Children of Coincidence The Tracks of Mocean Worker with Adam Dorn
In September 2006, Jambands.com sat down with Joel Dorn to discuss his lengthy career in the music industry as a disc jockey, writer and a Grammy Award-winning producer. We now catch up with his son, musician Adam Dorn aka Mocean Worker in Los Angeles as he tours with his band in support of his new album, Cinco de Mowo! Dorn has been recording under the MOWO moniker for ten years, releasing five albums of well-crafted electronica that covers everything from jazz to drums’n’bass to post-modern dance music to chop-and-edit audio sorcery. Dorn is a bass guitarist with a musical education under the tutelage of Marcus Miller but he also a highly skilled producer and album craftsman as he records numerous instruments on basic tracks using “his trusty laptop” and then records various musicians in the studio to be mixed into the finished tunes.
The current album is a rich summary of his myriad tastes and influences and features Herb Alpert, Cochemea Gastelum, Morley, Erik Friedlander and the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was also produced by Joel Dorn) on two sampled appearances. Equal parts master chef and sharp-eared tunesmith, Dorn is also a walking international music encyclopedia and, like his father, has an innate ability in grasping what makes a song groove. Also, like his famous father, he is quite adept at the art of conversation and offers much insight into the modern day recording process and the challenges and delights of presenting his music with a veteran band in a live setting.
RR: Describe the process of recording Cinco de Mowo! How did you include your various guest musicians within the arrangements of the songs?
AD: Actually about 75% is done on the laptop. I will find things. I’ll find chord progressions. I’ll write melodies. I don’t really put pen to paper in terms of writing down musical notations but basically I’ll get the track in a mostly finished arrangement and form. Then, I’ll sit back and think, “Hmmmwhat will sound good over this? Let’s try an alto sax.” I’ll give you an example. “Shake Ya Boogie” was mostly done and it was all chopped up and it took two years to get everything fitting the right way. We mixed it five different times. It’s very difficulta lot of weird frequencies that we created. I said, “Man, we need to bring Steve Bernstein in to play trumpet.”
He came in and worked for twenty minutes. He just played a bunch of stuff on four different trumpets. He played all this stuff and I just went crazy with it. I created little groupings and there’s a breakdown where he plays a solo and (laughs) I actually totally messed up and recorded him at the wrong tempo. Not only did I have to create all of these things that worked in the song but also I had messed something technically up with the differences in how you can record. You can record at 44 or 48Kthat’s the pitch and temposo I created a monster for myself.
By and large, the songs would get writtenmeaning beats and stabs, melodies and everythingand then, I would ask, “What organic thing do I need [to add]?” For example, on the song “Changes,” I had left space for an alto solo for Cochemea [Gastelum]who is in my bandbut I thought, “Man, I just worked with Herb Alpert so I’m going to send him this track and see if he’ll play on the record.” He did and played on top of the whole thing and I carved out an area where he could play a trumpet solo [alongside alto sax work by Gastelum]. I picked out little bips and baps and that’s basically how it gets done. I’ll get everything 85% of the way there and I’ll overdub humans on it to get to that next levelthat organic thingand that’s really the process.
The humans get sampled and I turn what they play into parts and sections. A lot of times, people think something has been sampled and it’s really someone coming in to play some stuff and I treat it, I do things to it. All the drums, all the percussion, all the piano, all the harmonic structure and bass linesall that stuff is done and people come in and play on top of it. It’s really a fun process. The band has been playing so much lately that we’re actually talking about going in and recording a live version of the recordtop to bottom. I think we’d do six songs from Cinco de Mowo! and three songs from the last record Enter the MOWO!release that and see if people dig it. It could be funky and just an interpretation of the albums.
RR: I wanted to ask you about some of your other collaborations on the record. Let’s talk about the track “I Got You,” that you wrote with the singer, Morley.
AD: It’s funny. The guy I was just on the phone with is the one who hooked me up with Morley. I saw her at Joe’s Pub in New York and I had never heard her before. I went to my friend Bill Bragin who books Joe’s Pub and said, “Hey, manI have to meet her.” [Author’s Note: On November 15, Bragin announced that he will be leaving his post as Director of Joe’s Pub to become the Director of Public Programming at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.] Bill said, “She’s a really good friend of mine; she sang out our wedding. You guys would totally get along. Come backstage and hang out and meet her.” I walked up to her and said, “Morleyummmyou’re playing on my record.”
