Interview: Bassist Adam Hopkins

Bassist Adam Hopkins moved to New York in 2011 and played extensively as a sideperson in a range of innovative projects. In 2018, he launched his own label, Out of Your Head Records, while simultaneously releasing his debut record as a leader, Crickets. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Hopkins in January about his work.

Cisco Bradley: In Fall 2018, you released your first record as a leader. How did you put that band together and what concepts drove the music?

Adam Hopkins: Crickets was a really long time in the making. As many musicians in the current climate can probably sympathize with, it takes a lot of time and resources to put out a record. I’m going to make it a point to be faster releasing stuff moving forward–having the label is going to push me with that I think. Crickets has been playing since sometime in late 2014–I can’t remember the exact dates, but the compositions we are playing haven’t changed a whole lot since then. I had written some of that music in 2012, just a few months after I moved to Brooklyn, though some of it was written immediately before we recorded in January 2017.

The band itself is made up of musicians that I had associations with prior to Crickets, with the one exception being Jonathan Goldberger. I’ll get to him in a minute. This is a bit lengthy, so feel free to skip it, but I wanted to talk about how I met everyone in the band, and how Crickets came to be.

I’ve known Devin Gray the longest of anyone in the band. He had just finished at Peabody Conservatory in 2005 and I started graduate school there in 2006 to study with Michael Formanek. Devin was still around Baltimore for most of the next school year (I think he moved to Brooklyn the following year), and upon Mike’s recommendation we started playing together. By the time I had moved to New York we had already been playing for five years, and he was a perfect fit for what I wanted in this music. 

I guess I probably met Ed Rosenberg next, and that was also in Baltimore, though Ed was just in town for a Jerseyband concert. I was playing a lot with an amazing trumpet player Brent Madsen from 2008 up until I moved to Brooklyn (and we still play together, though not nearly as much as I’d like). Brent is also well-known for being the lead singer of Jerseyband, which is a metal band where the horns play the role of the guitar. Ed is one of those horn players, and I fell in love with his playing due to one 25-second solo he plays on the track “Strong Like Bull” from their album Beast – Wedding. Actually, anyone reading this should just go listen to that solo on their Bandcamp page–it starts at 1:42. Pay attention to the pretty short saxophone solo, and that is why Ed is in Crickets. That and he can make up the best names for fake nuts of anyone I’ve ever met. That comes in handy when you are touring in a van.

I met Josh Sinton next because his band Ideal Bread came to Baltimore in either 2010 or 2011 and the bass player at the time couldn’t make it, so I subbed for just the one gig. I later went on to join Ideal Bread in early 2013 and I started Crickets a year or so later, so Josh was an easy choice to cover baritone saxophone and bass clarinet. Ideal bread was playing a lot in 2014. We recorded Beating the Teens, did a number of short tours, and played a lot of shows in Brooklyn and Manhattan that year. The band had gotten really tight, and I formed a close musical relationship and friendship with Josh through all of that time playing, rehearsing, and traveling together. 

Anna Webber would have been next, and she is a musician I met pretty soon after I moved to New York. She must have moved back to New York from Berlin around the same time I moved up from Baltimore, because we played a lot of sessions, and in a bunch of various projects together. I remember right when we met we did a lot of sessions putting together “Workers Union” by Louis Adriessen in my basement and we very seriously (at the time) thought we should do a surprise performance of the piece on the Bedford Avenue L stop. We never did it, but Anna and I have played a whole lot together since meeting. She also happens to be one of my favorite composers of anyone alive, so it’s a nice kick to have her in my band because she writes music so much faster and also better than me–it’s inspiring.

Okay, so now Jonathan Goldberger. I am pretty sure I met Jonathan when I asked him to start playing my music, though maybe we played one session at iBeam prior to that. Either way, I was well aware of Jonathan’s playing before I moved to New York. I had heard a recording of him, Jim Black, and Todd Sickafoose–it was a live thing that I couldn’t remember anything else about, though I just looked it up and it was from 2010 at Barbes. I think I realized from that recording that Jonathan was my ideal kind of guitar player–his sound, use of effects, concept. It was all there in that one recording, and it was everything I personally love in a guitar player. He is a great improviser, and I think like me he was influenced by a lot of rock music early on (are there guitar players that aren’t?) and he was not at all hesitant to have that influence at the forefront of his playing. A lot of the music in Crickets was written with that in mind (and specifically with Jonathan in mind), and the guitar is the backbone of the music.

