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

Barry Adamson & Russell Maliphant – Only Connect, The Barbican, London 08/04/2004

Barry Adamson & Russell Maliphant - Only Connect ticket

The orchestra assemble themselves on a platform to the right of the stage; Barry Adamson casually walks to a podium of laptops and keyboards on the left of the platform – the glow of the Apple logo, with the house lights still on and the audience still finding their seats, glints every bit as brightly as the glare from his wraparound shades. He settles himself to the left of the stage, flanked by Tom Robinson Band keyboardist and veteran Adamson collaborator Nick Plytas and drummer Simon Pearson. He rocks back and forth, seemingly testing the hip injury that has plagued him in recent times. His head is clean-shaven, his suit tailored to perfection, offset by a red shirt and matching pocket handkerchief; he simply exudes cool.

But, at least for the show’s first thirty minute segment, Adamson is just one of the talented players here, and as the lights dim and the Russell Maliphant dance troupe – Maliphant himself, plus Flora Bourderon, Maria Goudot, Miquel de Jong, Michael Pomero and Anna Williams – he begins to conjure noises, loops and speech samples from his Mac on the opening piece (Moss Side Story‘s ‘On The Wrong Side Of Relaxation’. After five minutes, the BBC Concert Orchestra (conducted by Robert Ziegler) kick in with some initially soft orchestration. The dancers are formed in pairs, looking something like an alt.Gap commercial, angular movements seeming to evoke the agony and violence of love, twisting and contorting with seemingly impossible ease. For the second track – ‘Dance With A Stranger’ – Adamson switches to bass, sitting in a chair among his musicians. He provides a mellow bass counterpart to a moody version of ‘Mr Eddie’s Theme’ from his soundtrack for The Lost Highway, before frantically working the frets as the momentum of the song, and the jerky dance movements, gather pace.

For the middle section, Adamson gathers his band down on the lower part of the stage (‘We’ve come down from our soul food kitchen,’) and urges us to ‘feel free’. The band then rip into a soul-jazz jam session (‘Space Spiritual’) which Adamson dedicates to the recently-deceased Magazine guitarist John McGeoch, with solos from Pearson, Plytas, Pete Whyman (sax and clarinet), Mike Kearsey (trombone) and Ben Edwards (trumpet), with some stunning wah-wah bass from Adamson himself. He hangs up his bass for a faithful rendition of ‘Jazz Devil’, refering to himself as Barry Hellafonte and Telly Savalas during the track. He stalks and prowls the stage like a wolf, grooving along with the jazzy vibes, supported by Dudley Phillips on double bass. For ‘The Vibes Ain’t Nothin’ But The Vibes’, Adamson takes a seat among the musicians, tapping his foot in time to Anthony Kerr’s vibes, lazily recounting the story’s tale ‘of lives and lovers, while toward the end of the piece the BBC Concert Orchestra soak the track with serene strings. A totally different variant of ‘Cinematic Soul’ (entitled ‘Cinematic (California) Soul’) closes this section, with Adamson losing power to his earphone just before starting. He grooves off the stage toward the end of the number, leaving the musicians to earnestly play out the song to rapturous applause.

After another interval, Adamson and the band once again move to the upper deck, and the dancers – now reduced to five – return to the centre stage. The band play a stunning version of ‘Le Matin Des Noire’ from The King Of Nothing Hill, with Adamson gesticulating and motioning as he half sings, half speaks the lines in French and English. The elongated version allows the mood to be teased out further compared to its recorded sibling, with the string section applying the Parisian atmosphere perfectly. They play two more tracks (‘Holy Thursday’ and The Taming Of The Shrewd‘s ‘From Rusholme With Love’) the latter featuring a solitary dancer bouncing, rolling and creating shapes in the centre of the dimly-lit lower stage. Adamson remains seated for these tracks, again coaxing sultry lines from his bass, while the gloriously atmospheric orchestra swells up around him.

It’s two hours, with breaks, but it feels so much shorter, all too brief. There’s an abundance of soul, atmosphere and emotion here – it’s moving, maudlin and murky all at once. But overall, like the man Adamson himself, it’s impossibly cool.

Thanks to Clem Buckmiester for the set list.

First published 2004; re-edited 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence