Moose thinks that ghosts might have followed him back from Central State. Not ghosts in white sheets or human form, diaphanous but otherwise realistic. No, the spirits were more like purple blotches on his walls, moving through his room, flying about as he hurriedly recorded all the music and words spilling out of him. “Your limbs go sweeping through my room at night,” he sings to them. “I can see your purple body swell and fall.” As he’ll tell us later, he’s “absolutely freaked out, talking to the spirits again.”
David “Moose” Adamson — who records under the name Grampall Jookabox and recorded much of his new album, Ropechain, during a two-week frenzy of productivity in spring 2008 when he says he was “feeling really weird and paranoid” — was never a resident of Central State. But he’s fascinated by abandoned buildings, industrial wrecks that may still hold life beyond their prescribed use. And he courts the kind of madness that’s good for the soul: the madness that wants to strike through the pasteboard mask to see forces and spirits not readily perceived, the madness that compels someone to say I’d rather not work today, because doing such work isn’t in my best interests.
One night early this year, Adamson and his girlfriend and sometime collaborator Aimee Brown headed to the Southside campus of Central State Hospital. Adamson ended up exploring the former administration building by himself when Brown chose not to join him (the building, since sealed and boarded up, is still in decent structural shape with dangers limited to broken windows, unless malevolent spirits are counted as possible hazards). He brought a tape recorder with him, and narrated his trip through the building, calling out for the spirits as he ran from floor to floor. A minute of that tape finds its way onto the last track of Ropechain, “I’m Absolutely Freaked Out,” on which Adamson, voice quavering and breathing hard, asks, “Is anybody up here? What’s your name? If anybody’s up here, I respect you very much.”
Adamson, 24, doesn’t seem like someone easily spooked; his style is easy and laid-back, as unpretentious as his casual outfits that often consist of a T-shirt or hooded sweatshirt, long shorts, high socks and optional ski cap. Ease and understated energy are part of his charm as a one-man performer; while he spends much of his time seated on-stage, attention devoted to constructed songs by layering loops on drums and guitars, he occasionally rises to dance. Bulky and bearded, wearing pin-point LED lights stolen from the K-Mart camping section on his wrists and forehead, it can be surprising to see Adamson dancing so uninhibitedly — as one audience member mentioned, “He’s just sitting on stage, and all the sudden, it’s a party.”
Adamson will release his second album under the Grampall Jookabox name, Ropechain, Nov. 4 on Asthmatic Kitty Records and Joyful Noise Recordings. It follows his 2007 debut Scientific Cricket, as well as work with local bands Bigbigcar and Archer Avenue. The new album is a freewheeling amalgamation of styles and ideas: Perhaps a folk musician at heart, Adamson usually sticks to a verse-chorus-verse structure, but his music is anything but typical for folk, with primitive hip-hop beats, tribal drums and low-fi indie-rock guitar entering the mix, usually all at once. At the same time, Adamson sings with an emotional directness about his life, both the more outlandish elements (haunting) and more prosaic (drug trips and prospective newborns).
Going mad together
Haunting and madness can go hand in hand, as the murderer in Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” knows well, but a more colloquial and less supernatural sense of insanity motivates the song “Let’s Go Mad Together,” in which the speaker lists all the things he doesn’t know in a panicky litany — what to do, to say, to wear, to behave — and then turns to an off-stage friend, proposing that they “accept madness together,” to sustain each other in a withdrawal from the world. A soundtrack to subterranean factory work — grating organ squeals interrupt a mechanical beat, men yelling in the background — accompanies Adamson as he screams through the song.
The most unhinged song on the record, “You Will Love My Room” replaces the panicky and high-pitched vocals on the supernatural songs with a guttural, violent yell. “I love you, love you” attacks the speaker, explaining that he “took mushrooms” and “proposed” to the subject because he loves her, and that just because when he “woke up” he “took it all back” doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her. A more composed, stable character closes the song by assuring the subject in a cool voice that “the positive light is still flowing.”
Adamson says this song is rooted in fact: “I had a weird experience where I proposed to my girlfriend.”
“After doing ’shrooms?” asks the reporter.
