Posted: by The Editor
Essentiality should be the goal of most art. When an artist’s heart isn’t in it, it’s easy to tell. This doesn’t mean an artist has to wear their heart on their sleeve at all times mind you, but having those stark reminders of vulnerability and humanity in your work go a long way. On his latest album as PENDANT, Christopher Adams is clearly going through it. What’s it you might ask? Well when you’re going through some shit, you know what it is. Coming almost three years after his debut album under the name (which was released by Tiny Engines right as the label was dissolving over royalty disputes), Harp is Adams’ first album for the legendary Saddle Creek, though the album was largely finished prior to his signing and was born out of the frustrations and limitations of rock music and the pandemic, shying away from his trusted guitar and into the world of electronic DAWs.
But never on Harp does it sound like he isn’t putting it all out there despite the limitations. Whether it’s the bone-chilling indie rock techno of “Static Dream”, the Delia Derbyshire sampling crazy ass white boy raps on “Thorn” or the club propulsiveness of “Rights for an Angel”, Adams is really out here, creating one manic, hot mess of an album in the process. In-between practicing for his upcoming tour, we caught up with the Los Angeles-via-Oakland musician to talk about his new record, his one man live set up, where he falls in the legacy of white rappers, grief, nostalgia, handsome doppelgangers and more.
The Alternative: So first off, how are you doing today?
Christopher: I’m good, yeah. I just got back from my practice space as I’ve been rehearsing my set kind of relentlessly. It’s been a huge undertaking for me, since I’m severely unfamiliar with music tech/hardware. And I’m a bit of a luddite, you know as my tech literacy is not where it should be for my line of work. I feel like I’m kind of at a disadvantage there, but I’m just trying to clock the hours so it feels a lot more comfortable when it comes time to play. So, yeah, I don’t know but it’s coming together. But I just did that. And so I feel like I’ve got a nice little momentum going to my day. How’s your day?
I was actually going to ask you what your live setup is gonna be like, as I assume you’re doing it all solo with backing tracks and random instruments here and there?
Kind of. Yeah. So I’m running everything through Ableton, which I had never used prior to two or three months ago, as I opened it for the first time when I turned 30, and have been just slowly, slowly decoding it. As just every time I open it, I’m like, “fuck, I don’t know how to use any of this, this is going to fall apart from the start.” So I have everything stemmed out in Ableton and then that’s running through an MPD 32. Are you familiar with Baths?
I was a really big fan in the early 2010s and I still am a big fan, but I would go to [his] shows a lot. Cause I grew up in LA and and I’m essentially expanding on his setup where he has this MPD with pads that trigger different effects, like beat repeat effects, that you can manipulate the different stems running through Ableton. So it’s half DJ set, half vocal performance and some extra samples that I have in transition. It’s kind of this weird hybrid DJ/Karaoke thing.
Another band I was thinking of when listening to Harp is the similarities between you and another former Tiny Engines band who is also signed to Saddle Creek, SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. It seems like the both of you made records during the pandemic when it was unclear when/if live music was going to come back, so that freed them and possibly you too from worrying about how your music was going to translate live. So that made me wonder, how important do you think it is to set limitations for yourself when making music, or do you think everything should be free game or some sort of hybrid of these two ideas?
I think it’s always gotta be a balance of the two. I think when I set out to make this record, before I even knew I was making a record, I was just dropping in random drum breaks from old R&B songs, soul records, or James Brown records and chopping them up and putting them together, trying to synthesize [these] ideas I had that stem from dance music and shoegaze and punk and hardcore. So in that sense, nothing was off limits and the gates were totally open. I was kind of trying to channel inspiration from anywhere it would come.
But on the other end I had very limited technical abilities, as I had little to no experience working in Logic. I was learning how to use Logic as I was making these songs, so yeah I had extremely limited resources in a technical sense. I only had a handful of tools that I was familiar with, and as I kept going, I started learning more and finding more patches, software, instruments, plug-ins, VSTS, whatever. More of those things we’re at my disposal over time. So yeah, I was trying to funnel inspiration from any possible direction. Nothing was too sacred. I just wanted to make something that I feel like I hadn’t heard before, or that feels real or resonates with me.
So, yeah, I don’t know. It’s always a balance, cause it’s really easy to get overwhelmed, just staring at a blank Logic file. And luckily now I have a set of tools that I rely on that are fundamental to any project that I start, but that took time to accumulate and assemble for myself. So yeah, it feels like both, it’s like not, not a real answer necessarily, but I, I hope that makes some sort of sense.
