Published on May 7th, 2014 | by Tom Mayne1
Adam Green interview
Adam Green is one of the most recognizable faces in Antifolk, coming to prominence first writing songs as The Moldy Peaches with Kimya Dawson before turning solo, releasing seven albums and a collaboration last year with Binki Shapiro.
Tom Mayne and Mary Boe met up with him before his recent gig at Dingwalls in London to discuss the early years at The Sidewalk, his later career and the German city of Ulm… Toby Goodshank (pictured in the photo), who played guitar for Adam on this tour, also sat in.
Mary: You started writing songs with Kimya Dawson from an early age – she was your babysitter, right?
Adam: In some ways. It wasn’t that she had that title but she was essentially a nine-years-older-than-me person that was the go-to person who would take me to things, sort of chaperon me. My parents would get us both tickets to a show so that I could go because Kimya was over 21. So she was a babysitter and a role model. She was really inspiring. But as we got older the age difference meant less and we could start to write songs.
Me and Kimya had the Moldy Peaches since I was 13 years old. I think we both kinda dreamed about doing the Moldy Peaches for a living because we saw it as an opportunity to escape the suburbs [of New York]. And for some reason we just had a lot of confidence in it. We just thought it was this special thing that we had. And then, flash forward, to when we were in Washington [state] – we tried to play in some coffee shops and bars as the Moldy Peaches and it went really well. We actually got a little bit of a following in Washington. We were hustling in a town called Port Townsend which is sort of this hippie outpost town. Kind of like Woodstock, but even more schizophrenic.
Basically I was 17 years old, I was homesick and lost. I went back home [to New York]. At the same time my dad was Professor of Neurology, he got a job at Columbia University. And so all of a sudden we were in the City and then I found the Sidewalk.
Tom: Can you remember the first time you went to the Sidewalk, how did you hear about it?
Adam: I’d just dropped out of my first semester at college. I was kind of wandering around and not quite sure what to do. So I thought of playing the subway cause I thought maybe I can wrangle up some interest in my music. I think somebody stopped me and said “You gotta go down to the Antifolk open mic.” I had a compilation album, I think it was called “Antifolk Live at the Sidewalk Café”. I was like, “I’ve heard of that” cos of that CD, “I’m there!” I heard that Beck had gone through the open mic so it seemed like a legendary place.
The first night I went there I saw Barry Bliss playing, he was the first selected, and I thought it was crazy. And they really embraced me cos I think when you’re a kid people treat you a lot better than when you’re older. So I was sucked in. I stayed the next two years probably. I was there every Monday night.
Tom: So your first gig there was just playing the open mic…?
Adam: Yeah, that’s the way it would work. You’d do the open mic until Lach would ask you to play your own show.
Tom: And when Lach asked you to do a full show – was it just you solo, or was it by that time with Kimya?
Adam: At first it was me because I had come from Washington state [on my own].
Basically what happened was I played the Sidewalk and I called the guys from Washington and I was like “There’s this really cool thing going on in New York. You guys have to come and check this out.” And I was so split at the time, I wasn’t sure if I was playing as Moldy Peaches or myself. I was using the word ‘we’ about my own stuff because I guess I missed my band mates. They all drove across the country in a van that they’d painted peach colour. They came to New York.
That was a crazy season in New York. Not all of them lasted, a lot of the guys ended up going back to Washington. Kimya was from New York state and so she felt at home at the Antifolk scene. So they took her in as well.
Mary: You already had your music style when you found out about Antifolk?
Adam: To some degree. We had written a lot of songs as the Moldy Peaches before then. But probably to some degree [it was] informed by what we didn’t really realise was Antifolk music, or things that were related to that. Like I said I don’t think I would have gone to the open mic if I hadn’t heard that Beck had gone. So we were definitely informed by it.
We didn’t know about the specific players at the time but I think honestly what happened was we had a good synchronicity, with a nice moment where people came there for the first time, like Toby, Seth from Dufus, Ish Marquez, Jeffrey Lewis, Turner Cody, Diane Cluck. I remember, week number three, Turner Cody came in. I was like, “I know the ropes here. I’ll show you around.” He was like: “Who is this kid?!” You get kind of competitive with everyone; everyone started to write songs and use it as the currency, essentially tried to impress each other with what they came up with that week.
