Of all the artists featured in an exhibition from the early '00s indie rock boom currently on display at New York gallery The Hole (entitled Meet Me in the Bathroom, after author Lizzie Goodman's definitive account of that era), none is more prolific, ambitious, daring and certifiably New York than Adam Green. If the droll singer-songwriter who came up two decades ago as part of anti-folk essentials The Moldy Peaches never broke into the mainstream in the way that his contemporaries The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol did, he's remained a fascinating hero of the subculture, whose many moves in music, visual art, poetry and film have been as bold, funny and trippy as they have been timely and observant.
This past week, Green made a two-pronged return. Engine of Paradise, Green's tenth solo album, marks a return to the artist's musical comfort zone of baroque pop. Produced by Loren Humphrey, there are appearances by James Richardson of MGMT, Foxygen's Jonathan Rado (something of a younger-gen kindred spirit of Green, it turns out) and even Florence Welch, who provides a haunting, subtle background texture on the wistful torcher "Cheating on a Stranger." Strings abound, beautifully arranged by Jesse Kotansky, and while there are spirited moments, including lead single "Freeze My Love," "Let's Get Moving" and the opening title track, the record is at its most moving in the piano heartbreak of Scott Walker descendant "Rather Have No Thing," a song that observes "It's in the space of your eyes/ You really don't need me right now." As lush and open a record as he's made, Green calls Engine "a sort of homecoming." It certainly felt like one last Friday at Brooklyn's Rough Trade, where friends and longtime fans turned out for a release show that included half of the new LP and favorites from classic Green records like Friends of Mine and Gemstones.
While Engine of Paradise can be appreciated on its own as an unassuming, sentimental relationship record, it also serves as a musical companion to something far more audacious. War and Paradise is a 155-page, eye-popping graphic novel just released through Pioneer Works Press that's epic in its scope — so much so that Green's original idea, to make a movie out of the story à la his Aladdin, proved cost-prohibitive. Set in a world that is at once medieval and near-future, humans are bullied and manipulated by corporate overlords called Moneybank are compelled to do battle with the Insex — insect-like AI creatures — of Infotech. With a storyline by Green and his wife Yasmin, the book takes cues from the couple's shared fascination with technology and humanity and the nexus of the two – think Tolstoy's War and Peace with a dash of Dante and the futurist writings of Ray Kurzweil.
On the visual side — the book's illustrations are by Green and longtime friends and collaborators Toby Goodshank and Tom Bayne — there are nods to Willie Wonka, the classic French comic Asterix and the designs of robotics company Boston Dynamics. The book is bloody, sexy, often hilarious and crude, and definitely timely, with ripped-from-the-headlines concerns like the otherizing of immigrants and "fake news" — in fact, it's a deepfake news report that sparks the war that's central to the story. And, it must be noted, there's a dimwitted, insecure, bloting narcissistic leader with orange skin and yellow hair who goes by the name of Blumper. So, a lot to unpack. (It's available for download at adamgreen.info or physical purchase through PioneerWorks.org.)
Even as Adam Green looks to the future, there is that past. A Robin Hood costume from his Moldy Peaches days is at present displayed behind plexiglass at The Hole gallery for aughts retrophiles to behold. There is even talk among Green and his Peaches bandmates, Kimya Dawson and Jack Dishel, of a reunion, which Green is up for… with one reservation. We talked about it all last week over coffee in his home base of Williamsburg.
Congrats on both of these projects. I had spent time with the record, and then I read the book and now I hear songs like "Freeze My Love" in a totally different light.
Yeah, it's kind of like the record is a soundtrack to a comic book? And that's sort of a funny idea, but in this case the comic book was supposed to be a movie. Like I wanted it to be a movie! Originally, I wanted to make a papier-maché war movie, with giant wooden hills and staged battles on these huge sets, and blow up props and, I thought it was gonna be really funny. But it turned out to be too expensive an idea, and so I translated the script that I had — I had written the storyline with my wife Yasmin, and I translated the script to the comic — and it's exactly the movie I was going to make. And so this was gonna be the soundtrack to the movie, the record.
