Hollywood has seen its share of multi-hyphenates, but actor-musician-writer-director-producer-editor-photographer Adam Goldberg just might inhabit his own exclusive niche: the septuple threat. While some may refer to such as a “renaissance man,” he prefers the descriptor on his website’s homepage: “jack of all tirades,” or that of his Facebook URL adamgoldbergdilettente.com.
“I think I do a lot of things okay,” Goldberg observes. “But such diversified interests have felt a bit like a curse. It can make it hard to focus and fulfill the promise of each of these passions as much I’d like. I always kind of wished I just wanted to do one thing and master it. Basically, I always wanted to be John Coltrane, but I quit the saxophone when I was 16 after two weeks of hyperventilating.”
He could be accused – and even found guilty – of such self-proclaimed dilettantism if the work didn’t ring true, but in spite of his self-effacement, whether he’s plying his trade on either side of the camera, writing a film script or laying down vocal tracks in his garage studio, it is clear that everything Goldberg does is done completely – there are no half-moves or inauthentic gestures.
“For me, my work is kind of all-encompassing,” he explains. “I don’t think I know of any other way to do it. Even if it’s a gig I’m not particularly passionate about it, I immerse myself in it. This is all a polite way of saying I’m obsessive.”
Movie audiences got to know Goldberg from his performances in films such as Dazed and Confused, Saving Private Ryan, A Beautiful Mind, and 2 Days in Paris as well as from equally memorable appearances in TV shows like Friends, Entourage and Fargo. Music fans, however, haven’t always found him so easy to pin down. This year they‘ll have his brilliant new album, Mood Swing, but as he has done on his previous two releases, Goldberg goes by the curious nom de bande The Goldberg Sisters.
The use of pseudonyms is already part of a Goldberg tradition. After providing music for some of his own films (2003’s Running With the Bulls and I Love Your Work in 2005), he released his first solo album, 2009’s Eros and Omissions, and billed himself as LANDy. The name was really an extension of a running joke between Goldberg and Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd about Eugene Landy (Brian Wilson’s Svengali therapist) they often made while they collaborated on a few of the album’s tracks in Norman Oklahama.
“Although I suppose technically I’m a ‘singer-songwriter,’ I always thought of the music I was making as ‘band’ music,” Goldberg states. Additionally, he was trying to avoid nomenclature confusion with a Boston based singer-songwriter named Adam Goldberg. “Problem was, there were other artists, believe it or not, named Landy, and that created confusion. So I finally changed it to the Goldberg Sisters—which come to think of it probably creates more confusion.”
Key to the Goldberg Sisters is the second half of the musical duo: Celeste, Adam’s mythical “bearded twin sister” whose function is that of a muse in reverse. “She's the mastermind and Adam is the frontman,” Goldberg explains. “I’m just the middling character actor and Celeste is the one with the chops.” If you follow both Adam’s Twitter and the Goldberg Sisters’ account (which claims to have tweets written by Celeste), you’ll often find the two bickering and trolling each other.
Goldberg recorded the dream-pop gem Eros and Omissions over a six-year period with a variety of musicians, including Drozd, Earlimart frontman-producer Aaron Espinoza (who mixed and re-recorded much of the material with Adam), and LA shoegazers The Black Pine. But the pace quickened on the first two albums issued under the Goldberg Sisters moniker, 2011’s self-titled offering which he recorded with a small group of musicians at Espinoza’s studio, The Ship, and Stranger’s Morning from 2013, on which Goldberg played all the instruments (guitar, bass, drums, piano, synth, percussion, all vocals) and which was recorded by engineer and longtime collaborator, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter (Nav/Attack) Andrew Lynch in Goldberg’s garage.
Goldberg and Lynch teamed up once again in the garage for the new Goldberg Sisters’ album, Mood Swing, recorded over the course of two years but which includes songs demoed as far back as 2013. Goldberg again did all the instrumentation save for violins and trumpet.
This time he enlisted his wife and artist-graphic designer Roxanne Daner, along with Merritt Lear, known for her work with Jason Mraz, both of whom contributed their violin prowess on Goldberg’s first two records as well. The album also prominently features Lynch’s superlative trumpet work.
Goldberg’s lush, supple tenor has been compared to one of his idols, John Lennon, and his compositional approach has been likened to that of another hero, Harry Nilsson – associations he’s all too happy to embrace. “I love them both,” he notes.
