Dec 01, 2008, 05:38AM

INTERVIEW: Adam Arcuragi

The band leader and solo singer/songwriter talks about touring, recording, and other nuts and bolts of the music life.

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I first saw Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Adam Arcuragi play back in early 2005. I sat with my Yuengling in the crowded corner of a townhouse living room on Howard St. in Baltimore, at a now defunct venue called Lemon Hill. I hadn't come to see Adam that night, but he sure left a hell of an impression, and when I was in Indianapolis a couple of weeks later, driving back from Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, I stopped in at Luna's to buy a few albums: a new copy of Let it Bleed, since my old one was scratched to hell, Ease Down the Road, and, happening upon it, Adam's self-titled debut. On the eight-hour drive back to Baltimore, the Stones and Oldham got shafted, Adam was in the CD player pretty much the whole way—“1981” alone probably got no less than nine or 10 repeat plays. It made for perfect driving music, looking out at all the open expanses of Indiana farmland. Since then I've been following Adam's career pretty closely: a couple of more great shows in Baltimore; an excellent follow-up EP, Soldiers for Feet; stops at La Blogotheque and Snowghost; and great write-ups on some of my favorite music blogs. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I saw him at Lemon Hill, it was Adam's first show on his first tour. It's the kind of right place, right time moment that makes a music critic like myself smile every time I think about it. I talked with Adam last week via email about his upcoming album, his good friends These United States, and his filthy filthy mouth.

SPLICE TODAY: When will the new album be out? Are you in the process of recording? What can we expect?

ADAM ARCURAGI: The record is finally finished. No word yet on who will put it out. But it will be coming out in the new year. It is very exciting, for me at least. I feel like we are getting so much closer to really nailing death gospel down as a genre. We're hoping that this record will be mentioned, years and years from now, in some book about death gospel in the same way that The Fugs/The Holy Modal Rounders are mentioned when people talk about the origins of punk rock on the Lower East Side. Not that we're anything like those bands or that death gospel is ever going to as big and moving as punk rock, but you know what I'm talking about. It will have 11 tracks (the moon loves prime numbers) and they are just so nice. Not to blow sunshine up my own ass, but rather, to blow sunshine up everyone's ass that worked on it. Between the 11 musicians that worked on it from all over the place, the engineers from both coasts that tracked and mixed and mastered; it is just so wonderful to be a part of something that everyone works so hard on and then turns out so well. Everyone is just so talented and they all did such great work.

ST: Can you talk about your sets on SnowGhost and Blogotheque? How did you end up doing those? How were they organized? You were performing in a NYC parking garage flea market for Blogotheque right?

AA: Well, first the Blogotheque stuff was done with the American counterpart gang. They're called One Take New York. Three wonderful film makers that work with the Blogotheque folks on this side of the Atlantic. It was such a fun night. We were all on this mini tour with Geoff Farina and in New York we set up in this flea market in Chelsea. The old lady that you see at one point clapping along was so nice to give Tommy [the drummer] a plastic tub to thump on. It was really cold that day. My beard was coming in. It was a while ago.

The SnowGhost thing all started two years ago when I was in Texas for this music festival. These United States were to leave Texas on a tour of the rest of the USA. In Montana I met Keith and Brett and the Snow Ghost crew. We'd wanted to do something for a long time. Finally we did. Over the summer I drove out there with my friend Robbie and my former manager Lavinia. We drove 41 continuous hours, in shifts, in a rented mini van. Once we got out there we did a show and then recorded five songs. We did those videos on the last day down by the big lake in Whitefish. I love those guys. While I'm out in L.A. I'm hoping to do something more with Brett. He has a new mobile rig to do field recordings and we're hoping to take a trip to some town neither of us knows and then hunker down in some cabin or motel and make a record that's real sparse and kind of like those early Lomax recordings.

ST: I'm a huge fan of These United States, and you've toured a lot with them—can you tell me a crazy story about Jesse Elliott?

AA: So we went on that USA tour that led to meeting the Snow Ghost fellas; on the way back east we went through South Dakota we had to make an emergency stop so that Jesse had to make a number one. We were all a little punchy and I kept protesting that we had to press on to a rest stop and not pee on the pristine gorges and prairies of South Dakota. Jesse insisted on just dropping trou right then and there. So once he got out Tom and I decided that if he was going to insist on peeing right out in the open, he needed some photographic evidence of that instance. So Tom and I waited until he was in mid-stream and then we chased him around the hill: he trying to hide his man-ness and me snapping away. There's a really good one from behind him of this gorgeous expanse of the lord's country and Jesse laughing at me over his shoulder as he's letting loose. It sort of looks like Slash in the November Rain video.

ST: Whenever I read your bio it also lists you as an accomplished poet and playwright. Can you talk some about your other artistic endeavors?

