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Ryan Adams: Rock’s Foolish Romantic

How one of the worst experiences of Ryan Adams’ life led to big realisations and a brand new album.

When Ryan Adams was a kid growing up in Jacksonville, North Carolina, he used to ride his skateboard to the mall. Though it “was pretty far from where my neighbourhood was”, he’d do it “because I wanted to be close to records”. During the week he’d save his lunch money – $1 a day – and if things went to plan, by Friday he’d have enough cash to buy an album. More often than not it would be a punk rock record from the Dischord or SST stable, something that didn’t go unnoticed by store clerk Jere Mcilwean. There was another guy who worked there – “He looked like he was trying to be Mike Ness from Social Distortion” – but it was Mcilwean with whom the teenaged Adams would often end up chatting about bands like Sonic Youth and the Meat Puppets.

One day Mcilwean asked Adams if he played an instrument, to which he responded in the affirmative, which wasn’t exactly the truth, but then nor was it a lie. Adams had recently traded a skateboard and $75 for his friend’s brother’s fake Les Paul, though he never did end up giving him the money. (“Not because I’m a bastard, but I was so poor.”) He’d played guitar previously, after his friend Michael – Adams often refers to people by their first name without any further explanation; like, of course you know who Michael is – got one with a built-in amplifier for Christmas, but this was different. This was his.

If for Adams it was love at first sight, the feeling wasn’t mutual. “I remember thinking, there must be something wrong with this thing, cos it doesn’t sound like the way it’s supposed to sound,” he smiles. “No one taught me anything. And I literally looked at it like a caveman looking at a calculator.”

Adams didn’t know how to tune the instrument, but accepted an invitation from Mcilwean, a bass player, to jam. Upon arriving at a rundown rehearsal space outside Jacksonville, Adams was taken aback to see Allen Midgett, a punk rock kid he’d grown up idolising and watching skateboard in the half-pipe behind his grandmother’s house, sitting behind the drums. (One time Adams even snuck into Midgett’s backyard while they were taking a break and started sweeping off the ramp in the hope Midgett and his friends would invite him to stay and skate. They just chased him off.)

As the trio that would soon come to be known as the Patty Duke Syndrome started to jam, Adams wailing on a solo he didn’t know how to play on a guitar he didn’t know how to tune – “I’d never played a solo in my life” – Mcilwean “leapt across the room and smashed the record button on the four-track to capture what was happening”. As with many artefacts from his musical past, Adams still has that tape. “You can hear the very first notes I ever made,” he says wistfully.

If there was a Ground Zero in Ryan Adams’ career, this jam may well be it. “Oh man, I wanted to crawl inside that sound and live in that sound forever,” he says. “If I could have reduced myself to G.I. Joe size I would have slept in the back of that little Peavey amp and just magically come back to life when it was time to jam. It was everything.”

Today, the 42-year-old is standing in the control room of his Pax·Am recording studio, which for all intents and purposes is ‘Ryan Adams HQ’. If you were looking for an indication of just how far Adams has come, you could do worse than start here. Adjoined to Hollywood’s Sunset Sound studio and housed in a non-descript green building across the road from what Adams says might be the scariest 7-11 in Los Angeles, the fact it’s located near a homeless shelter accounts for the volume of destitute people nearby. (At one point, Adams recounts the look of shock on Taylor Swift’s face when she had to step over a homeless person while leaving the studio.)

Once through the parking gates, entering the studio is like walking through the front door of a house – one step and you’re in the kitchen. “I was actually recording Ashes & Fire next door with Glyn Johns, and I was about to take another place, a really huge photography studio that had its own lot, and they showed me this space and it was completely empty,” says Adams. “There was nothing in it – no console, desks weren’t here, it was just completely gutted and actually kind of destroyed. There were no air conditioners, it was really haggard. And it was like Ghostbusters; it was like, ‘It’s so bad, I’ll take it!’ And they were like, ‘Really? It’s not professional in any way, it’s not correct.’ And I was like, ‘That’s perfect.'”

The first thing that strikes you about Adams isn’t that his bird’s nest hairstyle is as wild in real life as it looks in photos, but that he’s a lot more solid than those pictures suggest. Since moving from New York to Los Angeles seven years ago he’s become a dedicated runner, spending at least two hours a day pounding the pavement and nature reserves in the area. “It’s made me a much healthier person,” he offers. “I went from being a scrawny fucker to being like, it actually bulks you up a bit, because you have to endure. I love the endurance aspect.”

