Adam Busch: Buffy Star Diplays Triple-Threat

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“I’m obsessed with things that are funny and sad at the same time,” Adam Busch explains. “That’s always my goal in anything I do. I enjoy that, and that’s what I respond to, so that’s what I make.”

It’s an uncommon thought, from a guy who’s had quite an uncommon career. Probably best known for his turn as Warren Mears in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he’s been acting onscreen since an early role in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional in 1994. His acting resume stretches through starring roles in two other series, in addition to guest spots on bigger series like House and Grey’s Anatomy and a starring role in the film-fest-hit short The Dungeon Master. And his musical career, including associations with They Might Be Giants, Dan Bern, and the Indigo Girls, stretches back even further.

“I’ve been in a band with these guys since I was 13 or 14,” he says of his band, Common Rotation, whose new album is called Keep an Open Gallery. “We’re all from the same small town, East Meadow, Long Island. My father played jazz piano, and I played saxophone. And he taught at a junior high school that actually didn’t have a music department. So he was the music director for plays, but they had no musicians. So my brothers and I were the band. I played sax, one brother played bass, one brother played drums, and my dad played piano. And we’d get one day off from school a year to go into the city and play for their performance—Pippin, Bye Bye Birdie, The Pajama Game, whatever it was. And then I started making music with some friends from the neighborhood, and we started gigging as much as we could and going into the city, and before long we were holding down four regular gigs a week for like two or three years. Playing, playing, playing, getting our 10,000 hours in. And I had gotten started in acting around the same time. And one day the opportunity came for a role in LA, and I said, ‘Do you guys want to move out to California and live in a house together and make a record?’ And we never left. That was eight or nine years ago.”

Common Rotation set a pattern early on of playing in unconventional spots, even fitting in those gigs around tour dates: “We had been playing nonstop everywhere. I mean, we’d play in parking lots. Anywhere that wasn’t a proper rock venue, we loved it. But when we did that tour with They Might Be Giants, we were playing all these Clear Channel houses, and the fans were like, ‘Hey man, whatever happened to the guys that would play in the parking lot?’ So we said that every night of that tour, after every show, we’re going to play at someone’s house. And it started to become a thing. We’d just put a hat down at those shows, and we’d make more money than we were making as the opener at the actual tour dates. And we thought, ‘Hey, this is a better business model. And it’s more fun, and it’s easier.’ And we put out a call on the website: ‘If you want us to come play, send us an email, and we’ll route the whole thing together.𔃅 So we did it all over the U.S., and the U.K., and France and Germany, all over. That was the Living Room tour.”

The years of taking that unconventional approach and staying close to the audience have paid off with the new record, which is a more organic effort than Common Rotation’s previous work. “We’re putting out this record that’s just us this time,” Busch says. “Every record we’ve done in the past has been a producer coming in and shaping us. When we were young we went out with They Might Be Giants for a while, and they kind of produced our record, and it was very much this kind of rock/pop thing. And then we did a country/bluegrass record with some other guys. And people were complaining that we never sounded on the record like us, when we play live. So that’s what this record is. This was that record we came out here to do, but never did. It was just us, in a big Victorian mansion in Angelino Heights. And I do feel like we’ve captured that thing we do live. We’ve done so much live playing and we’ve been playing together for so long, but it’s true, we’d never been able to capture that. But now we have. We’re doing an East Coast run with the Indigo Girls, who we’ve toured with before and who sing on this record.”

But it was through Drones, Busch’s debut as a film director, that the association with singer/songwriter Dan Bern came about. “Our first big gig as a band was at the Nassau County Folk Festival,” Busch remembers, “and we went on at about 5:00 in the afternoon, and Dan Bern went on at like 11:00. And we were such huge fans of his from Vin Scelsa’s show [Idiot’s Delight on WNEW and later WFUV] that we told everybody we had opened for Dan Bern. Of course, he had no idea who we even were. And I had a friend who said he knew Dan, and I knew Dan had written songs for movies, so when we had a screening of our film Drones, I had my friend invite him in hopes that he’d be inspired and I could ask him to write a song. This was our first friends-screening ever, and I got really drunk. And I remember seeing Dan there, and I remember him laughing really hard and thinking this was going well. And then I kinda remember puking in the bathroom. And then everything after that is just a blur. And then the next day there was an email from him. “Hey, this is Dan. We didn’t get to meet last night, but I’ve been thinking about your movie, and I wrote this song. Let me know what you think.” And the song was attached to the email. And that’s the song that closes the film.”

Typically that would be the end of the story, but this story had much more to be written: “Well, he just didn’t stop. Thirty, 40, 50 more songs. He kept sending them. And he’d say “Tell me if this is getting weird.” And I’d say “It’s definitely weird. But don’t stop; they’re all so good.” It just became a matter of which one would fit best. They’re all great songs. They all have really catchy melodies and really clever wordplay. But we could only use so many of them in the film; as I said, it’s a dialogue-driven film, so you can’t use many lyrical songs. But when the idea of the soundtrack came out, we thought, “Now we can use more of those songs!” because if someone likes the film, they’re going to want to hear all these songs. And then we backed him on the track that ended up at the end of the movie, and he liked that experience so much that he said “We’ve gotta make a record together.” So now we’ve made three records together, and toured the world together, and it’s like, ‘Wow. Dan Bern is my friend.’”

The film itself is an alien movie with a corporate twist: “Drones is about people who work in an office, and some of them might be aliens, or might not; you don’t really know. Completely dialogue-driven, character-based. It kind of uses aliens as a metaphor for what happens when people are in the same place together for a long time. It’s a very stylized comedy. It’s like whenever someone says, ‘I love you but we can’t be together because my God says we can’t,’ or ‘I love you but my parents hate you,’ or there’s finance or geography—aliens are a metaphor for that. But we get to have a lot of fun with the science fiction stuff, which we’re all big fans of.”

The screenplay came together quickly, due in part to a clever concept and a duo of very prolific writers: “Our writers, Acker and Blacker, who I’m a huge fan of, have a very quirky, stylized kind of dialogue. I had the opportunity to make a film in Louisiana because some of my friends had moved to Louisiana and started a studio and they were looking for stuff. They were making genre films and not making anything that was making them very happy, and I was on a mission to make them do something that they liked. Acker and Blacker had never written a screenplay, but I loved their writing so much that I came to them and said, if I can get this location, and if I can get this amount of money, and if I can use whoever we want, and direct this film, what would you like to do? And a week later they handed me the script.”

Drones gave Busch the opportunity to work with some people with whom he’d wanted to collaborate, like James Urbaniak, who he’d seen in the one-man Broadway show Whatever Happened to Tom Payne. But after combining music and acting, he couldn’t resist combining two of his favorite fictional worlds. “Samm Levine I just sort of knew from around town; we go to the same parties. And the idea of mixing this Buffy the Vampire Slayer world that I was a part of with that Freaks and Geeks world was just really appealing.”

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