Demolition Man

Ryan Adams Deconstructs Ryan Adams

Music Features Ryan Adams
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ut at the moment a smile spreads across his face. We’re talking about “Empty Baseball Park,” a tune he wrote with his former band, Whiskeytown, and the subject brings back good memories. “I always liked that song, and that line in it about stumbling into an empty baseball park—‘Strike one, strike two, strike three, we’re all out,’” he says, a far-away look in his eyes. “That was all about the whole band, the guys in Whiskeytown. We literally rehearsed behind a baseball park for junior league kids in Raleigh.” As he slouches over the table of a 10th Street bar in Manhattan, Adams’ smile widens and he stares off into space as he remembers mischievous, drunken afternoons rooting for local youngsters, and pot- and Miller High Life-filled nights at the park, not far from the North Carolina State University chapel. “We would just get loaded and go over there, and we’d be running around tacklin’ each other and just being f—-s. It was the funniest place to hang out. We’d just get loaded and wake up hungover on, like, home plate, like, at 6 a.m. [Drummer] Skillet [Gilmore] would be asleep in the bleachers.” “Empty Baseball Park” was left off the original pressing of Whiskeytown’s 1994 debut, Faithless Street, but Outpost/Geffen included it with several other bonus tracks on its 1998 reissue. Somewhat ethereal, the song sounded little like the standard alt.country fare that made the band No Depression darlings. However, that one song made clear — some five years ago — that Adams was an artist who wouldn’t be boxed into one genre. Since then, we’ve heard him embrace a myriad of directions and styles — and successfully execute each with apparent ease. “He does folk, he does bluesy stuff, he does country, he does rock, and I believe it all,” ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha told this writer in 2001. So, given this, it seems odd that Adams’ record company, Lost Highway, rejected Love Is Hell, the album he refers to as “the work of my life,” and which he describes as a “completely atmospheric, spiritual, sad, freaky, unrock record.” The album references artists that Adams says Lost Highway, a roots label, was not interested in him referencing — Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, The Smiths. Additionally, the lyrics on the album, even by Adams’ own account, are “really f — -ed up.” It bears little trace of the alt.country strumming on Whiskeytown albums, the wounded folk of Heartbreaker or even the ragged, Stonesy rock of Gold. “Love is Hell kind of had — has — the potential to be a doomy record that can befriend people who are in a doomy place,” Adams says. “And that wasn’t a career move that my label felt like I needed to make at that time.”

Adams had just finished a lengthy tour supporting Gold, and was feeling rather burnt out when he wrote and recorded Love is Hell. “I was going through a lot of personal things, a lot of heaviness.” Declining to share any details, he notes, “All you have to do is listen to the album and all the answers are there.” While the rejection did — and still does — irritate Adams, when he explains how his eventual battle with the label ended, his voice rings with triumph. And it should: After cutting ties with the label for several months, and recording another album on his credit card, the singer persuaded Lost Highway into issuing the equivalent of three albums within a six-week timeframe. His next “official” full-length CD, llornkcoR (“rock’n’roll” spelled backward) arrives Nov. 4, along with the first of two EPs, Love Is Hell, Part 1. The second Love Is Hell installment comes out in December. The EPs will later be joined together as a double vinyl.

While Love Is Hell is doomy and dark, llornkcoR (which Adams calls “Rock’n’Roll Reverse”) is the singer’s heaviest record yet — at times New Wave-y, at times blistering. While some early feedback has called it his reaction to the current rock scene, Adams says that’s false: “This was just the thing I needed to do, ’cause I hadn’t done it yet. It was a fun thing to do, the obvious thing to do.” While perhaps it’s just the particular ebb and flow of this conversation, it seems as though the more Adams talks about the two projects, the more he seems to downplay llornkcoR — which features guest turns from Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and ex-Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur — as if it was easy to make. While the album is certainly a departure for Adams with its post-New Wave and garage elements, it still feels like a natural follow-up to last year’s Demolition. On the other hand, Love is Hell was apparently a record he obsessed over: “It’s something that I totally believe in, and people close to me, who have heard it, it’s affected them in very serious ways, very serious ways — not just in, like, ‘This is nice, this is big and it rocks.’ It’s completely unstylized and an absolutely reckless album, and I think that later on, it’ll be, I think it might be a serious album … the place where I was the most myself and freest.”