Which came first – the record or the book?
I think I just wrote them all at the same time. It's like I have this never-ending group of notes like, I don't even know what they are but shows notes on his phone] like you know, here's July, I have seven different note scrolls from July. It's just like things that are coming into my head. It's me thinking about things. But I think that can use them for lyrics or in a script or anything. Usually when it comes time for me to write a project I'll have like hundreds and hundreds of pages of text.
Was a graphic novel something you had been interested in doing?
Well, yeah – I'm a big fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky. He made, you know, The Holy Mountain and stuff, but a lot of people don't realize that he has a huge catalog of comic books that he's made over the years. There was The Incal and Metabarons, Technopriests, Son of the Gun – these were all comics that I'd been reading on tour. And my suspicion was that they were movies that he wanted to make, but he probably couldn't get the funding. So I just called on two of my good friends, Toby Goodshank, who I was in The Moldy Peaches with, and Tom Bayne, who is a friend of mine who actually did the special effects on Aladdin. And we all just basically went to Carroll Gardens, where Tom lived, and we all sat around the kitchen table, and three days a week, for six months, we drew at the kitchen table. And we drew the whole comic, like 150 pages.
You and Yasmin came up with the storyline together – how did that come about?
We're married, and live together, and we love talking with each other. And a lot of our conversations kind of connect art and music with technology – cause she's a technologist and a part of Google called Jigsaw now owned by Alphabet]. Which is sort of a geo-political company, part think tank, and they make technologies to help people. And you know, in the last few years we saw the emergence of deepfakes and election meddling, and that whole thing, and so I guess that was a conversation point, you know, how they connected to artwork. And I kind of approach all of my writing as a lyricist. It's just kind of, I get these feelings and I just have lots of lines, almost like a poem? And then with Yas, she'll actually sit down with me and make up a story or something, and we'll figure out how we're gonna express the feelings that I have in the lyrics and lines, through some kind of skeleton of a story that we'll create together. So it's a very good complement to me, because I'm just lacking in that area of discipline. And also, she just has the patience to really just go through all this sort of tangled web body of work, and sort of take out the stuff that's actually good, and say maybe, "we don't need to use that part." So it's helpful. She acted as the editor on this as well.
And on the record, you primarily worked with Loren Humphrey?
Yeah, Loren Humphrey. Loren plays in like, Florence + the Machine, plays in Last Shadow Puppets, The Willowz, Guards. I've known him for a while. Maybe like over a decade. But I really didn't know him as a producer until he invited me over to his studio in Bushwick. And I did a session with him and James Richardson of MGMT. And it was a complete mind-blowing session for me. 'Cause they're just so nuanced, their playing, and it's almost like you feel like if you were in a supermarket, and like people could only see the second shelf, but these guys are like on the fifth shelf or something. It's almost as if they were seeing nuances and subtleness inside of the music that just – I had never experienced tracking with people that were operating on that level. And it's interesting, he particularly fetishizes that record Melody Nelson Serge Gainsbourg's 1971 chef d'oeuvre], because he loves the production of it. And he like examines photographs from that session, and he finds out what kind of microphone they used, what kind of drum head, what kind of headphones they listen with on playback, and he sort of collected all this stuff. And so when you're tracking with Loren you're basically getting like the Melody Nelson session!
And was it through Loren that Florence Welch] ended up on "Cheating on a Stranger"?
Yeah, absolutely. I knew Florence a bit from like, going out in New York or something. But I came to the studio one day after Loren was on tour with her, and she was like on the couch in the studio. And she was just like, "Hey! I want to sing on this!" And it was pretty awesome. So I just like, "Great! Okay!" So we were going through some songs, and "Cheating On a Stranger" — I think at the time everyone was sort of inspired by sort of Morricone, Italian soundtracks, where there's kind of a female accompaniment and it's very high-pitched, and kind of heavily ethereal, but like, echo-y? So she ended up sort of doing that, but on this particular song, she gave sort of a haunted highlands vibe.