The music itself is half-rooted in the indie and grunge I was listening to in high school, and half-rooted in all of the jazz and improvised music I’ve listened to and participated in since then. I’m sure other stuff that I’m into sneaks in there, but those are the main influences on the music for Crickets. Before I released it I said Crickets would be the last rock-influenced jazz record I would ever write (another band I was a part of in Baltimore called Quartet Offensive definitely planted the seed for Crickets), but I’ve been so excited with the release shows we’ve played over the past few months, as well as the really nice reception the album has gotten, that I actually want to make a push for this band playing a lot more. And I plan to start writing the second record over the next couple of months.

But if I had to break it down and say specifically what influenced this music in a direct way, it would be bands like Pavement, Nirvana, The Dismemberment Plan, Built To Spill, anything Mike Patton was a part of (but Mr. Bungle was first), and my main influences as a composer and improviser like Michael Formanek, Tim Berne, Henry Threadgill, and their associates. It wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that I realized I could play jazz and still be into rock music and not feel weird about it, and then in learning about Bloodcount and from there Tim’s other bands, which led me to Chris Speed and Human Feel, then Jim Black and Alas No Axis, then Nels Cline Singers, then a little later Mary Halvorson’s first trio record Dragon’s Head (and I was already familiar with her playing through Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant) and Hilmar Jensson’s records on Skirl. By 2006 that’s the music I was checking out, and that’s when I started writing music seriously as well. Those records showed me that there was a precedent for this, and that jazz and other music didn’t need to be kept in separate corners playing-wise.

So anyway, that’s where Crickets came from. Like I said we finally recording it in January 2017, but we only played 2-3 shows per year leading up to it, so the music still feels relatively fresh when we play it now. I am really into trying to play the music from this album a lot more live, and am hoping to string together some tours here and abroad. We did a super short run of Pittsburgh and Baltimore at the end of November and the band made it all so stress free and easy, and the playing was great. That being said a short run like that is pretty easy, but it got me excited to do more and start digging for good performance opportunities for the band.

To stream selected tracks from the record, check out my Bandcamp page.

CB: In 2018, you also founded and launched your own record label, Out of Your Head Records (OOYH). Upon what music do you intend the label to focus?

AH: Well at this point I can say that all of my own future music will be put out on the label, unless someone comes along and tells me they are going to actually pay me to record albums. That isn’t going to happen, so primarily OOYH Records will be an outlet for my own music–at least that is where the idea for the label started. Then I started thinking of it more like how I curate shows or a music series over the course of a year. I got excited in realizing that I have full control to curate the label to be exactly what I want it to be–I get to seek out music that I love (so much of it that my friends and close musical associates are putting out) and that I want my own music to be presented along side of. While the first two albums (Crickets and Dustin Carlson’s Air Ceremony) exist in a very specific and similar part of the improvised music world, I want to branch out in 2019 to do all kinds of different stuff: more creative and improvised music for sure, but also straight up indie rock bands, contemporary classical artists…anything that I like has a place on the label, and I’m excited to carve out exactly what that is over the next few years. OOYH 003 is going to be different and it is awesome. It’s a solo album that’s coming out in early April and it is fantastic–I’m actually quite flattered that this artist was interested in putting it out on OOYH, because I know they could have likely put it out on a number of different labels. Stay tuned for that–we’ll be announcing it far and wide when the time comes. That’s all I’ll say for now.

I’m excited to do some releases that aren’t so full-scale either–stuff that is less produced and doesn’t take 19 months to finish. Music that is great but might be recorded at a lower quality, or a live show . . . stuff we can do on a quicker turnaround but would still fit in great with the aesthetic of the label. And I think it is cool to do those as digital-only releases, or digital with some awesome art element (more on the art below). I’ve also reached out to some people about music that they may have recorded years ago that never had the right outlet. I think often about how much music that has probably been recorded but didn’t have the right opportunity to be released, either because it is so expensive or it lost momentum at some point. I’m excited to find some of that music as well, and help in getting it out into the world.

