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Getting to Know... Adam Arcuragi

October 7, 2009  |  8:00am
Getting to Know... Adam Arcuragi
Adam Arcuragi makes music like some folks host parties. Equal parts revival tent and corner pub, his sophomore LP I Am Become Joy (out now) sounds like get-together where everyone feels at home—in the room and in their own skin—and seamlessly connected. Rife with rowdy choruses, banjos, horns and handclaps, the record invites anyone listening to the party, too, calling us in to have a beer and sing along with a collective of folks called humankind, spanning time and distance. A day after the record’s Sept. 8 release, the Atlanta-born, Philly-bred songwriter caught a train from his new home in New York’s West Village to return to the City of Brotherly Love. After a walk around downtown, Arcuragi talked to Paste about how the record was made, why museums should be open all night and why a guy who gets such a kick out of life categorizes his own music as “death gospel.” 

Paste: It sounds like you and the band are having fun on the recording. There is so much laughter and conversation and it’s great that you left all of that rawness in it. I’d love to hear a bit about the experience of recording—where did you do it? Who was there?
Arcuragi: My old manager introduced me to this guy [Carter Sowers] whom she had interned with at Astralwerks, the record label, just in the mailroom together. And they struck up an acquaintance. He started working as an engineer at Wyclef Jean’s studio, and he was kind of miserable there because he wasn’t really—I still don’t understand why he wasn’t happy there. He didn’t feel comfortable, because I think he was under the impression that engineers only do work that they like, you know? I guess he wasn’t feeling fulfilled because he wasn’t engaged in the process. People have all sorts of expectations. But, it worked out for me because he set up a home studio and was looking for projects to work on where he could have more of a creative input and be more of a producer than an engineer. I guess that was kind of like the crux of his dissatisfaction—not so much that he didn’t like the music that they were doing, just that he wasn’t the producer.

So we decided to do two weeks and have everybody sleep over—not at his house but throughout [New York]. My original plan was to go out to Montana, but nobody was going for that, so we moved it a little bit closer. But nothing binds together a group of disparate human beings like being in a foreign land where you have to band together, because that’s your biggest and closest source of familiarity. So it was kind of like going on a campaign—we packed up the elephants and hiked across the pyramids. I spent a lot of time preparing and getting everyone in order and then I just let it go and let it do its thing. It was two weeks of just intense stress but a lot of fun as well. Everybody else had a lot more fun because they weren’t—

Paste: Leading?
Arcuragi: Not so much leading, but making sure everything was kept together. Because I didn’t want to be the boss. I didn’t want to be the boss, Carter didn’t want to be the boss—we just understood that to make sure that it got done and got done well, each of us had to do a little bit of wrangling, but other than that we didn’t want to be telling everyone what to do. If they had a question about what to play or what to do, we’d answer those. But other than that it wasn’t like, “Here, do this” or, “You do that.” I mean, Brian—BC from BC Camplight—at first he was just like, “I’ll play some piano on a couple of the songs,” and then by the end, he was organizing and arranging, he was helping to get the choir together and singin’ the high parts. It was crazy. It was a lot of fun. Tommy [Bendel], the drummer, the day after he got back from his honeymoon he came up. His wife still doesn’t like me because of it.

Paste: Were you staying at the same apartment or were you scattered?
Arcuragi: Everybody knew at least one person in town, and I knew a bunch of folks in Brooklyn and so we were able to get everybody a place to stay. Actually, yeah, there was one night where David [Hartley, of The War on Drugs] and I slept on Carter’s floor. It was just great. Not to sound new-agey but there was a concentration of activity and energy, so tapping into that was nice. And I think we really did band together like a temporary mercenary army. Even Lauren, Carter’s girlfriend, who ended up singing—we were just invading her house, and Carter mentioned that she sings and I said, “Well then, why don’t you sing?”—even she had to kind of throw off and get into the spirit of it. She had to throw off any sort of claims to rights of, “This is my space.” Everybody had to, at the same time, take their hand off of it and let it go. So we did. We all trusted each other, and it was really cool because it’s not often that you can get that, especially when you’re doing music, because it’s such a charged thing when everybody’s looking at everybody else going, “What are you doing, man?” kind of thing. And it was really nice just to have everybody relax and let the excitement take over rather than having to match the excitement with anxiousness or frantic energy.

