Five Questions: Adam Wiltzie (Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory for the Sullen)
Adam Wiltzie is the founding member of Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and The Dead Texan; has composed music for film and television (Lion, Iris, Salero, The Yellow Birds); has had a burgeoning tennis career cut short by injury; and has an unwavering love of tacos. We sat down one gorgeous morning beside a swimming pool in East Los Angeles to chat about all of the above, and of course, he answered Five Questions. Meet Adam.
Let’s hop into our conversation when we started chatting about sports. The Five Questions are about halfway down.
Adam: I come from a different background. I don’t really come from an art background. I’m from a sports family, so I wanted to be a professional tennis player. I didn’t get into music until quite late. My godfather won Wimbledon in 1963, Chuck McKinley, so after I had a knee injury, tennis went down the tubes and I needed to find something else. I got into a little bit of art history at school. I love making art, but I have a difficult time being reverential about it. At least in my own terms.
Me: So how do you see how you create art?
Adam: I don’t know. I hardly ever think about it. I don’t know if it’s because I come from a sports background, but I look up and see them as my idols because I find it a little more—I don’t want to say that making art can’t be difficult, there is a struggle, you can suffer in a sense. I struggle more with all the artists that take themselves too seriously. But so do sports people, so…
Me: I’m a huge sports fan as well. I grew up in Boston.
Adam: That’s a big sports town.
Me: Larry Legend. Big Papi most recently. I see sports and art as the same thing. It’s all about preparation and then executing. When it comes to performance, at least. You perform. And when it comes to performance, you have to be prepared. If you’re not prepared, good luck.
Adam: Yeah. It’s all about perspective. You could compare it. But the people I really admire are not really artists as much. I won’t say I don’t appreciate some artists. Eno is a big influence on me, people like that, but I don’t look at them the same way I respect Tim Duncan, for example.
Me: And you grew up in Texas?
Adam: I grew up in New York City. But I went to university in Texas. University of Texas in Austin. People like that… I don’t know why, but if I were to invite two people over for a dinner party, it’d be Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich. I just want to hang out with those guys.
Me: Hell yes! I want to see Popovich and Bill Belichick hang out and talk. Bill’s a stonewall to the media, but he’s just so him. I love those guys.
Adam: And those guys remind me of each other. They’re realists.
Me: That’s what I mean. I love Pop on the sidelines. He’s like, “This is your question? Are you kidding me?”
Adam: So people reading this will probably be very disappointed that I’m into sports.
Me: Some of my favorite friends in the music business are heavily into sports and I don’t know what it is. I see a close comparison and the difference is that you win in sports and you don’t in art.
Adam: There is a simplicity because at the end of a season, you have a winner and a loser. Although I don’t like it when artists treat art as sports. It happens a lot. Which I think is not very good. But one thing I like about Tim, our manager, and the people that are with us, Hauschka, Jóhann [Jóhannson], Dustin [O’Halloran]…we couldn’t be happier for each other’s success.
Me: That’s one thing Dustin talked about when we spoke, he said he was most proud that he’s built these long and deep relationships.
Adam: There are some great people in the art world and people in the music community we’ve met—especially since Dustin and I met in Europe—people like Ben Frost and Tim Hecker, people we just met touring in Europe who have become really close friends of ours. And we couldn’t be happier for the things that happen to them. And we’re not competitive. That’s a good thing.
Me: There’s plenty of success out there for everybody.
Adam: I think so.
Me: So what brought you to Belgium?
Adam: Better quality of life.
Me: And Brian [McBride of Stars of the Lid] lives here in L.A.?
Adam: Yeah, he’s lived here a long time.
Me: I feel like L.A. is absorbing a lot of musicians. It’s a really rad place.
Adam: I don’t think I would ever live here, but I love coming here. My manager, my film scoring agent, they’re based here. I’m totally fine with L.A.
Me: I listened to Iris for the first time recently. Dustin gave me a copy of the record. It was so sweet of him. It’s a really beautiful score, I really appreciate it.
Adam: Yeah, we’re pretty happy with the way it turned out.
