"It's a Masochistic Stare-Down": An Interview With Adam Green
The former Moldy Peaches frontman scored with Juno's "Anyone Else But You", but he's a busy man with a brand new solo album, getting hung up on Johnny Depp, and having French boys thank him for writing "such impersonal music".
"I'm certainly an ass man."
Adam Green certainly surprised me with this little revelation, but what I didn't know at the time was that this was to be expected. Green, after all, is one of the quirkiest songwriters of our decade, slowly and gradually furthering the development of "twee-pop" with the Moldy Peaches before staking it out his own as a solo artist, writing delightfully twisted songs questioning Jessica Simpson's musical passions ("Jessica") and asking Johnny Depp to call him on the phone (the Bush-bashing "Choke on a Cock"). It's been a long and strange road, but really, Green wouldn't want it any other way.
At the tail-end of 2007, a little-known Moldy Peaches song called "Anyone Else But You" was featured most prominently in the smash-hit (and Oscar-winning) comedy flick Juno, eventually sending its soundtrack straight to the top of the Billboard charts -- an absolutely stunning feat for any soundtrack, much less for an indie-darling movie like Juno. Before long, Green found himself temporarily reuniting with fellow Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson (who provided a slew of solo songs for Juno) to perform on -- of all things -- The View. The timing, of course, couldn't have been better, as weeks before Juno's DVD release, Green released his sixth solo album, the well-received Sixes and Sevens.
After weeks of schedule bumps and changes, I was finally able to talk to Green in Hamburg, Germany of all places. In talking to Green, his patter resembled that of a leaky faucet: when asked a question, he would sometimes pause for almost half a minute, letting a few um's trickle through, and then he'd suddenly toss a rapid, remarkably well-composed sentence at you with near-breakneck speed. Before long, the friendly Green was discussing "Anyone Else But You", getting hung up on Johnny Depp for one evening, and, of course, being thanked by French boys for writing "such impersonal music". All in a day's work for Adam Green.
Well first let me say that I'm actually a fan of the solo records, all the way back to one fateful night when I saw the video for "Jessica" playing on MTV ...
I can't believe you found out through that outlet! I never thought of them as playing my videos a lot ...
Well Subterranean is that program that shows all of the cool indie-rock videos ...
Yeah, I'm familiar with it: it's a terrific program!
Also, this week in the U.S. Juno came out on DVD.
Oh, it did?
Wow, that's fast.
Yeah, and it's been selling fast. I work in music retail, so get to have a ground-level view of these things, and one of the weird things to cross over with Juno is that they've set up this new sales display and on it is a re-release of one the Moldy Peaches' albums.
Oh wow, I didn't know that. I think they don't have to ask me anymore. I heard there was a single [that] they released of "Anything Else But You". I didn't know -- they didn't even ask.
Fantastic! Gotta love those labels.
(Laughs) Yeah, gotta love it.
Real quickly about that song -- even though I'm sure you get asked about it a billion times a day -- is it weird for you to suddenly revisit a song you wrote all those many years ago?
Well, I haven't really had to revisit it. Well, [Kimya and I] did The View television program ... a fantastic television show called The View ... and I don't know ... (Pause) Ya know, it was interesting. I don't necessarily regret it: it was really fun to meet Whoopi Goldberg; but it wasn't the like most ... festive performance. So I think we sort of [are] going back into a deep hibernation as far as the Moldy Peaches goes. But I mean yeah, to revisit it, I mean ... I mean, it's weird, I've got ... I've actually been welcoming anyone to get into any song that I wrote with a friend or wrote by myself or whatever ...
Speaking of songs, you've just put out a new batch of tunes with Sixes and Sevens recently. Though I'm sure you're not a big fan of the word, I can't help but feel that this is a more personal record for you ...
Yeah, I think in a way. It's funny: a lot of ... someone once wrote me a letter -- I got like a letter in the mail and it was a kid from France thanking me for making such impersonal music.
(Laughs) That's awesome!
And in a way, maybe, like ... I have been occupying a certain place that's sort of maybe on the opposite spectrum of confessional singer-songwriting, you know? I mean ... this record is, ya know, still I think along those lines, but it's hard for me to really know. I mean, I've always written from a subconscious kind of place and I don't know that I was trying to go for something different this time. I think all my lyrics have always come from the same sort of place. But I think all my records are actually personal. It's just that they're encoded in some sort of symbolism that's difficult to decipher if you're not me.
Well for me, this record, it's not as directly as laden with the pop-culture imagery of like "Jessica" or "Choke on a Cock" or anything else like that ...
You know it's so funny 'cos the other day I was trying to sing "Choke on a Cock" and I was in Copenhagen; these kids in the front row requested "Chock on a Cock" so we went into it ... and I think there's a line in the song about Johnny Depp and I said ... I just kept on using Johnny Depp instead of all the other [names]: George Bush, American Dental Association ... I kept on using Johnny Depp instead of ... it was like I said "Johnny Depp" like six times. I was just like "Why the fuck am I so hung up on Johnny Depp today?" Like I can't remember any of the words of the song, I'm just saying "Johnny Depp" instead of any of the other words. And I realized that, um ... well, actually I don't know how that pertains to that other than just that ... um ...
You just got hung up on Johnny Depp for some reason.
... that I was hung up on Johnny Depp yesterday.
I think we all have days like that, quite frankly. Did you ever receive that long-awaited phone call from Johnny Depp?
Oh no. Definitely not. He's never tried to contact me.
