Ten years ago, he was alt-country's biggest star. Then he trashed his own career. But his latest album could be his best yet. Ryan Adams talks about tea and life in analogue
Ten years ago, he was alt-country's biggest star. Then he trashed his own career. But his latest album could be his best yet. Ryan Adams talks about tea and life in analogue
Ryan Adams would like to make something very clear. "I was never ever sat in a room in the dark, drooling, or whacked out alone for weeks at a time, shooting drugs," he says. "I never shot drugs intravenously. I never smoked crack. I was never on the street. I think really that stuff was very experimental for me: I was experimenting with my mind."
As Adams is painfully aware, he has a certain reputation. A decade ago, he was heralded as America's new country-rock superstar. His 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker – which followed four albums with the alt-country band Whiskeytown – was rapturously received and the follow-up, Gold, clocked up 400,000 sales and three Grammy nominations. He was hailed as "the new Gram Parsons", had Steve Earle and Bono praising him to the skies and was called "a brilliant songwriter" by Elton John. Then something went askew. Reviews and sales of his albums got worse. He started falling out with labels and mistrusting interviewers, and got a reputation for being a boozy, druggy brat.
That picture is difficult to square with the Adams of today. Looking younger than he did in his late 20s ("I wasn't happy"), the 36-year-old is friendly and enthusiastic, happily making tea and offering a whistlestop tour of his new Los Angeles Pax-Am studio, which he has built with old analogue equipment used in famous moments of pop history. He gleefully details the provenance of the equipment: a Motown recording console, a mixing desk used by the Beatles and the Doors, Elvis's engineer's old vocal mics. "And these," he beams, "are the speaker mains used on Master of Puppets!"
This is the environment that has produced Ashes & Fire, a new album of heartbreaking, beautiful songs that pick over the embers of his wilder life in a mood of becalmed, mature contentment – qualities that can spell trouble in music, but which here have produced possibly the album of his career. "I'm hearing that and it's shocking," he smiles. "But I'm glad that is translating. I'm having a nice time, and I had a nice time making the record." According to Adams, the legendary producer Glyn Johns took control, which allowed the singer to relax. He also renewed his long-term relationship with Johns' son Ethan (producer of Heartbreaker and Gold), who sent him Laura Marling's I Speak Because I Can, which he'd been working on. Hearing Marling offered Adams the challenge he needed. "I thought: 'For ****'s sake,'" Adams smiles, his piercing blue eyes peeking from behind a flop of raven hair. "I literally threw out 80% of what I had. And it felt good, to ask: 'What am I really capable of?' I felt competitive again to write great songs."
Ashes & Fire would have been impossible had Adams not been able to change his life. Five years ago he was diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a degenerative condition affecting hearing and balance. "All the stuff I was doing exacerbated the disease," he says. "You're not supposed to smoke, you're not supposed to drink alcohol, be stressed, eat salty foods." Anything else? "You're probably not supposed to do speedballs," he adds drily, referring to the cocktail of heroin and cocaine that killed John Belushi and River Phoenix, among others.
So his reputation wasn't unfounded?
"A lot was exaggerated," he says, handing me a brew and pointing out that "someone on a bender from hell all the time" could never have assembled his formidable back catalogue. "But I think I was really socially inept in a lot of ways," he adds, carefully. "Uncomfortable in my skin, and when I did interviews there were a lot of times that maybe I felt provoked. If I really was a bad dude, I don't think I would have kept some really great friendships and relationships for a long time. I don't think I was misunderstood – it was the way it was painted." He pauses, momentarily looking miles away. "Or maybe I really did change. It's hard to know."
Adams accepts his childhood in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was dysfunctional, though he won't share many details. His father left when he was five and he was raised by his grandparents, who introduced him to books and storytelling. Nevertheless, he was a loner with low self-esteem, who dropped out of school. "No different from a lot of people," he shrugs. "If you don't have an outlet you become a criminal, or misanthropic." That outlet arrived when he heard the Smiths' compilation album Hatful of Hollow: "To this day, the emotions I feel when I hear it are indescribable."
Seeking to pursue music, he left Jacksonville for the state capital, Raleigh, working as a plumber to fund gigs. Not everyone appreciated a young upstart with his head filled with Jack Kerouac and romantic visions of literary rock'n'roll. "One guy spat on me. He said: '**** you. You just wanna get a record deal and move out of this town.' I said, '****, yeah I do! What's the problem?'"
In 1994 he founded Whiskeytown, who were tipped to take alt country into the mainstream, and they got Adams out of Raleigh and north to New York. His temperament was already apparent – the Detroit Free Press described Whiskeytown as "half band, half soap opera" after a particularly gruesome Michigan show – and they fell apart in 2000. Then he split up with his girlfriend (commemorated on the track Amy on Heartbreaker): "She's gone, the cats were gone, my attorney comes to the apartment with 300 bucks left from my contract and says: 'You can't live here any more. You have to go back to North Carolina.' My buddy picked me up and I saw the city behind me getting smaller and it was like my dream was over."
His response was to record Heartbreaker, only for it to be rejected by the roots label Sugar Hill, before finally coming out on Bloodshot.
Heartbreaker was the breakthrough Adams had been seeking. Pitchfork's review called it "an album of astonishing musical proficiency, complete honesty and severe beauty", and a major label deal soon followed. The follow-up, Gold, struck paydirt, and the record company wanted to repeat the formula, but Adams went off in every direction over a series of albums – anything but radio-friendly rock. His label, Lost Highway, finally refused to release his Love is Hell album (it eventually snuck out as two EPs, before coming out as a full album) and his manager accused him of "biting the hand that feeds".
Adams disagrees. "I was an earnest young man who just wanted to make music. I couldn't understand why they wouldn't open the door."
Gold shipped 400,000 in the US alone; far more than his later records. Didn't he want to sell a million? "It would have been interesting," he admits. "The part of me that's missing self-respect would have thought: 'I am something.' But I don't write a song with that in mind. I write a song to be a better song – 200,000 sales is an honest living." He felt he was being sold to the world as "radio rock, **** Tom Petty", and resented it – and he resented the way some journalists seemed to have turned against him. Nor was he afraid of saying so, as a memorably abusive message left on the answering machine of US critic Jim DeRogatis showed. He became grumpy and defensive. "It was like 'Who does this kid **** think he is?' I remember those buttons being pressed all the time," he says of how the media began treating him.
Adams was already no stranger to drinking and partying – he could, he says, "go harder, and longer" than most people. But the Whiskeytown era's social drinking turned into self-medication, and he was visiting bars alone. "Because I'd been a lonely person all my life I'd go to these places in the evening. I liked the warmth of that environment, and everyone who had problems, they just disappeared."
The way he describes it – a book, a glass of bourbon – sounds idyllic. So how do you go from that to doing speedballs?
"I never drank during the day, or when I mowed the lawn," he deadpans. "But I couldn't drink unless I found cocaine, which is sad. Not huge quantities. I wasn't living Scarface. You'd do a bump on the edge of your hand and sit there telling stories." He's naturally hyperactive and taking drugs made him feel level-headed. "I should have been going up the walls, but I just felt normal."
Which sounds like addiction, but he disagrees, saying his drug use was only notable for a year or so, spanning 2005 and 2006, and "I was never overcome by heroin." There was opium, yes, but he insists that helped creatively.
"I fully understand when people say Edgar Allen Poe used to smoke this stuff and have visions," he says. "I wrote the entire song How Do You Keep Love Alive [on 2005's Cold Roses] without writing a word down, and I played it on piano. And I've tried to understand the chord pattern ever since, because I can't ****' play it." And whatever drugs he was taking, he jokes, he always sent Christmas cards and was able to go on dates. Even so, there's a tiny frown: "I don't know what toll it took upon my psyche."
And people around him? "I didn't know this at the time, but people have since said that they were certain I would die," he says. In fact, so notorious was his lifestyle that when he emerged on the other side, in 2007, the New York Times headlined an interview, "Ryan Adams Didn't Die."
He'd felt like a happy person, he says, until late 2005. "New York felt really cold. Some of my friends were gone. I had to cancel a whole tour. The night before I was supposed to go I was on mushrooms and I melted down. I couldn't sleep. I just couldn't face going." His band, the Cardinals, were falling apart; Ménière's disease was creeping in. "Bombs were going off, and as things were becoming broken, I couldn't fix them."
One night, Adams told the woman he was with at the time that he was going out one last night. "Which sounded like bullshit, but it was true." At 11.30pm, he called to say he was done. He doesn't pretend sobriety brought a great epiphany. In fact, he was "reacquainted with the disappointments of daily existence". Suddenly there was no "fantasy New York, no speeding down Sixth Avenue in the middle of the night seeing these amazing artists and transsexuals with hand guns, and bass players swingin' basses at guitar players onstage. See, most people deal with this shit and build their character. I'd been in a cocoon of art." What he did was start writing books, and tons of songs.
In what he calls a "figuring out" period, the Cardinals addressed drug abuse in the double album III/IV. "And guess what happened to it?" he erupts. "It got rejected!" He finally released it himself last year. Getting out of his old record contract felt "like a succubus had been removed from my chest".
He doesn't miss the mad times. "It feels so long ago, like it happened to a different person," he says, running a hand through that unruly hair. His only vices now are the tea and the Guardian crossword. When his grandmother died this year, he found himself "forgiving all the family stuff". And he's happily married, to singer-actor Mandy Moore. He says Ashes & Fire isn't all autobiographical, but coyly admits that I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say's beautiful line "When I met you the clouds inside me parted" is "not unrelatable".
In the album's sublime single Lucky Now, he quietly sings: "I don't remember, were we wild and young? All that faded into memory. I feel like somebody I don't know. Are we really who we used to be? Am I really who I was?"
Is Ryan Adams finally happy being Ryan Adams? "More than I've ever been," he answers, instantly. "I used to be panicked. Now I'm curious."
Ashes & Fire is released on Pax-Am/Sony on 10 October.
ONE afternoon, as Ryan Adams was recording his new album, “Easy Tiger” (Lost Highway), at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, the singer-songwriter Steve Earle dropped by to visit. Jimi Hendrix had built Electric Lady in the late 1960s, and Mr. Earle pointed out that “there are some good ghosts here.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Adams blithely responded. “There are the ghosts of about 45 speedballs from when I was recording here a year or two ago,” referring to a mixture of heroin and cocaine.
At once self-deprecating and self-mythologizing, the remark is characteristic of Mr. Adams, who is in the process of shoring up a career — and a life — that he had done his best to blow up. “There was intense loneliness, end-of-the-world stuff going on in my mind, bottomless depression,” he said, describing an extended period of substance abuse that ended a little over a year ago. “Without exaggerating, it is a miracle I did not die.
“I snorted heroin a lot — with coke. I did speedballs every day for years. And took pills. And then drank. And I don’t mean a little bit. I always outdid everybody.”
Among Mr. Adams’s friends, colleagues and fans the hope is that “Easy Tiger,” a title that speaks wryly for itself, will complete his restoration. It is focused — read: not insanely self-indulgent — in a way that recalls albums of his like “Heartbreaker” and “Gold,” high points in a catalog that defines the term checkered. In one among many orchestrated signs of Mr. Adams’s stature, Stephen King wrote the record company bio that will accompany the album’s release on June 26. Mr. King calls it “maybe the best Ryan Adams CD ever.”
The plan is for it to be his biggest seller as well. Mr. Adams is touring to promote it, and “Two,” which features a harmony vocal by Sheryl Crow, has been released as a single. Starbucks will carry “Easy Tiger,” and pre-order campaigns have been set up with iTunes, Amazon and other outlets. For an artist whose notoriety has far exceeded his sales to date, it’s a full-on marketing push.
Mr. Adams has also reunited with his former manager, John Silva, a veteran who has worked with the independent-minded likes of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. ”I just crawled back and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake, many mistakes — I don’t know what to do,’ ” Mr. Adams said.
“I got good advice on what tunes seemed to be working, and how to pace myself,” he said about Mr. Silva’s help in putting together “Easy Tiger” from the dozens of songs he was considering. “He led me to view that process as a type of discipline — like going to the gym or something. Focus. Work on one thing. Make the one thing really good.”
Meanwhile Mr. Adams’s contract with Lost Highway is coming to an end, and his erratic and willful ways, while enhancing his status as a cult figure, haven’t exactly made him an industry darling. Nor, for that matter, have his public denunciations of his label, which is generally known for being sympathetic to artists. In that context “Easy Tiger” is a virtual case study of Mr. Adams’s ability to make the sort of record that people once routinely expected of him: smart, accessible, fun, poignant and potentially commercial. It’s an advertisement for the once-unthinkable possibility that, at 32 and sober, Mr. Adams might finally have matured.
Luke Lewis, the chairman of the Nashville division of the Universal Music Group, of which Lost Highway is a part, seemed wistful as he pondered the departure of his old nemesis. “He’s like a kid to me,” Mr. Lewis said. “I’ve always loved him. We’ve had a couple of fights, and we’ve actually contrived a few fights, to be honest. It wasn’t lost on either of us that it’s not a bad thing for him to be the petulant child of a record label.”
So will he try to convince Mr. Adams to stay with Lost Highway? “If you love him, set him free,” Mr. Lewis said with a laugh that suggested a former partner who recalled the bad times as well as the good. “Do I want to stop being friendly with him? Never. Is he a valuable asset to a label? Yes, no question. Did we make money? Yes, both of us. I have no sour grapes about it at all.”
