Streaming Songs

Actor and Musician Adam Goldberg on Loving Loops and the Merits of Musical Monotony

There’s very little on the Goldberg Sisters‘ relaxed, swirling new album Home: A Nice Place to Visit to suggest its creation by one meticulous, anxiety-ridden man in a damp garage, but to hear musician and actor Adam Goldberg (Dazed and Confused, Saving Private Ryan) tell it, that’s the unglamorous truth. Home hits a sweet spot between singer/songwriters of the 1960s and hazy psych-pop, driven home by a guest spot from British folk singer Bridget St. John. As the most recent landmark on a musical trajectory that has featured a failed attempt at learning the saxophone and time spent blowing off steam in Sebadoh and Built to Spill-influenced rock bands, Home finds Goldberg finally arriving where he wants to be.

Home was recently released as part of a set featuring the LP and a hardcover collection of Goldberg’s photography. To mark the occasion, Goldberg spoke with AllMusic about the two warring musical impulses he had to navigate in the album’s creation, the anxiety that comes with performing live, and how recording an album is different from filming a movie.

AllMusic: When you’re working on individual songs, do you keep the album’s overall scope in mind?

Adam Goldberg: In this case, it necessarily has a cohesion, or a monotony, depending on how you look at it, because I’m doing everything and I’m using whatever I have at my disposal. My first record was recorded in many different places over several years, the second was done in a more cohesive fashion, in a studio setting, and on the one before this, things had been written in a more concentrated period of time. But I still don’t think I got to where I fully wanted to be in terms of this sense of cohesion until this one. A lot of that is based on discussions with Andrew [Lynch], my engineer and co-producer, about the sound of the record. I also just think I have a style, and no matter how hard I try, it worms its way into every song even if I want really badly to keep it out of there.

AllMusic: Monotony doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.

Goldberg: There’s certain records I really love that are all in the same key, and you can have a difficult time discerning one song from the other.

AllMusic: The first Ramones album might be the best example of that.

Goldberg: Absolutely. And I always loved that, but I never really listened to all of it that much. The same could be said about Wire; they’re really short records, but I was always looking for things to lose myself in a little bit more. I was actually concerned that the record was too bifurcated and more singer/songwriter-y type songs versus more atmospheric, instrumental stuff. That’s always been my thing, is how I try to make these two worlds reconcile. Bowie’s Low, which was a touchstone in many ways for this, what really annoyed me about that record as a kid which is now what I think is so enjoyable about it, is that he was like, “I have these songs, and then I have this music.” I feel like the record starts to go a little bit in that direction and then reins itself back in at the end. I’m a really big fan of crafty songs, Burt Bacharach and standards and stuff, and I’m also a fan of very drone-y, monotonous Eno, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo-esque soundscapes and things, as well, so it’s always been a battle for me.

AllMusic: Do your songs usually turn out the way you imagined, or do they often end up going in unexpected places?

Goldberg: For sure, and that’s what’s so fun about it. I think the same can be said for movies that I’ve written, where you think you have a much more regimented sense of how it’s going to go. I’ve been really, really precise about my screenplays and scripts, and I’ll use quite a bit of that as a template, but once you get in the editing room, it’s a whole other process, and I’ve always been a huge fan of that process. That’s how I think of myself in terms of making music, is as more of a curator of my own recordings. I also had a one-year-old son when we started making the record, so I was dividing my time between being a parent at home and not holing myself up in the garage for 12 hours like I’d done before. In doing so, you just keep re-approaching this stuff, and much of these were based on demos or scratch tracks that were 45 seconds long.

A good example is “Words That Rhyme,” a song that’s more conventional structurally, with a very band-like sound, but in that case, I was just dumping shit all over the session and deciding I’d figure it out later. When you’re like, “That’s the lead guitar guy, he’s going to play that part,” it’s not too tricky. I’d read about people who do this kind of thing, and it’s difficult to know when it’s over when you’re by yourself. It was easier for me to produce the second record, because I had my friend come in and I knew what he could do on guitar and I gave him direction, found a take I liked, and we’d use it. In my case, there’s 11 different guitar parts, and I’m figuring out which one works.

AllMusic: Did you ultimately come up with a system for figuring out when something’s done?

Goldberg: With a movie, how do you know the movie’s done? If you’re really servicing the script and the story, it’s probably pretty clear. Some of the things I’ve wanted to do have been a bit more elliptical in nature, but at some point your budget isn’t limitless, your patience isn’t limitless, and people’s time isn’t limitless. So when you’re making a record on your own, it’s a tougher question to answer. In my case, this took much longer than the last record did. I’d be recording vocals in the bedroom, then going to do my day job, then coming back to it. Eventually you have to say, “That’s as close as I can get,” or, “I’m out of ideas,” or, “That’s perfect, I love it,” or, “I’m tired, let’s stop.”

