Ryan Adams talks to CHRIS FAMILTON about his new self-titled album, his struggle with Ménière’s disease and his PAX-AM label and recording studio.
Ryan Adams has always resisted any temptation or peer pressure to become an alt-country purist after he emerged out of the ashes of the band Whiskeytown and firmly established himself with his solo debut Heartbreaker (2000). His magpie nature and ridiculously prolific songwriting output over the last two decades has seen him release fourteen solo albums, four Whiskeytown albums, a limited edition 15LP live set plus side projects such as his Orion metal album and The Finger with Jesse Malin.
Stylistically he quickly sparked off in a number of directions post-Heartbreaker. Anglophile indie guitar pop, dreary mope rock, Grateful Dead-like country rock and traditional acoustic singer-songwriter music have all featured in Adams’ discography yet no-one can fault his dedication to his craft, even with the intentional attempt at self-sabotage on the Rock n Roll album or when he was portrayed in the media as being bratty, sullen and argumentative during concerts and interviews.
The latter behaviour is seemingly long behind him and on the eve of the release of his new, self-titled and mostly electric album he opens up and chats, often excitedly and sometimes tangentially, about the thrill of finding a band to replace the Cardinals, a life in music and how he has found his own comfort zone and niche in the music business.
You’ve released a lot of albums over the last 20 years, how are you feeling ahead of another one being cast out into the world?
It’s the last three weeks before the record comes out so I’ve been doing a lot of press and promo stuff but it’s been really easy and pretty fun this time round. I’ve never felt nervous about a new album coming out, I’m always onto the next one before they’re even out. It’s a 24 hour job for me making music.
In terms of having your own studio, did that play a role in the writing and arranging of the album prior to its actual recording?
I’ve been writing at my own studio (PAX-AM) now for a couple of years, since it got finished, so most of this stuff stemmed from everyday writing there. It isn’t too different working here because I used to just go to other studios and spend a lot of money and a lot of time recording at their places and this just made it a lot simpler. I think I worked out that I spent the same amount of money building this studio as I would’ve recording at other places and it’s at home in LA. I just basically gutted the old house that was sitting on the parking lot area and built it from the ground up, my own kind of Motown and my own vibe. I bring other people into record but not as part of the writing process.
What’s the significance of the album being self-titled?
I couldn’t find a title, nothing really worked. Because I did it all and recorded in my own studio it actually felt less pretentious to just give it my name and not find a title. There didn’t seem to be an overarching title that made sense.
The new album has a range of styles and sonically I can hear elements of Love Is Hell and occasionally Rock n Roll coming through at times. Did you have those or any other of your albums in mind when making this one?
No. I play electric guitar on the record so it’s going to sound like any of my records that I play electric guitar on and those ones you mentioned are obviously ones I played electric guitar on. I personally think it sounds more like Cold Roses, some of Love is Hell and a little of Easy Tiger – but not the sound of it, more the chords and the way it came together organically. I don’t think it sounds like Rock n Roll at all, mainly because that record sounds really bad and it was intentionally meant to be shit. This record is all analog, live recording with Princeton amplifiers, there’s no Pro Tools on it so it’s really the sound of the amps and the room itself which I think is kind of cool. I think it really sounds the way the songs sound when I play them live. I don’t ever go after a specific kind of sound, I just play and whatever happens kind of happens. Obviously there’s different modes for acoustic guitar and electric guitar though.
When you make a new album are you able to step back and view it in the context of all the other records you’ve released, if so how do you view this new one?
No, the songs are ends in themselves and records are their own sort of book or movie. I suppose the best way to answer that is that as a human being I’m not self-critical, I’m not self-analytical about process or style . I just am… Ryan [laughs]. It’s a very zen thing for me, there’s just no calculation in music. I’ve never been a very calculating person and if I had been I would’ve probably had a very different career. I just do this in a creative way as my whim dictates. I couldn’t do it any other way, I just think that’s the way I’m meant to do it and I like the music to feel alchemical and real and it means I’m never trying to get a result before I really work at it.
