Apparently, The King of Spain has No Fans. (But I Wouldn't Trust Him.) - An Interview with Adam Levy
Well, how's this for an embarrassing start to an interview: I had 12 years of notice for the meeting and I was still 5 minutes late!
See, my wife, Elisabeth, used to star in a lot of community theater around the twin cities. 12 years ago she did a couple show with a man named Josh with whom she became very good friends. I used to join them along with Andy, Rachel, Allen, and Tamara for private all-night cast parties at Andy’s house.
Since I tote my guitar everywhere, Josh heard my music at one of the parties. He looked at me with surprise and said, “Wow. You’re actually good. I should introduce you to my cousin, Adam.”
However, it was the end of the summer and the next week Josh shipped out to college in Iowa and the meeting never happened.
Fast forward 12 years, I joined the Minnesota Music Coalition (MMC) and decided to try out their music mentorship program. Suddenly, I was on my way to meet the front man of The Honeydogs! I was super excited to finally reach this destined meeting. But before I could, I was stymied by the Lowry Tunnel jammed full of traffic I never would have expected at 12:30pm on a Friday afternoon.
I arrive mortified. 5 minutes late for a man who is currently a high school history teacher! Thankfully, he was gracious enough to wait for me and soon I was sitting across from him at one of my favorite venues to play Nina's Coffee Café.
My first question for Adam was 12 years old: Do you know this guy, Josh?
It took him a minute or 2 for him to trace the relation, but he did confirm they were distance cousins.
Ry: Josh told me that your radio hit “I miss you” was already an old song when you started getting radio play for it. Is it true you had been playing “I miss you” for 10 years before you released it on the album?
Adam: Yeah, I wrote that in a previous band, but somehow we ended up playing it with the Honeydogs and the rest of the band really wanted it on the record. I was already sick of the song!
Ry: That must have been frustrating. So how did you end up with that one getting on the radio? Because I remember Cities 97 played the heck out of that song in the mid-nineties.
Adam: The label had a lot to do with that. It definitely wasn't my choice.
Ry: Does your label make a lot of choice you don't agree with?
Adam: The Honeydogs have had different labels over the years. It's all about gathering interest. Suddenly someone hears what we're doing and they want to release it. We started with October Records working with Steven Greenberg--who wrote the 1980 world-wide hit "Funkytown."--and his nephew John Fields. We did two records there with October and then we played the second record at SXSW which then launched us to a major label--Mercury Records--for the 3rd record. But nightmare because after we signed on to the label, Mercury went through a merger and the A&R guys who signed us got let go. We were still under contract, and had an album we'd recorded but no one would return our phone calls. So for months we had no idea what was going on. It was such an elaborate waste of time. It was nearly a year before they released us and our album--which we then took to a little label called Palm records that was part of Rykodisc Records.
Ry: Wow, that sounds stressful! If you could go back, would you have wished you never played SXSW?
Adam: No, SXSW was great, but I definitely wouldn't have signed with Mercury. But we just didn't know that we would get dropped. You know, the timing of things plays such a big role in your career. For instance, whether or not you get media coverage. You can work with a publicist and pay them $3,000 to promote your release or work with a larger publicist company and pay them $12,000 for your release, but that doesn't guarantee you're going to get any press. Best example, we had the misfortune of releasing "Island of Misfits" The Honeydog's 5th album on September 11, 2001.
Adam: Right. Who wants to go promote an album when the world has just changed forever? But the other thing was even harder for me, is that I had a concept album of songs called "10,000 years". It was supposed to be a post-apocalyptic album dealing heavily with war. Because of the terrorist attack on the twin towers, the pentagon, and all the hijacked planes, my bandmates didn't want to have anything to do with that album. They kept telling me that no one wanted to hear about war and that it was time to do something happier to get people's minds off of the war. As if that was possible.
Ry: So you already had the 10,000 Years album in 2001, but your band didn't want to play it? How did you change their minds?