The visual element of the label is curated in a similar way to the music. Two of my closest friends in the world, Nick Prevas and T.J. Huff (I met Nick on the first day of high school, and T.J. on the first day of college), are amazing artists and they both agreed to be a part of the label as soon as I told them the idea. We actually already had a logo for the OOYH Collective designed by a friend and great artist from Baltimore named Matt Bovie, so we used that as a starting place for the look of the label. Nick updated that and touched it up, and then expanded it way beyond just the one initial logo. We have so many cool options for OOYH logo swag just waiting in the wings thanks to Nick. T.J. is doing the art and design for each release, and with each release the art he makes further defines the look of the label. We’re doing a ton of merch too–each album has its own sticker, we’re doing OOYH t-shirts and stickers, some super limited art for Crickets and future releases, and people are actually buying it! I think the only feedback I gave at the beginning was that it’d be cool if the visual element of the label was in the zone of 90’s skateboard companies. Who knows if we’ll stick to that–I don’t want it to be a prohibitive thought in any way, but that idea was a starting point. I’m having a lot of fun watching these guys run wild with the visual side of things, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have their help and friendship.

CB: What led you to New York?

AH: I didn’t quite know where I wanted to be when I finished Peabody in 2008. My immediate family was, and still is in Baltimore, so I was happy to be there and I was playing a lot. New York was always in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t in a major rush to move. It’s a pretty easy drive from Baltimore, so I would go up often to hear a lot of the musicians I mentioned earlier. I’ll talk about the Out of Your Head Collective a bit more later, but that got started in 2009 in Baltimore at a venue called the Windup Space and there was this amazing scene of improvisers all playing music together, starting bands, writing music–the scene wasn’t huge, but everyone had a band that they wrote music for and we were all playing together. I started this band Quartet Offensive with John Dierker, Eric Trudel, Matt Frazao, and Nathan Ellman-Bell. We would rehearse once a week, played tons of shows, and while it was very much a collective group I learned a lot of the skills required to lead a band during that time. Setting up shows, making a record, bringing bands in from out of town to double bill–all of that stuff I was doing for the first time when I was finishing up at Peabody. So the improvised music scene in Baltimore was awesome to be a part of at that time, and it was absolutely 3-4 of the most formative years of my life musically. I’m so grateful for that time, and I’m so happy that I didn’t move out of Baltimore as soon as I was done with school. 

At this same time I realized how much I love being a side person. I love playing other people’s original music, sight reading, rehearsing, and Mike Formanek was insistent on me sharpening all of those skills during our time together. So while the music scene was thriving in Baltimore and I was very active as part of it, because it was small there weren’t as many opportunities to do side work. Then in May 2010 I went to the infamous Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music, at that time led by Dave Douglas (now led by Vijay Iyer). Those three weeks changed everything for me, because it was 65 people from all over the world, each who had their own music that they were trying to put together. So it was three weeks of being a side person and playing all of this amazing music for the first time with people from everywhere. On top of that I had opportunities to play with some of the faculty like Mary Halvorson, Dave Douglas, Matana Roberts taught us part of Coin Coin, Darcy James Argue did a big band of his compositions, Myra Melford led John Zorn’s Cobra, and I got to talk at length with some of the bass players I idolized like Drew Gress and Matt Brewer who were doing exactly what I wanted to be doing in NYC. It’s also where I met Hank Roberts for the first time (more on Hank below). Many of the student musicians at the workshop were living in NYC (I still play with most of them today, most often Dustin Carlson in Air Ceremony and Angela Morris in her big band with Anna Webber) and I saw moving as a continuation of what I was able to do at Banff. When I got back to Baltimore from the workshop I started making plans and saving money to move. 

