The Cincinnati-based band favors quiet in a loud world.
In a world that increasingly favors the loud and flashy over the quiet and thoughtful, Cincinnati's A Delicate Motor aim to grab your attention with subtle gestures over Instagrammable flourishes. Well, except for that one bit where one the members “plays” a bicycle during shows, but more on that later.
The group was founded by singer/keyboardist Adam Petersen in 2011 after he graduated from Cincinnati's lauded College Conservatory Music, with an eye toward making his way with a sound focused on synths and percussion.
“For the first few years this project i was a soloist using a loop station and I was initially inspired by performers like Minneapolis'] Martin Dosh who performs as Dosh], who was using keyboards and percussion,” Petersen, 28, tells Billboard.
Since he was trained on piano and percussion, Petersen also set out to compose multi-layered tracks that he could perform on his own in the vein early Tune-Yards.
“Once I got into it through my own training and energetic efforts I got the sounds I liked and started composing melodies that felt meaningful to me.”
Petersen played everything on ADM's 2013 self-titled full-length debut, but realized he wanted to expand his sound and had to look no further than roommate drummer Ben Sloan and bassist Stephen Patota — who he'd already been collaborating with — so in 2015, they joined the fold and ADM 2.0 kicked into gear with a fuller, more expansive ambient pop sound. The band, which now also includes singer/guitarist Brianna Kelly, keyboardist Rachel Mousie and singer Libby Landis, are premiering their new album, Fellover My Own, on Billboard today.
Petersen and Sloan spoke to Billboard about the album's improvisational, psychedelic vibe, their first major tour and how jamming with The National drummer Bryan Devendorf at the band's recent Homecoming festival in Cincinnati helped launch them onto a much bigger stage.
The music on this album has a jazzy, almost improvised feel. It moves is so many unexpected directions and seems to purposely avoid predictable rock/pop patterns. It doesn't feel like the kind music that you would hear in a giant club or amphitheater. Was that a conscious choice?
Petersen: I wrote this music with the intention it being listened to. It happens to be that there are many intricate layers interacting with each other, and a lot what we’re delivering with this music would be lost in a very large venue or even in noisy environment. My hope is that we are always playing places where folks are listening.
There are six people in the band now, at times it feels like the main collaboration is between you and Ben.
Petersen: The last two years, it has primarily been a collaboration between me, Ben and Stephen on bass. The music we're playing now is all from the album we recorded two years ago. Since then we've been collaborating with three other women over the last year, and I think we're just coming to a shift in our collaborative process, where the women are beginning to fer their own ideas and folding fresh ideas into the songs we’ve been playing to make for new arrangements. By week two our tour I think we'll see a more intimate, six-way collaborative process.
It is hard not to notice that you have a bicycle wheel as a percussion instrument on stage. What's the origin story with that?
Petersen: Ben was the impulse behind the bicycle as percussion instrument, because that bicycle belonged to a good friend ours named John who passed away when he was 19 when we were in high school. Since then, it's been a dear possession ours. During the recording this album, Ben — who is always searching for interesting percussive sounds — rigged it and put a mic on it, with sticks in the spokes, and we just started going to town on it. Since then, it's been an integral part our set.
Sloan: It's cool, because pretty much every show or in-studio performance we’ve done someone has shouted-out the bike. It's a cool piece the palate. Adam rides the bike around on show days, but now we have a pared-down version it because we didn't want to bring a giant bicycle on tour with us.
Is there a musical advantage to having such a gender-balanced mix in the band now?
Petersen: In a more subtle way, the energy feels more balanced. After we recorded this album, I realized we needed more musicians to play it live, and the harmony parts that were written that I was singing on the album were better suited to female voices. Then we ended up needing a guitarist and another keyboard player, and Brianna is an excellent guitarist and amazing vocalist, and Rachel is a super-competent piano player and solid vocalist. As for Libby, well, she can sing and plays the bicycle.
There’s a tribal groove to some the songs on the album like “Do For Self,” which feels like it might be inspired by the Talking Heads, but also by minimalist composers like Brian Eno. Are those touchstones for you?
Petersen: I can't point to any particular musician or group people in the world as inspiration], but in my own living experience, I've always been fairly energetic and wanted to express that energy through beat and rhythm. Ben says the same thing about himself, so it's no accident we found each other. The foundation our musical experience and our lives is that we are really rhythm people. We find ourselves constantly making beats, beating on tables, collaborating rhythmically, so it naturally informs the quality music we make.
There's also an ethereal quality to songs like “Bottom” and “Follow,” which again feel almost anti-pop, more like swirls psychedelic sound. Can you describe how something like that comes together in the studio?
Sloan: When I was making “Bottom” I thought, “this is great,” but I didn't realize how weird it was until Adam was like, “This song jumps all over the place.” We had this microphone called the “Nuke Mike,” where we took it and positioned it above the drums and compressed it as much as we could, which served as the basis this weird textural sound for the drums. And then we added some tape delay on Adam's vocals and piano that we would tweak out and insert sporadically through the music. We spent a lot time shifting things around and and editing and crafting the arc for that song.
Petersen: Going into the recording process, things were pretty well baked, but some the content was in the development process, which allowed us to be experimental with some it…adding more ethereal and subtler layers music is the byproduct us playing together and spinning energy and stuff happening by accident.
Ben, can you talk about your recent stint as the artist-in-residence with The National at Homecoming, where you got to play with The National during their headlining set, and with a bunch other acts on the bill?
Sloan: It was primarily from Bryan Devendorf, who lives in Cincinnati, showing up over the years at shows I was playing. He's super tall and I'd be playing and I would look out and he was super easy to spot in the audience. A few years back I was touring with Why? and he came to a show and we started talking, and since then he's been darting in and out shows. We connected more deeply this year and he reached out somewhere along the way, after he'd heard the A Delicate Motor record, and we got to talking. He said he was thinking doing an artist-in-residence at MusicNow/Homecoming and asked if I was interested. I talked to Adam and Stephen and we decided it would be a good opportunity for me to put myself forward in a musical way. Through the festival, I met so many people. Playing with German techno duo] Mouse on Mars at the festival kick-f event] was maybe my favorite. I didn't know all that was happening. There were just two days rehearsals and then all a sudden I'm up there on stage with them.
What did you learn from that experience?
Sloan: I learned to be patient with it because not a lot details were forthcoming through the process. At the end it I looked back and so much just happened and the opportunities were so abundant…it's good to just let some things come. Also, through my musical experience that I share with Adam and Stephen, there is so much work we do, that I realized it's okay to have a few days to put some music together for a show because we're so familiar with each other’s musicianship that we can do it. I'm really proud that ability we share. I saw that with Mouse on Mars, The National…on such a big scale, they’re doing that, too. People flying in from Berlin, Ireland, Paris, New York on the spot and rendering this music on a really high level.
What was it like going from the small clubs you're used to to playing The National's music in front thousands?
Sloan: I hadn’t played with them and Bryan was really gracious in letting me sit in with them. He gave me a bit direction, which was “just do whatever you want… this song has a driving beat and goes like this, so just do whatever.”
Your music calls for a quiet audience. Do you find that the kind people who tend to come see you get that it’s not the loud-talking, pool-playing scene?
Petersen: At least in Cincinnati, I'd say we have found that we've connected with other musicians and listeners over the years who've been able to able to create a strong listening space for our music. It was striking at our last performance at Cincinnati's Northside Tavern], it is a fairly rowdy room and we played first on a bill and the room was fairly well-attended and everyone in that room was quiet and listening. Maybe we've developed relationships or there's something in the music that is compelling that invites people to listen closely.
Stream Fellover My Own below.