A deeply reverential Lennon-esque vibe permeates the 13 tracks that comprise Mood Swing, particularly on the tight, sturdy rocker “Where or When or Why” and the lo-fi cosmic spellbinder “The Kids are Alwrong,” which sounds something like an unlikely collaboration between Spoon, Spector-era Lennon, and Curtis Mayfield. Goldberg cites a panoply of diverse influences including “Bowie, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, the Divine Comedy, Sparklehorse, Built to Spill, American Music Club, Curtis Mayfield, America, and Burt Bacharach to name just a few!” As for Harry Nilsson, Goldberg namechecks him in the title of the languid yet whimsical “Dear Mr. Nilsson.” “That song is about my inability to write,” Goldberg says. “Or about the futility really of trying to compose a song that measures up to Nilsson’s work. Like no matter how accomplished you are, sorry, you didn’t write ‘One.’”
True to the album’s title, Goldberg’s restless creative impulses see him constantly shifting moods and sonic textures in surprising and fascinating ways. There’s the baroque pop charm of “The Longest Goodbye,” the beguiling dreamscape “Sliver of Light” that unfolds into an aching mini-symphony, and on the sweeping, spacey “Meet the Depressed,” Goldberg mixes “Mind Games”-era Lennon with Syd Barrett-period Pink Floyd to wondrous effect.
One of the album’s most transportive cuts, “One Two Three Four Five Six,” is a warm-blanket lullaby that Goldberg essentially built from a loop he initially made on Vine in the erstwhile app’s infancy. On the track, he duets with the legendary British singer-songwriter Bridget St John, the significance of which he deems as nothing short of miraculous. Goldberg wears his affection for St John right on his sleeve (“I essentially idolize her”), and after he featured one of her songs in his 2015 film No Way Jose, he reached out to her on social media and suggested they meet for tea. The two became friends, and Goldberg summoned his nerve to ask her to appear on his record. “She obliged – had even researched and complimented my stuff a bit. I nearly fell out of the chair.” The song, he says, “is essentially a duet between Time and an aging singer.”
Lyrically, Goldberg is of two minds: “Fifty percent of the time, I’m writing with absolutely no foresight at all, and I’m simply singing to the sounds that I’ll hear; I’ll retrofit words to suit the music. The other half of the time, I’ll have a clear purpose and will write with something very specific in mind.” For years he tried to compose a meaningful song to honor his dear friend and college roommate John Glick (frontman for bands such as Returnables and Fez Petting Zoo), who perished in a 2005 car accident. He makes good on that mission on the sensual, glam-infused “Words That Rhyme.”
Mood Swing is bookended by the album’s intro, “Theme,” and “My Boy Bud,” a love letter to Goldberg’s three-year-old son. “The intro theme is actually the violin tracks from the ‘My Boy Bud’ coda that we put through some analog shapeshifters, giving it a kind of unresolved wooziness,” he says, “while in a totally unconscious way ‘My Boy Bud’ is kind of a musical response to the Nilsson tune. I began writing it with a one-year-old Bud on my lap as I plunked out the basic concept on the piano one afternoon.”
With these tracks, he closes – joyfully – a painful period that attended the recording of Stranger’s Morning, one which saw Goldberg and his then-girlfriend Daner break up, make up, and get pregnant, only to lose the child in a stillborn birth. Stranger’s Morning, which had just finished tracking, along with his film No Way Jose, made only months later, are both dedicated “To Bix.” Says Goldberg, “While Stranger’s Morning, in many ways, is a document of Roxanne’s and my short breakup, Mood Swing in part documents the reconciliation, loss of our first son, and the birth of our boy Bud which basically made my very weary and wary heart explode with love.”
Goldberg’s elasticity as a multi-instrumentalist and producer is nothing short of astonishing considering he lacks anything in the way of formal training and didn’t even think of seriously making music until his early 20s. “I started playing drums as a kid,” he recalls. “I played along with songs on the radio but mainly Bowie records.” While in high school, acting and filmmaking consumed his thoughts and would remain his main passions until one morning, when he was 23, and woke up and told his girlfriend at the time about a dream he’d just had: “While I had made some half-ass efforts to play Sonic Youth type riffs on the guitar over the years, as well as recording some covers with friends, on which I drummed and sang, I couldn’t write a song. But in this dream, suddenly I just could. I could play guitar and I could compose. I could hear the song when I woke up – just didn’t quite know how to play it yet.”