AA: Oh sheesh. Daniel, the guy who owns High Two, has a lovely wife that helped me get a job at the charter school she taught at; when I submitted my resume I put down that these two things I had gotten earlier on in my youth. I only did so because I don't have much of a big-boy resume. It filled things out nicely and I figured that no one would really remember. So Daniel put that in the bio on the High Two site. Man oh man has that haunted me. They even said it on the TV when the local Philly station did a profile on me.

I'm not ashamed of them so much. It's just that I won those honors when I was a young man; it was a different time. When I was in high school I wrote a play. It was a winning entry in the Philadelphia Young Playwright's Festival. Then in college I submitted three poems to this thing sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and won, like, $100? Fifty bucks? I like writing. It is one of the few things I'm good at with my clothes on.

ST: Let's set the record straight: Did you in fact originate the phrase "Kick it smooth like dolphin pussy"? I need to know the facts before I add it to Urban Dictionary.

AA: Yes. I L-O-V-E text messages. I enjoy writing so much and I like reaching people instantly. It is almost tailor made to my loves. If somehow I could get a smoothie every time I sent a text message I would just be in heaven. My old pal Joey asked me, via text, what I was doing. I answered, "Nothing much. Just kick'n it smooth like dolphin pussy." I am a vulgar man.

ST: I first saw you play about three and a half years ago at Lemon Hill. You had a pretty regular full band with a couple of quirky additions; there was a saw player as I remember. How have things changed since then? How do you think your sound has developed?

AA: That was a great show. I love venues like that. The less microphones the better; if you can get away with none then things are even better. In fact one time at The Cake Shop in NYC there were a lot of technical problems with the sound, so since I was playing solo, I just told the sound guy that it was no big deal then in the middle of the set I just unplugged and walked down off the stage. I played the rest of the set with the crowd kind of in a circle around me. Like a really mellow Lightning Bolt show.

The sound changes with the bands. I don't know what to do; who doesn't want to hold on to a group and keep them together and let the songs mature and settle into a groove that's months long. But this way we can always keep it fresh and mix it up. One day I hope that we can have a giant reunion show with EVERYONE that has ever played live or on a record. A giant orchestra of awesomeness; that would be so much fun and it would be quite loud. Am I a musical slut? Oh man. I am. Oh well, it keeps things fresh and interesting. Since that show I've probably gone through 15 players. Some bands don't like too many people on stage. Some people get married or get real jobs. Each group is always friendly and always gets along; things happen.

ST: Who are some of your favorite bands out there right now? And what are a couple of 2008 albums that have really drawn you in?

AA: I love Neko Case. I would love to make a record with her. Hell, I'd give anything to just sing through Blacklisted in a quiet corner of a room somewhere with her. She is one of the finest songwriters ever. Not to mention she has amazing pipes.

I love the new National Eye record. Oh man how I love this new band I met Bats in the Belfry. Check them out. Kellen writes a stunningly beautiful song and the band as a unit is tight and delicate.

What else have I been listening to? Here goes:

Belle and Sebastian. I love them. I have every record (full length and ep).

Washington Phillips. Daniel (owner of High Two) gave me a record of his. Gorgeous. He plays multiple zithers with both hands and sings gospel songs.

The Jesus and Mary Chain. There is not one single record they put out that doesn't kick serious ass. So simple and wonderful.

Lots of Bob Dylan. I don't care what anyone says, New Morning is such an amazing album. I just got the newest bootleg album. How does he do it?

The Sons of the Pioneers. I'm a softy for wonderful harmonies and cowboy songs.

Faron Young. He's a masterful songwriter and he's got this crystal-clear voice. I also love that reverb they used in Nashville in the late 1950s and early 60s. These are the things I've listened to most in 2008.

ST: Can you talk about a couple of your songs that really mean a lot to you? ("The Screen" always gets me.)

AA: I don't know if I could pick one or even a couple. "The Screen" sure does make a lot of people take notice though. It is one of the few songs I have that are riff-based. Maybe that's it. People love riffs. I don't ever know what to say about songs. I do love to hear about people's reactions and interpretations.

ST: Are you planning to do a European tour in support of this next album?

AA: There have been whispers about it. I've never had the money or opportunity to leave this great land of ours. I am looking forward to it, if the opportunity presents itself. I'm sure I'd be making a handful of people in Europe happy. There have been some emails sent from the continent requesting our musical presence. So yeah, hope springs and all that.

ST: Who were some of your earliest influences?

AA: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and several old folk records were my earliest influences (and by folk I mean like railroad songs and turn-of-the-20th century era folk; not like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”). Also church; I was singing every week since I can remember. Those songs are sewn into my brain in a way that probably comes out more often than I realize.

ST: Favorite bar in Philadelphia? I'm planning a trip.

AA: Johnny Brenda's is the place.


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