Me: Well, let’s hop into the questions…
What is your greatest fear?
Getting eaten by a shark.
Me: And where does that stem from?
Adam: I don’t know, maybe the murky unknown. I remember I was in the deep end of the pool and when I couldn’t see what was underneath me, I could feel myself getting paranoid.
Me: In a swimming pool.
Adam: When I was a child. Not anymore. [Laughter] So it’s definitely getting eaten by a shark.
What’s something you don’t currently know but feel compelled to know before you die?
How to build my own house. Which is about to happen. I’m building a new house in Belgium and it’s all about to come together and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m building a house and studio complex outside of Brussels. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do…to build my own place. I never bought my own place because I’ve always wanted to build it. There will be solar panels and things like that—it probably stems from the problems I’ve seen from the [USA] go down. And Belgium, being the country I live in, has really great subsidies for people that are trying to live greener. They really encourage it and they make it possible through the government. It’s nice to live in a place that’s really pushing, encouraging, and giving tax benefits to its people. It’s going to be really fun and exciting and also kind of terrifying because I’ve never done anything like this from the ground up.
Me: What’s the process? Do you help design it?
Adam: Yeah, I have some architects that are coming.
Me: Then you talk it out?
Adam: Basically, it started as a Pinterest page. And I showed them things—I’m building things, we call them béton, basically concrete, two structures. Studio and a house.
How do you define failure?
I am my harshest critic and I generally have a very difficult time being reverential about myself. I didn’t realize this when I started—because I’ve been putting out records since 1993 or so—I’m glad I started early and kept leaving the previous work back and then pushing forward because there are now these time capsules of my life. I don’t really look at them as anything in the scope of failures, they are just these things that I did.
Me: Do you have any moments in your life that stick out as failures? Not necessarily in your art, but in any way?
Adam: Tennis was pretty disappointing that it didn’t turn out like I imagined. Still to this day, that’s the thing I love the most. I love watching tennis. I wish I could have gone further. I had a lot of potential. You can be good, but to be able to make the step like someone like Federer—or even an average player—would be an incredible feat.
How do approach collaboration?
One thing I realize and I love about collaboration is that you could never do it by yourself. After all the years of doing Stars of the Lid, to be able to again find someone like Dustin—because it’s only been since 2011 when we put out our first record, so it’s in infancy still. But it’s been pretty fruitful and it’s resonated with people. It’s actually been great to find a way to collaborate with someone again at this level. I find it very rewarding. I also find it very easy—every artist says they don’t have an ego, I’m sure I do—but it’s nice to realize this later in life that sometimes you have a belief, “Oh this song needs to sound like this” but to just trust someone else and to give some of yourself to someone else, it’s kind of romantic in a way. It feels good that sometimes I might not think it was the best idea, but someone feels strongly about it you can say, “Hey man, let’s follow your lead on this one.”
Me: That idea of give and take is very rewarding when the process is done because you see the thing that was in your blind spot that you didn’t see until it was finished and you go, “Oh my god, I’m glad we didn’t make that decision that I thought was the best.”
How do you define being "in love"?
I don’t know if I can because I don’t know if I ever have been.
Me: You ever felt like you’ve been close?
Adam: Sure. But I don’t know what it felt like because my head was so cloudy. Being in love is a bit like feeling out of control. And losing yourself. You know, I was just mentioning it regarding collaboration. So I don’t know if I have a good response for being in love.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
Tacos. A hundred percent.
Me: Now that you’re in L.A. you have access to some of the best!
Adam: Oh man, I’m going to have some good tacos!
Me: If you have a chance to go to the west side, in Venice, there’s this place called La Cabaña.
Adam: It’s the best?
Me: Well, I get the enchiladas, which are amazing, but they have tacos for sure.
Adam: OK, I’ll try that because Dustin has family over there. I think Dustin and I are going to Salazar for lunch today, you been there?
Adam: It’s over there by—what do you call this place? It’s this weird little area by the 5 [freeway] and the 110 [freeway]. It’s this mystery neighborhood.
Me: I’ll Google it for sure.