The Resilient Artist: An Interview with Adam Wolf

Unbreakable. A word that in its literal meaning implies a strength resistant to every imaginable force, is also the very word that Rock Horn Project creator Adam Wolf has wisely and correctly chosen as the title for his second album debuting February 24th. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Wolf and not only learn about his life, and the inspirations that went into creating Unbreakable, but that even despite once having left the world of music, his unprecedented talent as a resilient person, rock hornist, and composer was so powerful, his return to music has witnessed a trailblazing effort of a man who unapologetically continues to break all kinds of musical barriers. 

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music? 
Adam Wolf: My dad was a band director, and both my brother and I were absolutely going to be in band whether we wanted to be or not. I started on trumpet, but I switched to playing horn while in 6th grade.

CR: What led you to pursuing music as a career? Was there a defining moment? 
AW: It moved around a bit. When I started college I was a music education major, but kept changing majors which unfortunately led to a depression and total downward spiral with music. At one point I completely quit the horn, stopped teaching, and stopped going to school. Luckily what dug me out of my depression was listening to other forms of music. At the time my brother’s favorite band was Muse, and he convinced me to go see a concert of theirs. On top of it being a ridiculously great show, it completely revitalised my desire to play, because I realized that I had just been playing the wrong kind music. Nothing against classical music, it just wasn’t the right outlet for me artistically at the time.

CR: Oh wow, I had no idea you had left music. So after this realization, you went to CalArts, correct? Why CalArts? 
AW: Basically, if someone is interested in doing something different with their music they should consider going to CalArts. I was 24 when I started my time there, didn’t know anyone, so I decided to live in the dorms my first year. I was placed in a room with a guy named Rusty Kennedy who was someone my own age, and was an electric bass player. It was a huge deal to be roomed with Rusty, as he’s a founding member of RHP and still plays bass in the band. Even though he looked at me like I was crazy when I told him I wanted to create an outlet for French Horn in rock music, he thought it was interesting and wanted to be a part of it. So, he was there for me, making sure the guitar and bass parts were voiced correctly, and he really helped put this project together.

CR: I see. What’s been a vital component to the success of this project thus far, other than Rusty? 
AW: Support from others has been vital. When I auditioned for CalArts I told the head of brass, Ed Carroll, and the horn teacher at the time, Robin Graham, that I wanted to play Rock Music. They thought it was awesome and had a list of people that I could talk to to help make it happen. After graduating, some members of the band wanted to keep playing together so we did some bar shows at the House of Blues, Molly Malones, The Mint, and other LA venues. But, in doing that I realized no one knew how to make us sound good. Rock Horn Project is such a unique band that no random house engineers knew how to make a french horn, string quartet and rhythm section fit together. That was what started the idea in fall 2013 that we had to make our debut album, Breakin’ Old Habits, as that was the only way our stuff was going to be heard correctly. 

CR: What sorts of recognition did you get from that album? Did that album get you heard the way that you were intending?
AW: Definitely. We did a kickstarter to make the CD, and not only did the musicians do it for free, but Preston Shepard, my good friend, producer, engineer & mixer for that album and Unbreakable did it for free as well; I was so lucky to have generous people for that album. But the release of Breakin’ Old Habits coincided with a mini-tour we did in San Diego, where the Southwest IHS Convention was also being hosted by Doug Hall. RHP was fortunate enough to not only perform at the convention, but perform with the featured artist that year, Jeff Nelsen. I’d never met Jeff before, but he not only agreed to perform with us, but was so enthusiastic and supportive about it that it got the attention of Scott Bacon at Siegfried’s Call, as Jeff is a Siegfried’s Call artist. Scott took a huge interest in us, and I myself became a Siegfried’s Call artist. Shortly after the convention I also became a Conn Selmer artist, and all those things combined brought an incredible boost of notoriety to me and the band.
CR: Wow, congratulations! So when did you know you wanted to release a second album? 
AW: Well, right after our first album dropped, about three months later Ropeadope Records reached out and asked if I was interested in releasing a second album with them. They’re a small Indie label specializing in rock fusion, and they released and produced the first four Snarky Puppy albums. I knew a second album was inevitable, but their interest certainly established a timetable for it.

CR: What are you hoping to accomplish with the release of this album? The first brought you notoriety, but what do you think Unbreakable will achieve? 
AW: Well, even though Rock Horn Project has achieved a lot in its three years, but I’m really hoping that with this album, my band, and this style of music is catapulted. I work my ass off at this every single day, but in total honesty I always question whether or not what I’m doing has value to other people and the music community. You of all people know how it is, that when you have an idea that really isn’t a thing before you venture into it, it’s easy to only see all the bad stuff and focus on the gaps between the progress. We haven’t done many concerts since our first album, mostly because I don’t want to ask my bandmembers to do something for free unless I absolutely need them to, but it’s hard to know exactly how something you’re doing is impacting people.

