The Mommyheads’ creator on Coming Into Beauty Re-entering College Radio Charts, Storefront Music
Formed in New York City, 90s indie pop-rock band The Mommyheads was the brainchild of Adam Cohen (who changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, Elk, to avoid confusion with Leonard Cohen). They played CBGBs as underage kids and went on to tour with the likes of Lisa Loeb and Man or Astroman? before disbanding in 1998, lost and unsure of their direction in a world lusting after a larger-than-life grunge scene.
However, after reforming in 2008, their music was once again revisited after college radio stations began wiping the dust off their 1992 release Coming into Beauty. In February 2021, the album reached #40 on Sub Modern and #67 on College Radio. This is a rarity, considering the band was, in a sense, forgotten in the abyss. However, when we spoke to Elk in his New York home over Zoom, the abyss was the furthest thing from his mind as we spoke about the past and present state of The Mommyheads and his commercial music business with John “Scrapper” Sneider, Storefront Music.
(Interview edited for clarity.)
First of all, tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from?
I grew up in Brooklyn, and I wanted to be a musician. I knew that I always wanted to be a musician. And I idolized late 70s, early 80s new wave pop bands. Uh, you know XTCs, the Squeezes…Tears for Fears and, you know, obviously The Beatles, The Kinks. The Who and all that. And I just always loved music. And I had a knack for songwriting. I always knew I wanted to be a songwriter. The problem with growing up in Coney Island…I couldn’t find any kids that liked what I liked. So I ended up going to [Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School], a famous school. You know that movie Fame?
Yeah! Irene Cara did the theme song to that movie!
I ended up meeting kids from all over the city, it was a magnet school. Sorta like a college for all the weird kids around the city. So I would travel an hour and a half to get there. My parents were like, “wow, he’s gonna travel three hours round trip…he really wants to do this.”
How did you get your start with The Mommyheads?
[LaGuardia] is where The Mommyheads started! [My band mates and I] were so inspired by each other. Just all the talent. And we were a high school band. We immediately started playing clubs. One of the main clubs was CBGBs. Back then it was a dive, you know? It was kinda like, when you walk in it’s so nasty you’re relaxed? You drop a beer, you can play out of tune a little…Concepts of worrying about analytics [and] followers, everything you say and how it’s gonna be taken. None of that existed at CBGBs. You were free of all that and you just got to play music. It didn’t haunt you ten years later when you went for a job interview…it was sort of a protected community. We asked Hilly, who was like our godfather…if he would do an underage show, and we felt like we helped him find a new audience.
What were some of the band’s highlights in your careers?
It was a Sunday at 3pm, which was unheard of, and [the venue] was filled with kids. High school kids. And that’s where we were like, “we love this,” you know? All the bands were friends. [Some] bands coming through, they were underage! Their dads [were] driving them, playing at 3pm. We had ska showcases, anti-racism showcases. And so [my band mates and I] made our first record that did sorta well in college. We did a little mini-tour, we were, like, 18. DC had a very thriving scene. You know Fugazi?
Oh yeah! I’ve heard of them.
Teen Beat records? Minor Threat? One of those labels was called Simple Machines. Jenny Toomey, she was like an activist. Most of the kids in DC were kids of diplomats, politicians, and people who worked in government. But they had an opinion about politics, so they were more worldly than the New York kids, [who were] more about drinking and rebelling, being cool artists. We got hooked into the DC scene and made our second record Coming In Beauty when we were 19 or 20. That’s what came out last month and charted in college! And I assume the reason is it sounds youthful. It still sounds fresh. Another reason we [remastered the record] 30 years later is ‘cause I saw a copy of it on Amazon for $903 and thought, “This is ridiculous.” It was a bad version.
Yeah, that’s crazy.
Then, we got tired of New York cause it was too grungy…a lot of crime. So we moved to San Francisco and joined that scene. We played with bands like Train…lived down a block from Jawbreaker and The Residents. And it was a great scene! We found Cake in a bar and [toured with them]. They were great guys! One of the best bands I’ve ever seen play live. We played with Robin Hitchcock, Alex Chilton from Big Star… [and toured] up and down the West Coast with The Posies. [Our] the third record was Flying Suit and that sorta did well in college. We always got a lot of press. The fourth record, Bingham’s Hole, which was produced by [Connecticut-based] Peter Katis. He produced Interpol, all The National records…he got a Grammy [writing for] Sting! We went to his basement in Greenwich and it was his first real production on his label. And that actually put us on the map. We ended up touring with Lisa Loeb nationally [and] toured Canada with a band called The Odds. If you were on the road, you’d play with us. And that led to being signed to [Geffen Records]. We got all this money and we [worked with] two A&R guys, one had Guns ‘N Roses and Weezer [while] the other guy had Counting Crows and Amy Mann. We made a record with Donald Was, who produced Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones. The engineer was Jim Scott, who [worked with] The Wallflowers and Tom Petty. We were on the fast track.
Definitely a lot to take in.
