Duality is thy name!
(Editors note) I broke out this interview with Barry Adamson back in 1998. I was in New York and did the Q & A at the headquarters of Mute Records. Barry was on the other end of the phone, in his home in London. It was a crazy time for me in NYC. It was like I had stepped into an alternate dimension and strange phenomenon was unfolding around me on a moment-to-moment basis. I won’t go into details here, but I do refer to it cryptically in the intro.
Barry Adamson is one of the most talented musicians and artists you’ve probably never heard of. He played with Magazine and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and then carved out a brilliant solo career, that in many respects, surpassed that of both Howard Devoto and Nick Cave. Barry Adamson also happens to be a Gemini and it is indeed, his birthday today. If one delves down into the canon of his recording career, they can see the tell tale signs of duality all over the place. In the interview, we really focused on topics like; “As above, so below,” “Light and dark,” and “Good and bad.” All, tasty topics for any Gemini. This interview originally appeared on Pete Darling’s Art-Damage site. Pete is an uber-talented friend and is one of those people who could have easily been a rock star if he’d wanted to do the wrong drugs and screw the right people. Here’s me and Barry.
New York; Summer of 98′ things are falling all around me–like something out of a Fortean tale of misplaced gravity. Everywhere I go the sky is descending. And then the numbers start coming; sixes and nines, variables and their fated triple-digit-deity. I escape the crash and tumult for a few moments ducking into the offices of Mute Records. I’m here to talk to Barry Adamson, the former Magazine and Bad Seed Bass Player, on the phone from his London home. On solo terms, he’s become known for noirish soundtrack work such as “Soul Murder”, “The Negro Inside”, “Moss Side Story” and the brilliant “Oedipus Schmedipus.” His record of the moment is, “As Above, So Below” (Mute) and with Adamson, the cradle of potential is vast in it’s meaning. Of mixed racial origin, he embraces contrasting cosmologies and diverse scales; polyrhythms and whitenoise, Nile gods and Atlantic sea wardens; demonic muses and angelic hosts. As heaven crashes around me, Barry’s trying to reconcile it all in his music. From New York to London, we attempt to ground the dipole in extremis for a Trans-Atlantic free-exchange of shadow and light.
RP: What has the response been in terms of the British Press and some of the other magazines towards your newest work and how that compares with some of your earlier stuff?
BA: I think its generally been quite favorable. There is always the odd fellow that doesn’t get it really. They’re off on their own sort of thing. I think generally what has happened- I guess with each album I kind of raise my profile a little bit more, getting to the hearts and minds (if you like) of the ever-listening public. In that way it has been a success. I think the feedback has been encouraging. I think this album and the Oedipus album particularly has kind of moved the goalposts into a place more accessible for people; they can get what’s going on and they seem to enjoy what’s going on, which is always encouraging for me. Definitely the step forward in a way that I hope to be. I am pleased with the way its gone.
RP: The title of the record As Above, So Below: It reminds me of Heraclitus.
BA: What’s that?
RP: Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher. His whole contention was above so below- like it is in Heaven as it is on Earth. So there is a metaphysical connotation there. But it also to me reminds me of “as above so below”: as above the waist so below the waist.
BA: That’s interesting. I never thought of that. I kind of did have a little subtle idea about that: above the waist, also below. I guess for me, it is that thing as in Heaven, so shall it be on Earth, and perhaps even lower. I think that you can’t have one without the other. Just that whole faith, love and fear… and all those things have ramifications in the world as well and that’s what makes man as a sensor of the whole cosmos-type thing as well. I think for me its about balance as well: as above so below and therefore stepping out into the world is like okay about everything. I think that was kind of the establishing factor of where to go from in terms of exploring Heaven and Hell in the confines of the record, if it’s possible.
RP: Are you familiar of the material of William Blake?
BA: Only in passing, do you know what I mean. I am not really in a studious way at all. Of course a picture comes to mind (I don’t know the name of course) of the guy pointing down from above?
RP: With the Sun. Yeah.
BA: Very powerful image.
RP: It seems like in your work that there is a definite sort of a psycho-analytical yoga or work-out.
BA: I think it is. I think I could realize that one could pretty much exorcise and exercise various- you know, whatever it may be, if you’re troubled you could put those troubles into a song. Or what you’ve experienced you may want to pass that information on.
RP: How does the cathartic process of your work effect you? For instance, do you feel more catharsis after you’ve finished a certain piece or after you’ve created a whole piece?
BA: The whole piece, I think. I noticed this album and Oedipus a couple of weeks after I let it alone gets cut and then I’ll have one listening session. At the end of the listening session, I’ll kind of gauge, personally for me. I’ll have noticed there’s been a shift in terms of bringing up which must be the form of some sort of catharsis. I get to a point where I okay it, it does sound sort of therapeutic, I do go, “right now I can let that go. Now I can sort of let that out.” And not have that sort of stuck, clanging around in me anymore. So I get a rejuvenated experience from that. Its at the point where I am the most exhausted after doing that, I kind of come back to life after doing that , I felt kind of “whew”- something’s gone out, something’s coming up at the same time.
