The Rumpus Interview with Adam Dorn, a.k.a. Mocean Worker

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With his latest release, Candygram for Mowo, DJ/Bassist/Electronic Artist/Producer/Remixer Adam Dorn, a.k.a Mocean Worker, has whipped up an addictive, luscious confection: a feel-good album that’s a throwback to the dance music of 30s era swing and big band jazz. It’s his sixth album, and features a stellar line-up of guests including Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter, and rapper Lyrics Born.  With sumptuous horns richly layered over his signature infectious hooks and grooves, Candygram is perhaps one of Mocean Worker’s swankiest, funkiest offerings yet.

Candygram is also the first record Dorn has made since losing his father (and frequent collaborator), Joel Dorn, in late 2007. It’s a tribute to his dad, the legendary jazz and R&B producer who was part of the much-storied Atlantic Records team during its heyday in the late 60s and early 70s. During that time, Joel’s impeccable taste and incomparable instincts led him to discovering and collaborating with one-of-a-kind-artists such as Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, and jazz maverick, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Starting in the mid-90s, Joel and Adam worked together on a series of their own labels—32 Jazz, Label M, and Hyena—each imprint primarily focused on high-quality, artfully packaged reissues from old jazz catalogs.

For an artist whose career began in his teens, whose music has appeared in tons of films, commercials, and TV shows, and whose credits include working with everyone from Tenacious D (remixing) to U2 (contributor to film score for Million Dollar Hotel), Adam is refreshingly down-home and unassuming. He’s also wildly funny (check out his little gem about Gene Simmons on his blog), and his outspoken, insanely hilarious rants have earned him a devoted following on Facebook.

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The Rumpus: Where did you come up with the title for Candygram for Mowo and what’s this record all about?

Adam Dorn: This record is basically a continuation of the last three records, which all have a theme. And the theme is sort of an exploration of 30s big band sound, cramming and smashing into modern beats. With my music, the titles are always kind of funny, like on the last record there was a track called, “Shake Ya Boogie” and on this record there’s “Shooby Shooby Do Yah!”. I think that era in music and that kind of sensibility is just an incredible thing. I think it’s really missing today.  There’s this lack of fun with music. So in keeping with that, and in keeping with actually a number of album titles I’ve had, and combining that with the fact that this record is the first record I made after my father passed away and it’s a tribute to him, and at the end of the day, he was more than a jazz producer and a record producer–he was a Hall of Fame comedian, wise-ass funny guy–the actual title is a reference to a Mel Brook’s movie, Blazing Saddles. There’s a scene where Cleavon Little goes, “Candygram for Mongo, Candygram for Mongo.” And this movie was the first sort of bonding comedically with my father as a kid. The Mel Brooks movies were the intro into a whole world of comedy. It was funny, I was driving with my brother David and my family, and I was just kinda joking around about titles for the record and for some reason I said, “Candygram for Mongo” and my brother was like, “Candygram for Mowo.” So it was born right there and I thought, what better way to connect all of this. Listen, a lot of people won’t understand the title, but I still think it’s kind of funny. But when they realize it’s a reference to Blazing Saddles, and they’re fans of it, there’s gonna be like 2.8% of the people that’ll think it’s a good title and they’ll enjoy the reference. The target audience is not, “22 year old, single men from fraternities”.  They’re not gonna know this reference. Not that’s there’s anything “wrong” with being in a frat, but it’s definitely a wise-ass reference. My third record is called Aural and Hearty, which is a total nod to Laurel and Hardy. Let me tell you about a group of people that don’t wanna watch Laurel and Hardy films: DJs, kids on drugs, and people into electronic music. But me and my twisted filter growing up, that’s all I studied. I think I know more about old comedy than I do about music. So this record is a not towards some of my father’s sensibilities.

Rumpus: You have some pretty heavy-hitting guests on this record, like Bill Frisell, could you talk a little about them?

