Words and photos by Maclay Heriot
Ryan Adams is nothing if not a damn prolific musician.
The guy’s just about to release his 16th studio album, Prisoner, and tour the globe for the umpteenth time with his brand new band. Before all that however, he was kind enough to stop by Sydney to do a full run through of his new album and some “selective” press, and that’s where we caught up with him. We sent photographer friend of the mag and die-hard Ryan Adams fan—Maclay Heriot along to Ryan’s show to fire off some frames and ask him a few questions about the new lineup of his band, his Sunset Blvd studio PAX-AM, and his legendary pinball machine collection.
I was trying to work out, this new album, what number is this now, like 14?
Pffft, I don’t know, I think it’s 16. I’m not sure if that’s official actual solo releases or 16 in total.
I was pre-listening to the new album Prisoner and was thinking that it had a very distinct Stratocaster tone and sound throughout. Would you usually stick to one guitar for a whole album?
Not really no, but the Strat came more into the sound since the last album. I mean it’s been there but it hasn’t been as predominate. I’ve had that Strat with me for quite some time; since Love Is Hell days. But I originally bought a Strat to produce a Jesse Malin record called The Fine Art of Self Destruction. He needed a guitar player, but he was working with a guy that I didn’t like, and so um I ended up—you know—taking over the guitar duties and producing. I needed a sound that wasn’t like mine, and I’d never played Strats before then, so I went to Danny Courtney’s Chelsea Guitars at the Chelsea Hotel. Chelsea Guitars was a great resource to a tonne of musicians then, and I…
Are they still there?
I think he is still there actually but not in the same location. Anyway, he was like, “You should try a Strat, you never play Strats,” so I said ok. He gave me an off-brand Strat, I liked it, it worked for me. Then he goes, “You need a real Strat,” and so the tobacco burst Strat that you saw last night was the one that Dylan had left at theChelsea Hotel. He would check in there periodically to write and knows Danny would mind his stuff, so he was like, “Look, Dylan comes in and leaves a guitar here because he just has a bunch and he’s not sentimental about them, or at least not about that one.” And so he gave it to me for a good deal. I’ve played it on records since then, but it’s just about when and where it feels right.
But the more I’ve gotten into guitar technique or the more I’ve gotten into the sound of my Princetons (his Fender Princeton amps) and pedal boards, and the more I’ve looked for certain tones and changed up pickups, the more it became necessary or felt right to look for topical tones versus deep end tones, and finger-picking tones versus picking tones. So the Strat is on a lot of the record mainly because I was in New York and had one there, as well as my Jazzmaster, and they were my workhorse guitars. There was this beautiful kind of sherbet Strat that was at Electric Lady, and then two different Jazzmasters that I bought at two different times. And then the more in-depth I got in the record, the more a couple of different sounds made it. But it’s mainly the Buck Owens acoustic guitar with live performance drums or my electric with live performance drums, then I would build around it and chorus pedals.
If you were sent on a mission to outer space and you had to take one guitar what would you take?
Mmm, I would probably take, shit well… It’s a deep space mission so you might not come back… Yeah I’m already thinking about the fact that I might break strings though, will I have an amplifier as well if I wanted or just a guitar? Yeah you can bring an amp, actually maybe it’s already built into the ship. Mmm, well if I brought an acoustic guitar there would be no point in having an electric, I’ve played acoustic guitar my whole life though so I’m kinda bored of it, even though it’s my favourite thing to do. I think I’d probably take Peanut (Gibson 355 TDSV), she’s been my guitar forever.
Yeah, I saw her sitting in your guitar bay at sound check yesterday. Whoa, so nice.
Yeah! She’s always around, I’ve been giving her a break thoughvwhich has been nice. We’ve played so many tours together that she has to be in proximity, but I haven’t busted her out lately, maybe next show though. But now that I’m settling in and knowing what this tour is gonna be and know what tones I’m looking for, I kinda know what guitars I’m gonna use. I picked up on that at sound check, you were fleshing out a lot of the songs with a new band?
Yeah. So how is it playing with new people and mixing it up? Does that keep it fresh? Like was it intentional to change it up for this tour or was it more whoever was around?
At first it was really difficult because I missed Daniel and Mike and Freddy. We had a thing and I knew what it was, and I was really excited about it. I played the new stuff for them and talked about them learning it, and I thought for sure they were gonna be interested in doing it. I was doing a bunch of press and promo back in the States—stuff that wasn’t ready to come out yet—and I came back and they hadn’t learned anything new, and that was when I decided that something had to change. And then shortly thereafter I learned that Mike had accepted a job at a record label, which is cool, Mike’s 50 and has two kids so it makes sense for him to try to have a less touring, less crazy life. And Daniel and his wife are just about to have a kid, so that’s cool, and Freddy just got married and he has another job auto correcting film, which is really cool, and he’d been super busy so it didn’t make sense for him to continue. So those three guys, right when I was ready to start rising up, all these things happened for them. But Nate is someone who I played with more consistently at my home studio. I say home studio but it’s literally not in my home, it’s at Sunset Sound so it’s a real honest-to-god studio. I mean I’ve made records there that have gotten Grammy nominations. It’s a legit place, some people don’t know that.
