by Tim “Napalm” Stegall
April 30, 2014
Adam Ant is a charming conversationalist with a soft South London accent and a distinctly old-fashioned English rock star manner. Refreshing, really. Born Stuart Goddard in 1954, his life was famously changed in 1975 whilst playing bass in the '50s revivalists band Bazooka Joe, following a chance encounter with an upstart opening act: The Sex Pistols, playing their first gig. Following five years on the punk circuit with an Adam and The Ants that plied an art school version of the New York Dolls in bondage, Malcolm McLaren introduced Adam to tribal rhythms and pirate fashion before stealing his band and renaming them Bow Wow Wow. With fellow 1st wave punk pioneer Marco Pirroni adding slashing ‘Mick Ronson-meets-Duane Eddy’ guitars, Adam Ant would go on to sell 40,000,000 records worldwide, as an Ant and as a solo artist. After an 18-year absence, partly derailed by a bipolar diagnosis, Ant has returned with his 9th LP, the self-released double-vinyl, Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter. From the London office of his Blueblack Hussar Records, he explains what occupied his absence, how it helped inspire his autobiographical new album, some of his musical influences and obsessions, and his opinions on the treatment of mental health patients in the UK.
I was listening this morning to someone I suspect may have been a big influence on you: Johnny Kidd and The Pirates.
Oh, yeah! Johnny Kidd, I used to watch him when I was growing up on the television! Yeah, he did the whole pirate thing and had that big hit with “Shakin' All Over” in the early '60s. He was pretty good, Johnny Kidd! I saw The Pirates quite a few years ago in London. They'd reformed, the original Pirates.
I made the connection, once I discovered Johnny Kidd and The Pirates and thought of the Kings of The Wild Frontier days. I thought, “Aha!”
Aha! We used to do an encore a couple of years back with “Shakin' All Over.” It's a good live number. It's so simple and it's easy to get bang on. And The Who covered it on Live at Leeds obviously. It's a good song.
Great song! And that's something I've noticed about your music, over the years: There's always been echoes of the best British '50s rock 'n' roll.
Mmm-hmm. Yeah, I've always been influenced by those who came before. I grew up watching rock 'n' roll on the TV. I was lucky when I was kid that rock 'n' roll was on television shows a lot. You didn't just have to hear it on the radio. You had a lot of those '50s performers on, and of course the Beatles were always on television, and that show Top of The Pops had all the greats. So, it was a big influence.
That's how I got into a lot of stuff, too. I can remember being 7 years old and watching late night US rock shows on TV and seeing David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, and even the New York Dolls.
Oh, yeah! Yeah! I saw the New York Dolls twice when they came over to England. They were mucking up the scene, as well. I saw them at Wembley, I think, supporting Rod Stewart. I think the important part of getting off on music is loving the music, and loving the performers.
It's interesting that you brought this up. I would listen to early Adam and The Ants, songs like “Deutscher Girls”, and hear a lot of New York Dolls in it. So, it's good to know you saw them when they came over to England.
Yeah. I think those two albums were so important. They led to the whole punk rock thing that happened in London. Everybody that was starting in London was buying the first Modern Lovers album, with Jonathan Richman. That was a very key album to the whole punk rock movement over here. Although it didn't come across as too punk rock by the very look of it. But I remember it being available only in one shop in London, and everybody was coming down there and getting it, as well as Roxy, Iggy, the Velvets and things, and Alice Cooper. I remember the Modern Lovers being a great influence.
Well, Jonathan Richman is just such a wonderful songwriter to begin with. He's always great to see live. Every time I've seen him, I've usually been in a bad mood over something that was happening, and you can't help but walk out of a Jonathan Richman show without having just the hugest smile on your face.
Yeah, I saw him last year at a festival. I was on a festival up north and he was on the bill, and I watched him from the side of the stage. He was just with a drummer, and he had an acoustic guitar, and he was playing away there. You're right, he does put out a lot of happiness, Jonathan.
Getting back to the early English rock 'n' rollers, you have a direct salute to one of those figures on your new album, “Vince Taylor.” (Note: Taylor was a British '50s rock 'n' roll singer, best-known for the classic “Brand New Cadillac.” He'd erroneously claimed to be an American and never made it beyond cult status, despite becoming huge in France.)
Oh, yeah. Vince Taylor's one of these guys who...I spent a bit of time living in Paris recently, and I spent a bit of time trying to track down the recordings of Vince Taylor and of Johnny Hallyday (Note: French '50s rocker still active today.) as well. The Vince Taylor story came about from this piece of jewelry I owned, a gold chain I used to wear around my wrist in 1977. It was given to me by this French girl, and I sorta asked her once, “Where'd you get it from?” She said, “My boyfriend Vince.” And it turned out to be Vince Taylor. So I went around wearing this bit of gold chain that belonged to Vince Taylor. And that's kind of the key to this song.
But I think Vince Taylor was this very, very underrated rock 'n' roller. He looked fantastic! Watching his work, he's absolutely brilliant. He was an Englishman living in America, and then living in France, he became a big star. There are a lot of people interested in that song. I've gotten lots of feedback on it from people who are discovering him for the first time, which is good.
It's my favorite track on the record. I know some of his back story, so it made me appreciate the song more. I know that he kinda adopted that ‘Gene Vincent leather-and-chains’ image and made it bigger in France than he did in England. And obviously, he did “Brand New Cadillac,” which The Clash later covered to great effect. I know he apparently was also one of the inspirations for the Ziggy Stardust character, as well.
Yeah. A bit of a wild man, if you watch some of that early footage. He was an incredible performer. But then, again, in France he's like Elvis. In France, he and Johnny Hallyday were the two biggest rock 'n' roll stars. They were enormously famous.
I used to have a friend who used to tell me the joke: How do you say “Elvis Presley” in French? Johnny Hallyday.
He's great, Johnny Hallyday! I love his work. He's the French Elvis. He still performs. He's still working. He's pretty old, but he had an album out last year. He still plays the big venues in France. He's gone a bit more metal now. He's a bit sorta heavy, heavy rock. But his last album was a bit of a mixture, really. He gets into these different markets and things. But he's been the mirror image of Elvis since the late '50s. So I went to track down some of the original albums. I managed to get quite the collection over there.
I really like your new album quite a bit. It's a strong record. It's as good as anything you have ever done. Why did it take so long for you to get something out now?
I don't think it was a conscious thing. I didn't expect it to take that long. But I think with the Wonderful tour in '95, I finished the tour of America and I'd had enough, really. I contracted glandular fever on the tour, and that held me up for a couple of years anyway. I spent some time in Los Angeles, pursuing acting work – I enrolled in an acting class out there. I had my book out when I came back. I had my daughter. I was living in Tennessee a couple of years after L.A. After my daughter was born I came back to the UK.
About three years ago, I started getting...I'd been writing lyrics off and on. I just start to feel like I wanted to write again. So I started writing and I started recording with Boz Boorer, who I've worked with before. He'd previously been in my band, but he pretty much works with Morrissey all the time now. It started there, really. It's just an actual thing, and I felt like the time was right. And also, when I came back to England, I wanted to be able to do it with a bit more freedom. So I formed my own record label, which I've now done. So, that took quite a lot of time to do. And there you are. That's why it took so long.
But I held back the actual release of the album by at least two years. I wanted to get out and do the live work first, and then release the album.
Well, I think that was a smart move: Re-establishing yourself as a live performer, and then unleashing the album on us.
Well, that was actually a very natural thing. I actually felt like doing that first anyway, because I've always performed live. Also, I had the chance to look back over my catalog and pick out my favorite songs and see what songs work best live, and get the right band to play with, which I did. So I just went out and did 150 concerts. I can put together a set that's ... I've got quite a few records out now, and I can switch the sets out and make it interesting. But I think that's the way the business is done now. It's gone back to live rock 'n' roll, which is not a bad thing. And I happen to enjoy doing it. So, I've found that to be quite pleasurable.
Absolutely. And I was quite heartened to see you take the step to make yourself an independent artist, as well.
Last year, I came to the States for the first time in 22 years. We did 22 shows. This year, we're doing 24, including Canada. That's something I hope to continue doing, as well as doing albums on a more consistent basis. I'm not gonna wait that long anymore! Ha!
