Adam Schatz’s cup runneth over in just about every way. A longtime touring musician with bands like Man Man, he dropped his first album of original material with his excellent band Landlady earlier this summer after finding a home for it on Hometapes. In person, he wears his mile-a-minute mind on his sleeve with good humor and a dry wit that lend his rather frenetic pace a charming quality. And when he’s not touring, recording, writing and promoting music, he finds time for hobbies, like founding Search & Restore, a non-profit that supports and organizes within the jazz scene in New York, and writing a column about donuts.
Of all these projects, Landlady is the one that’s been occupying Schatz’s mind for months with the combination of excitement and dread that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever made something important to them and then introduced it to the world. A dense, energetic record of what Schatz half-jokingly refers to as “adventure pop,” Upright Behavior brims with heart, sing-alongs, touches of silliness, observations about life and death and what it is to be a person and… did I mention heart? It’s got a lot of heart.
Landlady’s instrumentation is fairly standard for a rock band — guitar (Ian Chang and Mikey Freedom Hart), keys (Schatz), bass (Ian Davis) and two drummers (Chang and Booker Stardrum)— but their songs are ambitious—they have a tendency to start with one melody and veer sideways into another and another and another, all of them somehow coherent without inducing vertigo.
“I think the word I have been focusing on a lot lately is surprise,” Schatz says. “The act of orchestration in a rock band can be really underutilized. Like anyone, we’re trying to be special and trying to be original. Surprise is so important. You want to remind people that magic is possible, and it sounds kind of cheesy, but I really believe it, and this is such an excellent way to engage that magic. You gain their trust within the song, and then you change it up. It all makes sense in the way that a listener didn’t know it could make sense.”
A willingness to risk being cheesy is part of what makes Landlady’s music special, not because the songs themselves threaten to leave a ring of Cheetos dust around your ear, but because of the way they’re presented. Schatz has a way of using the band to create a kind of theater in which the audience is part of the show, and therefore essential to its success; last spring at SXSW, Landlady held a performance in which they passed out lyric sheets for the entirety of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and played the songs from that record as everyone in attendance sang along.
“I think the audience perspective is really valuable. You want to make people feel like they’re part of something,” Schatz says. “I like making things where people can come together and feel like part of something bigger than themselves. So for the sing-along, [“Above My Ground,” which Landlady often uses to close concerts with a big sing-along] existed for years before the sing-along component came around. I did a Levon Helms tribute show where I passed out lyrics sheets of ‘Lonesome Susie’ and everyone sang. Oh right, human voices singing together, DUH! It feels so great.
“So a few weeks later, I was playing in Puerto Rico. It was a loop melody I made through this ham radio. But it was strong. It was a strong melody, and I built around it, and these teenagers started singing along with that melody. It just blew me away, how good it felt. I think it got to the core of what a successful sing-along can be. It’s just one word, and it’s a really strong word, and to every person, it can mean something different.”
That one word, in “Above My Ground,” is “always.” At a show in March in Athens, Ga., Landlady closed with it. Onstage, Schatz led the crowd with his arms lifted over his head, waggling them at the ceiling like a conductor or a fiery evangelical. And it actually worked. The crowd was small and incohesive, lots of people standing cross-armed and at a safe distance from one another. It seemed certain we’d holler along with the song’s climax only once or twice, enough to seem like good sports and then quit, which is what seems to happen with everything from sing-alongs to protest chants these days. And yet, this time, everyone kept going. To my left, the hip, dry head of the radio department at a local music PR firm was shouting it with a face full of emotion. I left that show wanting to hug a total stranger, just because.
“I like that that song’s about death but not clearly about death,” Schatz says. “I’ve had people who experienced death, recently, at the show and come say thank you. And that just feels incredible, in a decade where ‘interaction’ has been co-opted and stripped of what it actually means.”
Upright Behavior, at its core, is about big ideas and big feelings. And it took Schatz years of working and making original material to put those ideas and feelings into his work. From 2008-2010, he was in a band called Previously on Lost, in which he and a friend wrote songs about, well, what had happened on “Lost” the previous week.
“I guess I wasn’t ready to convey perspective in a way that people wanted to hear, so for two years, all my songwriting was about television,” Schatz says.
Having finally reached a place where he’s ready to write personal music, Schatz has created a wonderfully thoughtful band in Landlady, one that puts equal consideration into their songwriting, arrangements, live performances and overarching values. But the key to their joy, and their ability to inspire joy in others, is equally as tied to their ability to let go and enjoy the ride.
“We have so much fun recording and playing live. That, to me, is more important than everything. We’re playing in a rock band, we’re writing songs with big sing-alongs because it’s really, really fucking fun.”