A native of Jacksonville, N.C., where he played in punk-rock bands as a teenager, Mr. Adams became an alt-country sensation with the group Whiskeytown in the mid-’90s. After going solo in 1999, he briefly flirted with “next big thing” status with the release of “Gold” in 2001 — on Sept. 11, to be exact. “Gold” coincidentally featured Mr. Adams posing in front of an American flag (albeit an upside-down one) as well as a rousing anthem to his adopted hometown, “New York, New York.” His irresistible optimism, energy and sheer talent provided a bracing tonic.
Then things began to get weird. He started making records at a blazing clip, at least by the rules of an industry that at the time preferred releases every two or three years. He put out at least an album a year — three in 2005 — and vilified Lost Highway for not releasing even more. Mr. Adams posted dozens of songs on his Web site, some ridiculous and some drawing comparisons to his best work. Whether he could tell the difference began to emerge as a question.
His official albums drew similarly polarized responses. “Heartbreaker” (2000), “Gold” (2001), “Cold Roses” (2005) and “Jacksonville City Nights” (2005) live up to his promise. His other four albums — “Demolition” (2002), “Rock N Roll” (2003), “Love Is Hell Pt. 1” (2003) and ”Pt. 2” (2004) and “29” (2005) — are mixed bags at best. “Gold,” his most commercially successful album, has sold fewer than 400,000 copies; “29,” his most recent, sold about 81,000.
More disturbing was Mr. Adams’s strange behavior. A heckler’s sarcastic request for the Canadian rocker Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ’69” at a Nashville show in 2002 incited an onstage meltdown. A negative concert review prompted Mr. Adams to leave a caustic message on a critic’s answering machine, which widely circulated on the Web. Mr. Adams’s shows took on a shambling quality that left many fans befuddled or angry. By the time he fell off a stage in Britain in 2004 and shattered his left wrist, both supporters and detractors began to worry about him. With good reason, as it turned out.
MR. ADAMS sat on a chair on the tar roof of Electric Lady, as traffic sounds blared from the street below. Wearing a red MTV T-shirt and torn jeans, he squinted in the sunshine as he struggled to recount his descent.
“My behavior was getting extreme,” he said, smoking an American Spirit. “I was running the risk of becoming one of those people who talks to himself all the time. I was about to walk over this line that there was no coming back from, and I could feel it. I was seeing ghosts and hearing stuff. Having horrible nightmares. I was creating as much distance from people as possible so that, in the event that something terrible happened, it wouldn’t hurt them.”
Mr. Lewis of Lost Highway worried that he was going to die. “I think anybody who knew him well and cared for him went there,” he said.
Mr. Adams said that people were imploring him to clean up. “I got a call one day from two people who have looked out for me for a long time,” he said. “They said, ‘We think you need to go away.’ I said: ‘Look, I can do this myself. And if I don’t succeed, I’ll agree to that.’ ”
So he did not enter a rehab program; instead he did a modified cold-turkey cure with the help of his girlfriend, Jessica Joffe, a writer who has also modeled, most notably in a prominent Banana Republic campaign. “I could have done it alone, but it would have been harder,” Mr. Adams said. “I got some valium, which sounds like cheating, but it really wasn’t.”
As the agony of withdrawal kicked in after a few days, he went out, got drunk and then called Ms. Joffe. She fetched him from the bar and brought him back to the apartment they share. “That was it,” Mr. Adams said. “That was the last time.” He now occasionally attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
With more than a year’s sobriety under his belt, a new album and an open road ahead of him in terms of how he chooses to release his music, Mr. Adams nonetheless continues to dream of a world better able to accommodate his particular brand of unfiltered creativity. It’s evident that a conventional record contract will never satisfy him. It’s even possible that he could end up epitomizing the recording artist of the future: making music available online at will, performing theater-size shows for a devoted core of fans and leaving it up to his audience to decide which of his songs they care to own.
“It’s not, like, ‘He’s over-prolific because he’s wasted,’ ” he explained. “No, man, you haven’t heard anything. You think that’s prolific? That’s just what trickled through. But that’s the whole thing. It’s a marketplace. I wish it was more like a museum of wack ideas.”
Those wack ideas were prominently on display at Electric Lady as Mr. Adams grew distracted while working on “Easy Tiger.”
“Obviously keeping up with him is a big part of the job,” said Jamie Candiloro, who produced the album. Mr. Adams was preparing to record his guitar part for “Locust Pocus,” a song he’d written minutes earlier for “Numb Chunks” (or maybe it’s “Gnome Chunks”?), a fake-metal album he’d conceived a few minutes before that.
Mr. Adams, Mr. Candiloro and the drummer Brad Pemberton had been listening to the background vocal Sheryl Crow had recorded for the ballad “Two.” Mr. Adams had first been enthusiastic and obsessive during the playback (“God, she can sing. Take my vocal down, and bring hers up”), then restless, then bored. As he listened over and over, he drew a caricature of himself holding an acoustic guitar and singing lyrics that parody the song’s aching chorus. The caption read, “Blah, blah, blah, whine, whine, whine/It takes two when it used to take one.”
It was midafternoon, at least two hours before rehearsals at another studio. By Mr. Adams’s standards, that’s easily enough time to get a couple of new songs written and recorded.
As Mr. Candiloro adjusted settings at the console, Mr. Adams stood at the microphone, played a blistering riff and screeched a placeholder vocal: “This is where the verse is gonna go/And it’s gonna be emo.” He came back into the control booth, wrote the song’s actual lyrics (“I am the wizard ... . The world is at your command”), recorded the vocal and the song was done. On to the next one: “Cobra Kadabra.”
A week after the conversation on the roof of Electric Lady, Mr. Adams vanished from a rehearsal minutes before a reporter was set to arrive for an interview. No one could locate him, and he never reappeared.
While par for the course a couple of years ago, this is precisely the sort of thing the new, improved Mr. Adams is supposed to have grown out of. A few days later at his apartment in a Greenwich Village brownstone, he is, if not apologetic, at least at pains to manufacture some sort of comprehensible excuse, an effort at which he pathetically fails. Yawning between manic bursts of words, he was clearly uncomfortable. “All these different lines of communication got messed up,” he said sheepishly.
When Ms. Joffe entered the room, he brightened. “I met someone who has become my closest friend,” he had said of her earlier. “She’s nothing like me — two different worlds. She’s a person rooted in reason. Imagine that. She’s very kind.” She said she had gotten sober a short time before Mr. Adams did. “It sounds so cheesy, but we have these miniature A.A. meetings with each other,” said Ms. Joffe, who agreed to discuss their relationship at his request.
In jeans and a black top that she fiddled with constantly, Ms. Joffe struggled in a perfectly enunciated British accent to find the terms in which to encapsulate their relationship. Mr. Adams, meanwhile, repeatedly left and re-entered the room, flattered and teased her and succeeded in derailing her train of thought.
“We went from being Sid and Nancy ...,” Ms. Joffe began at one point, alluding to one of punk’s most famous doomed couples.
“Not that cool,” Mr. Adams insisted.
“No, darling, not that cool,” Ms. Joffe agreed, laughing. “More like, a low-rent, mall version of Sid and Nancy. Or, like, romanticizing that sort of debauchery and excess. At least for me there was a weird aesthetic enjoyment of it. Then we flipped it over 180 degrees.”
Mr. Adams said: “We were holding each other together. Or should I say you got me through it? It was sweet, even though it was messed up. But we had skills.”
Ms. Joffe acknowledged, “Toward the end it was getting a little worrying.”
“Everybody says that!” Mr. Adams declared in cheerful frustration, the prospect of his own demise having become, at least for the moment, merely a punch line.
SourceFormer Whiskeytown frontman finds inspiration in heartbreak and Nashville Funny story . . . several months ago, Ryan Adams was in Philadelphia with a couple of friends, meeting up with a few other stragglers for dinner and an Oasis /Foo Fighters/Beck radio festival show. When it came up in conversation that Adams happened to play in a band called Whiskeytown , one member of the group lit up with recognition. "I've heard of them! Isn't your lead singer like, a tyrannical dick or something?"
The kicker being, of course, that Adams, as Whiskeytown's frontman, happened to be the "tyrant" in question. "That was pretty **** up," groans Adams looking back on the incident. Dave Grohl and Beck, both trying their hardest, would fail to serve up half as much delightful irony that night . . . Guess you had to be there.
Adams, however, is quite happy not being back there in that awkward moment, and twice as happy to be good and done with Whiskeytown, a band he swears he never wanted to be the leader of in the first place. "I kind of got thrown in the position of being the frontman of that band, and the original idea was for more of an Eagles-type thing where there would be shared songwriting and a shared spotlight," he says. "I never liked being the front person of that band -- it made me very uncomfortable -- but somebody had to do it or there would have been no band."
Now, as it happens, there is no band. Adams couldn't be happier, but a great many loyal Whiskeytown fans are no doubt bummed. Whiskeytown were never huge, mind you, but to the No Depression fanzine-buying alt-country community, it wasn't uncommon for the band to be compared to Nirvana , with Adams pegged as the genre's own Kurt Cobain, if not the second coming of Gram Parsons. But considering he was barely twenty-one when the group recorded its definitive album, 1997's Stranger's Almanac, Adams can't help but flinch a little when he looks back on the band's records.
"They're definitely juvenile," he says, though he allows that "they'll probably mean a lot to me later. But it's hard for me to go back to them now, because I'm so busy trying to get someplace new -- I can't worry about whether or not I left the coffee maker on in my last record and I'm going to burn down the house or not. **** it."
At the moment, "someplace new" means Adams' first solo venture, the just released Heartbreaker, and new digs in Nashville. Not the Nashville of conveyor-belt country Music Row fame, but its hipper underground cousin, a tight community of musicians and songwriters whose members include mavericks like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. Adams, a North Carolina native who had previously tried his luck in Austin and New York, is quick to call it the best music town he's ever lived in. Among the locals he was able to round up for his album: Gillian Welch, Kim Richey and the inimitable Emmylou Harris.
Heartbreaker was recorded in Nashville, but the seeds were planted in New York, which Adams left following the painful breakup that lies behind virtually every song on the album. "Ethan [Johns, producer] and I were really concerned about making sure that I didn't just end up making a record that was just a collection of the best songs I had written six months before going into the studio," explains Adams. "We wanted it to be thematic. So we only used things that I knew I was vibing on hard, and most of them dealt with leaving New York and my relationship. We knew we were going to be back in the studio at the end of the year, so there was no reason to blow that chance of being really honest and really real."
The result may well be the most obsessively mournful collection of songs since Chris Isaak's ache-fest Forever Blue, but it's not, Adams points out, without its moments of levity.
"What most people perceive of me now because of the last two [Whiskeytown] albums is that I'm a miserable **** . . . which I can be, a lot," he admits. "But I'm actually a pretty upbeat person outside of playing music. When I made Strangers Almanac, I feel like I was kind of a nanve person in the midst of lots of adult feelings, and I was in a space where I was feeling pretty crushed and a little lost. I think on this record I'm definitely talking about things that are miserable, but very real, that most people probably think about and consider, but the difference on this record is I think there's a little bit of humor in there -- you've just got to look for it."
Considerably closer to the surface of Heartbreaker are his influences, which he makes no apologies for. He admits a little surprise that people tend to peg Heartbreaker's raggle-taggle opener, "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," as more of a Dylan thing than the intended Exile on Main St. homage, but he's not about to complain. At least it proves he's got more crayons in his box than Gram Parsons and the Replacements, and the more influences, the better.
"I totally don't feel like not being influenced just for the sake of like, beating my guitar with a hacksaw and playing the Knitting Factory [a New York City club that showcases experimental music] once every two weeks," he says. "That's not important to me. I feel like those people handed me a map of what's the best music you could ever possibly make, and I just refuse to tear up the map just to go get lost in the woods for who knows how long. I'm really interested in trying to get to that same place, and maybe go down a different street."
For the near future, that map leads him back into the studio this fall to record his second solo album, which he says will be more of a band affair. Around the same time he expects to see a final Whiskeytown album (surprise!) released on a yet-to-be-determined label. That album, titled Pneumonia, was finished just before the group broke up, and Adams can't help but admit he's damn proud of it.
"It's actually not a miserable record at all," he says proudly. "I'd say it's kind of mystical, if that word doesn't come off as trite . . . It's going to be like my little dumb art-rock freak-out band's Third/Sister Lovers. It's perfect. Two pretty crappy records, and one really **** good one. Who knew?"
(September 15, 2000)
ANDERS: Where are you guys right now?
RYAN: We're in Pennsylvania, State College. We're getting ready to play here tonight; we came here last night to hang out. It's really pretty -- all the trees look like fireworks, different colors. It's really beautiful. I'm really, really stoked. I've never even seen Pennsylvania before, so I'm excited.
A: How have the shows been going with the new lineup?
R: The shows have been going really good. We've done three and one radio show. The third was at Irving Plaza in New York a couple nights ago. It went really good; I mean, it's been really laidback. It's different -- a lot of the songs are coming across different, but they're coming across so good. A lot of freedom in there.
Everybody's really happy; Caitlin's really happy. It's good to have Skillet around.
A: There was obviously a lot of tension before the breakup --
R: Oh, Jesus, man, it was **** immeasurable. It was really obvious to the point where people would talk about it to me; people would call and ask me about it. It must have been pretty visible, you know.
A: You and Phil have never made any secret of the fact that you weren't the greatest of friends --
R: No, I mean, look at the promo picture; we're looking away from each other! (laughs) I'm glad that was never made secret; I always try to be pretty up front and honest in interviews and talk about what was going on, and that's definitely gone on for awhile, you know.
A: So what finally happened? I mean, I don't know how much you care to say or is even relevant.