Sometimes I would play by myself and sometimes with the Moldy Peaches. The thing is, the Moldy Peaches, because we had a bunch of songs we wanted to show people, I didn’t want to put it behind me. I wanted to show everyone the Moldy Peaches. When I first signed with Rough Trade their original intent was to put out “Garfield”. I convinced them to put out “The Moldy Peaches” first because I wanted people to hear it and I didn’t know whether I would ever go back to doing it again.
Tom: With Kimya did you write the songs together, both lyrics and music?
Adam: Yeah, we definitely did. Some of the stuff is just old stuff that I was recording on the four track that I’d show her. Some of it is just stuff we wrote together on the guitar.
Tom: Where else did you play apart from the Sidewalk?
Adam: There was another place called The Raven that was a few blocks up. It’s actually really near where I live now. The Raven was sort of like a poor man’s Sidewalk. It had a lot of the same people playing there.
Toby Goodshank: It was strictly an open mic, there weren’t really shows there?
Adam: No, I thought we played a show there, maybe. I don’t remember. It’s possible that they did have shows there. It was like a satellite version of the Sidewalk.
The Sidewalk open mic for whatever reason was kind of classic, kinda run down, it had a cool dark vibe. It actually stayed open really late. It had the character of why people go to Manhattan – to seek a late night experience. The Sidewalk would stay open until 2.30 in the morning with people singing, and then afterwards you could go across the street to [Ukrainian eatery] Odessa and really kill the night.
Lach was very supportive. He encouraged me not to go back to school. At one point I was contemplating it. He told me to stick with [the music]. It was a good feeling at the time.
Tom: What does Antifolk mean to you?
Adam: It’s so complicated because a lot has been said about it.
Tom: Do you mind when someone says ‘Adam Green – an Antifolk musician’?
Adam: No, I welcome it. I think that maybe somewhere in the current where we came into it, me and Turner and Kimya specifically spoke about how we wanted to spread the word, how we wanted to be a part of something. At first it was almost like something that people would be kinda insulted at being called. But you flip it and it’s like a compliment. We flipped it. Antifolk at the time felt like an old scene that had died and we felt like we were a bunch of young kids that had come and congregated in a place. It already had a name – so it was like when someone opens a restaurant in an old place and they keep the sign. We were like “we want to be Antifolk because it’s already called that.” Why not? You know what I mean?
At the same time it’s a perfectly great scene because nobody knows what it means and that’s great. That’s a good thing to be. You can make it what you want. There was an initial first wave of Antifolk where everyone was influenced by punk music specifically, acoustic versions of punk music. There’s some really classic stuff, like Roger Manning, Paleface, King Missile. And then I guess we’re part of some other wave of it, but our particular wave was very much influenced by folk music, really traditional folk music.
One thing that was great about the Sidewalk open mic [was that] it attracted a lot of freaks. There was a real surge of people doing antifolk in the 80s, and it seems like most of the 90s were just spent being a total outpost for, like, crazy… just anybody who wanted to go on a rant. And I think that that’s awesome. There was kind of a gonzo aspect to performing at the open mic. I think everybody liked people who were taking risks or doing something stupid. It was always funny when somebody would use their song slot to just do some Absurdist performance piece. And I guess that’s partly what characterizes Antifolk Open Mic.
Tom: Can you think of a memory of a great show you played at Sidewalk or anywhere in New York?
Adam: Well, more than anything it was actually more the feeling of seeing certain people for the first time and realizing they were so great. I remember seeing Ish Marquez play on a borrowed guitar and feeling, “this is so amazing”. Or when Diane Cluck finally hit her stride and started coming in every week with a total masterpiece. It was so amazing to see people do this. And Kimya, too, when she started to write her own songs, which were so impressive.
And I think that more than anything, compared to the world we live in now, I do think of it in a different context because none of us had a cellphone. In fact I remember thinking, wow, these cellphones would really ruin a scene like this because if they rang we’d be in trouble because we’re all doing something really intimate. But it wasn’t even a worry because no one had one.
