HE ANSWERS THE PHONE like a petulant teenager: another day, another interview to sulk his way through.
Two minutes later, he’s lost his temper, raging about the press and his record company and the confederacy of dunces railing against him. A minute after that he’s distracted by the present his guitarist Johnny McNabb has bought for his girlfriend, attention clearly wandering. And he ricochets from mood to mood for the next twenty minutes, until he’s convinced himself — quite wrongly — that Rolling Stone hates his new album and this is all one giant stitch up.
Ryan Adams is “only 29 years old”. He will repeat this simple fact several times during our interview, offering it up as a catch-all alibi when the questioning gets too hot for his liking. Considering his twenties have been a runaway success, it’s a strange notion to cling onto. After a stint leading the extremely cool alt-country troupe Whiskeytown, Adams released two solo albums, Heartbreaker and Gold, to rapturous critical acclaim. You’d think he’d be facing 30 feeling pretty good about himself. But instead he seems to be consumed by professional and personal crisis, as if his life has suddenly become a huge disaster.
To be fair, Adams’ career has taken an unexpected turn of late. As recently as last February, he was enthusing about a new album, Love Is Hell, comparing its dark emotional tone to The Cure’s Disintegration. He clearly believed this was going to be his masterwork, the record he’d been striving towards for the last five or so years. Unfortunately, his label, Lost Highway, weren’t convinced of its quality and, in Adams’ words, “went cold”.
“It’s not what they said, it’s what they didn’t say,” the singer fumes. “They didn’t immediately make for any press dates. They did what any smart fucking powerful label would do — they just didn’t do anything. It’s all fucked up. I had a manager who became part of my record label and all of sudden he was pandering to my label and I just ended up fucked. I didn’t really care. I’m tired anyway.” It must be heartbreaking to pour your heart and soul into an album only for it to be rejected. “It is. Because I fucking think it’s really good. I really like it. I really really really really like it, like I’ve never liked music I’ve done ever before. And I intend wholeheartedly to make even more music like it.”
Love Is Hell eventually came out as two EPs. A happy ending, you’d imagine, but even that outcome left Adams screwed. “If you want to know the dirty fucking secret that is my stupid label’s trick: I’m a musician so I’m paid per album, well they found a way to not pay me for any record but one. They’re saying Demolition was a rarities compilation and not a real album so I never got paid for that. Gold was supposed to be a double album but they took the last five songs and made it a bonus disc and put it on the first hundred and fifty thousand copies. Fucking my fans over and making them pay extra for a record I wanted to be a double album. They counted that as one record. They won’t count Love Is Hell now because they say it’s two EPs and not a proper record. I’m on a six record contract and I’ve already handed in four other albums that they haven’t released. They haven’t paid me for anything and the only money I’m making is off playing live shows.”
Frustrated by the impasse he’d reached with his label, Adams took the only possible course available: he gave up music completely. “I told them to fuck off and that I was going to sue them and that I quit. Which I did. I did quit. I said ‘I’m not making records until you figure out how to put out my past releases.'”
Adams couldn’t stay away from his guitar for long, though. Unbeknown to his label, he paid for himself and drummer Johnny T Verington to record a set of simple rock’n’roll songs, a million cathartic miles away from the subtle heartbreak of Love Is Hell.
“I wanted to rock,” Adams explains. “I was tired of being fucking sad all the time. I’ve been on anti-depressants for three fucking years to try to sleep and deal with all this pressure and bullshit because my life is spinning out of control because my business life is not what I want it to be. My artistic life shouldn’t be like this. And finally I got tired of it.”
So you just wanted to have some fun?
“Yeah, I’ve always been wanting to have some fun. Even when I was fucking dick sad, I wanted to have fun.”
These recordings would eventually surface, with no little irony, as Adams’ third official album on Lost Highway, titled Rock’N’Roll. In many ways, it sounds like a raised middle finger to the suits who wouldn’t put out Love Is Hell — Adams practically saying “OK, you want a hit, here’s a whole bunch. Here’s a Strokes song. Here’s an Oasis song. Here’s a Smiths song. You wanted fucking hits. You got ’em.” You could almost see it as a barbed comment on the state of alternative rock’n’roll in the early twenty first century.