Sort of ironically I was writing for a lot of projects in Baltimore and when I moved to NYC in 2011 I almost completely focused on that side person role. It kind of got away from me a bit, because it took until 2017 to actually record a debut album. While I was technically leading bands from the get-go in New York I was playing enough as a side person that it was never a priority really until Crickets . . . it’s part of the reason it took me so long to document that band.

I guess I should also mention that I recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, with my wife Maggie and my dog Cat. I hesitate to (and didn’t) put that at the top of the interview because I am remaining pretty active in NYC as both a bass player and bandleader. At least that is the intention, and so far all signs point to that being the case (come on, keep calling me to play in your bands–I’ll drive up no problem!) We’ve been here for two months at this point and are already loving it so much–I wake up in the morning and walk through the woods, and we actually live in the city, not the suburbs. There is an amazing music scene here that I am just starting to scratch the surface of being aware of. But I mention Richmond because as much as I hope to still be a side person, part of my master plan now is to buckle down and push hard to make my own projects happen. I am excited to be a side person here as well, but like Baltimore there just aren’t as many people in Richmond as there are in Brooklyn, which means there is a limit to how much side work is available. There are also so many great bass players in Richmond . . . that’s inspiring too. 

So anyway, I’ve already been taking the time to write CRICKETS II, which I hope to start getting rolling in the next couple of months. And I want to release an album of strings (viola, cello, bass) and drums even before that. That band has played together a few times before, but I am writing that album now and I’ll book some shows for it in NYC over the next year or so to get it ready to record. I’m really excited about it, and I’m excited to start putting more time and energy into being a composer again. I feel like being out of Brooklyn full time I am returning to a similar place to where I was before I moved to NYC, when band leading and writing was a priority. But now it is eight years later and I feel like I have a much clearer idea of what I want that to look like for myself, and what music I want to be putting out there. Seriously though I still want to play other people’s music as well, so just ask!

CB: Who do you consider your primary influences?

AH: His name keeps coming up, but my primary influence as both a bass player and band leader is and always will be Michael Formanek. And while I consider myself very lucky to call him a friend at this point in my life, he continues to be the model for what I want to be doing in music (and what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years). I don’t know if I really need to talk about all of his accomplishments to the people reading this–if you happen to be reading and aren’t aware of Mike you might want to stop now and go check him out!

But years before I met Mike there were a few artists and events that made me do a bit of a left turn from the normal jazz path, which took place during my undergrad. My second year at JMU had just started and I think it was like the first or second day of classes, the director of the jazz program Chuck Dotas said there was this band playing in Charlottesville that night, and that a bunch of us should drive over. I had no idea who they were at the time, but it was John Zorn’s Masada. We went and I was totally blown away by that band. I loved how Greg Cohen and Joey Baron could hold down pretty simple grooves for 10 minutes and Zorn would absolutely flip out over them. He was so punk rock in a jazz context, even in a “milder” band like Masada (compared to something like Naked City) in a concert hall where everyone was sitting down. When I got back to the music library the following day I started checking all kinds of new (to me) stuff out, but most notably Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come, which remains one of my favorite records to date. But yeah, I got to Zorn before Ornette by one day or so. Then I realized the connection of Zorn to Mike Patton (and I had been listening to Mr. Bungle since middle school) and things got weird in a great way. That being said I was still very much listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis . . . all of the normal stuff that you find as a jazz student in your late teens, but also this whole new world had just opened up.

Fast forward again and a lot of things happened together in 2006: I started studying with Mike Formanek and seriously writing music at the same time. And it was also the year that I accepted/decided that I wasn’t going to pursue a career in playing in orchestras. I should note that at this same time I was also studying with an amazing classical bass player and teacher Jeffrey Weisner, who was super supportive of me leaving the orchestral path and finding my own way as well. Anyway I was deciding that I wanted to pursue a career as an improvising musician, and Mike was right there. So I got to see how to do it quite literally from the best.