On this late afternoon in early October, Adams is wearing blue jeans and a red and black checked collared shirt, which he removes to reveal a weathered black Danzig shirt. He estimates his collection of band tees to be in the hundreds, so big that even he calls it “absurd”. His most treasured is a 1984 Dead Kennedys shirt, “the Winston Smith design with the huge hand rising up over all those gravestones”.

Of all his friends growing up in North Carolina, it was Jere Mcilwean whom Adams thinks probably encouraged his musical pursuits the most. It certainly wasn’t his parents. Adams’ father, a contractor, split when he was young, and his relationship with his English teacher mother was fractious, to say the least. “It was very destructive,” says the singer. “There was no encouragement there. In fact, looking back, there was a lot of negative, terrible things. Taking away my guitar, locking it in the trunk of the car, throwing it on the roof of the house so I couldn’t get to it. Things that discouraged a young person. Typical American, psychologically semi-abusive type of relationship.”

Adams developed a close bond with his grandparents, and to this day refers to them as “my role models as mother and father. My personality is based on theirs, minus the patience they clearly both had. But I’m working on that.”

Born David Ryan Adams on November 5th, 1974, he and his brother, Chris, were each given one of their father’s names as their first name, but opted to go by their middle one. “Growing up, we didn’t know I was going to be a guitar-player-singer,” smiles Adams. (He is, for the record, a fan of near-namesake Bryan Adams: “He’s a complete and total badass gentleman. He’s just the coolest. That guy writes huge songs that are still super touching.”)

Referring to himself as a “very spastic and very emotional person”, had you asked the young Ryan Adams what profession he planned to pursue, he would have said “journalist and a writer. My visual arts stuff was great and I’m good at sketching, I love to paint, and that was a huge passion of mine. But I always thought, yeah, I’ll write books. So guitar and singing surprised me that I had anything for it. But some part of me, that wannabe writer part of my brain, and that kind of fragile, emotional kid who had already seen a lot, but was also a very isolationist type who would rather spend time with his grandparents than hang out with other kids, all those things together, plus a guitar, that’s the perfect form to make Ryan Adams. That’s how that happened.”

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From top: Adams with Don Was and Bob Seger in November and; Whiskeytown.

If you’re searching for key moments in Adams’ life, you’d do well to consider the death of his grandfather from emphysema when he was still a teenager. Many years later, while seeing a hypnotherapist to help him stop smoking, the therapist deduced that Adams had started as a 14- or 15-year-old because it made him feel closer to his grandfather, even though cigarettes were killing the man he loved most. “The smell reminded me of him, the smoking reminded me of him, that was just my way of being close to him.”

After his grandfather’s passing, Adams deduced that “it wasn’t going to be beneficial for me to hang out much longer” in Jacksonville. He couldn’t live with his grandmother, as she was his mother’s mother, and things weren’t great for him at his mum’s house. School was a drag – “I was never in trouble as a teenager, I was just disinterested in high school” – and music was calling him. Inspired by the documentary Another State Of Mind, about hardcore bands such as Youth Brigade touring the United States, he came to a decision: “I’m just going to play drums in a punk rock band and play guitar and hope to god I could find a place to wash dishes.”

Not long after dropping out of high school he moved to Raleigh, where a few years later he’d form highly regarded alt-country outfit Whiskeytown. The years up to that point, though, were “really scary”. “I didn’t have parents, I didn’t know anyone, a lot of people disliked me,” he says. He had some plumbing skills, and did construction work when times were lean. “I sold all my records which pretty much sucked. Then I went and got a dish washing job at two different places. I got up every day and tried to make it make sense. I probably smoked cigarettes for dinner. But I figured it out.

“It seemed like a lot of people there played music for fun, and I was there to try and change some stuff,” he adds. “I was there to live and create and be inside my version of rock & roll. And I was unafraid. I didn’t have anything to lose.”