Adams, barely containing his anger, thinks this interpretation of his record is full of crap. “I think this album has tons of really heartfelt shit on it,” he argues. “I don’t think ‘Wish You Were Here’ is balls out or ‘Anybody Wanna Take Me Home’. It’s really not that different. I’m only 29 years old. It’s not like I’m an old man and I’ve picked up an electric guitar. I’ve seen a lot of exaggerating about the album where people are like ‘he’s totally changed’. Dude, I’m not even who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. Don’t people solidify who they are in their mid to late thirties? I’m 29. I’ve just turned 29, like a week ago.”
Isn’t there an element of you paying tribute to your record collection? The Strokes with ‘This Is It’ Oasis with ‘Shallow’, Nirvana with ‘Note To Self: Don’t Die’, U2 with ‘So Alive, etc, etc.
“Obviously as a musician, I’m paying tribute to… not really paying tribute, I’m influenced by my records. That’s why we make records, because you’re influenced by records. I certainly didn’t invent the craft myself. A couple of journalists have had that angle and I was basically so tired that I was like, ‘yeah sure. Whatever. Whatever your angle is. Let me help you make it so I can get off the phone’. I’m too old for this shit.”
‘Anybody Wanna Take Me Home’ is almost a Smiths pastiche. It fades in and out in exactly the same way as ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’.
“Yeah, that was me doing the Johnny Marr Smiths thing. You know that’s how they used to do that with ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ and ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’. That was me nodding to that. I like to tip my hat to the people I learn from.”
You seem to change your singing style from song to song as well. On ‘Shallow’, you have Liam’s snarl pitch perfect.
“I don’t think I sound like Liam on that song,” Adams protests. “I think I sound like me singing at the top of my lungs. I understand the reference because I stole the T Rex lick and so did they. And I’m also screaming in the song and so does Liam. So that’s fair. But there are only so many tricks. Isn’t that the whole joke about rock’n’roll? That there’s only so many tricks? Before you get back to square one. I mean, it is what it is. It is just a stupid rock record. No one’s gong to fucking care in a year. No one’s even gong to care in three weeks. I’m not a major contender. It doesn’t matter. Even more funny, I’m not going to fucking care.”
I start to ask about the heartfelt songs on Rock’N’Roll, but Adams cuts me off. He doesn’t really seem to be listening. “I’m just boxing you around the ring trying to find your angle. I want to find out what you want to write and help you write it. You don’t like my record, it’s cool. Because we can go there too. I’ll totally accommodate you.”
“I just want to understand where you’re coming from,” I reply but they’re wasted words. He’s too busy trying to find somewhere to eat.
“[To his companions] I don’t know, the bar looks kind of crazy inside doesn’t it? Alright I guess we can eat here. You’re totally Captain Beefheart? What the fuck does that mean? What? Did you guys smoke pot? [To me] Hello? Sorry, we’re trying to find a place to eat. I’m being picky. OK, let’s eat here. It looks like a diner but it also looks like a bar. Does anybody here not drink when they eat? Jesus fucking Christ. Sorry, I’m going to have to do a couple more then go to lunch.”
Parker (Posey, uber cool indie actress and Ryan’s girlfriend) was executive producer on Rock’N’Roll. What did she do in that role?
Adams to Posey, who’s right there with him: “Parker, what did you do on the record as executive producer?”
Posey comes on the phone: “I danced and I inspired and I read poetry and showed up with a smile on my face and got the boys to make a record.”
“Did it work?” I ask. Too late. They’re not listening.
Posey to Adams: “Does he like the record?”
Adams: “I don’t know. I don’t think he does.”
Posey: “He might like you. He might just be provoking you.”
Adams: “I don’t know.”
Posey: “It’s not a big deal.”
Adams, back talking to me again: “It’s OK, we’re just talking about you. We’re just interested in you, that’s all. We’re interested people. We’re in Scotland and we’re bored so we’re interested in everything we don’t know about. OK, final question.”
