The end of an affair, the start of a new life
Before they began playing together as the 1981, Adam Widener and Bobby Martinez collaborated on several other projects, including Circuits, a punky pop band.
“When we were doing Circuits, we never fit in to what was going on around us,” Martinez said of the collaboration. “We were too poppy to be punk, too scrappy to be indie and everyone else was doing a post-punk/art-punk thing. We were in our own little world. I remember being told by someone that we didn’t write ‘real’ songs. That irked me. If people saw us as goofy cartoon power-pop guys, I wanted the 1981 to prove that Adam and I can write and produce songs that have hooks and emotion. The most ‘fuck you’ thing I could think of was to compose catchy pop songs.”
For Move On, their debut album as the 1981, the duo does just that. Since they both play several instruments, they had a wide range of sounds to work with. The record plays like a suite, describing the path of a love affair, from infatuation to the parting of ways, with both partners promising to remain friends. With the exception of one song, “Empty Eyes,” the lyrics avoid using gender-specific pronouns.
Widener and Martinez wrote, recorded and produced most of the songs on Move On during the Covid shutdown, often collaborating without meeting in person. “Move On stands as a testament to the complexities of human emotions and how they change with the passage of time,” Widener said. “The songs describe the struggles of letting go and the strength needed to transcend difficult periods in our lives. Covid was hard for a lot of people, but the shutdown gave us time to write and record in long bursts of solitude. That may have influenced the songwriting quality. Personally, it gave me a chance to fall in love with the guitar again. For quite a few years, playing guitar was a means to an end. Once I had time on my hands, I was able to nerd out and discover things I’d never bothered to learn.”
“We wrote and arranged the songs as we were recording them,” he continued. “We didn’t have a band we could work on the songs with. That allowed us the freedom to not have any end date on the project. As the songs took shape, we wanted each one to inform the larger narrative. I slowly realized the songs centered around mental health and a deteriorating relationship. I stopped thinking of them as a collection of songs and more like a soap opera. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s not not autobiographical. I think everyone experiences frustration and turbulence in relationships. Everyone has had a relationship fall apart.”
Move On opens with “Capture My Condition.” The singer tries to recall the hazy events of last night’s romantic interlude, events still unclear due to an intake of intoxicants. A tranquil pulse of synthesizers plays of off the impressive vocal harmonies Widener sings on the chorus. “Nelson’s Camera” is a mid-tempo pop tune that celebrates the high of a new relationship. Chiming guitars and a bright bassline augment an uplifting chorus as Widener describes the lovers dancing on a table to celebrate their new love. “Moving On” closes the record on a hopeful note.
The duo had to move from place to place as the recording took shape. “We started out in a rehearsal space we shared with other bands, located above a drag bar in the Tenderloin called Aunt Charlie’s,” Martinez said. “We did vocal overdubs at Adam’s old Oakland apartment and finished it at his studio in West Oakland.”
Martinez continued, “I was in a car accident a while ago and severed a nerve in my left hand, so I couldn’t play chords. I gave away my guitar, but a friend brought me a microKorg synthesizer and told me I should learn how to play one-handed. That’s how I started playing keys, but mostly I explain my songs to Adam and direct traffic to get them where I want them to go.”
When the album was finished, they sent the tracks off to their old friend Matt Bullimore, in New Zealand, to be mixed. “Matt lived around the corner from me for years,” Martinez said. “His ear for music and his influence and encouragement made this record what it is. He can make things recorded in a little studio sound like they were done in a huge, expensive space. He found the right delays, reverb and compression to make Adam’s voice sound different on every track, so he could convey all the emotions we were writing about.”
Widener reflected on his experience of music, saying, “I look at the melody as another instrument. Music is therapeutic. I’m not good at expressing my emotions, but with a guitar or a song I can communicate them and that’s good enough for me.”
The tracks from Move On are available at the 1981’s website: www.the1981band.bandcamp.com