JS Adams lives in a typical, tasteful Takoma, D.C., bungalow, with dullish green walls and stripped-wood door frames. Adams bought and redecorated the place late last year with his partner of 11 years, Joseph Dress.
Amid all the turn-of-the-century American furniture and ’50s tableware, it’s easy to miss one of the few pointers to Adams’ artistic identity: a small box marked “Surrealist Games” residing in a glass-encased bookshelf.
Adams has never opened the box, but he knows what’s inside: a book of intellectual parlor games used by the surrealist movement’s founders to circumvent rational thought. In fact, he used just such a game to come up with the name of his primary musical project, BLK w/BEAR.
Over the past 10 years, Adams has used BLK w/BEAR and other activities to build an international reputation as a visual and sonic collagist. His turntable installations have become fixtures at such local shows as the Triangle Artists Group’s annual “Queering Sound” and Art-O-Matic. And Adams’ most recent CD, Wish for a World Without Hurt, which he recorded under his pseudonym BLK w/BEAR in collaboration with the London-based ambient musician Mark Beazley, has garnered a torrent of praise in Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Like his house, Adams himself is a curious combination of the antique and the contemporary. He mines eBay and flea markets for archaic images that he manipulates on a computer. Similarly, he makes ethereal mixes using his extensive collection of World War II–era records and pop songs such as Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” And while he looks like a middle-aged Harley weekender, he often talks about himself and his work with a postmodern language that befuddles more than it reveals—for example, describing on his Web site his 2003 CD-R La Bannière des Etoiles (“Banner of the Stars”) as “shards of propaganda . the lowering of wolves . and a minor remnant
Asked about his feelings on mainstream gay culture and its bear subculture, with which he has been actively involved, he takes a reporter’s list of questions and writes: “Marginalization of all (most) outsider subcultures—“Women’s Nites” ‘ Industrial DJ Nites ‘ Sun ‘ Cause + effect feeding crumbs to a [Commodified sanitized] public.”
“I confound a lot of my friends, sometimes on purpose,” Adams concedes. “[My work is] just one facet of who I am. I find a lot of pleasure in it.”
Adams, who’s nearly 50, is at a glance both intimidating and vulnerable, a stocky, hirsute, tattooed, and enormously bearded man with thin-framed glasses and soft eyes. The menacing side seems confirmed by his basement cassette collection of noisy industrial bands such as Ministry and Bile—that is, until you see a k.d. lang album in the same box.
Besides the tapes, his basement is filled with the tools of BLK w/BEAR’s trade: a lot of turntables, toy guitars, and old Casio keyboards. Adams says he started manipulating sound when he was growing up in Gary, Ind., imitating Terry Riley’s music by splicing together tapes and putting lead weights on records to create audio loops. He went to see Pink Floyd in Chicago in 1972 instead of going to his senior prom—a choice and a career signal, he says, that was ratified at a high-school reunion by the woman he took to the junior prom. “‘Congratulations,’” he remembers her saying. “‘You followed your heart.’”
Adams got a B.S. in sculpture from Ball State University in 1976 and then moved to Louisville, Ky., where he did postgraduate work at the Center for Photographic Studies for two years. In Louisville, Adams got involved with Fluxus-inspired group “happenings” and started creating sound and theatrical performance pieces with titles such as Feast of Tornadoes. And he also started a post-punk band, STUTTER, members of which also assisted him in starting BLK w/BEAR as a guitar-based solo project in 1986.
In the late ’80s, Adams began his experimenting with visual art. Today, he makes printouts of his computerized image distortions, which he then shellacs, varnishes, and folds. After moving to D.C. 10 years ago, he continued BLK w/BEAR as a solo act, gravitating toward sonic collage, which he refers to variously as “recontextualization,” “fuckery,” or “archival reconstructionism.” He sees a natural affinity between the two endeavors.
“If you’re sitting in an audience looking at a record rotating, you’re seeing a shift in the visuals on the label,” he says, relating a personal fantasy. “I always thought it was kind of interesting to have an auditorium full of people staring at records. Some people will close their eyes and get washed away in the sound, and so they’ve made the choice to strip the visuals away from it.”
