Tuesday

ADAM MARSLAND INTERVIEW


MAGANDANG UMANGA: Cockeyed Ghost and Mod Hippie co-founder Adam Marsland has taken thinking outside of the box to a whole new level by embarking on a protracted sabbatical in Southeastern Asia in the wake of the release of his most ambitious Bule album for his own Karma Frog label. Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell spoke at length with Adam Marsland (pictured above at Los Angeles International Airport) in September 2017 about these and other highlights of his remarkable legacy.

WHAT MAKES A MAN WANDER?:
COCKEYED GHOST AND MOD HIPPIE
CO-FOUNDER ADAM MARSLAND
REINVENTS THE
MIDLIFE MUSICAL CRISIS
By Michael McDowell

What Makes A Man Wander?

That classic track, recorded by Sonny James on his 1965 Behind The Tear album for Capitol and reprised the following year in the landmark motion picture, Las Vegas Hillbillys by James and his world class quartet of vocal virtuosos, the Southern Gentlemen (featuring the great Gary Robble) tells the tale of a man who has been blessed with an idyllic home and family life, yet who harbors a longing to forsake it all in favor of riding the rails and seeing the country.

Earlier this year, Cockeyed Ghost and Mod Hippie co-founder Adam Marsland took James' tale of unrequited adventure to the next level. A long time resident of Southern California whose extraordinary list of accomplishments includes overseeing the operations of the Karma Frog label (recording home for not only Mod Hippie, but for Summer Children, Rob Martinez and others), Marsland also worked at length in various capacities with such legendary visionaries as the Standells and Evie Sands. One of Los Angeles' most charismatic musical spokespeople, Marsland found himself in constant demand for his services by other artists.

Despite those blessings, that latent desire to follow in the footsteps of Sonny James' example remained a constant in Marsland's mission statement. So much so that his travels throughout key parts of Southeast Asia over the past several years ultimately prompted him in September of this year to embark upon a protracted sabbatical from Los Angeles in favor of enriching his perspective in a variety of ways in such locales as the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia.

From a musical perspective, Marsland's timing was impeccable. Karma Frog had just released his ambitious Bulė album, inspired primarily by his previous travels to Southeast Asia. And while Bulė is to Marsland's repertoire what Sunflower is to that of the Beach Boys' legacy, the inspiration he acquired from his journeys took the concept to an even higher level.

Still, as many musicians are aware, there are those who follow their musical adventures, yet who often are reluctant to allow that artist to grow aesthetically when the opportunity to do so presents itself. And while in Marsland's case such sentiments are almost invariably tempered with the sadness of the absence of his physical presence, he nonetheless sees this journey as a growth adventure that will address and ultimately benefit each of those concerns exponentially.

In this interview with Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell (conducted shortly after Marsland's arrival in Metro Manila), Marsland shares both that vision and a candid look at the circumstances that ultimately answer Sonny James' question.

BLITZ: Musicians often find their creative muses circumvented by their own audience, which is often not amenable to any sort of thinking outside of the box and/or following the respective musician's vision, should it expand beyond the audience's expectations. However, you have literally been all over the musical map, from your work with Cockeyed Ghost to Mod Hippie to your various projects with the Standells and Evie Sands.

While much of your audience has continued to champion your vision in that respect, with Bulė, you have ventured into territory which meshes well with your own curriculum vitae, and in fact is a logical extension of it. However, there are some who, for whatever reason, may not share that vision. Nonetheless, in the sleeve notes to Bulė, you cite "a sense of belonging and wonder" as being among the deciding factors in your decision. As such, what would you say to the sympathetic yet hesitant observer in order to help them bridge the gap in that respect? And has making that move revised your perception of the allure in any way?

MARSLAND: Well, I haven't gotten back to Bali yet, and it may blow up before I get there!  There's a volcano there that by the time anyone reads this will have erupted, and it may prevent me from getting to the island, or I may be there to witness it. Or as I fear, it will blow while I'm in the air, in which case I'll be stranded in Malaysia or something like that. So whatever my experience this time is will be very different, that's for sure.

I've been fortunate to have never been particularly successful, but there's a small core of people that just have bought in for the ride. In a sense when I released 2009's Go West, I felt like my trajectory towards any kind of larger success as a songwriter was over. I gave that album everything I had. Though it sold reasonably well, it just didn't break through and get acknowledged in the wider world of music attention. I knew pretty much that the fix was in, and there was no point in trying to continue down that road.

