DiS has stumbled across a fair few talents over the past eleven months; suffice to say, then, that 2005 has blessed us with a plethora of quality records rich in emotion, warmth and longevity. Few, though, have made an impact upon these particular ears in the manner of Adam Gnade’s Run, Hide, Retreat, Surrender. Released through US label Loud+Clear earlier in November, the record traces a journey of sorts – physical, psychological and incorporating all matters of the heart and soul – across tracks that rarely veer into wild musical abandonment, but forever retain a sense of tension and suspense.
Gnade’s coverage in the UK is minimal, to say the least – these eyes have seen but one review in the British music press and these very fingers penned it. So, consider this your wake-up call, readers of taste: seek out the aforementioned record and soak in it, letting it rise to the tip of your nose, nearly drowning you, before it recedes and allows the sun to shine down and dry your sodden skin. Few recorded experiences will leave you in such a state of exhilaration and emotional exasperation. Few will leave you as inspired and as moved to change the wrongs in your own life, to seek out those you've lost and rekindle friendships figured spent. Few records are as good, basically.
I e-mailed an introductory selection of questions to the singer, who recently finished a tour in his homeland. Not one to settle in one place for any prolonged length of time – as his record and the following answers attest to – I was surprised to receive such a swift, and thoroughly considered response. So, settle in for five minutes, read the following and then find the record. Really, if you come out the other side of its engrossing duration feeling disappointed, I’ll buy you a round of single-malts and shine your shoes for free...
Run, Hide, Retreat, Surrender is your debut long-play release, yes? Just how long has it been brewing for, if you will? Are the final songs the result of a lot of planning and rewrites, or do the words and music come easily to you?
Well, yeah, kind of. It’s actually my third LP, but it’s my first that wasn’t done just for a small group of friends. Getting signed to Loud + Clear sort of brought me out of my bedroom a little, per se.
As far as time goes, it happened fast. I wrote Run, Hide, Retreat, Surrender while the summer chapters were happening, in the places they were happening – Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky, New York, Florida, Delaware, New Jersey – then hid out in Seattle at a friend’s house and sat in front of his window overlooking grey, drizzly Capitol Hill and wrote the first three tracks, the backstory parts that take place in San Diego, in the winter. That took about three days of on-and-off writing.
Things went sour in Seattle, so I drove west to Portland, where I holed up in the studio for a week and recorded 12 hours a day. There were no rewrites or editing, and a good chunk of the music was played live, improv’d, and finished on its first take. And (I was) pretty drunk, on wine – because I was so nervous, and so inexperienced at making a... real record without my old 4-track and acoustic guitar. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that first takes are the truest, and that battling over something that’s already been written will kill the original passion and intent. The record was done – besides mastering – by late October, 2005. I sat on the thing, too depressed to do anything, still on the brink of blowing my brains out, until I heard Joanna Newsom’s record, and was given a new lease on – if not life, which came later – music making.
The record seems to refer to a central character – you, we assume – forever travelling, looking for that something that’s never quite in your grasp perhaps? Are you a natural wanderer? Where do you call home right now? There are so many references to totally different places in the States? Should Americans explore their own country more?
At last count, I crossed the country 11 times over the past 12 months, made a good dozen or so trips halfway across, shot up both coasts a few times, been south of the border in Mexico, north of the border in Canada. Oh, and I went to Japan. This, I’ve come to learn, isn’t the most healthy thing. I used to call it ‘movement as medicine’ but I’ve come to the hard realisation that I’m just running away from my problems, uprooting and going somewhere else – or just going without a destination – when things get sticky. That’s one of the record’s main themes, I just didn’t know it at the time. It’s a heavy thing to have on your shoulders... the realisation of it. I feel like that Bob Seger song where he sings, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”
So, I’m in Portland, Oregon, at the moment but I don’t feel like I can call anywhere home. Yeah. Americans... Americans could probably use a little shaking up, but I wouldn’t recommend what I’ve done; it takes it out of you. It’s like the concept of the ‘unbearable lightness of being’; you run so much, and so far away from your roots, that your soul wears thin. There’s a lot to be said for facing your problems and not giving into restlessness. I’ve just never been able to do that.
Is the album an US-only release, or have Loud+Clear got you for a worldwide deal? Have you been touring much to support it, and do you think you’ll make it to the UK?
