Barry Adamson: Interview

Barry Adamson is a man that needs no introduction. Having worked with The Bad Seeds, Magazine and the Buzzcocks, Adamson has successfully secured his place among British music legends. Now having just released his new EP ‘Love Sick Dick’ Adamson spares some time to talk to us:

I understand that The Buzzcocks were very important to you, and can’t imagine what it must have been like to audition as a teenager for Howard Devoto’s next band ‘Magazine’. However, I also can’t actually find a proper account of that audition anywhere online, although some reviews mention off-hand that your bass only had two strings?

The story was that I met with a school friend and I went to his house, where his brother had all these instruments; drums, guitars… it was like a sweet shop. I played a little bit of guitar and had always wanted to get into the drums, but I had never really looked at the bass. When we were there though, he gave me this bass with two strings on it and just said ‘if you want it you can have it’, which was amazing, so I took it. When I went to buy the other two strings, I saw an advert from Howard Devoto saying he was looking for musicians. I remember initially glossing over it and thinking ‘well, I hope he finds some’, but then I thought ‘well, maybe I can be one of those!’. I phoned up, and he told me to come down the next morning (Sunday), so I thought ‘right, I need to get my head around this!’.

I put the other two strings on the bass, and although I didn’t have an amplifier, I realised that by leaning the neck of the bass on the end of my bed that it would resonate the wooden frame like a big bass amp, so I stayed up all night trying to play it like that. The next morning at the audition, he played me a song called ‘The Light Pours Out of Me’. He had a riff for it and played it on guitar, and I just sort of plucked the open E string and made a rhythm with it because that’s all I could do, really; I didn’t know any of the other notes! However, it turned out to fit perfectly, and he basically said ‘you’ve got the job’. I spent the next few nights practicing the same way, we gradually got enough songs together to do a show, and it went from there.

That’s incredible!

Yeah it was a funny time! But I was really spurred on, you see, and inspired by what was going on, being about 18 at the time. The whole world’s musical landscape seemed to have shifted, it was accessible. I remember a few months before seeing Led Zeppelin at Earl’s Court- which was ridiculous- and thinking ‘how did we get from that to this?’.

Something I’d not appreciated until I started researching for this interview was that Magazine’s third album was recorded by legendary record producer Martin Hannett (Joy Division, The Happy Mondays etc.). What was that experience like?

It was extraordinary, because he was an extraordinary person, and what he did at the desk was extraordinary. We were kind of friends for quite a bit, outside of working with Magazine, so I got to see other projects and work on other projects with him as well, which was really interesting. He was able to bring his own identity to everything he did- an extraordinary talent. If you think about Joy Division, you have to include him in it as part of the sound. It was a real privilege to see someone push the boundaries of what you can do with sound, and I’ve tried to take that on for myself as an inspiration with what I do now- remixes and things. What he did was to say ‘fuck convention, do this!’; everyone’s faces would drop because everything was in the red, and you’d just see him smiling.

My first introduction to your music was your work in The Birthday Party, where you replaced bassist Tracy Pew on some of ‘Junkyard’. However, once again, I’ve never managed to find out how you actually got involved in that.

It was through Nick Cave’s cousin. They’d come over to London, which was the first time- pretty much- that they were going to settle here, and they had a few dates lined up. I’d already heard them and thought they were extraordinary; we became kind of friends when they came over (they crashed at my place and stuff), and I would DJ for them before they came on at these London shows. First date they played, there was about 20 people there; the next week they came back to this venue and there were queues around the block. Something was happening. Then I think Tracy got into some trouble, and I knew the bass parts, so I stood in for five or six shows and ended up contributing to that record. Then they went off to Berlin to sort of implode, and out of that wreckage came The Bad Seeds.

I was going to ask about that: you recorded several records with The Bad Seeds at their genesis, but a few years ago returned to work with them on ‘Push The Sky Away’. I imagine that reunion being a very strange artistic and emotional experience.

It was strange; 35-or-so years later you find yourself in this strange position of being almost an anthropologist, looking at the development of this thing from what it was then to what it is now. The early days were really everyone flailing themselves into the music. Now, it was more aloof and laid back with these grooves happening, which I think is something that was largely inspired by Warren Ellis; he’s laid down a real position in the band’s musical shape and development. However, we would revisit things; we played songs from ‘From Her To Eternity’ at Nick’s solo shows and were going right back to the beginning (which I was there for) and we were stripping it down to its bare bones, which was great, but after that I knew I kind of had to get back to my own stuff.