So, do you feel that being your own label enables you to get records out more consistently than you've been able to.
Yeah! Certainly! I think, having said that - having gone through the experience of putting an album together, getting clearances sorted out, the manufacturing, the distribution, pressing it yourself, doing everything yourself – it's a great deal of work. It's no easy thing. It's something that takes a great deal of stamina to do. But having done it now, I appreciate what the record labels did do. I just don't think it's worth 90% of the profit, which is what they were getting. It does help you getting things done and also not wasting time. It's cut close to the bone. I don't play a gig unless I feel it's necessary to have bothered to. I like to do things different. I like to do publicity before the tour. Normally, you have to do it when you're on the tour, and normally you're exhausted. I don't think that's very good for the person doing the interview, or the artist, because you're just not relaxed enough.
So, it's things like that I've tried to change. Also, I wanted to do vinyl. I wanted to do a double deck on vinyl, which part of the concept of the album. You can imagine the trouble I would have had doing that with a major. They're not interested in doing that at all. They're not the slightest bit interested in doing that anymore. I think it's just the way that it's done. It's not just me, it's a lot of artists.
And yet, ironically, vinyl has become the largest selling format! It made a full-blooded return!
Absolutely. I mean, the big cost is getting the stuff printed on vinyl. It's quite extraordinary, really. But it's down to the artist, really, to take the stand and make that extra effort. It's quite difficult, really. But if you have your own label, there are many avenues out there to do it. The artist has got to do it. If the artist gives up and says “screw it” and lets everyone download it, then it's going to disappear. I'll certainly make an effort to do it on the releases I make, because I think it's just important for me. But it should be important for the market, I think.
I was very, very happy to see three tracks co-written by and featuring guitar played by Marco Pirroni!
Yeah, they were older tracks, but they were things that had been mucked about with and never finished. So we knocked them up and put them on, as well. I think in the context of this album - being autobiographical and being quite a story there – it was a good choice. So it fits in with the new stuff, as well.
Well, it just made me happy to see his presence there, even if it was on stuff that was laying around. Marco was your greatest collaborator, after all.
Yeah, we were together for 20 years. He doesn't really like playing live. I haven't seen him for a number of years. He did form a band called The Wolfmen, a number of years ago. But I don't know what he's been doing since. He's really against playing live, and I believe in getting out there and doing it. So, that's a situation that's going to prevent us working together, which eventually it did.
It's really sad to hear that Marco is so opposed to playing live, because Marco really is one of the genius guitar players that English punk rock produced.
Yeah, he's got his own sound. You can't really fault anybody. If somebody's unhappy doing that and they just wanna play in the studio and not travel, you can't deal with it. You can't be in a band and do that. A band is a band to go and do the work. So that's the best thing for him to be happy. In order to be happy, it's important to be happy doing something you're happy doing.
Who do you have in your current band these days?
It's a five piece these days. I have a drummer named Jola. Andy on the other drum kit – I got the two drummer thing going. On bass, I've got Joe. On guitar, Tom. And then me, and I play a bit more guitar now. Four of us sing. So it's quite a tight little unit there. We've been playing for the last two years together. We toured Britain about two or three times. Been to Australia in the last year. Been to the US, Holland, Belgium. So, we've been out there and getting our chops together, really. Just playing. It's a very good band. I'm really, really happy to have this band. I'm very supportive. It makes it a lot easier for me to just do it.
I've gotta say, I cracked up when I saw the title of the album. You probably have one of the longest album titles since the Tyrannosaurus Rex records of the late '60s. (laughs)
Yeah, that's a long one. That sorta came about – I've had so much interest in the title of the album. It's pretty much the introduction to the BlueBlack Hussar that really goes back to the character on Kings (of The Wild Frontier). It's a fictional situation of what he would look like 35 years later, if perhaps he'd been an 18th Century French pop star walking with Napoleon's troops (to Russia) and got back. And I've actually read about that. And that was a metaphor for some of the previous dealings I've had in the music business. And the “marrying the gunner's daughter?” That's an old naval term for punishment. So, I put those two together, and there you have the long title. It's a bit of a mouthful, but it has attracted quite a lot of interest.
