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Abstract Optimism: A Brief Chat with Owl City

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Thursday, Nov 12, 2009
After getting tackled by biker chicks and shying away from the "emo-pop" label, Owl City mastermind Adam Young is still adjusting to his newfound fame, but is taking it all in with a level-head and even more ideas for future nighttime synth-pop creations ...

All these years later, Adam Young still can’t sleep—and that just might be a good thing.


When the then-20-year-old Adam Young suffered from intense insomnia while living in his parents basement, he used his non-sleeping hours to carefully construct his own brand of Postal Service-indebted synth-pop, eventually self-releasing two albums under his Owl City moniker (2007’s Of June EP and 2008’s Maybe I’m Dreaming) to decent acclaim but somewhat marginal sales. When he put his music on MySpace, however, a following gradually began to grow around Young’s abstract, optimistic tales of love, his whimsical song “Hello Seattle” gaining particular notoriety. It wasn’t long before he got signed to Universal Republic, began collaborating with Relient K vocalist Theissen, and began forming an near endless litany of side-projects (with animal-friendly names like Swimming With Dolphins and Insect Airport).


Yet a funny thing happened following the release of Ocean Eyes, Young’s major-label debut. The quirky single “Fireflies” began picking up steam, first via MySpace, and then through the video outlets like MTV and VH1. Next thing you know, the 23-year-old Young has a chart-topping hit on his hands, is touring the nation with a full band, and is still selling hundreds of thousands of downloads every week, making him one of the brightest pop stars to emerge out of 2009. In short, these past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind for the dark-haired pop maestro, but—as is revealed in this short yet illuminating interview via e-mail—Young hasn’t let success go to his head at all. Being tackled by biker chicks, discovering Taco Bell, and still (still!) suffering from bouts of insomnia—these are just some of the moments that have colored Adam Young’s life this year. If his success is any indication so far, Owl City’s ride is just beginning ...
  


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First off, how’s it going, Adam?
Swimmingly.


Owl City has been an active recording project for almost two years now, starting as a simple home-recording endeavor before creating a radio smash in the form of “Fireflies”. Has the success of Owl City surprised you at all?  How has your sudden notoriety effected the way you approach the concept Owl City as a whole?
I prefer not to think about it. Owl City has always been something very specific in my head, an idea with a vivid vision and no amount of unearned “success” will change the way I approach the concept. I couldn’t be happier about such sudden “notoriety” but that doesn’t change the mission I’m out to accomplish: creating.


In listening to your music, there are three continually recurring lyrical themes: animals, fantastical elements, and a sense of escape—all three of these often being used in conjunction with each other. I think of your escaping the doldrums in a “Hot Air Balloon”, the various critter-related greetings that populate “Hello Seattle”, the desire to travel explore in the analagous “Early Birdie”, etc. What is it about these themes that so appeal to you? How do your listeners relate to these broad-scaling concepts?
Abstraction is something that has always appealed to me. I am what some may label as a failed idealist and the idea of the world being a better place, in every and all things is an encouraging thought. I have an intense dislike for writing about the “true, hard, reality of life” or being explicitly open and honest about life and love and living. Everyone does that. I’m bored. Melancholy, abstract optimism is an idea that makes the wheels turn in my head. I don’t know why. I never planned such a thing.


 


You’re in the midst of a tour right now. Given how digitally-oriented your recordings are, what are the challenges you’ve had to face in adapting them for a live crowd?  What discoveries have you made in taking apart/adapting the songs as you’ve had to do for a concert?
There are a thousand ways of taking written material from studio to stage and it’s been tricky sifting through all of them. I am not a performer. It’s been a good challenge, something that’s grown me as an artist.


A lot of the critical reception seems to peg you as a logical successor to the Postal Service, despite the fact that you have peers like the like-minded the Secret Handshake, the more aggressive/lewd 3OH!3, and others—all of whom (yourself included) have been referred to as a subgenre known as “emo-pop”. Do you agree with this classification at all?  Similarly, who do you consider your “peers” in your particular style?
It doesn’t make any difference to me what Owl City gets labeled as. I think it’s fun hearing what people have to say about it, what it reminds them of, and so on. The music of Owl City wasn’t written to target any sort of audience. Owl City is just music. For people to listen to. If they want to.


Given the success you’re experiencing now with Ocean Eyes, has the idea of “following this up” been on your mind at all, or has a majority of your time been filled with touring/your numerous, numerous side-projects?
Life has done an excellent job at turning a shy boy into a busy bee. I’ve got a lot of new ideas for new songs and new records though. Who knows what will come of it.


When was the last time you listened to Of June?  In hearing it now, what does it make you think of?
I finished mastering the record in the summer of 2007 and haven’t listened to it again. Honestly. I prefer not to look back at old work. It keeps my vision for future creations much less biased. It also makes me cringe.


A FEW QUICK HITS:


You used your insomnia as a way to explore music, initially: do you still suffer from it all?
Some nights I don’t sleep at all.


Which current band/artist are you currently listening to?
Hammock.


What is the best place you’ve discovered while on tour?
Taco Bell.


Craziest fan encounter to date?
Last week, a deranged mob of biker chicks chased me down, sat on me, and told me stories. Some of them were fun but some of them were scary.


So far in your career, what’s been your biggest regret, and—conversely—what’s been your proudest accomplishment?
I most regret how many powdered donuts I ate over the course of the past two days. Conversely, I am most proud of how many powdered donuts I ate over the course of the past two days.

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