Totally, as one of my favorite albums last year was Strange Ranger’s No Light in Heaven, as I feel like both of you and them had a similar approach of not exactly abandoning what you had done before, but fully diving into the unknown and learning everything you can as you’re making your respective records, as Harp feels like a massive jump from your last record [Through A Coil], as you telling me you didn’t know any of this stuff two years ago is almost unbelievable, as it sounds like you’ve always had an instinctive knowledge of the genres you explore.
Cool. Thank you. I love that Strange Record record too. Yeah, I dunno, my interest has always lied in songwriting and assembling songs and I think that’s where my strongest musical sensibilities reside. So the song, like the greater/broader idea of the song, is always directly in front of me and the technical or textural or stylistic decisions are always down the line, like never in the periphery. My first service is to the song itself, the shape of whatever song it is I’m trying to make.
So in that sense, it’s always a really similar process when I’m writing. So that’s kind of the through line. It always feels familiar and it’s gotten easier as I’ve done it, but yeah, through each record I’ve done, the cornerstone that I rely on is the initial concept of the song, what I’m setting out to do. And then the details from there are things that I can plug away at over months or years even. And that is what it is. And it depends on my ability to learn new shit and really keep my head down and focus, or not open Logic at all for two weeks or three weeks and just feel intimidated.
That’s a huge part of my process too, as it’s just “How in God’s name am I supposed to do this again?” I look at something that I really liked before and I’m like, “Holy shit. What an insane accident to just fall into? I can’t believe I have to try to do this again.” It feels like each song is just a million tiny decisions that you make over months, you know? And suddenly you’re looking at something that feels real and comprehensive. It’s like stacking, grains of sand over days and weeks and months. And while you’re doing it you’re like, “How has this ever going to be anything?” But once you take a step back, you see a bit of a broader picture. So yeah, music’s a trip. Always will be. And I’m excited to keep going.
When I listen to this record, I feel like I’m being transported into a very particular time. Specifically, deep into the hours of dusk but nowhere close to dawn. If you’re awake during this time, you’re either deep into thought about everything that has and will happen to you, partying, or some combination of the two.So when you were making this record, did you have a place and time in mind when crafting this record, or was it just sort of all over the place?
Yeah, that’s interesting. Well, in a literal sense, it was made in an extremely solitary environment. I started the record in March 2020 when quarantines were beginning to happen around the country and lockdowns were starting, so I knew it was a project that I was going to embark on entirely on my own. And in that sense, it was very comforting. I think I kind of thrive in the context of isolation, I guess, as I can be a very solitary person. And I think a lot of my best ideas come out of situations like that. So yeah, it was a really private, private matter for the first six months or so. I didn’t really show anyone anything I was working on, because nothing was really presentable and I didn’t understand what exactly I was doing or totally have a vision for what was happening.
And yeah, after a while the music started to resemble something that I wanted to hear on a huge sound system in a warehouse, somewhere between a social party and an introverted context like you said. I feel like that kind of sums up my experience in life in general. It’s just voyaging out into the world. But just still, as a musician, trying to expose myself to as many people as possible while still feeling really centered in myself for better and for worse. So yeah, in each record I’m doing, there’s this dichotomy. I’m relying on this to present the best possible picture of myself and my life to the world that I can’t do in any other way, because I’m a deeply introverted person. So there’s a level of dissonance there where I’m opening myself up to exposure.
If it comes, and I don’t know if it will, but so much of my problems rely on being alone and feeling really comfortable doing that. So trying to think of that, if that answers your question, or if there’s something else I’m thinking of. I don’t know. Does that make sense?
Yeah, no, totally makes sense. Pivoting away from the music for a second, it feels like the rollout of Harp has been a very visual one. So I’m curious what inspired the music videos and art direction of the album? In just the “Static Dream” video alone, it feels like something plucked straight out of the world of Lynch with mixtures of occasionally fast-paced movement, dreamlike visuals spersed in with very mundane-seeming events. And not just that as there’s one part of the video where you look outside of a restaurant and see a man who looks similar to you on a motorbike himself, like he’s your double in some ways. So I’m curious what’s inspired the visual language of this album?