It was literally that simple because the tune that I had written, this whole arrangement, I had left it blank with a melody that needed lyrics put to the melody. I said, “What does this make you feel?” It is very different from the music she normally does. I kind of felt that she’s so funky and soulful that I thought she should just let go and not think so much. I told her to have a good time with it. She was a little thrown off but then she settled into it and I think it sounds really cool. There’s a great tenor solo on it, too [played by Gastelum]. She was great. It took about two or three writing sessions before it worked and she just relaxed. We hung out in France [where Morley resides] when I went over to Paris to do some work and we talked about it when she happened to be touring with Raoul McDome. It took about five months before we finally sat down and went through it and she just killed it. I think she did the vocal in two or three takes; we did a comp and it was done.
RR: How about the tracks with work from Rahsaan Roland Kirk?
AD: With regards to Rahsaan, I have a lot of Rahsaan bootlegs sitting around where he’ll just play solo flute for about three minutes at a time. He’s on the last record, as well, on a song called “Shamma Lamma Ding Dong.” On this latest record, he is on “Reykjavik” and “Siss Boom Bah!” To have that weapon sitting there on the hard driveit is very hard not to take advantage of it.
RR: Flute bootlegs. Man, that’s very cool. How many people have that?
AD: Flutelegs. (laughter) Not many. I think I’m one of one. I just figured that Rahsaan is someone thatfirst of all it is just an honor to have the ability to use his playing inside of compositions that I am writing. There is a lot of surgery done to make his flute playing fit inside the compositions. The process is worth it because you get to hear Rahsaan in this totally other context. I was secretly hoping that one of these songs would become one of these catchy “we don’t know why but we play it all the time” type of hits and then Rahsaan would have a hit because I don’t think he ever had a hit. This could help spread the name of Rahsaan and maybe get a lot of people turned onto him. I don’t sell that many records so I don’t know what “a lot” means. I said, “ShitI have to use this stuff; it’s so funky.” I’ll have this beat and I’ll check out how a solo would work on top of the beat. I would chop it up and see what happens. That’s basically the process of putting Rahsaan on. I would take a solo and chop up every single phrase and pitch it so it works in the same key that I’m in and then I’d replay them off a keyboard and basically, Rahsaan becomes an instrument. You get to play all the phrases and melodies in the order that you want. It’s amazing. That’s where the technology comes in handy. That would be the major difference between my father and I. I can turn on a laptop and he cannot.
RR: You also combined players together on the same song on your last record.
AD: Yeah, I combined two players together. I used Rahsaan for a little bit and then I wanted Franck Gauthier who had played with this group Rinocerose. I had met him, he’s a sideman from the south of France, and I said, “Hey, mangive me your number. I want
you to play on something. You sound great.” He just killed it. I sent him the files and he just played on top of it. Bill Frisell played on the last record and I said, “Hey, Bill, here’s
the song. Do whatever you want.” He sent back seven different variations. If you’re going to think about a plus side to modern recording, it’s “hereI know you’re going to treat this all as samples so here’s 40 minutes of me playing on top of your songseven different versions of itdo what you want” and you get all of these colors to work with.
So Franck sent me back this CD with three different takes and I used a breathier one and a more aggressive one and just chopped them to death. (laughs) It didn’t sound anything like his original stuff but he said, “Man, that’s so cool!” It just cracks musicians up because at first they are very leery about how you are going to represent them but you give it back to them and they say, “WhoaI never would have done that but I like it.” Across the board, everyone has been happy. When Marcus Miller is happyyou can’t please him, ever. He is such a perfectionist and such an incredible musician so I said, “Woo Hoo! Triple Word Score!” [Miller plays clarinet on “Brown Liquor” on Cinco de Mowo! He’s a very sweet and quiet guy and he said, “Yeah, man.” If he says, “Yeah, man,” that’s enough for me. (laughter)
The collaborations are really fun because I have something sitting already where I want it and I get to pick a specific person because I know exactly what they are going to do or what I can get out of them. It’s a great way to go about it. Some people might say, “Oh, it’s a little too controlled, why don’t you just make a live record?” I don’t have the ability to do that. It is so expensive to sit in a room and go for that kind of an experiment to see if something would work. It’s impossible to get all the individuals togetherpeople living in France, Seattle, L.A. I’ve got my little laptop; I make do with that.
RR: I like the fact that there is definitely the feeling of an organic whole to your work so that certain samples or sections don’t jump out at me in an awkward way. How important is it for you to have that organic whole in your songs as opposed to being yet another musician who has mastered the art of the Apple?