CR: Oh, I definitely relate to that.
AW: Exactly. I’m legitimately terrified that I’m going to spend all this money on the release show and the album if there’s not a demand for it. Most people who talk about RHP talk about it positively, but for all I know there’s a huge group of people who think RHP is ruining the french horn. I’ve never had someone openly write to me and say I really and truly hate your stuff--

CR: --if that ever happens you have to frame it *laughter*--
AW: --Oh, if it ever happens it’s absolutely going on the fridge. But for the record I absolutely welcome criticism. If that’s really how you feel or think there’s something I can do, then let’s talk about it.

CR: I’m glad you see it that way, that criticism is something to be embraced. I mean you’re not a student, you’re not learning the basics, so God forbid what you’re doing rubs someone the wrong way; that’s kind of the whole point. I was speaking to Jade Simmons about this, and she said, “if you’re not a worthy opponent, no one will think you’re worthy of being opposed.” Basically, do work that starts a conversation. So, the fact that you’re feeling this way is actually a good thing. It means you’re doing something worthwhile.
AW: That’s a great sentiment. It’s totally accurate, and that was my goal from the very beginning with Unbreakable, to push the boundaries of what the horn can do. I want to send a message to all classical musicians that if you have a unique skill you can offer to your instrument or your musical community, but you’re not doing it, you’re doing yourself and your community a disservice. 

CR: That’s really great, Adam. And you really do push the boundaries in Unbreakable. What I loved most when I listened to your album is that you seem to have a want and an ability to blend lots of differents styles. You have ballads, you have bluesy-funk vibes, jazz, I mean there are so many styles integrated into your album. As a horn player myself, I knew the horn was versatile, but man, some of the stuff you do is incredible! Not only does it encourage me to do challenge myself, but I just like the music. 
AW: Well, thank you. The tracks on Unbreakable were written with really clear intent, and though I never really want to write for an audience, in this particular instance what I wanted to do as a composer worked out really well for different types of musicians who potentially could be interested in this album, with a very diverse set of genres.

CR: My favorite track on your album is “Flying High”, but I see that you also have a track called “Unbreakable”. How is the title of this track and the title of your album related? 
AW: Well, I actually named the tune after the album instead of the other way around. Basically the album is about my time period when I quit music to when I started RHP. All of us at one point in life feel like we want to throw in the towel, but even in those breaking points, there are aspects of us that are unbreakable. I’ve gone through some really hard things in my life, some recent, some in the past, and the fact that I’m able to still go on with my day still surprises me. But, I feel that one of my defining unbreakable characteristic is that I will always fight for what I want; I cannot change that about myself, and quite frankly I don’t want to. Even if that rubs people the wrong way, I found my resilience in fighting the standards that I couldn’t fit into. So, in RHP and in “Unbreakable”, I want it to be representative of the power and strength of the unbreakable parts of me.

CR: That’s badass. Is “Unbreakable” your favorite track?
AW: It’s hard to say which one is my favorite. All of the tunes are reflections of my emotions from various points in my life, and there were many emotions. I think people will find that it doesn’t matter what mood they’re in, the album reflects all basic emotions. So, no matter what kind of day they’re having, something on this album will be relatable to them. 

CR: I definitely agree. I hope you’ll hear from people about their own unbreakable aspects of their being.
AW: Me too! Every now and then I get letters, notes or videos of people who share that with me. Recently I got a video of a horn player in South America who learned a hard RHP tune. They must have spent a ton of time on it, and I was so incredibly moved by that; that kid made my year.

CR: That’s great! Did you have any final statements you’d like to leave with readers? 
AW: Yes. The album is being released February 24th, and there’s a release party on March 3rd in Hollywood. If you’re not friends with me on Facebook, friend me on Facebook because that’s how you’re going to get the invite. But, other than that, I hope everyone digs Unbreakable; it’s a very vulnerable thing expressing yourself like this, but it’s something I’m ready to share with the world and see what the world thinks.

CR: Well, speaking for myself I love it. I won’t put words in your mouth, but from what I gather from our conversation, this is your way to make a contribution to music, to art and to the horn. Not only that, it’s something you’re genuinely passionate about and love to do.  
AW: Definitely. This is what I can offer to the music community, and no matter what happens from here on out, I at least believed in what I was doing and tried to break some barriers. 

CR: Thanks so much, Adam! Good luck with your new album, and I wish you all the best!
AW: Thank you, Carrie!