And I even think about the way that the internet has made this foodie culture – where people are searching for the best, you know, meatballs south of Houston [Avenue], or the number one prosciutto. I feel like everybody [back then] just ate a slice of pizza. So I think it was just a different kind of time. It was really easy to live on, like, $5 a day.
Tom: So do you think that Antifolk can continue now? Is it something in the past? Are there some good songwriters in the US coming through which you would class or they would class as Antifolk?
Adam: Yeah, it definitely still continues. I don’t pop around as much anymore – I’m really engaged with the people I was a peer of at that moment. Because to me they’re the artists, the people I looked to. Whatever Toby or Jeff or Turner is doing I would look to that as like a signal of what a peer is doing. And I would compare myself to them.
Toby: I’m out of the current…
Adam: Yeah, you get out of it. But there’s always good stuff, and if it’s not in New York, it’s in London. There’s always something going on and if you stay the whole open mic usually there’s somebody that’s going to be popular in the future. Like Regina [Spektor] for example, who grew up with us and has now done so well.
Mary: But is it still possible to go to New York and see Antifolk? At the Sidewalk Café?
Adam: Well, it’s hard to keep anything up. Things often happen by accident. And probably what you guys have going on in England is probably in the spirit of something that you guys were inspired to make it. Anything that’s inspired is better than anything that isn’t.
Tom: I like your idea – that it comes in waves.
Adam: You know what’s so funny with someone like Paleface, for example, he was so out of touch with it for many years, then he came back and has really hit his stride again. And the truth is, it was a matter of necessity to do it for me. I was needing to play my songs that I was writing for people. I wanted an audience and that was what the open mic was for. And so was everyone else. If I wrote a new song I could play it at this concert. It’s not a precious experience for me to go in front of the Antifolk open mic and present it that way. I’m glad to know people are still doing the open mic thing. And as far as the Antifolk thing, I totally welcome being called it, because I feel if I’m anything, that’s what I would be as an artist.
Tom: Moving on to your solo style, I remember Jeff Lewis saying – I’m paraphrasing – that he wishes Springsteen would just strip his music down, do another album just him and an acoustic guitar. Your early albums were just acoustic, but later ones had more complex arrangements with strings. How did that come about?
Adam: I did push away from it. At the time it was a necessary step. I didn’t want to do something contrived, all rock and roll or something. But it was Jeffrey Lewis who turned me on to Scott Walker. We were at a barbeque and he played me a cassette tape of Scott Walker. It totally blew my mind. I came and told Toby about it and I was like, “this is fucking incredible!” Then I started thinking to myself that this is something none of my friends had tried to do. Then it’s like when the mask eventually becomes the face – I’m crooning and being hired by a fucking commercial to croon for them! It’s like anything: fake it until you make it.
Tom: It’s that old question, lo-fi versus hi-fi, that sometimes lo-fi is thought of as more genuine, but it’s not necessarily true.
Adam: There’s certainly something to it. Because certainly I feel like with the Moldy Peaches and probably the way that I did “Garfield” – it’s kind of a first-take philosophy. I definitely didn’t linger over mistakes. I just went for the feeling of a song to be the recording. So I think there’s something to it – often times lo-fi recordings do present a more honest document of something. But in order for it to be a good document that’s honest and good it has to actually be a document of a genuinely fun and interesting time. It can’t be a document of something that sucks. So that is the challenge – to create something that’s an intellectually interesting document. I guess maybe me and Kimya, we collaborated to foster a fun intellectual environment, to be free.
Tom: The tour now is an acoustic tour. Is that a musical choice? Or the label running out of money?!
Adam: No, no. At the core I think of myself as a folk singer and I like to show people that. I believe in the bard aspect. If there’s a carnival of the self, I’d be the singing man in a tent. Sometimes I get a lot of hope the way that some of my songs have gotten out there. I’m writing that kind of folk music that people can remember. For example, we were walking down the beach, me and my wife, on a vacation. In Venice Beach, it’s a really crazy beach, you know, a muscle beach. It was at night and we overheard on speakers the sound of “Who’s Got the Crack?” It was a bunch of squatter kids that were on the beach listening to it and singing along. And I was thinking that’s cool, this is like folk music for them.
Mary: Did you go over?