Dorn: Bill Frisell’s a great place to start. Bill’s an old friend and collaborator, and I was fortunate to work on a record of his called, Unspeakable, which won a Grammy. And he was on my album, Enter the Mowo, and he’s just so amazingly cool and gracious. I could email him outta nowhere and ask if I can send him something to play on and the answer is yes and it’s immediate–he gets the files back right away. Then there’s John Ellis, who’s a killin’ tenor player, and Charlie Hunter who’s a genius. And it’s interesting because the same track that Bill is on, “Sho Nuff Now”, Charlie’s on. So Bill did his thing and Charlie did his thing, and Hal Willner did this thing which is all this crazy stuff with vinyl and lp’s and samples—it’s just an interesting group of guys, and it’s also one of my favorite tracks on the record. I put it right at the end. I don’t know, I still have this silly concept that people listen to a whole album and take a journey.

Rumpus: It does seem like your past two albums, Enter the Mowo and Cinco de Mowo fit together with this latest one, but this one seems to have more layers, and even more of a lush sound. So did you do anything different?

Dorn: Well that’s nice to hear. You know, I kind of had those other records in mind and I wanted to make an extension of them, but I wanted to incorporate more sort of electronic elements. My first three records are kind of hard core drum-n-bass and electronic and house music, and the last two records I kinda got into this hybrid of old jazz and 60s jazz mixed with beats, but this time I wanted to make some stuff that had more layers and more depths to the songs. More intricate from a technical standpoint, like more intricate programming, meaning synthesizers and drumbeats. I wanted the actual components of the tracks to have more of a depth. I have to say that the guy I mixed the record with, Paul Atkinson, who’s from London, brought a completely different sensibility to this album because he’s a hardcore electronic and dance background-kind of recording engineer. So it was fun that he could really do his thing and carve out sound. This record has a bigger sound to it, the drums punch harder and just in general the record hits harder, but the core of the material isn’t about banging beats. There’s a good balance between the beats being prominent with the lush material.  This record is more about headphones. It’s weird, I think a lot of people now consume music in a way where they’ll just listen to it off their laptop speakers, and I wanted it to sound a specific way for a specific environment, because a lot of people listen to my records while they work, or while they paint, or while they clean. A lot of creative people listen to my music, which is an incredible feeling. I get these amazing emails from people that actually kind of inspire me to keep writing, and I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I’ve met all these people who are directors and photographers and writers and I realize that, just like their work would inspire me, my work inspires them. So on this record, it really helped inform how the records were mixed because people now listen to music on their computers, so I wanted it to sound big on a laptop if that makes sense. I wasn’t really about, “Ooooh, I hope this works in a club.”  I A/B’d these mixes on my iPad, and thought, if it sounds good on the iPad, it’ll sound good on a little speaker. Stuff from the 30s sounds great on little speakers anyway because it’s already mono to begin with.

Rumpus: I know this record is dedicated to your dad–how difficult was it to make this record without him?

Dorn: It’s a tribute to my old man, but it’s weird, this record has been so hard to make because he passed away. The last record came out in June of 2007, and he passed in December of 2007, so far the rest of ’07 pretty much through ’08 I was just like a vegetable. All of 2008 was just horror. It really just sucked. And then into 2009 I started writing again. For about eighteen months I didn’t write at all—and this may sound weird to people—but he literally heard every piece of music I wrote. For my Mocean Worker stuff, not for film scores. But something about the Mocean Worker thing he was just always part of the process and an editor and usually light-hearted about it and supportive, so when I went to write a new record it was kind of impossible because I felt in a weird way, like the silent partner just wasn’t there. It’s like Dorn & Dorn, but Dorn’s not there. He was a collaborator and facilitator for a lot of the stuff I got into. It’s a more drawn-out story, but in a lot of ways he trained me to not do certain things that he did. He was like, “You have to build your own thing.  Don’t rely on major labels, build your own house out of bricks.” And I always played him what I was writing and I would always let him know stuff like–we’re gonna roll out with this record this way, here’s the title, here’s the artwork. He didn’t write or do any of the music, but he was in a way—if you watch the show Dexter, the way his dad is like his editor of everything, that’s how my dad was. It’s pretty dark, though, because Dexter’s a serial killer. I could come up with a better analogy.

