Owl City's Adam Young on EDM, religion, and his Ford Mustang

Owl City's Adam Young on EDM, religion, and his Ford Mustang
Photo by Erik Hess; design by Mike Kooiman

See Also:
Cover Story: Owl City's reclusive Adam Young opens up
Carly Rae Jepsen on meeting Owl City's Adam Young and "Good Time"

Owl City's "Good Time" collaboration with the Minneapolis Youth Chorus -- behind-the-scenes

The basement bleeps and bloops of Owl City have been one of Minnesota's best-known imports since the single "Fireflies" became a chart smash back in the summer of 2009. Principal songwriter Adam Young only spends a fraction of his life in the small town of Owatonna where he grew up and still has a home, so it was a coup that City Pages got to meet up with him for a couple hours there earlier this month for a cover story.

Owl City just released The Midsummer Station, which features collaborations with Carly Rae Jepsen, Blink-182's Mark Hoppus, and the Minneapolis Youth Choir -- and it's got a pop sheen on it that surpasses all previous work. In these outtakes from a revealing conversation at the Owatonna Starbucks (and a phone call before a performance in London), Young spoke about his connections to the world of dance music, Twin Peaks, his sleeplessness, his beliefs, and coming home.

From London:

Gimme Noise: How much do you find a kinship with the EDM scene? Where do you think your music fits in?

Adam Young: It's definitely a big influence, and it always has been for me, honestly. I grew up listening to, particularly, European trance music like Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren and all this big seeping progressive trance stuff. You know, eight or nine-minute long mixes. It's stuff I've listened to since 9th grade. So I've always been a real big fan of that. I've been like the one kid in high school who listens to dance music and everyone else is into like Nickelback or whatever.

It's really exciting for me to sit back and watch the trends -- especially Top 40 music. Now obviously it's all beat heavy. It's pretty inspiring to me. As far as its influence over my own music, it's like 65 to 70 percent dance music. I'm so into it. The experience just going to a show: You watch a DJ mix, which is obviously very different than me performing with five other members on stage.

GN: After hearing The Midsummer Station, it's natural to wonder, what is your favorite season?

AY: Well, nine months of the year there's snow on the ground in Minnesota. So I think my favorite is right when the snow starts to melt, so this spring. Like spring in general, is pretty short in the Midwest, but I love spring. Yeah, you can just go outside and not get frostbite within five minutes. It's just green and it's growing and it's like the long wait after the dead of winter. Yeah. It's kind of inspiring for me and just in life itself.

Owl City's Adam Young on EDM, religion, and his Ford Mustang
Photo by Erik Hess

GN: How does it feel to be divided between your younger fans and the much older people you work with?

AY: I never wrote music for anybody but myself. That sounds sort of selfish, but early on, music was my escape. Music was my way out of my job I hated and my very short community college career which ended badly. So music was my way out of that, that was my escape and ironically, the music would turn around and pull me out of where I was from. So I never wrote music for the 15 to 25-year-old-girls who seem to really connect with it. On the other side of it, I'm not sure what it is about 40-50 year old producer/co-writer guys who love this music and want to help me do what I do better. So I'm kind of in the middle of it all, but at the end of the day, I'm still kind of just doing what I've always done, which is just make songs that get stuck in my own head and just catchy melodies.

GN: What do you get most excited for when you get a break in your tour to head home for a while?

AY: Owatonna is very small compared to New York or wherever. I like the traffic. I like the fact that I don't have to wait for traffic. [laughs] Wherever it is, I can just do everything within a two mile radius; get food, get groceries, see my parents. I don't have to be anywhere. That's my favorite thing. I can close the door, I can stay inside my house and not leave if I don't want to. And usually I don't leave [laughs].

GN: I just got a mental picture of you driving a car. When you are at home, do you drive?

AY: Yeah when I'm at home, I love that. The thing about touring is that you can't drive anywhere by yourself because you're on a tour bus. So yeah, when I'm at home, I'm always driving around aimlessly a lot of times, but it's a good thing. It's a new Mustang. I have thing about Mustangs. I'm all for the drive.

GN: A convertable?

AY: No. I'm like a total bro. It's black and it's got white stripes and I've done stuff to it in the shop. I gave it more horsepower, it's like 400-whatever horsepower. [laughs]

From Owatonna:

GN: What happens to you when you are on stage and you start to feel uncomfortable?

AY: I don't know, I just kind of deal with it. My capacity to deal with uncomfortableness has grown, and I think that's a big thing. It's like that's so awkward, but I just act and just have to get through. The song is going to end eventually, you're going to be fine, it'll feel like forever. Like if something goes wrong on stage, somebody screws up or guitars aren't working, you just have to keep strumming even though no sound isn't coming out. You just have to keep looking like you're having fun.

GN: It's a very welcoming audience compared to what some performers expect. Like the people are on your side, but then do you feel like you have to live up to their raised expectations?

AY: Yeah. I mean they'll cheer no matter what. There's people out there that'll be like "that's alright". They're pretty forgiving. But it's still between me and myself. It's like "Aw I can't believe I've played this stupid part a million times and I screwed it up every time. Like what's wrong with me?" That's what ticks me off.


GN: How often do you read the Bible?

AY: Every night. Morning and night.

GN: How hard is it to deal with people who want to take that specific piece of you and decide where you stand and put you in their own religious box?

AY: At the end of the day, it's up to them and they file me [as] whatever. It won't change what I do. It won't change my decision making. But yeah, I feel like it's almost kind of selfish of people [to] base their respect for an artist or their love for a musician entirely based on the one area of his or her life and make that bigger than it should be. It'll still be part of who I am and I never want to lose that, but it's kind of up to them.