Everything that I've done since then has been a lot less planned and more in the moment and tangential. I recorded Hello Cleveland in one day with a really great band, and a great deal of The Owl In The Full Moon was recorded in one day, too. It was interesting to see that the quality of the work didn't decline that much because I gave it less thought and attention, and in some ways people found it more accessible. I kind of enjoyed it because the outcome was a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. You just bang it out and go, "Whoa!  That's what happened, eh?" That's not bad!

I don't think Owl or Cleveland were as good as Go West. But Owl has Contamination, No One's Ever Gonna Hear This Song, Song 11 and the title track, which I think are among my best songs. So the process worked out.

With Bulė, I don't think it was that hard of a sell. I think the minute people heard the concept of the album they were like, "Whoa! I want to hear that". Because the idea of someone like me going to Asia and incorporating those sounds into what I do. Obviously it's been done before with albums like Graceland. But no one in the "power pop" world has ever done it. It's such a very white, western, traditional music form. It's kind of the last type of music that's ever going to go ethnic, which is sort of what I loved about trying it.

I myself, had no basis in it and had no idea if it was going to work out at all.  But I wanted to give it a shot because I really felt like I'd done everything.

I actually did track some stuff for a new album in 2016 and I listened to bits of it for possible inclusion with Bulė. I didn't use any of it, because compared to the new stuff it was just boring.  It wasn't bad, but it was more of the same thing, whereas the Bulė material was just a whole 'nother world.

I needed to do something fresh and new. I don't think it hurt my audience any. I think people were curious. I think the main reason Bulė probably will have limited appeal isn't because it's an offbeat recording but because I released it, did one show, and immediately fled the country!  I haven't done much to promote it at all, though I do plan to do some videos while I am over here. And that's how I want it.

BLITZ: While taking that exponential leap musically has produced extraordinary aesthetic dividends and pretty much immediate acclaim, there are some within your sphere of influence who were either surprised by and/or have taken umbrage with your decision to leave Southern California for an unspecified period to live in Southeastern Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Sonny James' 1965 What Makes A Man Wander? track - in which a man who apparently has been blessed with a great life decides to walk away from it all to ride the rails and see the country - seems to set the precedent for what has been expressed by those observers. The concern that tends to recur within those circles is why someone would forsake the idyllic life offered in Southern California for any other destination.

Indeed, it could almost be said that the unique track, This Is Madness on Bulė addresses those concerns to a degree. For those specifically who see Southern California as one of the world's premier destinations, how would you address those who would see such a transition in the light of the scenario outlined in that Sonny James classic?

MARSLAND: Is someone bummed that I've left? I mean, I've certainly said some things about the state of affairs in America that I can imagine a lot of people might take offense at, and I don't really blame them.

I also don't care honestly, but I'm not in any way mad about it. You speak your mind, then you take your lumps for it, and that's how it should be. You can't expect to go off on people and expect them not to get kind of (annoyed) about it. That's fine, and it's fair. That's the responsibility everyone should accept when they choose to open their mouth.

Let me rephrase that. I know a lot of people are bummed that I've left because I left behind a lot of friends and they'll miss me, as I will them. But it's hard for me to fathom anyone would be angry about it. I mean, who cares? It's my life. I get to do what I like with it.

I still love California. I think about the Mojave Desert and the Sierras every single day. But my life in California for a long time has been half a life. Certain parts of it were awesome and other parts were nearly non-existent. I've tried a lot of different ways to solve this problem and I finally came to the conclusion that it just wasn't possible to have the life I wanted right now in the place I was at and at the age I'm at.

I do want to come back. I plan to come back. But I would like to come back and live a whole life.

There's also the matter of staying challenged. I really reached the point where I had explored every road, and I'd like to give something other than music a chance to take root. If I do continue to explore music, then I really need to take a step back and acquire some new skills.

I have a little Traveler guitar with me and I love that thing. I play a little every day and it's so rare I get to just sit down and play and develop as opposed to having to cut a track as quickly as possible. I've gotten really good at churning out tracks, getting a record done extremely fast. But it doesn't allow you a lot of time to develop other parts of your playing by honing your chops or experimenting. I really look forward to more of that.

BLITZ: Your first stop upon leaving Los Angeles was in Metro Manila. Will that city serve as a home base for the time being, or are you planning to be somewhat transitory in that respect?

