Photo by Shawn Scallen
Every so often, in the small independent high school outside of Philadelphia where Adam Goren teaches physics and chemistry, a student will tell him they spotted his face on a sticker behind the bar on the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
“But I don’t think that’s true,” Goren tells me. “I’ve watched a lot of those episodes and I’ve never seen ’em.”
Before that, it was The O.C. “When I first started teaching, The O.C. was very popular and there was a poster on that,” he says, referring to the artwork for his 2003 album, Attention! Blah Blah Blah, which hung on the bedroom wall of Adam Brody’s character, Seth, alongside ones for Ben Folds Five and Rooney. “That bought me about 25 minutes of street cred with my students.”
He’s “Mr. Goren” in the classroom these days, but he once went by another name. In what seems like a lifetime ago, the now 41-year-old teacher was known in the punk community as the one-man band, Atom and His Package. Depending on whom you ask, Atom and His Package was either a brilliant and revolutionary project or it was completely fucking stupid and annoying. Goren, who is permanently smiling and shrugging, smiles and shrugs as he weighs in on this one afternoon on his spring break, totally perplexed as to why I asked him to look back on his musical career. “I don’t know!” he offers. “It just started as a joke!”
In the early 90s, when he was the same age as his students are now, Goren played in a punk band called Fracture with his buddies, and, like most high school bands, it eventually came to an end. Soon after, a friend gave him a musical sequencer, one he describes as being like a synthesizer and drum machine mixed together. This equipment, which he dubbed “the Package,” allowed him to overdub instruments, and write and record lo-fi songs. The result sounded like a punk band playing through an 8-bit Nintendo game, or alterna-rock for robots. In a way, the process of creating these songs was integral in helping him get over the breakup of Fracture. Almost accidentally, he started unleashing his music on an unsuspecting public.
“I have some close friends who were in a band called Franklin, and I ended up tagging along to a lot of their shows. I would write songs to annoy them,” he says. “They were like, ‘You should play these before we go on!’ So I started doing that every once in a while.” On Franklin tours, whenever the vibe felt like he would be well-received, or like he would go over terribly, he would warm up the crowd with a few songs. It was just him and the Package, standing on the floor in front of the stage performing like a one-man karaoke act. In his trademark ballcap and thick-framed glasses held on with a strap around the back of his head, he belted through his set with his high voice and off-key singing style. To quote the liner notes of his first seven-inch, if only two people showed up, he would play guitar. No one really knew what to make of him.
By 1996, at the age of 21, Goren was certified to teach high school but was turned off by student teaching experiences, so, armed with a handful of songs, he booked tours for himself up and down the East Coast under the Atom and His Package moniker. “Sometimes I could convince friends to come with me, but a lot of times, it was just me. I’d borrow my mom’s car—only the most punkest of cars: a bright red Ford Explorer,” he laughs. His musical career may have started as him avoiding adulthood, but from these tours, Atom and His Package started to catch on. People even started singing along.
Some of his songs were inside jokes. There was an ode to his friend Ralph featuring the chorus: “Happy birthday, Ralph, I love you! Even though you are fucking disgusting!” Another song, “Jenny S,” was a cutesy love letter for his then girlfriend, Jennifer Schumow. (“The thing that makes her perfect is that she’s even a Jew!”)
Various other characters made appearances in his songs, as did landmarks in his home of Philadelphia. Many songs were based around single issues, ranging from his love of Enya to the debunking of the conspiracy that Jews run the world, but all subjects were tackled with sharp humor. In “If You Own the Washington Redskins, You’re a Cock,” for example, Goren, a sports fanatic, critiqued the NFL team’s racist name and mascot, years before the topic hit the mainstream discussion.
One of his most well-known songs, “Punk Rock Academy,” took place in an imagined high school that catered to the misfits and weirdos instead of the jocks, a place where “there will never, ever be a physical education class.” The song is even funnier now in retrospect given that Goren is back in high school on the other side of the desk.
Perhaps most famously, his song “(Lord It’s Hard to Be Happy When You’re Not) Using the Metric System” was a plea for America to drop the English system of measurement. He even sold shirts with the slogan “GO METRIC NOW.” (Backside: “Stick your foot up your fucking ass.”)
But Atom and His Package was at its best when Goren was lampooning punk, hardcore, and metal scenes, calling them out on unchecked idiocy. In “Anarchy Means I Litter,” he fought against the uniformity of punk and the old gutterpunk trope which dictates that being punk is nothing more than throwing empty Olde English bottles on the ground. “Liberate that bottle of malt liquor! Oh, I get it. Anarchy means that you litter!”
In “Hats Off to Halford,” he commended Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford for coming out of the closet in a metal scene that has historically leaned homophobic, ending the song with the line: “I'd love for everyone in heavy metal to be homosexual, if not only to make those Nazi fucking pricks in Slayer a little uncomfortable.” I hold very dear in my heart the memory of seeing him perform this song for a handful of people, prompting the guy in front of me to turn to his friend and say, “Did he just say ‘Nazi fucking pricks in Slayer?’ Fuck this shit,” and walk away, never to return.