Not long afterward, Goldberg set out to make his dream a reality. He bought a guitar and a Tascam 4-track and began writing songs and learning how to use “my extremely small Tascam studio to full effect.” He started jamming with friends and absorbed more of the language of music. “It came to me much like editing did when I was cutting Scotch and Milk [his jazz-drenched first film as director].” He goes on: “I can’t quite tell you how I arrived at the ability to make this stuff – I suppose through something like osmosis.”
By the time he started working with Stephen Drozd for the I Love Your Work soundtrack in 2003, Goldberg had a decade of writing, recording, and playing various instruments under his belt. “You get to the point where you can play well enough to articulate your ideas,” he says. “Basically I use instruments as song writings tools and sound makers, but I’m loath to call myself a musician. I mean, I’ve made more of an effort over the years to really understand what I’m playing and writing and how to execute my ideas from a more traditional standpoint. But if, for instance, you told me you needed me to play bass – an instrument I only began playing on Stranger’s Morning – on your track, I’d have to painstakingly learn the song, note by note.” He laughs, then adds, “It’s kind of a good way get out of jamming. You have to play my song if you wanna play with me!”
At various times, Goldberg has played live – he once folded the Black Pine into a live version of LANDy, which also included Daner, Lear, and Lynch, as well as Cat Power regular Adeline Jasso. And in 2013 he performed his glam rocker “Shush” on The Craig Ferguson Show with a smaller group that included Jon Safely and Darian Zahedi, who among other projects are members of the Nick Valensi-fronted CRX. But in the end he finds the studio a more inviting atmosphere for making music.
“As much as I love to play with a group of people, I find the rehearsal and performance aspects too stressful and anxiety inducing,” he observes. “I feel like I can't get the sound I make with a studio, and moreover I’m straight-up shit scared of playing this stuff live. When I had a band with my pal Eric Siegel called the Personal Power [a wink to another pop culture guru] in the ‘90s, we were essentially a Sebadoh-influenced power pop trio, which seemed more manageable somehow drunk and sedated. For the Craig Ferguson show, I had such a migraine that I could barely walk out on stage. I just like making records; I like comping takes; I like the infinite layering I can do and then play with in the editorial process.”
It’s slightly ironic then that the most fun he’s had playing live recently “was live tracking with my pals in a kind of psuedo-band called the Borges, whom we portray in my film No Way Jose as struggling indie-rockers that have resigned themselves to playing children’s birthday parties. I’m such a ‘studio guy’ or whatever,but I was super dogmatic about us sounding like a band and tracking live, even though we’d never all played together before the session!”
While he remains in demand for his acting services (he’s just wrapped six months as a regular on the NBC drama Taken and is raising funds for The Hebrew Hammer Versus Hitler, a sequel to the 2003 cult classic The Hebrew Hammer), Goldberg continues to be devoted to photography. Since his childhood, he’s utilized various analog cameras and film stocks, and he’s long been a proponent of Polaroid-based photography: He’s tested film for the Impossible Project, which recently merged with Polaroid, and has also served an ambassador for CinestillFilm, which has used many of his photos to market their stocks. His photos have comprised the art for all of all of his albums, with wife Roxanne designing the graphics.
Mood Swing had been conceived as a photography/LP set, but the rigors of shooting schedules and his busy home life put that plan on hold – until now when “I finally said, ‘You live once. Get your ass in gear and put this goddam thing together.” He continues: “In many ways photography, fillmaking, and music exercise the same muscles and exorcise the same pains and passions. They seem to act as counterparts. Furthermore, I frankly think the book/LP concept is just an engaging way to connect with the music you’re listening to – particularly in a day and age when most kids have never held their music in their hands. I sound like I’m 90. I mean, I basically am.”
With or without visual counterparts, the music on Mood Swing will ensure listeners a profoundly immersive experience. “I’m really proud of the album,” Goldberg says. “I think I needed to step away from it for a bit to regain some perspective on it, which is always weird because now it’s truly like listening to somebody else. Honestly it feels a little like that dream I had when I was 23. I can't quite account for how these things get made. I don’t even like to recall the process, that even the memory of which is too stressful. I have to compartmentalize – kind of like I imagine women must have to do in order to give birth more than once. It’s not so much that I want to make music – I feel I have to, as if I have no choice.”
And so, he surrenders to his heart’s most urgent commands on the Goldberg Sisters’ Mood Swing, and for that, music fans can be thankful.