R: I've been kinda discreet about it. I think it's cooler to be that way about it. We just kinda came to the end of things. We tried to finish the first leg of the tour; me and Caitlin ended up doing the last couple of shows. Things just kind of came to a head and we both just decided that it would be better if we didn't work together for awhile. At least not hang around each other for a little while. He's got different things that he should probably be doing now, musically, and so do I, so ‹ he's gonna be just fine.
A: So you brought back (original member) Skillet (Gilmore) on drums --
A: -- you've got Ed Crawford on guitar --
A: And a couple of new people?
R: No, Mike Daly, who's been touring with us since the record came out, plays keyboards and lap steel. And then (new member) Jenni Snyder, she plays bass.
A: Is this a permanent lineup now?
R: Nobody's really made any -- we're just trying to take it a day at a time here. But everything's been really comfortable and really cool, everybody really digs playing with each other. But we figured it's better to take it a day at a time and go, "Hey, do you want to play?" "Yeah, sure," rather than -- it just seems a lot cooler that way, you know? It's easier to do things like that right now, especially given there's been so much freaking out going on with the band over the past couple of years.
A: You say that it's had a positive effect on the live show so far. What kind of effect do you think it will have in the long term? Will it make the creative process easier? Do you think it will effect the direction of the band? Or is it too early to say?
R: Well, it's a little too early to say, but we could all assume one thing or another about it. I think ‹ I haven't sat around considering it ‹ but I could only consider it having positive connotations for the musical development and the live development of the band, because, I mean, where's there's smoke, there's fire, and nobody wants to go on stage on fire, you know what I mean? Or go make a record with that. Basically what it does is it cuts the bullshit factor down about to 60% -- and I can tug a good 25 a night, you know?
But you know, it just kind of keeps things more even, I suppose.
A: You alluded to all that's gone on with the band in the last couple of years -- all the 'freaking out' going on. And it seems that there are a lot of pressures on the band and on you personally --
R: You got that right.
A: -- and lots of stress. You are a pretty young guy, no older than me; you are traveling all the time; and there are high expectations for you. What's your take on that?
R: My take is you're absolutely a hundred percent ****' right. Basically it's like this: It's like waking up with a hangover one day and someone's like, "Okay, here you go." This whole thing is just as **** baffling to me as it is to anybody else. I've been totally glad, a hundred percent excited and glad for it, but it really came out of the blue and it is a lot of pressure to put on anybody and I think that those pressures only help to create a weird, strange environment. I mean, with Skillet dropping out the way he did with Steve, our original bass player. I mean, Steve's original thing is that we didn;t work well together and he knew as well as I.
With all that kind of stuff there was a lot of pressure then, and it really hasn't subsided, it's just gotten more and more. You just try not to pay any attention to it, because if you think about it, then you're gonna **** drive yourself crazy. I like to look at it like this: The day that this isn't around anymore, you know, if one day this isn't cool and there is isn't any work for this band or whatever, I'll know that I can just go back to doing whatever the **** I was doing. Which was just being an utter loser anyway. (laughs)
A: So did you always want to be in a band since you were a kid?
R: I've always been in one since I was, like, 15. That's just always been the cool thing -- if you're not out skateboarding, what else you gonna do? You can't skateboard every day because it rains, so you start a band. And then you can't skateboard every day because you've got band practice, and then, next thing you know, I'm talking to you from Pennsylvania.
A: What was your development as you came into this band? I know that you didn't always play country-rock or alternative-country or whatever label you want to put on it. What was the path of your development before this band? For instance, I know that you played in punk bands.
R: It's really a lot of varied influences. I was always into loud records and I still buy loud records, I still have a lot of punk records or metal albums or whatever I want to buy that day. I suppose I sort of have never been obliged to not like a country record or a rock record. But I find it really alarming that when people listen to "Stranger's Almanac" or see our live show and still say 'country,' I'm like, "Really, I doubt it," because it's not. The American Music Club aren't a country band though they've stuck their fingers in that jar; they've played with that genre. We're just about songwriting, and to me, that's the thing.
I'm from a relatively southern state where there's a lot of southern things - things that are definitely not northern. And that's always been reflected in the way we've written songs. With Caitlin being into bluegrass and playing fiddle, we could write something that's a stripped-down rock song but once we put the fiddle on it -- and she and I are so into close-harmony singing -- that's what I think borrows from it.
It's really funny you say that, because The Village Voice, the last time we were there (last weekend), said something like, "The Old 97's and Whiskeytown are playing; you can be sure that they'll quit doing this (alt-country) as soon as it's not profitable."
A: I saw that. I saw that, Christgau wrote that.
R: Christgau -- is that a girl or a guy?
A: Robert Christgau.
R: Robert Christgau. What an asshole. I was very offended because I have been coming up to New York with my bands since I was 18, almost 19 years old. That's a good, almost, three-and-a-half years or longer. And we've been coming up three or four times a year, sometimes more. I mean, Whiskeytown went up there right after we recorded "Faithless Street," before it was even **** released. And that town, the audience in that town is huge for us. Different clubs, different people, and even different bands from there embrace us because we've always kind of come there on our own money. We never went up there to prove any point or to "Oh, bring the music to the big city," and then this **** Robert Christgau wants to act like, "Oh, we just blew into town last week with **** spurs on our boots and David Allan Coe is like some kind of godfather to us." And that guy can kiss my **** ass for writing that. He can **** with whoever he wants, but I hope that writers like that realize who they're **** with, because I pretty much feel like, yeah, he's a rock critic, you know, but I'm 22 and I'm in **** Whiskeytown and I've made two albums. They're talking about my album in Rolling Stone and he's the one dissing me in the **** Village Voice. People like that can kiss my ass.
I'm sorry, I had to vent. But I just like to be public about who I think is a **** idiot and that guy is. I just can't believe him.
A: Yeah, that comment doesn't show much knowledge of or respect for the music --
R: Or for the dedication, for the fact that I brought a band twice to goddamn Irving Plaza to play in front of almost a thousand people. You know what I mean? To say that if it wasn't profitable for me I wouldn't have come? It *wasn't* profitable for me. I went up there, losing money, because I liked the band and I wanted the band to play out. Shit, two shows in Irving Plaza and we get that kind of respect. That guy's just asking for a visit to his office.
A: And from his comment it's unclear whether he's even listened to a Old 97's or Whiskeytown record.
R: That's the other thing, the vagueness of his description. It's like, when does a music writer stop writing about music and start writing about politics? And what business is it of theirs to be involved? If they want to write about politics, go write about **** Bill Clinton, don't go writing about rock bands. Especially not with the -- it's really funny, I feel like I put so much of myself into this band every day of my life, almost all day of every day of my life, because I love it so much. And when I read stuff like that, it's infuriating. But it isn't infuriating because I think that that person's gonna influence people's decisions, it infuriates me because it's ignorant. And there's just no excuse for that kind of ignorance. Yuck.
A: What's your take on this whole 'alternative' or 'insurgent' country scene, and you and your band's place in it?
R: I actually like a lot of the bands, personally, that they're grouping into that category. What I do think, though, is that all the bands are extremely, extremely different.
A: Sure. A good example is right there - you and Old 97's.
R: There's a complete, perfect difference. They're Texas swing, sped up pretty fast with Beatlesque kinda riffs. That's my take on them; I don't really see any similarities. Our band's basis comes down to a more formulated rock'n'roll kinda aesthetic, or a Neil Young aesthetic. I'm really kinda proud of a lot of the records that have come out of that genre; I don't know if I want to only be a part of it, I'm not "pro-alternative-country," I'm sort of "pro band." I'm totally into a band that gets off and they're good. I'm like, "Wow." But that could mean that the Bad Brains could tour next year and I'm gonna go get off watching the Bad Brains. It doesn't matter to me if the guy's got a pedal steel or a flannel, it doesn't matter. But I think it's cool, you know, I think if any of the bands are inspiring anybody else to play music, then that's really cool.
It seems to me that there's an everyman-sensibility to a lot of the new bands that are out there. I think that's because, for a long time ‹ well, I'm 22; I'll be 23 any day now. But when I was first getting into records, whenever I was a teen or an early teen music buyer, I -- usually that's when people are gonna get inspired, inspired by records, at 13 or 14 -- the thing that I could embrace back then was punk rock, because to me that was more of a realistic music, I had more in common with it. It was sort of angry, it was a little bit disillusioned, but there was still beautiful things about it, you know. Whereas maybe a lot of the mainstream stuff ‹ I would go out and buy a Minor Threat record or a Sonic Youth record as opposed to a Thompson Twins record or a Poison record. Not to say that those bands didn't work hard or that those bands didn't spend a lot of time getting where they were going, but they just didn't have a lot of stuff that I could relate to.
So what happened eventually, that's what made me and people like Rhett Miller or even people like Jeff Tweedy or those guys want to write about that same type of stuff. Plus, those guys are from Illinois or St. Louis ‹ that whole area is completely -- we drove right next to Belleville where those cats are from and it looked like home to me, it looked like where I'm from. There wasn't any different ‹ you had your trucks parked, and vacant lots, and it didn't look like too big of a town but I'm sure you can get hold of some records there somewhere.
A: It's interesting you talk about that common experience, because recently I've talked about this issue with Cary Hudson of Blue Mountain --
R: I love Cary. He's so nice.
A: He is a great guy. He and Laurie both.
R: They're a total gas; I love hanging out with them.
A: So anyway, he and Brian Henneman and Jay Farrar and all these guys are coming from the same place: When they were kids, their parents listened to country music, so they were exposed to it and it was in their subconscious.
R: Yeah, and then you revolt against it when you're younger because it's what your parents listen to, but then you go back.
A: Right, you pick up punk ‹ Black Flag, Replacements, X, that kind of thing ‹ when you're 15, and then later you go back to what you're rooted in, which is country. And it seems like everybody in the scene is coming out of that experience.
R: Yeah, it's like that thing they say where "You can never go home again but you spend the whole rest of your life trying." Nobody ever talks about the second line of that. You can never go home again, but **** everybody tries. That's why you go back and start embracing things that you didn't necessarily dig at first.
Things that influence your life eventually influence your music. And I think that's more common than things that influence your music influencing your life.
A: So how does that ‹ life influencing music ‹ bear out for you? If that's true, what does it mean when you look at "Stranger's Almanac," a record full of really sad, disillusioned songs?
Do you write largely out of your own experience, as opposed to a more fictional approach?
R: Yeah, totally. But that stuff is there for anybody, even somebody who has a 'perfect life.' I suppose if you're observant as an artist, there's always the pleasure-pain principle. Well, pain is maybe the wrong word, but it always seems like, well, you can go through a whole day whistling, everything's perfect, you just had a great lunch, saw an old friend, but you're gonna remember about when that friend was having a tough time. Or you're gonna remember, "One time I was on this street and so and so got robbed." Those aren't necessarily pessimistic things I write about, just recognizable to me. I don't know, I suppose that maybe for some reason I am a little bit more involved with the disillusionment of things as opposed to just being content and happy. Now, I'm not saying I could never write a beautiful, happy record (saying) "I'm stoked, it's all good." But I guess it just depends ‹ I like to focus more on that type of stuff just because that's what moves me so hard musically. I don't know why, but there's just nothing ‹ it's almost fulfilling and moving to sit down and have a couple of beers and get a little bit lost in, like, part one of the George Jones compilation. You go, "God, man, there's something really beautiful about a sad song." I guess I always wanted to try to unlock that somehow.
A: And then there are songs here that can't be written out of a personal experience. Like "Houses On the Hill" -- you're telling a story.
R: Yeah, I'm being a storyteller in that song.
A: But to me, that's the most beautiful and sad song on the record.
R: You should hear the other (unreleased) ones, man. I love that. There's so many other little -- there's even stories that almost co-exist with that story as earlier stretches of those characters, or later ones.
I've always been into storytelling to some degree. My grandmother always gets tickled whenever she reads "People" or something and sees us in there, and she's like, "Oh, you're doing so good, I remember when you'd sit down and write stories and you'd tell me and your grandpa stories, and I always thought, 'Boy, he can really write.'" And I'd go, "Well, I got that stuff from you guys." She can never believe it.
It's really funny, she never actually sat down and wrote a fiction story on the typewriter or drew a picture out of her mind, but she ‹ my parents and my grandmother and my grandfather's lives, even to this day, were so enriched with local things, things that were happening to them, that, I suppose, because I had that little spark of wanting to be creative, I had everything I ever needed to learn right there in front of me, just things that were happening in my life.
So it just kinda carried over, you know. I'm just really lucky. I was really lucky to be as observant as I was, but I was also lucky to be around people that were that full of life.
A: Have your grandparents come out to see you play?
R: Well, my grandfather passed away. And my grandmother, she's getting old -- not incredibly old, but I can't just fly her into a gig. But I've played guitar for her and she listens to the records and stuff in her house.
A: I was in Chicago the other night and saw the Jayhawks. I was sitting up in the balcony and next to me, Gary Louris had his grandmother.
R: Wow. You know, he is one of the nicest fellas. I got to hang out with him; me and him and Alejandro Escovedo hung out for a good amount of time backstage at Al's SXSW show. I got to meet him, but I unfortunately spilled -- I dropped a beer.
It was really, really hot, as I remember, and I was trying to dress up for Al's show because he always tries to outdress me and he always wins. So I had on a suit jacket and I was a little bit hot. And I don't remember how it happened but I spilled the beer and it just about -- I think it pretty much half-doused his shoes and he had these really nice Italian loafers on. I was like, "Oh, man." But Gary was like, "Don't worry about it."
