Ryan Adams The Exclaim! Questionnaire
Published Feb 15, 2017Ryan Adams has released an astounding catalogue of material since his early days in Whiskeytown. After stepping out solo with alt-country masterpiece Heartbreaker in 2000 and following it up with an album-a-year streak that lasted the better part of a decade, the prolific singer-songwriter also found years of success alongside the Cardinals, experimented with heavy metal influences, went back to basics for 2011's Ashes and Fire, recorded then totally scrapped its followup, only to emerge with an invigorating self-titled rock'n'roller of an LP in 2014, then followed that up with a live album from Carnegie Hall and a full-album cover of Taylor Swift's 1989.
Now, faster than any new fan could possibly digest all that his discography has to offer, Adams is ready to uncage Prisoner. It's a record that many have been quick to categorize as an emotional response to Adams' highly publicized divorce from Mandy Moore, but for him, it was an exercise in learning more about himself. Sure, the songs are emotionally intense and flirt with "the rough edges of life," but they also spawned deep introspective questions like "What does it mean to be how old I am?" and "What does it mean to still have this feeling of hope on the outside of damage?"
Ultimately, the new record hears him expressing a newfound awareness and understanding of his current place in the world. In his own words, "I've never felt more myself and at home."
What are you up to?
This year already, I've worked a bit with Jenny Lewis and Liz Phair. That's feeling really good. The Jenny stuff, the first wave of songs is incredible. Now Liz is ten songs into a double album that she's doing. I don't want to reveal all the details, 'cause it should be a surprise, but it's gonna be really amazing. The concept is amazing, she's sounding great, and the songs are just awesome. It's something that we worked on before that we picked back up, and it very much reminds me of her first album in its immediacy and rawness; it has a great feel.
What are your current fixations?
I took a detour recently with reading comics, I got into a lot of offshoot Alien comics that I was never able to find. I spent the holidays in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and there's a great comic book shop there called Cyborg One and for some reason they had all the complete four-part series of all these really hard to find Alien (and Alien vs. Predator and Predator and that related universe) comics, and I basically cleaned out the whole table, and they were laughing the whole time, because I'd been going in there for a year-and-a-half thinking "There's only two of these, so I'm not gonna know what happens at the end," or "I don't have the first issue." So I can't wait to work my way through that.
And I'm excited for when the press cycle is over, and I'll be able to sit down and really dig into the new Metallica album, because I want to listen to it and read the lyrics along with it and really spend the time with it. And I want to do that also with the new Slayer album, because I've only been able to touch on it. When those records and I have time to commune, it'll be a deep listen. I don't mess around with how I listen to a record.
And as for reading, I jump all over the place. I'll read Andre Norton stuff for a second, and I just read the Johnny Marr biography, which was really awesome. Then I switched over to the Bruce Springsteen one — which I read a part of first because I really wanted to know about a specific record, and now I'm going back to go through it proper. And then when I'm not reading that stuff, I'm usually doing research into different types of esoteric writing. It's just a lifelong thing. And then I spend a lot of time just writing, not music, but I'm working on this book. It's a book about my early experiences in music.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in Los Angeles because it rules. It's hard to explain, but despite the fact that we've had a lot of rain the last bit, it's sunny, the people here are really cool. It's isolated if you want it to be, but it's also a community if you want it to be. There's just a vibe here. I like being close to nature, and I live close to one of the biggest urban parks in the United States, at least for a major city. It's nice. It's a good place to live and get out.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
Any Agnes Martin piece. I just saw the Agnes Martin exhibit here at LACMA. It's so subtly beautiful, subtly intricate, that you have to spend some time walking through, and when you realize the complexity that is involved in the simplicity and the repetition it takes you a minute to get it. It's not that it's over your head, it's that it's such a kind and soft thing she's trying to convey that by the time it reaches you, specifically the work that she did towards the end and her last work, it's so profound. It's so beautiful. There's so many lessons in what she did, and it's very empowering that she didn't want to play the New York artist game, and she retreated to the desert to go be who she was. She actually drew these drawings for the concepts of what she was gonna do, which look really laughable, but then you see what she's done and it's absolutely stunning, completely empowering. It makes me believe that just as soon as you think you know everything, you don't. There's so many subtle, beautiful messages, but it's simple.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
One of the best shows I ever saw in my entire life was this band, who I adore, called Low. It was the show that they played at the Mercury Lounge, probably about nine years ago, and it was the slowest, most elegant, most beautiful thing I've probably ever seen.
What have been your career highs and lows?