RP: The image that conjures up for me is some of the West African religions where they will actually take on a form of spirit possession or they’ll work with some sort of tribal-demonic entity or not even demonic but an entity in and of itself to exorcise that aspect of either their culture, their tribe, or their identity.
BA: That’s really interesting. I must be tapped in there somewhere, it comes down the line, always. Well I sometimes think, “why I am doing it this way?” I get images, for example, of stories, sitting around with the tribe, passing stories on to the next generation. I do have a sense of that.
RP: That’s an interesting piece and to me it feels as though sometimes these things that we have inside ourselves, I don’t know, they’re transgenetic and we tap into this larger body of knowledge.
BA: It’s incredible. My wife talks about the past life-thing. She’s into that. She recognizes that face, some of the troubles, some of the things that she has kind of got to get free of, not even about this life. It’s about something else that goes back to another life. If I go back to there I would go, “whh”. But I can see how- I really agree with you there.
RP: It seems as though Oedipus was the culmination of a certain body of work. It’s a brilliant culmination.
RP: How did it feel to come to that apex and how did that guide or direct you into your most current work?
BA: That’s exactly what happened. I thought, “This is it now, you’ve reached- I brought things to a resolution”. I kind of know what that’s about as well. It doesn’t make great newspaper coverage. What I love about parts of it was that it was so unconscious. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on but I knew I had to do it. When I reached the end of Oedipus, I knew it was over. Which is beautiful. I talked with Mute, and I will probably do this one day releasing, Oedipus has one slight body because I kind of knew that was it. From then on I learned a hell of a lot. I sort of moved on in terms of starting off like with a little idea, or a sense of a story, and into what was going on in with Oedipus. Then I knew that- its like one door closes and next one and then its gone. Its like that- the door kind of went, “What do you want now because you can go for it”. It’s just like this thing that you got a hold of. That whole kind of imaginary soundtrack thing, okay, that’s done. I don’t work through certain things I used to work through. Hopefully I am giving the listening audience an alternative trip to get on to. So taking all that, where do we want to go now?! Its almost like, the thing that has been missing for me is dialogue. I want a speech. Now I sort of want to say some things, I want to discuss things. This is all still unconscious as well but when it came into my consciousness I felt like, “Oh wow. There is no turning back. You’re going to do another album, you’re going to sing.” And then its like, “Here we go, the journey begins again.” Which is really interesting for me because it keeps you going, and sets up some challenges, and you feel in so many ways that you have to risk.
RP: The image for me with Oedipus is a sort of delving into the relationship with the mother. How conscience of that were you through that process and how did that feel in some ways to sort of say, “Okay. I am no longer my mother’s son?”
BA: It’s scary. Its scary and empowering at the same time because I became my own person. It’s weird to talk about this in terms of music as well. It’s that sort of question which puts us outside the form of music that we discuss. I felt a little conscious, I guess self-conscious in answering this kind of question. When you say that, that’s the truth of the matter. I guess what I did was sort of like- I just went for it. I just tried to push away any- because I knew it was going to be called Oedipus. I tried to change the title a few times along the journey, along the way, I would go like, “hmmm”. But I knew that’s what it was and that’s what it was about. Everything was just coming together beautifully, like Java (Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp) stepping up to the plate saying “I’ll kick it off”. You know “I’ll kick it off” is sort of the rampant teenager out in the world, free, and then we’ll bring it back- actually Nick was like so gracious that he was like, “Yeah I’ll close it. I’ll close it in this way.” It’s like I didn’t even have to tell him. Well I said it’s kind of about this and its kind of about this, very loose, and they sort of tapped into the whole thing. And it really worked beautifully. I think I had quite an experience after that record, after that realization, I stepped below myself, in terms of that the umbilical cord was finally cut. That’s it, it’s cut. I am spinning around in the world free. But he-ey!!
RP: Well congratulations.
BA: Thanks, it took me thirty years but there you go. (they are laughing) I think it takes most people about five.
RP: I don’t know. That cord could last an awful long time. I wanted to touch on, and perhaps this might be a sensitive subject, I think its one that is quite interesting, I just got the latest album by DJ Spooky. Are you familiar with his work?
BA: Nah. Just little bits here and there.
RP: There was a huge backlash in the press here in New York about his over-identification with intellectualism and, even Tricky in England, said, “Come on, man. Fuck that, it’s not about theory; it’s about the beats.” or whatever. And his latest record seems to be, at least in my mind, kind of a, not necessarily a backlash, he brought in rappers to rap on his record. It really feels like to me he’s trying to regain a sense of a community for the place where he comes from. I always felt that the identity of a black artist in the midst of a white critical milieu is a very interesting.
BA: Its incredible. It sets up such an interesting dynamic. I think that’s the line you’re going.