I’m going to take that as a [compliment]. I’m deeply flattered that you said that because the guy that we got to appear in that one scene is, I think, an absolutely stunning man, and I don’t think I’m anywhere quite as good-looking as he is, but I am going to accept that with open arms. But yeah, I entrusted Ramez [Silyan], one of my closest friends and the director of the “Static Dream” video to take on a lot of creative liberties and basically drive the direction and the aesthetic of the video. He’s always full of good ideas, so I didn’t really have to worry about that.
I feel like the centerpiece of a lot of the visual identity of the record, with videos and photos and everything, was this dirt bike that I bought around a year ago. It was the first thing that I bought after I signed with Saddle Creek because the record was already done. I had a very low overhead for making the record because it was done entirely on my laptop in my house. So I bought this dirt bike kind of on a whim and it immediately felt like it was such a bad decision. I had never written a motorcycle before, and I was just having crazy imposter syndrome, like who do I think I am? Like, in what world does this make sense for me to do?
But it was this really nostalgic desire, that I think it ends up intertwining with the video, because I was looking for the bike online and I found it on Craigslist and it immediately reminded me of Terminator 2, one of my favorite movies and what has always been one of my favorite movies since I was a kid. One of my oldest childhood dreams was to ride a dirt bike in the LA River, like John Connor did in that chase scene.
So I feel like I was just relying on these really resonant, formative images and visuals from my childhood and from 10, 15 years ago to inform what I think would make a compelling accompaniment to the songs. So yeah, whenever we started talking about music videos, it was just like, I have this insane dirt bike and I think it would be really cool and maybe funny if I was wearing a trench coat in a suit riding around downtown LA on this fucked up dirt bike. The bike’s from 1983 and it’s old as shit and sometimes really unreliable while we were filming the “Thorn” video. I stalled out in the middle of Skid Row and was on the side of the road, trying to kickstart the bike again. And this guy comes up to me and he’s blown away. He’s like “Oh shit. Like what the fuck you wearing a suit on a dirt bike?” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, man. I stalled and I’m trying to get it going again. He’s like, “Fuck man. You’re one of them real white boys, huh?”
It’s funny you mention that because I was originally planning on asking you first if you identify as a part of the Crazy Ass White Boy community, because when I first heard and saw the “Thorn” video I was just like, “This is one crazy ass white boy.”
[laughing] Yeah, I was really hesitant to insert myself in the history of white rappers. I really struggled with that for a while. And I was like, “Do we need another white rapper making noise in the world?” And I thought, well, I’m doing it my way. It’s not some Jack Harlow or fucking Logic twisted white boy shit. Like, oh, I’m trapped with my thoughts, you know? I’m a twisted motherfucker kind of thing. So in some sense, yes, I will always be a bit of a deranged white boy but I try to police myself a little bit and save the most necessary parts of my deranged white boy persona for public consumption.
With that said, I think the first thing that popped out with “Thorn” was the Delia Derbyshire sample that’s also used by Danny Brown in “When It Rain”, as I was like, this is a bold choice. Like, that’s a pretty well-known sample and to be able use it for this song that sounds somewhere between Danny Brown and the Beastie Boys is just bold. But at first I had to ask myself while listening: what the fuck is this? But as I kept listening to the song I just had an immense amount of respect for how heavy the song felt, and disregarding so many elements that other artists would feign concern about. “Thorn” overall reminded me a lot of Yeezus too, like this is a song I could have seen Kanye rapping over in that era. Hopefully that’s a high compliment.
Absolutely. Yeezus was a very close reference while I was making the record. And yeah, I think when I decided okay, I’m going to start rapping, you know, that’s something I’ve loved since I was a child and something that I’ve been passionate about my whole life. So if I’m going to do this, I need to try to make this as true to myself as possible. I’m not going to follow some formulaic thing, because that would be faking it for me, you know. That would be really disingenuous. There’s a lot of great rap music that I just cannot do because it doesn’t speak to my life and who I am, so I had to adapt to that sound in a way that was like that. I want it to be authentic. And hopefully that’s how it comes across.
And going back to the the Danny Brown song, man, you can’t imagine the terror I felt after I finished the song and discovered the Danny Brown song. I never even heard it. Not only that, but I found out that the same sample was used by Madlib on a song that Freddie Gibbs raps on. So immediately I was just like, well, this song is going in the trash. I cannot insert myself into the same universe as these people. It would be humiliating for me. And it’s terrifying.
