Burnt-Out Pedalboards & Fucked-Up Guitars
Prior to entering Ryan Adams’ hotel room I had preconceived ideas running through my head about what I might encounter. Will there be a pinball machine in the corner? Will Adams be reclining on the bed strumming a guitar, having just written a dozen new songs? The reality of the situation is a relaxed and alert Adams sipping on a hot drink and discussing King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with another crew member as he prepares for a final batch of press commitments before heading to the airport to fly to Japan – the next stop on the promo tour for his new album Prisoner.
“You guys always get the start or the end of a tour which is unusual” says Adams, reflecting on previous visits to Australia. “It’s like a struggle to make sure the quality is maintained but that’s great, it requires extra brain power and physical power to get it to be what it’s supposed to be. I end up being a better performer for it I think.”
“The last couple of years for me have been a renaissance of songs and there have been hundreds,” says Adams emphatically. The writing sessions for Prisoner, which drew on the end of his marriage with actress Mandy Moore, gave him a wealth of songs to work with and edit down to the final dozen songs. “When we talk about records and putting an album cover on it and naming it a thing and limiting the track ratio – for me it comes from a pool of many songs. I pick the chapters and create what it is based on that and then that’s the context that everyone draws from. Then they see it as the book. As I’ve grown older and wiser I’ve seen the art of editing. Editing is the mask of street magicians. How much do you show before you reveal – and so many people just want to reveal. I just make the stuff and let it become what it is, let it become obvious to me and the people I trust and then let it be,” explains Adams.
Initially Adams took his band The Shining into his studio PAX AM after their last tour “to see if we could record as a band.” It quickly became apparent to him, from the way it felt, “that some of the magic from the tour wasn’t there.” Adams explains that “nothing had soured but the focus and the bending into the songs wasn’t there. The idea of the experimenting and raising up as a group and finding out what was available wasn’t there. The only track that really made sense and went some place interesting was ‘Do You Still Love Me?’. I wanted a combination of Fly On The Wall (AC/DC) and the Foreigner song ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’. I was curious how I could mash those together and make it a biting kind of thing.”
As a result of that first session Adams resolved to record the majority of the album himself and as a result, the creative intensity from the songwriting re-emerged in the recording studios he used in LA and New York. “I never stopped working on the record once I’d started,” recalls Adams. “‘Broken Anyway’ and ‘Prisoner’ were the first songs that arrived, they just happened. The first song that was ever written was a song called ‘Dive’ which isn’t on the album, then the songs just started to reveal themselves one by one. I had them in me, I had the notes, the microphones were on and my best friend was on drums. I’d be on tour in New York, go into the studio and one by one they would fall out. It was unbelievable,” recalls Adams, shaking his head. “ In the middle of that I’d go an play a solo acoustic show over two nights at Carnegie Hall which was weird. It should have been stressful but it wasn’t. That’s how drawn I was to recording at the time.”
When it comes to touring Prisoner, Adams has brought together a new group of musicians, including members of Grace Potter’s band. One of the big changes was the parting of ways with Mike Viola, guitarist and co-producer of his previous, self-titled album. “Mike took an A&R job at Verve Records and there was no way we wanted him in the band after that – not because he insulted us but because he had two kids, he just turned 50 and working at a record label. I’m not going to wait around for a guy to stop pushing a pencil to play guitar. I don’t personally disrespect record company people but if you play guitar and you choose a job at a record label, kids or not, it just shows who you are. He’s really talented, one of the best songwriters I know but that decision was frowned upon by a lot of people. We’ll always love him as a friend but as a musician I just can’t respect that decision, it’s not for me. Are you drawing the maps of battle or are you in the trenches? I’m in the trenches forever,” stresses Adams.
It’s still early days with the new band but Adams is enthusiastic about the way they are gelling and how it feeds into their live performance. “Now we’re in the same zone and it’s a good feeling. Thirty seconds before we went on last night there’s that moment of anticipation where you look to see if anyone was jazzed or stressed or weirded out. We were all mellow and pretty blazed, passing around a joint and chilling out. I was looking for my soda and couldn’t find it and then we just giggled and walked onstage like no big deal. I remember thinking that “I appreciate this vibe”. If you bring the good vibes then the audience has the good vibes too.”
There’s clearly a strong team ethos with Adams, his band and crew and he’s clearly conscientious about surrounding himself with others who understand his musical needs. “I’ve got pretty much the same core crew since I started again around Ashes & Fire. I always keep the same folks around but then it’s harder when someone leaves. The more a band travels and the harder they party, the more people come and go whereas our thing is more one thing, we get into a routine and we roll. There’s a lot of respect and it’s nice. The people who’ve been there the longest have seniority and everyone listens to everyone else. It’s not a male dominated crew, it’s pretty much an equal male/female ratio.”
Rewinding to the late’80s when Adams was first discovering the primitive and primal joys of the electric guitar, he recalls the rush and surprisingly intuitive process of entering the world of rock ’n’ roll.
“I don’t think that I intentionally thought that this would be my job. I mean it is my job but I don’t think I could’ve known it would be – which is interesting. I was naive enough to say to myself, “of course this is what I’ll do”. There is this whole idea of there being a structured process and period of having to learn this stuff and then create this stuff and find the microcosm of rock and I’m really surprised that a kid could just decide “OK, cool, this is what I’m going to do”. When I first got a guitar, the first thing I did, after working out what an open tuning is, was start writing songs and then I found band members and started making 4-track recordings. I figured out I had to learn how to use the machine – pressing track one to record, rewinding and pressing play and hearing it back. Then when you pressed track two you could dub over it. I remember that moment of thinking “holy shit”. I could hear what I did on the drums and then I’m playing and singing and I finish the track and hear it back and think “holy fuck”. Then I get the bass and that moment of filling out the third track is just what now is – it’s all just an extension from those early days. There have been a couple of burnt-out pedalboards and fucked up guitars along the way but nothing to tell me that it wasn’t going to happen which is usually not the path. I’m lucky I didn’t entertain any doubt.” says Adams.
One of the great dualities of Ryan Adams is the seriousness and emotional depth of his songwriting and his wacky and often dry sense of humour which is apparent both on stage and in person, but doesn’t always translate in interviews.
“I’m just like that. I write songs this way but I’m like anyone with daily frustrations of stuff. I’m just a dork and I like making fun of things and goof off, wanting to play pinball and chill out. That’s my nature but the process of my emotional stuff is far more intense and separate. That’s like the laundry of my life and these songs are the laundromat. I treat people at a concert the way I want to be treated. The stage is only elevated in height, not in status. I don’t want anybody going to a concert thinking I demand respect any more than respect for the person next to them and respect for themselves. I don’t like the idea of there being an unnecessary reverie for me – to lift me up and believe in me – fuck that, NO!” exclaims Adams. “It should be that we’ve all made it through the day, I’ve got some guitars and stuff and you guys are having some beers and we’re going to do some music stuff and some vibing together. We made it through this fucking day, let’s have a moment!”
I ask him if it is hard to maintain that over a whole tour? “No I smoke weed!” he laughs.
this interview was first published on FasterLouder