It isn’t often that cyanobacteria and evolution come up in a music interview, but Adam Arcuragi isn’t your typical bard. While discussing his latest effort, the spirited I Am Become Joy, it’s easy to tell that he thinks about music more, deeper, and differently than most people do; he knows not just how it touches us, but how we interact with it as what—not just who—we are.
But that’s probably why, along with a thumbs up from NPR and a growing European following, Arcuragi’s brand of au natural Americana — his so-called “death gospel” — is resonating with audiences far and wide.
The Georgia native and Philadelphia resident took some time to ponder our questions just a few short days before heading overseas. Trust us, this is an interesting one.
SSv: The album, I Am Become Joy, one of the first things that I thought of was, obviously way better production quality, but it reminded me of those old country and Americana field recordings—
Adam Arcuragi: Oh! You’re my new favorite person! That’s what we were listening to; that’s what we were going for! When I was writing the record, the guy who owns the label got as a present the Goodbye, Babylon series, which was actually put together by some guys at GSU [Georgia State University] who started this imprint called Dust-to-Digital, and it’s this six or seven disc box set of all that old stuff, everything from Lomax’s old recordings to somebody from Tennessee or Chicago just trying to get field recordings. Everything from chain gangs to The Louvin Brothers. And it’s really, really good stuff.
When you’re faced with very few options you kind of have to band together by default, out of necessity, as opposed to banding together because you’re 'Well, we gotta make this record.'
So that’s what we were going for. Wow! It’s great that it reminded you of that. Mission accomplished. Okay, I’m done. I can quit now.
SSv: Yeah, there’s this really uninhibited feeling about it, where you really get a sense of what was going on when it was being recorded.
Adam: Well, we were trying to take a snapshot, aurally, as opposed to trying to layer layers of tape and stopping and starting and doing it over again, when you lose the feeling of the moment. The Germans have a term for it which is the “Ghost of the Day” or the “Spirit of the Day”. And that’s what I do, the collective thing that happens when everybody is on the same page.
I don’t know. When you’re faced with very few options you kind of have to band together by default, out of necessity, as opposed to banding together because you’re “Well, we gotta make this record.” The end.
Man. I’m so excited you just made my day. I’m going to be bragging about that for the rest of the day.
SSv: Ha! Well, good.
Adam: Which is just as awesome as last night. I had two different people tell me I look like Crispin Glover. And I was like, that’s crazy! I’ve never been compared to Crispin Glover before. I guess it was the haircut and the suit.
SSv: Could be. [Laughs] Well, talking about how the album was recorded, how much tweaking or overdubbing really went on with it?
Adam: Well, out of necessity we had to overdub, because it was way too much, and not everybody was at the same place and people were at varying levels of having been practiced. We had everybody from, well, Tom [Hnatow] and Jesse [Elliott] from These United States, they were sent the demos and then Tom had been studying them leading up to it, but he had never actually played with any of us. So buy the time he got in, the stuff he was hearing on the demos was different enough from what we had recorded that, you know, he had to take a couple minutes before he found his footing. But then, you have the evidence, it sounds amazing.
So we had the band, which is the core, except for the drummer. The drummer was kind of new to everything, but Tom is one of those sick people who is just so good that you could literally give him anything in the world and he could smack it and make a beautiful percussive sound out of it.
And a couple of friends who had never heard demos or anything just came in and were talented enough to just do something on the fly, so we tried to do it in live chunks. For example, most of the songs were cut with the core group of piano, acoustic guitar, live vocal and dulcimer, or some variation of that. But it was always a live core, then backing vocals were all done in the live groups with all the voices mixing in there and little percussive things that we’ve done in groups. Additional instruments like bow and saw and accordion were all done in groups, so it’s layers of chunks of live performances. Which is one step closer to what we’re going to do for the next record, and ideally for the next record it’s going to be just live.
I want to get an emcee and have there be a little bit on in-between song banter and just record the record in one long take.
SSv: That would be cool.
Adam: That would be, but the idea is to come up with the most crazy ambitious idea you can come up with and then whittle it down as more people get involved.
SSv: I wonder then, because you are interested, obviously, in live recording, do you think music has maybe gotten too overproduced these days, with the technology we have and things like Auto Tune?