MARSLAND: No. This is usually my first stop because I'm comfortable in Manila, though frankly this current visit has been a bit of a cluster "f", as sometimes is the case in this part of the world. I have friends here and round trip tickets are cheap, so it's just a good place to gather my wits. But it's not the nicest or calmest place in the world. I like it for a week or two. Then I want to go on to somewhere a little more serene.

BLITZ: The Philippines in general has produced a wealth of original music since the first half of the twentieth century. The most obvious example is the much loved trio of vocal harmony-rich social commentators, Apo Hiking Society. There have also been others who made their mark in unique ways, from acapella virtuoso Ryan Cayabyab, to pop/rock icon Pops Fernandez, to folk rockers Smokey Mountain, the gifted traditionalist Jose Mari Chan, composer and vocalist Yoyoy Villame, the adventurous band Asin and Gospel rocker Gary Valenciano. To what degree did they or others spark your interest in this adventure as a whole?

MARSLAND: None, really. The only one of those musicians I'm aware of is Apo Hiking Society. I more get into the people and the atmosphere here. I like that this place is really rough around the edges and you can't just coast. It is very tourist unfriendly and for certain kinds of people, and I'm one of them, that's very attractive.

Now that culminates in days like yesterday, where you get locked out of your condo for five hours because nobody can get it together to fix the door. It's not so much fun on days like that.

But I'm lying on the hot floor in the hall of the condo and just reminding myself there is absolutely no point in getting mad. Stay calm and be patient. That's how people live here because at least half the time whatever you planned to do that day has gone down the drain because something broke down somewhere. It's a valuable skill to acquire and not one that's natural to me. So that attitude, more than anything, is what inspired the work.

BLITZ: Your enthusiasm carries over exponentially in Legaspi Groove (Magandang Umaga!), which of course refers to a good morning. Therein, you endeavor to name check both food (adobo) and transportation (a jeepney), underscored by a profession of solidarity with the nation's mission statement. In the process, you seem to have made considerable progress in mastering the Tagalog language. Given that Tagalog does not share a more structured template as typified by the verb conjugations indigenous to (for example) the Spanish language, how did your communication skills in that respect progress so rapidly?

MARSLAND: It didn't, really. I started learning Tagalog at the end of 2015 because I had a relationship here that looked like it might become serious. I wanted to be respectful to the woman's family - her father in particular - and be able to communicate with them. And also because I was starting to spend a lot of time here and it would save me from getting taken advantage of by the locals, which it has.

It is a ridiculously difficult language. I call it the Calvinball of languages because the rules seem so arbitrary. I've made progress on succeeding trips, but it's very much a work in progress. My comprehension is very poor. I also started learning Indonesian last year and that's a way easier language.

BLITZ: You took the experience a step closer to the purist perspective in Wind Song, which has that "tin roof" production common to many of the area's recordings during the era of the 78RPM single. In turn, you seemingly brought a bit of your own influence into the proceedings with the surf instrumental Seminyak, which also features Evie Sands on glockenspiel. Throughout the album as a whole, there is an undercurrent of Smile through Surf's Up period Beach Boys, which has long factored into your own musical mission statement. Was the intention to underscore the musical solidarity between the various genres involved?

MARSLAND: Well, Wind Song came about as you know because I heard a song playing on the radio in Laos and was captivated by the person's voice. Rather shockingly, the singer turned out to be someone I knew who had long since left Laos without really telling anybody where she went, and went on to have another life. Rather like I'm doing now, come to think of it!

So when I was able to convince her to record, I was really hoping she'd agree to let me make it sound like these old recordings I was hearing all through that part of the world, but especially in Cambodia, that just sound like they are from another world. There's a mystery to those old 45s, something about the mid-rangey sound of vinyl and how records were recorded back then, that really captivates me. Then you add to that the cadences of Asian music and man, that's a sweet spot, right there.

When I went to Asia, that was one of the big things I wanted to explore. She was delighted with how it came out. I was relieved, because one of the other tunes she suggested was kind of a disco song and I'm thinking. "Noooo, let's not do that!"  Plus obviously I had to capture her vocals very quickly. I think the session took about an hour, so I couldn't do anything too elaborate.

I had a feeling that when I went to Asia the whole thing would sound like, "Eden Ahbez does Smiley Smile". But I wasn't trying to aim for that. Given the tools at hand, I just had a feeling that's how it would come out.

I was delighted with this album because I just let it go where it wanted to, and it wound up I think exactly how you would hope it would be, this discrete sonic world. It's kind of like you pour water down the hill, and you dam up certain areas and it has to flow another way. So recording things on the guitalele with a field recorder right off the bat made everything take on a certain mood.