Paste: You can hear that.
Arcuragi: It makes me really happy to hear you say that because that’s really what we were going for. And like, the sound of the record is great, and the performances are fine, but there are a lot of little bits, sonically and arrangement-wise that if we had taken any more time, they would’ve gotten fixed, because everybody who worked on the record is a consummate artist in some way… If they took any more time, they would’ve tried to fix all that stuff, because that’s what you do when you’re very skilled: you’re a critic. I wanted to short-circuit that. I wanted to make sure that this was more of a photograph—well, not a photograph but an aural-graph of just that moment, you know?

Paste: How many people were there?
Arcuragi: Twelve? Thirteen? Around there—I’m probably forgetting somebody. They all were circling through though. It wasn’t everybody all at once, although there were about two days where it was everyone overlapping.

Paste: I understand that you’ve played with lots of different set-ups of bands over the years. Is your social circle pretty packed with musicians so that you can always just grab a friend to play on tours and recordings?
Arcuragi: I mean, if you play music with somebody, eventually you’re going to be friends, because you’re touching all sort of parts of the ancient human brain—our animal brain, you know? Being in concert with other humans. I mean, there are a lot of evolutionary correlatives to the necessity for these things, like the early primates defending themselves in groups—coordinated groups—so you will eventually become friends with the people you play music with. I don’t necessarily try to make friends with musicians so that I have them, but I also wouldn’t say that I only use friends. People, unless they’re busy, they generally get into the music. So it hasn’t been hard to convince people to play. It’s been harder for me to try and keep them, because I’m not a very good bandleader or namesake of the musical project. Maybe I don’t have enough mirror neurons or something, but I don’t do a good job of reciprocating. If someone is excited and I’m not excited, it’s harder for me to get excited and so a lot of people have complained over the years that when I’m in a bad mood, it sets the mood of the room. So there will be practices where I’m not angry or sad or upset, I just don’t have the energy. And you have to keep musicians interested, especially when you’re not paying them, which I unfortunately have never been able to do. But hopefully, that’ll all change in the next year or so. Actually, we’re going to be going to Europe in January and we’re going to be able to pay those musicians, so that’s going to be nice.

Paste: I read an interview in which you referred to your music as “death gospel.” Is that something to take seriously, and if so, what does it mean?
Arcuragi: [Laughs] I wish! I wish. Let’s see… I kept complaining that people kept trying to call—you know, God, everybody’s gotta have a genre, so I kept wrestling with that and complaining, so someone came up with the idea that, “Hey, you should just come up with your own label. And call yourself that and then there you go.” So I came up with that because, well, it’s kind of like gospel music, because we’re going for the same thing.

Paste: In terms of sound?
Arcuragi: Well, structurally, I guess, it’s traditional folk music—you know, country, gospel, anything with stringed instruments and group-singing and revelatory moments of ecstasy. The “death” part was put on there because… well, the application of a label is to cordon off and separate something from something else and give it limitations so you can clearly define it as something. And so I thought, “If you’re applying a label to isolate this thing, and separate it and make it distinct, why not make it a label that points out how we are ultimately all the same? We are all the same animal?” So instead of calling it something that’s a mouthful, like, “we-are-all-the-same-animal-gospel,” or “mitochondrial-DNA-gospel,” it’s just “death gospel.” Because we are all going to die. One time Peter [Wonsowski] was taking to his friend at a party and he introduced me and the friend said, “Oh, is this the guy that you play music with?” and he said, “Yeah,” and we started talking about it. He said, “What’s it like?” and Peter said, “I got this one,” and he put his hand up and he stopped me from taking. And he said, “It’s like going to church, but without all that annoying religious baggage.” And that always stuck with me, and so I thought, “Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t that be great if that was the thing—having the good word with us? The good word about what makes us all the same?” In a roundabout way it points out that this isn’t something to be afraid of but something to encourage you to enjoy the time that you have.

