Ahead of their show at London’s Village Underground, Richard Gilbert-Cross met with Adam Green and Binki Shapiro to discuss loneliness, tour life, future solo albums… and Karate Kid
“I’m making a movie”, says Adam Green, leaning back into his chair. “It’s my own version of Aladdin. Binki’s gonna act in it.”
Binki laughs at him and they cast a warm look at each other, the first of many between the former Little Joy front woman and the heavily-bearded primitive Anti-folk songwriter. But he’s being serious. After a series of months Adam Green and Binki Shapiro are back on tour, armed with a new band to promote their self-titled album. But with oncoming festivals and bigger venues calling, what’s different this time around?
“We fleshed it out to show aspects of mine and Binki’s history”, he says. “An extension of what we can all bring to it. A song like ‘Getting Led’ which is an old song of mine at the end of ‘Sixes and Sevens’, you know, I don’t feel many people know that song that well… it’s like, track 20 on my fifth album! But now Binki is duetting that song with me and making the song new again. So when we present it to people now, there are different things.”
After a lengthy European tour, fitting itself around a short stay at an apartment in Cologne, they seem as close as ever. Considering what brought them to the present day was the stem of an idea that struck Adam waiting for a plane one day a few years back, they’ve achieved a lot. The project slowly began to grow wings once they’d both cleared their schedules, hanging out in New York at first – “going for Chinese food or getting a bottle of wine and just talking about stuff” – then forming “skeletal folk songs” which led to last year’s EP/taster, ‘Fall’.
Eventually they pieced together the album without a clear idea of the end product (Binki: “I feel like we do a good job of writing about what is happening specifically to that day sometimes, a situation in that moment”) that grew “pretty organically… these songs are extensions of our conversations.”
They fit well together, as the songs show. And it’s evident they had a growing admiration for each other’s work, culminating in Green supporting Little Joy in Brazil in mid-2009 (“I wouldn’t have known to do a collaboration with Binki if I hadn’t heard the song ‘Unattainable’”). So it was inevitable that Binki would, one summer, find herself a few streets away from Adam, going to and fro to write music.
How much, then, would you say your home towns were an influence on the music I ask, noting the melancholy vibe throughout. Binki looks up pensively: “I moved back to Los Angeles halfway through writing this record and it was just something I felt I needed to do, go back there, for various reasons. And I definitely felt pretty isolated when I was there, which I think may have contributed to the melancholy vibe. And Adam would come out, as another hater of California (laughs) I’m just kidding! No, it can be a very lonely place, unlike New York where there’s a real sense of community and everything. But in LA, we did a lot of writing there and we were each other’s only real companions around that time. So, I guess the second half of the record was probably more influenced by our surroundings.”
We’re sitting backstage in Shoreditch’s Village Underground. The room is plush and the only noise around is the gentle humming of the tour manager’s laptop on the sofa. Green and Shapiro sit in front of me drinking water, polite, jovial and glowing but showing a little strain around the eyes. Today marks the third week of a tour that has taken them from the highest plains of Europe – “We played a squat in the centre of Copenhagen, in a weird sort of town with no laws” – to here today on a mild, bleak day in London, after which they’ll move on to Brighton, Leeds and Manchester. Does it not ever get crazy, I wonder, waking up not realising which place you’re in?
Binki laughs: “Yes! Sometimes I wake and I’m like, to our tour manager, “Where are we? What day is it?” You just feel like a weird infant, being dragged from one place to the next. In the past I’ve let myself be unawares on tour, just sleep, wake up and play but now I feel like I’m trying to do a better job of looking at the map and knowing where I am, walking around and eating foods that are native to wherever we are. Adam’s actually been doing a very good job at seeing museums, waking up early… I’ve been very impressed.”
But it must be difficult being in a band, I press; craving some sort of formal routine and doing shows every night but having to wait around so much? They both sigh.
“Yeah… it’s like: snack, nap, pack, play, nap”
“But we’ve started doing vocal warm-up which was really fun!” Adam pipes in, a massive grin emanating out from his beard.
“Yeah, that’s a cute thing that we do”
“We have scotch and whisky. We like to drink scotch”.
To help with your voice or help with life?
“To help with fun (laughs)”.
Amidst all the fun though, lies a small shade of sadness. It’s worth noting that the album was conceived with both helping each other through heavy break-ups; Green briefly married in 2008 and has had a series of unsuccessful flings since (according to his blog, the excellent but somewhat erratic ‘Lake Roohm’), whilst Binki dated Strokes’ drummer Fabrizio Moretti up until two years ago. In this instance, I wonder if they’ve ever employed songwriting as catharsis.