And I know you worked one some stuff with Jonathan Rado from Foxygen too, which seemed like a perfect match to me.
Oh yeah! I went to a Foxygen concert and he invited me to L.A. to record with him. And he has a little garage set-up where he recorded the Lemon Twigs record. It's a great studio. And I was only out there a couple days, and we tracked three songs. Also Rado, I guess he's like is he a slightly younger generation of me?
It's so funny you should say that because to me you're not only both kind of savants, you're also both perceived as perpetually involved with ironic music, which I know isn't always true, but it's a tag you've both gotten.
Yeah, in years before I would just listen to Foxygen when I was on tour, and I thought they were a cool band. I didn't realize that I was in any way involved in inspiring them in some way. But then when I visited them in New York, Rado and Sam France] were basically like saying that they had this high school band and they used to cover "Friends of Mine" and so it made me feel like these are – and that's why I always say doing art is kind of like a calling, you know? It's like, these are my people. I make records to meet people like this that I relate too. And so in a way it was just cool.
Technology figures into both the record and the comic. In "Freeze My Love" you say, "I'll just freeze my love because technology has changed me." And in the book there is all kind of negotiating with tech, mainly in the form of the robot Insex. I know tech has long interested you. You had an early art show called Teen Tech 2010].
Yeah with that, back then I was thinking about Twitter! I remember thinking that Twitter was absolutely so fun. Like I couldn't wait to – like, "what am I gonna tweet next?" It just seemed so fun. And now when I go on Twitter and I look at what everyone is posting, I actually feel like I'm seeing like a 360-degree panorama of people roasting in hell. And their comments about what particular torture they've been assigned! laughs]
But are you a tech-friendly person? An early adapter?
I think to some extent – it's hard to be totally binary about it. But like with his 2011 film] The Wrong Ferrari I made it like, the second I got an iPhone that shot video, I made a full feature film on it. And I thought, "Oh this is great! I have a camera that's in my pocket on my phone and this is great, I can film a movie on tour, or wherever I want, and I know how to use it." And I felt really excited about that. So in that way I felt like I was kind of quick to adapt to that technology. And the fact that I sort of try to have some kind of trepanning – you know the medieval thing where you cut a hole in the skull? – I feel like I try to get a trepan drip out of my mind into my phone, as far as having this endless note pad of my own lyrics and stuff. And in that sense, I think I'm pretty into having a device. What I'm saying is, to me, like a phone is a form of a tablet. To me it could be like descended from the original one that Moses brought down.
So you must not be wholly anti the idea of AI?
No, I think, maybe because I live with somebody who's so into technology that I just feel like, there's some kind of inevitability about, to some degree, machines will be sort of ushered in, and in a way, turn us out, you know? And who am I to say if that's right or wrong, but I mean, you can't just press a button and stop technology from developing. So maybe my assumption is that – you know, once they freaking cloned a goat, they were obviously gonna clone a person next. It's not like, "Oh, we love that we cloned a goat, and that's good! We're good!" You know, "Did somebody push the button? We'll go back now."
Your AI creatures in the book are insect-like, though with certain humanoid attachments. We'll leave it at that.
I think it's because I was watching all these robotics design company] Boston Dynamics test videos. If you ever check those out, Boston Dynamics make the best, most fluid robots. And they usually, typically model the robots on insect parts. And you notice a lot of times when you see a robot it seems like it's influenced by the architecture of the exoskeleton, the insect design? Maybe that's because it's particularly aerodynamic or something? So it just seemed to me – and also there's always been this otherness with insects. People don't care about them. In this particular book they symbolize the other, and they could represent the xenophobia that people feel from people who are from other countries.
