Interview: Peter Adams

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Peter Adams is a singer-songwriter from Cincinnati who writes, arranges, and records lush orchestral indie pop songs.  His second album, “I Woke With Planets In My Face,” was released in 2008, and certain bloggers/prep-hop superstars listed it as the second best album of the year.  I recently got a hold of Peter, and asked him a few questions about his recording methods, the pluses and minuses of letting music fans decide what to pay for music, and why he doesn’t care if the Smashing Pumpkins wants to make songs Nickelback fans would like.

Jeff:   Okay, let’s get all the standard bullshit questions out of the way.  What exactly is your musical background—were you classically trained, or did you sort of pick everything up on your own?

Peter Adams:  I started playing violin when I was 4, and music theory soon followed. So yes, I am a product of the classical system. But guitar was something I taught myself, as was singing.

Jeff:   What’s your favorite (and least favorite) of the instruments you play?

Peter Adams: I don’t really think of them as favorites. They have different purposes – I’m most adept at violin, which gives me the best ability to improvise and some up with melodic lines. Guitar is a my main songwriting instrument, but since I can’t do much on it beyond playing chords, it never plays much of a starring role in my songs.

Jeff: Describe what goes into writing and recording a Peter Adams song.

Peter Adams: There’s a period of anywhere from a week to a year where I’ll formulate the basic structure of a song by playing it over and over again on guitar. During this time I’ll sing nonsense lyrics to get an idea of a vocal melody and rhythm. Occasionally some of the nonsense turns into lyrics worth using, but usually the next step is to sit down and really hammer out the lyrics. This is my least favorite part of the process. It’s very time consuming and there’s no way to rush it. Next step is to actually start recording, which again can take a very long time. This is where the song actually begins to exits outside of my head, and all the imperfections become painfully clear. There’s usually a lot of rewriting and reworking of things that sounded good when I imagined them but turned out not to be effective in reality. Sometimes, even after a recording is completely done, I’ll be unhappy with it and start the whole process over.

Jeff: I know that a lot of people toss around certain bands when they describe your sound—Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Beatles.  Not bad company to keep.  But, what bands specifically would you say influence your music most?

Peter Adams: I would keep it to those three you mentioned, with the addition of the entire Elephant 6 troupe (Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, Elf Power, Apples in Stereo, etc), the sloppy beauty of the Flaming Lips (specifically their album The Soft Bulletin), certain aspects of classic rock like Led Zeppelin – specifically the grandiose themes and musical drama, the inspiration of the DIY, seat-of-your-pants style musicianship of early punk rock, along with their anti-authoritarianism (Dead Kennedys, the Clash, X-Ray Spex, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, the Adolescents), the wittiness and childlike quality of geeky bands like Devo and They Might Be Giants, the vaudeville mania of Tom Waits, the rhythms and microtones of classical Indian ragas, the romantic minimalism of John Adams, the folk-inspired energy of Bartok, the synthetic soundscapes of Bjork, DJ Shadow, and Sigur Ros, and dozens of other artists and composers whose impact on me is harder to place.

Jeff: What is more time consuming for you, writing and recording your songs, or arranging all of the separate parts to make a complete song?

Peter Adams: It’s actually all wrapped up in the same process. I wish I could say that I sit down, write a song, get it all planned, spend a day recording the parts, and then spend another day mixing and editing, but it’s not that pretty. The writing and recording of a song is the same thing for me. Some composers write a piece by notating a score – I use physical sound recordings instead of notation, but the end result is the same.

Jeff: If you could sucker punch any historical figure (who history recalls fondly), who would it be and why?

Peter Adams: Ronald Reagan has become increasingly deified since his presidency, and considering the vast array of failed ideologies he represented and his general arrogance and hypocrisy, I can think of no one more deserving of a sucker punch.

Jeff:  When it comes to breakfast, what’s the better way to go- savory, or sweet?

Peter Adams: If it’s a weekday, savory. If it’s a weekend or a holiday, sweet.

Jeff: Two part question—do you work a day job in addition to making your music, and if you do, what limitations, if any, do you feel it places on your ability to make music?
Peter Adams: Yes, I work part-time at a local hospital doing patient transport. It provides a steady income, health care, and a certain structure to my weeks, all of which are definite pluses. My co-workers are also great people. But it’s not terribly interesting work, and I don’t really feel like myself when I’m there. It does keep me grounded though. I also volunteer my moderate skills as a website developer to local nonprofits.
Jeff: Does your hospital job limit your ability to tour, so you’d generally have to play only on weekends, or would you be able to set up a multi-week, everyday nationwide tour if you needed to?  On a totally unrelated note, when are you going to be playing in Chicago again?

