Adam Green’s wading into an ambitious new world: “It was going to be expensive to make a war film out of paper mache”

From the September issue of Dork.

Look, we all know Adam Green is left-field. We do. He’s the self-professed ‘AFNY guy’, defining himself in opposition to trends from day one. But he has also traded cover versions with The Libertines, directed a music video for Father John Misty, and made films with Macaulay Culkin and Natasha Lyonne. He was there when The Strokes recorded ‘Is This It’, and his voice recently cropped up on the new album by one Johnny Borrell and whichever iteration of Razorlight he’s up to now.

Trace back through the last two decades of indie music in New York and London, and at just about every turn you find Adam Green. His new album ‘Engines of Paradise’ (his tenth as a solo artist, for those keeping score at home) features Florence actual Welch. The thing is, Adam Green has been building an alternate indie reality alongside this one for about two decades now.

“My work is trying to make people feel like they’re going into another dimension,” Adam says. “I find myself putting together words until I get some kind of spark, or some reaction that feels like at that moment, I got a glimpse into what it might be like to enter another dimension. And that usually means that I’m trying to fudge things, so they’re sort of unfamiliar, to try to make things half there and half not there.”

On ‘Engine of Paradise’, this blur between reality and unreality comes through in the relationship between humans, culture and technology. Since his earliest work with The Moldy Peaches, Adam has had a tendency to name-drop 1980s and 90s pop culture figures, from his first solo album ‘Garfield’ to the bright yellow splash of Big Bird’s face dotted throughout his second feature film ‘Aladdin’. Lately, though, he’s also brought blockchain, JPEGs, and AI into the mix.

“We all have to express ourselves through forms and language that we learned as a kid,” he says. “In my case, playing Mario Brothers was a big part of that, so the pixelated tapestry that was Mario Brothers becomes symbolic of some singularity tech-future. Probably for somebody growing up now it might be the program that they had on their iPad or something. But for me, it was Mario. So in my hierarchy, I have Mario as the Jesus of Nintendo,” he laughs.

“I created a mythological world where there’s so much information and disinformation and rumour that goes on in the internet, that it’s like 1000 years in the future and people don’t remember, was Mario a real person? You know, was it really a plumber from Brooklyn? It’s almost like a war at this point, historians debating whether or not there was an actual Mario person.”

This other realm, in which Mario is a Christ-like figure and which Adam calls ‘Regular World’, has been expanded through not only music, but visual art, film, and soon a graphic novel. In ‘Regular World’ as in our world, the ongoing creep of technology has played an increasingly large role.

“My artwork has one foot in the flesh world and one in the pixel world, you know? The funny thing is, because I grew up in the age of indie rock, romanticism I’m trying to maintain a romantic current inside of that. An ironic romanticism.”

“My work is trying to make people feel like they’re going into another dimension”
Adam Green

Lead single ‘Freeze My Love’ mines that seam between irony and romance, digging into the ways that the internet has changed our relationships. It’s about love and loss, but not as we once knew it.

“When the ‘Engine of Paradise’ album was conceived, it was gonna be a movie. And [the album] was gonna be all of the songs,” says Adam.

“So ‘Freeze My Love’ is sort of about entering into that world where the afterlife is online. For the afterlife, you’re assimilating into some kind of a hard drive of the universe. In the book, there’s a blockchain tunnel that connects here and there.”

The book in question is ‘Engine of Paradise”s accompanying graphic novel ‘War and Paradise’.

‘War and Paradise’ follows the narrative that was originally going to become the film, and which had to take a new form when Adam ran up against practical concerns. He had begun work on the album after some time off from music, still thinking that the album would take the form of a soundtrack.

“I didn’t know what was going on. I still had in my head that I was making a movie, but I had no funding. I don’t really know anyone in film production, so I didn’t have a budget to make a movie, and it was going to be expensive to make a war film out of paper mache. In my head I was like, okay I’ll get this warehouse, we’re gonna build these giant wooden hills, and we’ll stage the battles on them. It was just gonna bankrupt me,” he explains somewhat sadly.

