Low Cut Connie’s
Adam Weiner,
The TVD Interview

I catch Adam on the phone on a Monday morning, which seems like an inauspicious time to ring up a rock and roller (his manager’s suggestion, not mine). But to call Adam Weiner a rock and roller feels reductive; after an hour on the horn we’ve talked about everything and everyone from the GOP and Atlantic City to the rodeo circuit and Jerzy Grotowski. Adam himself is best known as the frontman of Low Cut Connie, whose fans range as widely as our conversation—they’ve made the favorites playlist with Rolling Stone, Elton John, and Barack Obama, to name just a few.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the band’s famously rambunctious live shows have even been transformed for a remote audience known as “Tough Cookies,” who tune in every Thursday to Adam’s living room instead of the news. Judging by the chatter in the sidebar when I join them for the landmark 50th show, many have made Low Cut Connie a part of their weekly routine. It’s not hard to see why; in the course of an evening, Adam and guitarist Will Donnelly not only play new hits, old favorites, and fresh covers, but make up songs, eat tacos, take questions, and pull records from the shelves to share with their fans. DJ sets are dutifully accompanied on the cheese grater, Tupperware, and air guitar. It’s the closest to a house party you’re probably going to get before the year is out—defiantly joyful and deeply cathartic.

That Adam is so generous with his fans comes as no surprise. He’s always been in it for the people. “I’m from New Jersey, but I’ve lived in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal, Austin, Memphis, and I’ve traveled throughout the US, Canada, Europe, with my music, with some measure of success for the last few years, and with a of measure of no success for many years. And that allowed me to kind of meet people eye to eye,” he tells me. “I’d play anywhere that would have me. Nobody knew me, I didn’t have any fans. If an anarchist punk squat house on a college campus would have me and feed me I would stay over.” His songs are populated by characters at once larger than life and too real to be denied—drag queens and evangelists and everyone in between. “I always feel like I want to talk about the people in my songs with a sort of fascinated and sympathetic eye from how they’re living. I get that as much from movies and literature as I do from music.”

We’ve chatted about books before, and when I ask what he’s reading these days, the list includes Grace Jones, Catullus, and A. J. Liebling, whom he describes as “sort of a gateway drug that took me into other journalists. There’s something about his way of describing everyday people…whether he was writing about boxers, criminals, circus performers, disabled people, politicians, there was a very detailed and sympathetic and humanistic view of people and how they live every day.” But Adam’s interest in the other people’s private lives is participatory, not voyeuristic—his odes and elegies are rooted in empathy, and often demand he inhabit his characters onstage, whether he fits the type or not. Like many of his artistic heroes, he uses performance to deconstruct and reconstruct identity, and in the process celebrates the dizzying diversity of humanity. It’s the same quality he admires so much in Catullus: “You’re definitely getting a peek under the hood, it’s very informal,” he says of the Latin poet, who rejected the epic tradition in favor of observations about friends, neighbors, and public officials. “He’s horny, he’s funny, but he’s actually talking about real things… I’m always trying to write about real things without giving up being funny and horny and loose with [it].”

Staying real without losing the humor is no small feat here in the Plague Year, but Low Cut Connie’s forthcoming double-LP, Private Lives—due out October 13—manages exactly that. The seventeen tracks are as variable as one might expect from such a cultural omnivore, offering not just a dose of red-blooded underdog rock and roll, but spoken word and piano ballads sandwiched between strains of blues, funk, jazz, and gospel. When I ask how he gets so many different sounds to hang together on one record, he answers with a laugh. “You try, but you don’t always succeed. I definitely think this album is a mess but I kind of came to embrace the mess,” he says. “There was a lot of upheaval in my life and in the band. Every time I went in the studio it was a different [lineup], and then I was starting to do a lot of sessions by myself.”

Private Lives feels more like a solo project than any of Low Cut Connie’s previous albums, despite its infinite variety. That might be, ironically, the very thing holding it together. Adam describes hours spent at the piano, adding songs, poems, and vignettes to a “big chaotic pile of music, 40+ songs” which didn’t quite clinch until he found the title track. “Once I had the ‘Private Lives’ song it was kind of like an anchor for a collection of character studies,” he explains. “You get an idea of all these people and these subcultures, they’re all popping their heads into that song.” Soon it occurred to him that “this would be a good way to start before you go and travel and meet a whole bunch of these lurking faces.”

While it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Private Lives a concept album, it eschews empty aestheticism in favor of keeping the emotion intact. “‘Look What They Did’ was such a departure from everything I had done and recorded up to that point, but I felt so strongly about it,” he says. “I knew it was a powerful statement, but it was a character study, too. I’m speaking in the voice of someone who’s living through [the economic decay] in Atlantic City and I thought, ‘If I can see the thread between these two then I can see the thread through the [songs] that will fit,’ and that hooked me through these seventeen that I thought really went to together somehow, and would give the listener a feeling like they’re watching a bunch of mini-movies of people and how they live.”