Peter Adams: Well, if I was in the position to set up a multi-week nationwide tour, that would presumably mean that I had reached some level of success and didn’t need a job, in which case I would quit. But as it is now, I can shift my work schedule around enough to not really get in the way of anything we’re doing. The rest of my band, who are still in school, have a much tighter schedule than I do. We’re planning on doing weekend tours from Cincinnati this year, and Chicago is definitely on the list of places to play.

Jeff: Ever since Radiohead went through with their “name your own price” method for selling In Rainbows, more and more bands have adopted this method for releases, including you.  What made you decide to offer digital copies of your album like this, and on average, how much do people end up offering?

Peter Adams: It was actually my manager’s idea, and at first I wasn’t sold on it. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I’m not anywhere near the level of a group like Radiohead, but the fans I do have tend to be dedicated, and I was confident they would donate a fair price for all the work I put into my music. I haven’t actually crunched the numbers, but I would guess the average donation to be around $5 or $6, which I am more than happy with. For so many people music has become something to be had for free, so I appreciate the fact that people are willing to pay for my music even when they don’t have to.

Jeff: A lot of current artists, especially those with some commercial success, have been complaining about the digital singles/itunes culture we live in.  For example, Billy Corrigan has stated he doesn’t want to make albums anymore, and just wants to focus on releasing singles that “people who listen to Nickelback” would like.  Do you feel that we are living in a revival of the singles-driven era of the 60s, or do you still believe that most artists and fans prefer a well crafted album?

Peter Adams: To be honest, I don’t really care if the industry is moving towards an era of singles. I am personally enraptured with the idea of a cohesive album of music, which is one of the reasons why I made almost every song on Planets link together. I also think the idea of having to make a song three minutes long in order to get radio play to be silly. If the people making millions of dollars off music think they could make a few million more by focusing on singles instead of albums, more power to them. I’m not really interested in following the money though.
Jeff: I actually noticed that Planets stretched out songs longer than The Spiral Eyes did.  “Antarctica” and “The Seventh Seal” are each over 7 minutes long, for instance.  Did you consciously try to add more lengthy, epic sounding tracks for Planets, or was that just something that happened organically as you were writing the album?

Peter Adams: Those “epic” songs kind of just grew that way naturally. I kept coming up with more ideas of what to do with the music, and so I thought “Why not?” and kept adding sections. I think it’s a direction I’m going to be going more and more toward. Not to give up on 3-minute pop songs, but the longer songs are much more interesting to me.
Jeff: Who would win in a watermelon seed spitting contest.  You, or Jeff Mangum?

Peter Adams: If I had a chance to do some conditioning for it, I think I could give him a run for his money.

Jeff: If were to go to a Halloween party dressed as a literal representation of a band (for example, a bag of spicy Doritos could be “Hot Chip”), what would your costume be?

Peter Adams: I’d go with some friends as the Bad Brains, and dress up like the Bush administration.

Jeff: What bands are you listening to right now, and what was your favorite album last year by an artist whose names doesn’t rhyme with “Shmeter Shmadams”?

Peter Adams: At this very moment I’m listening to the French composer Messiaen, but that’s probably not as cool an answer as you want. In the realm of pop I’ve gotten totally into Fela Kuti, Parliament, and Funkadelic. I really enjoyed the new album by Sigur Ros. I have no idea how to spell it or pronounce it though.

Jeff: Between your first and second albums, you assembled the Nocturnal Collective so you could actually perform your songs live.  Describe the process you went through to find the right people for that band.

Peter Adams: Cincinnati has a world-class music conservatory, and I snapped up students from there who I knew would be talented and knowledgeable about a wide variety of styles.

Jeff: Do you feel that your methods changed between making “The Spiral Eyes” and “Planets,” or did you tend to go about things pretty much the same way the second time “in studio,” as it were?

Peter Adams: Planets felt like a lot more work, and I got more elaborate and creative with it, but the process was largely the same. Since recording Planets I’ve begun working on new tunes, and aside from some random improvements like a new keyboard (which I didn’t have for the first two albums – all the synth work was input manually with the mouse) it’s still the same. I don’t think there will be any change until I come into some big bucks. Maybe I should start working on some singles. . . .

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About Jeff GoodSmith

I write on occasion. Sometimes it ends up here.
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2 Responses to Interview: Peter Adams

  1. Dixaclock says:

    sounds like a intelligent guy, punching mcronald dreagon sounds like fun.

  2. Pingback: Peter Adams Music » Welcome to the new site!

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