At the time, I didn’t think I deserved to be in the same conversation. Maybe I’m not in the same conversation and that’s perfectly fine. I have a deep, deep appreciation for those artists and they can do things that I could never do, which makes me really hesitant to be like, well, I guess I’m gonna have to take a swing at doing the same shit that they did or a similar version, or an offshoot of it. But I was so happy with how the song came out and it felt unique to me, it felt like something I hadn’t heard before. And yeah, I had a similar experience where I was listening and I was like, what is this? How would people interpret this? Or what will it make people feel or remind them of?
I guess [it’s] elusive that way. So yeah, still to this day, I feel extremely humbled by the fact that I’m somehow grouped in with some of the most renowned and talented people in hip hop and music in general. I don’t know if anyone else sees it that way, but now I feel like I’m part of this lineage somehow. So I guess I’m just trying to own it as much as I can, because I don’t know. I think “Thorn” is good. I liked the way that I flipped that sample, you know, having never heard those other two songs that were like, oh, interesting. It’s kind of fascinating the way people approach those things and start with the same material and end up with entirely different products. The way that people filter their own vision and influences into one solitary sound [that’s] just unnoticeable compared to something like the Danny Brown song or the Freddie Gibbs song. Dude, it’s terrifying every time I say their names next to my silly little track. But here we are.
The last thing I wanted to ask about in regards to this record is a more serious question. Nostalgia and grief for your late father are painted all across Harp, so do you feel like making this record helped you work through those emotions? Like, you just had no idea some of these things were itching at you so much?
Yeah, I feel like I’ve approached most of the music I’ve made over the last 10 years in the fallout of that situation, in those extreme emotions that come with losing someone that you’re very close to. He died when I was 18 and we had a complicated relationship. I had a complicated upbringing with him that was far from sweet. And so when he died, it was extremely unstabilizing for me obviously, But I also had a very limited idea of what grieving looked like and how that was supposed to exist in my life. I wanted to take on a sort of classic understanding of grief which included crying and distress and nostalgia and sentimentality that just didn’t really exist for me because our our relationship was kind of fucked. And so I immediately sort of internalized that as being a marker of me being some sort of broken person and not being able to understand a really fundamental human experience the way I’ve seen in other people and in pop culture, the way you think you’re supposed to grieve when something like grief happens to you.
So I had a lot of anger towards myself over the years. And a lot of resentment towards myself and my family and the way everything transpired. And that really sort of stunted my ability to understand my relationship with my dad or the life that he had before I was alive and the life that was taken from him, it sort of pulls out all the color of your understanding of this person that you’ve lost. So that was a big struggle for me. And it took a lot of therapy over the years.
I feel like I’m in a much more stable, emotionally resonant place. I feel like I’ve been able to open myself up to a lot of the really traumatic and awful memories I have of my dad and my family, as well as all of the really beautiful ones that I hold very close to me. I think I was really selective before about how I wanted grieving to happen, which, you know, you have no control over. Over the years, it took me a long time to understand that in my music, at first, I was sort of reducing it to this very cut and dry experience of what I thought grief was supposed to look like, and not really honoring what was really inside of me. And so with this record, I had a lot more insight to myself and to my relationship with my dad. And I felt I was able to open up about things that I felt were really damaging to me and use them for this music, which is what I think I should have been doing all along, but just wasn’t ready to do.
So yeah, it was very fulfilling writing the way that I did and songs like “Thorn” and “Contract” really indulge in sort of a misanthropic place and experience. And before, I don’t think I would’ve allowed myself to bring those feelings forward. You know, a lot of it has to do with feeling hopeless or feeling so lost that you don’t see a path forward for yourself. So I’m glad that I brought those things forward and I think that they resulted in interesting music. And on the flip side, I’ve made a lot of peace with losing my dad and understanding that there are things that I’ll never know about him that I just have to let go. And there was a kind of beauty in that, because even in the relationships that we have in our daily lives, there are things that we’ll never know about each other.
And all we can do is sort of take away as much as we can with the time. It’s always really challenging to try to process everything at once. I feel like I could talk about that for an hour straight, but yeah, I think that kind of sums up my experience with that over the course of this record.
I feel like one of the most ultimate goals of music, and art in general, is being able to create it and use it to discover things about yourself.
Yeah, with this record, especially, I think I wanted to distill the most comprehensive snapshot of my life and who I am to give to the world, because I feel like I’m not equipped to do that in any other way. This is the only way I know how to, or one of the only ways I know how to really represent myself.
Harp is out 4/8 via Saddle Creek
Matty Monroe | @MonrovianPrince
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