There's always been a fair amount of sex in your work, and it's in this book too, pretty unabashedly. Do you ever wonder what the reaction will be to more explicit sexual content?
I have no idea. I guess the way I think of it is, I'm think I'm sort of a subcultural artist. I feel like I'm working in a subcultural context, for my whole career. I feel like I really wasn't ever a part of the thing that was going on exactly, and I'm not really part of it of it now. I think I'm just sort of on my own Adam trip, and there's good and bad things about it. I don't really know. I mean, it doesn't even occur to me to like, now that I have kids, to write songs that are kind nihilistically punk, to a degree. Just cause, you're in a different period in your life? But I'd like to think that my art is a kind of garden where I can work, uncensored. One of my major inspirations is Burroughs. And I feel like he provided that service to people, whether they liked it or not – kind of provided a glimpse into what consciousness looks like for somebody that doesn't want to hide it from everyone. The ditch that he dug inside New York culture became like a world – it became the subculture. And for everyone, from the punks to the Beats to heavy metal, whatever – like tons of people sort of lived inside the subculture that Burroughs dug. And it was like an underground-ness that just meant that they weren't really trying to please the masses, and that's just the way I feel about it too.
And you have some pieces in this Meet Me in the Bathroom exhibit that's going on?
Well they do have some drawings of mine, but a lot of it was they were just asking me for memorabilia. So they put my Moldy Peaches Robin Hood suit, like behind this little plexiglass case. And we've got the drawing from the cover of the Moldy Peaches record 2001] and I found an old flyer from the Mercury Lounge that's like, Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, Moldy Peaches, Animal Collective — it's a really funny flyer. And they put all this memorabilia behind plexi, so in a way, it's like stuff that had just been lying around in my closet but now is placed in like a museum context, for people to like. I was actually surprised at some of these flyers that have been sitting in a box for 20 years still look kinda crisp and not yellowed. They actually look kinda new. So maybe like 20 years wasn't that long ago.
What do you make of all this nostalgia for that time?
Well you know, my first experience with that was 2009 when The Moldy Peaches had that comeback with Juno and it was like, "Oh God…" We had even talked about doing a Moldy Peaches reunion. But to me the only point to do it is if we wrote a bunch of new songs. So I'm basically just rallying to be like, "Let's take a trip and write some new stuff." Like I don't want to just play the old songs for people. I mean I don't mind doing that but I don't want it to be all nostalgia at all. I'd rather make a new record or something. But I spoke to Rough Trade about it and they said that they were interested in putting it out. So there's a reason to do it. And I am actually excited to think about what we would sing about now. Like, I don't know what The Moldy Peaches' take on the present reality would be.
Finally, with what the new record and book have to say about humanity and compassion and war and tech and disinformation, how much of an optimist – or not – are you about the world your young kids will be growing up in?
I think I'm a little bit in the middle. Because I try to have hope that everything will be fine, or that there is some enduring spirit of humanity for them to even hold on to, within their lifetime, that is relatable to them? You know there is a part of the book Sapiens where Yuval Harari describes mankind reaching a point where they feel like they're dogs attending an opera, and that it all seems very confusing? So I don't want to basically give birth to a bunch of people that feel like they are at some huge cosmic event that they can't understand at all. That's a possibility, and that frightens me. But I don't know, the whole Engine of Paradise concept has been about having a family being almost like genetic time travel. Raising kids has been for me such a rewarding thing that's happened in my life. And I think that's going back to what I said about a lot of the manic themes in my work lately has sort of been about trying to find some community, or some human connections to hold onto, in the face of what's basically been a technological maelstrom that's surrounding us. We're in a way in the middle of a hurricane, trying to hold on to each other, because it feels like we're all gonna blow away. But I don't think I'm that depressing of a person. I guess I'm kind of an optimist! I think if I was in jail, I'd still be able to make up songs.