Something else underlies Adam’s fascination with performing people. “My dirty little secret. I started out trying to be an actor. I was at [NYU’s] Experimental Theatre Wing, so that was like a year of my life running around doing all this… crazy, no-text, half-naked, pouring candle wax on each other, screaming… Lots of performance art-based stuff. I spent a whole day being a river otter.” This might not come as a surprise to anybody who’s ever watched him climb a piano (rather like a river otter, an image I can’t unsee once he mentions it), or transform from ballad crooner to ass-shaking Tina Turner impersonator without so much as a costume change. “I got a lot out of it,” he says of his time treading the boards. “I think it did free up a lot performance-wise for me.” It also supplied him with the title of his next record. “I’m rediscovering my love of theatre, I really am,” he tells me, when I confess that his dirty secret and mine are the same (I used to be an actor, too). “I read plays. That’s where ‘Private Lives’ came from. I completely stole this title from Noël Coward. I had the song, mostly, but I just didn’t have that one line. And I had the book sitting there, Private Lives. Which is a beautiful play.”

He got his continuing education in performance playing the piano in “a New York drag karaoke bar called Pegasus. The first thing I realized was I was uptight in every way,” he says. “Just being in this environment that was so completely beyond the street concept of gender and sexuality and what is appropriate, I was like, ‘This is where I need to be. This is fun in its purest form.’ It was an education, because if I was uptight, they would call me on it. And if I didn’t look good, they’d call me on it. And if I didn’t sound good, they’d call me on it. And when I sounded good, they told me. When I looked good, they told me. They opened my heart. I was 21 and I’ve carried it with me all my life.”

But he resists the implication that what he does onstage is gender-bending. “People are fixated on the clothes or the makeup or the look they take upon themselves. I think about subtraction,” he says. “You take away the ideas around gender and sexuality that you have, and then you get past them with art and live performance. At this point in the game I don’t necessarily try to put on anything, I try to take away. So when the performance starts, I feel more free than I do in my daily life, I feel more unencumbered… it’s funny to me how different people interpret that,” he says. “People are performing their gender and their sexuality all the time, but when you deviate from that or just put less energy into that performance, [it’s] striking.”

After his time at ETW and Pegasus, Adam knew he wasn’t going to pursue a career as an actor, but that performance was still where he wanted to focus his energy—which is easier said than done. “If you want to have a life in art,” he says, “you have to want it real bad. So bad that you can’t sleep at night. You have to be willing to get knocked down a million times and keep coming back and love it so much that want to spend your life doing it.” Adam’s turn as an actor paved the way for his later musical career in more ways than one, but perhaps most fundamentally in the way it changed his perspective on art. “The thing that I realized,” he says, “[is] you gotta get up in front of unforgiving, hostile people and you gotta fall down fifty times before you get it one time. That’s where you’re tested… When I was like thinking I was gonna be an actor, it did sort of light the fire for me. That like, okay, it ain’t gonna be as a stage actor, but as a performer I can do this. But it’s gonna take me like ten years to do.”

It’s been almost exactly ten years since Low Cut Connie’s debut album, Get Out the Lotion, was recorded in a friend’s garage. Adam describes it as “kind of like an accidental pregnancy with the band, nobody planned it… It was like a wild weekend that turned into this record and then, it was like, Well what do we do now?” Despite winning over critics like the legendary Robert Christgau, “we were labeled just this crazy party band, with all the positive and negative associations with that.” Adam has never fit comfortably in a box, and in the past few years he’s pushed himself to make music that can’t be pigeonholed. “I don’t really stick my chest out and demand people look at the music with same seriousness as other writers,” he says. “In music you can sort of adopt a certain attitude… that says to people, ‘This is serious. This is serious music…’ I’ve never done that. But privately for myself and for my fans I wanted to go deeper into myself and my writing voice.”

In his recent work and on Private Lives in particular, his sociopolitical commentary frequently bubbles to the surface. The polarization of the United States since the 2016 election means that politics are impossible to avoid—particularly for entertainers with public profiles. For the music video for “Look What They Did,” Adam took a friend with White House press credentials to shoot behind the lot for Trump Plaza. “It was done in documentary style, so it was shared by newsy platforms that would never share a song usually. The comments we got were absolutely fucking brutal, but at the same time it galvanized a lot of people… it reignited the conversation with my fans. For the most part, it resonated with people, and for some people it was really offensive to them.”