I think your solo career represented an exceptionally bold move. Although you were at the genesis of Magazine and The Bad Seeds, Devoto and Cave were already established; to pursue your own project by starting another band would’ve been a ballsy in itself, but to do something as ambitious as a soundtrack for a film that didn’t exist (‘Moss Side Story’) is truly extraordinary. What drove you to go into film scoring?

I think that very idea: not being tied to any identity and being able to do pretty much what you like. I think film is pretty much an open canvas; a scene is a scene and you have to characterise it musically, so I thought that would be a good place to extend myself. The idea of ‘Moss Side Story’ being a film already was (I think) fairly original, and it seemed like the way to go because I couldn’t really see myself putting a band together at that time. I just wanted to write, and that seemed like the best place to pitch my ideas.

How did you get involved with David Lynch?

I put out ‘Moss Side Story’ and it became a bit of a calling card. I was very fortunate in those early days: things were sort of happening, and I had (I wish I had more of it now!) a sort of arrogance, where I was like ‘it’ll be fine’ and ‘I want to work with David Lynch’ and stuff, and all those things actually happened. I had a health situation and I was in a wheelchair, and the daughter of the publisher I was working with was working at David Lynch’s office. She was listening to ‘Moss Side Story’, there was an enquiry as to what that music was, and I got a call pretty much the next day from David Lynch himself. He said that he’d been listening to my music for 10 hours straight, and asked if I would be interested in scoring this film called ‘Lost Highway’. Things were working, even though I was quite down with this health situation and I was sort of bottoming out, thinking ‘well what do I do? I write this weird, brassy, dirty stuff, so why don’t I just do that’. I tried putting something together that day, then- within a couple of days- a VHS was couriered to me, and the piece of music I’d been writing just fit this scene perfectly! It was all kind of strange- very Lynchian actually. I got some more work from that and ended up going to Hollywood and working on stuff there; it was a great experience.

Your new EP, ‘Love Sick Dick’, features a really eclectic mix of sounds. Is that an attempt to cultivate a sound from these very disparate styles, or the reverse: an attempt to not be seen as having one sound?

I don’t have one sound, and I kind of know that; loads of things set me off in music, and I guess I sort of lean towards them. Certain things work themselves into the music, and I take certain things on and honour certain things; the opener ‘I Got Clothes’ is influenced by a sort of Nina Simone world. I think there’s still that license from working in movies to go wherever the hell I want, in dealing with the next ‘state’ of the central character. The sounds are very different but they all come from me, so I see that as being a constant, and hopefully something that appeals to me will appeal to somebody else.

Regarding the title ‘Love Sick Dick’, is this a central character then?

Yes, that’s him presented on the cover actually. Dick goes through these various landscapes in the songs, trying to work himself out (or work himself in!). I kind of thought of it as a mini-concept record; I actually started writing it as a short story, about this guy at the edge of everything, which gave me a few ideas musically. There had been a few songs across different records which dealt with this subject, and I came across this word called ‘limerence’- a word coined by psychologists in the 70s which concerns ‘extremes’ in relationships- and that led me to come up with this story about lovesickness.

It does seem to deal with different interpretations of ‘love’; ‘On Golden Square’ has these references to maternal love, while ‘They Walk Among Us’ seems to basically be about sex; was this part of the ‘concept’?

I wasn’t strictly trying to do that, and kind of went with the flow, but realized something was happening in ‘On Golden Square’- that slightly dysfunctional bad parenting presents another form of ‘sickness’ mixed with a genuine affection. All those things are interesting to me in a filmic sense, a musical sense and just on a human level.

You’ve talked about wanting to give fans the full ‘Barry Adamson experience’ with this upcoming show, how would you describe that?

I guess really I’m trying to give every aspect of myself that I can- it’s a one man show, and I’m trying to give a full experience of me in that setting. Whether that’s possible I don’t know but I’m going to try.

So quite similar to the show you did at RISE records then?

Yes exactly! The Rise show actually gave us the idea to try and pursue this a bit further, with all the bells and whistles.

Check out ‘They Walk Among Us’ taken from the new EP ‘Love Sick Dick’ out now: 

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