Every time, I tell somebody the title, I have to take a deep breath first!
Yeah, take a deep breath and I think it should just get abbreviated down to The Gunner's Daughter! (laughs) This will be The Gunner's Daughter Tour.
And I know you touched upon it when you talked about the period leading up to the album. But I know the single, “Cool Zombie,” is about a period none of us knew about: You were living in Tennessee, raising a family.
Yeah, that and pretty much the title track were fit into that period where I lived in a small town in Tennessee. I was getting married at the time – I'm divorced now. But at the time, my plan was to drive from Miami through the States and get married at the Elvis chapel in Las Vegas. En route, I stopped in this small town and read in this local magazine about this house that was in the Tennessee Valley. I went up to have a look at it, fell in love with it, and I decided to buy the house, and live there. So we got married there in the local town hall. And I was there for two pretty blissful years. It was a lovely place to live, very, very quiet. Nobody knew anything about me, no one knew I was a singer. It was pretty anonymous. It was a slice of Americana, and we lived there until my daughter was born. Then we went back to the UK.
I incorporated that into the album, and my next door neighbor was a guy named Ron who was retired and had been in the US Navy, and he had a Harley Davidson. He was a bit of a character, and he used to take me on the back of his bike and meet up with some of his mates in the woods and listen to music there. He was a big country fan. They had a small venue there. I noticed they had people like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash there, going back to their roots. It was pretty impressive, so I incorporated it into the album.
It's certainly the rootsiest thing I've heard from you. It's the first time I've heard you do things with a blues tinge like that, or with the swamp rock elements that you hear all through it.
Yeah! Well, that's another thing: When I first learned the guitar when I was a teenager back when I was 12, I taught myself via The Honky Tonk Do-It-Yourself Blues Guitar Book by a guy named Stefan Grossman, an American. You had to buy the book and buy these blues albums by guys like Big Bill Broonzy. You'd learn by the track listing and they'd give you the notation, and you'd sort of learn the song that way. So, I kinda started off that way. The blues was the first music I learned. It was a simple form that led straight into rock 'n' roll. So, it's pretty much gone back to the basics for me, and I incorporated that into the album.
The flavor of the album is that no two songs sound the same, and there's no one producer on it. So when you don't go into one studio and work with one producer, you don't come out with a particular sound. You expect the skill of the producer to be responsible for coming out with this one sound. But this one was recorded over a longer period of time. And doing a double-gatefold album with four sides of music, you can come up with a different feel for each side of music. So that's why this album is different from my point of view, anyway.
It is different, but it also feels consistent with what I feel is Adam Ant or Adam and The Ants recordings, because you always had a cut-and-paste ethic to your music. There was always a ton of influences. You might hear on one song tribal drumming, Duane Eddy guitar, punk rock guitar chords.
Well, I think that's all kind of in the vocabulary. You draw 'em out. I mean, vocally, it tends to sound like whatever I sound like anyway. But it's experimental, and it's not an overly produced record. And I say that insofar as playing some of those songs live, we can fill it out a bit. And that's certainly happening, and the response has been good on that. I'm looking forward to working this record for the next year or so, and playing it live. So far, it's going really well. Hopefully, you'll get to hear it live and get to hear a little bit more of the actual sound of it.
I do want to touch upon one thing before we go. There is a track on the album called “Shrink,” and I know that it deals with something that's a little touchy. But I know from a recent interview with John Robb for Viva Le Rock that you've been a bit of an advocate for patient's rights.
No, I'm not really involved in that. I don't know where that comes from. But I do have dealings with bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. I think it's sadly swept under the carpet somewhat, and I think the treatment of it over here currently is not very good. There's not a great deal of funding on mental health. I think it's a bit of an embarrassment. As a subject, as a topic, the government is not terribly charitable towards it. It's something quite difficult to describe. It's something that's really intricate, as well. I think there's an awful to-do surrounding it and an awful degree of shame surrounding it. But I feel it's my duty, in a way, to discuss it in art, which is what I've been doing. It leaves a great deal to be desired on that subject from the powers that be, I think.