But we weren’t really that type of band. We were sort of a soft pop band , very sensitive. And so it imploded. We broke up in 1998. I tried a solo career on RCA for a minute. And then a record never came out because they imploded. Then Napster hit before digital streaming…labels panicked and dropped everyone except for, you know, big stars. And I got into writing for commercials pre-Storefront Music. For ten years, I wrote three commercials a day. I never had a “real” job, so this was a continuation of being a floating musician. But with writing music for commercials I can afford to have a family, a house, and two cars. And that’s the [end of the] first chapter.
The punk scene was incredible and you a lot of heavy-hitters on your resume. There was a lot of musical experimentation at that time and how do you think The Mommyheads stood apart?
We were always an outlier! Like, we didn’t have to try to stand apart. We just did. And, like, Coming into Beauty came out the same week as Nirvana’s Nevermind. And we just disappeared, in a sense, because grunge took over. We thought “oh, this is great” because we had just played with this group called Red House Painters. You know, they were awesome! We played with The Jayhawks in ‘91 for ten people in Minnesota. And then all of a sudden grunge hits, and we’re on the West Coast touring the Northwest and everyone [wanted] us to turn our amps up to ten. What set us apart was we were [already] set apart to our own detriment. The irony of all that is we sound more current now then most 90s bands. [But] there’s very few bands I remember in that scene aside from Real Estate, who were prog-ish, or The Posies, who were pop. Very few bands stood out in the grunge scene. And so that’s why we really only talk about Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden because they’re kind of only three that stood out. There were a lot of great bands happening, but we don’t remember them because they weren’t grunge. And so, we got lost.
Especially during this time where there’s so much going on in terms of music, people are moving back to organic forms and there’s a lot of 90s vibes going on. It’s in the clothes, the music, all that.
Before we could make it to the 2000s, I went to a convention and I was on a panel…John Vanderslice said, “Chris Wallace from Deathcamp wants to meet you.” He shook my hand and said “I appreciate you guys…please keep doing it.” It made me feel good because they were peaking at the time. He’s like “If only you had been around ten years later.” And that was a really nice conversation because it was like I was meeting someone who really was tapped in and knew what the kids of the 2000s wanted. I had no clue. But he was basically saying, “you actually do have a clue.” And to prove my point, a 30-year-old record goes to #67 on College? I don’t think our Geffen record made it there before they pulled us. Even when we were touring, I don’t think we cracked the Top 80. Right now we’re feeling really good! What’s keeping us young is the music. The art brings you back down to reality and says “You’re not dated, you’re not old.” It’s rejuvenating.
Apart from your career in The Mommyheads, which has been amazing, you also have a project called Storefront Music, which is based in New York. It’s a studio, I believe?
I’ll tell you all about it! So, I did the commercial writing for almost ten years and learned how to do it. A commercial comes in and they say they want it to sound something current, like a hip hop, rock, or rap track. And you just make [the commercial track] for a client. Like, a diaper or car commercial. It did keep me in the loop of what was happening currently. And, really, the whole gig is you have to be good at what you do. If you don’t know a style and you put your heart into it, maybe you’ll do a different version. I’m not a jazz player but I can team up with my partner, who is a jazz player, and together we can do a hybrid. It may not be classical jazz, but it’ll be something cool and fit the picture. To be honest, when I watched movies growing up, I never really listened to the music. I just knew emotionally it brought more. You listen to Star Wars films and the music’s incredible!
John Williams is a genius.
It’s like, why? He gives each person a theme. And so I learned more about that because I was a pure songwriter, meaning I was stuck with verse, chorus, verse chorus, middle eighth, back to the extended chorus, guitar solo maybe, and out. To go from songwriting, then, to a 30-second spot is not that hard. Like a pop song [but] it’s really quick.
Then, around 2012, I started my own place with [business partner John] and we’re opposites in terms of personality. If you’re starting a business, start with someone who compliments you. Like a marriage. You don’t need someone who’s identical; opposites are okay. But he’s is a jazz guy, an arranger. He riffs solos. There’s a whole different mindset musically, so we cover a lot of different things.
I know you mentioned you did some jingles and commercials. If possible, can you talk about some projects that made it to television? Movies?
Yeah! We’ve done thousands of commercials. We did the Smartwater “Water Cooler” spot. We did the Apple spot with Chris Rock. It starts to become mind-numbing, how many different spots we’ve done.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on right now? Obviously, COVID-19 has changed a lot of things in touring and hopefully we’ll get back to that soon.
In terms of Storefront, we’ve been working out of our basements. Because music is still integral to individuals, we seem to be trucking along. And, also, we get to hire musicians that are out of work, which is great. In terms of the Mommyheads , we’ve been busier than ever! We’re currently working on our thirteenth record and put it out in September. We just went to Q Division, where The Pixies and Aimee Mann recorded. We did a [live session] where we played all of our last record, The New Kings of Pop. It was our way of communicating [with fans] because we can’t go on tour. I and our bass player had COVID, but we’re over it. The other two guys got their shots, so we can get together, and that’s great. And I think we-I hope to inspire guys our age to keep doing what they love to do and not give up on it.
Stream Coming into Beauty on all streaming services. For more information about Storefront Music, visit their website.
The Mommyheads’ New Kings of Pop – Q Division Live Stream
Time Warner Commercial (featuring The Mommyheads)