It’s a curious paradox, that we bestow the title of “Renaissance Man” (or Woman) on those we most admire for their multifarious creative abilities and achievements – yet we’re quick to groan every time an actor, musician, writer, et al, attempts to cross from one discipline into another.
Adam Goldberg, who in his 28 years of acting counts Dazed and Confused, Saving Private Ryan, 2 Days in Paris, and on television Entourage and Fargo, amongst his impressive and far-ranging list of credits. Most recently, he stars as the brilliantly named hacker Harden Kilroy, in the NBC drama Taken – and just completed the filming of Running With the Devil with Nicholas Cage.
But since 2003, he has also been a musician of rather indefinable bounds, collaborating with members of Flaming Lips, diving down into the arcane dimensions of ambient music, and, for his latest trick, going totally psychedelic with the new album Home: A Nice Place to Visit – under the nom de plume The Goldberg Sisters.
Indeed, tracks like “The Kids Are Alwrong” and “Dear Mr. Nilsson” – with their layered production, affected vocals, and curious instrumentation – seem to draw heavily on late period Beatles; while the spacey “Sliver of Light (For Bix)” and “Meet the Depressed” sound plucked from an early Pink Floyd record. What most impresses is the complexity and attention to sonic detail in each track – though the songs are also packed with memorable, absorbing hooks.
We caught up with the – let’s just say it – modern day Renaissance Man, to talk Bowie, blogging, and why its okay to be a bit pretentious, especially if you’re good at it.
There is generally skepticism surrounding actors doing music.
Well, I can’t say I’m any less skeptical. Although I like to try and remind myself that in the old days performers were often generally multi-talented, creative people, like Gene Kelly, etc. Yes I’m comparing myself to Gene Kelly – why not, I have nothing to lose at this point.
How did your musical career come about?
I had been recording for many years and in 2003 sort of released stuff for the first time by way of my film I Love Your Work, much of which I recorded with Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips. After a few more years of recording I began to feel like I was sort of hoarding, it began to take on a kind of masturbatory quality; and so I recorded some more songs with Steven at Trent Bell’s studio in Oklahoma, yet more with long time collaborators, such as old bandmate Eric Siegel, and members of LA band The Black Pine, and finally dumped them all in the lap of Aaron Espinoza of Earlimart. He mixed the stuff and we re-recorded some and did some new stuff – and he basically traded me studio time for a Mac and we made the eponymous Goldberg Sisters record – a more conventional, sort of band-like record.
Why the name The Goldberg Sisters?
I may or may not have an identical twin sister called Celeste who writes the music in the shadows while deriding my dilettantism.
You play almost all the instruments on the new album – but you have no real formal training, do you?
No, wish I did. A lot of osmosis. I have always had a difficult time learning – anything really. I was not a good student. I picked up editing, and eventually edited or co-edited my features, because my editor got sick one week during the editing of my first film, Scotch and Milk. But prior to that, every time she tried to show me how to cut on the Avid I was at a loss. I really think it’s some form of attention deficit. But left to my own devices I can bluff my way through getting a sound or concept across. I wish I was more studied. I quit saxophone – I wanted to be Coltrane – after three weeks when I was 17. Autodidact or just didactic, you make the call.
But you seem to have overcome that.
The last two albums I recorded in my garage, playing everything save for strings – courtesy my wife Roxanne Daner and musician Merritt Lear, and horns, performed by my engineer Andrew Lynch.
Some of the new album seems to have an almost reverent tone, songs like “Dear Mr Nilsson” and “The Kids Are Alwrong” appear to pay enthusiastic homage to psychedelic era Beatles and The Who?
Well, “Dear Mr. Nilsson” is a blatant sort of epistolary song for Harry Nilsson, whom I consider to be sort of a quintessential tunesmith. “The Kids Are Alwrong” was an insomniac response to some internet trolling – of my music actually…but yes, a reference to The Who. People often cite the Beatles as an influence and there is no question; I’m not sure anyone who plays this “kind” of music isn’t indebted to them. But Bowie has sort of been my lifelong influence. I learned the drums when I was a kid, essentially drumming along to Bowie records. Long before I was into singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello, symphonic musicians like Brian Wilson, noisesmiths like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, etc, I was and remain Bowie obsessed.
You can definitely hear that influence.
There are blatant musical references, as in the bridge for “Words That Rhyme,” a eulogy for my dear friend John Glick. When we were making my last record, Stranger’s Morning, Bowie released The Last Day, and during the making of this album he released Blackstar….then died. I think George Martin died during the making of this record too. For that matter my first son was stillborn at term as soon as I finished recording Stranger’s Morning; there’s a eulogy for him on this – “Sliver of Light” – and a celebration of our son Bud, which closes the record. If there’s a concept to the record, he sort of ties it together, he’s the last thing you hear on it. Jesus, this took a turn. So yeah, psych-rock, fuck yeah!
What were some of your other influences during the recording of the album?
