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Old Maybe’s Bold Vision for the Future of Philadelphia Music

Old Maybe – “What’s Keeping You”

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On 'Oblio' Jazz Adam and her band push their music and their city to take more risks

/ August 15, 2016

Photo by Max Branigan

In September 2015, Old Maybe’s lyrics “Big surprise, big brown thighs / pushing my hair back when I see the guys” became the Instagram bio of a black teenage girl just days after her older sister took her to see the band for the first time in a New Brunswick basement. Jazz Adam, the band’s singer and creative force, wrote these lines in a song called The Lie, one of the first she released under the Old Maybe name. Adam didn’t find out about this minor social media impact until nine months after the fact, but it deeply inspired her. “It makes me wonder how many other people have been affected by my work unbeknownst to me,” she says. “It’s like if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it…”

Old Maybe began earlier in 2015 when Adam began playing solo shows, performing most songs a capella, creating vocal layers with looping and effects pedals. Adam would arrive toting a guitar and a collection of effects pedals contained in a dirty, pastel colored rolling luggage suitcase. Her shows were a kind of karaoke-style performance that she says, “added an awkward dynamic that I kind of enjoyed, not really knowing where to put my hands or who to look at.” Adam attributes that lack of stage fright to her background in theater and stand up comedy. “I am able to be myself onstage,” she says. “And I am aggressive.”

The stripped down performance style fully exposed heartfelt lyrics like, “I need friends who will pick up the phone / when we’re together feel like I am alone / Fix that / I’m not worth that no more / No.” This song, “Friends and Fast,” opens like something from the soundtrack of your favorite 80s movie, and appropriately following it on Old Maybe’s earliest tape Hive Mind is an echoey cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” performed in a similar vocal layering style.

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Adam now fronts Old Maybe as a full band alongside drummer Nina Ryser – who also plays in Palberta – and bassist Ricardo Balmaseda, allowing her to perform vulnerability in louder, more dynamic ways. Released this May, Oblio is the first record from the trio. “[The group] added so much power and depth to the simplicity,” says Adam, “and I felt free comfortable coming out of my shell and acting as a source of strength. And yeah, now I could really groove to my own shit.  From then on, we were able to generate content as a unit, and that has been a truly beautiful experience.  I have never really been in a band before.”

Oblio is named after a character from Harry Nilsson’s album The Point! The overarching lesson in Nilsson’s fable is that all things have a purpose – a “point” – even if they don’t on the surface. His inspiration for the album’s story came from taking acid and looking at trees, which Adam says isn’t far from her creative process. Such substances play into Oblio’s surreal imagery and sounds, adding to the unpredictable process of making the record that gives it its character. “Ultimately I don’t think Oblio came with a plan or preconceived notions of what it should be,” explains bassist Balmaseda. “It feels like a raw picture of pals gelling together musically to make Jazz’s vision come to life and that’s why it’s beautiful.”

The band recorded with Hugo Stanley, who also records for his band Palm. “Hugo and Nina have a ton of experience with recording between all their projects,” Balmaseda says, “and were both really adamant about using one of the first takes of every song we did to capture a raw energy, and that’s what we ended up using.” Balsameda says they didn’t employ many studio trick or overdubs in the recording process, and so some errors made it to the finished product. “There is a spot on ‘The Shuffle’ where I mess up on bass and we joked about throwing in a sample of a cymbal falling down a flight of stairs to cover it up, but other than that I’m definitely proud of the way it turned out.”

There’s a fun, chaotic aspect to the record, but it also shares the emotional sincerity of Adam’s earlier work. “All of the lyrics on Oblio are meant to directly address relationships of my past,” she says. “Although it is vague to most people what exactly I’m referring to in the songs, it certainly is not vague to the people the songs are written about.  It’s an emotional risk for sure, I still feel pretty paranoid about it. But I felt I might as well be honest in my songs, since I have a really hard time being confrontational in my real life.”

Oblio is what you hear when you watch glitchy versions of old cartoons, it’s what you hear when you pop a scratched CD-ROM of a childhood PC game into your computer. The opening bass riff of “No Fun” begins with an incessant Red Hot Chili Peppers inspired bass riff and a correspondingly repetitive lyric, “you’ve got a weird idea of fun.” “Nuh” features circus-like sampled music getting warped with effect pedals. Cow bell is sprinkled throughout the album and stretches of dark dissonance make the melodic parts feel like a treat. It’s all put through a low-fi crunchy, garage filter. Think “pre-Grammy Beck,” says Adam.

“[The group] added so much power and depth to the simplicity,” says Adam, “and I felt free comfortable coming out of my shell and acting as a source of strength.

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Taking this new sludgey direction, Adam maintains that “finding your sound” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and tries to avoid being stylistically pigeon holed. “I would hope that my music reflects my very scrambled music taste, and that all my releases sound relatively different from one another. That being said, discovering Primus definitely saved me from the synthpop hell I created for myself… I still love dreampop, but I wanted to prove to myself I could do something different: nu metal.” Aside from some distorted guitar parts, Old Maybe is not a nu metal band, though some of the aesthetics and attitudes are present. “If I had my way we would be a Linkin Park cover band,” she says.

While the creative differences of the other band members might block that Linkin Park dream, Adam is in fact in the beginning stages of a new rap-rock solo project called Gun TV. “I’ve been wanting to experiment with electronics, vocal effects, and my drum machine. Stuff that I can’t really do with Old Maybe because we try to keep it really bare bones with the arrangement.” This project will be more basic, she says, with shorter, sillier songs. In a music scene that seems to only celebrate a few genres, it’s often hard to find those unknown talents working beyond the traditional DIY rock spectrum. “I’m working on fixing that,” Adam says. “Eclectic shit is key.”

Old Maybe, a band from Philadelphia
Old Maybe. From left to right: Nina Ryser, Jazz Adam, Ricardo Balmaseda. Photo by Max Branigan

Adam has been pushing that belief in Philadelphia via All Mutable, a booking collective she started with Nicki Duval and Robin Meeker-Cummings. The mission of the collective is to “diversify lineups sonically and racially,” she says. Most of Old Maybe’s shows have been booked under All Mutable since its launch in March. Upon its inception this spring Adam posted a statement on Facebook on behalf of the collective: “Our focus is to book lineups that represent and attract those who are under-represented in this music scene, including (but not limited to) POC, queer identified, trans identified, and those who identify as non-binary. We also hope to sonically diversify lineups, and represent genres that are not often recognized in this culturally homogenized city.”

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“I started writing music as a way to cope with abandonment,” Adam says.  “I never thought anyone would want to be in a band with me.” Adams successes over the last year should show her that she won’t have real trouble finding collaborators in the future. With both Old Maybe and All Mutable, Adam has successfully worked with others to push her vision in her own music and in Philadelphia more broadly. She’s grown enormously since she influenced that teenager in a New Brunswick basement last year, and there will surely be many more inspired people of all ages at Old Maybe shows in the years to come.