Adam: I did say hi… But, then, for example people will send me or Kimya an email saying that they were singing “Anyone Else But You” at their wedding, or something weird, like I think I was on the subway and I heard someone singing “Jessica”. Just stuff like that makes me think I’m in my own way trying to be a folk singer. I can do this with a guitar, I can just sing those songs and it’s fun. That’s an inspiring idea to me. So I was thinking that I’d try to, after I do an album, do also a tour of smaller places where I can just play folk music.
Tom: Did the Juno soundtrack change anything? Did you see a different kind of people coming to the shows? Or was it all good?
Adam: That was actually kind of a displacing feeling because they picked up our song ten years after we had released that album. And “Anyone Else But You” wasn’t even a song that we often played live anyway. So it just got elevated a lot all of a sudden. Neither me nor Kimya really seized on a lot of attention for it really. We just ultimately kept on playing our own solo shows. I haven’t really noticed that anything about my own shows has changed but I will say what I did notice is that everyone knows the song “Anyone Else But You” now. That’s changed.
Tom: You have made films, and made other kinds of art. Do you see yourself doing more of that, leaving the music behind?
Adam: No, it’s definitely a constant. For example, the next thing I’m doing is a movie. And it’s a film called “Aladdin”. It’s like my own modern day version of Aladdin. It’s the same theme [as the Disney movie] cos it’s based on the Arabian Nights tale. So it’s basically a modern version of the genie in the lamp, and the wishes. Basically the lamp in this case is modern technology, you know like a 3D printer. And the genie is almost like the interface. And then Toby who helped me with “The Wrong Ferarri” is going to help me to design the sets.
Mary: Have you got a 3D printer?
Adam: My friend does.
Mary: What have you printed?
Adam: We haven’t even tried it yet.
Mary: My friend printed her leg on a 3D printer.
Adam: That is fucking amazing. I’m dying to get into it. You know, maybe we’ll print out some of the props for the movie on it. Another thing is just yesterday we started a Kickstarter. We’re going try to use it towards a crusade to get funding for the film because it’s not a particularly commercial film.
So we are going to hopefully convince everyone to help us fund the movie. But the thing is that it’s also an album and I’ve spent the last month in LA recording the soundtrack. I’ve recorded a little more than half of it. It has a lot of really good players like Joe Steinbrick from Devendra [Banhart]’s band who also played on “Minor Love” and the Binki [Shapiro] record. And Stella [Mozgawa], the drummer from Warpaint, who’s incredible, and Rodrigo [Amarante] from Little Joy. So the band is really cool and I’m actually really proud of the soundtrack.
So it’ll be cool to combine all the songs with different visual things made out of paper mache, and the sets. And the same thing that I use for writing a screenplay is the same pool for writing. Honestly my technique for writing is really that I just get stoned, like, once every week and write for a few hours. And most of my lyrics come from whatever is my trip. I write also if I’m walking around. My phone now is kind of a way to record information. I made “The Wrong Ferarri” [sic] on my phone too so it’s a lot of things. But I have felt like I was going in a video game ever since I got an iPhone.
So basically the same kind of themes are going through and I feel that the screenplay is kind of a little bit like my lyrics. It’s got some similar stuff.
Mary: Do you remember being in Ulm? I saw you play there.
Adam: In Ulm, yeah, it’s an interesting town. It’s got a huge church. And then Einstein was born there. And I know that where Einstein was born is now a McDonald’s, which is kind of funny.
Mary: Yes, and somebody I know got punched in the nose there.
Adam: Oh really? (laughs) And yeah I went on bike ride there and kind of fell off the bike on a hill. But I like Ulm.
Mary: Would you play there again?
Adam: Yes, I would like to go back if I get an offer. Though I’ve gotta say that I don’t think we’re gonna do any more concerts mainly until I finish the movie. I wanna make the movie. I wanna be Aladdin on tour. I want to come to your town as Aladdin.
Mary: Are you going to come on a carpet?
Adam: I would have a tour bus that’s shaped like a carpet.
Tom: Last question. I have to ask, on one show in London, 2010 maybe, you said on stage you were trying to get a blowjob every night? Did you succeed?
Adam: That was true. As silly as it sounds. There was an actual contest that happened. There was a blowjob contest between a few of the band members. And my goal was to get 20 and I didn’t get it. I got 16.