I don’t see why you assume I don’t like the record.
“Because I fucking don’t like my own record, that’s probably why.”
“Because I’m self defeating and I don’t like my own record, so that’s probably why. I’m always looking for a thing to not like. But it’s not going to matter. In a year, none of this shit’s going to matter. None of it. It doesn’t even matter now. That’s the whole joke. It doesn’t fucking matter. It doesn’t matter because I don’t matter and I don’t want to matter. [To Posey and co.] OK, look, you guys, there’s an ambulance here, let’s not eat here. Look, that is a totally good sign that we should not fucking… I’m not eating here. You don’t eat in places where there’s an ambulance picking people out of the place. Jesus fucking Christ. Can you believe we almost ate there?”
They’re not stretchering someone out, are they?
“I told them that place didn’t look right. I have an ear for bad restaurants. I may have eaten in many. [To McNabb] Johnny… hey man look. A fucking ambulance pulled up and two medics go there to pull somebody out of the place that you chose to eat in. So let’s go eat at McDonalds or something safe. [To me] Hello? You want to ask Johnny a question? Here he is. Cool.”
On comes Johnny.
“I got the phone pass off,” he laughs, like this happens all the time. “I think Ryan’s looking at a pair of shoes. We can’t wait to go to Australia. Sydney’s my second favourite city after New York.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Eventually, Adams is coaxed back on the phone. He sounds more surly and petulant than ever.
“I think I’m really terrible at this interview stuff, I just suck. I don’t know. Whatever you want me to say.”
I just want you to tell me the truth.
“It’s been constant crap for so long,” he moans. “All I ever wanted to do was make records, you know. We are going to eat here? I think so, yeah. I think we’re going to eat here. I just want to make records. I don’t want to have to explain myself any more. I don’t even know. I’m never going to develop as a person if I have to keep fighting to just make these stupid fucking records. It’s so dumb. It isn’t that I’m a mean person and I don’t mean to give you trouble on the phone but I hate doing interviews. Why am I any more special than anybody else just because I make a dumb record? If anything it should be a liability not an asset. That fucking guy had to express himself on a fucking stupid rock album, then obviously I’m missing something. That’s the thing that nobody gets. All these people being championed for being dickfaces. Everybody champions rock people, like champion Jack White or champion Van Halen. Champion a bunch of idiots who believe that it’ll actually fill them up. Guys like Jack White and Van Halen they need it, they need to be loved in order for them to feel good about themselves. I don’t fucking even want it. I’m totally satisfied to make stupid records and live inside these little moments of my own and not have to know anybody. Because I don’t really care. I know it’s bullshit. That’s the funny thing. It isn’t that people are bullshit or that I’m bullshit, it’s just the whole rock world. It’s excess or success or failure or record sales or people liking it or even people disliking it, none of it matters. It’s really about how happy I am to play guitar. And I’m absolutely a hundred per cent satisfied to just play it at home.”
The irony, of course, is that Adams talks a lot of sense about rock’n’roll: there are so many tricks; records can and will be forgotten in a year’s time; the whole music world is bullshit; it really doesn’t matter. He’s actually in a prime position to make an album that genuinely deconstructs rock’n’roll, that puts into sharp perspective the whole carnival of stupidity that plays out daily for our slack-jawed entertainment. Rock’N’Roll would be a better record if it embraced that idea. As it is, it’s just a bunch of knowing rock songs bashed out in a moment of private rebellion. And Adams is just another whining brat spoilt by too much privilege.
Do you think…
“I’m really hungry.”
Do you ever see a time when you wouldn’t make music commercially?
“Probably very soon because I’m not doing a very good job of it.”
What would you do?
“I can see myself being a plumber. I like being a plumber. Something about my personality and plumbing works. I like the maths side of it and I like the artistic side of it. You really have to think your way through all of that stuff. It makes sense to me as a person.”
Maybe you could just go on holiday.
“I don’t know. I’m the kind of person that has to have something to do or I go a little crazy.”
And off he goes to have some macaroni cheese and feel relieved that yet another interview is finally over.
© Ian Watson, Rolling Stone (Australia), January 2004