Some of the other huge influences at various points are Tim Berne . . . even though I mentioned him already I owe enough to his influence to mention him twice, and the same goes for Henry Threadgill. Tom Waits always, recently this amazing songwriter Phil Elverum (who releases music under Mount Eerie, though I knew his music through the Microphones as well) . . . he’s put out my favorite records of the past couple of years. Stravinsky is my all-time favorite classical composer, and Eric Dolphy is probably the horn player that I return to most often as a soloist. Drew Gress’ Seven Black Butterflies was a huge one for me when it came out, and Drew and Mike are my two favorite bass players. I worked my way a little bit backwards through Tim’s music (I first heard him on Mike’s record Nature of the Beast, and then immediately got to Bloodcount), and when I got to Fractured Fairy Tales, Sanctified Dreams, and Fulton Street Maul I discovered Hank Roberts. That opened up this completely different view into what a string player could do in an improvised context. I consider Hank to be one of the most unique voices in creative music of all time. I am lucky enough to call Hank a friend today as well, and I’m not sure he fully realizes the influence he had (and continues to have) on me as a bass player–it for sure changed the way I think of the role of the bass in an improvised setting.

My friends and peers are doing awesome things, and that has maybe the most direct influence on me right now. Seeing them do cool stuff makes me want to do cool stuff. Musically in the immediate past or future that would include Chris Hoffman’s album MULTIFARIAM and Anna Webber’s upcoming album Clockwise on Pi Recordings. Hearing those two records I thought “wow, I need to get moving and make some stuff.” That’s the best . . . being inspired by your friends. Also a musician that I learned about in the past year is Wendy Eisenberg . . . she is in that vein of guitar players that I talked about when I talked about Jonathan Goldberger (though I don’t really consider them similar in a lot of ways). I don’t actually know Wendy very well (we’ve only played together one time), but when I heard her the first time I thought “this is exactly the kind of guitar playing I love” though she was also singing and it was about her songwriting too. Kenny Warren, he writes the best songs. I wish I could write songs like Kenny, but I’m lucky to be able to play those songs with him in Laila and Smitty. I play with Carlo Costa in that band, and his label Neither/Nor was one of the influences for me starting OOYH Records–seeing what he did with that label made me realize what could be done on the smaller scale that is required for improvised music releases. And he’s putting out consistently great music that all fits into his vision. I could roll with this for a while . . . I’m into what my friends are doing.

CB: You ran the Out Of Your Head Collective in Brooklyn, which brought musicians together who often had never played together before and had them improvise in front of a live audience. Can you talk about that experience?

AH: I went through a couple of periods of curation during my time in Brooklyn. Before 65Fen and A.E. Randolph was the Out Of Your Head Collective, which I got going a year or so after I moved to Brooklyn. I mentioned it earlier as well, but it was a thing we got started in Baltimore in 2009. A great guitar player Matt Frazao and I started the collective as a way to try to unify the improvised music scene in Baltimore, and it ended up being much more successful than we ever expected. We organized weekly performances at The Windup Space, and it happened for five years very much due to the support of the owner and my good friend Russell de O’Campo. In hindsight two people organizing something in the ballpark of 50 concerts per year is crazy to modern-day me, but we were young and spritely I guess. The concept was born out of the fact that Matt and I were both playing with improvisers from a number of different scenes but a lot of those people didn’t really know each other. So we were thinking let’s introduce these people to each other, but let’s just make them get on stage and play two sets of improvised music together. It was very much about organizing first meetings, at least for the first couple of years. It got to a point where everyone knew each other and had played together, so they couldn’t all be first meetings anymore, but we were still curating one-time-only bands to perform. It was almost always great–it was sometimes terrible, but that was part of the fun. OOYH is how one of my collective bands BeepHonk (with Dave Ballou, Anthony Pirog, and Mike Kuhl) got started–we were put together for an OOYH and just kept playing. Anyway I loved the collective and the concept behind it so much that I started a chapter of it when I moved. It ended up being a great way to meet a lot of awesome musicians–at the peak I probably had over 100 people on the email list interested in playing. And people came to check it out. I sort of had an unwritten rule that if you wanted to be a part of a performance you should really come check out what we are doing first–I still feel very strongly about this. Before you ask a curator for a gig, come check out the series and see if it is a good fit for you! That goes a long way. But all these people wanted to be involved and it turned into a great hang for musicians, even if they weren’t playing that night. That started at Freddy’s Bar and eventually moved to Threes Brewing and now it doesn’t happen anywhere. I understand that bars need to make money, I really do. I mean, why would they have music if they were losing money on it? But we had a lot of people out almost every time we did OOYH! Maybe a few slow nights, but we were bringing in people regularly and building something, and I think they failed to see the potential long term and what it did for the music community. It made me appreciate what a special thing we had with the Baltimore version of the collective, and what a huge part the support of Russell played in that. Again I know people need to make money, especially to make NYC rent, so I don’t take it personally or hold it against either one of those places. But it was a cool thing and I was sad to see it go–I kind of took it personally actually. 

