Barry Adamson – Interview – 2014

One interesting dude is Barry Adamson. From member of seminal post-punk band Magazine to member of the first incarnation of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, he's been developing a career as a solo artist, film and soundtrack composer, writer, film-maker and photographer over the last 25 years. Three years ago he came to live in Brighton, the same city as his old friend Nick Cave and seems as busy as ever as he juggles the demands of being in Cave's band again (after a gap of 25 years) whilst pursuing his own projects, which have always had cinema and the qualities of cinematic music in the foreground. Not surprisingly, he has become a patron (like Cave) of Cine City, Brighton's excellent yearly film festival and is an active participant in that event.

Meeting at a café in central Brighton, the weather fine, the coffee strong and Brighton life streaming by, we chat about his life and current projects, whilst every now and then making derisory comments about so-called disabled people parking their cars in disabled zones (Barry knows a thing or two about this having had a hip replacement…)

"I think it's great," says Barry, about his adopted city, a world away from the urban deprivation of Manchester's Moss Side of the 70s where he grew up. "In that time I've been to many places, because I was re-instated in the Bad Seeds, with Nick (Cave), so we've been touring constantly; and it's funny, that old adage about it's nice to go travelling but it's so nice to come home, it actually works! Even when you go to London, coming back you get that whiff of the sea…"
Currently his focus is primarily on Cine City and this year he is providing the sound design for Berg, an installation put together by artist and production designer Anna Deamer that is taking place at the University of Brighton Gallery. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Brighton-born author Ann Quin's Berg, Deamer's film set will be an imagined screen version of the novel, while the immersive, cinematic environment is complimented by sound design from Adamson. Although she has remained relatively unknown, Quin achieved some infamy when she took her own life by walking into the sea, off Brighton seafront, in 1973, leaving a legacy of four books behind and a cult reputation…

"I find her writing out there, slightly psychedelic and it tantalises the senses and the imagination in quite bizarre ways. I believe she was seen by some as like a William Burroughs type person, quite difficult. Berg is a book about a guy who goes to a seaside town – Brighton – to kill his father, goaded to do it by his mother. He gets there and he starts having a thing with his father's mistress and it gets odd… His mother keeps feeding all this stuff. It's quite an intense mapping of dysfunction, quite harrowing. With the installation we are trying to set an atmosphere for the book so that when people walk around they get a real sense of her workings.

"I've also drafted in a collaborator," says Barry, "Paul Kendall, who I used to do a lot of work with when I was with Mute (the label that released a number of solo albums). He's a brilliant sound designer. I'm going to concentrate on the scoring and recording the sound effects and voices with Paul and he'll put the whole thing together and bring his sensibility to the table. I'm trying to compose a 20-30 minute suite which can be looped and what I will try and do with Paul is loop the sound effects and loop the narration to begin at different points so that as it goes through the day and evening it's never the same. Hopefully, I'll be bringing out its own natural, accidental, harrowing, beauty with that! That’s the idea, today…" he smiles, as it's still a work in progress but must be finished before he sets off with Cave and band for a tour of the antipodes later this year.

As a consummate film man, who became a fan of film scores from an early age, being part of Cine City is obviously something that he enjoys. "I really like what they do and I like to be a part of what they do. I saw the Hangover Square installation (2012, based on Patrick Hamilton's book, also set in Brighton), thought it was fantastic and it got me talking to Tim (Brown, founder and Director of Cine City). He mentioned if I'd heard of Ann Quin and I hadn't. He turned me on to her and lo and behold here we are two years later."

His love of film, the fact that he has scored and soundtracked several films including David Lynch's Lost Highway, The Beach and Delusion and the overtly cinematic qualities of the music he has made since his first solo album, Moss Side Story, meant he was an obvious choice to become part of the Cine City family,. "I made a short film, The Therapist, which was my introduction to Cine City. I made it like a new record, but which turned into a film. So you get a DVD with a score… Cine City were one of the few people to take it on and show it. It's quite harrowing and dark, so a lot of people passed on it, but Cine City showed it at the Duke of Yorks and I was amazed. it was a great experience because I watched it there and thought 'this is why I did it' and I got that thing from it, that moment where you realise the reasons people make movies. I've just made another one which is being shown this year, just a ten minute short, called The Swing, The Hole and The Lie

It's been quite a journey for the Mancunian, who before setting out on a solo career in the late 80s, was the bassist for both Magazine and The Bad Seeds, two of the definitive post-punk bands. And, as was often the way in those days, it all came about unexpectedly and very suddenly. Lead singer Howard Devoto had left The Buzzcocks (he appeared on their seminal Spiral Scratch EP, one of the very first 'punk' releases) and was recruiting for a new band, Magazine. "I had a bass with two strings that someone gave me the week before and I thought I must get those two other strings which is what I went to do. I saw the advert at the same time, so I phoned up, he said come around tomorrow. I got the two other strings and practised that night. I had played a little bit of guitar before, I could do the Smoke on the Water thing, but I didn’t entirely know what the bass was supposed to do. You know, the role of bass, normally you stand there in the background and I made it a personal mission to bring it more to the front and play melodies. But I was very fortunate, the first song I was shown was The Light Falls Out of Me which is just a one note bassline…

"That sort of thing was encouraged, it was all part of making a difference to what had gone on before (a reference primarily aimed at the increasingly bloated form of progressive rock that was prevalent pre-punk). Individualism was so important, that you sounded like no one else. That was the whole thing and with Magazine I was trying to make the bass stand out. As well as rooting the song, I was interested in playing melodies and having them heard and within two weeks everyone had one (a Roland Boss Chorus CE-1, for all you anoraks out there, responsible for the distinctive sound of Adamson's bass)."