Is it right near Amoeba Music on Sunset? I think I’ve walked past there.
Yeah, it says Pax-Am in big neon letters right on the side. It’s not like most places in LA where people don’t go to sessions unless they’re paid. I wanted a place just to jam with people who were my friends. So I built a place for me and the idea was for anyone who wanted to play music for fun just to come over, and that’s sorta what started to happen, and Nate’s one of the guys.
Is that where all your pinball machines are?
No, they’re at a separate secret location. It’s not terribly far from there, but it’s so nondescript you’d never know where it was. So yeah, Nate was always around. He played on all the 1984 stuff and he also played drums on the last 12 records I produced. Nate’s the guy I always call in for everything. Charlie and him have a great…they just…like I think Freddy and Charlie had a special and interesting rhythm section vibe, but it was all force and forward, whereas Nate and Charlie have more of a…they like swing and pull and riff. They are in the pocket. Yeah, they’re so in the pocket. Because Nate will really bring it down and make me come down, and that’s pretty special. Also Nate can play really fast as he’s used to playing with Halsey, but he’s not used to playing two-and-a-half-hour rock shows. He’ll get there though. I mean, we play for like four-five hours straight at Pax. Last night was a solid two-and-a-half hour set, right? Yeah, but for what I’m used to playing with this band that’s short. We play for like four, five hours straight sometimes. Benny was in Grace Potter’s band, and we have the same interest in guitar stuff, and Ben—who I call Mahoney—the keyboard player, he just kinda came along with Benny. They all sort of fit in and it just makes sense. We all had one jam together that I organised and realised that this was meant to be.
And these shows in Australia were the first with this new band, was Australia an intentional place to start?
Well I have a manager who knows me and knows what I’m doing, and anticipates what’s gonna make sense for me. I think there’s several reasons why he wanted me to come here first. And one of them was that touring so far from home is one of the hardest things to do with a new band.
People are pretty mouthy here too, yeah? Compared to gigs I’ve seen in LA where everyone is watching and taking it in, last night you had people yelling between every song.
They’re intimate! And well, my fans are also dorks who like to say things and to be in the moment. And I’m inclusive. I don’t go on stage, like, demanding respect. I try to never do that, in fact if anything it’s only if someone is being extremely disrespectful that I almost talk to them in a conversational tone because I don’t ever want to illuminate what I’m doing above anyone else, that’s not the vibe I wanna bring. Well last night seemed more like a hang. Exactly, that’s what it should always be. There’s no reason anyone should play rock ’n’ roll and be putting themselves above anyone else. There’s no elevation technique or ego. That room at the Enmore has been the hardest room of the last previous tours, and this trip has been the hardest for me physically. So it seemed like the best place to go first. The biggest stretches are going to limber you up, and if we had crashed and burned we would have crashed and burned and it would have been a great first fail. But I didn’t think we would, I was kinda like, ok this is going to be tough physically with the travel, the adjustment and the unusualness of it all, but by the time we have to fly over to the States we will be ready.
You grew up skating, do you still skate?
Yeah I skate concrete parks, I skate the Glendale Skatepark in LA which is nice. I think it’s got like a 14- foot bowl or something, with like a foot-and-a-half of vert. And it’s got this nice snake run that teeters out and doesn’t really go anywhere, but then it ends up in this concrete mini half which is really fun. There’s a lot of new-school kids that are only using part of the mini snake run to do kick flips and shove-its and whatever over the humps. So I just hang over in the other end doing backside grinds, frontside grinds, you know what I mean—just carving and getting into simple skating. But I love nothing more than getting into a big scary deep pool or bowl and going really fast and carving up the coping backside. I can still do airs. It’s one of those things where after a couple of days I really start to loosen up, and then I have a couple of different decks to choose from depending on the park.
What would you usually grab?
If I’m going to be skating a 12-to-14 foot concrete bowl I might wanna use a Salba—something with a longer wheel base with old-school longer trucks, just because I’ll feel more like I’m surfing which is nice. But you know the old school Lucero red cross deck? Basically it had like this white box with a red cross in the centre that just said “Lucero”. That deck which had a bit of nose and a tonne of tail, I love that deck! That deck’s incredible, it’s great for street or any kind of ramp. See, I suck on concrete and skateboarding. I’m a pussy so I grew up mostly surfing. I love surfing too now, because I find it’s kinda like longevity in a bowl, you know? But I like the harshness of being in a pool, I love pool coping. I like that feeling of like, I can feel my trucks there on pool coping, I’m grinding pretty hard and I know if it gets caught up I’m gonna go down.
Skating is a bit like that. If you bail you kinda have to accept the bail, you have to accept the scab. I feel that the faster and more aggressive I am up on the coping and the less afraid of how I’m gonna pull out of a trick, the better it’s gonna be. It’s weird, it’s like the lower I go, if I go to do like a three-foot mini just to limber up and I’m some place on tour and it’s kinda to be careful, I feel like I’m more likely to fuck up there than I am to just go ahead and say, “Fuck it, I’m gonna go it and I’m going to skate and things are going to be cool.” It feels better to just get out and do it. It’s hard to travel with a board though, but not in the States, there’s always one on the tour bus, in fact there’s always one in my travel shit.