I played everything for my old man. So to not have him be a part of the process just sucked. Plus I was really sad. You know, I lost my dad, he was like my best friend. This record, there’s nothing about it that’s sad, nothing about it’s morose, there’s some depth to it and there’s some emotion to it, but it’s a joyful record. It’s not a dark record at all. Ultimately, it’s a happy record. I can make records with or without my dad, but it’s just like, you want your dad around, it’s your fucking dad. I miss my dad. I don’t miss the “genius record producer.” He’s the guy that I watched football with.

Rumpus: So, how did you get over the hump to a place where you wanted to start writing again? It seems like it would be very hard.

Dorn: I don’t really have an answer. I think more than anything, I really didn’t have a choice. You know, what are you gonna do, just sit there? It’s not woe is me time. And simultaneously, I met my wife, who’s an incredible woman and she’s got a son, so now I’m a stepdad. So there was this two year period where I was like, I’m just gonna go out and discover the other parts of my life and kind of step away. I channeled on being a human and not being in this whole unbalanced-living me, me, me thing where it’s, “Well I’m gonna go to Prague because it’s spring.” I’ve actually never been to Prague, so I don’t know why I just said that but I wanted to get back to some basic stuff because I felt like, wow, I’ve lived all this time just doing whatever I wanted musically, and it’s great, but with my dad not around my sense of family was very much also altered.

It was really hard to make because I wasn’t in the happiest mood and I didn’t want to make a dark, Dracula ambient record.  I didn’t want to make some, “Oh feel bad for me, my daddy died” record, ya know? That serves nothing. No purpose. But it was hard. It’s even hard to answer the question. It’s been a confused process. It’s definitely like, the therapy’s in the music: you gotta keep on keepin’ on. That’s it. Next. Move on.

Rumpus: The last track is “JD” (his dad’s initials); could you talk a little about it?

Dorn: It’s just a combination of six or seven records he produced, and it’s made to sound like it’s coming from the ether.  I actually end all of my records with a little track like that, on a mysterious, ambient note. Because you’ve just been hit in the face with all these beats. It was done in a single take. It’s really just like a quick painting, a little mixture of things that my father did that I really love. It’s how I felt at that moment, and I could make a different one every day. But if I made an album full of stuff like that, it would be like, “Yeah, Adam’s driving the M-52 bus now.” But who knows? Maybe not, maybe I’d end up partners with Brian Eno.

Rumpus: Speaking of Brian Eno, you worked with him and U2 on The Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack. How was that experience and what exactly was your role?

Dorn: I was a composer on the film. We all collaborated in different little teams, and in varying ways, we all ended up writing the score.

Rumpus: Well, that had to be amazing.

Dorn: Yeah, I was kinda blown away, because honestly, for me, I just showed up and no one really knew what was gonna be happening and we all just started working. When we saw the film, nobody knew what would actually be in the film.  I was the young guy on the gig, and I was like, wow, 15 ½% or whatever of the film was stuff I wrote. I’m pretty proud of that. But I haven’t worked with Brian Eno again so maybe he didn’t like that (chuckles).

Rumpus: But then Bono appeared on one of your albums (Aural and Hearty).

Dorn: Yeah, during those sessions we did a couple of things with him with vocals, and he was cool enough to let me use one of those vocals to make a track. I’m sorry; I’m a huge U2 fan so I was giddy. I was like, this is so cool to get a phone call from the south of France from Bono. He’s just a cool guy. We spoke on the phone three or four times about the track and it was just cool, it was very easy to get done, there was no bullshit. And he was into it.

Rumpus: That’s nice to hear, because you figure he’d be that way, but you never know.