Paste: The fact that we’re all the same?
Arcuragi: Yeah. The fact that we are all the same. I mean, we killed off the only other intelligent animal that was genetically distinct from us—the Neanderthals. We’re the only one left. And so we might as well get together. So yeah, we’re all the same animal. We’re all the same animal, we got a lot of things in common, and when we get together and do things together, sometimes it’s a good thing. That’s it. And so, I put it out there. I tried to say it a bunch of times. My new manager doesn’t like it at all. She hates it. The first thing she thinks is “death metal.” So she thinks I want it to be a real macabre, black mask kind of thing, but it’s not that.

Paste: It definitely sounds dark, but it sounds like you don’t intend it to be dark at all.
Arcuragi: Sounds dark? Hmm. How so?

Paste: Well, “death.”
Arcuragi: Oh, the name. See, that’s crazy. That’s crazy—that’s your crazy white man’s world fearing death. There’s no need to fear death. See that’s the thing—it’s the attachment. It’s not so much that people fear dying in that it’s a scary thing. It’s unnerving to not know what’s going to happen, and I understand that. But it’s more, I think, the adherence to a living organism, you know? People don’t want to give that up, which is understandable. Since we know no alternative, why would we want to cash that in? It’s the whole, “What would you rather have? The quarter in my left hand or what you can’t see in my right hand?” It’d be great if we could go back to the old nature of cultures that celebrated life and death equally. Those people were a lot of fun. They all had way more sex.

Paste: Now, you grew up singing in the church, right? Is that where most of your musical training came from?
Arcuragi: I took cello in school for like a year or two, played saxophone for a long time, and was in choir all through high school. Those were the two sides—the sort of more ceremonial aspect of church, where everybody’s coming together for a specific purpose, and whether or not they meant it, the purpose was higher and ethereal and based on faithful belief in something that you couldn’t prove. And people did get ecstatic. Church did its thing—what it’s supposed to do—which is to whip people into this frothy fervor, and pushed out all of this language that they’ve learned and made them organisms again. They just were responding to being a super-organism, connecting to everyone else and moving in tandem and all moving in accordance. And, I don’t know, that’s a really important part of being a human being that you don’t need church for, but you do need. It’s as essential as solving word problems or any sort of mental exercise. Crossword puzzles, things like that. There are different aspects of your brain, and that’s one of them—working in tandem with others just for fun. Whereas in school, it was more of an academic thing—studying what makes a sound and what makes a sound work with another sound and how to conduct yourself in a group when you’re playing an instrument or singing.

Paste: Is the southern sound based on your Georgia upbringing very much related to the gospel sound? I’m just trying to put all of the pieces together in terms of location and religious tradition and all of that. I hear all of those things in the music.
Arcuragi: I think that for me in terms of what it is, I mean if you want to talk about the component parts coming together, I think it has more to do with sort of inquisitiveness. I like the fact that we have, whether on purpose or accidental, sentient intelligence as we know it in us that is singularly unique and totally awesome. Not only are we self-aware, and not only do we have a store or memory that helps us make decisions on future action, but we have the ability to appreciate things just for the fact that they’re there. The fact that a human being can get sentimental about a smell! That’s completely unnecessary in terms of being an adaptive trait that could have some sort of benefit, but it just is. That’s really neat. And so from that there’s just such a huge store of just things, you know—things that we’ve done or come up with or ideas that we’ve come up with. And we have language to pass it on. We don’t have to figure out how to make a fruit tart. We just learn from the people that invented the fruit tart. We can improve on the fruit tart, but we don’t have to rethink it or come up with it on our own. We have this sum total of all knowledge that was either written down or passed on, and so there’s just so much to learn and so much to know and so much to understand and all of it is a reflection of the world that we’re in, and so there are so many patterns to get into.