A: He's a dresser, too.
R: Oh man, he is so into it. He didn't used to be, but, damn, he got way into it, didn't he?
He makes such beautiful records. It's really funny; when I first met him he was quite certain that I made country-rock records ‹ which I did, and which I do when I want to. There's a lot of recordings, like I said, that haven't come out; there's a lot of different things I've done. But I was like, "Well, Gary, when your hear 'Stranger's' you'll know that (pop-rock) is not beyond me." And sure enough...
A: He's done the same thing, from the records he made with Mark Olson -- or even back to the band he was in before the Jayhawks, a band called Safety Last, that was just straight rockabilly. Then with the Jayhawks, the Bunkhouse record was pure honky-tonk, and then it was still very country-inflected all the way through "Tomorrow the Green Grass."
R: Their first record just blows my entire mind. The innocence there is just incredible.
A: Are you talking about "Bunkhouse" or "Blue Earth"?
R: "Blue Earth."
A: That is a great record. "Ain't No End" is one of my favorite songs.
R: I love "The Baltimore Sun." That's great.
A: Have you heard the new version of that song that they've been playing on this tour?
R: No, I haven't got to see them because we've been out so much.
A: It's kind of an AC/DC version.
A: They're doing the same thing with "Waiting For the Sun" -- they copped the riff out of "Back In Black" and worked it up in "Waiting For the Sun."
R: Oh my God, that's awesome. (laughs) We kinda did that for a while, the old cats -- Steve Terry and Phil and me, Chris Laney, Mike Daly and Caitlin -- somewhere in the original part of the tour things got really rocking, way rock. Because Steve Terry's a way rocking drummer, a great **** drummer. And things just got really kind of crazy, really rock. But right now they're going back to -- me and Ed have this guitar playing back and forth that is so similar and so cool, things are headed back to more of an organic, more direct, real honest-type stuff. We don't necessarily rock, and even when we do there's something real different about it because Skillet, he's more Ringo Starr, he's not John Bonham -- so it's really kinda goofy.
But everything seems to be coming together really cool. Everybody's really laidback and happy. And sometimes Skillet and I have to try to not be a fan to Ed too much because we loved his records with fIREHOSE so much. But that usually doesn't seep in, we usually just give him crap about it and go, "Oh ha ha." He gets a lot of flack.
A: He's been around the scene with you guys in North Carolina for a while now, right?
R: Oh yeah, see, his band Grand National was opening for Whiskeytown some. They opened our record release party at the Brewery, and we sold this place out and did a really great big show, and what do you know, next thing you know we're out on the road together.
A: What do you think of the future for Whiskeytown and Ryan Adams? I'll preface that by saying that it seems as though you and Old 97's have become kind of the standard-bearers of the younger set of the alternative-country movement, and there are high expectations for you. You're on a major label, etc. But then you look at other bands that have been doing this for a few years and haven't had much commercial success. So I guess what I'm asking is, as you look to the future, how important is commercial success? And how important is it to meet these high expectations?
R: What usually happens is that I try to stay interested on a really cool level, like, "Who wants to hear us where and where should we go play?" And I try to keep up with the label, because there is so much mutual respect and understanding between Outpost and myself and the band. So usually I try to look at it as taking it in really fair steps. And if things snowball and get bigger and really go crazy, I suppose I'm as ready for that as I am if it just stays a comfortable low.
I don't imagine that we would be the first ones (from the scene) to go over, but you can never tell about those things. They are a lot of, a lot of people put a lot of stuff on us, saying we're "gonna be the Nirvana of this," and all that crap. I just kinda laugh and go, "You're kidding me, right?" I just try to make sure the band is healthy and try not to look at it too far outside. I try not to read too much press on the band because it might freak me out. Like last night, we went to the bar where we're going to be playing -- and some really Grateful Dead-ish type local band was playing -- and I picked up some local magazine and we were on the cover so I just put it down. I go, "Oh, don't wanna see that."
A: Getting back to talking about influences, you mentioned Alejandro Escovedo. He's obviously an important figure ‹ he played on your record, you covered his song ("The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over"). What effect has he had on you and your band?
R: It's really funny, but it's like he -- I find a sense of heroism in him for being such an amazing songwriter and for hanging in there so long. He's had problems, his life has been less than -- I guess, a little less than turbulent -- but we just have this mutually protective kind of friendship, relationship, for music and ourselves. That's kind of come with time, and now I think we worry about each other about equally. I make sure that he's doing good and I love his kids to death, I love his wife to death, and as far as musically, it's really funny. We're always calling each other with these ideas. It kinda all stems from just opening a show for him one time and meeting him, and I think he really loved that I was really enthusiastic about music. And he's the kinda guy that is there to help people out -- that's a guy you can count on, you know, that's a real friend. Meeting someone that had really been around the block and had really seen it, could really help us get to the places we needed to go to -- I was always just really stoked about that.
A: So he has served as a mentor to you?
R: Yeah, uh-huh. But it's more like we're just straight friends now. It was alarming at first -- that's another biggie for me; I like meeting people that I imagined I'd have something in common with and then finding out that I do, you know, it's really quite cool.
A: How do you feel about the new record -- you're proud of it? Is this the record you set out to make?
R: Yeah, totally. Yeah. I couldn't be more proud. I'm proud of everybody, I'm proud of everything the band's done. I try to look at every change or everything that we do as an accomplishment, even if it isn't exactly the perfect -- even if the perfect thing doesn't always happen, it seems like the results are because we are hanging in there, we are making music, those records did get made -- and we've gone through tough times to make sure that happened.
A: What are some of your favorite songs on the record and why?
R: Let me think of what I love now. I love playing "Not Home Anymore" live now, because we've really taken the song and turned it into something just way intense.
I love "Losering" because I think it makes a beautiful statement with only about six words. I coulda put more extremely well-written, musically perfect songs on the record but decided not to because I was proud of the fact that there was finally some experimenting going on in the band. And "Losering" was one of them -- "Losering" was originally just about a six or seven-bar little hymn that I was writing, like Sun Ra or somebody might do -- like "A Love Supreme," you know, where they just mumble that in succession at the end of that Coltrane record? I kinda wanted to do something like that but maybe with an influence from the Byrds, you know. And I was really proud of that; I really thought that was amazing so I love listening to it.
I love listening to "Houses On the Hill." But my actual favorite from the whole album -- which doesn't get talked about a whole lot -- is "Somebody Remembers the Rose," which to me, I think it's my best song. Well, it was at the time; I've done better now with some stuff that will come out maybe on the next record that I've been working on, but I really felt like that summed up this whole situation I was in for a long time, and just beautifully.
A: There are some turns of phrase on this record that are amazing to me. For instance, you didn't mention "16 Days" --
R: Oh yeah, I love that one, too.
A: -- but that verse in there, "I got 16 Days, 15 of those are nights / can't sleep when the bedsheet fights / its way back to your side"; that's an awesome couplet.
R: That's totally about missing; that's when I was going through missing her. It wasn't even like an exhumation of the feelings I was having at the end of the relationship, it was more of an actual presence of her being gone. It was kind of strange.
The record kind of moves through different motifs of losses and it gives examples -- I don't think it actually gives any answers until the very end, which I think is quite nice, for an effect. At least for an emotional document of something.
But yeah, I totally agree. I'm as surprised as anyone, you know, when I hear I people and they know those lines. To me, they're just like these lines -- I don't ever really go, "Oh, that's my line," but sometimes I'll get to thinking about it when we're talking about it or something, and I'll go, "Damn, I did write that. That's pretty cool." But it's just so far from writing it now and I've just sung it so much that it's just part of my life, it isn't even something I have much time to reflect on, which is just crazy.
A: And now what direction are you thinking of heading for the next record?
R: Caitlin and I -- well, it'll definitely be everything we've learned from "Faithless Street" to "Stranger's Almanac." There's so much that we wrote in between that didn't make this record, so some of it will be on the next record. But Caitlin and I, our fascinations are turning strongly and swiftly back into actual straight country, into old-school country. And oddly enough. But there will be a lot of sweet country ballads -- we want to write perfect country songs for the record. But it'll be a mix -- there'll be rock too, more like "Faithless Street."
This is what I imagine: "Stranger's" was such an artistic document; "Faithless" was such an actual song-to-song document. I think the next record will take everything that we learned we could do on "Stranger's" and everything that we knew we could do on "Faithless Street" and it'll be like "Faithless Street" in that it'll be varied as hell -- rock songs and straight country songs. I just think the straight country songs will be much more beautiful and better. After writing things with her like "Houses on the Hill" and stuff, I can only imagine what those next songs will be like. I've been working on them, so I do have an idea, and they're good.
And the rock songs, too, I think, will be a lot stronger. I just feel like I'v got this sorta kick in my pants -- I'm not so down, I'm not too down to be able to really go and put a blistering track down here and there. But it'll be anything but loveless, that's for sure.
A: Sounds great. Listen, I don't want to end on a down note or anything that you'd rather not talk about, but you are coming back to Michigan for the first time (actually the second show but first trip) since the thing up at Mac's (in Lansing). So I just wondered if you had any comment to explain what happened up there, and also what you would say to someone who was there or someone who has only heard about that to convince them to come to the Ann Arbor show?
R: I wouldn't convince them to come, although if they were there, I would expect them to get a good show.
I suppose for a lot of those people, they went to see their favorite band and it turned into a band that they hated. Now, I can't blame them for that, but that was honestly one of the times when there was so much pressure on us as a band and on me -- pressure coming a lot from Phil, pressure from every end -- that I think that it used to get to be too much. There was no support system for anyone to not freak out and have weird times or problems.
They all thought, "Oh maybe he was drunk, maybe he was this, maybe he was that," but I was just at a point where I didn't know how to believe in myself that I knew how to do a good show because I had so many people telling me what it was I should be doing.
And what I've learned from that whole experience is that the more I'm listening and the more I'm thinking about what other people are expecting from me is the more I'm learning that I know how to do my business better than anybody. And that's just to go and play, and to go be comfortable.
And I just couldn't have been more uncomfortable that night and I don't know why, I don't know what was wrong, but I do know that I ended up making a farce of it. I put on this mascara and I went and I played and I couldn't have cared **** less that night, I was just like, "**** it."
But I went to the extent of sending those people letters and emails. I emailed people that were on the internet writing about it after finding out from my manager that there were names and places that I could get in touch with these people. And I wrote to them and I said, "You have every right to be pissed off and you have every right not to want to see our band." But they were talking about they were throwing out our records. And I was like, "Those records are still as good. You liked those, you embraced those records. But you went to see an actual live band, you went to see an actual real human being. In order to write those type of songs, I think you have to expect that there's gonna be somebody who's gonna be pretty true to how they feel when they're up there playing."
Bob Mould has been (through) a lot of things like that, and I've talked to him about it. He's had really bad times in his life; times when he just felt like a prostitute sometimes for it. Maybe it was just a night where he didn't feel like he could do those songs honestly again; he'd been doing them for two or three weeks in a cramped van with people he didn't necessarily like any more.
I have a lot of those same problems. And I don't know, there really isn't any excuse for that.
All I know is that a lot of those people, they don't believe me anymore, and I don't blame them. But maybe something good came out of all that. I don't know, I always try to think that something good came out of it. One of the things that was good that came out of it for me was, if I don't feel comfortable, I make sure I let somebody know ahead of time so that can change. Or if somebody else in the band doesn't feel comfortable and feels weird that we go and try to figure out what that problem is.
I think that bar just threatened me in general, and I know it's not a bad place to play and I know a lot of my friends have played there and even had good shows, like Backsliders and stuff. For some reason, I'm just -- I guess I was offended that I was seeing the Volebeats and there was TVs on and people were watching football and talking over them, and all these bright lights were on and they were serving food and stuff. And I was like, "This isn't a good place to see a band." It didn't feel like a place that people deserved to be seeing any of these bands and I kinda felt like the promoter was cheating the audience as much as us.
My intentions might have been to piss off the promoter and it ended up pissing off the audience. But I never told the audience to **** off. I actually told one guy in the audience, in particular, who is a radio guy up there who I know because my manager knows him pretty good and he knows who he is. And I told him to **** off because he was busting Caitlin out, that's why. And it was in front of a lot of people, so I don't know how they took it, as if it was pointed to them.
That whole situation was just so messy. I heard they go, "**** rock star." I read an article that was written up there that was called "I Hate Rock Stars." This guy wrote about the whole event and stuff. But so do I, you know what I mean, and that's why I did that. If I'd have been a rock star, I'd have gone up there and played **** Skid Row covers and told everyone to **** off. I kinda felt like, if I'd have been a rock star, I'd have finished the **** set. But I didn't, I didn't even feel like a person, I felt like a caged animal in a corner of a room, with little crappy speakers I couldn't hear myself sing in. I thought, "I'm just up here like an animal. If I can't be up here getting off and hearing myself and having a decent time singing, then I don't know how they can." But apparently they were having a good enough time -- I miscalculated and I misjudged that, I don't know.
But it's, there isn't enough **** confessional booths between here and there and enough Catholic churches where I can get rid of that. It's a blemish.
A: I think it's just something to learn from and move on. I wasn't there personally, but I know people who were there and I know people who saw you in Pontiac the next night and thought you did an amazing show.
