Interview Mix: Paul Adler, An Advocate For Historically Informed Pop Music And Politics

Despite being derided by Ann Althouse’s Googling commenters as an “outside agitator” in Wisconsin, Banalogies blogger Paul K. Adler is actually an award-winning graduate student at Georgetown University, where he is well on his way to earning a PhD in Modern American History. In fact, Adler — who “knows more about the 1960’s and 1970’s than” his father who “lived through them” — traveled to Wisconsin this past year to stand witness to a “crucial battlefield for the future of organized labor (and thus progressive politics) in the United States.” It would surprise no one who knows him that Paul found his way to Madison, despite having no plans for accommodations, as he is adamant that “those who care for justice, must care about unions.” And he’s got facts to back him up.

Currently working on his dissertation concerning “Planetary Citizens: US NGO’s and the Struggles Over Globalization, 1972-1989,” Adler is as likely to be found in an archive these days as he is to be seen at a protest. Recently, he may have uncovered a letter written by director David O. Russell when he was a student activist. Sometimes he even speaks to those whose records he peruses.

When he isn’t diving through papers or placing modern-day political events in their proper historical context, Adler can be found advocating for nuanced comparisons, whether they are being made between Obama and FDR or The Wire and capitalism. But he isn’t just an advocate for context. Follow his Twitter feed, and you are likely to find plenty of musical endorsements, especially for “fuzzed out, dreamy girl groups.” This is one reason I spoke to him recently about his tastes in music.

How would you describe your taste/interest in music? 

People like to say they have eclectic tastes and I guess mine are to an extent, but I mainly listen to indie stuff from today and soul and British invasion stuff from the 1960s, along with instrumental music for studying.  For rock music, I look for songs and artists who combine melodic vocals with somewhat “harder” instrumentation.  For example, over the last six months, I’ve been on a real kick listening mainly to bands with very melodic, often harmonized female vocals, but where the backing music consists of fuzzed out and just plain loud guitars.

As a grad student, I constantly am looking for a good soundtrack to write to, which has led to my love of instrumental or “post” rock.  Find me a twenty minute instrumental mixing long, meditative passages punctuated with outbursts of feedback-y, wailing guitars, and I am one studious and content guy.

Finally, as far as more “pop” music, I must confess to a strong 1960s/early 1970s bias.  I find I just can’t get into a lot of pop music since then – I can respect and sort of enjoy, say Michael Jackson, but I find my belief unshaken that pop music will never get better than Motown and especially later 1960s soul (Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Bettye Swann, etc.)

How did you first get interested in music and how has your taste developed since then?

I didn’t really listen to much music until my senior year of high school.  The summer between junior and senior year I went to an awesome program/camp where people introduced me to a number of bands.  When I got back home, I raided my parents’ vinyl collection, which gave me a good education in the classics of the 1960s.  In college, I made friends with lots of tremendous people who were constantly playing me songs or lending me albums, and from there I began to develop my own particular tastes.

Name five of your favorite songs at the moment (in no particular order).

Stereolab – Jenny Ondioline

Karen Verros – You Just Gotta Know My Mind

Frankie Rose & the Outs – Little Brown Haired Girl

Jacqueline Taieb – Le cœur au bout des doigts

Billy Bragg – Walt Whitman’s Niece

Name five of your favorite albums of all time (in no particular order). 

The Kinks – Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Beulah – The Coast Is Never Clear

Do Make Say Think – Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn

Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – Living with the Living

What are some songs to which you have a particular emotional attachment?

I tend not to associate particular songs with certain moments, but more albums with different eras.  I put one of their albums on my list, but anytime I listen to any of Beulah’s albums I get chills.  Beulah was a constant in my college “soundtrack”; thinking about them less invokes a certain recollection, than reminds me of the whole spectrum of memories and feelings from most of my undergraduate years.

Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight is a special album for me for similar reasons – I first heard it my junior year, when I was not in the happiest place.  That was partly due to normal college angst, partly the political situation (the lead up to the Iraq invasion), and I was also feeling uninspired by a lot of the music I was listening to (high-pitched indie boys). I remember putting that album on and being instantly blown away by Brit Daniels’ voice – so gruff and gritty, but also compassionate.  That first time, I listened to Kill the Moonlight probably four times in succession and it really helped snap me out of that funk.

What are some of your musical guilty pleasures?

I wish I had more!!  There’s so much mainstream (for lack of a better term) pop I never got into.  I suppose the closest I have is that I actually really like a lot of disco music from the late 1970s.  I occasionally rock out to “Heart of Glass” when no one’s around.

What goes into a good mix?

There are many paths to a good mix.  I tend to like shorter ones – rather than overwhelm the listener with an hour + of songs, keep it to 40-45 minutes of really good stuff that encourages multiple listens.  I also abide by the “one song per artist” rule.

As for content, you can do a great mix where all the songs are pretty much the same genre and have the same tone.  Or you can make an equally awesome mix with a real eclectic set of moods and genres.  The main thing, I believe, is to remember that a mix is a kind of narrative.  It should include shifts in emotion and tempo, that, even if very subtle, feel logical and make you feel like you’ve been through a journey of some kind (I think I just won the pretension award!)  A mix where songs constantly shift mood or stay too static, even if the individual songs are all great, just feels flat.

If you were running for President in 2012, what song would you use as your campaign theme?

I can’t imagine running for president except as some sort of fringe left-wing protest candidate.  So I think I would just own that status and make my theme song a labor protest number, like Pretty Girls Make Graves’ “Parade” or Woody Guthrie’s “I Guess I Planted.”  That said, if I actually were president, I would love to promote some additional (not replacement) national anthems, especially Phil Ochs’ “The Power & the Glory.”

What is your process for finding music that is new to you?

I have been blessed since college to always have a lot of friends constantly suggest albums and artists to me.  In college, I loved Audiogalaxy because they had a really excellent search system, where you could get recommended all kinds of bands from specific niche genres.  I still occasionally read Pitchfork or Popmatters, but along with friends, my main source for finding new (to me at least!) music is through EMusic, AllMusic, and other such sites.

What is your opinion on downloading copyrighted material without paying for it?

I do it, but I tend to make an economic distinction.  You want to download a Beatles or Rolling Stones track, fine.  For a little indie band, I would say it’s ok to download, but buy their records and go to their concerts when you can.  Unfortunately, I don’t know that many people (myself included) really will abide by that, but hey, I’m a bit of a utopian!


To hear a mix, created by me and based on Paul’s description of his musical interests, click HERE or listen here:

Here’s the tracklist:

1) All Girl Summer Fun Band — Car Trouble

2) R. Dean Taylor — Let’s Go Somewhere

3) Marva Whitney — You Got To Have A Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat)

4) R. Stevie Moore — I Wish Marvin Gaye’s Father Had Shot Me Instead

5) Camper Van Beethoven — Joe Stalin’s Cadillac

6) The Minders — Our Man In Bombay

7) Kirsty Maccoll — A New England (Billy Bragg Cover)

8 ) The Strawbs — Part Of The Union

9) Brinsley Schwarz — (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding

10) The Bee Gees — In My Own Time

11) John Lennon — Bring On The Lucie (Freda People)

12) Neu! — Neuschnee

13) Sloan — Who Taught You To Live Like That?

14) Guided By Voices — Big School

15) Superchunk — Late-Century Dream

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