As BLK w/BEAR, Adams has released six CD-Rs through the San Francisco–based Kuma-Chan label. Only limited numbers of each are pressed and sold, but the label champions his eclecticism. “I can’t help but respect anyone who approaches his work with the enthusiasm that Jim clearly does…particularly when that work is so decidedly nonmainstream,” says Phil Locke, Kuma-Chan’s co-founder. Adams argues that it wasn’t until his computer’s hard drive crashed in 2001 that BLK w/BEAR took off, liberating him from the canned samples that he’d been using previously.
“[It] ended up being one of the nicest things that could happen to me,” he says. “I started sampling in my own samples, skip scratches, hums that came from old equipment, playing with speeds, stuff like that.” The expanded approach led him to mine such obscure sources as records made in the ’40s and ’50s in coin-operated recording booths. And out of the process came such compositions as “The Dogs of War Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,” which filters “The Star-Spangled Banner” through an ominous dreamscape populated by turntable scratching and computer-manipulated voice recordings.
Adams’ transition from collaborative to solo artist makes perfect sense when you converse with him at length. He uses the phrase “square pegs into round holes” reflexively, like an itch that won’t go away. “Sometimes things aren’t supposed to fit easily…properly… the way they are anticipated,” he says. And even though he wrote music criticism for American Bear magazine from 1996 to 2000, he sidesteps complete identification with “bearded, jeans, flannel” bear culture. “‘Odd bear out’ was the phrase I used in my first
correspondence ad in Bear magazine,” he says.
“Perhaps that is why some of the art bears joke about now being post-bear,” he adds. “Perhaps [being a bear is] simply a different peg, albeit furrier and with more girth.”
By day, Adams is a policy analyst for the Hostile Climate Project, a D.C.-based initiative of People for the American Way that monitors right-wing media for anti-gay bias. So it was in the course of his job when, on Sept. 11, 2001, he watched on television as a plane crashed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. But walking home that night with Dress to Capitol Hill, where they then lived, Adams felt the need to memorialize the tragedy through art.
Adams and Beazley, who usually records with the postrock trio Rothko, had been corresponding prior to the attacks. As Beazley began producing new music, their conversations colored the Rothko 12-inch Domestic Landscapes #4.
“The Domestic Landscapes record came about precisely because of conversations with Jim about 9/11,” Beazley says. “Jim’s perspective, being a native of D.C., shaped the whole thing for me. He opened my mind to a lot of thoughts and images that he witnessed firsthand, that I then tried to convey.”
But Adams and Beazley took the conversation further into collaboration—exchanging manipulations of individual sound files from Domestic Landscapes #4 and combining them with other material until they grew into Wish for a World Without Hurt, which was put out by Rothko’s own Trace Recordings. The resulting album oscillates between collagist noise and eerie soundscapes. Low rumbles of static burying human voices, reverb-drenched guitar, and off-kilter piano melodies are combined to kaleidoscopic effect. “In some ways, it’s a record I wish we hadn’t had to make,” says Beazley. “It’s always sad when catastrophe brings people together—I wish life didn’t happen like that.”
Wish, like other Rothko releases, has received wide distribution and accolades, from airplay on Japanese radio to a killer review in Q magazine. But the outpouring of emotion prompted by the record is what has stunned Adams. “I’m still humbled and amazed at the scale of response it has garnered,” he says, citing the large volume of letters and e-mails he’s received containing personal stories about the attacks. Adams and Susan Oetgen of Habit of Creation, a New York–based arts incubator that works with Rothko, are now approaching contemporary and modern-dance choreographers to work on a possible staging of Wish. “The music of Wish, as abstract as it can be, also has an intensely physical quality that naturally suggests movement and perhaps relationship to environment,” says Oetgen.
Such responses are something Adams, despite his own abstract language and stylings, enjoys provoking. He says one of his favorite moments as a performer came during his turntable installation at the 2000 Art-O-Matic. “A gentleman walked over to me and singularly whispered, ‘beautiful,’” he recalls. “And walked away.” CP