You’ve got an obvious love for and ability to play a diverse range of styles from alt-country to metal and hardcore. Do those different styles co-exist comfortably or do you sometimes find yourself torn between what you want to play and what you’re expected to play?
I don’t know that what people’s expectations of me are, I don’t look at anything to do with my own stuff. Outside of running a record label and getting records to people I’m not really aware of that. I think I’m probably too old to care. I’ve always done very different things, I just haven’t released them. The reason I did the Orion album (2010) was as a tribute to Denis D’Amour (Voivod guitarist) and it was released a long time after I’d recorded it back in 2006. It was released as part of the learning process for me running PAX-AM so I wasn’t hinging it on a major release and I could do a limited release thing. I’ve really enjoyed releasing limited edition vinyl, I think there is a lot of beauty in it, I think it’s respectful of the form. The format of 45s and LPs is beautiful and I believe it should be dignified in that way.
You spent a number of years with The Cardinals as your band before splitting to record and play solo. Now you’re back with a band – The Shining. How does that feel?
It’s been great and so easy and wonderful. Charlie Stavish the bass player is the house engineer at PAX-AM and he works at my label. Mike Viola (guitar) is my co-producer who worked on the Jenny Lewis album and my new one. He’s also a very long-term friend. Daniel Clarke (keyboards) and I have played music for a long time and he used to play music with my wife (Mandy Moore). We just met Freddy Bokkenheuser who was local and we had a few different drummers come by to meet us and he was the third guy and we just loved him and he was the guy. They are so profound and wonderful as musicians, I didn’t even have to talk about what songs I wanted them to play before we rehearsed, they’d just learnt so much of my music. I feel like they know more of my music than the Cardinals ever knew. The other day I said I’d never played that song ‘Political Scientist’ off Love is Hell and they just went into it. I thought “are you guys possessed?”. I realised that music is really what they do and they love playing. They’re deep musicians.
What are your tour plans for the album, will we see you and The Shining down here in Australia anytime soon?
I hope so, Its really destructive for my Ménière’s disease to be in a plane for that long. Every time I’ve done it I’ve been sick so I have to find a way to do it so I’m not so dizzy and ill, I’ve just been so ill the last couple of times. I think if I come again to play I’ll have to be there much earlier before I do anything and just acclimatise. It’s getting to the point where I feel it damages my health.
You’ve produced Ethan Johns, Willie Nelson and The Lemonheads among others. What level of enjoyment or satisfaction does producing give you compared to working on your own music?
I don’t enjoy production very much at all, it’s hard and difficult. When it matters to the person and I care about helping them get where they’re going then it’s worth the effort. It’s a lot of responsibility and if you do your job great they move on and forget you and have a huge record. The worst case scenario is you don’t get anywhere and the record is bad and does nothing. You’re sort of like that guy in Lord of the Rings who helps Frodo get to Mordor but you don’t actually go to Mordor, you go with them all the way and they does the last bit themselves. It’s really a journey and I’ve noticed that it really destroys my life force and takes me longer to recuperate from than any other single thing in my life. I’m always up for the challenge if it’s the right project. I’ve never sought any record out. It’s like, if someone needs help I can help them.
Do you approach different artists with the same production philosophy, Fall Out Boy for instance compared to Jenny Lewis?
It’s the same every time. They come here and we record to tape and there’s no Pro Tools and I like to get organic takes. I like to meet them beforehand and explain what I want to do to check they’re comfortable with it. I want them to be themselves and not get too altered. The process is always going to be a little different each time but at PAX-AM the equipment is always set up in the studio and so the sound is there for everybody and they just tap into it which is really nice.
You’ve recorded a lot of music that you’ve never released. Do you consider those songs and albums permanently shelved or do you think you’ll revisit some of them for release in the future.?
It depends, I think I’ve finally decided to release this record called Blackhole that fans have been curious about for years that has been hiding on the shelf. I think I might release that, though I haven’t completely decided. It’s my own label, my own studio and my own rules so yeah, I’m open to releasing stuff that hasn’t come out but right now it’s about stuff I’ve been making in the last few years because there’s so much of it.
this interview was first published in FasterLouder