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orn in Jacksonville, N.C., Adams, who just turned 29, has been back in New York for nearly two years. Aside from brief stays in Nashville and Los Angeles — where the Heartbreaker and Gold albums were recorded, respectively — he’s spent pretty much all of his 20s in Manhattan. “I just belong here,” he says. “I get along here. It makes sense to me.” Adams split with the Pink Hearts, the Nashville-based band that supported him on his Gold tour, after a Fourth of July gig in Battery Park. Since then, he’s shared band members with Jesse Malin, whom he’s producing once again. (Adams helmed the former D Generation front man’s acclaimed solo CD, The Fine Art of Self Destruction).

Many of the songs on Adams’ forthcoming releases have come out of writing sessions with close friend and drummer Johnny T., and the owner of two of Adams’ East Village haunts (including the bar we’re currently sitting in). They arranged songs together, with Adams producing.

A number of llornkcoR songs, the drummer says, were first takes. “We run through a verse and a chorus and then Ryan says, ‘OK, stop. Roll the tape.’ And I’m like, ‘Where’s the bridge?’ ‘I’ll nod you in on the bridge, just follow along.’ And I find that to be exhilarating, to be flying by the seat of your pants, but just to be able to have a vocabulary, where you can actually kind of guess where the next person is going or where the next part’s going to be—or not—where he’s getting ready to go big and I bring it down.” As a result, the disc boasts a few “happy accidents,” Johnny T. continues. “There’s a lot of parts on that record that happened because I didn’t know what was coming next and I’d switch to something else, and we’re like, ‘Whoa, that was funky.’”

In addition to the dozens of songs they plan to release this year, they also have plans to post new songs on Adams’ website each week.

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uring our two-hour conversation, Adams exhibits flashes of the precociousness, brattiness and arrogance for which some have come to loathe him. When he first sat down, the baby-faced singer seemed bored, doodling “Don’t write on the table” on the paper tablecloth. Repeatedly, he voices a “f—- you” attitude to “haters” in the press and elsewhere who take swipes at him for his lifestyle, his music being derivative, or the temper tantrums he’s thrown onstage after yet another “Summer of ’69” request. He’s angry and fed up.

And although he doesn’t seem to care anymore—if he ever did—whether people understand where he’s coming from, the longer he talks about these new records—and his love of music in general—Adams reveals a side of himself that’s more endearing, and probably more telling in regards to who he really is. What one sees when they get past the “f—- this,” “f—- that” façade is the singer-songwriter’s music geek/mad-scientist side. And this quickly makes up for all the other nonsense—becoming as charming and heartwarming as his songs. He talks of working on flamenco rhythms and accidentally—and quite wonderfully—paying homage to Johnny Marr and The Smiths.

Of loving the Strokes’ Is This It so much that one day when he was sick, he figured out all the parts on each track. Of song structure and learning the vocabularies of each instrument, and what happens when you mix them up. Of discovering what made him react so strongly to Nirvana, what got in his head about The Replacements “outside of genuine sentiment or totally being overwhelmed by emotion and music.” Of understanding how to hit people in the gut the same way that Marr, Kurt Cobain and Paul Westerberg did. Of falling in love with not only the way music makes him feel, but the mysteries of how it’s created. Of fully understanding music on a spiritual level, being one with it and with God in order to create greater art, or at least more fulfilling art. Adams says he feels that the truest conversation one can have with God is a creative conversation. He’s trying to remove others—be they critics, fans, label personnel, anyone and everyone—from that conversation. He’s trying to simplify. “I wanna simplify so far back to the point where I see the buffalo, and I grab the piece of charcoal and I go to the cave. And I sketch the buffalo on the cave wall. That’s the highest art.” “Ya know, the caveman certainly wasn’t trying to f—-in’ impress the girl down the street that worked in a record store with his goddamn caveman drawing,” he says with a laugh. “People couldn’t understand how beautiful that buffalo was, and something compelled him to go to that wall and draw a buffalo on the wall because he dreamt of the buffalo. His relationship was still directly with God, not even with the cave wall or the charcoal. He’s like ‘I see buffalo. I recreate buffalo.’ That’s all it is. I want to get there.” And he stresses that with each swipe he nudges a little closer. “I say, ‘Bring it on. Go and get the whole bucket of shit and throw it at me, ‘cause I see the cave clearer every day.’”

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