Brian Eno, I’m a huuuuuge Eno fan. So we listened to Low a lot. Honestly, I’ve been fully immersed in ambient/instrumental music for the last several years, I don’t listen to much pop music anymore. A lot of Eno’s ambient stuff, and Loscil, Colleen, Harold Budd. I think the outro to “Focus Blisters” reflects this a bit. But I’ve always loved making instrumental passages more than just about anything else. Many of my songs have these kind of sometimes disconnected instrumental outs. Oh and Bridget St. John!! A musical hero of mine, a track of whose, “Making Losing Better,” I used in my film No Way Jose. I reached out to her when I was in New York doing this TV show, having completed the basic tracking for the album but still owing the vocals, and asked her if she’d be willing to appear on the record somehow. Incredibly she agreed. She’s an angel. And brilliant. Truly. “One Two Three Four Five Six” – which began as a Vine loop of all things – was just an instrumental at that point; and so I wrote the vocals for the two of us to sing together. I had been stumped about that song and she ended up being this kind of muse and of course elevates the track, which I don’t think begins to do justice to her genius. Buy and listen to everything she’s recorded. Remarkable.
What is the significance of the title, Home: A Nice Place to Visit?
It comes from my blog, same name. I had initially been extremely dogmatic (read: compulsive) about the blog; everyday for a year had to upload an analog photograph – so usually an instant photograph I’d scan that day – or a recording. It was painstaking and annoying as hell – but many of the recordings seeded songs on Stranger’s Morning, and still more on the new record. I had always had a concept of taking the blog – photos and music – and exhibiting them somehow. This led to the idea of marrying the vinyl release to a book of vaguely corresponding photography. I like the idea of taking these formerly analog things that are then digitized and uploaded, and putting them back into peoples hands, into something tangible. It’s a bit of a cliche by this point, but I really do miss the flutter I used to get when I pulled into Tower Records, or went into a book shop. That excitement really has faded for me since the advent of digital media – which is not to say I don’t fully take advantage of that technology as well. But the more concise answer is that: home is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. I have both a profound sense of yearning, connecting, nostalgia, and an almost hermetic attachment to home, and find it – wherever it may be a the time – concurrently a place which harbors fear and demons. I suppose this is true for anyone, but I I guess also it’s a bit of a metaphor…grass is always greener and all that. Ironically, we just moved out of the house which arguably inspired the blog, and then the record/book – so many of the recordings made there in a sense fetishizing this house. But it was time to go. It was a nice place to visit.
Music seems to have become a regular vocation for you. How much are you an actor, how much a musician?
Acting was something I did and wanted to do in some form or another since I was very small. It’s almost more akin to my love for baseball as a kid. Sometimes I’m on a set and think, “Hmm, I’m a grown man and I’m still playing little league. What the hell am I doing?” But I’d also been passionate about music, photography, writing, filmmaking, since I was a kid – though I suppose I never saw those forms of expression as a viable means by which to make a living. The non-acting arts tend to exercise a similar muscle or necessity to express myself, to sometimes an embarrassingly revealing and indulgent degree perhaps. But that’s where I feel most at…well, at home.
There are those of the opinion that music is the most profound of all the arts. How do you see making music versus acting?
I think there are actors who are really “Actors,” capital A. I act. I mean, I take it seriously and often it’s super fun, but I act. Music and these other forms of artistic expression I think again are perhaps truer representations of myself, or maybe paint a bigger picture.
Your 2009 film Untitled was a funny but fairly scathing indictment of the dissemination of artistic talent. Do you share that point of view?
I love that film, loved doing it. The funny thing is, I’m that guy more than I’d care to admit. Of course it was satire, but I could relate. A little too much. I always loved sound, and feel like my “musicianship” is more akin to something like curation of sound ideas into which I place songs. Wow, that was pretentious. See I told you I was that guy! I literally made a shaker out of ammo for the song “School” on the new record. Yep, I’m that dude.
Are you planning to perform these songs live?
I have a really deep seated ambivalence, discomfort, imposter syndrome, and ultimately dissatisfaction regarding playing live. I get paralyzingly nervous, migrainous, sick to stomach. But as we speak I’m in NY promoting the digital release by doing some live streaming appearances with my engineer/co-producer, honorary “sister,” Andrew Lynch. I love recording, always have. I really began writing songs and recording in tandem. Making songs and making recordings are sort inextricably connected for me. So the live performance thing is where I feel least comfortable. But what we’re doing now – and to a certain extent have done in the past when I’ve done more stripped down performances – is a lot of live looping and running our acoustic instruments through various effects. It sort of approximates the recording process to me. Many of my songs originated as loops on my Boomerang loop pedal. I could fuck around with that thing all day long.
Any new film or television projects on the immediate or distant horizon?
Hmmm….been writing something. Just did a movie with Nic Cage and Laurence Fishburne. Just finished shooting a TV show in Canada called Taken. But focusing this year on the money losing ventures.