You couldn't overdub much onto these recordings or they'd just fall apart. It was all very delicate. So it wound up again, being a bit like Smiley Smile where you can't put a drum set on it. You have to create your effects with percussion or vocals.

The Beach Boys influence is very pervasive in what I do, even when I no longer think about it or hear it, which I really don't. But I guess it's just there. Though the band I was way into and listening to all the time on the trip was the Association, who I had never gotten into before. You hear that influence on a song like Breezy.

The bass guitar on Bulė was absolutely crucial, because there's hardly any drums. I'm not thought of as a bassist. But I do actually play a lot of bass in the studio, and a lot of these songs, the bass had to do something VERY specific. It's not something I could have asked Teresa Cowles or somebody else to do. It would have driven them mad!

For a number of songs there was really only one way it would work, because there are no drums and the bass has to tie everything together rhythmically and providing the only countermelody, too. I was really happy with how the bass came out. At the end of Something Beautiful at a certain point there is no time. There's not even a rhythm. The bass has to imply a beat by dancing around and landing in certain places without there actually being a time signature, while staying out of the way of all the vocal things happening and not breaking the spell. That was super tricky. I was really proud of threading that needle from a playing standpoint.

I also think the album was special because I had so much collaborative help, both from native Asian musicians and other friends like Marisol Ricacho on vocals, but especially the Chaos Band. Kurt Medlin's percussion was inspirational. The first time he came over, I basically finished writing the album as soon as he left. I knew exactly where to go once I heard what he was going to do.

And of course Teresa's and Evie's vocals. The three of us had sung together so long that we were able to bounce so many ideas off each other, and get really out there, just piling up vocal tracks on some songs. Everyone came up with ideas. I did a lot of the vocal arranging, but it wasn't just me. The ending of Home particularly. I think Teresa came up with that part. It's such a brilliant vocal counterpoint. It actually brought me to tears when I heard it.

BLITZ: You closed out the proceedings with a blank track, followed by an uncredited variation on Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs' 1965 Wooly Bully single. Common ground with your collaborators, perhaps?

MARSLAND: When you're in Indonesia, Indonesians are very inquisitive. When you meet an Indonesian, you can kind of guess what the first four questions are going to be. So what would happen is that after about the third or four hundredth person asked me question number one, which is always "Dari mana?" - Where are you from? - I started to write this song in my head that would just disrupt the whole process which I'd gotten kind of bored with and make the whole thing more entertaining for everybody and also sort of make fun of myself which I think the locals find charming because of course some of the white tourists are like, "Carry my bags".

The song just answers the question, elaborates, and then complains that all the women in Bali are married, which if they are over twenty, they basically are. It literally got to the point where people would ask me on the street where I was from and I would just stop everything and start singing the song as if I was in a musical, and all these Indonesians would gather around wondering what this crazy white guy was doing.

I probably did this about ten or twelve times. The version on the record was at an actual show.  I had found this amazing singer named Nona Singadji. She does an acoustic duo act with her husband, who plays guitar. She was just incredible. It takes a lot to blow me away and I was like, I have to record you somehow. So I showed up at one of her shows and taped a few songs. At the end, they made me sing something. So I taped Saya Bulé. It's so cool, because you hear the audience singing and shaking percussion very like the original Sam the Sham record. It's this great spontaneous moment.

It's not on the main record both because I couldn't figure out how to license it and also because the lyrics are only funny if you're Indonesian. Seemed a little obnoxious to put a song on your album that's a joke that nobody listening to it is going to get.

BLITZ: What is the status of the Karma Frog label during your sabbatical? Will it remain active?

MARSLAND: I think it may actually be more active, because I won't be distracted by the studio and will have time to put into promotion and certain other things that I've had to let slide. There will be at least two more albums coming out on the label I finished. Barring a few incidental things, they are going to track without me: Mod Hippie's third album before I left. I also tracked about seventy percent of Rob Martinez' third album, which I am going to complete over here.

I'm really excited about Rob's record, because I'm using a different mode of recording than his first two that I think will send it into a slightly different direction. I was under the gun. So instead of organizing the arrangements, I just tracked dozens of ideas to sort out later.

I've really been inspired lately by Lindsey Buckingham. I want to delve a bit more into some of the ideas and approaches he's used and see if there's some tools there I can use to grow what I do and maybe find a path forward as a producer. But if I don't, that's fine too!