Right now coming to the UK is one of my biggest plans. I’m hoping to make it at least to England and Ireland – where I have a lot of family, I’m half Irish – sometime next year. But yeah, our deal is US-only.
What kind of music has influenced you, be it lyrically or compositionally? The music is quite understated on the album – in the future do you think you’ll opt for a louder sound, perhaps akin to Enablers, or a band like that?
I love a lot of different kinds of music – lately I’ve been playing the hell out of the new Devendra, Black Dice, Matt Curreri, Jigsaw Gentlemen, Castanets’ new one, old jazz, and a lot of old protest and chain-gang songs – but none of it influences my stuff.
Understated... yeah, definitely. At the time we were recording this, I was so overwhelmed, sad and beaten down that the only overriding feelings I had were dread and resignation to what I’d decided was my fate. I was crushed and trying to pull myself out of a heavy bummer, but I was still so far down the well that my mind was all quiet and echoes. That’s why the record sounds like it does. The new music, now that I’ve more or less ascended my anxiety – at least for now – is louder and fuller. (Though I don’t know the Enablers. Should I check ‘em out?) There’s more instruments, more people, my voice is louder, I scream sometimes, holler, whoop, yell, shout, jump around on stage. The tour was the same way; we took dismayed, terrified, paranoid songs and turned them into huge psychedelic punk rock epics. I’m glad the record came out the way it did, hushed and whispering and all, but I’m ready to talk loud and be alive again. Actually having feelings and feeling human for the first time in years feels incredible. I want to do everything, everywhere and never slow down.
You refer to the production of magazines quite a lot – is this something you have a professional background in? I ask because you write the occasional article for Skyscraper now. What are you doing at the moment to pay the rent, etc? Is music paying off thus far?
I do have a past in magazine publishing – in being one of the people in charge of putting a magazine out (Gnade was editor of the now-folded weekly Fahrenheit in 2003 and early 2004) – but I’ve left it behind for book writing, magazine writing that I believe in, and for records like this one. Money... I dunno about money. Fuck money. Sometime last year I came to the realisation that money was someone else’s rules applied to me, so I decided to stop living controlled by finances. People think to do what you want you have to have this amount of money and pay these set bills, but living under money’s thumb is a relatively new thing in human existence. I just decided to opt out of it and I’ve been living just fine. Really, you can do anything, whatever you want, with will, resourcefulness and bravery.
How do you envisage people listening to the record? Is it s stoner’s dream record, full of luscious graphical imagery, or does it better suit the loner on the bus, watching the world go by. How/where would you play such a record?
I have no idea. A lot of people have told me it’s a stoner’s dream – as you say – but the new stuff we’ve recorded is so intensely psychedelic and so full of jangly, groaning, chirping, like, clattering mania, that this seems a lot more mannered. I do think it’s a headphones record, and a record you should listen to alone, when you can pay attention to the noise behind what you hear on a casual listen, but beyond that, who knows. I’m too close to the damn thing.
The album contains many a depressing image, if depressing is the appropriate word: I’m thinking about the kids screaming at mum for this toy or that toy, and the very vivid descriptions of suicide. Was it important to you to be lyrically brutal where necessary? Does it serve to make the ending that bit more positive?
None of that was planned out. The album was recorded, then I sat back and listened to it and realised how much brutality it has. It wasn’t intentional; what was intentional was me wanting to be as candid as possible. People are just so guarded – not just with art. Life’s so short, it’s so so so short, and I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t act as honestly as possible or if I edited my true intentions and feelings.
The ending... hmm... good question. I like how the record ends. I think it ties the story up how it should be tied up, though if I were to have continued making songs following what happened – after the characters head home – it would have been right back into the fire, right back to me hanging out with pissed off, coked-up, depressed kids and thinking about cutting my wrists 24/7. In that track I talk about a lack of resolution, but of taking your victories where you can. That particular victory – of going back home with this girl and being okay with your problems – only lasted about a week, and things were just as nasty and chaotic. Though – I guess I should say – a huge part of the record, one of the biggest themes, says that all those things, all the things we think are quote unquote problems are incredibly fucking minor in comparison to what most of the world is going through. So, it’s the guy character – me – talking about all this shit I’m going through, but it’s also saying, “None of that matters. Y’know... try going to Iraq or eastern Europe or Northern Africa or even the projects in Chicago or New York. Then complain.” It was about me taking myself to task.