AD: (laughs) Yeah. The goal of that is always about the composition. It’s always about the song. That’s why I love having the live band. We have a six-piece live band and we have background tracks running from the laptop for support just so people can understand the context and can say, “Oh, I know that song.” In certain markets, we’ve done pretty well and they will come out to see the show and when I start one of the bass lines on the laptop, they will [recognize the song] and shout out but my favorite thing to do is to stop the laptop while we are playing because there’s not really a huge difference. The band is just playing the songs and the songs work so it doesn’t matter what’s the sample or what’s recorded or who is playing or not playing. The goal is “Do you like the song?” That’s the goal. Hopefully, yeah, it’s cool that you point out that things flow, there’s a thread that runs through it. It’s not like “oh, you’re really good at turntables.” I can’t afford to be good at turntables. I’d be broke if I had to sample everything. I couldn’t clear one sample if I wanted to so I don’t sample as a result.
RR: I’m glad you brought up the live setting. How do you plan your setlists and how much does improvisation play into it as a factor with the band members?
AD: Yeah, I really want to talk about that because with the readers on your site, it all comes down to that. Here’s the good news for them. We’re a band. We played at Bimbo’s a couple nights ago in San Francisco. We had a technical problem and we literally said, “Alright, we’re going to go to this section of this tune, now,” because something was wrong with the laptop. Everyone in the band plays with someone else or is a bandleader on their own. The basic setup is that I have the bare essential elements for each song that I need to be played so that people can tell what song it is. (laughter) It is playing on a laptop triggered by a program called Ableton Live. From there it is drums, guitar, trumpet, tenor, percussion and piano. Knowing that that many musicians are on stage, you know that we can turn that laptop off and just groove.
There are a couple tunes in particular we play like one of the new tunes from the record, “Les and Eddie,” that we play live and there is no computer. We change it every time we play it. The bass line is the anchor for the song but I get bored with the bass line and I check out the crowd and go into a James Brown thing or I go into double time or do some gospel stuff. It’s so much fun because we’re just not locked in. Even on stuff like the second song on the record, “Tickle It” we don’t use a laptop anymore. The sequences that I madethis is just me being lazybut the backing tracks are too full so even if the drummer could steer all of the parts, he can’t find one because there are all of these brushes without a down beat. We would be playing it with the computer and I would say, “Oh, you don’t know where one is and we’re going to come back out of this break completely lost.” Alright no more laptop. As a result, of no more result, we just play the tune and I just point at guys and say, “AlrightI want to hear a tenor solo right now” or “I want to hear a piano solo” or “let’s do a New Orleans groove right now.”
We don’t make it up on the spot but we make it up on the spot. We have a structure and we deviate based on how the crowd is feeling it, what’s going on or one guy might say, “HeyI have to play on this, right now.” They would literally just look at me and say, “I don’t care if it’s your band. I’m taking a solo.” (laughter) That kind of stuff happens all the time. They are amazing musicians. Our tenor player [Bob Reynolds] plays with John Mayer; he’s a leader in his own right and has an album out. It’s straight ahead jazz. Our alto player [Cochemea Gastelum] also plays with Sharon Jones and he has played with everyone.
RR: Stanton Moore and Robert Walter come to mind when you mention that list.
AD: Exactly. Exactly. He has played with Robert for years. He gets up there and looks at me and says, “We’re going to do this horn line, right now.” I say, “Hey, fine. I’m sorry.” (laughs) These guys are in charge. Mike Williams plays bass trumpet, which is kind of like a trombone with valves. He plays with Kenny Wollesen’s band, the Himalayas. He’s killing; Mikey’s the best. He always wears funny shirts and has big hair so I never introduce him on his instrument. “And on shirt, Mike Williams!” Elizabeth Pupo-Walker plays with so many bands that I don’t even know where to start. The drummer, Zach Danziger did the music for Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 and used to play with Michel Camilo and plays with Shari Kane. These guys have played with everyone. The last guy, [on piano] Oli Rockberger is a kid, he’s this 26-year-old kid from England and he has the leasthe’s played with me. (laughs) He hasn’t really played with a ton of others in terms of support but he’s like the most chillest member of the band. He’s a rock star.
The band is disgusting. I don’t even solo. I can play a bass and I can solo. Marcus Miller was my teacher for three years and I can play anything I want but I just don’t feel the need. Everybody gets their playing on and everybody gets to hear great playing and I just figure: “Manplay grooves. That’s what people want to hear out of the bass.” The band is very dynamic and we’ve been fortunate to do Bumbershoot, Treasure Island with Morning Becomes Eclectic and Nic Harcourt’s show at KCRW in L.A. We just did this tour with this band called Koop from Sweden. Have you heard of them?
RR: Oh, yeah. I cover my bases.