Dorn: He was super cool. I mean, I’ve only seen him a couple of times since, but he’s always just pleasant. He’s never an asshole. He’s never like, “Don’t look him in the eyes”, or “He’s in a bad mood” with a bunch of handlers. The last time I worked with him we mastered the soundtrack album and he was just walking around Manhattan by himself, he got himself to the session. He’s like, I’m just a guy. I’m from Dublin and I grew up in bar fights. I’m just a normal guy. I’m just a normal guy with a private jet and I fly home to my place in the south of France after every show in Europe. He’s still cool.  He’s not some douchey rock star. U2 actually figured out a way to stay pretty fucking cool. I haven’t experienced that again. Anyone else like that I’ve been around, and they’ll all remain nameless, have not been anywhere near as cool. Everyone else takes that other path of, “Do these glasses work on me?” It’s silly. At that point, music is just part of the equation. I saw something online the other day where an artist had a 45-page rider on how things were supposed to be backstage—I think it was Katy Perry—and she had 25 bullet points for drivers, they can’t look at her. That’s a whole other business. That’s not what U2 do.

Rumpus: For this record, as well as for your previous records, do you write the melodies specifically for with the player in mind, or do they just improvise? I’m thinking of Fathead (saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman) and Enter the Mowo.

Dorn: Not with Fathead. I think that wouldn’t have been good. I literally just said, here’s a 24-bar section and do your thing. I mean, I have Fathead on my record because he’s Fathead and that’s it. I didn’t need any other reason.

I have Rahsaan (Rahsaan Roland Kirk) on the record and I love the fact that Rahsaan is on my records, and obviously he passed away in 1977, so I didn’t write anything for him, I just have some things that are him playing on his own, and it works over what I do, and nothing makes me happier. In a way, that’s always a nod towards my dad because that was his guy. It’s funny, I was looking something up the other day and I saw a thing about Rah’s internet hits and searches, and people check him out. He’s a guy that still has this holy shit factor for people that are discovering jazz. He’s definitely a stop on the real music lover’s journey. He’s very viable, ya know, in a way he’s kind of like the Hendrix of jazz. People that know Rah absolutely love the guy.  If he touches you, you’re done.

I didn’t touch on other guests when you asked earlier but I should note that there are some other really great guests on the record, like Steve Bernstein. He’s kind of like my living Rahsaan. He always plays trumpet on at least one or two things on every record, he’s my man, I love Steve and it just works. There’s also this kick-ass alto saxophonist on the record named Mindi Abair. She’s an old friend of mine from college and she’s great. She’s on American Idol this year, she’s getting really well known and I’m so happy for her. Also, I’ve never had a rapper on my records before—I tried it and it was always an aborted mission—but on this record Lyrics Born is in the house. I finally had the balls to do a track with an MC and it’s fun. I love Lyrics Born. It’s a good track. It’s funny, I found out that KCRW out here wants to feature it as song of the day, and I had to do an edit on it because the word shit appears. I’m like, in this broken planet of ours, I have to edit out shit, like a thousandth of a second? Let me get this straight, we have to listen to Lil Wayne on the radio and I have to take the word shit outta my song.

Rumpus: Are you listening to anything new right now that you like?

Dorn: I probably should be listening to more stuff. But I heard that kid Tyler the Creator several months ago, and then subsequently saw them on MTV and the VMAs, and I really dug the record. I think he’s from California and it’s angular, edgy, quirky, geeky hip hop. But now it’s already been co-opted by the mainstream. They built this thing and had millions of YouTube followers. And it’s still real. It’s just gonna be informed by the mainstream now, there’s no way it couldn’t be.  Now the focus is on ‘em, whereas before, he had this other thing going on. And now it’s like, you were just on the VMAs, I’m sorry, the secret’s out, you’re not underground anymore, you were just hugging Katy Perry. But I really loved what I saw on YouTube, it seemed like he was using the internet in the right way, making really hip music that wasn’t incredibly over-produced stuff—it had a soul to it. There’s also an artist out here called Van Hunt that I love. I think Van Hunt is a superstar waiting to happen but it doesn’t seem to happen, but he’s such a great singer.

