Interview - Adam Wolf, The Rock Horn Project, and Other Cool Facts January 19 2016, 0 Comments
Rock Horn Project. Cool name, don't you think? It is a group of musicians gathered together by Adam Wolf, to create a unique and interesting style of music for horn. I recently had the chance to interview him about this and some other items in the pipeline. (bvp)
"...a trying story, but obviously one that ends well."
The Rock Horn Project - such a FAB idea! How did you come up with it, and when was it founded? Was it a solo endeavor to start with or a group idea?
Thank you so much! The birth of Rock Horn Project is a trying story, but obviously one that ends well.
Five years ago, I went into a depression about myself and about music that was strong enough for me to justify both not going to school, and sadly quitting horn. I, for the most part, lost all interest in music, and the only thing holding me together were my friends around me. For my brother’s birthday later that year, my parents and I arranged a trip to Las Vegas for my brother and I to see our favorite band Muse. We’d seen them before at festival type shows, but this would be our first time seeing them at their own show, with a production value that has its own reputation separate from their music. I knew I’d have a great time since I love the band, but what I didn’t realize was that this concert would change my life.
At this time I’d felt lost as a horn player. I was practicing excerpts, and taking auditions, with little success. It started getting to me and making me think I was useless as a player. But after seeing Muse, I realized the problem wasn’t how I was playing my excerpts, how my air support was (and the like,) but rather that I was simply playing the wrong kind of music.
I started then writing pieces for myself, which is, up to that point, something I’d never done. I started thinking of horn and my playing it as a solo and rock instrument. The first two tracks I wrote for RHP were extractions from some of my concert music; 'August Starfire' mvt. 1 (Janjo,) and 'Complexus' (Lex.)
After picking the horn back up, I decided to go back to school. I knew that I needed a place that would let me be the horn player and musician I wanted to be. It turned out a school in Los Angeles was just the right place. In the fall of 2011, I started at California Institute of the Arts. It was at Cal Arts that Rock Horn Project was born. The instrumentation was the last part of the idea to materialize. Once started, it would forever have the roots of a classical and rock fusion band. As a result, I knew the instrumentation would need to represent that. So why not a rhythm section commonly found in a rock band, and a string quartet; a typically classical ensemble.
All of my band members are friends that I made while at Cal Arts. Rusty (the bass player for RHP) was my roommate in the dorms our first year there. He was a huge factor in my success there, and is a big part of why the band sounds the way it does.
Our first show ever was my senior recital at Cal Arts in the Wild Beast, an amphitheater concert venue at the school.
Rock Horn Project is my baby, definitely my idea and my project, but it did not come alive until the musicians around me agreed to be a part of it. As a result, they have helped sculpt the way that I write with the way that they play.
How do you choose the repertoire? Do you arrange it personally, or does someone else?
I write all of the material for the band. This hopefully won’t ALWAYS be the case, as in the ensemble there are several incredible composers. I’d love to tap into their creativity at some point! However, 'Passacaglia' and 'Carol of the Bells' are our version of “covers,” as they are not entirely original music. Passacaglia is an arrangement derived from 'Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor' by J.S. Bach, and 'Carol of the Bells' is of course a traditional Christmas song.
Besides the albums you currently have, what is next for the band?
There are a lot of things we have on the plate. We are releasing a single sometime in the New Year as a collaboration with Ashleigh Stone, an incredible singer out of Texas. It is a track called “Almost,” and will be our first time incorporating a singer into the ensemble. I’m very excited about it.
We do have a couple of noteworthy performances coming up in 2016, including the Northwest Horn Symposium at Central Washington University, and the NAMM show in Anaheim. I’ll also be speaking at the Northeast Horn Convention in January at the University of Indiana in Pennsylvania, hosted by Heidi Lucas.
You had mentioned a second album being released; is there a date? And, any hints on what style it will be?
I’m very happy to say yes there will be a second album! I’m hoping to release it by early summer, preferably by June.
I like to think that the first album explored a lot of different styles such as rock, pop, classical, jazz, metal, etc. With this second album, I’ve been diving deeper into these styles, while also expanding the sound of the ensemble. For example, the first track on the second album, and title track “Unbreakable,” will explore more electronic sounds with dub step elements. This will also allow it to fit more into the film score genre. In fact, this track will be using eight horns from here in LA for part of it, to give it that epic sound that this city helped create. We’ll also delve more into the rock and pop genres, while not losing the classical roots. I will say this album will be really, really hard to play live. Hopefully, it will be very enjoyable for our existing fans while also being able to expand the fan base. There will be ten tracks, all following a quasi story arc. I would loosely call this a concept album - tracking how I felt through a very difficult time in my life. Of course, that ended happily with the creation of Rock Horn Project, as stated earlier.
"...this is a chance for us to INSPIRE our audience..."
Your Educational Concert Program is a phenomenal way to give back to students and the music community. How did it come into existence?
Yes, thank you! The first year of the band we did the bar show scene, performing at House of Blues, The Mint, Molly Malone’s etc. I’m really glad I got to do all that because as a horn player I might not have ever had those experiences otherwise. However, we just weren’t getting the audience that I hoped for, and we certainly didn’t make any money in the process. Now obviously money isn’t the main point of this endeavor. But, for me to keep the amazing band members around, I couldn't expect them to drop their gigs for something unpaid. Especially with an audience who is at best made up of our friends, or strangers not paying attention. In May of 2014, we performed at the Southwest Horn Convention in San Diego hosted by Doug Hall. The night before the convention we were invited to perform at a high school as part of their band concert for the musicians and their families. Up to that point, performing for those kids was the most rewarding performance we had. The kids were interested, informed, and had a wonderful time relating to us. After that, I realized that Rock Horn Project would be not only a fun concert for everyone, but for kids it could be a wonderful message. It could inspire them to follow a path that they truly want to go down, not feeling obligated to conform to any pre-existing career path of their instruments.