AD: Yeah, they’re cool.
RR: Literally and figurativelysome straight up Scandinavian vibes right there.
AD: (laughter) In every way, shape and form. They are Swedish to the core. We toured Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, New York and L.A. together. They are very cheeky, very lounge, a very 1920s kind of thing and we’re just not. We have elements from those eras but we sound more like Headhunters. (laughter) Like if the Headhunters had been invented in the 30s. Yeah, soit was interesting.
RR: Since we mentioned your father, I have to include my own family connection. My folks used to live in San Francisco in the 50s when it was cool according to my dad and they used to hang out at Bimbo’s quite a bit. I managed to catch a few shows there myself and always marveled at the great timeless atmosphere that exists at that locationa really magical spot to see an intimate gig. What did you think?
AD: It’s the best place that we’ve played without a doubt. That is the best place we’ve played and second place would be Joe’s Pub in New York. Bimbo’s was incredible. The thing that was incredible for me was that we were ostensibly treated as the opening act but we brought half the crowd and they were ours. There were 400 people there and I sold 50 records. That’s a pretty good percentage, you know what I mean? (laughs) Some sort of chord resonated. I sold a record to the monitors guy (laughs)the guy doing our sound. We were treated kind of poorly and we got a fifteen-minute soundcheck and we still rocked the house. We said, “We don’t care. Do whatever you’ve got to do. We’re going to rock the house.” It was fun. I love that room.
We hung out after the show in the lobby and you could see into the venue but you were also still in the lobby and it has such a cool vibe. That place is so great. The technical staff were great. Management was great. Sometimes you’re at a venue and all of the help are apathetic and full of shit and a pain in the ass. That place, you walk in and you feel like whoever owns it and runs it, respects how special it is. That’s the feeling I got. Not only did the monitors guy buy one of my records but one of the employees in the kitchen bought my record and two women ushers bought my record. So I was just like “these people like music.” (laughs) They work here for a reason. It was a pleasant, great vibe.
RR: How important is the international flavor of your music? Or is the intercontinental varietyfrom Iceland to Japana byproduct of all of the music that you’ve been able to sponge up over your lifetime?
AD: I think it’s just a question of travel inspires me to write. Not work travel, I’m not inspired when I’m on the road touring. I’m the opposite. I’m grumpy. (laughs) In the two and a half years that it took to write the album, I went to Iceland, I went to Japan, I spent tons of time in France, I spent tons of time throughout the Statesmaybe working but not touring with a band. I had a lot of alone time so I would say, “Oh, I have an idea.” You just come up with stuff. It’s weird because I would be so pretentious if I said, “Oh, I wrote the song “Reykjavik” while in Reykjavik because I thought this was what people in Iceland would want to hear it.” No. I was there and I was standing next to this huge geo-thermal plant and it’s making this sound and it has this rhythm to it and I just wrote. It is that simple. It’s three in the morning and I’d have an idea and I was just lucky enough to be able to travel and be influenced by different physical locations.
RR: “Reykjavik” is probably my favorite piece. I love how the energy drops down into that brief moment of time in the middle of the album.
AD: Cool. The idea there with the song and the placement of the song is supposed to chill you out and cleanse your palette before the second half of the record begins. The only criticism I’ve gotten from the song and I’m almost tempted to just do this is that people think it is too short. [Author’s Note: indeed, the splendid tune clocks in at a 2:24 and is the shortest track on Cinco de Mowo! I just think it is like an intermission that’s deceptive and then you’re into “Changes” and then Morley’s track [“I Got You”]. Take a break but it’s a happy one. (laughs)
RR: Regardless of the changing landscape of record companies and music distribution, I still enjoy the album experience as a whole and would prefer that artists refrain from releasing 70+ minutes of music simply because they can. If it feels too short, often it is because the journey has been well spent.
AD: Yeah, I appreciate you recognizing that. The thing for me was that my partner Marty
and I [Martin Brumbach, co-producer and engineer] looked at it like thishe mixes everything but he’s also edits me. He says, “Heywe can cut out eight bars here, we can cut out four bars here.” The thought there being that it is an album. It’s not just a series of songs. We really labored over the sequence and at first we eased people into it. I said, “Nopeople don’tno, let’s punch them in the face and then settle down.” This record has too much energy to start off easily. We ended up agreeing on that. It’s an album; it’s not a series of songs.
RR: Cinco de Mowo! has a consistently relaxed yet energetic vibe. How difficult was it to sequence the songs so you could create that album framework?