“Yes,” Adamson answers. “Everything was significant, and the Prince song was playing on the radio, ‘I Would Die 4 U,’ and the clouds were moving around. I thought that God was talking to me and that he wanted me to be a prophet for him, but he was telling me that the first thing that I should do was propose to Aimee, so I did. She was confused; she could tell I was in a weird state of mind. She said, ‘Let’s just go lay down.’ So we did. But then when I woke up, I had some reservations about it.”
Considering the baby
“The Girl Ain’t Preggers,” available since mid-summer on the Grampall Jookabox Myspace page and included in the free digital EP Rill Bruh, released this August shortly after Adamson was signed to Asthmatic Kitty, may be the best song on Ropechain, with an infectious chorus, powerful beat, unusual vulnerability and straight-forwardness, and a mid-song turn that mirrors the speaker’s change of mind. Adamson, who says the song is autobiographical, sings about his inability to provide for a baby — “I need some clothes right now / I need some shoes, I can’t clothe no baby” — then leads into the chorus, “Don’t it make you feel good when the girl ain’t preggers.” But after the bridge of the song, the singer sees the baby in a new light. Instead of listing off the things that he doesn’t have, he names those aspects of the baby he’s already fallen in love with — “I love the baby feet / I love to see the baby walk” — and has a different take on the recent news, “Don’t it make you feel sad when the girl ain’t preggers.”
Michael Kaufmann, the assistant director at Asthmatic Kitty Records who pursued Adamson, explains why “Preggers” appeals to him: “When I heard that song I thought it shared something with music I like: early blues and soul music; the rawness of the lyrics and the poignancy of them. I’m not really big on flowery lyrics. With ‘Preggers,’ there’s this raw street language. There’s a lot of irony in the songs too — in the line, ‘What good is a dad who can’t get sick’ — sort of the cruel irony of life, that to me then, is the blues element.”
The video to “Girl Ain’t Preggers” — released in mid-October, just prior to the Ropechain release — strikes an ’80s pop, Tim and Eric vibe, capturing Adamson in his most awkward dance moves, with a sparkling-eyed grin that’s sometimes at odds with the tenor of the lyrics. It seems a little more stylized and goofy than Adamson’s stage show — it would be tough to say he’s divining anything, except perhaps the spirits of public access stars past — but it could prove effective in marketing Grampall Jookabox and also indulges Adamson’s multimedia tastes (he posted a Web video series called “Philosophizin’” on YouTube before taking it down, deeming it “too stupid”). And for further absurdity, there’s also a “Preggers” Web game, where you are Adamson, jumping over babies to earn money to buy milk bottles, then dropping those bottles on babies to earn points.
“My music on a real tape”
Adamson grew up on Indianapolis’ Eastside, the son of a mom who loved Motown and Michael Jackson and a dad with a fondness for country rock. At age 9, he was writing and recording rap songs, taking advantage of an uncle who had a four-track machine and created beats for his nephew. “A lot of the lines I stole from other people, but I would rap about girls and my car — I was obsessed with getting my driver’s license — just cliché things I heard on rap songs that I would imitate,” Adamson explains. “I would get really excited about being able to listen to my music on a real tape.” He called himself Homie D as a young MC, and soon picked up his own four-track, starting on a path of home recording that would anticipate both Grampall Jookabox albums.
Adamson says his first group Gran’ Poupa was “a pretty bad high school band” that emulated Sublime, Aerosmith and generic reggae. But a second band, Archer Avenue, created to back Adamson’s Scecina Memorial High School classmate Richard Edwards (eventually of Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos) after he recorded some solo material, at least had a solid lead singer. “I’ve always loved Richard’s voice,” Adamson says. “He’s always had a way with melodies, and that was the main thing.”
In 2002, Adamson headed off to college at Indiana University in Bloomington, but dropped out after a couple years, too busy or distracted with the need to travel between Indianapolis and Bloomington while playing in Archer Avenue. He caught some glimpses of a world beyond Sublime and power pop while in Bloomington, working at a campus radio station and hearing some established Indiana bands — indie rockers America Owns the Moon, punk miniaturists The Coke Dares, melodic hardcore band Racebannon — as well as the cream of the crop on indie label Secretly Canadian during their showcases at Bloomingtonfest.
Around the time Edwards started to play with the band that would grow into Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos, the backing band morphed into Bigbigcar.