How many students / groups / schools do you typically work with in a year?
Well, this is now the second year of the ECP, so it’s still very young. However, I’m very happy that either I or we were able to visit five schools in our inaugural year. This year, I’m in the process of assembling a West Coast tour for the spring of 2016. That would lead up to our performance at Northwest, and we hope to get in front of as many schools as possible, including high schools and colleges alike. Some have been confirmed, some are still in the process of being put together, but I hope to have all of it worked out by the earliest part of the New Year.
Is the visit free? Any other fees involved?
Unfortunately, no, they aren’t free. We have a variety of rates to help try to make it as possible for any programs that wants to have us come visit do so, as a concert or clinic.
Are there any scholarship options?
There are a few different options to help make it more cost efficient. A really great idea one of our first schools had, was to pay us our fee, then to have each student sell three tickets to the show. It almost turned it into a fundraiser for the program. This model has proved to be very successful, and really becomes a win-win for everyone involved.
Another opportunity for financial relief is my partnership with Conn-Selmer, and their education department. This has made it possible for certain schools to have the opportunity to have some of our cost displaced by having us or myself as clinicians for the program. This applies specifically to programs in the Conn network, but this can be a huge relief for those involved!
"...this is by far the best type of performance we do..."
What else can you tell us about the program?
All I can say is, this is by far the best type of performance we do. Not just because the halls are better (which they are,) the pay is guaranteed (which it is,) but because this is a chance for us to INSPIRE our audience, not just play at them. When we’re in front of these students, it feels like we are really making a difference in the world of music, and for the future of classically trained musicians.
The only thing I want to do more of with this is to have more interaction with the students. We have a blast playing at these schools, but I’d love to be able to go to the school beforehand during the school day and talk to these young musicians. By doing this, we can get a gauge of what they want to have out of it, and if they feel like we can help guide them down the path they want. As many of us know, sometimes all it takes is a conversation to help them fall in love with music, or to continue down a path that can be a scary decision for a young person.
"I fell in love with the sound of the horn because of the movies"
Now some personal stuff; how did you choose to play horn?
Wow. This is a big question. I started playing trumpet in 3rd grade when my dad, a band director, wanted both myself and my brother to take part in music. But like so many of us, I fell in love with the sound of the horn because of the movies. I joke that the entire emotional trauma that comes with being a horn player I blame on Jim Thatcher. If it weren’t for those incredible Los Angeles horn players, so many of us wouldn’t play horn, including myself. Of course I am grateful for it, and am always in awe of Thatcher (and colleagues') recordings.
You’ve done a lot of drum & bugle, marching… do you play horn in those groups? I always hated marching with a horn, so since we had no mellophones, I didn’t! HA! Drill team instead…
Haha. Yes I’ve been heavily involved in this activity. I marched in the drum and bugle corps Esperanza in 2001 and 2003-2006. In 2008 I started my teaching career for the genre with Mystikal Drum and Bugle Corps, and then with Pacific Crest from 2009-2015. After last season I’ve decided to take a step back from it, and merely lend a helpful ear for a few organizations in the coming years.
In regards to instrument choice, up until last year French horns were illegal instruments in the activity, so I have always used and taught mellophones. I’m sure my students in the corps over the past years will be able to speak to the more colorful vocabulary I’ve used to describe mellophones! I’ve always referred to them as unicorns in the sense that they’re not real instruments, so we need to approach them with a grain of salt, and not forget our roots as horn players.
I notice you have been influenced by Muse, and played with ATE (two of my fave groups!) - they are in the alternative vein of music; is that your favorite?
Yes, Muse is definitely my favorite band, and my greatest inspiration in many ways. Airborne was an absolute BLAST to play with! Alternative is so blurred now it’s hard for me to say if it’s my favorite, especially since I have so many interests musically. However, I do love a lot of bands and artists in the alternative vein. Muse, Airborne Toxic Event, Death Cab, Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, etc. are all incredible.
(Adam and I may need to have another chat, as I listen to all of the groups he mentioned! - bvp)
"...I always try to make sure I’m the worst player I listen to"
Besides the masters of classical and orchestral, plus standard horn rep, who else have you been influenced by for your compositions and your playing?
There are so many influences for me across so many genres. The most notable are; Muse (of course,) but also Trombone Shorty, John Mackey, Snarky Puppy, Melee, Eric Whitacre, Pink Floyd, Chvrches, Kneebody, and Evanescence, Mason Bates, Tim Davies, John Williams (yeah, I said it,) Hans Zimmer and so forth.
In regards to my horn playing, my biggest influences are; Jim Thatcher, Richard Bissill, Stefan Dohr, Arkady Shilkloper, Phil Myers, and Jim Atkinson.
Before Rock Horn Project, I was planning on being a composer who played horn, but obviously that has switched quite a bit. I always tried to listen to a lot of music not always for harmonic reasons, but mostly for pacing and structure.
As a player and teacher, I always try to make sure I’m the worst player I listen to. We always talk about the “horn sound” and have many different ideas of what that sounds like. For me, the amazing players listed above are who I look to for a reminder and understanding of what it is supposed to sound like, and I try my best to take qualities that I like from them while also incorporating my own.
For more information on Adam and the Rock Horn Project, check out their website:
It was so great to learn about the wonderful things you are doing not only for the promotion of the horn, but for budding students and musicians. Keep up the good work! (bvp)
Interview by Barbara Van Pelt, MM Music (horn) Hartt ('87)