Musician and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers For The Arts executive director Adam G. Holofcener’s new album GEE-ZA-WHIZbegins with a deep breath and a deeper exhalation—a kind of “OK, here we go” that is gonna be familiar to any hard-thinking person wracked with anxiety about doing just about anything and also wondering if they’re the person who should be doing this thing or, well, anything at all.
GEE-ZA-WHIZ, a skewed folk-rock record is, like so much art borne out of the pandemic, an interrogation of responsibility, life, death, privilege, and what it’s like to lose your mind there for a moment. I’m struck by its sincerity and the way sometimes that sincerity is caught up in layers of jokes and references and asides, all of which have the effect of complicating the music and the words and making it feel more real and immediate, not less. The album is dense and catchy and at times like it’s talking to someone else and I’m not supposed to be listening.
But you should not listen to me, you should listen to the album. After all, I co-produced Adam’s 2018 album, Mostly Best Boy Versos, and we are friends and co-conspirators on a number of things, and sometimes he represents me in lawsuits against the state government, so I am extremely biased. Also, over the past three or so years (in which I co-wrote a book that could not have happened without Adam’s expertise), he made three interrelated records—Mostly Best Boy Versos, Everything’s Ostensible, and now, GEE-ZA-WHIZ—which would have been a bit different if he wasn’t hanging out with me. We were often in a mind-meld, or so it felt. This is not so much an interview as one friend interrogating another, pushing him a little, coming up with a Q&A that, I imagine, is closer to the dense liner notes jazz records used to receive: A case for the album and another way into the mind of the person who made that album.
Brandon Soderberg: When Mostly Best Boy Versos came out, I answered some questions sent over by someone who was allegedly covering the record. Those answers were never published and an article about the record never materialized, but I pulled them up recently and one of my responses was really funny to me and, I think, sums up at least a part of our collaboration and friendship. Here’s what I said:
“I also think that I was maybe somewhat responsible for picking the songs Adam had that circled around certain themes: whiteness, privilege, being nuts kind of, etc. I was struck by how much Adam’s lyrics reflected a lot of my feelings about things, but I’m far less kind and sincere (and maybe decent) than Adam, so it’s just like shit I would never articulate publicly like that because I’m just frankly not as in touch with my emotions or anything as he is! I think there’s a good tension between a sincere person and ironic dirtbag on the record. I get the sense that the record would’ve not happened if I hadn’t been involved but I also don’t feel like I did much of anything at the same time, if that makes any sense.”
Adam G. Holofcener: Before we met, I always felt like your writing reflected a lot of my feelings about things. A lot of it is framing; the everything is everything kind of mentality, where if you are trying to write on Billie Holiday and not [also] talking about Young Moose and cops and the media and historians and structural racism then you just aren’t really on the level and you can’t possibly really say anything. I think we both care deeply about attempting to find that sturdy footing of some cosmic fairness in our work. So, to that end, my lyrics have kind of been in the “sincere person/ironic dirtbag” voicing since my first batch of solo songs that I put out at 17, in 2004. I think that we strive to be the same level of kind/sincere/decent. It is true that given the content of my songs, it can be said that I wear my heart on my sleeve more than you, but anyone who reads your writing should be able to intuit where you’re at pretty easily if they’re actually paying attention. A record definitely would have happened whether you were involved or not, but Mostly Best Boy Versos would definitely not have happened.
2019’s Everything’s Ostensible and the new one, GEE-ZA-WHIZ, operate similarly to Mostly Best Boy Versos in terms of being folk or country records that also have “co-producers.” They’re a trilogy thematically, but also a trilogy in terms of how you interfaced with your collaborators to make them. When it comes to your sample-based and electronic/improvised stuff, the collaborations make more immediate sense to me, but has collaboration—even of this somewhat oblique kind—always been a part of your songwriting?
As you know, I have a lot of confidence. I used to have even more. When I started playing guitar at 12 years old, I immediately started writing songs. Even at that point, I think I couldn’t fully grasp a song’s songness until someone heard it and responded to it.
I would call up random classmates to see if they wanted to hear my songs. One girl told me that she couldn’t talk to me on the phone to hear my song because people had been calling in bomb threats to her house on the phone and she couldn’t use the phone. She just made it up to get me and my dumb songs off the phone. I say this to make clear that while I am still pretty implacably self-promotional, in terms of trying to get press or shows or other artistic opportunities, I kind of don’t really involve anyone into my art who I don’t think might have some chance of really being in on it.
I’m stuck in this very odd place, ’cause I need people to hear and respond to my work in order for me to really be able to work on my work, but there’s no free lunch, and allowing people to continually interact with your unrealized art is an extremely vulnerable position to put yourself in. In 2009, a piece of mine was used by a choreographer in a performance at the University of Texas at Austin. In public remarks after the performance, the choreographer stated that upon hearing my work she didn’t really know what do with it (she also decided to take a section where there were some “space sounds” and have the dancers do B-movie alien waddles). I basically went outside into the street and wept, but I keep coming back to this approach because my process essentially demands it.
When I wake up in the morning I really think about myself as an artist first, but there are people who I am close to in many contexts who don’t necessarily know the depth, breadth, or even existence of my artistic practice. This all might be starting to change a little now, but I’ve sort of worn that identity for so long it still is fairly grafted onto my psyche.
When I worked on Mostly Best Boy Versos with you, it was really strange. You basically took me to your house and started playing songs in front of me which struck me as pretty brave and very intimate, and as a result I both respected it a ton and was deeply unnerved. I try very hard to not be vulnerable and so, there at your house, it felt like an initiation and a model for the artmaking you wanted me to do with you. I tried to respond in kind and do my best to give you my ideas as honestly as I could and be more present and less guarded. What I’m saying is you’re clearly not looking for just a music nerd to give you technical advice on your playing or whatever. How would you define the role of the co-producers on these albums?
I’ve cultivated a skillset that allows me to be very self-sufficient when it comes to art-making. I can literally do everything required in producing a record, including ink my own contracts. But I’m a very social artmaker who fundamentally needs/appreciates the perspective of people who I think are smart and interesting in order to make any work of mine “complete.” This isn’t market research, it’s running my material through a human filter who will help me to edit my work into one mediated by the lens of my collaborator, creating an enhanced work that hopefully embodies the best attributes of both of our impulses.
When I started writing for what became our album, Mostly Best Boy Versos, the record was trying to confront those same questions as in my previous album, Self-Protestations: How and why should a privileged white boy play guitar songster music, how do I confront race and class in my music in a way that is productive, relevant, and OK, how do I not let the bastards get me down, and what the fuck am I doing? But now it was placed in the context of me about to become a parent. With life comes life, and it felt like the right time to take hold of this medium that I’d been engaged in for almost twenty years, and I gave myself permission to do an experiment (the album) to see whether I could make a songwriter album that was worth my time and others.
I realized that there was nearly an infinite number of things that I could feel and experience, and I wanted to get a hold of all of them, throw them all in my cognitive blender, and see what fleshed out.
Adam G. Holofcener
Like BmoreArt’s Rebekah Kirkman, I also thought a lot about the phrase “GO TO THERAPY.” inscribed on your 2019 album, Everything’s Ostensible. How do you relate that to all of these records?
Shortly after Mostly Best Boy Versos came out, I suffered my first significant bout of mental health crisis—severe anxiety—which led to me starting therapy in September 2018. Therapy has essentially been saving my life ever since. I knew 10 minutes into the first session that I should have been going to therapy since at least high school. As I stated above, I really need to put forth my art to others in order for me to engage with it and the same is true for my self-understanding: I need a neutral person who is learned in the ways of therapy to let me talk at them and help me understand what is going on. Since starting therapy, I have had significant ups and downs, but as I told Rebekah, I now feel on the right path.
By the time I started therapy, I was already locked and loaded with some tracks for the next record and I thought about who else I could work with as “co-producer” as you did on Mostly Best Boy Versos. You and I are two sides of a certain coin. The co-producer on Everything’s Ostensible was Turner Cody, my brother-in-law. Turner and I are two sides of a different coin, and he is also a songwriter who I greatly, greatly respect, so I thought trying to do a full LP with him on board would make sense as the next record. Shortly after I released Everything’s Ostensible, I had a severe mental health crisis, a kind of nervous breakdown, that put me on ice from December 2019 to March 2020. As I started coming out of my haze, my brain began churning out new songs. With the onset of the pandemic, my songwriting did not abate. All of the songs that are on GEE-ZA-WHIZ were written post December 2019.
And the co-producer on GEE-ZA-WHIZ, the new one, is your wife, Margot.
Margot hears all of my songs in development, [but] there was an intimacy brought on by the quarantine that had her hear them even more closely. She also seemed to identify with and appreciate these songs in a way that wasn’t the case for other songs. When I realized that I had to make an album out of these songs, Margot—another person who is definitely the other side to a certain kind of coin for me—was the obvious choice to assist me with the album. She was able to choose what songs went on the album and give me direction as to certain renderings of certain songs. She is also the only other person to contribute anything musically to the album: some backing vocals on the track “Universe Master.”
Margot has a guiding spirit that I find as mysterious as I do awe-inspiring. Her instincts about culture come from this primordial place, and do so with a grace and balance that I just don’t know anything about. In dealing with my mental health issues, I’m trying to get out of my head more, so it makes sense that Margot would helm the macro aspects of this record coming from that kind of place, a place where the other two records were definitely not coming from. When the record was completed, I was able to clearly see that there was a trilogy here. With these three records, I feel as though I’ve kind of said something that I’ve wanted to say since I got started with songwriting twenty years ago.
What is it that you’ve wanted to say since you got started?
I just started reading Evan Rapport’s amazing book Damaged: Musicality and Race in Early American Punk, and it is helping me to answer this question in a more direct and robust way than I probably could have done so on my own. From the jump, I wanted to say that I had a lot to say, that I felt things so hard. Then that shifted to me wanting to point out the complexity and messiness of this experience I was privy to, how the structures that were binding us (religious, socio-economic, cultural, racial) were as nonsensical as they were ironclad. I felt like nobody understood what I was saying and so I wanted to say it louder and louder.
Then I realized that there was nearly an infinite number of things that I could feel and experience, and I wanted to get a hold of all of them, throw them all in my cognitive blender, and see what fleshed out. That got me into this “I’ve got nothing to say and I’m saying it” kind of zone. I wasn’t sure where the center was, but I still felt so hard and still felt like I needed to be able to say something. Your twenties, man. At the start of this trilogy though is when you might say my novel hit its once upon a time kind of thing. Hindsight 20/20, my life over the making of this trilogy started where it did for a reason, went on its path, had its denouement, and is coasting toward its finale. A bildungsroman for the arrested development. I turn 35 this year. Solidly middle age and figuring it out. I feel like I may be able to make art in a little less encumbered way after this. I don’t know.
Poppy’s use of “gee-za-whiz” exemplified him: an ephemeral annoyance that did not define any event or moment or thing, a clever lexical marker for the self—he loved words and books and writing op-eds—and somehow ethnic yet worldly.
Adam G. Holofcener
This record is dedicated to your grandfather. I don’t have a question here, I have a request. Tell everybody some of what you’ve shared with me about your grandfather.
This record is for my grandfather, Lester “Poppy” Cohen. He’s my paternal grandfather, but technically he is my step-grandfather. The Holofceners of the generation of my biological grandfather were all a bunch of nogoodniks, so I didn’t know them. Lester married my grandmother, Ruthie, when my dad and uncle were still elementary schoolers. Lester was so much my grandfather that I just sort of didn’t think about how I didn’t have any grandparents with my last name until I was older.
Lester was the best. Lifelong Baltimorean. Good Jew. Beatnik. Working stiff for the federal government. He was retired by the time I was sentient so I only knew him as this guy who was always super down. He was a bon vivant-type character who spoke least, said most with a Pernod and water in one hand and a quip on the lip. A renaissance fella, he was as home at the ballgame as he was in a basement venue watching his grandson “make art.” Just ready, willing, and able. Poppy worked so well for our fam, and me specifically, because there was no better wing-man, confidant, or sounding board than Lester. Ready, willing, and able. Lester passed away a couple weeks into quarantine in March 2020. He had been suffering from some Parkinson’s-type stuff for several years, but I’m still not certain as to his exact cause of death.
Actually, the next few questions are going to be similar—more leading questions or requests: Tell me about the title of the record.
Poppy was a real mild-mannered man. Not one to raise his voice or get too hot and bothered. His main utterance of frustration was “gee-za-whiz.” My life from December 2019 to today has been really “gee-za-whiz.” But Poppy’s use of “gee-za-whiz” exemplified him: an ephemeral annoyance that did not define any event or moment or thing, a clever lexical marker for the self—he loved words and books and writing op-eds—and somehow ethnic yet worldly. For a record dedicated to Poppy during a year of mourning and loss, GEE-ZA-WHIZ was the only title that coulda been.
So the album art: A picture of some dudes that look a lot like you but aren’t you. What’s the origin of that family photo on the cover?