R: And for whatever talk there might be of how mature I am at 22 or how good I am at handling things, people have to remember that, with that, there does come mistakes. I am not perfect. I don't know the ins and outs of all this. It takes me a long time to learn how to be comfortable in my situation. But like I say, I'll take it or leave it at the end of every day if I realize that it just didn't work -- if I didn't get off musically the way the music turned me on, then I don't feel like I have anything better to do then than run away from that situation. Because wherever that dishonesty lies, those feelings or whatever those situations were that ever made this band a bad band or ever made me feel like I wasn't holding up to what it was that I did have to offer, then I always felt like I did have to walk out of those places. There's just some places that you just shouldn't dwell.
Thank God the Replacements didn't come through that night, somehow in a time machine, on their '84 tour, and they'd have gotten a lot worse.
But just tell those cats that were there that I'm dead sorry. And I'm dead serious, I don't blame them. But I just can't tell you, when you're doing a band like this, how many people start coming around and getting involved, people that you never needed before to pick up your guitar and play it, people that never needed to do this kind of stuff. Some of those people are gone now; some of those people are right and I was taking them the wrong way. And I just couldn't be sorrier, I could never be sorrier for playing a bad show for somebody that paid money to go see something that they believed in and then, there it is, I'm not even believing in myself. Those are the bad days; those are the bummer days. That's what makes next records, I suppose.
A: Well, I've never seen you guys before and I'm looking forward to the chance on Saturday.
R: Believe it or not, we're **** looking forward to it, too!
The Billboard Q&A: Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams' music is often overshadowed by his eccentric behavior and the pure volume of his recorded output. But on "Cardinology," released Oct. 28 via Lost Highway, his songs are the real story, not Adams himself.
In fact, the artist is so happy with the evolution of his band the Cardinals during the course of five albums in the past three years that he says he'd be content if his name was dropped entirely from the packaging. "The stuff we do communally is 10 times better than the stuff I come up with," he says.
Adams may be overstating things a little, and such comments should be taken with a grain of salt from a guy who moments earlier was going off on a tangent about '80s pop metal. But there's no question the camaraderie he shares with guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Brad Pemberton, pedal steel player Jon Graboff and bassist Chris Feinstein has helped him create one of the most focused albums of his career.
Adams' newfound clarity is music to the ears of Lost Highway chairman Luke Lewis. "He's acting grown-up right now," he says with a laugh. "I kind of miss the petulant child occasionally."
"Cardinology" fulfills Adams' deal with Lost Highway, and Lewis is somewhat wistful about the likely end of his often rocky working relationship with the artist. The pair fought frequently over how much music Adams could -- or should -- release. Through it all, though, Lewis remained the musician's "biggest fan."
"We took some pretty harsh criticism for putting out so much music, but we could have put out more," he says. (In 2009, Lost Highway will issue an Adams anthology featuring several new songs.) "As much as we've tried to accommodate him by putting out a lot of records, a major-label deal is probably a bit restrictive for Ryan. My sense is he'd be better served by being independent, and by that I mean totally independent."
You seem to be more comfortable with the Cardinals than in any prior incarnation. What do they bring to the table and how do they help you feel confident?
Ryan Adams: They just make me feel more confident, I guess. I've known Brad for like nine years. We've been best friends, except for this one year-and-a-half where we didn't talk anymore. We had one of those old lady fights. I've known Neal for 11 years. We wanted to play together, but we're both Scorpios, so we had to work out some of that stuff. I'm a little brain dead today. I'm still recovering (from the flu) and I'm not quite well. So sorry. I'm a little scattered.
Hey, if Def Leppard started a cooking school they'd be Chef Leppard. You should say that in Billboard. Chef Leppard. Pasta mania! You know, "Pyromania" is such a good record. What the ****. Even the cover is stupid good. I mean, where is our Def Leppards and stuff? I understand that there's no White Lions, because, like, White Lion was specific to that time period. And I understand why there's no Tesla, because Tesla were downplaying the big thing, you know? But I guess Tesla are back, right? Did you hear the new Xasthur album, "Defective Epitaph?" It's so brutal. It's still really good.
Def Leppard have a new album, too..
Def Leppard do have a new record?
Yeah, but there's a Tim McGraw duet on it.
A Tim McGraw duet? That guy. He covered one of my tunes, "When the Stars Go Blue." He famously said in a quote, "I don't know what the hell it's about, but we were just really kicking that day." If he only knew what the song was about though (laughs) ...
Did you work on this batch of material all together?
It's the way like any band works. Some of them are collective, some are brought in skeletal and some are brought in and I think they're done. But when I bring them to the band the arrangements always ultimately totally change, and usually for the better, because I make odd choices for placement. But then when those things change, the words change. Sometimes how things will be sung too, because it's all about the harmonies. This record, I had gone through a really heavy ... I had like post-traumatic stress disorder and I basically needed to work some of that out. The guys threw me 40 to 50% of the lyrical stuff. There's a lot of mixed stuff in there.
We did a really great record that sounds totally like the Cardinals. It's pretty much live on the floor. I think we did it in a really brave way. We did it raw and like we were doing a gig. We kind of knew the songs from rehearsal. But I was sort of under this contract with Lost Highway Records as a solo artist, and we basically had to do our last little compromises in how to throw it, you know? But after this, shit's going to get weird and awesome. Because we're into bands like Oasis and Foo Fighters: big, monolithic rock bands who really explore all those areas. That's what Cardinals is. That's what it is to me. That's the work I want to do. I kind of feel like my phase, the Ryan Adams phase of my life in terms of my name being on a record, has mellowed for me right now. That's really not on my mind. When I say my band, I mean like the band I'm in; the gang I'm in. The stuff we do communally is 10 times better than the stuff I come up with.
When you work up an old song, do you feel like it's a different song now with the Cardinals' touch on it?
I do. I do feel like we're celebrating an old song by making it new with the Cardinals. But also what we're doing is saying, hey, here's the song Joe wanted to hear. Say goodbye! There's no chains on the machine now. We're going to kick it out and it's going to be louder and more rock, and much more sophisticated than anybody probably expects. A lot of our work, song-wise, has been done in the lab. We haven't really exposed that yet. We know what our thing is going to be now.
What have you added back into the live rotation?
I think we recently added 45 songs back in. We have "the blueprint" and "the menu" and "the master list." The master, master list is too long to even explain. It's really ridiculous. We kind of have knowledge of every song, but we've moved things to the forefront that not only are melodically strong but just work all the way around. We're getting a handle on some of Neal's stuff. By the time we come around next time, it won't be weird for people to see total duets, complete split-up vocals or three-part stuff.
Also, the changing instruments thing really works for us. We all play several different things and are really digging on that. Neal and I both mess around with piano and keyboards, but Neal is an accomplished player and I play like a cat fell across the keyboard and ran. The black keys; the minors. I can still yank a tune out but when I take it to the jam it gets a bit canned for me. I think that would really come around.
Can I request some stuff from "Rock'N'Roll" when you get to New York?
"Rock'N'Roll." Last night I was bored and I recorded an acoustic version of that entire album. I'm not kidding. I got bored and sat around with my acoustic guitar and recorded the album front-to-back on Garageband.
Man, put that on your blog.
No way. I'm not putting that on my blog.
I want to hear it.
Yeah, well? I did it just to see if the songs are any good. "Wish You Were Here" done like James Taylor-style is really, really good. I remember when I made that record. It was really awesome. The record label was really happy with it. I got a couple of really funny one-liners in there. And then we got to put out "Love Is Hell," which is cool, because they thought that record was morbid, which it was. I was probably listening to too much Jesus & Mary Chain. But I really felt like Lost Highway got their money's worth on that record and "Love Is Hell."
[b]How do you wind up grouping songs into an album track list when there are so many to choose from?
We don't make those decisions. I'm not part of that process. The band might be. We have a kick-ass manager and a lot of trust going there; they know better than we do. Instead of making dinner, we make a buffet, and we let them pick what they think should be dinner the next night. We make a sampler, taster menu, and they pick what they want for Thanksgiving.
I think it's way cooler that way. It's not weighing in. I have zero to do with the track listing. When the movie wraps, I walk. Because I come up with a lot of skeletal ideas, it wouldn't then be fair for me to say, this has to go or this can't go. That's not diplomatic or democratic. That's not how bands work. I do my part and I trust. It's going to sound weird, but I like playing just about anything. So I don't really have to pick.
I'm afraid I have to go. Do you think Billboard is going to be okay now that the recording industry is shot to hell? Hang in there, and remember, Les Paul copies only cost $60 to $100 so you can start rocking any time. Big props to Billboard magazine. I don't understand how you work or anything like that or what it means, but Neal and me and Brad say hi. We're going to jam now.
Ryan Adams has declared that it’s over – he’s retiring from music. Or, so the new reports have said…
“Of course I have been taken completely out of context…again,” complains the darling of alt-country. “I’m not quitting music. It said in my original blog – and I don’t blog at that original site any more – that I was looking for something a bit quieter and a new structure.”
So, in effect, Adams has not quit music, or retired, or anything like that – instead he’s simply decided that the time is right to disband the Cardinals, a band that he’s been playing with for several years now, and will soon embark upon a tour in Australia with him.
It’s not for no reason, or a simple whim, that he wants, or needs – as he says – to do this, but instead because of a serious concern that he has with a debilitating problem with his inner ear, meaning that he struggles with his balance, with hearing himself on stage, or with performing in the guise of a loud and brazenly up-front rock – œn roll band. Writing in a blog on January 14, 2009, he announced that the March 20, 2009 show in Atlanta would be the band’s swansong, due in part to his being diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, a disorder of the inner ear that usually involves the sufferer having progressive hearing loss.
“I think change is good,” he affirms. “I’ve been changing a lot, and my lifestyle has changed a lot and the band and I have different ideas about what makes us happy – and I mean on a personal level. On a musical level I can’t stay in the Cardinals where it’s kind of solo and it’s kind of not; it’s too hard for me. It’s worse than when it was just my own name.”
Two years ago, however, things were very different. At that time Ryan was complaining that his band wasn’t getting enough recognition given their contribution to his sound, and that – in an ideal situation – he would have liked to remove his name entirely from the billboards, and simply appear as the Cardinals.
“That’s exactly how I feel. It’s not about projection it’s about being challenged – I want to be in a band,” he says, “and I want to play guitar and sing but I want someone on the other side of that to be either playing guitar and singing or playing bass and singing who has as many songs as I do that go on the record, or we totally harmonise completely.
“When I say a band,” he continues, “I don’t want to just pretend and be on a stage, but I want to sit in a room and collaborate with people on a deep level and feel challenged, and feel like I’m on the end of as many ideas as I’m exuding to the point where people – and I mean the press – doesn’t understand it to be a record that I made. The only review I’ve read of Cardinology in Rolling Stone [where it garnered a glowing 4-star review] talked about the record as though it was a solo album, as they it was a construct of mine. And I realised there was no way forward for me here, and I don’t want to continue.”
Ryan clearly feels under attack by both his fans and the media and very much like he can’t win. Criticised in 2005 for making three records in the same year – double album Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Night, both billed as Ryan Adams and the Cardinals releases, and the sombre 29 – he also feels just as pilloried when he holds back, and only releases an album every couple of years, with Easy Tiger coming in 2007 (and credited as a solo album) and Cardinology following it up in 2008 under the billing with the band.
“What the **** is wrong with being inspired?” Ryan asks. “I don’t want to play this game anymore. I think I might be best as a motivational writer with other people, or as the bass player or the drummer in a band. I know I have stage-fright now; I’ve done the therapy. I’m sure you understand the perceptions of who it is that I’m supposed to be, and can you imagine what it’s like to deal with that perception of who you are when everybody knows that 50-70% of what is said and written about a person isn’t true? Especially in entertainment; it’s just part of the game, and it’s not fun.”
Yet, having been creative for such a long time in the musical field, it’s hard to imagine that Adams will simply stop expressing himself. Indeed, he confirms that he’s got a second book – a follow-up to his debut, Infinity Blues, due in 2009 – finished, and that ”...there are other musical things that I can do where I don’t have to be a person of speculation. There are other ways to make music where it doesn’t hurt my ears so bad because I am SO DEAF.”
Adams expresses no regrets, however, in channelling his creativity into music.
“I understand sociology and the rule of the mob and I understand trends I know what it’s like to have your character publicly assassinated when all you’ve done is sung a sad song and someone yells at the stage for forty-five minutes. I understand how juvenile and cruel people can be, and how kind people can be – I’ve seen both. I’m not tooting my own horn here, but I’ve more than done my share of the work. I believed in rock – œn roll to the point where I did it so hard it started to destroy my simplest physical abilities. I think I’m more than justified and entitled to step back, and even walk away if I decide.”
Ryan Adams must go through pens like a pay phone goes through change. The guy just won't stop writing.
His latest album, "Demolition," is a collection of tracks culled from more than 60 songs the singer/songwriter wrote over the last year.
Recorded at different times, in different studios and with different musicians, this follow-up to 2001's "Gold" includes a mix of intimate ballads and up-tempo rock numbers.
TMR caught up with Adams on tour to get the scoop on the North Carolinian's latest offering. Find out what Adams plans to do next, why he ended up in a Gap commercial, and why he's winning praise from Oasis' Noel Gallagher:
TMR: Tell us about "Demolition."
Adams: "Demolition" came about totally by accident. Some of it are the demos for "Gold" (my last record), some of it are just recordings I made for fun, and then there's a session I did in Stockholm ... It's a taste of these different things at once, and to me they all seem to fit together.
I like the fact that it's not so self-serious, this record. It actually goes from being terribly self-serious, to terribly self-effacing or just funny. That isn't something I've done on solo records, or any record before, is be funny or coy.
TMR: Which song most reflects your coyness?
Adams: I think the fact I just released the record shows that I have a sense of humor. I could have taken a vacation. Ah well.