Adamson is embarrassed to listen to Bigbigcar’s one full-length, Limestone Throne/Kid Fight, an ostensibly folk rock record (Adamson’s acoustic guitar leads in the mix) with a lot of offbeat concerns — picking kids for recess, picking scabs, meeting Elvis Costello — and a sound that might be retrospectively called panic folk.
But when the album was released in 2006 by Indianapolis’ Standard Recording Company, it was a boost to the band: “Standard was always this cool thing we would hear about. We finished the record, sent it to them, and I remember when they called and said they wanted to put it out, it was really exciting and cool.”
Still the thrill of a record deal couldn’t keep the band together forever, and it was after a show in Lincoln, Neb., that they effectively broke up, and Adamson devoted himself to making music without anyone to back him up. “It was obvious the other guys were not into it as much as I was, and didn’t want to be gone every weekend; they wanted to be able to hang out and have fun at home, and not sleep on other people’s floors or wherever. There was a turning point, a decision had to be made, and it was obvious in Lincoln, Neb., that I had to figure out how to do things on my own,” Adamson explains. “Every band gets to where you have to decide if you really want to go for it, or if you want to just do it for fun and find another job.”
Bigbigcar was touring with Everthus the Deadbeats, so when the three other members of Bigbigcar opted out of the rest of the tour, Adamson hitched a ride with Everthus and played the rest of the gigs solo, heading on stage the first night with an acoustic guitar and bass drum. It’s because of this abrupt break-up that Adamson calls himself a one-man performer more by necessity than choice, and given his choice, Adamson says he’s interested in playing with a couple more musicians for shows in 2009, even if the one-man, DIY mystique still remains.
Finding a ropechain
Adamson found the necklace that graces Ropechain — a quarter-inch, faux-gold necklace arranged in a shape resembling the logo for the Pioneer agricultural company — after a house show in Little Rock, Ark. If it’s not something Adamson might wear every day, it would fit rather easily into his distinctive sense of fashion. And while a fake gold necklace doesn’t belong to any one race, Adamson’s adoption of elements associated with black culture — whether in fashion or in his music — has proven fertile for his music, and has also yielded some of the richest and most idiosyncratic songs on his new record.
Ropechain begins with the provocative “Black Girls”: High-pitched vocals that sound as if they’re being played backwards and tribal drums that have more than a little hip-hop “boom-bap” give way to Adamson in declarative mode. “Black girls walk on tips of mountains / Jump in seas like they was fountains / Convince the earth to turn around again.” The trope continues from there, in an ode to black women that are not only capable of great things, but are of giant size: they “make platinum from pure brass,” “bend skyscrapers with their brains,” “convince the ice caps to freeze.” A black woman is also — in a turn that might please an Egypt-loving revisionist historian who skips over the dominant narrative placing the birth of civilization between the Tigris and the Euphrates — “the mama of everyone you see.” And in a couple lines that could be read as a double-entendre of someone sharing carnal relations with these black women: “Black girls do shit that I can’t explain / Black girl won’t you do it again.”
When I put forward the possibility that the song could be construed as a disrespectful caricature of black culture, Adamson rejected that notion. “I am genuine in my love for it; it took a while before I would really let myself even talk about it, but I think it’s a good thing. I don’t mean to be making fun of it, or making a cartoon about it.
“We all come from the same place anyway,” he continues, echoing a line early in “Black Girls” about the origins of civilization. “We’re all kind of a part of each other, and we shouldn’t be afraid to respectfully borrow; seems like everybody does anyway. It’s just a way of getting to know yourself as a human. I like white things too, but I like black things also.”
Grampall Jookabox borrows some textures from hip-hop: the boom-bap of primitive beats, an occasional borrowing from Ebonics (the title to the “Girl Ain’t Preggers”). As a listener whose favorite group is Outkast, Adamson absorbed several styles associated with black culture: “I listened to rap early on; that was the first thing I really liked a lot. I think that the drums, beats and sense of rhythm were all really important there. With soul and blues and R&B, there’s a raw, visceral, sexual energy that is very powerful. That’s a generalization, but that’s part of it.”
While Adamson’s lyrics share something with the work of an MC — he borrows from the language of the street, wherever that is, much more often than your average indie-rock singer — he deliberately left hip-hop behind in his youth. “I have an idea of what I would want to do if I really wanted to be an MC. I would really want to immerse myself more fully in the culture. And I can’t freestyle — at all.”