For a while Magazine were touted as band bound for fame and fortune, their début album Real Life one of the classics of the era and which featured their first (and only) hit Shot By Both Sides.  "I remember that feeling: 'Wow, this is something else!' With Second Hand Daylight (the follow up album) we felt it was a progression on Real Life and thinking now this is it, we're going to take over everything. It didn't quite go that way; not that there was an arrogant expectation, just that this would feed into the mainstream of life and we would sail of into the sunset…

"Our Top of the Pops appearance was a bit of disaster by all accounts, Howard kinda threw the towel in before we even got there. He produced a bit of an anti-performance. It was one of those rare records that dropped down the charts the week after being on the show!"

Magazine disbanded in 1981 and Adamson briefly joined The Birthday Party, playing on two songs on the Junkyard album, temporarily filling in for Tracy Pew who was in prison at the time for drink-driving related offences… The Birthday Party disbanded in 1983 and Adamson was asked to join Cave's new band, which eventually became Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, with whom he played bass and keyboards on their first four albums, before deciding to leave in 1987, to develop his own solo career  "It was a leap of faith leaving the Bad Seeds, although it seemed quite natural at the time. It was a motivating factor in leaving in some ways, I was stuck in a bit of rut, in a personal tragedy and I needed to get myself out of that. It wasn't so much planned, it seemed a necessary thing for me to do."

"I was young when I was first with them, in my early 20s; it was a bit mad, a bit crazy (the Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds line-ups were notorious consumers of stimulants). It shows in the work because a lot of it is quite extraordinary; really out there, of its own."

With the support of Mute, Adamson made and released Moss Side Story in 1988. A concept album and mainly instrumental, it was devised as a score to a fictitious film set in Moss Side – a search for identity and purpose and with a strong streak of noir. It got him noticed and the offers started coming in. Over the next few years he contributed scores to several films including David Lynch's Lost Highway and Allison Ander's Gas, Food, Lodging. How did this side of his creativity develop? "I always had an interest in film music, even when I was in Magazine. I would stay behind after rehearsals because there were keyboards I could play, do all that… I was then asked to write a short story for something. I did it and then I was asked to do another one and that won a prize, so it was encouraging to me; you can out pen to paper, it's readable, it communicates and it;s interesting. If I could transfer that to film that would be really fantastic. And I'm obviously influenced by working with two great wordsmiths; Howard and Nick."

Over the next two decades he released a number of albums, all with a distinctive cinematic flavour, but more song based and lyrically driven compared to Moss Side Story. A coupl eof years ago Adamson rejoined The Bad Seeds, first by playing bass on The Bad Seeds Push The Sky Away and then, by accident, became part of the touring band last year, when he stepped in for the injured drummer Thomas Wydler and made his first appearance when they performed an unadvertised warm up show in the ballroom of the King Alfred's Centre, on Hove seafront. "I stepped in and I never stepped out. They asked me after a while to stick around and I said, 'Yeah, alright'. Now that Thomas is back I'm playing keyboards and vibraphone. Nick called me before about doing some bass on Push The Sky Away and he asked where I was and I said I'm in Brighton. I'd forgotten he was living down here, it turned out he was just around the corner. I hadn't really seen him that much from the time I left in 1987 to a couple of years ago. Although in the early noughties I had a couple of nights at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London; one night was me playing the new album and the next night was called: These are a Few Of My Favourite Themes, where I was playing John Barry and stuff. He came along and sang that night.

"But, I've got to work my time out. I'm recording a new album and while we were touring in America (with The Bad Seeds) I decided to do a photobook, 120 pages and I think that will become the artwork for the album. It's beautiful, really vivid colours. I used the Hipstamatic app a lot, and lens effects. I'm really pleased with the results.

"On a day off I was in Washington and I remember going into this café and there was a guy sitting there, head in his hands, with a really old tape recorder wrapped in sellotope and with an ear phone. He was ragged looking, but wearing a full suit. I thought CIA agent! I got a great shot of him, he got up and left – I tried to pay him because he didn't have any money – and he went outside and picked up a shopping trolley which was, like, eight feet in the air, full of of stuff, just crap, and started pushing it down the street. That was the only one I took in Washington, while in New Orleans I took loads. Basically, I was taking pictures of obscure things round America and Canada. I might put the album out as a set of three EP's throughout next year and this will be the defining extra package. So, I'm really busy!
Jeff Hemmings
The Swing The Hole and The Lie will be shown at Cine City festival on Saturday 6th Dec at Dukes at Komedia
BERG, University of Brighton Gallery, Sat 22nd Nov – Fri 19th Dec