Atom and His Package
Punk Rock Your Grandma Should Love… and Your Friends Probably Hate
Christopher R. Weingarten
Adam Goren is distant.
Distant from his Philadelphia home, distant from his Florida destination, and emotionally distant, talking on his “fancy cell-phone ear-piece thingy” while blazing across the Georgia interstate. Goren talks in short bursts, drained after driving something like 18 hours in the last 30.
In addition to his exhausted state, his cell phone refuses to work properly, a product of the questionable reception found in The Middle Of Nowhere, Georgia. Goren attempts to talk about his favorite bicycle – probably in need of an oiled-chain after being in some nasty Philly weather. He’s seriously considering touring the country and playing his music, using his purple Italian two-wheeler as his only mode of transportation.
“The kind of equipment I have is not really that much,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be more than just getting a couple saddle bags and putting stuff in there and biking to the shows. That would be g-skzz-a-tick-ah. Oh skzz-ick-ick-ick-pt-pt-pt. I don’t know. Would grzz-skzz-azz-ick-pt-pt-pt.”
The cell phone sputters out into unintelligible ticks and buzzes. It’s funny that technology would rise up against poor Goren, considering his entire career is based on having a friendly working relationship with electronic doodads.
Goren is the “Atom” half of notorious synth-punk science project Atom and His Package. “His package” is a set of electronic music sequencers that provide the musical accompaniment for Atom’s oft-comical musings about cultural trends and suburban minutiae. His sound can be as carefree and fun as the best ’80s synth-pop, but by being a one-man-sequencer-punk-rock-band, many view him as a spit in the dour face of punk. He’s infamous for his unapologetic cheekiness – exemplified in outrageous tunes that rail against the English System of Measurement (“(Lord It’s Hard to Be Happy When You’re Not) Using the Metric System”), praise homosexual heavy metal gods for coming out of the closet (“Hats Off to Halford”), cautiously admit affection for new-age starlets (“Pumping Iron For Enya”), or pulse along as instrumentals but insist on being silly nonetheless (“Tim Allen is Not Very Funny”) – all in his trademark nasal whine that sounds like The Descendents’ Milo Aukerman fighting a Jewish Smurf.
The quirky Philadelphia punk was on tour in mid-January – a brief ten-day, seven show journey from Philly to Florida and back. His band? A CD player in a box. His vehicle? His mother’s beet-red Ford Explorer XLT. His tour companions? His grandmother and great-aunt Essie.
“They are two of my favorite people on the planet,” Goren said. They’re really fun, they’re very sweet. My verbal abilities are not enough to be able to sum up them in words that do them justice.”
Plus, they like his “band.”
“My grandmother just recently said, just after we listened to my CD, that mine was the best CD that we’ve listened to on the entire trip. I don’t know if she’s biased or not.” (This after subjecting gram to The Magnetic Fields, The Beatles, Fugazi, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, The Faint, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Laurie Anderson.)
Is Goren the most wholesome punk on earth? He drives cross-country with his maternal grandma, champions racial tolerance, is staunchly anti-littering, is a former camp counselor, holds a Master’s degree in education (and a Bachelor’s in neuroscience) and generally walks around with dorky black spectacles and a half-smile naturally formed by his puffy cheeks. Despite all this, he has drawn unbelievable amounts of ire from the punk community.
Goren’s wacky demeanor aside, in a scene built on stripped-down ideals, sequencers seem like a bourgeois transplant from the clinical disco songs that punk rock originally attempted to overthrow. Drum machines? Aren’t they the enemy?
“I understand the stuff that I do is not for everybody. I don’t do what I do for the sole reason of irritating people, but I understand why what I do is irritating to some people,” Goren says. “I get a lot of hate mail and I think most of the hate mail is pretty funny.”
Phrases like “gimmicky bullshit,” “insult to the punk rock community,” and “retarded Sesame Street music” are some more popular criticisms. (Jeez, kids. Learn some history. Trailblazing vocals-and-synth duo Suicide were embraced by the early New York punks, and Big Black loved their Roland drum machine so much they made him a member of the band!) Sometimes anti-Atom sentiments find themselves in e-mails, sometimes they are taken out as advertisements in fanzines that read “Fuck Atom and His Package … the jokes [sic] over funny man.” Sometimes they are screamed at him at shows.
“For the most part I can deal with heckling. And usually it’s really fun to have interaction, whether it’s positive or negative. It gives me something to do other than play the songs. I played one show with [cult-joke-rockers] Tenacious D in Philadelphia, where pretty much everybody there in the 700-person capacity hall was screaming at me. Lots of things that I can’t repeat right at this second,” says Goren, subconsciously watching his mouth in the presence of his grandma.
The road-weary Goren arrived in Gainesville on a humid Tuesday. After an oil change and some foreign potato-dumpling pasta that he had trouble pronouncing the name of, he drove to the Common Grounds in his mom’s mini-van.
“That’s it. Really stupid looking car,” Goren says, seemingly amazed that someone would be interested in seeing it. The crimson auto looked straight from the Pennsylvania suburbs: Soccer-mom sized trunk, CONSHOHOCKEN, PA license plate, a crow-bar shaped dent from a Philly hit-and-run and a thick layer of grime on the back window that a Tallahassee punkette named Gin used to scrawl her name and phone number with greasy fingers.