Rumpus: I just have a few more questions. Could you talk about being on your own record label? It seems like you were on a major one and then decided to go your own way even before the record business downturn. Is that right?

Dorn: Yeah, well it’s kind of a cool story. Because a lot of times people say they planned a certain thing and say, “I saw it coming, and I knew this would happen.” The real story for me is that I wasn’t signed to a major, so I want to clarify that. I was signed to a label called Palm Pictures which was owned by Chris Blackwell, who started the label after he sold Island Records, which everyone knows that he built, I mean, one of the better labels ever. So I happened to sign a deal with the label Palm. And I made two records and the second record that I made was very successful with licensing and being used for film and TV. But critically and in terms of sales, major disappointment. It just sort of didn’t work at all.  It was a total departure from my first two records. I made this house music record that was sort of very cheeky and started leaning towards what I do now, but also was steeped in house music and it just pissed off my existing fans. So the long story gets a little longer with me delivering my next record, which was Enter the Mowo. I delivered it and they hated it in a way that was basically, if they could sneeze into my face, that was kind of the reaction. I was shocked. I’m thinking, guys I found my thing, this is s a cool record, now we can really run with something. This isn’t confusing, I can put a band together and this is music that can be performed live. Everything I thought and planned was dismissed with, “This is a terrible record.” I knew it wasn’t a terrible record. So luckily they didn’t give me a ton of money to make it, and I still had most of the money sitting there so over the course of a couple of months–this was in 2003–we negotiated a way to just buy the record back. I found myself in a position of having a record but not having a label. And I just decided to go to my friends at Rykodisc to see if they’d give me a distribution deal. And artists weren’t really doing this yet. It was one of those things where artists still had this idea that you had to be signed to a label and you need all the workings of a label. I was like, I don’t have any of this, and I’m just gonna figure it out, and put this record out, and the stars kind of aligned. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, it’s just that Palm was starting to close, and I haven’t had the chance to thank him personally, but I think Chris was just like, “I’m not gonna put this record out, I don’t really like it and it’s not right for our label, so just give me my money back and you’re free to do whatever you want.” And for that, I can’t thank him enough because I sold three times as many records with the help of the Ryko team distributing, and Kevin Calabro (then with Hyena Records), and my manager at the time, Greg De’Mamos. We just did it on our own, and we realized: this is where this is gonna go. Artists are gonna realize that if you have a little bit of a team, and you know who you wanna reach, you don’t need to sign to some enormous label and have a record release party and a video with Snoop Dog. There’s a part of the business where you have to do that. But if you’re looking to sell ten to fifteen thousand records and you already have a fan base—which I kind of thought I didn’t anymore but I put out Enter the Mowo and I realized, there’s always ten to fifteen thousand people that are like, I like what ya do, man. I kind of built a thing and people hung around. I was scared as hell when I put out the next record, because I was truly on my own and the record business was starting every year to have 20% less sales, but when we put out the next record, we did the same stuff and hit the same people. You start to realize, alright, they’re out there. Nobody buys a million and a half cds anymore. They still buy cds, but the when labels cry foul about the lack of sales of physical product, they’re crying because their acts that used to sell half a million cds now sell like 150k. If I sold 150k, I would retire to the equator.

I would be really upset if Hootie and the Blowfish sold 20 million records and then the next record sold 2 million, and now every subsequent record sold 100K. That’s catastrophic. Utter failure. But I think there’s a lot of people out there who still respect artists, support artists, and if five to ten thousand of them stay true to being decent human beings and don’t copy them or post them illegally, that means they get another record. And if they don’t wanna show up? Then maybe it’s time to drive a bus. But I think they’re gonna show up. They always do.


May K. Cobb is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She has spent the past several years researching and writing a book about the late jazz great, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Her writing has appeared in Austin Monthly Magazine and the online edition of JazzTimes. Her blog resides here. More from this author →