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Interview with Adam Hooks

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

In January 2020, singer-songwriter Adam Hooks agreed to an interview with me after one of his shows. We had never spoken before, but I was wanting to learn about the vocalist who recently departed the punk band Russian Girlfriends to focus on solo work and his project Adam Hooks & His Hangups. He had a full schedule of Albuquerque-based shows that have since been thwarted due to the virus that caused COVID-19. In spite of the upheaval of community-centered art, Adam's words feel increasingly pertinent.

Shaping this interview into an article has not been the experience I anticipated. During our conversation, Adam spun his answers into stories and lessons. Testimonies from great artists sound more like poetry than regular sentences. Adam speaks for Adam best, so I have decided to shape his interview a way I thought it could lend itself to his story. Thank you, Adam.

Adam Hooks at Tractor Brewing Company, January 2020.

I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but my parents got me outta there as quick as they could ‘cause they didn’t want me to get an accent. So then we moved to the Midwest, which is a completely different type of accent. I grew up mostly in small, rural communities, in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana. My father was a Lutheran pastor most of my life, so every three or four years we’d travel and go to a different community and he’d be the pastor at that church. Luckily, my father was also a huge music fan.

I grew up listening to AC/DC, Dead Kennedys, and the Pixies, while also going to church every Sunday. I was nine months old when my dad took me to a Hüsker Dü concert in Saint Paul. [He] used to play guitar and sing murder ballads in his office when he had time off. So I grew up in a pretty musical family, and luckily had their support. I think a lot of people can’t say that, they’ll have parents that say ‘Get a real job’ or whatever. I have parents that say, like ‘You’re talented and you’re willing to learn enough. So, this is what you wanna do, just know that you can but it might be a struggle to make this your real job.’

I got my real start playing in front of people at a coffee shop called the Red Rooster Coffee House in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Which is still a place I consider my hometown. I’m finally at a point in my life where I don’t have this hatred for the place I grew up. It’s nice going back and being like, man, I started playing here when I was fifteen years old.

I started out kind of a hippie kid. Zeppelin, Cream, that kinda stuff. And then got really into punk rock around the age of fourteen, fifteen. Saw my first punk show in Aberdeen, South Dakota, at the Ward Hotel ballroom. Just a bunch of local bands that, of course, are completely lost to history. Except for the people that grew up in that scene. It changed my life. I still remember that show. I still remember immediately being like, alright, I needa get into this.

The cool thing about getting into punk rock in a rural town in South Dakota is, the rules are so different than in other, bigger scenes. If you’re a freak in this small town in the Midwest, you are a part of the scene. Whether you’re goth, punk, straight, queer, hippie, whatever. If you’re a weirdo, that’s your friend base. I grew up thinking punk rock is very much a wide-open spectrum of shit. And that’s how I’ve always applied myself to that idea of punk rock. It’s anything you want it to be. It can be a country song, or a Grateful Dead song if the energy and motive is behind it properly.

Growing up in that scene and breaking out with whatever various bands were in the bigger, national punk scene, it was interesting seeing what the actual scene was and meant to other people and to realize that, ‘Oh, there’s a lot more rules involved.’ As opposed to what I thought and experienced in rural South Dakota, with liking whatever band that came through town. ‘No one likes them, but we like them ‘cause they came through town!’

My junior high school teachers were going door-to-door with a petition to get people to sign to kick my father out of the church in Redfield, South Dakota, because he was liberal and spoke his mind and was very open about being okay with homosexuals and people of color. I’m very lucky I grew up with a dad who was a pastor who also taught me, like, we live on stolen indigenous land. And being gay is completely natural and God has no problem with that. And that really also helped influence me. I don’t consider myself a Christian, but I can’t ignore the fact that that’s what I grew up with.

I remember being in sixth grade living in rural Minnesota, and we were doing a ribbon dance to colors of the wind off of the Pocahontas soundtrack. I don’t know why they invited my dad to come play, but he came to play a song. And he proceeded to tell my entire school that what we were learning about our Native American history was wrong, to the gasps of all the white parents in the audience. He proceeded to play this amazing song that I still cover sometimes. The song is called Deadwood, South Dakota. It was performed by Nanci Griffith but it was written by Eric Taylor. It’s about the murder of Crazy Horse and the mindset behind Manifest Destiny and the arrogance of white expansion. Once again, you have to understand the context of the song. I remember my dad playing that for my entire class, and people being like Oh, my God. I can’t believe he did that. That was one of the formative points in my life, because to this day, not only is that one of my favorite songs, but I have always been like, what we know about American history is not the full truth. And I feel like I have a responsibility through my music to tell some of those stories. So, moving down to New Mexico jump started my love of history again.

Negative thing [in my experience of the music scene] is how much pride there is in depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, as opposed to there being as much of a willingness to help each other out of that. Look, I suffer from anxiety, depression, and addiction. I used to be an opiate addict and still deal with alcohol issues. Something that bummed me out about the punk rock scene was watching my friends start dying, and still seeing people be proud of how much they can drink that night rather than talking about, ‘Hey, how can we help each other?’ I’m not saying it’s wrong to drink or do drugs or anything. The world is fuckin’ hard and people need shit. But I think we need to take responsibility within our scene, whether it be local, or national, or international, to care about the people in that scene and to really step in and be there for each other and not be so promotional when it comes to the negative aspects. Although, that’s very much a part of it. If I’m gonna talk about the positive, I’m gonna talk about the reasons that started turning me away from that scene and making me realize I need to do something else. Not only to save myself, but to help whoever I can, just stay alive and be there for their other friends.