Adam: No. Not at all. If you’ve got a good song… Take, for example, something like “Goodnight Irene”. You can do “Goodnight Irene” in a thousand different ways and as long as you’re not changing the spirit of the song, and you’re just doing variations on that theme, then you can do whatever you want. Technology is a great thing. I mean, shit. A guitar is a piece of technology, and it’s pretty complicated technology, but it’s remained the same over the years because there’s no need to change it, necessarily. When you go and change something for the sake of changing it, that’s usually when it goes wrong.
But in terms of recording technique, I do think…there’s definitely two camps. It’s the difference between taking a photo and painting a picture. You know, when you start off with a layer and then the bass and then the vocals, and you do the vocals take-after-take-after-take, and then you layer the vocals and you put all of the processing on it, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but that’s one kind of making a recording. It’s more like making a painting or building a fine piece of furniture out of really nice wood. It takes a really long time and you start over and you redo things. But that’s one method. It’s what you want in the end.
Whereas I sort of tend toward taking a picture, taking a snapshot of a moment, of a performance, of the spirit, the thing that happens when everyone is in the same room and working together and doing something. Only because those are the kinds of performances that I gravitate to in terms of what really gets my brain to light up when I hear them. I can completely tell the difference between when a band has labored for months over a recording or when they’ve just walked in and recorded it.
I think, just to speculate, I think that the human ear forgives a lot, in terms of when you’re in the moment. When you go to see a performance of anything, from a large orchestra to an a cappella group, if someone messes up and they don’t draw your attention to it, your ear kind of smoothes it over in terms of the signal processing in your brain. So, yes, you’ve heard those things, but you don’t necessarily process it as being detrimental to the performance because the performance as a whole is what your brain is remembering and holding on to.
Whereas, when you have a permanent record that is manifested physically, that mistake becomes like a burr in the saddle for some people, so I think people have worked tirelessly over the years to try and get everything…more melody, more bass, fix everything so that the performance is perfect. And, I don’t know, that’s just not how I roll. I like little mistakes.
If you listen to “Bottom of the River”, the last song, and you hear in the very beginning he’s doing the [mimics drum sounds], the first time the snare comes in, it comes in on the one. It comes in the down beat, and he stops himself because it’s not out of time, but it’s not what he wanted to do. He wanted to be doing the backbeat. So he comes in on the 1, waits a measure and then comes in on the back beat. Everyone was like “Oh no! We have to redo the drums!” and I was like, “If you touch those drums, I will burn you all alive.” That is one of the coolest, odd time signature things that I have ever heard. Well, it’s not really an odd time signature, it’s an odd rhythm.
And we kept it in. But once we got into the mixing stage of actually sitting down and putting the song together, everybody was like, “You’re right. That drum was exactly perfect.” Just, you know, providence. Fortune favors the bold, so you have to chalk it up to fortune every once in awhile. Because there’s no way we could’ve written that or planned it, it’s just an accidental thing.
SSv: But that could be the thing that really makes the record.
Adam: Yeah, it’s the thing that pulls your ear toward it because there’s a sense of naturalness to it. I’m more of a negative definition guy. You can’t really say that something is because you find that you talk about something that is so varied, it’s a very sort of imperfect and finite language. So it’s easier to say what something isn’t and allow it to be. So if you act more as a conduit for something else, then it’s much quicker to the place where everything is becoming larger than the sum of its parts. And that’s when the special stuff happens, when people aren’t trying so hard to be a specific thing.
It’s kind of like a hose. You want to remove as much of that hose as possible to let the most amount of water through, but you want to keep some semblance of hose so that it doesn’t break open, and that’s the balance. Directing whatever it is that’s flowing while getting the most of yourself out of the way so it’s not blocking the flow.
And if you can do that balance really well, that’s when…that’s the exciting stuff. The stuff that makes your heart beat fast or make somebody smile or make somebody that you don’t know and never spoke to before feel and experience the same thing, the same way. Like you said ‘Oh, it reminds me of this” and I went “that’s exactly what we were going for!” You send out signals into deep space and somebody picks it up and says “not only can I decipher your code, but I agree with your observation.” It’s like doing science at a distance.
SSv: Now, you probably get bugged about this all the time, but in an interview you did with Paste, you were talking about where you had come up with “death gospel” and how people took it too seriously. But do you think that maybe music, and especially blogs and things like that, have gotten too wrapped up in genres and subgenres and compartmentalizing everything?
