Adam Hopkins’ Passage to Indie

Mixing jazz sophistication with punk aggression, the bassist and label owner makes a striking debut

Adam Hopkins and his band (L to R): Anna Webber, Devin Gray, Ed Rosenberg, Hopkins, Josh Sinton, Jonathan Goldberger (photo: T.J. Huff)

Like many teens who came of age in the 1990s, Adam Hopkins fell under the spell of indie rock bands like Pavement, the Dismemberment Plan, and Nirvana. Before long Hopkins picked up the bass guitar and started a band called Mr. Belvedere with his brother. Getting gigs in his hometown of Baltimore became easy when their drummer convinced his mother to let him open up an all-ages venue called the Small Intestine. “It was a pretty fertile development period where we were writing music and playing,” Hopkins says.

By his senior year, Hopkins had begun playing upright bass in his high-school jazz band. That’s when he heard Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life, featuring Jaco Pastorius. From there he immersed himself deeper in jazz, which felt far removed from the music he’d been playing. This began a gradual shift toward forward-thinking jazz and free improvisation that has now led to the release of his leadership debut, Crickets, on his own Out of Your Head imprint. In a way, he’s come full circle, merging his own approach to jazz with the DIY aesthetic that first inspired him.

During Hopkins’ sophomore year at James Madison University in Virginia, a professor encouraged him to attend a concert by Masada, John Zorn’s acoustic quartet. It proved to be an eye-opening event. “Hearing John Zorn for the first time, I realized, ‘Whoa, this isn’t actually that different from the stuff I was listening to in high school,’” Hopkins says. That feeling was reinforced when he heard Naked City, Zorn’s early-’90s band that played a collision of punk rock, straight jazz, surf, and virtually anything else.

Following graduate studies at Michigan State University, Hopkins returned to Baltimore and began studying at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University with Michael Formanek. Hopkins knew Formanek from recordings with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, which had become one of the younger bassist’s favorite bands. Now he was learning that music. “One week, [Formanek] would say, ‘Let’s see how you would play in one of Tim Berne’s bands,’ and he’d put all these charts in front of me, and we would work on that for a week,” Hopkins recalls. “The next week it would be a different band.”

Formanek says Hopkins came to Peabody with a solid musical foundation in place, and remembers him as being a catalyst in the Baltimore music scene. “He’s a natural organizer and inspires people to get off their asses and do things without bullying them,” Formanek comments via email. “He generated a lot of energy when he was in Baltimore, which dropped off pretty suddenly when he moved to Brooklyn.”

That move occurred in 2011. Since then, Hopkins has performed and recorded with numerous artists, including Henry Threadgill, John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, and Ideal Bread, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s quartet that draws exclusively from Steve Lacy’s compositions.

Hopkins released Crickets last fall; along with Sinton, on both baritone sax and bass clarinet, the album features tenor saxophonists Anna Webber and Ed Rosenberg, who create textures steeped in both harmony and tension. Guitarist Jonathan Goldberger recalls the blunt delivery of indie rock, filtered through sharp technique and a battery of effects pedals. While Hopkins holds things together, drummer Devin Gray—like the rest of the band, a leader in his own right—thinks nothing of going off on a tear along with the horns when the spirit calls for it.

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The name of Hopkins’ label was taken from that of a Baltimore free-improv collective in the late ’00s. “It created this amazing scene, where people would come out and hang out,” Hopkins recalls. “I wanted to keep that name alive because it was such a special time period for a lot of us.” The label has also released Air Ceremony by guitarist Dustin Carlson, with a solo disc by saxophonist/pianist Michael Attias slated for early spring. Both come with stickers of the OOYH logo—cartoon quote bubbles with the name popping out of a skull—and artwork by T.J. Huff.

Despite the fact that the recording industry has all but declared the death of the compact disc, Hopkins isn’t concerned. “More people have bought [Crickets] CDs than have bought it digitally. I’m biased but I think the art is really cool, and I think there’s a thing to packaging and stickers that serves as an incentive to buy the physical product,” he says.

Hopkins might expand into other formats, releasing digital-only albums that come with T-shirts. Thinking back to his punk rock days, another idea occurs to him. “All of the skateboard companies in the ’90s did stickers and T-shirts. They all had this vibe to them,” he says, adding, “Maybe we’ll do a skateboard-only release.”

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.