Things get really weird around the 1:00 mark.
While Goren’s ribbing was always funny and good-natured, he became divisive, like a punk rock centrifuge, separating the self-aware punks from the straight-up boneheads. “There would be some shows where people thought it was so annoying,” he says, citing instances where people booed him or tried to snatch his hat off his head, “but those shows kind of felt successful and fun!”
Sometimes Goren threw in chunks of a Misfits or Fugazi song and changed the words of the verse around. Purists didn't care for this, either.
“It was pretty amazing watching him open for bands like His Hero Is Gone and Spazz,” says Sean Agnew, who booked shows in Philadelphia for R5 Productions and often paid Goren 50 bucks to fill opening slots among heavy punk and hardcore bands. “That in itself is something that never happens anymore. I can’t imagine Adam playing shows like that in 2016. Bands are too stuck up!”
As Goren started amassing a fanbase, and graduating to headlining slots around the country, his critics only became more irritated. The longrunning punk zine Maximum Rocknroll refused to run ads for his early albums or consider them for review. He also started collecting the random hatemail he received at his Earthlink address and posting some on his website, which is still available in all its Web 1.0 glory. Here’s a great sample:
You are not anywhere near as clever as you think you are. and your songs are really annoying. come to think of it you are a complete fuckwit. you really fucking suck. …stop making music and be murdered by courtney love already."
“The hatemail and stuff always seemed unreasonable because no one was being forced to listen to me!” Goren laughs. “It just seemed like something that was so silly to be angry about in the scope of things people did at that time.”
Despite the naysayers, Atom and His Package inadvertently sparked a niche movement that continues to this day. Young musicians were inspired to substitute band members for sequencers, and embrace their inner geek. Goren made being uncool cool again. A 2009 tribute compilation called Up End Atom featured cover songs by 11 artists, most of them falling under the “nerdcore” tag, a synthesizer-heavy genre which Goren could arguably cited as the godfather of.
“I picked up a cheap punk comp that featured the track ‘Punk Rock Academy’ and was blown away by what I heard,” says Jason Knight, who covered Goren’s song “Me and My Black Metal Friends” on Up End Atom. “The kooky energy, song subject matter, and music he made was something new and different from what was happening around that time.” Knight emailed Goren to inquire about the Package. Goren responded and informed him that he uses a Yamaha QY700 Sequencer. Knight went out and bought one and has been doing one-man synth performance art with it under the name The Emotron ever since.
Kevin Steinhauser, who started a sequencer-based duo with his girlfriend called Math the Band, also featured on Up End Atom, cites Goren as an influence as well. “I love how he took what were essentially punk songs, and turned them on their head with unusual instrumentation,” he says. “Hearing Atom and His Package inspired me to take my bedroom recording project and play shows, and record albums.”
When I ask Goren if he’ll credit himself for having any lasting impact on music, he shakes his head before I can even get halfway through the question. “I was definitely not thoughtful enough to have any sort of capacity to do that,” he says. “I think that people find things to make it work. It’s not like I invented synthesizer music, I didn’t invent being snarky. To me, I would just not take credit for any of that.”
By 2003, after seven years, six albums, hundreds of shows, and countless humorless music fans annoyed, Goren was burned out. “Towards the end, it started to feel a little disingenuous,” he says. “Like I had to fake enthusiasm or engagement. I’d heard the songs so much that they stopped being songs to me. It was a thing I could totally ghost through. There were shows where I could rattle off the introduction, play the song, and then be like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t even paying attention.’ It felt like I was going through the motions, which felt crappy.”
On the same week that he was about to leave for a European tour, he got hit with a mixed bag of news. He found out that his wife, Jennifer Schumow (yes, he married her!), was pregnant, while he was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. He figured the responsible thing to do would be to get health insurance, so after the tour, he put the Package to rest and got a job teaching.
While he downplays any influence Atom and His Package had on music, he can look back on the songs he created with an appreciation. There are songs in his catalog that he hears and cringes, but he believes others still hold up, musically. He still enjoys the song about the Redskins and the one about Enya. He’s still downright emphatic about the one about the metric system. “I honestly think that that is the way to go!” he says, pounding his fist into his palm. “I’m totally puzzled that we’re still stuck in this system.”
I ask what the Package is up to lately and he seems stumped. “The Package… I think my friend Jeff has it? Or maybe my friend Mike? I felt like it would be put to good use, and I’m still holding out the hope that it will. All that stuff is so obsolete now,” he says of the technology. Goren doesn’t have as much time to devote to music anymore. He and Jennifer have two kids, Sam, 9, and Ruby, 12. Being a dad is more appealing than being a musician nowadays.
“I’m one of the most content people I know,” he says. “I’m happy to just hang around.” And with that, he’s off to enjoy the rest of the week with his family before returning to class on Monday as Mr. Goren, the suburban father of two who may or may not have changed punk.
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