AllMusic: “Fly on the Wall” jumped out to me as one of the album’s better tracks, everything fits together just right.

Goldberg: When you asked earlier about sounds turning out how I imagined them, I wanted to address that song. It was such a behemoth, it started out as a 30-second thing I sang into Garage Band one night, and it had the basic components. The feel of that song is totally where I wanted to go with it, but I couldn’t get the song structure, so we kept re-recording it, restructuring it, re-editing it, and I thought it was going to drive Andrew into an insane asylum. It was one of those things where I just couldn’t let that one go, and it took so long that there are lyrics from the initial conceit of the song to Trump-relevant lyrics that weren’t relevant when I first began. That’s how long it’s been.

AllMusic: Is singing in front of people a different sort of vulnerability than what you’re used to in acting?

Goldberg: Yeah, even talking in front of people is another vulnerability. I stopped doing any kind of live theatrical stuff as an actor when I was 23 year old after growing up doing plays. I suddenly felt frozen, and it was so much stress and anxiety that it wasn’t worth it. Music had always been a really private thing, and I think I’ve gotten to varying degrees of success with [performing live], but mainly it stresses me out an incredible amount, and I have horrible anxiety.

I’m not a great player, so what I am as a live musician is much grittier. We’ve done versions of the first Goldberg Sisters record, which was really challenging, because it was a much more lo-fi conceit, and it was difficult to navigate that terrain, like we were doing a Flaming Lips thing but without all the backing tracks. We were doing some, but not much. There’s a whole other side of me that likes the looped stuff, all the ethereal stuff, a big outro, and that’s the part of me that just wants to sit around and make loops all day, and if I had my druthers, that’s all I’d be doing in front of an audience.

AllMusic: You play a number of instruments on the record. Is there any one instrument you really wish you could learn that’s just beyond your grasp?

Goldberg: The real white whale would probably be sax, trumpet or flute. I was a huge jazz fan growing up, so I tried to take sax when I was 16, and I just gave up, like a lot of things, after three weeks. I bought a sax for this record, I was like, “Goddammit, I’m going to figure this fucking thing out.” I knew kind of how to play it, so I was like, “I’ll just learn the goddamn notes.” Somewhere in all of these tracks there is a sax track, in the beginning of the B section of “My Boy Bud,” the last song on the record. My sax segues into my wife’s actual proficient violin playing. John Coltrane was my hero growing up, that was my goal in life. I have Art Pepper tattooed on my arm. If the world could go away and I could sit around and play jazz all day, that would probably be what I’d want to do with my life.

AllMusic: There’s a Twilight Zone episode like that, and it doesn’t go well.

Goldberg: When I dropped out of college at 19, I was really interested in making movies, that’s what I wanted to do more than anything, was to be a filmmaker, and acting secondarily. I was always into doing sound design for films, so I was doing that and music editing, which isn’t too different from what I’m doing now, only that I’m playing the music. So I was always interested in the construction of the sounds in an editorial way, I just couldn’t play. So I played these two dissonant things back and forth, like a Sonic Youth type drone thing, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” it was just that I didn’t ask anybody to teach me a chord, and I wouldn’t look at anything, and I’d refuse to be taught, which is one of my big problems.

One day I had a dream that I was singing and playing quite proficiently, and I woke up and I knew what the song was, I could still sing it, but I didn’t know how to translate it or how to play it. But in this dream, I could with ease, and it was within that year that I just got a guitar, got a four-track and an amp and a wah pedal and started making four-tracks like a fiend. It’s a super organic process, and on some level it’s frustrating because if I had really dedicated those years to becoming a better musician, there’s no question I would have. I was just more interested in getting my ideas across emotionally, so it became more about writing and recording as one in the same experience, basically.

AllMusic: You recently moved out of the house with the garage where you recorded this album. Do you get attached to places like that?

Goldberg: It’s brutal, I documented our departure quite extensively on Instagram, because I didn’t know how to do it otherwise without weeping throughout the entire affair. I’d lived in that house for 12 years, which is twice as long as I’d lived anywhere in my life.

AllMusic: You were on WTF back when Marc Maron was in his original garage. Who had the better setup?

Goldberg: I think mine was bigger, but his was probably a bit more cohesive. Mine was constantly in a state of flux; it was a studio, then it was a storage facility, then a studio again. But I think his was probably less damp.

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