I was so broken-hearted being on tour [with Russian Girlfriends] and just seeing how many people I knew just suffering from the same things I suffered with. And to top it all off, being on the road is not the easiest circumstances to deal with your own addition and depression issues. And at the time, we were touring a lot. I was not in therapy. I was not doing anything other than doing new drugs whenever people offered them to me. Drinking whiskey as much as possible, fiending for pot. Putting a burden on the band, unfortunately, because I was the only one who really couldn’t handle my shit properly. And it sucks – I feel really bad just looking back and thinking about the stress that my negativity and my addictions and depressions were putting on the band. Because they were enjoying being on tour, and I was finding reasons to find the negative out of it as opposed to the positive.

In a weird way, I think that also brought up how that was happening in general in the scene in front of me. It really started freaking me out. There’s this weird stature with, people wanna party with who they think is a rock star. And when you already suffer with addiction, it’s harder—especially when you’re away from home and creature comforts, and family, and whatever. Dogs! It’s harder and harder to say no to those things. And so I found myself relying a lot more heavily on hard drugs and hard alcohol than I hadn’t been relying on for so long. That was creating tension with the band. Obviously there’s no taking anything back, but I’m glad that I now realize that and can apply that information to further myself, my music, and still supporting my brothers.

Those guys [in Russian Girlfriends] are my fuckin’ brothers. I love those guys so much. We’ve been playing music together for the past ten years, for the most part. And it’s great—I feel a little bit guilty and a little bit bad that the things I had to do in my personal life to become a better person and hopefully a better musician and a truer musician didn’t coincide with what was best for the band. But that doesn’t mean that I feel like there should be any drama.

I was a solo musician way before I started playing in bands. That’s kind of my square one of work. [On a break from Russian Girlfriend’s tour, I realized] I’m the kind of musician that, that’s what I do well, it’s the only thing I feel like I can really do. And I just kinda have to do it. So I was like, well, I have to play. I started noticing there’s a lot of singer-songwriters, we have a really good town to where I’m seeing these people play ten shows a month and making decent money at it. I wanna fuckin’ do that, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing! And so I started working really-really hard at it.

One of the greatest things about Albuquerque’s music scene is how eclectic it is. You’re such a hidden spot, but you have fuckin’ doom metal bands, we have fuckin’ like post-punk bands, we have bluegrass bands, Norteño bands, and it’s all part of the culture here and it’s so beautiful. I think one thing that I started experiencing once I started stepping out a little bit more, coming out to the breweries and smaller venues that weren’t Launchpad and Sister, I started finding such a variety of music that was so beautiful. Don’t be afraid of it being so eclectic.

The depression and anxiety that came with a lot of my friends passing away and dealing with my addiction and stuff within the punk rock community really lead me to branch out musically and find other things that both I forgot that I loved, and also what I needed to just round out my musical taste. For instance, much to the chagrin to the other Russian Girlfriends, I remember being in the back of the tour van just bummed the fuck out, probably drinking still. And I was on Spotify in the back of the van, and I remember there was this notification for an awesome Grateful Dead live concert. And I was like, man, I remember being eleven years old and my dad being really into the Dead and giving me albums to listen to. This was clearly before I got into punk rock. So I was like, okay, fuck it, let me throw this on. And it saved my fuckin’ life. It sounds fuckin’ weird, I’m not trying to sound all — Jesus-y about the Grateful Dead. But something clicked in my brain that it was something I needed. It was positivity, it was feeling music that was so freeing, wasn’t negative. There I was in the back of the van, getting ready to play another punk rock show, listening to the Grateful Dead, and just feeling in awe of how much my brain was changing while I was listening to this band. So I started like, listening to the Grateful Dead every day. And then the guys wouldn’t let me drive anymore cause I’d just put on the Grateful Dead. It’s something that really was a positive change in my life.

I had stopped listening to music. Because I was playing so many shows, it was hard for me to be a music fan. I couldn’t go out to shows. It was so weird, my negativity towards it, and somehow, that band was able to reopen my mind to liking music again, and to checking out new bands and whatever. Punk rockers, they can give me as much shit as they want for being a Dead Head. But it saved my life, and it helped me become a music fan again. Punk rock wouldn’t even exist without the DIY aesthetic of the Grateful Dead.

I’ll probably always be a part of the punk rock community, because I grew up in that. But I wanted to bring in the positivity of the Dead Head community to the punk rock community. And not in a cheesy ska way. Just in the love-your-friend-and-be-there-for-each-other way. Love yourself. Yeah, I know we’re singing about a lot of negative shit, but just know that the energy I wanna put out—I don’t wanna keep putting out the negative energy I was putting out, for both the audience members and my bandmates. I need to put out love. Whether it’s to a hippie audience or a punk audience.

I’m grateful that Albuquerque is the kind of place that can support that kind of mentality. We’re very hippie and very rugged around the edges, and we still have the metal and punk scenes, I just feel like luckily I’ve been able to find myself in both communities all of a sudden. I’ll be the guy wearing a fuckin’ Dead Kennedy’s shirt at a Grateful Dead tribute show, and I’ll wear my Grateful Dead shirt at a punk show. But I needed it. I wish I could tell everybody, ‘Yeah, go listen to the Grateful Dead!’ But I don’t wanna bum everybody out. I’ve really found a wonderful music community in Albuquerque. Not just in punk rock, everywhere. There’s a lot of positive shit going on here right now. I’m officially doing what I want to do for a living, so, fuck yeah. I don’t want to talk about it too much, because I don’t want it to be jinxed.

Adam Hooks & His Hangups at Tractor Brewing Company.

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