Wednesday, December 05, 2012

There and Back Again

While we're not exactly having sleepovers and braiding each other's hair—Though god knows I keep suggesting it!—Adam WarRock and I talk fairly regularly. Our communiqu├ęs generally concern what he's writing and how an individual recording (or broader project) is coming together. Or, y'know, clothes. But the primary topic of discussion often turns to where Adam is and where he's going.

And I mean that literally.

Eugene Ahn is, like Ricky Nelson before him, a travelin' man. Like Lisa Stansfield he has been around the world. (Though I reckon the very important distinction is that finding his baby was not the primary motivation.)

Adam WarRock has spent nearly two years on the road touring, recording, writing, creating, growing. But now he's back home in Memphis, and in true WarRock fashion he has turned that homecoming itself into a creative endeavor!


Alright, Euge, let's go back in time a few of months. We're standing in the parking lot of the Milestone, and you're telling me about a new project you're working on.

Ahhh, the Milestone. I can smell the bathrooms now. That was the NOFRIENDS tour, right?

Exactly. And you were telling me how this new project is your Mid-South EP. It's your tribute to Memphis, not to mention your exploration of the artist it's helped shape. Hip-hop is very geographic. Always has been, and it only got more so during your formative years of the 1990s. Why wait so long to rep your city?

Mostly, because I wasn't THERE. I grew up in Memphis, and moved back around early 2010 and then proceeded to tour fairly consistently for the next two years. I was just never home. My friends basically stopped knowing when I'd be home and when I'd be gone, so I'd just show up at the bar on Friday and it would be a surprise. I was pretty burnt out after a tour I did in May, and I ended up taking three-plus months off, just hanging out around the city, seeing friends, drinking, having fun. I got a chance to really fall back in love with the city, and know how much of its character became a part of the man I grew up to be. I started working on an EP after August or so, and it was pretty obvious I wanted to show this city some love.

City Beautiful was produced by Rob Viktum, and he brought a lot of bright, beautiful funk and soul to the beats. How did you two hook up?

He's friends with some of The Variants web series guys, and ended up DJing a live art event that I performed at. He kept spinning all this amazing old school and early 90s hip hop, all this indie stuff, and other than the live artists I was the only other music person there. I basically stood next to him and asked him to play random hip hop songs, and he obliged. He's had a pretty rich history with some of the bigger indie houses in the 2000s, but had been done with producing beats for a while. I basically egged him on to make me some beats, and he eventually obliged. The rest is history.

"THX" is your kick-off, and it makes for a really strong start. You name check everyone from Zulu Nation and the Cold Crush Brothers to MC Frontalot, and it almost sounds… cathartic in a way. Are you at peace with your position in contemporary hip-hop? Are you happy being a guy that sort of drifts between indie and nerdcore?

I don't know if it's cathartic, I think I tend to write chronologically when I talk about hip hop. So it just made sense to start the first song off this very "HIP HOP" album with a line about Bambaata, Cold Crush, and all those guys from pre-90's. Talk about Big Daddy Kane getting his slang and hooks stolen. And then kinda compare to how small and insular scenes nowadays have the same problems, though now it's not the Black Spades and Juice Crew, it's Internet message boards and social media and dumb things like that.

The Frontalot line was definitely an intentional shout-out to the fact that everyone seems to think I DON'T want to be nerdcore, or nerdy. I don't know why that is, and I have a healthy amount of respect for people who want to intentionally make nerdcore. I honestly just make music about whatever, without thinking about it. And if it's nerdy, so be it; if it's not, then that's fine with me too. But I love nerdcore. I love Frontalot and the nerdcore genre. People get way too bogged down in that distinction. I'm just happy to be making music, period. I just always want people to know that I know that nerdcore definitely gave me a name in the beginning. Hence the Front line, who most definitely still holds the crown in it. I mean, won't he always? He invented it.

"Rodin" almost hits a G-funk note there, musically...

Huh. I guess you're right, if there was a synth in there. I never thought of it like that.

Yeah, but lyrically you're still very much looking inward and trying to speak this universal truth about living your dreams. The lyric "for everyone who ever swallowed a dream" comes through as uniquely confessional; do you ever wonder what would have happened if you hadn't gotten stuck in a job you hated? To what extent does that experience still power your career?

I'm pretty sure if I was at all content with my job, I would've never gotten here, maybe never started making music again. So it's weird to think that the act of stifling the things you love makes you love them more; and then doing what you love for so long makes you love them less. That's probably a good way to put it. I'm probably over-thinking it. Which is a good way to describe "Rodin."

Each Adam WarRock release has a sort of musical mission statement, and the title track "City Beautiful" is definitely it this time around.

Well you know where that title's from? It's from the fact that Memphis's city beautification commission was the first one formed in the country, back in 1930. It was called, obviously, Memphis City Beautiful. It's a municipal history nerd in-joke.

It seems like a proper love letter to the city that made you. Did you find yourself re-exploring Memphis while you were recording this EP?

Maybe not while recording this EP, other than what happened organically just by having enough time home to have a proper social life. When we made the music video, however, we definitely did explore the holy hell out of the city.