So I guess that’s the main driving force for me, personally. Because there’s way too much interesting stuff. And you’ll never get to learn it all, but I definitely—that’s what I get the most excitement out of. When it comes down to it, the only real thing I can do is observe something and then pass it on. Everything else is going to be just as transient and temporary as anything else anybody does, so passing it through my particular filter is, you know, it’s not more special or less special, it’s just particular. So that’s the part that I get the biggest kick out of. That’s how the town, location and experience and all that comes together. There are goodly portions of many days where I lament that I am not a businessman or something else, but if my brain wanted to be doing those things, trust me, I would love to be doing—having money. Being able to pay for things.

Paste: Are you doing music full-time?
Arcuragi: Full time? No. I’m picking up work where there’s work available. I’m up for a general handyman position at this one place up in New York which I’m really hoping comes through. I like working with my hands and by myself, and that would afford me the opportunity to do both.

Paste: Since you graduated from college at Temple, has there been anything besides music that’s been constant in terms of work, or have you been hopping between different things?
Arcuragi: I don’t know. I guess I taught for a long time, for like three years. I was a teacher. It was pretty awesome. I taught adult ed, ESL and GED preparation. Let’s see, what else has been constant? Nothin’. Going to museums. Reading books. Those are the only constant things.

Paste: What are you reading right now?
Arcuragi: P.G. Wodehouse was this turn-of-the-century satirist and essayist. He was a popular writer. He wrote a series of books about two characters—Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves, which is actually how we got the name Jeeves. And Bertie thinks he’s really smart and clever, but, you know, it’s a satire so he’s always screwing something up or getting into a situation and polite English society won’t allow him to just take the most direct course of action. I got into it because the BBC did a series with Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry as the two characters, and I don’t know, I just really like Hugh Laurie, so I got really into it. I’ve watched every episode. So I’m reading that just for fun. Oh, somebody gave me a copy of The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, so I’m supposed to be reading that. [Yawns] I’ve just been so wrapped up lately and feeling tired... Everything has been like, “Let’s get this together. Let’s get this record out. Can’t be 30 and working at Starbucks, and still writing home and saying, ‘Yup. Still trying to be a musician.’” I gotta at least give it that final push.

Paste: So it sounds like right now with the release of I Am Become Joy is a big moment for you.
Arcuragi: It is, only insofar as I’m very motivated to like, get on a train and come to Philadelphia on my day off to do this interview. Instead of being a hippie about it and being like, “Hey man, as long as everybody loves everybody it’ll all work out,” I’m just trying to think about it more practically. OK, fine. I have to acknowledge that there is a music business and there are certain strictures that I have to conduct myself with, and hopefully leverage something that I make into, if not a career, at least something temporary… You know, you spend so much time building up a discipline and trying to push and find all the little subtle attachments that you can use to make it really good. You know, like if you’re cooking something. Chicken is delicious. If you just heat chicken and cook the flesh, it’s delicious. Delicious chicken fat—there’s nothing in the world like chicken fat. If you spend a lot of time developing a palette, and really understanding flavors and how to put them all together, you can attach all of these disparate things and put them all together to make something great, and it’s refined and it’s something that’s really, really good. It’s something that makes us human—the ability to do something for the sake of doing it, or, for the sake of making it something that’s a little more qualitative and not just quantitative. It’s not just nutrients anymore. It’s nutrients that you can find subtle joy in from different combinations of things.