After Poppy died, I was flipping through photos and noticed a section from my grandmother and Poppy’s joint 60th birthday party. It was a surprise party. For some reason, the theme of the party was that all the guests should dress up as either Gran or Poppy. Think about how weird it would be to walk in on a surprise party where everyone is dressed like you and your spouse. So weird. Well, there was a great photo from that set where Poppy, looking dapper as ever, was standing next to my dad who was done up like Poppy walking off the tennis court. My dad was wearing a white shirt emblazoned with “GEE-ZA-WHIZ” in green varsity-type letters. Next to my dad stood my uncle, done up like gran in a tennis skirt and top, ready to hit the court.
The serendipitousness of the content of this photo cannot be overstated. The culminating volume to a trilogy of records about intergenerationalness and selfhood and family and caregiving and parenthood and trauma and politics and class and whiteness and gender and religion and Jewishness has this photo of my dad at essentially the age I am today doubling his stepfather, who really acted as his real father, while he doubles as a future me while my uncle thumbs his nose at gender in a salute to our damaged yet remarkable matriarch while referencing tennis and the multivaried and loaded signifiers of sport and assimilation and physical grace all while beaming to celebrate the literal day of birth of Pop. Some wholly complete type of something right there. Footnotes on footnotes on footnotes.
So, the music video for “Light Of The Moon”: When you first sent it to me I really got nervous. I loaded it on my phone and it was you and your kid Wally at the cemetery. I knew the context so I just absolutely felt it the second it began but I also was just like, “Man, is this going to be some twee bullshit?” Like, “Hope my friend whose work I respect didn’t make the sort of thing I’d rip someone apart for making?” Of course, you didn’t. It’s a kind of really sweet and really, really dark joke at the same time, which is extremely my shit. Anyway, discuss the video—and I guess, thanks for not making something I would have had to clown you for making.
Obviously, Lester’s funeral, or really non-funeral, at the Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery out west of Reisterstown, at the very start of the shutdown was beyond a letdown. My parents weren’t even here. Very few people and no fanfare. No sitting shiva. No beaming. It was a low-budget dress rehearsal of what a funeral should be. So, given that letdown, Wally and I have been visiting Poppy in the cemetery a lot. To capitalize on all the themes laid out above, I thought that I could continue the gestalt with a music video by having Wally (dressed the same as me) take hold of the camera as we romped around the cemetery. Wally has only ever known the cemetery as a playground where we go visit “Baba”—that’s what he calls Poppy—so Wally sees the cemetery as a literal magical place. A dead guy in the ground knows you’re there to see him when you put a rock on his grave. This doesn’t trip Wally out because he is still ontologically game for whatever: He is four. So much of me feels like this savory/sweet or sincere/sardonic thing and this conceit for a video just fit right in. The video was literally effortless to make. We just played and let the spirit, and Poppy, take us. I edited it in like 10 minutes.
I wanted to end on influences or maybe something a bit less tangible than influences. A doofy word I use a lot is “moodboard.” Like, for my book, I Got A Monster, my moodboard was authors Chester Himes, Jean Patrick Manchette, and George Jackson, and then musicians Jason Isbell, OutKast, Maxo Kream, and Shoreline Mafia, and also movies by the Safdie Brothers and Michael Mann and Alan Clarke, and also The Sopranos and Better Call Saul. So, I’m asking you for, like, not necessarily things you consciously curated, but the work that seeped into the work intentionally or unintentionally. What’s the moodboard for GEE-ZA-WHIZ?
Before the mixing/mastering engineer, Jason Balla of the Chicago-based band Dehd, went to work on GEE-ZA-WHIZ, I told him the following: In terms of macro influences to guide your ear, for this record, I related to everything by Buck Owens, mid- to late-career Michael Hurley, Bill Orcutt, “Muleskinner Blues” by Dolly Parton, “Rascal” by RMR, Angel Bat Dawid’s The Oracle, and Ernest Hood’s Neighborhoods. I still stand by those folks as being the guiding lights for how I thought about this album. I wish I could put them all together to be the touring band for this thing.
It’s funny, the writing/recording process for this record was January 2020 to October 2020 and I can’t really remember so much from that time. I know that I didn’t do as good a job of reading my weekly Torah portion as I would have liked. I also know that listening to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine on audiobook held me down. I remember walking through empty streets at the beginning of the pandemic with Wally while listening to Daft Punk’s Homework blasting out of my phone’s built-in speakers. I remember watching Come and See and Uncut Gems and Star Wars IX and Daddy Longlegs and Sun Don’t Shine and Bacurau and Diamantino and 2020 NBA Playoffs all left a mark. So much happened this past year and so much didn’t.