Fire away: Ryan Adams

By Anthonie Tonnon

They say you should never meet your idols, particularly if they are as notoriously prickly in conversation as Ryan Adams. But, ahead of Adam's shows in Dunedin and Auckland, one of VOLUME's writers took the challenge.

'What moves me are beautiful songs on the piano or the guitar and really, really heavy music.' - Ryan Adams Photo / Supplied
'What moves me are beautiful songs on the piano or the guitar and really, really heavy music.' - Ryan Adams Photo / Supplied

I've had two Ryan Adams periods in my life. When I was 17 and heartbroken for the first time, I went to the library and chose three CDs, solely on the cover art and the photocopies of reviews that had been stuck on to the CDs. They were The Strokes' Is This It?, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' No More Shall We Part, and Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker. That pretty much ensured that I would spend the next decade trying to be a musician.

When I opened the interview with Adams himself by mentioning this, I got a warm response. He seemed keen to talk about Is This It?.

"That Strokes album is actually a lot sadder than people probably realise because there's obviously that thrill of the record, but it is a really morose record," he mused.

While some artists refuse to write their breakthrough albums again, Adams has put out a solid attempt at a better Heartbreaker or Gold just about every 18 months. Even with his break from music, his productivity in the last decade puts contemporaries like The Strokes to shame.

Ashes and Fire, the album Adams is touring now, continues this tradition. It relies on an acoustic guitar and masterful, simple lyrics. It's full of swooping refrains and images that are like hearing new clichés for the first time.

Adams is now reaping the rewards of his prolific output, and performing solo acoustic, the way he started, is a fitting way to deliver it.

"It's been the best tour I've ever done," he says. "The older songs, as well as the newer songs, they all sound better solo than they ever do with a band. There's an intimacy and a level there that you just can't get any other way."

But now is too good a time to be an Adams fan for me to have wanted to dwell on Ashes and Fire.

It's good because Adams has completed his relationship with Lost Highway, the label that insisted Love is Hell be released as two separate EPs and flat-out rejected much of his material. As part of this break-up, he has the rights to release his unreleased material on his PAX-AM label, including the Cardinals album, III/IV, and, in a short vinyl run, his "fully-realised sci-fi metal concept album album" Orion.

My Adams renaissance came when a friend gave me a compilation taken from the half-a-dozen albums Adams released in 2006 under the name The Shit, not long before his break from music. I found it as refreshing as Heartbreaker once had been. It's a kind of hip hop mixtape that alternated between explosive punk songs and Casiotone drollery, introducing an absurd world of characters like Andy Fiddlesticks the Alligator and Jimmy Hackysack, along with stories like Trent Reznor getting tube socks for Xmas.

I didn't dare ask about The Shit, but I thought I might get away with asking about Orion. But when I seemed to be referring to it as a Ryan Adams release proper, he took it to mean that I didn't know the story of his last five years. Suddenly he sounded exasperated: "This sort of information is readily available, but I'll explain it to you..."

What I love about Adams is that while most people will be drawn first to his mainstream façade, there are further worlds to delve into. The PAX-AM website is an arcade game-themed site where messages are signed off by Bongo the Snowman. On Twitter, Adams more often than not talks about obscure metal bands, and recently recorded a cover 'Round and Round' by '80s hair metal band RATT for NPR. What I wanted to know was how these diverse versions of Ryan Adams fed into each other. To make a strong traditional album like Ashes and Fire, did it take letting you record a metal album? But Adams wasn't impressed.

"The best way I can explain this is this - wouldn't it be odd if you were interviewing a new interesting chef making French food, but if you talked to the guy and said, 'Have you ever cut up a potato and made French fries or have you ever made a pizza?'"
Well, at least I prompted him to turn a metaphor.

"Part of the joy of music is listening to lots of different kinds of music and learning from it. Specifically for me, I like writing songs that move me, and what moves me are beautiful songs on the piano or the guitar and really, really heavy music."

In a good interview, like a good conversation, you usually have to abandon the script and let things go where they will. Perhaps if we'd kept talking about The Strokes I wouldn't be hanging up the phone in a cold sweat. But would that be a real Ryan Adams interview? I'm not sure it would.

*Ryan Adams plays The Regent Theatre in Dunedin on Tuesday 6 March and The Civic Theatre in Auckland on Thursday 8 March.

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