If you wanted to, you could get really into something creative, like music or writing or painting. Artists are crazy! They get so in their own world. Nobody ever really bothered me. When I was in elementary school, I figured out, “Man, if I just do this, no one will bother me anymore.” I stopped doing homework all through elementary school because there was a system, and if you figure that out you can get to a point where you can wring it out like a rag to get the most out of it. That was the thing. I was so busy for the last ten years just squeezing that rag—squeezing it and squeezing it and trying to get everything last drop out of it, and I totally wasn’t paying attention to all of the different things you have to do in terms of being part of the community. There is a huge community of musicians and promoters and things like that. If you’re not paying attention, it passes you by. I just wasn’t paying attention. Now that I have [my manager] doing all of these things, I’m getting in shape. Kind of like the difference between someone who’s a boxing historian and someone who’s a boxer. I’m moving from my dusty stack of books and I’m getting in shape. I’m gonna get in the ring.

Oh man. It’s not that I’m lazy, I don’t think. I like doing things. I just like doing things at a very protracted pace. Museums are not open long enough. I’m sorry. I have had daydreams about being super rich and being able to buy a museum and take over the trusteeship or whatever and just pump a whole bunch of money into it and have a 24-hour museum. I’d make the whole purpose of the museum that it’s open all the time and people can come whenever they want. It’s not so much that I like to do things at that pace because it’s easier—it’s that if you do something right over a long period of time… Like pit BBQ, where you dig a hole and put a bunch of coals in and cook something for like four hours, or like cold-brewing coffee, or brewing mead. If you do it right, if you maintain that balance over time, you get something delicious. So I’m in a slow-curing kind of mode.

Paste: So the title I Am Become Joy—does it have anything to do with what we were just talking about? About the process? What is it to you?
Arcuragi: Oh man, see, that’s the worst part about telling somebody the reason that you named something. I don’t mind, I’m just saying that your response was way more interesting than what I’m going to tell you.  It’s just very simple: After the Trinity Test, [Robert] Oppenheimer was sort of the man of the hour. He had designed the most devastating weapon that everybody had ever seen. Well, not him specifically but he was the head of the Manhattan Project. So everyone asked him, “What was it like to see your weapon go off at Trinity?” and he quoted a part of the Bhagavad Gita. He was fluent in Sanskrit—he could read and write and translate like a champ. It’s the 11th book and the 32nd chapter, where Shiva has come to convince this reluctant prince to make war on his neighbor, and for whatever reason, the prince was like, “Eh, I don’t want to do it.” So Shiva transforms him herself into this divine, ethereal, terrible version of himself and he becomes the destroyer. He becomes this blinding flash of light that you can’t comprehend and you can’t look at. And Shiva says, “If the brilliance of a thousand suns would make itself plain, surely that is the visage of the divine one,” or something like that. “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

But, Oppenheimer was raised with a classical education, and there’s an old poetic thing where you can reverse things. My grammar is really bad, but instead of saying, “I have done something,” you can say, “I am.” It’s like a poetical thing that Byron did a lot, and Shelley, where you take something that is grammatically off and it lends to the meter or the poem. It’s like enjambment—it’s a stylistic thing as much as it is a technical thing, because you have to fall within the meter but because you have to fall within the meter you can play with the language. So Oppenheimer said, and this was his translation, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Then Time Magazine took and made the quote, “Oppenheimer says, ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,’” and instead of taking the allegorical use of the quote, where Oppenheimer was the Prince looking at the destroyer, they kind of made it seem like Oppenheimer was saying, “I am become death, I did this.”

So while we were recording, I read that, and I said, “Oh, you know what? This is like our little Manhattan Project. We’re all sort of experts at what we do—you know, I’ve gathered together a fine team of scientists, and took them all out of their native, familiar territory, put them in my little Los Alamos laboratory, and hopefully at the end there will be a brilliant flash of right and a terrible sound. Terrible but great.

Paste: The good kind.
Arcuragi: Yeah. The kind that knocked the walls of Jericho down.

Listen to "She Comes to Me" from Adam Arcuragi's I Am Become Joy:

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