In Conversation: Barry Adamson (Rough Trade East, 7 November 2018)

Upon the release of his career-surveying Memento Mori compilation, I will have the enormous pleasure of talking to Barry Adamson at a very special Rough Trade East event on 7th November from 7pm.

Barry Adamson talks to Mat Smith about his 40 years in music, taking in his formative beginnings with Magazine, his time as a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, film soundtracks and his solo career, as a musician and composer.

This will be followed by a short set of songs from his new 40 year anthology ‘Memento Mori’.

After the performance there will be a signing where Barry will be available to sign his new album and items from throughout his career.

Tickets can be obtained through Rough Trade’s website here.

(c) 2018 Mute / Rough Trade

Visage – The Damned Don’t Cry (Spectrum album, 2000)


spectrum / universal music | 544 381-2 | 2000

Sometimes, back in the early days of writing Documentary Evidence, the challenge was trying to find reasons to write about songs and artists I liked but which had no Mute Records connection whatsoever.

Such was the case with Visage. Recalling ‘Fade To Grey’ brings with it recollections of my four-year-old sister marching up and down a catwalk at a student fashion show in Leamington Spa back in the day-glo decade; while that’s a great reason for getting misty-eyed about a song, it didn’t qualify it for Documentary Evidence. So I was delighted to discover by accident that Barry Adamson had played in Visage, and that all of a sudden legitimised me being able to devote a page to Steve Strange’s band.

The untimely death of Strange from a heart attack leads me to re-post this review of a budget compilation today.

During 1979 and 1982, the core three musician members of Howard Devoto‘s Magazine moonlighted in Visage, the electro-pop studio-only project of Steve Strange and Ultravox’s Billy Currie, with additional contributions from Midge Ure and drummer Rusty Egan. Barry Adamson, Dave Formula and the late John McGeoch played on Visage’s first two albums Visage (which included the genre-defining New Romantic hit single ‘Fade To Grey’) and The Anvil. It seems unbelievable that the backbone of Devoto’s post-punk soundsmiths should moonlight in a futuristic band so far removed from their alternative rock day jobs, and this unusual period in Adamson’s musical career is often missed out of biographies. For those interested in hearing some of Visage’s work, you could do well to check out the budget Damned Don’t Cry compilation on Spectrum, which includes selections from the band’s back catalogue, including tracks from their 1984 swansong where the Magazine members were no longer part of the line-up. Another compilation – the full-price Fade To Grey album – was released recently, but includes almost all of the tracks on Damned Don’t Cry, and certainly no extra biographical information than the two sides of text included here.

In truth, without knowing exactly who appears on the tracks from 1979 to 1982, anyone specifically looking for Adamson’s distinctive bass playing is likely to be disappointed. Then again, having spoken to Barry about his use of studio downtime when Magazine were recording Real Life, he was already experimenting with tapes and synths at this time, and therefore it is possible that his involvement in Visage was more than just laying down the odd bassline. To fans of the early eighties cross-over of New Wave, synthpop and New Romanticism, this collection includes some absolute gems. Notwithstanding the mysterious sheen of ‘Fade To Grey’ (a track which for me will always be synonymous with a Leamington fashion show my sister was in), there is also the funk-pop of ‘We Move (Dance mix)’ from 1981, with some pointy guitars and solid Adamson bass groove, and what must be an occasional vocal from the distinctive Midge Ure. Elsewhere, the hyperactive elastic bass of ‘Night Train’ recalls ‘The Thin Wall’ by Ultravox, laced with lashings of horn-led soul. The super-group collision of styles in perhaps most prevalent on ‘Visage’, where Dave Formula’s signature Synergy-style orchestral synth melodies and riffs blend in with some Peter Hook-esque bass from Adamson, and great vocals from Steve Strange, who proves himself to be an excellent – albeit under-rated – vocalist throughout this compilation.

Formula’s keyboards are much more obviously present on these tracks than either McGeoch or Adamson, assuming that they were using their regular instruments. Nevertheless, there are some brilliant tracks here : the 1980s nightclub-friendly ‘The Anvil’, the dance mix of the instrumental ‘Frequency 7’ (sounding like an early Nitzer Ebb track infused with a synthpop flavour rather than electro-punk, along with some ‘Warm Leatherette’ noises), the positively soaring but mournful electronics of ‘Whispers’ and the Thompson Twins meets Human League crisp synthpop of ‘Pleasure Boys’ in its dance mix guise. ‘Damned Don’t Cry’, the 1982 track that provided this compilation with its title shares the same mysterious, ethereal tone as ‘Fade To Grey’, with the addition of a 4/4 beat, arpeggiated bassline and some Andy McCluskey-styled vocals. ‘Love Glove’ is the best track from the 1984 Beat Boy LP, an upbeat electropop number with saxophones that reminds you of everything that was good about 1980s pop. The over-long ‘Beat Boy’, however, reminds you of everything that was bad about the 1980s – that horrible synth slap bass, orchestral stabs and stuttered vocals. Yuck. The sub-Phantom Of The Opera / Rick Wakeman / Vangelis track ‘The Steps’ (1980) is also worth skipping through, if only to get you to ‘Frequency 7’ quicker.

