Electronic Hootenanny

Catching up with Owl City's one-man basement jam

It's easy to read too much into a song. In the video for Owl City's "Fireflies," there's an old Speak & Spell toy. It seems like it could be an homage to synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (OMD), who used the toy on their 1983 single "Genetic Engineering."

"I must be an idiot," confesses Adam Young who records as Owl City all by himself. "I have no idea what OMD is. I know who ODB from Wu-Tang Clan is, though. Does that count?"

Whether he knows his '80s synth-pop or not, Young has struck a chord with everyone from Gen Xers to the tween set. From humble beginnings in the small Minnesota town of Owatonna, he has built a 21st-century pop juggernaut — in the basement of his parent's home.

Young first started making music to counter his shyness, embarking on a flurry of creative activity while his folks were away for the weekend. "Wanting to be loud and make some noise and whatever, I began writing versions of what became my first self-released CD, Of June," he says. "I put it up on MySpace the following month and didn't tell anyone."

It caught on, and soon he had a fan base clamoring for more. He responded in March 2008 with Maybe I'm Dreaming. Owl City's major-label debut, Ocean Eyes, came out in July. Though Owl City have been compared to modern groups like the Postal Service, echoes of old-school Kraftwerk, New Order and OMD are evident too, even if Young doesn't know these techno-pop forefathers.

Young makes sure the songs stand on their own. "I start with music," he says. "I write the whole song instrumentally, then write lyrics and add vocals."

Indeed, his musical influences are largely instrumental acts like Unwed Sailor, the Field and Helios.

"I like writing on a whim and experimenting with sounds as I go," he says. "I think it allows for much greater creativity, and I love how a song rarely ends up the way I initially envisioned it. I'm a firm believer that music writes itself."

But Young says that Owl City won't always be limited to electronics. "I like the idea of mixing an acoustic guitar with a bent Furby or an electronic birthday card or something," says Young. "I also love the idea of using field recordings in music. There are so many sounds to be found, collected and altered. Sources of audio are endless."

For all the adoration Owl City have received, electronic music has had some difficulty earning respect. Young says it's just a matter of time.

"I think electronic music has become incredibly popular and respected by the masses compared to what it was in the past," says Young. "I think the quirky 'dreaminess' that often embodies electronica is what interests me the most and, as a solo artist, I feel it's a genre with endless possibilities because it relies so heavily on computers and hardware and circuits rather than other musicians. You can be an orchestra conductor without a symphony."

On tour, Young has some help from pals. "My friend Matt plays drums," he says. "Breanne plays piano, Hannah plays cello, Andy plays guitar and Laura plays violin. They're wonderful, and I wouldn't tour without them."

But being the only official member has its advantages, says Young. "There are no arguments, heated discussions or fist fights, and there never will be unless I become a schizophrenic."

Those who follow Owl City on Twitter may wonder if Young plans to branch out into comedy writing. Sample tweets: "Massage therapy is a touchy subject." "A man stole a case of soap from the corner store. The police said he made a clean getaway." and "Honeymoon salad is lettuce alone."

"I like puns," says Young. "People make fun of me. I still like puns."

[email protected]