But it wasn't really my desire [to be contacted by Johnny Depp]. That whole song was written from a pretty far-fetched perspective, I mean like a perspective that I've never occupied myself. I think "Choke on a Cock" is actually a more elegant song than people give credit for: it took me like a month to write the melody! It's a difficult song with like five different parts. I just got a sadistic pleasure from writing just like the basest lyrics to like a really elegant song: that's part of my aesthetic. It's an essentially uncommercial essence. It's a masochistic stare-down, you know? I mean, I think my songs are always tying the tourniquet pretty tight, but I don't always tie the leather tight, even though I never understood a fascination with leather, per say, like I never quite understood the leather one (laughs) ... but I'm certainly an ass man. (laughs)
Well one of the reasons why I brought up the notion of this being a more "personal" record because of three particular songs: "Twee-Dee-Dee", "It's a Fine", and "Homelife".
OK. OK, so I know what you're saying: you're saying that the record -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- is centered on sort of like a dissatisfaction of the future of, like, monogamous relationships or disaffected with my homelike or, whatever is. My job or something.
Well, to a degree. I mean, it's still an Adam Green record, but those three songs particularly shine thorough as bit more personal than what we've seen in the past.
Well I think in some ways, um, like I think [that] often times to write with conflict, I think I've used my girlfriend as a villain in my songs, ya know? But it isn't really too far from the truth. We actually have a nicer thing going than that. I think I've been accused before of glorifying romantic dysfunction, but that's ... like ... every motherfuckin' song.
I once made a mix-CD for a girlfriend of a friend of mine, and she came back to me later saying "Evan, I couldn't help but notice that a lot of these songs were about relationships; were you trying to tell me something?" I simply turned to her and said "Ya know ... 90% of all the songs ever written are about relationships; I think you're reading into this a bit much."
I know. It's silly, right?
Exactly. However, this completely contradicts the fact that my favorite song on your new record is [the nonsensical wordplay track] "That Sounds Like a Pony".
Yeah, that was one of the ones where I was encouraged to take it off [by] the record label, along with the "Experiment 1" song and a few others. I really felt that they were actually important aspects to the record in the sense that they were improvised songs, ya know? Some of the songs on the record were written over, like, a few weeks or a month, and some of the songs were written in like 20 minutes. I wanted to put them side-by-side, and I liked putting ... ah, what do you call it? ... the song with my girlfriend -- "Drowning Head First"!. And "Experiment No. 1" ... these are like home recordings, ya know? And other ones are studio [recordings]; I just got into juxtaposing home recordings next to studio recordings ... I really explored a lot of musical territory this year. I was excited to present it as a 20-song epic, or whatever.
Some of the most common criticisms to be attached to this album have been in regard to your lyrics, filled with labyrinthine word puzzles. But for me, when I hear this disc I think back to a review I read of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in which Jeff Tweedy's lyrical style was described as not loving words themselves as much as loving the sounds of words. In many ways, I feel that that could be applied to your work as well.
Yeah, I think I, ya know, have an enthusiasm for phonetics. Since I started writing songs ... in fact, the genesis of most of my songs has been through singing and not really through thinking: just basically walking around my neighborhood or wherever I am. Like it could be Verona, Italy or anywhere, just singing into a tape recorder and recording the results and tweaking them and then moving on to the next line; and I could spend a month on that process. I would say [that] more often than not, a song has been completed before the guitar has even been touched, ya know? The song is already done. That's a phonetic approach to writing songs, and I think that it is more important how music sounds than anything. So the phonetic approach has been at the center but that's not to be said that there hasn't been themes in my life -- general themes and feelings -- that have been absolutely distilled into individual songs despite a phonetic approach.
[...] Every word ... it comes from inside of me, ya know? These are words that I've been obsessed with like ever since I had a little children's book called The Glass Menagerie, and these words mean something to me. I think my music actually comes from a place of love, ya know? I think it's really not as grotesque as people make it out to be, at least from what I've seen from reviews and things. I think it's actually a very realistic music to make when I'm making it.
Well I think it's hard to distill the whole of human emotions down into simple lines. I think you're right: it's a lot more complex than we ourselves are able to articulate, and you're [just] exploring that complexity.
Yeah, I mean maybe it's just a lack of a target audience idea that is just so upsetting to people: that there is no target audience in my music.
Well young boys in France would disagree.
That is true. Young boys in France ... wait, why? 'Cos they want to kiss me? (laughs)
It's at this point that I'm informed that Adam has to go -- he has other interviews to do and other countries to conquer during his world tour supporting Sixes and Sevens. I manage to fit in one last question, the one that I end all my interviews with: "So far in your career, what's been your biggest regret and, conversely, what's been your proudest accomplishment?" He hesitates ... he wants to answer but doesn't have the time. Two weeks later, I receive an e-mail giving these simple answers:
I think I may have mixed the vocals too loud on Jacket Full of Danger. I'm not sure that going back to correct an old album is a wise move at the time.
I once received a letter addressed to ADAM GREEN, U.S.A... I consider it an accomplishment that the letter got to my house.
The fact that such a letter was able to get to his house is nothing short of astonishing, but the person who wrote it was certainly sending it to the right place: to the universe that Adam has constructed for himself, filled with nonsense and love, non-sequiturs and pop culture monoliths inching ever-so-closer to their demolition dates. Indeed, as far-fetched as it may seem, ADAM GREEN, U.S.A. is truly the best place to try and reach him.