An Interview With: Kevin Shea Adams

Today we share a chat with Brooklyn based photographer/musician/writer Kevin Shea Adams. You might have seen his work such places as Paper, VICE, or in the freaking New York Times. He’s legit and acts likes he’s not.

Kevin was in the same year as me at Mills college, a fellow electronic music student. He tended towards Max for the highbrow, Reason for the shits and giggles, while I espoused the virtues of Supercollider3 and depravities of FL StudioThese are computer programs. Don’t worry about it. Despite our ecclesiastical differences I always enjoyed Kevin’s thoughts on art, and seeing/hearing his projects. Kevin is a very down to earth person, and it’s easy to chat with him, and forget for a moment how I’m actually pretty intimidated by his technical and aesthetic skill. In a good way.

LukeHow do you describe what you do?

KevinIf somebody asks me what I do?


KevinI always have a really hard time with that. For a long time I was like ‘Fuck, what do I do?’, you know? I thought it was kind of a badge of dishonor to not be able to easily answer that question, but now I wear it proudly. I actually don’t know how to easily describe what I do, but that’s an option now—to do a lot of different things. The short answer—if I have to, which sometimes you do—is I’m a photographer, I write sometimes, and I’m a musician. Not even really in that order. I’m working in photography and I’m doing a lot of art stuff that sort of overlaps.

The photo thing was always supporting me, even when I was mostly doing music. So I was always directly or indirectly living off photo or design. It’s still that way, I guess. The thing about photography is that it’s a lot like writing, because it can be so many different things. That’s why it can be hard to just say ‘I’m a photographer’. I think when people hear that—especially in New York—it means ‘Oh the dude that’s wearing all black, who is kind of an asshole on set with a bunch of models, stroking his chin as he contemplates wardrobe’. There’s this stereotype that’s kind of limiting, I guess. I’m doing a lot of stuff, and I have a lot of different goals.

Some photos by Kevin

(more on his website)

LukeIs photography work or play…or both?

KevinBoth. It’s totally both. It’s been different things. While living in the Bay and making music I mostly saw photos as work. I was interested in photography because I am kind of a science geek (obviously, as you know from being in school)Can confirm, as a fellow science geek—Luke. I took a more technical and practical stance, and aesthetically I had ideas of my preferred style. But when I moved to New York all that shit changed completely. I feel like I discovered photography for what it really is out here. I’ve heard a million times “you can’t really shoot your hometown until you leave it”, and it’s kind of true. At least in my case.

LukeYou get a new perspective.

KevinYeah, I think moving to New York—which is already such a visual overload, so much culture packed into one area—it was pretty easy to get a new inspiration for photography. That combined with the fact that photography here is already such a legitimate, practical need for so many different kinds of industries. It kind of just clicked.

LukeDo you end up collaborating and working with others?

KevinWell, with photo stuff I think it’s always a collaboration. That’s the fun thing about photos—unlike music, where you kind of bury your head in the sand and dream up worlds; like writing a fiction novel or something. Music takes that kind of focus, introversion, and isolation. I think photo is kind of a good counterpoint to that because it’s almost inherently social. On your feet, in the moment, in the instant. It’s a nice contrast. I always like to zero in on things and be by myself to compose or write, but photo is fun because it balances that. On another level shoots that involve wardrobe and you’re working with a designer or stylist are super collaborative. If it’s any kind of portrait, which it often is, the subject is collaborating with you too. They bring so much all of it. It’s a nice antidote to my other passions.

LukeWhat role is music playing in your life now? Do you have a band or an outlet? Are you just playing for you?

KevinI have a couple projects going on. Photo took the front seat because it was the thing that was working. It has so many different applications, and it’s sort of the currency of the web right now. You can stop anyone on the street and yes, they would love to have a great picture of themselves! Do they need a patch for polyrhythms?…it’s probably lower on the priority list. There was a natural backseat that music had to take in order for me to make things work here.

Now that things are working I’m getting back into it. My studio is all synths and drum machines and shit. I have an ongoing project with this singer, Carrie Slim, we’ve got a demo going and I’m looking forward to taking that further. And I have a whole bunch of music that I’ve been working on as a solo project. I feel quite burdened by it when I don’t put it out there or share it, because it’s majorly important to me.

I love photo; it’s great that I’ve discovered this other medium. I’m starting to care about it just as much as music really. The music though, that’s still what I’ll be doing in my 50’s.

Photo by Stian Rasmussen
Photo by Stian Rasmussen

LukeWhen do you show works in progress to others? Who do you share it with?

KevinI’m very particular about who I show it to. Usually musicians, and it’s a ‘sit down and listen’ type of thing rather than a ‘put it on in the car’ type of thing. I’m pretty sensitive about it, and I really want to hear what they have to say. I’m a super perfectionist with everything I do, which keeps me from releasing stuff very easily.

I’m trying to get better at it. When I do share, a lot of times people will be like ‘sounds like it’s done’, but all I hear is a bunch of problems and things I want to fix. You know how that is.

LukeOne hundred percent. That seems an interesting contrast—you’re pretty active on Instagram and you post things pretty often. Do you think of sharing pictures as a serious thing or is it casual?

KevinHonestly, I do take it pretty seriously. It’s feigned casualness. I’m particular about what I share.

I got WAY into music. I spent all of my childhood running around my living room listening to MTV. I played the guitar since I was in 5th grade and obsessively learned every Guns N’ Roses song. I was completely obsessed with it. I’ve pretty much gone on to scour every corner of that realm.

Whereas photo was much more of a natural thing. I don’t have the arsenal of knowledge behind it, so it’s much easier to be playful. I never studied the great fine art photographers or understood what they were doing politically or aesthetically. It’s a different way of approaching it. Music I take very seriously. With photo…I’m a very technically oriented person, but at the same time, I can loosen up and play with it. Some of that is the value it has as a medium (like I said earlier about it being the currency of the web). It makes me want to fuck with it. Naturally, you want to subvert or play with something like that.

Music as a medium right now is kind of a confusing thing. Especially, if you make music like I do. People don’t want to take a lot of time to digest. Photo is a quicker medium.

LukeAlong those lines, where do you stand on photoshop? Is it like autotune or what? Solid gold?

KevinI think autotune is great. I mean, I hate the fucking sound out it and I don’t want to listen to it. I can’t believe people are still producing these autotuned personalities in 2015. It blows my mind that that is still happening. But I am like the anti-christ of purity when it comes to any medium. I don’t use photoshop like that, as a personal and political stance, but at the same time, I totally know how to. I choose not to. I spent a lot of time as a retoucher, it helped me get through grad school. You might remember me retouching a lot of jewelry. I got way in there! There’s nothing wrong with it. I don’t have any real feelings when it comes to purity. I am not a puritan when it comes to photography at all! Obviously, in journalism it can present ethical issues and there are some interesting conversations there but in term of entertainment culture, I don’t know.

Some of the best, most interesting photographers are shooting on their phones. That’s testament to the role of photographer being much more like being a writer. What are you writing about? What are you saying? Who are you? It’s not about some perfect representation or truth oriented activity. It can be whatever you make it.

Bonus! Rabble & Twine: The Podcast(?)

In the spirit of this interview we took a bit of our phone recording and turned it into a short “podcast”.
(All background music by Kevin Shea Adams)

LukeWhat inspires you?

KevinWhat inspire me? I think I’m inspired by difference and variety. I think I thrive off of those. I need that. Fundamentally, that is inspiring…and I’m inspired by human communication, in the most general sense. How it can succeed or fail. Ideas. I’m inspired by ideas. People who have ideas, like ideas, and what to talk about ideas…Figuring things out, I guess.

LukeDo you see art as communication?

KevinYeah, I do actually. That’s a good way to see it. One thing is we’re all trying to say something that is otherwise hard to say. And people get it. I mean, that’s the thing, you can make something that’s not the slightest bit literal, linguistic or whatever and people still recognize its meaning. I think that’s kind of the game.

It’s a good way to think about art too. Art is often a solitary thing. Even if it is collaborative, you’re—YOU—are there and deciding to do it. In some cases that’s incredibly solitary and antisocial. So it helps to think of what you’re doing as communication, and something that’s social in the end.

Photo by Stian Rasmussen
Photo by Stian Rasmussen

LukeDo you consider yourself an artist?

Kevin(sighs) Yeah, at this point it would be a really long answer if I were to avoid using that term…so Hooray! I’m an artist.

LukeWould you rather you weren’t?

KevinI mean, I would like to hold that word in really special place, but a lot of people throw it around. A lot of people are artists where I live, for damn sure. A lot of really good artists too. I went to school for art, but not everything I do is art. I think you’ve got to know when you’re doing it and when you’re doing something that’s kind of creative. I have to do both, and that’s the way it is for just about everybody. I’m starting to give the long answer now…see how boring it is?

Luke[laughs] Yeah, the reason I’m asking is because—by default—I don’t see myself as an artist. Everybody is creative. Artist is reserved for someone else—not me.

KevinYeah, I think everyone can kind of say that. But to the editors of the New York Post, if you got hit by a bus they’re probably going to use that term in your obituary. Or they might just call you a fucking hipster…that’s also a possibility. In my mind, you are [an artist] because you think that way and you’ve put a lot of time into asking different kinds of questions. And energy. It’s how much time and energy you’re going to put into a thing. I’m doing enough that I would consider myself a “working artist”, but it’s not how I describe myself. But by most standards of evaluation that’s probably what’s happening here.

See! Listen!

Check out one of Kevin’s new tracks:
“Fizmo (Demo)” by Kevin Shea Adams

LukeAny advice for people who are coming to terms with creativity in their lives?

KevinEveryone wants to make that question about making a living and being your true self. I think that narrative is totally—I don’t know where that came from honestly. Doing what you love and loving what you do—all that stuff is like ‘Yeah, I guess so…’ It’s more complicated than that.

If you really want do to it—GET A JOB. if you want to do something that employs the chops you get from doing what you love you’re going to end up doing someone else’s thing, because fundamentally people pay you to do things they don’t want to do. That’s what money is for. I tried working in music as an engineer, in most every possible way. I tried it. I don’t want to end up recording some horrible band whose music I find unlistenable, or objectionable, or maybe I’m morally opposed to it. If you’re an artist and trying to say something of your own—you’re going to have opinions, and that’s going to happen to you.

Find a way to make it work for you. Hack the system, and don’t think in those traditional ways of defining a job or being creative. You wanna do what you wanna do? You’ve got to really do it—not kind of do it. I think I did a lot of that. It can be great and work out but you can also spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t really what you want to be doing. The way things work now there are a ton of ways to piece together the life that you want, and I think that is what you’ve got to find. I think.

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