Building the Song

old tunes find new life with help of basement studio

Ken Szymanski, photos by Andrea Paulseth

STAIRWAY TO A HAVEN. Greg Adams’ new album includes songs he’s been kicking around for decades.
STAIRWAY TO A HAVEN. Greg Adams’ new album includes songs he’s been
kicking around for decades.

If there was one place to hold this interview, it’d be The Cabin – UW-Eau Claire’s smallest but coolest performance room. That’s where Greg Adams, as a college student in the ’90s, hung out and studied during the day. It’s where he played his first open mic. It’s where he played his first solo shows, entertaining crowds with just an acoustic guitar and a quirky combination of Schoolhouse Rock shtick and Lou Reed cool. He sold cassettes of his homemade acoustic music, with liner notes photocopied and carefully cut out by hand. The Cabin was small, dimly-lit, and as comfortable as your old favorite flannel shirt.

Now it’s demolished.

In the new, multimillion-dollar Davies Center, there’s a place called The Cabin, but it’s spacious, glossy and futuristic. Greg Adams – ready to talk about his new solo CD Pareidolia – agrees to meet there instead. He’s never seen the place.
Adams walks in, looks around. “Geez, it looks like Starbucks in here,” he says.
Blame the new atmosphere, but we start the interview with more grumbling: the junk music kids listen to these days and the downside of downloading: How music is too easy to get, too disposable. We recall his cassettes, dubbed one at time, and the homemade liner notes. The music had a homegrown feel, with personal, goofy songs like “I Can Kinda Play Guitar” and “Ants in my Apartment.” Now everything is done with effortless buttons and clicks.

“I like the term recording artist. To be in the studio … and figure out how to make songs a reality – that’s what I love.” – musician Greg Adams, on the technology allowing him to re-record old songs

But enough negativity. We’re here to discuss the solo record and how his youthful collegiate passion for music survived into his current adult life. “I never understood how people could be so into music when they were young and later on in life just not care,” Adams says. “How do you lose that?”

Maybe the bigger question is this: How do you hold on to it?

“To me it’s like sports,” he says. “Maybe you played basketball in high school or even college … but you never make it professionally. So you find a morning three-on-three group and keep playing in a gym somewhere before work. You keep playing because you love the game.”

Adams, no longer a scruffy college student, is now a husband, a father, and a Chi-Hi English teacher. He credits his students and his subject matter with keeping him young, keeping the creative fires burning. Add the performance aspect of teaching, and it creates a nice bridge into his music life.

He built a makeshift recording studio in the basement of his Chetek home and teamed up with Tom Kutrieb, a longtime friend and fellow musician who also has a recording studio in his house. It’s that easy now.

Now these guys get together to jam and record like other guys get together for poker nights.

Using Kutrieb’s studio and expertise, Adams was able to go back to his old songs and record them with full-band, full-studio arrangements that are miles ahead of the old versions. The new versions contain a junkyard’s worth of blips, beeps, interview scraps, voice distortions. He put the same DIY care into this as he did when making liner notes for his cassettes. Listen to “Space Woman Yeah” and “Holy Cow,” and it’s clear these guys were having a meticulous, music-nerd blast in this whole process. “With these songs before, I always felt like I had to settle,” he says. “I could never create the songs on tape they way they sounded in my head. Now I can do that.”

With all of the tools available, creating the music is just as much fun as performing it. “I like the term recording artist,” he says. “To be in the studio … and figure out how to make songs a reality – that’s what I love.”

Old tunes done right, mixed with newer tunes, land Adams in the present. He’s a small-town guy, a family man, able to record his music at home on the side and sell it all over the world.

Thrilled to be on iTunes with Pareidolia, Mr. Adams shared his achievement with one of his classes. A couple of minutes later, he heard a beep from the back of the class.

“I said, ‘What was that?’ And this girl in the back goes, ‘I just downloaded your song!’ I said, ‘Put your phone away … and … that’s awesome.’ ”

To learn more about Adams’ music, visit Adams is also holding a CD release party from 3-5pm Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Valkyrie Brewing Company Tap Room, 234 Dallas St., Dallas.

This was made by

Ken Szymanski  author

Ken Szymanski lives in Eau Claire’s Third Ward neighborhood, with his wife and two sons. He attempts to live in the present, but the 1980s have always exerted a strong gravitational pull on his writing. He tries to fight it, but it’s no use sometimes.

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