“Yeah… sometimes I do, you know”, concedes Binki. “But sometimes I feel like there’s pressure on me, and I put pressure on myself and it becomes like torture sometimes”
It’s not all doom-and-gloom though. “I’ll set time aside, not when I necessarily want to, like three hours, and just write no matter what’s happening or what I feel like. But sometimes it’s definitely cathartic. I dunno… it’s sorta 50/50.”
Suddenly the room door swings open by itself and the noise of the support band’s sound check filters through. Green gets up and politely offers to shut it. When he returns he barely pauses for breath and neatly links onto Binki’s train of thought, a common occurrence, their voices criss-crossing as they finish each other’s sentences.
“Sometimes I get a big strong feeling and will come up with a bunch of lines, write them down and collect them. I don’t even know, I’ll pick up a line I wrote a few weeks ago and it’ll just be laying around on a piece of paper and I’ll go back to that.”
He takes a swig of his water. “But I think more than anything I write songs to sooth myself… in a way that I get frenzied and it feels good to feel my voice resonating throughout my body. And it makes me feel like I’m in the right place.”
He looks as though he’s in the right place. The three years that have passed since the tender, critically acclaimed ‘Minor Love’ (accompanied later by the lo-fi score ‘Musik for a Play’) has seen him concentrate on his artwork; notably forming the Three Men and a Baby art collective with Macaulay Culkin and Toby Goodshank and holding exhibitions across New York. He seems surprised when I mention attending his 2010 collection, ‘Teen Tech’, of which a portion of the proceeds went to a Haitian charity. Known for his past excesses, frequently but vaguely documented in his solo albums, I enquire what he gets up to on tour in his spare time.
“Let’s see… we’ve been in the van a lot, and the van had just what it had on TV, like a library of movies that were custom designed for bands to enjoy. So we’d end up watching The Karate Kid, stuff they knew every band would end up watching. The Karate Kid was actually pretty good!”
“Yeah you know, they didn’t have Spinal Tap”
“The Illusionist”, offers Binki.
“The Illusionist, which was pretty good actually! (laughs)”
Talk moves to Green’s film. In 2010 he wrote, produced, directed and acted in ‘The Wrong Ferrari’, a ketamine-fuelled Dadaist feature with particular nods to Seinfeld and Woody Allen’s Bananas. It was filmed entirely on an iPhone on one of Green’s tours and he hopes to follow it with his Aladdin idea which is, at present “not very far” into production.
“But I just want to start getting cracking on it as soon as I can”, he states.
Sounds like you’ve calmed down a lot, I say.
“Yeah I’ve had this whole crazy month ’cause my manager’s quit, so I obviously turned into a guy that had to be on top of my stuff… by stuff I mean shit! (laughs) No, but before that I was reading a lot. What was I reading? Isaac Asimov ‘The Gods Themselves’. It was really an interesting book, which I hope to finish when I can finally start to get a second to think. I like the hard science fiction!”
We’ve been gathered around for twenty minutes now, Green’s eyes rarely leaving the polished table separating us but looking up occasionally to ascertain a point. He suddenly stands, rubbing his beard with his hands and strolls around the room in his tight leather pants muttering about wanting to go for a walk in search of some wine. Binki remains still, playing with her hair and giving off a gentle authority that hints beyond her 26 years. I smile. Their album is the best I’ve heard this year, a sweet, gentle, well-written offering from two artists I’ve admired greatly for a long time. But we’re running out of time. I throw down my notepad and wonder aloud about post-tour downtime, eager to hear what’s coming next.
Binki bites her lip. “Well, I’m going back to LA to hopefully enjoy some warm weather. Do some surfing and camping maybe and, you know, writing and reading. I dunno. It’ll be nice to have my own space for a second – when you’re on tour you’re constantly surrounded by people and it’ll be nice to wake up and not have to joke around and what not at 8.30 in the morning. So I’m looking forward to just not talking for a second.”
“Well I was hopefully gonna have some sex!” exclaims Adam, returning with a familiar glint in his wide eyes. “Binki wants to do some solo stuff and I want to make another solo album. But yeah, we’re gonna do some shows in LA… California… a couple of festivals… but we’ll see obviously. We’re gonna play this amazing concert tonight and pray they’ll offer us a million different shows (laughs) That’s the plan.”
And with that I thank them both for their time and exit the room, slowly and quietly shutting the door behind me. Through the crack I catch a last glimpse of them, standing apart but closer than ever, no doubt finishing off the sentences in each others’ minds.
Adam Green and Binki Shapiro tour California and Italy throughout May. Check out www.adamandbinki.com for details and tickets.
All words by Richard Gilbert-Cross. Find more by Richard on Louder Than War.