So, anyway, even though I’m not as bad off as I was back then, I still don’t have any kind of regularity or balance in my life. It’s still just as ragged and scary and rootless and on-the-fly. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that no matter how happy I get, there will always be big, heavy lows, that you can never put a placard on something and say, “This is how this is, and how this will always be from now on.” Everything’s temporary. Everything’s in flux. It’s like the title of that James Bond movie, y’know, just never say never. Expectations just lead to disappointment. It’s better to take it easy and let things hit you as they come.
You’ve said that your live set up can be quite complex – just how many people tour with you, on a regular basis? Do you have a core band? Are you into experimentation and including new sounds in old songs, to keep the live sets fresh? Do you ever play solo?
This tour was six people. Dan O’Hara on guitar. Eli Jemison playing keyboards, tambourine and trumpet. Evelyn Weston on musical saw and keyboards. Craig Martin playing drums, tambourine and vibraphone. Rob Bartleson on saw and bass. And I did guitar, toy piano, toy organ, woodblocks, tambourine and a short-lived instrument I created called the ‘percussion board’, which I threw off stage and smashed into 50,000 pieces at a show in Iowa at the Cattle Club Collective. It was a really rowdy tour – a lot of smashed instruments, falls off stage, broken glass, me falling on my band-mates and dancing into the keyboard stacks. I used to sit down on stage, but now I’m up and I dance around, and that changed everything.
The next tour I’m hoping for more people in our line up, maybe ten. Because I’m insecure in front of a crowd – unless I’m blind drunk – I like being surrounded by friends on stage, and because of that I’ve never played solo. Being with that many people does open the game for reinventing the songs, changing the set list around, doing things different every night. Which I think is the only way to go.
To give readers some frame of reference, what artists have you been compared to, so far? Are you happy with certain comparisons? Has the record been warmly received throughout or have some critics found it hard to stomach for whatever reason?
Comparisons have been all over the map, everything from the Doors, which I don’t really understand, to Nine Inch Nails, which I really don’t understand, to Iggy Pop (live, anyway), to Sufjan Stevens, Akron/Family, Bright Eyes, Her Space Holiday, Joan of Arc, Cap’N Jazz, actual jazz, Castanets, Velvet Underground, Suicidal Tendencies... a bunch of bands I don’ remember. Mostly, though, I’ve been lucky that writers haven’t based their reviews off comparisons.
Also, a few writers have called it ‘poetry’, but the lyrics are actually written as prose. I get called ‘spoken word’ a lot too, which I understand, but hate, because I’m really really anti-spoken word; I’ve always just been a big fan of non-traditional vocals. I consider this stuff an update on the ‘talking blues’ style people like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash did... just deconstructed, or maybe reconstructed.
Conor Oberst also has a talking blues song now, ‘When The President Talks to God’. I call my stuff ‘talking records’ or sometimes ‘talking songs’, because it’s not really blues-based like talking blues, but the vocals are talked. I dunno. People can call it whatever they want. I’ve even gotten ‘emo rap’ a few times.
Finally, what does 2006 hold in store for you, music wise (although feel free to expand upon areas unrelated to your music?)
2006 looks pretty wild and busy so far; I can’t wait. I have a single/EP coming out on DeathBombArc. It’s part of their Tape Club series, which are split tape releases between two bands. This year’s tape club has people like Thurston from Sonic Youth, Hustler White, Nightwounds, Books on Tape, and a bunch of new bands with members of Liars, Young People, and 7 Year Rabbit Cycle. (I’m not sure who I’m splitting my release with yet. It’s up to the label.) Also, when I was in San Diego last week on tour, I recorded tracks for a split EP I’m doing with Drew from The Album Leaf and Via Satellite. There will also be a song of mine – a big, loud, psych freak-out called ‘Silver Sunrise and Twin Tractors in Farm Fields’, on Loud + Clear Records’ new compilation. I’ll probably also start my new LP really soon. I have a bunch of new songs written.
My main project, though, is this novel I’m halfway through. But I’m too superstitious to talk about that one before it’s finished. Living in the South this year, and spending all that time alone in swamps in the summer, and snowed in all winter, I picked up some weird superstitions... maybe from all that solitude. Whatever it was, it coloured how I see the world and gave me a bent outlook on life. It’s probably just me being stupid and crazy, though.
Adam Gnade's website, featuring songs and links to his Myspace profile, can be found here.