“It gets me where I need to be. And my mom lets me borrow it,” Goren says. “We have an extra car from when me and my brother and sister lived at home. This is the safer of the two and she would not ever dream of me going in the un-safer of the two cars.”
Of his mom, Goren says, “She’s the sweetest ever. She’s my favorite person on the planet.”
Add her to a short list that includes his grandmother, his girlfriend, his friend Martha, his late grandfather, and his “total sweetheart” of a pop. Seemingly a family-man in the middle of an occasionally nihilistic punk-rock scene, Goren isn’t modest about his love for his clan. Just don’t mistake his sincerity for sweetness.
“I enjoy my time with my grandmother and my great-aunt. They’re two fabulous people. I enjoy being with them,” says Goren, “so it doesn’t feel ‘sweet’ to me. So it’s not that I’m a family man, I just happen to be lucky enough that the people that are my relatives are people that I really care about and want to spend time with.”
Although he’s full of it, sincerity is not the emotion most associate with the man who’s latest album is audaciously/ironically called Redefining Music – and who penned “Sting Cannot Possibly Be the Same Guy Who Was in The Police” and “If You Own the Washington Redskins, You’re a Cock” (the latter actually a brilliant ode to racial sensitivity). So, of course, that night Goren was quick to show off his celebrated silliness. He answers insipid questions with perfectly wry answers, keeping the straightest face possible.
Something people might not know about you?
“Probably my rippling abdominal muscles.”
Any pre-show rituals?
“I usually meditate for a while.”
Goren crossed University Avenue to the Lil’ Champ Food Store for a snack.
“What type of treat do I want? Should I just get a holographic sticker?” he scoffs, eyeing a multi-hued sticker emblazoned with the phrase “Who’s Your Daddy?”
“These are 99 cents each? That’s bullshit.”
The terminally wacky Goren is unable to control himself from futzing around with the cheap gas station merchandise, ill-functional 8-ball fortune-telling devices, five-dollar “rock star” necklaces, beer cozies that read “I’m busy, you’re ugly,” and google-eyed stuffed “love bug” toys.
After deciding on a bag of Sun Chips and chocolate wafers (this from the guy who covered the Dead Milkmen classic “Nutrition”?), Goren grabbed his guitar stand from the back of his mom’s car.
And sitting there, anxiously waiting to join his partner on stage, was “the package” – looking like an ancient suitcase from a 1950’s science-fiction movie; replete with numerous levers bent in every which way, knobs twisting into oblivion, peeled labels, a perfectly militaristic line of screws as if off the side of 747, errant wires and meticulously placed lights.
“I’m not bringing it in tonight,” Goren says matter-of-factly. “I’m laaaaaazy!”
All these knobs? All these lights? You’re going to leave this in the back of your car? Um, what does it do, exactly?
“Nothing! It lights up and looks cool. That’s why I’m not bringing it in,” says Goren. “My friend made it to keep me from embarrassing myself. He made this where you can put the CDs so it looks like I’m doing something. But I’m not.
“The [original] package doesn’t really come anymore on these trips. I used to bring [music sequencers] to all the shows, but they’re really fragile and expensive, so I basically put everything from the sequencers onto a compact disc, which is really the same thing.”
The package did eventually emerge for the show (“I chickened out,” exclaimed Goren as he slinked through the stage door carrying the mysterious box).
After his perfomance, Goren described the show as “pretty sedate, but fun.”
Let’s not mince words here. The crowd was dead. The punk-rock fashion club was out in full-force, arms tightly folded, jeans meticulously faded. Very little dancing. Very little grinning.
Not to say that the crowd wasn’t replete with the heckling wise-asses Goren has come to expect.
“Can we turn the lights up? It’s just hard for me to see the amazingly complex things I’m doing up here. Like pressing the play button,” Goren jokes.
“Tell that one again,” screams a wiseacre from the depths of the crowd.
Ignoring him, Goren talks to the soundman, “It’s no big deal”
“I got a big deal!”
When performing, Goren bounces around gleefully and stares at the ceiling, singing, quite literally, over everybody’s heads. His little gut peeks out of his white shirt that is speckled with paint from a Philly house-repair project.
Meanwhile, diehard Atom fans applaud voraciously, hipsters shrug indifferently and wiseasses (probably fans themselves) quip relentlessly:
“Jokes are funny!”
“I got a boner!”
Goren loves it. In his Web journal, he describes the show as “okay, except awkwardly quiet except for some heckling, which was fun.”
Nothing fazes him. Earlier in the evening, staring at the brick exterior of the Common Grounds, plaintively eating a Sun Chip, Goren looked as happy as the proverbial clam. Overjoyed just to be there, just to be able to do exactly what he wants for a living.
“I’m very, very content with my life,” Goren said “I’m not at ease with the world. But I’m content with where I am in the world. I love what I do.”
I guess you can’t beat this, huh?
“Well, you could if you had a teleporting machine.”