CUBISM OF THE MIND
"The place where my stuff comes from is always the association with emotions. It's not about the physical world that much. Using something romantic next to something humourous, using something tragic next to something political. Putting things next to each other - they can all have their place in the same song."
Andy James interviews anti-folk singer/songwriter Adam Green.
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"A friend of mine saw Taxi Driver and joined the Aryan youth." When talking with Adam Green, it is probably better not to ponder on where his observation begins and imagination ends.
We're sitting in a darkly-lit West End pub talking about Surrealism, internet imposters and the drum fills on Lou Reeds Berlin album. The talented 23-year-old songwriter and singer from New York, formerly of the lo-fi punk/folk duo The Moldy Peaches, is in town to promote his third solo album, Gemstones -- a tight, melodic and playful set that often conjures up Jacques Brel in a Starbucks age. Adam might deliver like Cary Grant on acid but like his English friends, the Libertines, his regard for the song-writing process and singers of old -- in his case from Billy Holiday to Roy Orbison -- is healthily married to a youthful irreverence. Within the space of a couple of lines, Adam's songs can seduce you and offend you -- if you're that way inclined.
"I incorporate grotesque imagery, but it's just to spice it up a little bit, to add a little bit of pepper. It's not the main thing I'm writing about. If people are offended by some of my lyrics, they're taking my songs too seriously," he says.
On one song, "Choke on a Cock", the symbolism's pretty blatant. It's all about George Bush, no messing about.
"Ben Kweller (fellow NY rocker) has done a version but he goes, "And then I'll go and choke on a, then I'll go and choke on a cocker spaniel."
He's either hungover, jetlagged, or both. But then again, it's far too early for musicians to be up. I toss some odd questions at him and he seems to wake up a bit.
3AM: Have you ever been reading a book and found that the main character is so strong that you end up feeling that you might actually be them? Or that the events seem to actually start taking place?
AG: Yeah, that book… What's it called? The Catcher in the Rye!
3AM: A strange thing once happened to me while I was reading Kafka's The Trial involving a job sacking and a police searching.
AG: No, really? Were you holding a suspicious package?
3AM: No, I was just holding a copy of The Trial.
AG: Did you know my great grandmother was once engaged to Franz Kafka?
3AM: (Unsure if he's being serious) Does that mean you're related, sort of?
AG: I'm related to her!
3AM: Who else would you like to be related to?
AG: I don't know. Bridget Fonda maybe.
Adam once recorded a song with The Moldy Peaches called "New York City's Like a Graveyard". That was before 9/11. A lot of people might have thought of that as prophetic but Adam's not making out he was Nostradamus:
AG: No, I had nothing to do with the events! But it became a thing where people interpreted it that way. We had to stop playing it live because people thought we wrote the song after, and it wasn't fun anymore to play it. So that was a weird thing.
3AM: I imagine it's the sort of thing that gets banned from being played on playlists and so on.
AG: We were asked to take it off the record and we chose not to do that. And I think at this point now, it would be seen again as it was when we wrote it.
He doesn't claim to be making overtly political art. "New York City" was about boredom, about nothing going on in the Big Apple, and a song such as "Emily" -- about dancing in the city -- seems as far away from the evening news as you could get… except, for the fact that New York City has anti dancing legislation.
3AM: Could you get arrested for dancing with Emily in New York?
AG: If you¹re at a bar and you're dancing, the bar can ask you to stop. No one would get arrested but I might get a fine if they had an official there. As I understand it, the laws were originally just to discriminate against poor communities or something.
Last year Adam toured with Pete Doherty's travelling circus, Babyshambles. They've covered each other's songs. But recently Adam's "Who's Got the Crack?" has been requested by jokers in the crowd when Pete's been noticeably worse for wear. Wondering what he thinks about all the public and media speculation that surrounds his friend, I ask him whether he'd like to receive that amount of attention himself?
