Strangers You Know

by Dan MacIntosh

Strangers You Know is a Southern California act built upon Grady Lee's charismatic performance skills and Adam Haagen's multi-instrumental talents. Although "dance music" is a simplistic categorization for the music this duo creates, these two musicians can do pretty much anything they put their restless minds to. When they played Coachella in 2016, they brought up members of the UCLA Philharmonia to perform with them, and somehow this came as no big surprise.

We've had many songwriters take us through the process of creating a song, but never like this: These guys went step by step. All eight of them.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Adam, I notice you play a lot of different instruments on stage. You know, you can hire other musicians. [laughter]

Adam Haagen: It's funny because we started as a four or five-piece indie rock band. That's how we came together three years ago, and over time we evolved to where I write all the music and Grady adds vocals. So, over time it kind of became that outfit. From that, we went from small clubs in LA to bigger stages.

But we enjoy it. It kind of gives the opportunity and the freedom to do new stuff all the time, which is very important because we're mostly a studio band that writes and records together. So making music to perform live is a very big part. And, bringing in other artists, like the Philharmonic Orchestra.

Songfacts: That was really cool. What was the song you did with the Philharmonic?

Grady Lee: "Used."

Songfacts: And do you know the players?

Grady: I went to high school with one of the members.

Songfacts: As I was watching them play, they were really getting into it. As musicians, I imagine they're used to a lot of structure, without all that kind of freedom to express themselves.

Adam: As classically trained musicians, they're so technically established in what they play, it's amazing and phenomenal what they can do, and it takes so much time and effort and talent to do that. What we do is almost, I want to say opposite, but we're very creative in that we take liberties in creating new sounds and creating music from scratch.

Songfacts: Did you write out their parts?

Grady: They just took the melody line for the hook. It's a pop melody hook.

Adam: The main first chair violinist, Camille Miller, made a score for our record that she played on, but all the other players just came to perform live with us. All the harmonies and everything, we did live. It's all very unique to the live setting. It's very different. But I loved it.

Songfacts: I want to ask you about the song "Lightning" that you said you wrote in jail, but also said it's a long story.

Grady: You want to hear a long story?

Songfacts: Well, what you want to tell of it. This is not a confessional, so I'm not going to ask you to confess your sins.

Grady: I used a fake ID that wasn't me. I wasn't even drinking. I was just going to hang out with some friends. And the cops came. They were, like, "Hey, can we talk to you?" And I thought, "I'm not getting a $300 ticket," so I just ran. I hid for, like, 20 minutes and then I headed back to my car. I saw there were four cop cars right there, and I just kind of laughed. I spent the next 18 hours behind bars.

Songfacts: When you sang it, you closed your eyes. Was it a soul searching moment for you?

Grady: I called my mom from jail. And when you get a call from jail, the first thing it says when receiving it is, "This is a call from the county jail." So my mom knew, before I even said anything, where I was.

She picks up the phone, and my mom's the most incredible woman on the planet. She says, "You know I still love you." And I was, like, "Thank you. I'm fine."

I think that needed to happen at some point. I'm glad I've been through it. I guess it's a good scar to have. Scars are important.

Songfacts: As an artist, as a songwriter everything influences your art. Not that you want to go to jail, just for a song.

Grady: No.

Songfacts: What do you remember from that experience, as far as the people that you met. Was it bizarre?

Grady: Yeah. A lot of the guys were nuts. There was one kid that was just biking home and fell off his bike, and the officers just thought he was drunk, so they threw him in the car. He wasn't even on any drugs. And he was, like, fuming. He was so mad. A really normal kid. So we kind of bonded. But there were heroin addicts that were coming down and stuff. Gangsters that had apparently just killed somebody. It was gnarly.

Songfacts: You mentioned from the stage that you met Prince at Coachella. Everybody describes him as shy. What was your impression?

Grady: Yeah, he's eccentric. It's a really common thing for people that are on that wavelength to be kind of stuck within themselves because they're doing so much that is hard to articulate to the outside world and music was his outlet. He was one of those very rare souls that had so much that got discovered for good reason.

Adam: I've been reading tributes to Prince all week. He was a beautiful soul that did what I want to do as a musician. He would go into the studio and he was completely a maniac. He would do drums and everything. He's one of the few musicians that could go in and do everything, and it was so amazing what he did.

Grady: There was nobody else like him.

Songfacts: When you write songs, do you wonder if these songs will stand the test of time?

Grady: No. I'm not really considering where it will be. I'm always very aware of what kind of song it is, but it's never why I'm writing it. Sometimes it comes out, like, "Oh, it's relevant. That's something interesting. People will probably dig that."

Adam: You need to know that, at the end of the day, you've done well in making the song the best it can be. You never know what's going to take hold. The most ambiguous, out-there songs have become #1 singles, and some of the most heartfelt songs, some of my favorite songs, nobody knows. It's luck of the draw, but we try to portray our emotions in a way that we get out what we want to get out, whether it's popular or not.

Songfacts: You seemed like, from the stage, you were really concerned about how the audience felt. You really wanted them to have a good time.

Grady: For the majority of our time, we've been audience members. We weren't performers. So being an experienced concert-goer, it's easy to emphasize, having seen it from the other side. I like to imagine that, whatever I'm performing, I'm out there in the audience. Like, "How would I like this? How would I feel?" I try to cater to that as much as possible.

Songfacts: Since you collaborate, can you talk through the process of how you create songs?

Grady: Step one: Grady gets his heart broken. Step two: Grady wallows at two in the morning.

Adam: And sings me a song.

Grady: Step three: Adam likes it.

Adam: Step four: He rewrites the song. Step five: He gets it to me and I rewrite it a tiny bit and then we get into the studio. Step six: I get into the studio for days and make really weird sounds and try to make an arrangement. Step seven: He tells me he doesn't like my arrangement and we remake it. Step eight: We actually have a very fluid motion and it comes out in a very organic way. So we have, like, eight steps, and it's very natural.

August 15, 2016
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