TMR: Tell me about the first single off the album.
Adams: The first single is called "Nuclear." I guess it's Brit pop for Americans. I don't know what it is, really, but the lyrics are funny. There's actually a really funny line in it that says, "I saw her and the Yankees lost to the Braves." If you're from Atlanta, that's not a very nice thing to say. It's sort of referring to the fact that the Braves never win.
TMR: How do you approach writing a song?
Adams: I write in any capacity, in any way. There's not one way. Sometimes it's just written down on a napkin, like a song will come to me and I'll write it down on a bar napkin or at a restaurant. Other times it'll just be a guitar riff forever and eventually words will be befitting of it. Sometimes I really want to write a song because I'm really mad or upset or happy or enthralled or I've been inspired by another musician.
For me writing is not a chore. I like it like a tennis player likes to play tennis, or a mountain climber likes to climb mountains, or a drug addict likes to do drugs, or a policeman likes to catch crooks.
TMR: How did you feel when The Corrs and Bono covered your "Gold" track, "When The Stars Go Blue?"
Adams: They covered it on their own. I didn't even know. No one even told me it was going to happen. Apparently, as I understand it, Bono walked in and said "this is a song we're going to duet." He wanted to do it.
The other day I went and bought my first TV. I was in Circuit City in Union Square, and I go to purchase the television and that video comes on of them playing that song. I look at the Circuit City clerk and I say, "They're playing my song," and he goes, "Yeah man, whatever. Just give me your credit card." He thought that I meant they're playing my song, like, when you have a song at the prom. He thought that "When The Stars Go Blue" was it. The guy for two seconds didn't know who I was and I thought to myself, "This is an excellent, excellent job. I have managed to have no one know who I am after seven years."
TMR: Is it frustrating not getting a lot of radio play?
Adams: No, I don't care. My ambition is strictly artistic. It's not my job to care about who's listening to it on the radio. And I don't listen to a lot of radio.
TMR: When TMR interviewed Noel Gallagher from Oasis a few months ago, he told us that he once heard you do a cover of "Wonderwall." He said he was so impressed with how you performed it that he went backstage after the show and told you you could have the song.
Adams: Yeah! I was on the other end of that when he said that to me and I just nearly fainted because they're my favorite band! To me Oasis is my favorite living rock and roll band; they're like my Beatles. I've been a huge Oasis fanatic forever and I kept hearing that they were going to come to gigs and they never did and then, finally, one of Noel's band's, Proud Mary, were opening for me for some dates in England, and there he was!
TMR: Why did you do the Gap commercial?
Adams: I did the Gap ad, because who says no to $30,000 an hour? I don't! I'm sorry if that's selling out, so be it. Yes, I sell out. I do Gap ads so that I don't have to work in a factory. Also, I don't mind their clothes.
But maybe the No. 1 main reason is because Willie was doing it and I was supposed to do it with him, and you don't say no to Willie Nelson.
TMR: What's next? Are you doing another album?
Adams: I've finished. It's done.
TMR: Care to tell us anything about it?
Adams: Just wait. It will be out around March.
After spending the first decade of his career as either the most promising singer-songwriter of his generation, or a braying jackass too wrapped up in himself, depending on who was passing judgment, Ryan Adams briefly became a pop-culture punchline, mocked for his prolific output and hard-partying lifestyle. Over the last couple of years, Adams has quietly reformed. Since assembling his touring band, The Cardinals, Adams has re-dedicated himself to his craft, writing and recording hooky, rootsy albums that are more calmly assured than obnoxiously virtuosic. The latest, Easy Tiger, brings Adams' pop side more to the surface, while still ambling behind the bright, clear path of his familiar folk-country muse. Adams recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his process and his philosophy, and why he'd rather be a professional musician than a plumber—or maybe even a rock star.
The A.V. Club: Your last several records have all had a certain stylistic unity, but Easy Tiger isn't as clearly defined. What's behind the change in approach?
Ryan Adams: I don't think there was a whole lot of pre-planning in terms of what the theme would be this time. Some of these songs were from a while ago, and when I said to the guys in the band, "Hey, I'm going to do this solo record, and I don't really know what I want to do," they made suggestions like, "Hey, I've always dug this song, but you never finished it. Why don't we work on this?" So some of it happened in a song-by-song, nurturing way.
When I start working on a batch of tunes—like roughly 10 solid tunes—I always know there'll be another 10 to follow, because for every song I invest a lot of time in, there's another song waiting behind it. I won't even know the name yet. It could be something I've written down on the back of the lyrics to another song, or it could be a riff that didn't quite fit into the one I'm working on. So I always know to save space at the session for 10 more. This time, when we finished, I literally handed all of them over to my manager and said "I don't really know what to do with this."
The only real concept of this record was complete and utter collaboration. It was me asking for assistance, and finding out what really was affecting the people around me. I've gotten to a place where I still love to play and sing, but I don't have any ego agenda left, outside of just wanting to stay in a creative place and play music. I much prefer to sing for somebody else, and to somebody else. So I opened the decisions up to the rest of the guys in the band, and it's funny, they all really liked, more or less, about the same 10 to 13 tunes. And three or four of them, I was like, "You're joking!"
AVC: Can you name one?
RA: "Pearls On A String." That one was just for me and the fellows in the control room, while we worked on something else. I had the first couple of lines of the song written down, but it wasn't really anything yet. And I think Neal Casal picked up my banjo, which we had around because I wanted to repeat a trick that I used way back on "Come Pick Me Up." I planned to do sort of a three-string arpeggiated drone, with the banjo in one speaker and the guitar in the other doing a melodic reflection of the banjo's notes. It's kind of a Southern version of a Johnny Marr trick. I wanted to do that on "The Sun Also Sets," I think. So the banjo was already there, and Neal started playing something. And I was looking at these lyrics I'd scribbled down, just one or two lines with an ink pen at the end of a typed-out page. And I guess [producer] Jamie [Candiloro] recorded it.
So when that was on the list of what everybody was into, I was like, "You're joking." But it stayed. I actually fought against that tune. I was like, "I just don't think it belongs on there." But I wanted to include everyone in the process, and some people said, "You can't take that off, I **** look forward to that tune." So I was like, "Oh God, okay!"
AVC: Do you generally feel like you have a good sense of what your best work is? Because obviously you have fans who love songs that you've recorded but never released.
RA: At this point, I would say that I definitely don't know. I used to think I did. A lot of the songs I write are like songs that I've never been able to find on any record, but that I've always wanted to hear. Or maybe in a style I already loved, but I was looking for something in it that I wasn't hearing yet. So this sound would kind of be in my mind, and I'd have to write it out or record it so that I'd have a record of it, and it could help me get more into the music. I like things that reach a little further and are a little more abstract, but I don't think that's what I do naturally well. How I write naturally is probably what's furthest from me, and the most removed from what I understand. With this record, these are the songs that really stood out for people around me that love my music, that are close to it, and that I respect. I think I got the picture for the first time. I think I understood that it was those songs that happen by accident when I'm not thinking that people like best. So I'm probably not a very good judge. But I like the irony of it.
I also have a little bit of a rough time listening to my own voice on records. In the past, I've been very into trying to obscure my vocals with a lot of reverb or delay or harmonies or double-tracking. For any producer I've ever worked with, their toughest job is to convince me to not to obscure my vocals. A lot of people don't like the sound of their own voice on, like, cassette tape or something. It's like that for me, and other songwriters I know. Like, "Oh God, that's what I sound like?"
AVC: Given Easy Tiger's collaborative nature, why did you decide to make it a solo record and not another Cardinals record?
RA: Collaboration has become really integral to my process. I play music so that I can spend time with my friends and communicate in that way. I experience so much joy in that process, because, you know, it's those times of getting together and playing music and all that comes with it that are the best for me.
But the idea of this record really came first. I did something kind of grown-up this time. I got on the phone with the president of my label and I said, "Obviously, I write songs in a lot of styles and play a lot of different kinds of music. We're getting toward the end of our business collaboration. If you could envision a record that you wanted to hear from me, what kind of record would it be?" It wasn't like asking him to fill an order, it was really just a conversation. For all the things I'd ever asked him, this was one thing I'd never asked, and I don't know why. So I was curious. And the thing that he was most interested in hearing was a solo record. Not necessarily me with an acoustic guitar—though that did come up—but a record that reminded him more of the fellow he met when I first came around.
So I asked the guys, "What do you think about this?" And they all were really behind it. Everybody in the band. I wouldn't have made it if the band didn't want to back it, because The Cardinals, that's my focus. Those guys, they were amazing about it. They wanted to know what that record would sound like too.
It's really very easy for me to be in The Cardinals, because I bring my voice, my guitar, and my songs to them, and then we all play around to find out what works. Sometimes a whole, elaborate guitar riff will happen, and we'll go off and see what's living there. Sometimes a musical passage will give way to some song, or Neal will tell a joke and I'll like the punchline, and that'll sound like a good chorus. So that's a Cardinals record. But this kind of record, I didn't know how to find. It was very strange. And it ended up being even more collaborative than just being with the band.
AVC: You said earlier that you write and record songs to understand other styles, and because you hear a new sound in your head. How does that work exactly?
RA: Well, sometimes when I'm playing music, it's because there's a song that I'm imagining. From playing music so much, and playing guitar as much as I have, or piano, it's very easy for me to, in a daydream-type state, just sitting around, I can picture, or I can sort of… [Sighs.] This is going to sound crazy, but I can hear music in my head. I can imagine a piano or a guitar playing, and I can sort of think out… I don't know, the way you can close your eyes and envision parts of movies, maybe? That's normal, right? You can imagine several scenes from Star Wars? The way they looked? For me, that's how music is. Sometimes I'll be developing riffs for songs, just while I'm sitting around and not playing. Or I'll be humming something—not really humming, but in my mind I'll be humming—and I'll realize that it isn't anything I've heard. It isn't something from a record. And I'll really like it, and I'll not want it to go away, so I'll sit down and physically find a guitar or piano and play it once. That's the way to ground it, to bring it into the world so that it doesn't go away. There'll be a melody in there, but I won't necessarily know all the words. Sometimes the words happen too. But sometimes it'll just be the melody with a few words sticking out.
It sounds like I'm channeling or something, and I don't really fully understand what it is. I'll get a piece of paper and write down what I think is coming to me. And I'll play it once. Whether it's being recorded or not, I can then usually remember it for a sometimes shocking amount of time.
Sometimes an idea from six years ago will come to me out of the blue. And maybe I haven't even seen the lyrics I wrote down, but I'll just have this physical memory of having written it, and in my mind I can see the piece of paper, and the words I wrote down, and then by muscle memory, I'll remember the chords that go along with it.
I can sort of will that stuff to happen to me if I put myself in the right headspace. Then I can actually get to a space where it won't just be one song that comes through, but a series of them. If the other guys are around, they're used to it enough where sometimes three to seven songs will happen over a five- or six-hour period. They'll either be in a rough state, or sometimes they'll get fully developed in that moment.
AVC: As a case in point, what about "Two Hearts" from Easy Tiger? That song feels really full, with a memorable melody and lots of changes, and you even throw in a little falsetto at the end. How much do you tinker with a song like that? Or does it sort of come in a piece, up to and including the falsetto?
RA: That one actually is a weird, weird tune. Because it was one that kind of happened to me, and it's had a really strange sort of life. It came around, and I was super-happy with it and proud of it, but then I let it go for a while because it felt too obvious. And then it came around again a couple months later, and I used to play it for people, but I wouldn't play it live. I played it for the band, and they all liked it. It was one of those tunes where if I was just dicking around with the guitar, it just kind of came up again and again. The band got really familiar with it from hearing me dicking around, so it all fell into place.
But because it came so easy, it felt really impossible to try to capture it on tape. It just never felt right, because it wasn't off-the-cuff enough. And the version that Jamie and I ended up using is one that I don't even recall us doing. I think he asked for it in the middle of a track with five or six other songs, so it would happen in a one-take type of situation, where I wasn't thinking about the vocals. So we got one that was really unminded. But I still don't know about that song. What is that song? I get suspicious of the ones that are easy. I always think that I didn't work hard enough, and it can't be good if I didn't labor over it.
AVC: Some people think everything you do comes easy, since you record and release so many albums in such a short amount of time. You've frequently been called undisciplined.
RA: Yeah, I think that the actual discipline is being able to get myself into this kind of open creative space, where I can allow things to come through, and that I don't then mismanage it. I don't want to stay on one thing to the point where I exhaust its possibilities, so that it sounds emotionally exhausted, or like there isn't any excitement in the playing. Because I think that music, or at least the kind of music that I make, benefits greatly from improvisation. I like the idea that within the structure of the song, some kind of built-in improvisation keeps them fragile and in their moment, so that I'm not projecting so much, so that my perception of the song doesn't interfere with what its real body is. Sometimes it's like telling a story that I heard in passing, and I don't want it to become completely mine.
Maybe a good example would be like a Woody Allen movie. He can be telling a story in first person, but it's sort of implied that it's not about Woody Allen in his actual life, like he actually lived the story of Manhattan or Broadway Danny Rose. So I always have to remember that I am the narrator, but it doesn't have to be about me. A lot of songwriting is about trying to use what part of me is valid in telling the story. I don't want to overcook it, you know? Sometimes it seems that's really where the work is.
And of course, the other part of the work is being open enough, and being with musicians who are equally open enough to know that whatever little parts of songs are coming through can be put together in a real peaceful way, so as not to upset the flow and create a Frankenstein. Because a lot of my songs, they're like puzzle pieces, and there's just one way to put them together. You could, if you needed to, get the scissors out and cut up things to make them work. But I don't want to do that.