AG: I don't know. I've heard it said that you can sell privacy but you can't buy it back. I would accept any kind of celebrity because of the merits of my own work, but at the same time I wouldn't want to be scrutinised because I'm from a certain family or because my mother's so fat, or whatever.
3AM: So really it's about being recognised for the talent that you have?
AG: Yeah. There's all different types of celebrity and the camp that you really want to be in is the one where you're recognised for your achievements.
But, even when you¹re enjoying cult status, it doesn't prevent you from becoming other people's property it seems. Adam's never joined the website Friendster, but he's noticed there are about three people on it who are pretending to be him:
AG: They've filled out a profile on Friendster that says they're me and they have my picture and information. But it's not me. I don't even check my e-mails!
3AM: Weird! Let's talk about the new album. It sounds like it was done pretty much live. How long did it take to record?
AG: Nine days. There's no overdubs, well just one overdub solo on "Down In the Street". I'm playing with my regular touring band. We've been playing for around a year. They're really good musicians. My last album, Friends of Mine, was recorded with a large string section. I was originally planning on touring with them. We did a few shows like that -- one in London, a couple in New York. But pretty soon the bill added up to a lot more than we were making. My record label said that if I wanted to continue touring then I would have to figure out another way to do it. That's when I put together my band and I think, in a lot of ways, they opened up my awareness of rhythm.
3AM: There's some great lines on Gemstones, like "He's the brat with the sterilized pitchfork / He's the singer in the Beachwood Sparks".
AG: I consider those guys to be my good friends. I was really just messing around. I really like the name Beachwood Sparks. It's a very sentimental image for a band. To me that's a bit of humour that I'd be adding into the song. I like to incorporate humour into lyrics and put it side by side with contrasting sentiments. Cubism was about showing all aspects of the physical world next to each other, from different angles, whereas Surrealism is a sort of cubism of the mind -- where you place all the different symbols that you associate with emotions side by side. The place where my stuff comes from is always the association with emotions. It's not about the physical world that much. Using something romantic next to something humourous, using something tragic next to something political. Putting things next to each other - they can all have their place in the same song.
I think the songwriting process is not that glamorous. You make a lot of mistakes and it's all about sorting through the bad stuff and filtering it out, letting the good stuff sink to the bottom and collecting the gold. And I was very conscious on this record of not being too artsy, to not alienate a lot of listeners. I wanted this to be very melodic, the changes not too jarring, just easy to listen to.
3AM: Have you seen anything in the last couple of days that's given you ideas for song material?
AG: Yeah, I work on songs everyday but only for a little while, like twenty minutes. I pretty much write everything on this little recorder (Adam gets out a really state of the art dictaphone.)
3AM: Do you write better alone than when surrounded by people?
AG: Yeah, I don't write songs in front of others.
3AM: Your image is that of someone who's on the outside looking in.
AG: I don't know why. I don't feel that way.
3AM: What's this book of yours that's been published in Germany?
AG: It's a collection of writing that I've done over the last few years. Poems, stuff from journals, a lot of one-liners, epigrams - that kind of thing. Each chapter is sort of different. The first one is a long poem that I wrote on tour, the second one is a collection of pocket notebooks that I carried around for a few years. The third one is more like a rant I wrote really quickly, well for an hour a day, ten days in a row and then edited it down. And the fourth was a poem to make up the number of pages the publisher wanted!
If it came out (here), I'd like it to be in all the stores, but it would have to be through the right publisher. People can order it from the internet if they want, from this German publisher. It¹s a bilingual edition.
Adam likes to get a lot done. He's about to embark on an eight-week tour, his longest one yet, and will be coming back to the UK in February. Gemstones is out on Rough trade. We walk out onto the streets of Soho where film and TV companies have replaced scuzzy coffee houses and underground bars, where folksters once played. There's possibly nothing ususual about this setting to their modern day counterparts.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
You can contact Andy James here.
Photos by Leigh Rydberg.
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