Of all the different series that I’ve curated, I do have to say that the Out Of Your Head Collective is the one that I am the most proud of to date. I hope to do something like it again at some point. I can’t even remember specific shows as well as I remember just being at those performances, and the feeling in the room, and not just the people who were playing but the people who were there hanging out for hours after the music stopped. Those were special shows to me, both with the Baltimore and Brooklyn versions of the collective.

And now that I’m in Richmond, and like I said there are amazing musicians living here, I am excited to bring people down from Brooklyn and Baltimore to collaborate and play shows. Anna Webber is coming down on February 6 to do a trio gig with Scott Clark (a great drummer who lives in Richmond) and myself. We’ll play music by all of us. I want to expand on that as well–Anna will only be in town for a day, but I’d love to start doing some of those lower key OOYH recordings this way as well–have someone come to town to collaborate with musicians from Richmond to play a show or two then document and put it out. The musicians here are all playing all of the time, and cool shows too (and at some very cool venues in town). I’m excited to be here and want to try to put together some double bills of bands local to Richmond with bands that are touring–I’m always really happy to curate those kind of shows. People should have Richmond on their tour list–I can help! But fair warning: if you stop here you’ll want to move here. That’s what happened to me.

CB: At 65Fen you were part of a collective that built a weekly series that lasted for a couple of years. Why did that series work? What do you feel you accomplished there? Any regrets?

AH: I for sure think that 65Fen was the most successful series that I was a part of curating in Brooklyn, and I attribute most (if not all) of that to the venue owner Michael Campbell. Michael was so different from all other venue owners in NYC (mainly because he wasn’t a “venue” owner in NYC) and his way of being very hands off but also very supportive allowed that series to flourish for a few years. Really what ended it is that he lost the space, and not that he asked us to stop performing which is often the common reason for a series ending in NYC. It’s the same reason OOYH was so successful in Baltimore for five years. Both Michael and Russell were willing to give those series’ time to grow without worrying about how many people were at every single show–they realized that it takes time to build a successful series.

Also the second wave of curation at 65Fen was a really cool group of people and I think those were the best concerts the series put on. I loved everyone in the first wave too (they are some of my closest friends), but it was much less diverse and we were kind of all (except Michael Foster) from the exact same scene. So while I remember the early concerts very fondly (booked by Sean Ali, Patrick Breiner, Jake Henry, Josh Sinton, Michael Foster, and myself), we were all drawing from the same small-ish pool of people to perform. Once we enlisted Caroline Davis, Anais Maviel, and Jean Rohe the range of the concerts really opened up, and I was exposed to so much new stuff, and hopefully the audience was as well. Michael Foster left 65Fen to focus on a few other really cool series, and I believe some of those are still active.

I’d say the series at 65Fen ran a really good natural course–it was good the whole time we did it, and it never fizzled out. I think it could have kept going for years had Michael not lost the lease on the space. Jake has talked to him a bit in the past six months about a new space he is opening. Could it be called 65Fen if it didn’t exist at 65 Fenimore Street!? The only regret is that it is harder and harder for a cool little neighborhood wine shop that hosts weird music to make enough money to pay rent in 2018 Brooklyn. Once those ridiculous condos went up on Flatbush Avenue the storefronts started flipping pretty quick.

CB: Thank you.

Cover photo credit: Peter Gannushkin

Cisco BradleyInterview: Bassist Adam Hopkins