Going Blank Again

With Landfair, SoCal native Matt Adams runs his Blank Tapes aground on S.F.'s thriving folk scene

The Blank Tapes' Matt Adams shows up for his interview wearing a worn, patched sweater, his hair a chaotic, sun-streaked tangle, his smile a sleepy, good-natured grin. He looks the way his band sounds. The Tapes' new CD, Landfair, is lovely, casual, comforting folk music full of sunshiny melodies and warm vocals, with a smattering of wistful, humorous lyrics. And yet, to hear Adams tell it, this record came from a period of much turmoil.

"My parents had this house [in Costa Mesa] they were remodeling, and they let me move in until they started," Adams explains one afternoon at Sacred Grounds Cafe. "I had a lot of friends move in too, many of them musicians. It was really centrally located, so everyone would hang out there, play shows, party. It was totally chaotic."

Up until 2001, Adams hadn't even been a serious musician, focusing instead on honing his cartooning and illustration skills at art school. Eventually, though, he shelved the sketch pad and took up the guitar full time. "I figured it's better to focus more on music while I'm still young," Adams says.

Equally inspired by Beck's quirky acoustic numbers and the Beatles' far-ranging pop, Adams recorded 2003's Country Western Honky Tonk Saloon Blues all by himself, via eight-track. The 23-song disc garnered airplay on Indie 103.1 in Newport Beach, and the OC Weeklycalled it "a strange yet scrumptious blend of acoustic guitar art-meanderings."

Adams then moved into the aforementioned house of horrors and spent the next year working on the 23 songs on Landfair (he's nothing if not consistently ambitious). By this time, his work had grown increasingly informed by Ray Davies' acoustic material, what he calls "that kind of folk-country stuff, the bluegrass-y instruments playing rock," and Leonard Cohen's melancholy pop. "There's this weird conflict, this bittersweet sound," he says of Cohen. "It's so sad and so beautiful."

Throughout the tunes on LandfairAdams mixes lighthearted instrumentation -- ukulele, steel drum, and melodica feature prominently, along with some breezy whistling -- with lyrics that shift between societal angst and lovelorn brooding. On "Play a Song & Singalong" he bristles at the cops and yuppies trying to box him in; on "I Tell Myself Again & Again" and "It's So Hard to Let Go," he pines after love unrequited and unresolved. There's plenty of humor throughout: On the tropical, swinging "This Is My Day," the SoCal native critiques beach culture, crooning, "Every day I see so much fast food/ Everyone around here calls me dude," while on "Poor Old Sensitive Heart" he suggests, "I look OK but I feel like a piece of modern art."

The thing that really holds Landfairtogether is the singing. While the CD's very much a folk record, Adams' enthusiastic multitracked vocals often take the disc into the euphoric pop territory of the Beach Boys. And then there's the addition of S.F. singer/songwriter Kathryn Jensen, whose Jolie Holland-esque harmonies add a jazzy dimension to the Tapes' sound.

Adams moved to the Bay Area in July 2005, wooed by the vibrant folkie scene and friends like Obo Martin and Jensen. He quickly gained a reputation for ramshackle, hootenanny-ish sets, which weaved Jensen and other songwriters such as Sleepy Todd, Matt McCluer, and Jesse Olsen into the mix. Following Landfair's release, national college radio has also been swift to respond, placing the LP in the CMJ Top 200, which is unheard-of for an act doing its own promotion.

"A friend in Tennessee said a friend in Maine heard about the band," says Adams enthusiastically. "Maine!"

It seems our mop-topped friend made the right decision in quitting art school after all. He must've looked horrible in black anyway.

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