“So I started working with Toby Goodshank, who was in the Moldy Peaches with me, and Tom Bayne who worked special effects on Aladdin. The three of us sat around the kitchen table together three times a week for six months. The storyline was the script that I had written with my wife, Yasmin.”

Traditionally, Adam’s writing is concentrated in tight two-hour bursts and then gone over with a fine-toothed comb to tease out all the best parts, like panning for gold.

“I really want to make sure I didn’t miss the best part,” he says. “I like to think that people can take almost any line from one of these films on its own, and it will stand up. In my mind I’m like a Swiss watchmaker, you know? I’m working with, like, tiny little tweezers on the script.”

The Swiss watchmaker approach means that ‘Engine of Paradise’ and ‘War & Paradise’ lock together smoothly with the rest of the ‘Regular World’ instalments, and stems from “a German word that means ‘total artwork’.”

“It’s my attempt to make a total artwork, basically. I try to combine the writing, sculpture, painting, acting and music,” says Adam.

The almost obsessive writing method also helps to act as a filter for what is going on in his three-dimensional real life. While ‘Engine of Paradise’ is something of a quest story, it is also noticeably more emotional than Adam’s previous record. ‘Escape From This Brain’, for example, is scored with an underlying fretfulness.

“I was having a lot of anxiety,” Adam says of the track. “It was right before I had another baby, and there was a lot of anxiety leading up to that. I was just imagining that it was going to be really, really difficult. But it ended up being totally cool.”

He considers this for a moment longer. “I guess it’s growing older in the city, and in the world.”

The natural passage of time can feel exacerbated within the music and arts crowd, with those of that have come out of earlier subcultures reckoning with a changed world once those scenes subside. This feeling also came through on ‘Escape From This Brain’, Adam suggests.

“I almost feel like a remnant of some lost subculture,” he says. “It’s almost like I’m looking for some bar that doesn’t exist anymore,” he laughs, not sounding particularly disturbed by the idea. Adam Green is a pretty even-keel kind of guy. In fact, the closer on this record is called ‘Reasonable Man’. It is one of the standout tracks on the album, expansive and cinematic with a particularly excellent guest vocal from Florence Welch to elevate the whole thing. It’s sort of about him, in that ‘Total Artwork’ kind of way, but it is also a little bit about cyborgs. There it is again – the human and not-human, there and not-there.

“That one line about my feeble memories… I think that’s paraphrased from the movie ‘Blade Runner’,” he says drily. “I think someone said it and I might have just nicked it from there. But it makes sense, because I was thinking a lot about cyborgs and AIs.”

More specifically, Adam was thinking about the kinds of thing an AI could achieve. The kind of art it could make.

“I feel like when you make up something, and you want to catch something good, I know that there’s something two or three layers out that’s even better that I just can’t get. I often feel like if there was a slightly better version of me that just had more talent, that person could really do something.”

He wheezes a laugh. “The total artwork concept is really cool, but it’d be even better if all the music was like Mozart, and all the writing was like Shakespeare, and all the painting was like Van Gogh. That would be even cooler. It’s just depending on how smart you are.”

If Adam sounds like something of an obsessive, he doesn’t seem to see it that way. The music, art and films are all constructed on an absolute micro level until they are as perfect as he can get them, but in general, he tends to see himself as a pretty, well, reasonable guy. ‘Reasonable Man’ claims “I’m known to act average as a last resort”, in a call back to Adam’s earlier song ‘Interested in Music’ and the line “I’m known to act average, but on weekends I act out”.

“I could look at it two ways,” he says. “On the one hand, life pushes you towards the centre. The other thing is that I feel like I’m a really great example of a very average person. I’m a really great example of what the average person could do if they found themselves in my situation.”

We could all do a lot worse than find ourselves in the very specific situation of being Adam Green. After all, he’s got a whole strange universe on a string. 

Taken from the September issue of Dork. Adam Green’s new album ‘Engine Of Paradise’ is out 6th September.

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