AVC: Do you keep track of your unreleased work as much as your fans do? There are websites that list your discography as including, like, Forever Valentine and Exile On Franklin Street alongside your "official" albums. Do you think of the bootlegs that way?
RA: Some of those were just things that happened at the time. For me, a record is valid when I actually hold the vinyl. Like, I've worked on the art for a while and I see the vinyl and I go "Ooh, it's an actual LP. How cool is that?" That's very sacred to me. You can't take that back, you know? But some of the things that didn't come out, I do really love. Especially the solo stuff, which is getting compiled, actually, this very moment. I'm sitting in the Atlanta studio where Jamie's compiling a box set of all the records that were between the Lost Highway records. Some of those things have been traded online in their very rough state. A lot of times when we're playing live, people will call out songs that were never on a record that you could buy in a store. They're just things that people know about because maybe a record was getting made, but then another one happened instead. But they never heard the finished version. So I think that playing catch-up is pretty interesting. But there's no way, I don't think, that all my stuff could've been records. Some, maybe. The ones that I really wanted to be records, those are the ones that are going into the box.
AVC: Were you aware that "When The Stars Go Blue" was sung on American Idol this season? And that they didn't mention your name?
RA: Yeah, that was a night where after 8 p.m. I noticed I had a lot of text messages, when most often at that time of the evening I don't really hear from anyone, because I go to bed early. Yeah, that's kind of amazing. I mean, the whole American Idol phenomenon is kind of amazing, but that someone would pick a tune I wrote? That's pretty huge. But that song has had a very strange life. It's been covered more than once. It's been covered by a couple of singer-songwriters, and by The Corrs. I guess the most recognizable version would be Tim McGraw's, so it would be very normal for them to think it was his song.
AVC: Paul Burch once said that his songs are like his children, and they just go out in the world and do their own thing, and occasionally send a postcard back when they show up in a movie or something.
RA: It's definitely true for that song, because I'm always so shocked by what it's up to. Another year will pass, and I'll hear like, "Oh, so-and-so is doing 'When The Stars Go Blue.'" It's like the song that wouldn't go away.
AVC: We recently asked Jack White if he thought of himself as competitive with the other musicians of his—and your—generation. Not in the negative way, like you both think you're better than your peers, but more like you really want to be in the marketplace at the same time as bands like Spoon, Modest Mouse, The Arcade Fire. Do you feel that competitive fire at all?
RA: I don't really think so. All the bands that you just mentioned are really great bands. It's probably a bit different for me, because I'm a big music fan outside of the music I make. If anything, when I go see shows, it feels like that's the real music. Not to discount my music, but I'm always suspicious of the music that I make on some level, as to how valid it is. Or maybe not "valid," but how important.
I'll give you an example. Recently, I got to see Slayer at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. I went with my girlfriend, and although it's not so much her type of music, I think she humors my undying appreciation for speed metal. But we were there, and I was watching them play, and I was thinking "This is the real shit, right here." Very **** amazing performance. The show itself, how it looked, just how much energy they had. It reminded me of their records. Their records are extreme, and thoughtful, and ****' well executed. And I was thinking about how much the music I make changes, just from the performance on record to the performance on stage. So it's hard to view myself sometimes as even in the same league as other musicians, mainly because there's so much music before me. I feel overinformed by different styles and different possibilities.
I mean, I'm sure once in a while, I'll be in a conversation with another musician, and we'll go, "Oh, that guy sucks," or we'll talk what's good, what's real. But it's all "real." Anyone that sits down and cares enough to try to write a record or a tune… In my opinion, that's pretty noble. To conceive music, to execute it in front of others, to make it so others can do it…it can be pretty humbling, and kind of scary. So yeah, I don't really feel in competition with anybody. Not because I feel elitist, but because I have enough self-competition. I'm always struggling. Or maybe it's because I'm enraptured with so many different kinds of music that at this point, after more than 15 years of playing, I know my way around music enough to investigate it by playing. An example would be like if I was listening to, I don't know, Led Zeppelin, and enjoying how they threw some crazy rock stuff into some almost-reggae-sounding riffs. Or maybe I'm listening to a classical composition or opera or something like that. In my own mind, I'm like, "I should try this." It's not going to sound profound, or it may be accidentally great, but I've got to try it, because there may be something new along the way. Maybe I'll accidentally discover some trick or something that will inform some great music. So that's the self-competition, I think.
The weirdest thing I've been fascinated with nowadays is the new contemporary country music, which to me sounds like very strange '70s pop, and sometimes like rock music. But some of the themes in there—maybe it's because I know how the songs were written, but it really does sound like it was written by two or three people, with the idea to appeal to the most general audience. Like the other day, I heard a song, and the lyrics were something like, "God I hope she's listening," and "I really miss her," and then it gets to the chorus, and it's like someone requesting the song, saying, "I hope she turns on the radio so she could hear the song I'm playing for her." During the song, I was thinking, "This is very high-concept."
And then it hits me, because I do craft songs, that this is designed. It's almost like the song was written to produce this desired effect. And it probably really works for somebody. It's maybe somebody's favorite tune, and it's really hard to come down on that, even if I feel a little embarrassed for it. Because some songs are written like a commercial, and that can be a little strange. That whole weird scene of writing in Nashville, it's not so much pop music, because a lot of it seems to be about how they can be mischievous while using very plain subjects. There's a lot of modern country stuff that I just view with a sense of complete awe.
I guess in Nashville, they have that thing where they have workshops or something, where two or three different songwriters get together and write a bunch of songs. I lived there for a little while, and it was suggested not that I should, but that I needed to go to those things. Like, "This is what we do here." I remember thinking, "I'm not going to that. I'm terrified. I don't know if I have the skills."
What—if you don't mind me asking—what was Jack's response to that question? I'm a huge fan of his.
AVC: He said "No." But he may not have understood the question—he was talking more about Top 40 pop music, and how he didn't understand how that music was made, and how he couldn't compete on that level.
RA: Right, right. He has a very specific thing going on in his songs. Kind of an unmistakable mythology or something. Blues mythology. Some kind of weird force, you know? Very strong writer, that guy.
But competition? I don't know. What I love most in life happens to be the very thing that I do day-to-day, as my work. What would be my hobby, you know, happens to be my actual job. So I'm very lucky. Even if I didn't want to do as much work as I do, I'd still feel compelled to, because I so longed to be a full-time artist, and since I've been given that opportunity, I'd never want to let down the gift. I feel compelled to work the regular hours that I'd be working as, like, a plumber, you know? Getting up and working on music whether I wanted to or not. It feels very peaceful, like a really good thing to do. It doesn't hurt anyone. I would hate to think that I ever squandered a moment because I felt satisfied, or because I felt like as a full-time musician, I was somehow entitled. For me, it's like, "Wow, now I have all this time to make art! I can't ****' wait."
Sounds like we might get two more albums in the near futureThe gentle beauty of Ryan Adams’ new Ashes & Fire belies the personal struggles the singer-songwriter has endured in recent years. After announcing his split from long-time backing band The Cardinals and a prolonged hiatus from music in 2009, Adams spent several months seeking treatment for Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear condition that affected his hearing and overall health during his hard-touring days in the late ’00s. While Adams earned a reputation (and strangely, derision) for being one of the most prolific songwriters of his generation, he stopped making music at this time, focusing instead on getting healthy and spending time with his wife, singer and actress Mandy Moore.
Eventually, Adams’ muse brought him back to writing new songs, and over time, Ashes & Fire began to take shape. A deliberate callback to his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, Ashes is a mellow collection of folkie songs with understated country arrangements that reflect the worldview of an older, more centered man. Not that Adams has left his past difficulties with the press behind, as evidenced by a recent L.A. Weekly interview where Adams combatively fought off questions about his personal life. When Adams spoke with The A.V. Club, he was feisty at times, but also funny and reflective about his career and how he’s perceived, how Ashes & Fire conforms to his fans’ expectations, and why Ratt is such a big (and unlikely) inspiration for him.
The A.V. Club: It’s been a while since you’ve had to do phone interviews and play shows and do all that music-career stuff. How does it feel to get back into the swing of things?
Ryan Adams: Uh, it’s okay. People have been nicer. It’s good. I don’t know. I’m sure it’ll pass. Some nights are pretty tough.
AVC: Do you mean journalists have been nicer?
RA: Just in general, it’s been a more pleasant experience. I’ve been having better… it’s just an easier time, I don’t know why.
AVC: For most artists, taking a three-year break is pretty normal. Do you feel like it’s been a long time since you’ve been out there?
RA: No, not really. I definitely think it was a little bit more time than … I thought it was going to be longer, and what’s really great is that I did a bunch of work on myself, trying to get a handle on all this shit that’s happening with my ears. It didn’t have to be as long as I thought it would have initially been, and hasn’t been as unpleasant and stuff. I don’t know. It’s been a minute, but it hasn’t, you know?
AVC: Where are you right now with the inner-ear disease? Are you feeling better, or is that something you still struggle with a lot?
RA: I’m not struggling with it the way I was before, but it’s always going to be there. It doesn’t go away.
AVC: When you were away, did you continue to write songs?
RA: I didn’t do anything. I literally spent a year seeing four different specialists, and I guess the first four months, I was just exhausted and in a lot of pain, and really tired. It was just a lot, you know? Then I got a lead on a couple of different alternative-therapy-type doctors and I tried them, and then they were working. And then from there, I started working on what else would be good; ways of dealing with tinnitus, because you can’t really get rid of tinnitus. I thought, “Maybe there are ways to get around it, to not focus on the loudness and the tone.” It worked; it really did. All the stuff I was trying, it really helped, so I just kind of kept goin’. I was like, “Well, I’m gonna keep this shit goin’.” It was a great thing to do, and I learned a lot, and I got better, and I felt hopeful.
AVC: What did you learn during that time?
RA: Well, I learned more about myself, because my tolerance for pain had been really, really high. From 2007 to 2009, that lost time, basically from when Easy Tiger came out to when we did Cardinology, was a constant time of touring and a constant time of being ill at ease, and dealing with symptoms. There was confusion, because I knew I had this thing, or that this thing was going on, but I didn’t fully understand in what way it worked. And it made me feel really tired and sick. It was a lot of confusion. I battled it by working harder. I was like, “**** this, I’ll just keep doing music.” I figured that I didn’t need to be intimidated by the limitation that I knew would eventually come, but at some point, it just… I think because I was struggling against it, and because my life was not in order—my life was in order [in the sense that] I was singing, playing, and touring, being successful on some level. But the kind of success that I have, I don’t mean I was touring, like I was playing Knebworth and flying to shows in helicopters; not like that. I was living my life and being happy, and doing what I did, but at the same time, it was looming.
As I became more and more disenfranchised with how things were going forward, playing out the last days of being involved with Lost Highway [Records], and playing in The Cardinals—which I believe, more and more, was an unsatisfactory experience for both them and myself in different ways, if for no other reason than, creatively, the shows just became sort of same-y, and it was really **** loud. I was tired of really **** loud versions of my really quiet songs. I just was like, “You know, I need to go fix myself.” It made sense to make a break for it, and to go figure out in what ways was I actually fragile. I discovered more about what I was really going through.
AVC: Now that you’ve had the opportunity to, as you say, work on your life and live those other parts of your life outside of music, have your feelings about music changed at all? Is music is as important to you now as it used to be?
RA: What do you mean?
AVC: As people get older and they get married, their lives change. They still love music, but it might not have the central place in their lives that it had when they were younger. Has that happened to you at all, as you’ve gotten older?
RA: Huh. I find it interesting… I’ve heard it put to me in a couple of different ways by a couple of different journalists, and I’ll answer this very carefully as to not require a pull quote that’s not a reflection of my private life. Music is my thing. It’s my thing; it’s what I love. It’s what I do. It’s football to me; it’s Christmas to me; religion to me; poetry to me. It’s all those things, and I believe that it’s possible for people to compartmentalize their lives so they can be who they are and still function in the real world around others. But it’s always been this very big thing to me, and I can’t imagine it not being that. I don’t have a life that requires me to choose. I can be myself and love music the way I love it, and it’s not compromised. How do I say this? It would be weird for me to think about a relationship, or relationships that people have, where who they were, or their passions, would be compromised. That somebody would ask for that, that seems kind of weird. Do you mean to say I’m getting older and give less of a ****?
AVC: I don’t mean it that way.
RA: I don’t think you’re asking it in a negative way.
AVC: We’re about the same age. I’ve always loved music, and I still love music, but it means something different to me now at 34 then when I was 24, or when I was 14. I’m wondering whether your feelings about music have changed, or the way you express yourself through music has changed as you’ve progressed, as an artist and as a person.
RA: Hmm. [Pause.] I don’t know, because it’s this one long, never-ending story of me being a record collector, being a metal enthusiast. My weird side effect of that is that I play acoustic guitar and write these songs. It’s as weird to me now that I do what I do as it ever has been. It’s sort of like, “Wow, I’m still writing these kinds of songs. This is wild.” And then, I’m still listening to **** Satyricon, you know what I mean? I get a ****’ boner listening to Dark Medieval Times. I get a musical boner that’s in the shape of an inverted cross. [Laughs.] I’m **** down for it. But then I go to my songs, and I write these ****’ acoustic songs about this stuff. In my weird mind, it’s sort of like, “Maybe this stuff belongs… It’s the kind of music they would play in the woods outside of Mordor.” [Laughs.] That’s what it is to me. It really isn’t anything more than that. At times, I’ve over-described it, and I bought into the **** interviews when I was younger. Like, “Yeah, this shit is totally meaningful.” [Laughs.]
