Tiger Adams is taking a walk. He passes Otherlands Coffee Bar and continues down Cowden Avenue into a quiet neighborhood. It’s a Thursday afternoon and most residents are away at work. Walks like this are ritualistic for Adams. While writing Good Grief, the forthcoming Ep from China Gate, the band of which he fronts, Adams walked a lot. A tape recorder in hand, he’d unpack the ideas bouncing around his head. Later, he’d transcribe them into a coherent melody, his ruminations into cohesive lyrics.
“A lot of the lyrics have to do with turning the mundane and melancholic into something empowering and positive,” Adams says. “I think learning how to deal and address the bad parts in life made them both more real and also less real.”
In 2013, two years before China Gate would release their debut Ep Hunca Munca, Adams left Memphis to attend college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Anxiety and depression he prior experienced only intensified, growing into symptoms of hypochondria that led him to schedule regular doctor appointments.
“I was going once a week thinking I was dying of something new each time,” Adams says. “But in February of 2016 I got help with some mental problems I had been dealing with for as long as I can remember. I really started trying to get better for the first time. I found it a lot easier to work on songs when I wasn't worried if I was going to be alive the next day.”
Adams now rejects the idea that art must remain hopeless. If he was desperate for something in the events leading to Good Grief’s conception, it wasn’t to lose the battle, but to persevere with purpose to show for fighting it. Though he’d written two albums worth of material before seeking help, he scrapped it all and started again with a renewed perspective. The result is an empowering four tracks totaling a little more than 16 minutes.
“Writing Good Grief helped me compartmentalize what was going on in my life and turn my experiences into positivity,” Adams says.
Adams aside, the band is made of guitarist Walt Phelan, bassist Conner Booth, and brothers Harrison and Kyle Neblett on keys and drums. Adams began China Gate as a project with his former roommate while in Fayetteville. When he returned to Memphis, he reconnected with Phelan and Booth, who he had known since high school, and eventually recruited the Neblett brothers.
“I think having [them] in the band helped a lot,” Adams says. “Harry is definitely the most creative person I know and Kyle is definitely the best drummer I know. [Writing Good Grief] felt more like a team effort and I think it made the dynamics within the songs a bit more alive.”
China Gate’s sound is rooted in power-pop. They recorded Good Grief at Ardent Studios with engineer Mike Wilson, and the studio's discernible sound suits their songs well. But Big Star, a house band to Ardent if there ever was one, is perhaps too easy a comparison for China Gate's music. They’re more influenced by mid-2000’s Goner bands like The Barbaras and Magic Kids, a later-iteration of the former group. But their influences, conscious or sub-conscious, are vast. Each track is upbeat, riddled with solos and guitar parts pulled from Wilco’s playbook (a string section on title-track opener Good Grief particularly bears admiration of Wilco), keys and tamborines, and synth lines reminiscent of The Cure.
As they wrote the songs, even if he had an idea for the lyrics, Adams waited to finish them until his melodies were finalized and the instruments were tracked.
“I wanted to do the lyrics last and close together so they felt related and relevant to me when I was recording them,” he says.
On Good Grief, Adams doesn’t shy away from his insecurities (I only feel alive / when I remember one day I will die / I want to know how it ends) or try and prove he’s wise beyond his years (If you’re broken / I’ll be broken too / Just thinking we’re going through hell / But we hold on like a bored martyr / oh well). He approaches his adolescence, though, and his depression, with thoughtfulness (I know it’s bad tonight / but it’ll change one day / we’ll feel alright). It’s wisdom earned from patience.
“If you hear Good Grief and think it's an album celebrating or wallowing in sadness, you missed it,” Adams says. “I wanted to make something about overcoming that and a self-reminder of the dizzying excitement of being alive.”
And on that dizzying side of life, there’s the standing up and trying again. To lift a quote from the film It’s A Wonderful Life, of which track two of Good Grief borrows its name, Clarence says to George Bailey, “You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”
China Gate releases Good Grief on May 19th via Pizza Tape Records. Their release show is Thursday, May 18th at The Hi-Tone.