life. But with 25 years of novel-writing behind him it is true to say that Warner and his generation of authors are now well into middle age and are no longer the hip young gun slingers they once were. It’s also true, however, that their arrival onto the Scottish cultural scene in the 1990s coincided with a revival of Scottish cultural confidence which found expression in everything from the music of Martyn Bennett to the films of Lynne Ramsay and Peter Mullan as well as the work of Warner’s fellow novelists such as Irvine Welsh. Looking back and then looking around, does he feel that impetus has continued or been lost?

“People piece together the narrative after the fact, as we always do,” he says. “When I go back to that period, of course I think of Trainspotting. But I also think that James Kelman won the Booker with How Late It Was, How Late and that Jeff Torrington won the Whitbread Prize with Swing Hammer Swing … . It was a heady time. And it’s difficult. On the one hand I’m perfectly ready to play the part of the old fart who sits around and goes ‘Yeah, those were the days, it’s not so exciting or good anymore’. And at the same time I do have some concerns as to what’s happening with the culture and how vibrant and exciting it really is.”

As proof of literary vitality he points to authors such as Jenni Fagan, whose recently-published novel Luckenbooth has been widely acclaimed. But at the same time “we’re very good at slapping our own backs and sometimes we have to be careful with that. Some of it comes from literary agencies that are very good at constantly telling us about the vitality and energy and wonder of the Scottish literary scene. But really, if they stand back and look at it objectively, is it so vibrant? Is it so exciting? Is the identity of Scottish literature itself perhaps under some kind of existential threat?”

So does he have any truck with the argument that in some ways it was Scotland’s cultural renaissance, that “heady time” as he puts it, which powered the desire for national self-determination and found political expression in the devolution referendum of 1997?

“They’re nice noises to make,” he says. “I don’t want to be seen as an arch-cynic, but we do have to be modest and realistic. It’s very hard for me to sit here and say that Morvern Callar and These Demented Lands in some way contributed to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. I know writers like to make that noise but I’m more cynical about it. Of course art and culture create an echo in the broader society, but how significant that was in the creation of the Scottish parliament and the move towards the 2014 [independence] vote I think is a more complex question.”

It’s more likely, he thinks, that the uptick in cultural confidence and activity came as a reaction to the period in which Their Lips Talk Of Mischief and Kitchenly 434 are set: the late 1970s and 1980s, a period of “frustration and non-representation” when there was a feeling in Scotland “that you were living a life, talking a language that wasn’t seen in literature. And when it was seen in literature – Kelman’s a prime example, I suppose – it was seen as something of a threat, certainly by the cultural establishment in England. Or it was misunderstood.”

As for the future, he thinks the rise of identity politics and globalism mitigate against the emergence of a literature based on what he calls “collective social understanding”. On the other hand “it’s possible that the upheavals of recent years will result in an out-poring of protest in some artistic form.” And what a series of upheavals. “I’m 56 now but I sometimes try to imagine being younger. We had 9/11, then 10 years later the financial crisis, then 10 years later the pandemic. It’s such a disruptive and convulsive time to grow up in and I feel quite compassionate towards people in their 30s and 40s who have been through all that – and of course young people, with what they’re going through now with the pandemic.”

Perhaps, then, it’s consoling to turn to the past and lose yourself in rock music. But if there’s one thing Alan Warner should have learned from a lifetime of listening to the form it’s this: just when you think everything possible has been done, someone will come along and prove you wrong. Here’s hoping, anyway.

Kitchenly 434 is out now (White Rabbit, £18.99)

ALAN WARNER ON STAGE, SCREEN … AND 10 INCH VINYL

Morvern Callar

Set in a Highland port town, Warner’s debut novel was published in 1995 and tells the story of the titular Morvern, who wakes one day in the run-up to Christmas to find that her boyfriend has killed himself leaving on his computer the manuscript of his unpublished novel and instructions to send it to every publisher on a list he has prepared. So she does what any normal person would: she dismembers him, buries him in secret, sends the book to a publisher under her own name and leaves Scotland for Spain in the company of best friend Lanna. In 2002 the novel was filmed by Glasgow-born director Lynne Ramsay. Samantha Morton played Morvern and Kathleen MacDermott was Lanna. Two songs by Warner’s beloved Can featured on the film soundtrack.

Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour

Warner’s third novel, The Sopranos, was published in 1998 and follows the misadventures of a group of schoolgirl choristers heading from their Highland hometown to Edinburgh for a singing competition. Cue joyful, drunken, riotous chaos. A year later David Chase’s game-changing HBO crime drama of the same name aired so when Billy Elliot screenwriter Lee Hall turned the novel into a stage musical in 2015 in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland he chose a different title entirely: Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. “I laughed out loud more than I had ever done with a novel,” Lee said at the time of that adaptation. “Alan captures the amazing life force of working-class teenage girls on the rampage without any sense of censoriousness … Out together in groups hell-bent on a good time, unafraid of their sexuality, determined to ignore all the usual bounds of common decency, they were there to be alive.” A smash hit at the Traverse Theatre during the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, the show toured Scotland and eventually transferred to the National Theatre in London. “It was fantastic,” says Warner. “Lee Hall and [director] Vicky Featherstone did a fantastic job. I saw it a whole load of times. I saw it in London and in Newcastle and I was virtually in tears at the end.”

Our Ladies

HeraldScotland:

With Lee Hall’s title trimmed from five words to two, and with a script co-written by Warner and Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones, this film adaptation was shot in 2019 and stars Tallulah Greive, Sally Messham, Abigail Lawrie, Rona Morison and Marli Siu (pictured above) as errant choristers Orla, Manda, Finnoula, Chell and Kylah. David Hayman and Kate Dickie also feature. The film screened at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival ahead of a mooted Spring release but when the pandemic struck the release was cancelled. There’s still no official word on a date, though it’s expected to be this year. “It’s in suspension,” says Warner. “Much like the James Bond film, which it won’t be doing a double bill with.”

Superstar Vs. Alan Warner

In 1998 Warner collaborated with Glasgow indie band Superstar (and soon-to-be-Turner-Prize-nominated artist and musician Jim Lambie) to release a four-track ‘Sound Clash’ EP. Lambie provided a pull-out poster entitled Roadie, Warner contributed two tracks, Hum (Whole New Meaning) and One Minute Story. Superstar’s Joe McAlinden and his bandmates did the rest. “He’s in a nightclub by the emergency exit and this lassie, young enough to be his daughter, steps up to him. She has this tiny scar, almost like a little line of milk, just above her top lip, up to her little nostril. But there are no other blemishes. She says: ‘You not too old to be in here?’ ‘Nuh,’ he says. ‘Keep a secret? I’m undercover …’” Yours on eBay for £2.99.