Creator of gripping filmic music enlists notable guest vocalists and breaks through to commercial seam.
DESPITE HAVING enjoyed a comfortable living as bassist with both Magazine and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, when Barry Adamson finally decided to hang up his touring sneakers at the beginning of his thirties, he really had no intention of pursuing a solo career.
“I always thought that if you weren’t in a band, that was it,” he says. “You couldn’t really make records. So all I was going to do was sit around and plot and scheme how to become a film composer.”
And so there followed a period in which the Mancunian multi-instrumentalist and embracer of music’s technological marvels began exploring the atmospheric territories of the best movie soundtracks. En route, he let Mute Records boss Daniel Miller hear some of his work and was encouraged to release it. The resulting album, Moss Side Story in 1989, was the incidental music for an imagined black-and-white gangster flick set in the troubled Manchester estate of Adamson’s upbringing. Essentially it was a soundtrack without the film to accompany it, but as a self-promoting tool, it did the trick.
“It worked because people were calling up saying that they liked the music, even though they hadn’t seen the film,” Adamson explains with a wry grin. “I got one letter from a director saying, I heard your record Moss Side Story, and it sounds like a shoot ’em up and I love shoot ’em ups.”
Since then, Adamson has completed two proper film soundtracks, for Carl Colpaert’s Delusion and — with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr in tow — Allison Anders’s Gas, Food, Lodging. In the meantime, his non-soundtrack work, particularly the Mercury-nominated Soul Murder, has continued to dab at a musical palette of hip hop, John Barry-like orchestration and skewed cocktail jazz; the latter recently attracting the attention of David Lynch, who asked Adamson to contribute twisted musical passages for his next film, Lost Highway: “He thought that what I do would suit what’s going on with this particular movie, and when I saw it, I could understand why. It’s like a rollercoaster ride through hell.”
Adamson’s latest album, Oedipus Schmoedipus, reinforces his gift for unhinged atmospherics, but is shot through with newfound commerciality, featuring guest vocal contributions from his former gaffer Cave, ex-Associate Billy MacKenzie and, most notably, Jarvis Cocker on the Sly & The Family Stone-rooted opener, ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Pelvis’.
Nevertheless, there are darker elements to Oedipus Schmoedipus. On ‘It’s Business As Usual’, Adamson toys with self-mythology (a recurring theme in all of his work), featuring a frighteningly obsessive answerphone message from a female individual who has clearly been mentally scarred by her relationship with our Barry. The question, of course: is it real?
“It’s pretty real to me,” Adamson laughs. “I’m just trying to stay enigmatic. So in other words, no. But that’s not to disappoint any readers who feel they’re listening in on something they shouldn’t be… because you are.”
© Tom Doyle, Q, October 1996