BA: I think it’s remarkable really. I am very interested in people like Tricky, Spooky I have to get on to because for me it’s an area that throws up the most, it throws up a hell of a lot of things and it takes me back to some of the ideas that James Baldwin talked about in terms of not just the relationship with yourself but also a relationship with the white world and how that is and how therefore you react. Also in England there is a real sort of- oh my God, its so- it’s much the same in America, I just read a book recently that talked about how even, they brought it down to certain sections in the area of London how people would react to their situations and circumstances of different races all trying to communicate and therefore taking a certain amount of other people’s stuff and making the communication easier and therefore that gave them a certain kind of labeling. I find that’s an area that’s really interesting. I think the way Tricky works I think it’s really evident of the kind of stuff that he’s getting at with his music as well as his own sort of personal story, if you like. I think that’s something, and I think a lot of people kind of deny that that’s going on while making quite evident in their work. I am also not so for this idea of denying if that really exists, sort of black people listen to this kind of music and white people listen to this, and that’s it, end of story and then therefore certain people will taste those groups and that’s it. I kind of see it going a little deeper than that, and forever our kind of struggle to bring that to the floor.
RP: So how do you redefine yourself to that reality, say work-to-work basis or even moments of your own basis per se?
BA: It’s very, I think a lot of it is kind of unconscious. Sometimes it might be about rage. Sometimes it might be about an acceptance. Sometimes it might be about a kind of very subtle way of blending. I come from a mixed racial background, as I am always going on about here and there. So sometimes I kind of, I know what that brings up for me, I know the sort of shit that I’ve got to deal with, with that. I know how the world views that,ov still today. I know these things but I have a sport in both camps and I never am going to get away from that. So one of my little goals in life is I have to take my place in the world and I have to therefore bring both of those parts of me together in some way. So that’s my springboard really. I kind of come from that place of emotional understanding of both areas and then knowing at the same time that it doesn’t mean a fucking thing. And then at the same time, what’s placed on it therefore gives it a certain value or misvalue. All of those ideas are sort of interchangeable. So on any given day I can arrive from however it is on that day because its ever-changing, and there is a sort of broad base to it and then that kind of gets thrown out of the window. Very complex , it’s so complex. Once you take that in terms of a whole country whatever you can sort of start to see a sort of subtlety to it and its effected by history. Its a very complex one.
RP: This is a fascinating question for me because obviously I am viewing it from a certain perspective. Last week I was hanging out with an aboriginal digeridoo player. He was talking about how, he was railing on and on about the injustice that the British have done to the aboriginal people and all that is true, its real but the part that he would not touch on was that his mother was Dutch. So he was half white.
BA: That happens with a lot of people. they don’t see themselves one way or another, its too scary. Its too scary because you know that thing that does say it goes both ways- a lot of people say its either that or this. But what if it is both? That’s okay, and a lot of people operate that way. I think what a person does therefore almost like get rid of one part of one’s self. I think that comes out in some way as sort of anguish. I think the road to take is to embrace both sides, the good and bad, good and bad because historically one is pitched against the other where does that leave you?! But you can work through that shit. You can make records about it- no. (they are laughing)
RP: That actually leads me back to the beginning where we started, which is the co-mingling in a metaphorical sense of the light and dark in your work.
BA: Exactly. I am very aware of that. I am very aware of that. I am very aware of “as above as below.” So the Heaven’s kind of light and the darkness is the hell. Therefore not a lot of people will sort of realize that I came around the idea of the jazz devil, as the Muslims may think that the white man is the devil, and the white man makes reference to jazz being the devil’s music, so there you are both sides coming to be the jazz devil. And I can play with those things. Exactly I can work with those metaphors.
RP: Do you still talk about Magazine at all?
BA: Yeah I do.
RP: That was when I was a young lad. Magazine was one of my favorite bands. I thought that they were doing some of the most exciting stuff.
BA: I thought it was great as well. I felt the same. It was really out there. And it could be there as well.
RP: What was like working with Howard during that time?
BA: I think it was really good because I was like naive. I didn’t really know what was going on by having a record deal, and now we’re going to do this tour and now this is going to happen. But I found it to be very- its like I would come out of school, I was in film school and I was like in my teenage years out with this band on the road learning from life experiences playing this great music. It was really fantastic. When I think back its really time to be treasured . And I ran for the darkside. (they chuckle)
RP: Which leads me to the next sort of phase is Nick Cave and working with two very very strong individuals with a very pointed vision. Also both are very literary. You have worked with these two individuals. Now you, yourself, are stepping into that mantle.
BA: Exactly. I watched them, I learned from them. They gave their energy to me and I think that’s the way. I did a gig recently and Howard was in the audience and being a shrewd character I had the band rehearse permafrost. And we played it. I said, “This is for a man that kind of gave to me, now I give it back.” It was great. It felt really good. He came back afterward and we went to a few bars. Those experiences have informed and put me where I am right now. You see the process, you get older and get the idea.