Adam: Ehhh…I don’t think too wrapped up. It’s a human thing. It’s what we do. It’s one of the balances have to pay for sentient consciousness. Our particular brand of understanding has to do with pattern recognition and so that’s just what we’re doing. Pattern recognition. We’re just trying to find some semblance of something. And categorize it. That’s just a byproduct of us being awake and aware. So I don’t think we can ever overdo it, necessarily because it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But, yeah, I figured one day lets just make up a word, not so much in a way that says I can’t be categorized so I’m going to make up my own category, it’s not like ee cummings spelling his name with all lowercase letters. It’s more, ok, we don’t like any of the labels that people are applying, so we’ll give them a label to apply that we like. And it’s a very gospel influence because we’re trying to get the good word out, and it’s not any particular agenda other than that we’re all the same, and we’re all made up of the same stuff. We are all the same animal. All of us.
So just trying to get back to the good word about being alive. Just like pattern recognition is a consequence of being intelligent or our brand of sentient intelligence. Being alive, the balance or consequence that you have to pay at the end is not being alive. So it’s the good word about death. It’s the good word about what makes us, us. We’re here for a short time, so let’s fill it up with delight.
You have this weird thing with human beings where you have 4.6 billion years, give or take, of evolving from single celled organisms. And that whole time the thing that we did was, we adapted to adversity and we fought each other for space and food. I mean, cyanobacteria will fight each other. If you look under a microscope, it’s small scale chemical warfare. They send out chemicals that kill off anything that’s not them, anything that’s in the area that they fight for food. So we’ve been doing it since life began.
So then much younger is our sense of intelligence, we have evidence of sentient intelligence only about 45,000 years ago, give or take. So there’s a huge discrepancy. We’ve been animals much longer than we’ve been sentient animals, so you have this huge, huge rift, this huge clash of biology programming us for billions of years to survive at all costs, and live long enough to pass on an egg. And only recently have we started to develop things like abstract thought and qualitative appreciation. Maybe, everybody should survive is the feeling.
And so there’s that huge debate, that huge rift, when do other people get to survive. And that’s where greed comes from. Greed comes from the clash of those two forces. And, you know, we can’t do anything about it. It’s not like we’re gonna be able to un-program ourselves from our survival instinct, nor should we, but at the same time, if you realize that something’s there, it’s much easier to deal with.
You know, like a family that refuses to talk about a touchy subject. As soon as they talk about the touchy subject they realize it’s not that big of a deal, but if they keep silent about it for generations, it’s going to be waiting there and have all this power. Once you bring something into the light, it’s never as bad as you think it is. So if we can all admit, hey, we have this little skeleton in the closet that’s making us be horrible to each other, it won’t change it, but it will at least make it easier to find ways to deal with it.
You don’t have to print all that. Hopefully you can paraphrase that in a way that doesn’t make me sound like some weird cult leader.
SSv: [Laughs] It’s an interesting take.
Adam: I am definitely interested in getting the name out there. Death gospel. Because at this point being called a singer-songwriter is tantamount to using the n-word is social situations.
SSv: So you take off early next week for Europe. Is this your first European tour?
Adam: This is the first time that I’m going to leave the lower 48. I’ve never had a passport and I’ve been in international waters once, on a fishing trip, but that is as far a field as I have been. I’ve technically been in my home country and I’ve been nowhere, so now I’m going to actually get to other countries.
We’re actually really excited. We got to do a Rolling Stone Europe interview, and all the Blogotheque shows. And the Take Away shows, which you can see from all over. And we did the NPR tiny desk sessions. And we were also the song of the day, so we’ve been leaning really heavy on those things, and there’s been a really good response already. It’s nerve-wracking. We’re going somewhere where our reputation precedes us. So we’re actually going to have people showing up wanting to see us and actually be expecting something. I mean it’s happened before, but never for an entire tour.
I’m really excited. We’re going to be doing an interview with a magazine in the Czech Republic, and we’re going to be so busy, but I have so many nerd questions that need to be answered in terms of famous battles that I’ve read about. I want to go to all the sites I want to get to Majorca and see where Robert Graves used to spend his life, and there’s so much stuff to do and see. Luckily Dennis our booking agent over there is already planning another trip in the fall, which is going to be a little bit more expensive and with more down time. And he’s also thinking about inviting us back for some festivals in April, so there’s a lot of good European-y stuff on the horizon.
*Photos by David John Hartley and Sarahana Shrestha