Adam: We did start recording it after September 11, but like I said, they didn't want to promote it. But somehow Michael Penn heard about the concept and asked to hear what we had he recorded. He loved it and shared it with his wife, Aimee Mann, and she loved it. They had their own label called "United Musicians" and they asked us if they could release it. So that was a no brainer. They released "10,000 years" in 2004 and Aimee invited us to go on tour with her.
Ry: That's incredible! It's amazing how, like you mentioned before, the timing plays such a critical factor in how things work out. I'm curious, how do you handle the fame?
(He just stares at me for a second. Then he chuckles and shakes his head.)
Adam: What fame?
Ry: Well, even if you don't have paparazzi hiding outside your door, you are well-known in the music scene in Minneapolis amongst other musicians, and just from my experience as a musician myself, I'm sure you've met an obsessive fan or two over the years.
Adam: Oh, sure. Actually, there were times early on when I would fly out to LA and get picked up in a limo and get taken to a recording studio. I guess, I did feel like a Rockstar in some of those surreal moments. But a lot of it was just so busy. I'd take a plane out of Minneapolis to New Orleans for a interview at a radio station and then fly home. So the sheen of the Rockstar life wore off pretty quickly. The whole music industry has just worn me down to a nub.
Ry: Can you take solace in the fans who love your music?
Adam: I don't usually think of having fans. When we have people come to many of our shows, we often get to know them. So instead of fans, I think we've always thought of them as friends. And yes, that is one of the most special parts of being a musician--getting to meet so many great people over the years. Other artists, creative people, and music lovers.
Ry: Isn't it wonderful to be able to create something and then connect with people around it? I just think it's amazing when people express to me how much a song means to them.
Adam: Yes! I was contacted by another band called "The Brass Buttons" who was based in Spain and they told me the most amazing thing. I had written a song called the "Last War Lullaby" for the "10,000 Years" record. "Last War Lullaby" is an 8 minute song that has several different movements that cover the themes of the album. Well, this band divided up each section and elongated each piece into an entire song. They wrote additional lyrics. They added instrumental sections. And they turned into what they call the "Last War Lullaby Suite."
Ry: I've never heard of anything like that! What an honor!
Adam: It was. It was really incredible. But listen to this. When their band was ready to perform they called me and invited me to perform with them Live at the University of Cadiz in Spain! Thankfully, this was in 2019 before the COVID Pandemic, so they flew me over to play with them. It was awesome!
Ry: So let me get this straight, you don't think of yourself as being a famous Rockstar or like you have obsessive fans... even though you were flown a 1/4 of the way across the world to perform with a band so inspired by your work that they created an entire opus out of one of your songs.
(Even while masked for COVID, I can still see Adam's eyes twinkling as he shrugs at me)
Ry: Okay, so you're the King of Spain. Any other astoundingly incredible details I should know about your humble career?
(He looks off distantly for a moment then raises his eyebrows)
Adam: Well... I guess there was the time I got invited to Sweden to play at the Folk Venue started by the guy who discovered [Bob] Dylan.
Adam Levy is a Minnesota Music Legend as one of the the most thoughtful and intellectual songwriters on the scene. He has been in musical projects including:
The Bunny Clogs: A family friendly band that includes his two daughters.
Hookers $ Blow: A 70’s Funk Cover Band (After 10 years the name changed to “The Sunshine Committee”)
Liminal Phase: A Psychedelia project with more electronic sounds, infused with jazz and west African syncopation.
The Honeydogs: A true Minneapolis Indie Rock Band with a star on the side of the First Avenue nightclub.
And the Professors: An Orchestral Pop Band
In 2020, he started An Americana Trio with Savannah Smith and Barb Brynstad to sing 60s and 70s folk covers with tight harmonies. But before long they started writing originals that you can now hear on Spotify or get this new group at their website: Turn, Turn, Turn