First published 2004; re-edited 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Barry Adamson: Documentary Evidence Interview (2004)

That Old Jazz Devil Called Love: The Barry Adamson interview

Barry Adamson

I completed this email interview with Barry Adamson back in 2004, just after he’d left Mute, released a new rough track called ‘Harlem’ as a free download, performed with Russell Maliphant at The Barbican and was experimenting with making music on Macs. It was only just over ten years ago, but releasing music as a download was still something pretty new, hence his comments on the ‘political’ nature of releasing music this way. Back in 2004 I was still pretty new to conducting interviews, hence why this appears as a question and answer-style feature.

Former Magazine bassist Barry Adamson was for over ten years the very essence of the quintessential Mute Records artist – eclectic, prolific and highly popular, just thankfully never a chart act. His work traversed many, many musical boundaries and genres from soul to hip-hop through to noir film scores. Parallel work as a remixer saw him reconfigure tracks by Recoil, The Wolfgang Press and Nitzer Ebb, drawing on his considerable skills as a sound designer. His work has received plaudits from the likes of Portishead and Nine Inch NailsTrent Reznor, who picked Adamson to provide tracks for his Natural Born Killers soundtrack. Barry left Mute in 2003, and Mat Smith caught up with him the following year for a few questions.

MAT SMITH: I’ve just visited Manchester for the first time. I imagine that the city’s changed quite considerably, and now looks to be a carbon copy of the trendiest parts of London. Does the city still provide you with as much inspiration as it did for Moss-Side Story? What does inspire you?

BARRY ADAMSON: Well. I left Manchester some time ago, before the Happy Mondays and all of that era, but the city as I knew it then provided me with a historical noir backdrop of crime and decay, which I was completely drawn to. I guess my youth was impressed like a thumb into clay by the spirit of people living the way they did, when they did and how. How they relieved poverty through a whole myriad of entertainment; how the influence of black culture affected this and how movies might mirror these events. This model dominated my work for some time and perhaps other versions in other towns offer me similar yet different interest. I’m writing a screenplay which is clothed by London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, and New York. So this kind of inspiration continues.

MS: Manchester is an important part of the history of the UK music scene – like London and Liverpool – and you were a player in that nascent scene with Howard Devoto in Magazine. Are you able to look back on those times now happily, or are you glad they’re behind you?

BA: Magazine was an incredibly happy time for me. It was like going to a school where you had a laugh all the time and the girls fancied you and the boys thought you were cool as a fuck. A bit like the juniors where it’s OK to fall over and cry at the blood spilling down your leg and then to get running again, laughing your ass of. None of which could have ever prepared me for the psychological, physical and spiritual slaughter of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds!

MS: Mute Records was your UK home for many years, and I was somewhat surprised that you have jumped ship. What prompted the move from the label? Your (presumably tongue-in-cheek) press release on the website states that you were given a gold watch, and I kind of got the impression that you were glad to be free?

BA : Well. There comes a point in everyone’s life… This was my point. I’d been here before: a kind of giddiness at the possible betrayal but knowing that the car you’re driving needs to go and a newer model (plus the fear of the possible cost) has to become the next avenue to walk/run down. As Joy Division once said – ‘A change of scene / A change of style / With no regrets.

MS: The new track, ‘Harlem’, is absolutely superb – obviously Adamson in an instantly-recognisable way, but a progession of sorts. Does the fact that this was made available as a download indicate a shift in the way that your music will be marketed? Are you in favour of downloads, or do you fall into the camp that would be against the widespread development of this?

BA: Without getting into this question too much from a political standing, yes absolutely on the idea that BA will now be a download purchase affair with ideas about having a specific photo info section available for each project. I guess for a while some hard copies will be available but it won’t be long before you can download your whole day! ‘Harlem’ was a tiny experiment. the standards were just above demo as far as I was concerned. I did it in a day but thought it good enough to give away I wanted to give something to the people who bother to sign up and they say such incredibly supportive things. In the future the songs and music will be mastered and obsessively detailed as usual.

MS: Many of your songs have an improvised tone to them, but you are credited as the sole author. How do your songs come about – what’s the process of getting them from an idea to being fully recorded? How do you decide which instruments / players will be used?

BA: Wow. The secrets of the BA? Let me see. Starts in the head. That fool was me was in a dream I had in Australia. The lot. Words, music, melody. Boom. I woke up and copied it up in 15 mins. That’s rare. Normally? You hear it and then the job is to arrange it so folk can dig it. Starts with me. Do I dig it? Do I get off on you diggin’ it? Instruments are tried and tested. Some come without effort, others you must wait for further inspiration. There are players who are so connected to themselves that they understand even my crudest of languages that rely on feeling and movie image. Those are the cats you keep in your book. It’s all a process.

MS: At the Barbican Only Connect concert in April, I noticed you were making use of a Mac. How has this changed the way you compose / perform?

BA: It’s amazing to sit with that thing and make very colourful sketches of ideas, some of which remain in the final mix. I remember recording Real Life with Magazine and after everybody went to bed, getting up again and making tracks into a cassette of sequences and stuff, using the keyboards and effects units. The G4 is kinda the same theory to me. I love the modern world of technology for the G4 alone!

MS: And finally, what’s next for Barry Adamson? New album? Tour? A totally different way of presenting your music? More soundtracks?

BA: I’m writing music everyday. Some for projects and some for myself. I’m gagging to make film. I’m preparing the way for this to happen. I would like to bring out some work online and then play live. The world is mine. Plus three weeks ago I had another son. Edmondo Lucas George Adamson. That’s my latest release!

First published 2004; re-edited 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence