Low Cut Connie’s Adam Weiner: Flipping the Switch

Music Features Low Cut Connie
Low Cut Connie’s Adam Weiner: Flipping the Switch

Art Dealers is the title of both the recently released Low Cut Connie studio album and the forthcoming documentary movie about the band. Though some songs are in both, those in the former are all studio versions, while those in the latter are all live versions.

The first thing you see in the movie is the band’s front man Adam Weiner, sitting in a diner, wearing a black fleece jacket with his signature dark curls drooping over his forehead. “I’m shy,” he tells filmmaker Ray Power, “very shy. I’m very square, a very boring person.”

Before long, though, the movie captures him in a crowded, sweaty New York City nightclub, his denim jacket open over a torn-apart undershirt, one boot on the piano bench, one boot stretched out behind him like a weathervane, as he pounds rock ‘n’ roll triplets on the keyboard and hollers, “Mama, Mama, Mama, tell me I’m a good-for-nothing; tell me I’m a real big boy.”

Was he lying about being shy? Was he joking? Not at all. He’s just the latest example of that show-business staple: the performer who’s quiet and withdrawn offstage but who transforms into a boisterous attention-getter, a charismatic magnet whenever he or she steps into the halo of the spotlight and the bubble of the crowd’s roar. In the dressing room, Weiner is one way. When he grabs the mic, he’s another.

“It feels very natural,” Weiner says over the phone from his South Philly home. “It’s a switch that flips on. There are a lot of performers like me who are rather introverted. Prince was shy; Elvis was shy—David Bowie, Patti Smith. They’re shy, but you see them perform, it’s like a thousand firecrackers going off at once. It’s like we conserve energy offstage, so we have more energy when we’re onstage. Some of my fans are disappointed when they discover how boring I am in real life. They expect me to be that outgoing, over-the-top guy all the time.”

He’s nervous when the stakes are low, calm when they’re high. In October, for example, he was invited to perform at Monmouth University. Bruce Springsteen was being interviewed there, and once the interview ended, they wanted Weiner to sing Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street.” “It’s a long, complicated song,” he recalls, “and he’s there on stage watching me. It should have nerve-wracking, but it felt easy. The moments that most people would find the most difficult, I find the easiest. I’m at ease on stage as I am nowhere else.”

What makes this possible? Well, it’s an entirely different dynamic when the lights are on you and the listeners are in the dark, when you’ve got a microphone that makes you louder than everyone else, when you’ve got an audience that’s willing, even eager to be entertained. That’s not like most interactions when you’re face-to-face with someone who can interrupt or rebut you. On stage, the singer has the license to drown out and overwhelm every heckler and naysayer.

“I’m a person with certain kinds of anxieties and nervousness that are amplified offstage and turned down onstage,” Weiner confesses. “Some people who are very gregarious and outgoing clam up when you put a mic in front of them. I’m the complete opposite. Art has been a great vehicle for bringing out this part of me.”

Weiner first discovered this magic trick when he was a student at Cherry Hill High School East in the Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. He was the kind of withdrawn, weird kid who got bullied by everyone but his handful of artsy friends. But he had a little rock ‘n’ roll band, and they entered the school’s Battle of the Bands.

“I don’t know why,” he remembers, “but in the middle of a song, I shouted, ‘If you scream loud enough, I’ll take my shirt off.’ They did, and I did. Soon everyone in school was saying, ‘Who is this kid?’”

At first he misinterpreted the event. He thought he wanted to pretend he was someone else. So after high school, he moved to New York to become an actor. But he soon realized he didn’t want to speak someone else’s words; he didn’t want to be someone else. He wanted to be himself as he had never been before. He got a job playing piano in Manhattan’s gay bars, where it took a lot of work to be more entertaining than the clientele.

“I decided pretty quickly that I was going to be a performer,” Weiner explains, “but not as an actor. Music was going to be my thing. I didn’t want to play a role; I wanted to be myself, in the same way Little Richard and Iggy Pop were themselves in their purest form. I realized my offstage and onstage personalities were the same; I just needed to lose my inhibitions.”

On the strength of Weiner’s uninhibited showmanship, Low Cut Connie has earned the reputation as one of the most exciting live shows in rock ‘n’ roll today. Springsteen and Elton John—no shrinking violets themselves—have both endorsed that view. But it’s the other side of Weiner—the increasingly ambitious and skillful songwriter in his quiet, shy moments at home—that gets overlooked as a result. And when that side links up with the unrestrained stage act, Low Cut Connie becomes a lot more than the party band they’re often described as.

“As a performer,” he says, “I have developed stage IQ, but once the lights come on, you have to turn your brain off and just let go. With songwriting, you have to be more intentional, more of a craftsman. Performing and songwriting are different, but they’re connected. When I’m writing songs, I’m thinking about the way I am on stage, what’s the song’s going to sound like recorded and then what it’s going to be like to sing it every night.”

The lead single off the Art Dealers album, for example, is “Are You Gonna Run?’ a rock ballad, a romantic plea to a lover who may be on the verge of leaving. Over tentative R&B piano chords, Weiner sings in a voice filled with equal measures of fear and hope: “Will you move away when I start getting old? Are you gonna run?” This is not the pounding-ahead train music to keep the party going; this is a warning about the party coming to an end. On the bridge, an elegant sequence of descending chords crashes out of the groove to indicate the narrator’s tumbling feelings. That’s writing, not improvisation.

“After years of building trust with my audience,” he argues, “I feel able to try all kinds of different things in a show. Vulnerability is audacious too. It takes a lot of cajónes to show vulnerability. Although people describe Low Cut Connie as a ‘party band,’ it’s a socially conscious party. Maybe not in an overt way, because that’s me, as a songwriter I don’t announce the importance of my songs as some songwriters do.”

Or consider “Whips and Chains,” an uptempo rocker built atop clattering drums and a fuzztone riff from the band’s longtime guitarist Will Donnelly. The vocal rides the band like a jockey coming down the stretch, but this is not a Stonesy celebration of kinky sex. Weiner’s warning you that you can live a normal life “like a real good guy,” but then, when you least expect it, “the iron fist comes across the sky, and they drop that hammer and hit you with the whips and chains.” The song doesn’t “announce” itself as a protest number, but that’s what it is.

The transformation that takes place when this shy guy takes the stage provides more than the opportunity to stand on a piano bench and howl. It also allows the freedom to be as vulnerable as “Are You Gonna Run?” or as political as “Whips and Chains.” It’s not that the switcheroo allows you to become another person; it’s that it allows you to become a truer version of yourself.

To remain true to himself meant changing the music as he was changing. From the first Low Cut Connie album, 2010’s Get Out the Lotion, to this year’s Art Dealers, the songs have continued to evolve—both musically and lyrically. From the garage-rock quartet on the debut record to the R&B septet documented in the new film, the band has expanded into new instruments, new harmonies and new dynamics without ever sacrificing the powder-keg quality of the live shows. And the words have cut deeper and deeper.

“I hadn’t written songs as dark as the ones on Art Dealers before,” Weiner says. “This time I learned how to pair the band’s life-affirming attitude with darker subjects. Older songs such as ‘Shake It Little Tina’ and ‘Rio’ had that exuberance about upbeat subjects, but with these new songs I was putting that exuberance together with dark subjects. As a result, the songs were more three-dimensional.

“The characters in ‘Sleaze on Me’ and ‘Don’t Get Fresh for Me,’ for example, aren’t living the good life but they’re still having a good time. We all have to learn to enjoy ourselves in spite of the tragic things going on in the world. We have to find a way forward; we have to find joy. And that’s my job: to help them find that. My job is to excite people, to never be boring, to make people crazy, turned on, to channel their frustration into something positive.”

The characters in these two songs are like many in Weiner’s songs: people on the margins of the economy and on the margins of convention—that demimonde where hustlers and entertainers mingle, drug dealers and art dealers, if you will. The title track from Art Dealers album describes how such a crowd gets pushed out of their neighborhood by the gentrifiers, leaving the displaced “standing in the gallery with nothing to show.”

“I’ve heard different people interpret the phrase ‘Art Dealers’ in different ways,” Weiner says, “and I think that’s healthy. For me it’s about the art life. Whether you’ve a singer, an actor or a stripper, it’s a crazy life, but it’s a rewarding life. Someone pays their money to buy a ticket and says, ‘Show me what you’ve got.’ They’re the consumer and I’m the performer. But the worst feeling for someone in an art scene is to feel that they’re out of fashion, that their time has passed.”

This was a greater problem for Weiner than most, because the music Low Cut Connie started out with in 2010 was already out of fashion. As a piano-hammering, primal-screaming rock ’n’ roller, he gravitated to rock’s first generation, especially Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. Weiner avoided the retro trap by writing distinctively original songs, but the sound was from another era.

“The rock ’n’ roll I do is out of fashion,” he cheerfully admits. “I have the luxury of never having been in fashion, so I can’t go out of fashion. As I say in the movie, ‘I’ve never had a hit and I expect I’ll never have a hit.’ When you’re a cult artist—like Tom Waits or Lou Reed—you have more freedom, because you’re not part of what’s happening in the music industry.

“There’s something to be said for sustainability. There are so many artists that we’ve opened for who had a hit, who had a moment and then it was over. If you’re a cult artist, you’re in your own corner, you never have your big moment, so you’re impervious to all trends. You have a loyal fan base who will stick with you no matter what. I don’t want to live and die by the trends of the music business; I just want to keep the conversation going.”

The Art Dealers film captures that bond between Low Cut Connie and its audience. Much of the movie takes place in Sony Music, a midsize rock club in midtown Manhattan, or in the Blue Note, a narrow downtown jazz club. In both locations, the patrons are as sweaty as the musicians, up on their feet and singing along to the lyrics or shouting encouragement to Weiner to take it one step further. “Whatever I have to do to give you in the audience that orgasmic experience,” he says on camera, “I’m going to do.”

Earlier in the film, in his quiet, self-reflective persona at the diner, he says, “I’m just an average guy, but I do believe that average people are capable of great things.” In a sense, his whole career has been modeling that possibility.

“I found this personality inside me,” he says over the phone, “that was so different from the way I usually was. It’s the best part of my life. But it was inside me all along; I just had to find a way to bring it out. For me, being a normal person is very hard. It’s discouraging; things don’t always go the way you want. I had to find a situation where I could become myself. For me, that was being on stage. There I feel like I’m doing something good, uplifting other people. There I feel as if I could do anything.”

Watch Low Cut Connie perform at the Paste Studio in New York in 2017:

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