I think my view is different than other peoples', but I think my career highs are everything after 2007. I was really able to figure out how Meniere's disease was screwing me up, which I didn't know I had, and I went on a really cool journey to get adjusted to that and change the way I had my shows lit; I could use more lighting, but in a way where it didn't hit me directly, so I was able to still stay focused during a show. And also, I think I really took time to learn how to take care of myself, which isn't something guitar players are typically very good at doing. Since then, I've very quietly and peacefully found my way into just being myself on record. I decided I didn't like the backing band I had or they didn't like me, we had different lifestyles. I was getting sober, not that they were a mess, but you change your life when that stuff happens. Not boozing, not drinking, not smoking cigarettes, not doing hard drugs or whatever (even if it's just once in a while), just cutting that stuff out really changes a person and you go back to your kinder, more jovial self. I'm just really happy to have had that adjustment phase. I'm still working on myself, you're always working towards being a better version of yourself. There's always room to be wise, there's always room to learn a new lesson or accept humility and be humbled. That's my goal.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I don't really know. I don't really know what [hecklers] are saying. I don't think they realize that I suffer from different degrees of hearing loss that comes and goes depending on my physical condition at the time. It's a strange attribute of Meniere's, but during a Meniere's episode or in a couple of days when I might be suffering more than other times, I feel like I am in my 60s physically, so I'm battling that and then I'm also battling at that time the inclination to try to hear, so when people say stuff I don't actually know what they're saying. And I don't really hold on to negative stuff people say. During a concert it's easy to get lost and for someone to remember that the people on stage are just human beings, but that's why I'm good at talking to hecklers because I don't consider myself above anybody. I'm just up where everybody can see what we're doing because that's the point of the show, it's a performance, but it's definitely not an elevated platform. I like it to be a communal experience for everybody.
What should everyone shut up about?
I don't think anybody should shut up. I think that's a decision everybody makes on their own. Everybody has their own volume knob, which should be self-controlled.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I don't really believe in perfection, so… [a good Sunday?] I mean, I think a wise person would say any Sunday that you're there to be able to do whatever's around you… As weird and crazy it is here, you wake up and yield another day. I would say, I don't know…
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
So much advice.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
People talk a lot about Whiskeytown, my first band, and me kicking people out of the band, and a lot of those stories aren't true, it's not the way those things happened. When you're 22 years old, even 24 years old, you're in a completely different mindset than you are when you've gone through your life. Some people maybe start to mature earlier; in my case, I don't think that I was immature, I just don't think I had the ability to deal with the responsibility of running a band. I just wanted to be in a band. But usually, if there's discourse between people and it's upsetting the way you're trying to have fun and the music's not fun then you have to figure out something else. There's a lot that goes into it, you're constantly travelling and it's really hard on your body, it can be really hard on you emotionally to be away from your loved ones or to try and have stability, so it's best to try to find a way to remember that you're doing it because you got such a kick out of it, it jazzed you up so much when you first did it, the idea is to try to have what I call "riff optimism." There hasn't been any kicking people out of my band in a long time; it's been playing music with people for a while and maybe that cycle ends because their life changes. But these days, I play with people if there's a good vibe, for a couple years, and then maybe they have a kid or get a job at a record label or who knows what, and then you find a couple other people to play with. I'm a lifelong musician, that's what I want to do, at least until I can't hear anymore.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I think it's very relaxing to be there. I usually think about really light, but pretty sweetly powerful sativas, good cafés, friendliness. It's very friendly. It feels very safe. And maybe Voivod because they're one of my favourite bands and they're from Canada.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
The first one I actually purchased with my own money was when I pre-ordered Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, but I bought Sonic Youth's Sister that day. But the first record that I asked my grandmother to get me — and I had to go in the yard and do odd jobs and stuff to try and build some credit there — she bought me Prince's Purple Rain and Black Sabbath's self-titled on that same day. That was a pretty big day for me.
What was your most memorable day job?
I worked in a factory, and I worked at the end of the assembly line, but at the end of the belt where I had to stand on one side of the conveyor and pull off these frozen weird pre-rolled pieces of dough and put them on metal trays as fast as I could and load up these big loading trays. If you didn't do it fast enough they would fall off the end of the line and you'd get in trouble. I had to do that, and then during the five minute cycle when they had to put more dough in the machine, I ran them over to a big, gnarly machine called "The Poofer" — that's where they activate the yeast with humidity. It was a really, really bizarre job. You couldn't wear headphones because you had to listen to the guy that was running the belt. He would yell out commands if something was getting off or there was more stuff coming, and the lighting was really horrid. It was like the worst dentist office lighting ever, very very horrible job.
How do you spoil yourself?
Well, I'm definitely fond of guitar pedals. And I really like broccoli.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
What do you fear most?
I don't believe in fear or doubt.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
One time I was hanging out with the guys in the Strokes all the way back in the day, and they were talking about John Mayer and I was like, "I could call him right now and he would come here and play acoustic guitar." And they didn't believe me. I'd been meaning to meet up with him and he was going to show me some new stuff that he was working on. We were all pretty stoned, and I texted him (in the early days of texting) and sure enough, the doorbell buzzed and he came up and they were so slack-jawed. It wasn't all of them, just two or three of them. It was hilarious and we just traded the acoustic guitar back and forth for like 30 minutes or 45 minutes, maybe an hour. It was a New York moment, like "What?" "What happened?" "You just summoned John Mayer here."
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I don't know, I don't like to talk over dinner really. But whatever I made it would be vegan.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Fauré, "Requiem." His "Requiem" is my favourite piece of music of all time. Go listen to it. Put on the second movement and you tell me if you can stop yourself from crying. It's beautiful. It's a work of genius. It's not that it's sad, it's actually so deeply spiritual that it's like the fabric of reality has been opened and you can see through it for a second. It's awesome.