The Anthology and Scientific Cricket
Even before the break-up of Bigbigcar in 2007, Adamson was working on his own solo project, inspired, in part, by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of hillbilly, gospel, blues and Cajun music recorded between 1927 and 1932 that became a grail for those involved in the ’50s folk revival. Smith, an archivist, ethnomusicologist, filmmaker, eccentric and drug addict, almost single-handedly created a folk canon when his six-LP set was released on Folkways in 1952. A collector of 78s recorded at the advent of electrical recording prior to the Depression, Smith separated his favorites into three categories in the collection — ballads, social music and songs — and wrote his own multidisciplinary liner notes that helped to place the songs in an America both more brutal and lively than our own.
Like those young musicians in the ’50s who were driven to seek out the performers after they heard the collection — so astounded were they to hear music so moving and seemingly authentic — Adamson was taken aback, and seized by a fan’s need to share the records with all who would listen. “To me, it was completely different from anything I’d heard before; I loved it, and that was all I wanted to listen to. The crackling and their voices, their weathered voices; all really dark songs about death, said in different ways; they had a different language at the time.”
Adamson says that corn whiskey and the Anthology birthed what became Scientific Cricket, Grampall Jookabox’s first album.
It might be hard to underestimate the influence of the Anthology on Adamson, although he could have picked up some elements on his records elsewhere. Schoolyard chants and call and response vocals pop up on both Grampall Jookabox releases; “Liggle Timmy Toothpick” on Cricket sounds like a jump rope beat, while “Old Earth, Wash My Beat” on Ropechain sounds more appropriate for an animist invocation beside a bonfire, referring to at least three of the classical elements (earth, water and fire). Adamson’s interest in creating music with a social purpose suggests that he spent a lot of time with the second volume of the Anthology, “Social Music,” a collection that conjures up backwoods gatherings (for worship or dance) near the beginning of the century, and draws on the listener’s imagination to make such scenes more real and evocative than if they were on film or a more immersive medium.
A focus on death and haunting could have been inspired by the cavalcade of misery that makes up the first and last parts of the Anthology, full of the murder of children, economic hardship and natural disasters.
Maybe most importantly, Adamson tried to recreate musical textures from the Anthology, intentionally recording in a scratchy low-fi way and speeding up his vocals to make them sound more reedy and thin (as if recorded with primitive equipment, at a time early in the century when bass couldn’t be easily captured or reproduced).
Not that Adamson and his girlfriend Aimee Brown, who sings on several of the tracks and serves as a sort of editor and sounding board for his work, thought that anyone but friends would hear the tracks. “It was completely for fun,” Adamson says. “We didn’t really expect to do anything with the recording.” The name Grampall Jookabox was accidental — Adamson says that “Aimee has these words she says in strange ways and those are two of them, and it just kind of stuck for some reason” — but might seem to describe the Anthology in a slurring way, a collection (or jukebox full) of songs recorded by those who would now be great-grandfathers or great-grandmothers to this generation.
Joyful Noise Recordings released Scientific Cricket after some back and forth between the label and Adamson about what songs should be included on the album. It made a minor splash in the music press and Adamson continued performing, both in one-man-band and group setups, with former Bigbigcar members backing him up at the CD release show. But a label with slightly more juice than Joyful Noise was interested in Adamson: Asthmatic Kitty Records, home, most famously, to Sufjan Stevens, and with outposts in Lander, Wy., New York City and Indianapolis.
The day before Asthmatic Kitty called, Adamson was rooting around his room trying to figure out what instrument he should sell to pay the rent, when he happened across old cassette tapes on which were the raps he had recorded with his Uncle Dave in grade school. “I was having this moment where I was thinking about how far I had come,” explained Adamson, who’s not given to empty moments of introspection. Then Asthmatic Kitty’s Kaufmann swooped in, offering to sign Adamson after obtaining a blessing from Karl Hofstetter from Joyful Noise Records (Kaufmann didn’t want to poach from local labels, but at the same time, thought he could offer his label’s resources to Adamson). Photo shoots, online EPs, mixing by a labelmate (San Diego’s Rafter) soon followed, and Adamson is now ready to be noticed by a wider audience, with the opportunity to head to Europe, where Kaufmann thinks an audience might be more hip to the cross-cultural synthesis that Adamson achieves in his music.