It has always been joyous for me. If I ever exaggerated anything, I exaggerated the seriousness of it. But it can never be taken away from you, either. So when I wasn’t [making music], then came back to doing it, I didn’t feel like I had been punished, and then I had been on the other side of punishment. I just felt like, “Oh good, I can jam more.” And that felt really good.
AVC: When you started writing songs again, was it like flipping on a switch, or did you have to warm up to the process?
RA: Sort of. I just played guitar for a while, when my ears were getting better. I just didn’t play these weird, winding riffs. But I jammed with myself. I’d just kind of sit there and play these bizarre, folky-sounding things. And it was cool; it felt good. And then, eventually, what usually happened was, I left myself these notes, these little stinted blobs, like, “Hey, here’s this line.” I guess I was leaving myself a little breadcrumb trail of things I had been thinking about, or stuff that looked to me like it would be a song. And I sat down, and the first thing that happened was, I wrote “Dirty Rain.” And I was like, “Okay, this is cool.” Kinda just got a vibe. And I worked on it, and then the rest kind of happened on its own.
AVC: “Dirty Rain” is the first song on the album, and it has the feel of starting over.
RA: Totally. That’s what that line is: “The last time I was here, it was raining / It ain’t raining anymore.” I really liked that vibe of, “Last time I was here, this shit was suckin’ hard.” [Laughs.] That was the original lyric: “Last time I was here, this shit was suckin’ hard / It isn’t suckin’ hard anymore / I got rid of my David Coverdale-fuckin’-second-Whitesnake-album haircut / and all my backstage passes to the Ratt Infestation tour lyin’ on the floor.”
AVC: That’s catchy.
RA: Exactly. And then there was a whole ****’ line about Stephen Pearcy from Ratt.
AVC: Ashes & Fire has a real mood that runs through the record, more so than a lot of your other records. Was that something you consciously set out to do, to make it sound more unified?
RA: Well, it was the same musicians, and it was a 10-day session. And since Glyn [Johns] produced it, everybody was really good at keeping it raw. So I think everything stayed consolidated for many reasons, but I feel like that was a good thing. Nobody overthought this album at all. The tunes were there; the people who were on it were ready to jam, and happy to jam. But there was a time before I recorded, all jokes aside, that I was listening to Ratt’s [2010 album] Infestation, and I was like, “This is a record that could’ve been supported on the Invasion Of Your Privacy tour.” It’s total Ratt. They made a new record, and they ****’ killed it. They made a record as good as any record they’d ever made. And I’m blastin’ that shit in my **** car, thinking, “Man, I wanna ****’ do that. Why shouldn’t I be able to, if they can figure out who the **** they are and kill it?” It literally could’ve been, like, Out Of The Cellar, Invasion Of Your Privacy, Infestation, then Dancing Undercover. It was so early Ratt. And it didn’t sound like bullshit, either. “Best Of Me” is a ****’ crazy good song. Crazy good. The rest of that record is super-duper-sleazeball-fuckin’-blues-sex-explosion rock. I started thinking about it, the whole idea of being myself and doing what it is that I do. Maybe I’ve not been putting enough emphasis on that.
AVC: You mean, as far as making a record that people would think is a “Ryan Adams record”?
RA: Yeah, basically. Those songs like “Magick” or “Halloweenhead,” or songs on III/IV, they’re cool, Tom Petty-influenced rock. Like the BoDeans—not even BoDeans, but kinda BoDeans—sort of lost, vibe-y, American guitar rock. I put that stuff in my music once in a while, and it’s like the **** sky is falling. People are like, “What the **** is this?” There’s obviously a silent majority who love those records, but there’s this vocal minority, because of the **** Internet, of these **** nerd rangers who go online and go, [nerdy voice] “This music is stupid; he doesn’t care. He writes songs like ‘Halloweenhead,’ blah blah blah.” On some level, I’m like, “Well, then **** why even do that? I’ll play some seriously badass Tooth And Nail-era, Dokken-style, Satanic guitar shit for fun. I don’t gotta put that shit on my records.” So, in some ways, it was like, “I’ll just let these bigger-style tunes make their way to the front.”
AVC: But why pay attention to people on the Internet? You’ve reached a point in your career when you can pretty much do whatever you want, can’t you?
RA: Yeah, I am doing what I want, but one of the interesting things about the Internet when you’re a musician is the sociology of the fans, the psychology of being a fan, and observing this negative and positively weird behavior. It’s kind of hard to explain this, but there’s this weird illness with people where it’s almost like they view their [favorite] artist as a football team or something, and all other artists are another team. [Laughs.] Or even sometimes, your records become sports teams. You put out a new record, and it’s like, “Tonight at Dodger Stadium, it’s the Easy Tigers vs. the Heartbreakers.” It’s super-competitive, and it’s a highly judgmental place for a place that should be free of judgment. My feeling about music is that it’s a place to go to get away from **** negative creeps. And now, what’s really weird is that music is full of negative **** creeps.
You remember: When we were growing up, if you bought Metal Hammer, or if you were reading Hit Parader, or Kerrang!, or something, it didn’t seem to me like there were a lot of articles saying, “**** Mötley Crüe, man. They suck.” Or, “Theatre Of Pain is a shitty record, and nothing is ever gonna be as good as Too Fast For Love.” It was like, “Okay, Theatre Of Pain,” and maybe there would be people that didn’t totally understand the record, or that snideness was there, but it didn’t seem to be, when I was growing up, that snarkiness equaled intelligence. There’s this weird trend in the music community where people have read snarky, highly intelligent reviewers to the point where they have taken the wrong idea. Instead of saying that intelligence equals wit, and being witty about things being **** awesome or being shit, it’s only manifested itself in saying, “Oh, well, witty people are smart, and when I read witty people, they’re always saying negative things,” so there’s this negative trend. The trend is to find something wrong with everything.
AVC: On the Internet, there’s this really fine line between love and hate, and sometimes people say the meanest things about things that they love, or at least loved at one time. There’s an element of your fan base that loved Heartbreaker so much that everything you do afterward, they’ll compare to that record. Is that a frustrating thing, to have your past work brought up in that way?
RA: Again, no, because I was there for each album. What happens is, I make records, and people assassinate the record, usually, that I’m making. Or another funny thing is, I made Love Is Hell, and people panned it really unnecessarily; there was harshness around it. Then, only a little bit of time passed, and people would **** bring that record up as something I wasn’t doing, which is why my current records were shit. Then I did Cold Roses, and people said it was too long, and that it should’ve been condensed into one CD. But several people said it, and then each person’s idea of what songs should be taken off of it were on the other person’s CD. [Laughs.] And then that record “sucked,” and then I made more records, and they were like, “It’s not as good as Cold Roses.” It’s always something. It’s a negative trend; it’s a trend of saying, “Of course the thing he’s tapping out can’t be as good as the last thing.” What’s really happening is this: I’m making records, and people are **** trying to have an instant emotional connection with something that’s bigger than them, bigger than their immediate response. Their seduction is to the Internet and to information, and it doesn’t have anything to do with albums that take six months to a year of consideration, and sometimes months to record, and then months to release.
The preparation of what I’m doing takes a shitload longer than a person to just listen to it through once, and then start jive-turkeying on the Internet. Because the Internet is an immediate thing, but you can’t **** write an album on the Internet. So, to me, it’s a virtual meal, and you can’t virtually taste shit. It’s a false experience, when I see the reviews of something that I’ve done, to [only have had] the record for a day. So my records go into my back catalog—my back catalog sells more than anything—and then people can just go to the back catalog. It’s always there; it’s like canned goods. When they’re hungry, they can go and get it, and there it is. It’s there for them.
AVC: Do you think you’ll be putting out as many records this decade as you did in the last decade?
RA: [Long pause.] Yeah, probably. I don’t see why not. I mean, if I’m inspired to. If the songs are there; if the songs come. But I’m not gonna not do it because somebody on **** blowhard.net thinks it’s a bad idea.
AVC: I think when you put out a lot of records, you earn the right to make a record that people might not get right away. That’s what Neil Young does: He puts out a record every year. You won’t always get a Neil Young record right away, but then maybe a couple years later, you’ll hear it again, and then it will hit you.
RA: It’s living information. Albums deserve to exist, and they deserve people to do to them as they like. It’s not **** toxic, poisonous shit, you know? When I see people losing their minds over records and being hateful, I’m like, “****, the shit you ate for breakfast is probably worse for you than my **** album I put out.” [Laughs.] But by the same token, I gotta say, I make records ’cause I love to write songs, ’cause I love music, and it feels good. When I finish a tune, it’s enough, as it is. It is meant to be what it is, and I don’t think about my tunes in terms of… I’m really, really happy to have all these **** people who have been so **** moved by what I do. I meet people and they’re so freaked out that they have the record, and I get a chance to talk to them, or I get these letters or these people reaching out, and that’s so **** cool. Because I have literally never finished a song and went, “You know what? People are gonna look at this song and think that maybe the bridge isn’t as big as it could be.” Or, “People are gonna look at this record and say, ‘Oh, I like this record, but maybe the middle kinda drops in tempo. Maybe that song shouldn’t be there, because it needs more consistency.’” **** that. [Laughs.] **** that and **** everybody that thinks like that.
Seriously, what kinda **** pussy-ass musician second-guesses their **** creation because of the possibility that there’s somebody who has a contemporary idea of songwriting, who’s gonna have a **** criticism that’s based on this conformist songwriter shit? I’ve seen it so much, and it’s so weird. I just think, “My God, there are Hüsker Dü records like Flip Your Wig with songs that don’t **** have choruses, and they can destroy your mind.” “Divide And Conquer” barely has structure, and that song will **** destroy your brain, man. I kinda need records like that in my life, and maybe it’s because I have a voice that isn’t totally always aggro or ****. Just ’cause I’m not making records that sound like punk records doesn’t mean that I don’t come to that from shit that I learned growing up with American hardcore and American punk ideals. I’m just doing what I do. If you don’t like it, **** you.
It can still be pretty and I can still say, “You have a million choices in the world. Don’t subscribe to my songs. Exercise your freedom to listen to something else.” But I haven’t had that ride yet. It’s not the path that I’ve been on. All the reviews start talking about me, a personality criticism—usually about the fact that I make too many records—and then if I’m lucky, the review will get into the actual songs themselves, or the production style, or the lyrical content. Less and less have I seen reviews where people actually talk about how the records make them feel. And I don’t just mean my records, I mean metal reviews, and reviews in Rolling Stone. Very rarely do I see a writer saying, “This made me feel like this,” or, “I felt this way.” It’s usually in this kind of gray area of facts. And there’s usually subtext, which is, “You should be cool and not like this,” or, “If you’re cool, you’ll like this.”
AVC: Speaking of putting out more records, you’ve talked about finally completing Blackhole, which dates back to the mid-’00s. What’s its status?
RA: The art is done. The album is mastered. It’s so ready to go. But the thing is, I just did this Ashes & Fire record, and there’s also a live box-set thing. It sounds so brutal and old-school and great. People were good enough to not bootleg the shows. We asked them not to. I’ve always let my fans tape all the shows. I was like, “Just let me do it right.” So we did this really cool set list, and did that, so that’s sort of waiting. And Blackhole is badass, man. I **** love it. It’s like Love Is Hell, but more up. It has that same feeling and texture, the way Love Is Hell sounds. It’s definitely [Love Is Hell producer] John Porter 101, although the record was not recorded with John Porter, it was tracked with [producer] Tom Schick, and then finished with [producer and Cardinals member] Jamie Candiloro, and also this guy that works with The Strokes sometimes, Gus [Oberg]. It’s sort of like everybody that I’ve ever worked with has a little bit of engineering on it.
We mixed it for four months just to get it exactly right, like adding guitars, subtracting guitars. I even went to New York with [bandmate] Johnny T, who I originally recorded it with, and we opened up all the sessions. We put all the reels back on; we found pieces of songs that were only kind of done that were so good, we were **** finishing things, but really respectfully. By the time it was done, we got it down to 11 songs, leaving a bunch of shit off. But I was like, “I want it to be exactly what it should be.” A few of my friends have it, and it reduced a few of them to tears. It is so much of [that] time. And it’s cool, too, ’cause it’s sort of like the last party. [Laughs.] So it has beauty, but it has a darkness. But what’s really cool about it is, it has the darkness and it has the wisdom, but to me, it has the feeling of the one **** thing all of my records were missing, the one part of the story, which is a record that’s sort of just reveling in youth, and reveling in life, as it is. It’s not a “Go to the beach” record, but it’s like, “Let’s go out at night and let’s ****’ be werewolves of chaos in New York.” It had that ****’ reckless-abandon feeling, and I love it for that.
I love that there’s this great picture of that time. It feels really good, and it’s super, super-connected to all the post-punk records I loved growing up. It’s probably the best electric guitar-playing I’ve ever done, the best bass-playing I’ve ever done, and the most consistently psychedelic rock record that it could be. But it’s not hippie stuff at all. It’s a record that you could listen to if you were listening to The Lemonheads or listening to My Bloody Valentine, or Hüsker Dü. It really is an alternative record.
Yeah...there's a lot there now. I am trying to blitz it and get a lot done as quickly as possible. I was going to just paste the links to the interviews but so many of the older links are broken...pasting the content will hopefully keep it alive for a little longer.crazycrazy wrote:Thanks for the mammoth amount of info, I'll get back to you next year after I've read it all.
On a serious note, I think I'm loving "Ashes & Fire" at the minute!!!