He’s still sticking to his guns, but he’s not looking to proselytize. “I’m the type that would much rather speak my worldviews through music and art and performance than through a social media post or a monologue,” he says, which is how he approaches the elephant in the room now that he’s livestreaming weekly for the Tough Cookies audience. After the murder of George Floyd, “That entire show we did on that Saturday…we threw away everything we were gonna do, because typically what we try to do is uplift people… but that wasn’t what I wanted to do that night. I wanted to activate this whole other thing. People were angry and I wanted to go with it. Right around then some of the TC viewers started to send messages and comments like, ‘Is there still room for me in your tent?’ That was something somebody said to me. ‘I’m a Trump supporter…’ This is like 5% of the people, but I responded to every single person personally and I would say to everybody like, with respect, we’re not going to agree, but this is a big tent.” As the Tough Cookies Patreon banner promises, ALL ARE WELCOME.

Adam’s commitment to inclusion is more radical than it might appear. His desire to keep everyone coming back to the tent is rooted in the same humanist instinct that illuminates his lyrics. “Most of the interviews I do are with Black entertainers and people in the industry and my focus is to discuss racism in the music and entertainment business,” he says. (Recent notable guests include Darlene Love and Mathew Knowles.) Big as the tent may be, some former fans have chosen to leave. “I have lost some people,” he admits. “But I’ve also gained, and I also don’t care, it just resonates with me, this feels like what I need to be doing, it’s what I want my fans to be thinking about… It is majority white, and I want them to see. I want them to be part of this discussion.”

He self-identifies as an “old soul,” so it’s not lost on him that he’s participating in a tradition of activism as old as art itself. “I take my inspiration from somebody like Bob Dylan, who wasn’t giving speeches, but we’re still singing those songs today,” he explains. “Sure, they were for the Civil Rights movement, but people are going to be singing ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ hundreds of years from now. When you talk about how people live and sort of the universal truths about what it is to be a conscious human on this planet, it will be interpreted as political.” But this, in Adam’s estimation, is an oversimplification—which is why criticisms of “Look What They Did” as overly political tend to rankle. “It’s political but it’s a lot more than that… the portrait of a family going to buy a car together and the son wishing that someday they’ll win the lottery and it won’t have to be a used car… all those little touches, you go to that place, you feel how these people live,” he says, returning to the theme that ties together Private Lives.

Making radical art might seem like a strange occupation for such an old soul, but in addition to fostering conversation across the partisan divide, he’s interested to fostering conversation across generations. “It’s funny how, Low Cut Connie, I get tagged often for being retro,” he says. Funny because “that’ll always change. Right now, people are not calling me retro. In two years they will be again.” Whether he’s retro at the moment or not, he’s used to hearing odd questions from Generation Z. “I love talking to young people because they don’t know anything and they have a fresh perspective,” he says, fondly recalling a young waitress in Virginia who asked him what rock and roll was. (He sent her off with a list of songs: “I can’t believe I get to be the person who turns this young woman on,” he exclaims. “She’s going to go home and listen to the Rolling Stones for the first time!”)

Of course, it’s not just about keeping rock and roll alive—it’s about ensuring its future. “We’ve done shows for colleges and things. They freak out like they’ve never seen anything like it. And then I realized ‘Oh, they haven’t,’” he says. “It’s not what’s been commercially popular for a long time. It’s not really on their radar much. So I love doing that. It’s how art goes from one generation to the next.” Maybe even more importantly, he’s encouraging people to participate who haven’t been welcomed by the rock establishment before. “People ask me about the future of rock and roll, and it’s these 12- and 13-year old girls who are in rock school. Their parents like Nirvana and they’re getting into their angsty shit… I used to teach at rock camp and I was always blown away. They have something to say,” he says. “[It’s] women and nonbinary rock artists that are really leading the charge at the moment in terms of doing interesting things.”

What’s perhaps most unique about Adam’s artistic journey is his ability to deftly straddle boundaries between musical styles, identity categories, and even generations. He’s watched fads and fashions (and definitions of “retro”) come and go—and come back around again. “It’s a sliver of a sliver of a boutique sliver of people who want them in the world, but I’ve done all my records except the very first one on vinyl, because that’s how I listen to music,” he says. “I’ve been collecting records since I was in high school when people were like, ‘Why?’ It’s gone through so many phases and iterations, but there’s something about it that’s here to stay, which I’m glad about. Vinyl’s here to stay and books are here to stay.” He says so with reassuring conviction, and I’m inclined to take his word for it. Whatever the vicissitudes of politics and popular culture, art remains an essential ingredient in the human experience that reaches beyond pure entertainment. “You and I will be sitting here in twenty years and we’ll still be talking about poverty and racism and gender,” he says. “And we’ll still need art about that.”

Private Lives, the new double LP from Low Cut Connie arrives in stores tomorrow, October 13, 2020—on vinyl.

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