I feel like I wouldn't go to sleep at night if I just never made a comment on it. But I never want to come out and preach or anything. I don't have a big speech that I give on stage or anything. It's part of who I am. If people read about it and attach it to me, that's fine, because it's accurate.

Owl City's Adam Young on EDM, religion, and his Ford Mustang
Photo by Erik Hess

GN: I like that you put out there the story about how you chose your name. [As opposed to some poppycock we published about a trip to Scotland.] How often are you that guy with the noose around your neck?

AY: Thankfully not yet. I'm expecting to wake up and it's all a dream and I'm dead. Beacuse it's so too good to be true. Yeah that story resonated with me. So nothing more than just the word "owl". Something about it is cool. I like the question marks that the name induces, but yeah.

GN: Did you ever watch Twin Peaks?

AY: No I never did.

GN: It's a David Lynch show you should watch. There's a bit about how "the owls are not what they seem," and it may cross your path someday.

How often do the Grammys register in your mind?

AY: To me, it's cool, but it's not what I want to live my life for. It would be an honor, for what it stands for, sure. But to me, it's just a trophy. It'd be fun to put on the shelf... 

GN: The Stargate production team juggernaut is fascinating. How did working with them expand your sound?

AY: The song called "Shooting Star" was like the intro and the verses were my production. I didn't know where to go with it after that, it was very middle of the road. It was an idea I put together. Four years ago I did make the cut for Ocean Eyes. So I just had this track laying around. And I just said "What do you guys think about this?" And they're like "Yeah it's great, but it's middle of the road." So they turned it into a dance, very anthemic sounding... the chorus is like all their ideas. So just taking what I do and making it bigger. Not to say, I think what they added is something I could have physically done. I could have done what they did, but I probably wouldn't have thought of it. And to me, that's a huge value to that.

GN: So what is The Midsummer Station?

AY: It's just imagery. It really doesn't mean anything. It's the same as the band name. It's like "Where does your mind go?" Like "Where am I?" What I think about when I think about the name. It's like an escape.

GN: And it's a time period too?

AY: I mean, it could be. Although it's not like I'm at the middle of my career, so it's the midsummer. No metaphors. It's just a cool name.

GN: What is the sound that you created that really sticks out to you on this album?

AY: The dance production. I've always wanted to make a dance record and I never knew how to do it really. Except for putting a kick drum on every four beats of a bar. I really learned how to make a groove. Make it swing, or... something about it makes it more than just [quickly makes techno beat sounds with hands and mouth]. You know? Really sterile. I figured out how to make it breathe. Talk about drums, drum samples and stuff. I'm really proud of that. I feel like it stands up to the rest of the dance world. I never thought it would.


GN: Now that you have a successful career, is there something you ever feel like you want to go back to school for?

AY: Honestly, no. I couldn't really make myself do the work. I wanted to, I couldn't really make it work for me. It's very important but, man, even if I went back to school to do something I was really interested in, like writing novels or whatever... English... I wouldn't be able to turn stuff in on time. I just can't do it. Thankfully this thing came along. I'd be nowhere.

GN: Do you find that meeting deadlines imposed on you now are difficult?

AY: With this, honestly, no. It's actually really good. It's actually healthy because it keeps me working. Perfectionists screw around on something forever, I'd never get anything done. So it's good to have a "It's got to be turned in on this date."

GN: How many songs have you written?

AY: I don't know. That's a good question.

GN: Like a hundred?

Owl City's Adam Young on EDM, religion, and his Ford Mustang
Photo by Erik Hess

AY: Yeah. Depending on how much time I spend. What do you call a song you spend like 20 minutes on? Is that a song or not? Yeah. A few hundred maybe.

GN: How many of them are you truly happy with?

AY: Maybe 50. [chuckles] The ones that I put out. Once they're out there, that's a good thing. Maybe you look back and think "Oh, I really put that out?" But you were happy once.

GN: When is that "high" reached in the creative process?

AY: Probably before I record the final vocals. Just like writing the lyrics and singing it over the instrumental track. It's like "Awesome. It's going to be really good." Just feel it out. That's my favorite part. Once you sweat over recording the final vocals, it's a lot of work and it feels good, but it's still not as in your head.

GN: Do you feel older, younger, or even in place with your age group?

AY: I'm probably 15, 16 years old. I'm still a boy. The bummer, if you could call it a bummer -- the negative thing about having the amount of success I've been blessed to have, I don't have to pay my own bills, I don't have to worry about cell phones, or do anything that real life requires of everyone else. So that's why I kind of cheated the system.

GN: Where are you at with your sleeplessness?

AY: Because of my career is something I care so much about, I'll think really long and hard about whatever it is I'm doing. I do take Melatonin before bed. Otherwise without it, I stay up all night. Generally, it's that simple. At night I'm thinking about the next thing I have to record, or the show tomorrow, or even the flight the next morning. I stress out about flying. So it's just about [how] I want to make sure I do it right. I just worry about everything. It's kind of a bummer. But it's kind of a good blessing too, because you know what you have to do and what it's going to take to do it.

See Also:
Cover Story: Owl City's reclusive Adam Young opens up
Carly Rae Jepsen on meeting Owl City's Adam Young and "Good Time"

Owl City's "Good Time" collaboration with the Minneapolis Youth Chorus -- behind-the-scenes

Owl City performs at First Avenue on October 4.

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