AD: It took a minute, yeah. It definitely took a minute. We also got rid ofthere are extra tunes that were finished and mastered that just didn’t fit. We got rid of them. Some people would have just said, “Naw, put them on there. Here’s fifteen, sixteen tracks.” I said, “No, man, this just doesn’t work.” Put out an EP. The beautiful thing now is that I could put out a B-side EP on iTunes and it’s five minutes, you know? You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy it. There are some extra tracks and I don’t feel like they are necessarily not strong, it’s just that they are not going to be the basis for the next record, either. They were written at this timeframe and I can release two things on iTunesa B-side collection of five songs and a series of remixes of “Shake Ya Boogie,” done by really good remixers. Standard stuff, nothing revolutionary but it’s cool that you can have that conduit and not have to worry about “how many pieces will Tower order?” Tower ain’t going to order any pieces because they are all luxury condominiums, now. (laughs) They don’t exist. And we all know that Starbucks isn’t bringing in anything new.
RR: The final track, “Songnumber3” is another piece that fits into the album puzzle quite well in the way that it flows into an unexpected and logical conclusion. It also sounded to me like a beautiful outtake from some unknown Radiohead album with its soft piano-driven progression. Had you always considered it as the last track?
AD: Oh, wow. (laughs) Yeah. Yeah. I did that on the last album, as well [sequencing a specific song to close the work] with a song called “Collection II.” I wanted the record to end and have a soft landing. Here’s this album with a lot of up tempo, swinging, not exactly subtle material for the most part. There are intricacies and subtleties within the writing and production but there are a lot of things where there are melodies and I call them melodies where they make you want to kill yourself [hums melody to “Shake Ya Boogie”] and you can start humming it and it’ll make you lose your mind. (laughter) When I was writing it, I was walking around and humming it but I wanted the record to have this sort of departure [at the end]. I had listened to all of this music and apparently I had had some cough syrup. (laughs) It’s time to go to bed. The party is over and [“Songnumber3”] is the polite exit music. It’s all based on a French classical piece. The cellos are played by Erik Friedlander and he’s a really accomplished cellist.
RR: I was going to ask you about Erik Friedlander. How did you two meet?
AD: My father and his father are really close friends. His father, of course, is Lee Friedlander who is a beyond accomplished photographer. They are just really close friends of the family. I actually don’t know Eric that well although I know his father. I said, “Hey, would you mind if I sent you an mp3 as I have some ideas and could you play these cello parts and maybe, write some other ones?” It was as simple as that.
Initiallyyou’re going to laugh (laughs)I had the same manager as Rufus Wainwright for about four years and I really wanted Rufus to sing on it. [Author’s Note: I do not laugh but think the Dorn/Wainwright combo would be pretty cool.] He just kept saying yes but really meaning no and never coming through and never showing up and never just never. I always wanted a vocalist on it with a tortured kind of lyric. It was just never working out so I thought, “You know what? The day I wrote this song, I wrote it in two hours without the cellos and, even with or without them, it’s done. I don’t need to put anything else on this. It’s still a finished piece of music. It has a form to it and it serves its purpose.” In a lot of ways, I’m kind of really glad that I can always revisit it and put a vocal on it. That makes perfect sense but I don’t have to. I didn’t have the confidence at first to just say it is donethat’s my thought. As we lived with it and mixed it, it was like “oh, Godno way. I don’t want any vocals. This is the end of the album. Screw a vocalist.” So it is kind of funny how things work out and “watch out what you wish for” and in that instance, I think we dodged a bullet because there would have been other problems of having a known vocalist. It would have been expensive. I don’t know. It just wouldn’t have been easy. It also wouldn’t have served the right purpose, either.
RR: Interesting. This morning I caught Blow-Up on TCM, the classic Antonioni film from the 60s, where a photographer continues to blow-up an image that he captured because he thinks he may have recorded a murder during his shoot. Eventually, the viewer realizes that the closer one looks, the less one sees.
AD: You’re right. You’re 100% right. That rationale and that train of thought ended up winning out. It’s like “no, manlet’s just leave well enough alone. It’s fine.” It’s weird because it is hard to write those kinds of tracks and just let them go. You have a tendency to say, “What can we do here? What can we do there?” Now, I think, as I’m getting older, I just put my foot down a little quicker. If by quicker, it takes me two less months to do it then so be it. Yeah, there were parts of this record where I thought the song was done and we should just mix it. We weren’t adding anything and there was no need to change anything. This was the statement I need to make with this piece of musicas snotty as that might sound. I guess it is also realizing what you want to do and literally, realizing it: BOOMthis is done.
_Randy Ray stores his “BOOMthis is done” work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com