You leaked "Get Smart" as an early single, and I can't say enough about how well you, Beefy, Jesse and Rob gel on that cut, but where did that core allusion come from? The extended reference to Maxwell Smart alongside a critique of lazy, dumbed-down culture was surprising effective.

Ha. It all kinda comes from the original idea me and Rob were going to do for an EP. I was going to name it "Noir," as a sort of shout out to Marvel Noir comics, but mostly because everything Rob was making sounded so…noir-y. When I heard the "Get Smart" beat, it reminded me of some kind of spy movie, and I just started goofing on the hook and that "rappers wanna get buck, I wanna get smart" line came out. Jesse was on it from the get-go, way back when we first were doing the Noir EP, and added that verse. We grabbed Beefy (who ironically got bumped from my Vampire Weekend EP, so I promised him a spot on the next EP) and he added that last verse months later. Those guys really murdered it. I pretty much put my verse down, and then got the hell out of the way.

You've got some solid guest spots on this one, but "CAPS LOCK" seems more like a full-on collaboration with YTCracker. Had you ever worked with Bryce before?

Me and Bryce have talked about doing some stuff, we have a song floating around out there that never materialized into something (hopefully will someday). Bryce is one of those core nerdcore guys that was nice to me from the start, and I always appreciated that about YT. I wanted him on the album for sure, and he sent that verse back in record time.

Okay, I'm still kinda scratching my head about "Oppenheimer."

Hahaha. Okay. Me too, to be completely honest.

How does a post-apocalyptic narrative fit in with the concept of Memphis and the evolution of Adam WarRock? Was it just a good excuse to drop in that sweet Ozymandias line? (Because I am totally alright with that.)

It's weird. I mostly knew I was going to do a track with Schaffer, and every time I start pitching ideas to Schaffer, they always seem to be about Armageddon or dying or something dark and ominous. He has that effect on me, I guess. I fell in love with the name "Oppenheimer," I mean it just LOOKS cool. And I pitched Schaffer and Tribe the idea of doing a song about being scientists that invented the atom bomb. Schaffer came back and asked if he could do it as a scientist who had no remorse, and directed Tribe to be the scientist who felt great regret. I view it as Schaffer being the devil on my shoulder and Tribe being the angel on my shoulder. Which in real life, is kind of accurate.

The EP starts to wind down with "Less Than 3."

Oh god. Here we go.

If "City Beautiful" is a love song to a place, this one is a love song in the traditional parlance. But at the same time it's... more self-aware, I think, than your average romantic fare. You acknowledge the transience of verse—strong feelings might change or fade, but the track itself will always stay the same, frozen in time in your catalog. How hard is it to pen a realistic love song? Isn't the very nature of art form sort of intentionally self-deceptive?

Not so much self-deceptive, but there's definitely an awareness of knowing that you're talking a big game for something that, at least by modern definitions, will most likely not last forever. I mean, isn't it over 50% of marriages end in divorce now? The idea of a one true love is something that we like to talk about, culturally, but none of us really believe it's real, even when you feel something that sort of approximates it, right? You could be totally in love with a girl (or guy) and in the moment think "I want to be with this person forever," but still in the back of your mind thinking "But that most likely won't happen." When you pen a love song, you're basically kinda throwing this thing out there that you know in a week, a month, or however long, it might be all completely untrue and kinda… painful to listen to. But you still gotta sell it as much as you can, or else there's no point in doing it.

Okay, what about that Alex Chilton bit? Are you a serious Big Star fan, or was that a meta-reference to The Replacements song of the same name, or was it simply a skillful namedrop of another of Memphis's native sons?

It's funny, I wasn't a huge Big Star fan until I LEFT Memphis sometime late in college or after it. I was willfully ignorant of anything that wasn't punk, hardcore, and hip hop, so Big Star was not really a concern of mine as a young kid full of piss and vinegar. And I think I found my way to Big Star BECAUSE of The Replacements song, "Alex Chilton," which is basically all about being in love with a song, which I guess has a nice cyclicality to the whole thing.

But really what that line is about: it's a reference to some other b-sides songs that I recorded before, lines written about a particular girl who loves Alex Chilton. Those songs never came out. So I scooped some lines out and put together a nice pastiche to end the track. Really only ONE person in the world will know where all of those are from. I told you it was a self-indulgent track.

Seeing as the work is so personal, it seems rather fitting that you close City Beautiful on a throw-back track to your seminal release. Did you give Rob any direction re: that "Silver Age" remix, or was that all him?

Nope. I basically sent him the a cappellas and said "Do whatever." He sent back the remix, and I asked him to scoop out the third verse spots so me and Tribe could try to do a new verse for fun. It was so boom bappy (I think we said it sounded like Jedi Mind Tricks, but in a good way), we wanted to add something really hip hoppy to it.

So where are we going from here, man? We've only got about three more weeks left in 2012. I reckon that gives you time for 8 or 9 more EPs and a full-length.

God, I don't know Z. I have a handful of ideas for mixtapes and EPs, and I've been working on my next album (tentatively titled Middle of Nowhere) for next spring or fall. But really, I wanted to take a long break from live shows, and mainly just kinda focus on making music for myself again. If that means making music about movies or TV shows, so be it, y'know? But whatever comes next, it'll be what I want to do. Hopefully everyone wants it too.