He did, however, have plenty to gain, as the studio in which he’s sitting attests. To wander around Pax·Am is to get some idea of how it looks inside Adams’ imagination. (If you were searching for an overall mood, you’d position it somewhere between vintage Californian and southern Gothic, via a comic-book-and-music-obsessed teenager’s room.) There is stuff to look at everywhere. The vocal room alone – a small lounge area between the kitchen and control room – contains a Gold plaque signifying 500,000 sales of Ronnie James Dio’s The Very Beast Of Dio, a gift from the legendary metal singer’s wife, Wendy; on the opposite wall is what looks like a tiny shrine, of which a small amp is a feature. It was, Adams’ manager reveals, the amp Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia used to practice with in hotels.

“I needed to shut everyone off for a while and completely destroy myself. I needed to become totally lost.”

The control room houses the mixing console and all manner of outboard gear (a red LED setting on one effects unit is glowing ‘666’), but that’s just the half of it. There is shit on the walls – a framed photo of Elvis; a framed Ninja Turf movie poster; action figures still in their boxes, hanging from pins (Predator, Back to the Future cars). There is shit on the mixing desk (a bust of what looks to be Napoleon, skulls, a religious icon, miniature dogs and cats, an AC/DC logo). Leopard skin prints cover the sound proofing, while the black-and-white-checked vinyl floor is straight out of a Sixties milkbar.

There is a lot… to take in.

Adams motions to follow him upstairs, past the ‘live room’ in which bands record and rehearse, one wall of which is draped with a giant American flag. (Not the one from the cover of 2001’s Gold, he points out.) At the end of the corridor is Adams’ office. Dozens of guitars stand to attention in racks, while a two-seater couch faces an L-shaped desk, which along with many of the studio’s wooden fittings, Adams helped build. Behind the desk are shelves packed with records, books, a bong, and more dolls in their boxes (Freddy Krueger, Terminator, Alien). Books such as Charles Bukowski’s The Last Night of the False Poems stand alongside the left of the desk, while a small speaker sits on each corner. Smack bang in the middle of them is an Olympia typewriter, on which Adams writes lyrics. Despite the proliferation of paraphernalia, the room is neat and tidy, everything seemingly in its exact place. At points during the interview, while in the middle of an answer, Adams absentmindedly but meticulously re-arranges the trinkets on top of the speakers mid-sentence, moving things just so.

“I write songs here, we listen to records here, like all the Pax·Am [label] releases, this is where we test everything, on these speakers,” he explains, taking a seat at the desk. “I just thought the one thing missing from most studios is reference books and a typewriter and a room to go and be isolated.”

Adams refers to Pax·Am as a place “with no real rules; a place for people to come and play and just record. Jenny [Lewis] will come in, Bob Mould will come by and jam, Jello Biafra, you never know who’s going to be in town. And it’s great, cos there’s a place for us to go and make music.”

He recorded 2014’s self-titled album here, and took the cover photo in the front yard. “There’s the red light from the Pax·Am sign on half of my face, and then there’s that really intense green street lamp that’s there, so half of it’s kind of green; it looks like Bruce Banner, the Hulk, from the Seventies show. I just love that that’s the way everyone looks on the porch at night here.”

When Adams completed that self-titled record, such was his satisfaction with the process and the outcome that he determined that his days of recording elsewhere were over. But then he got divorced, and then Pax·Am was the last place he wanted to be.

When the Grammy nominations were announced in late-2014, Adams’ self-titled album was nominated for two: Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song for “Gimme Something Good”. But what should have been a “yeah! moment” was darkened when “details of my personal life and what was about to happen became public”. After marrying actress Mandy Moore in 2009 the couple were about to split, meaning their relationship – which the notoriously private Adams routinely refused to discuss in interviews – was about to be dragged into the spotlight. “I don’t like that [celebrity] world,” he tuts. “I’m behind a guitar for a reason. Some people long for that attention, I don’t.”

At the time, Adams was living “10 to 15 minutes” from Pax·Am, and the huge expanse that is Los Angeles suddenly started to feel claustrophobic. “As much as I love Pax·Am, and it was my home, I just couldn’t be here. It was just too close to home. I needed to be gone.”

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Adams with Mandy Moore in 2009.

Adams retreated to his former base of New York and, more specifically, Electric Lady Studios. “I needed to go really crazy and let it out, and not be so close to the fire of what was going on,” he explains. Once upon a time, that craziness may have extended to drug and alcohol binges, but having since whittled those excesses down to a healthy intake of weed, Adams instead returned to the studio where he’d recorded 2007’s Easy Tiger, 2008’s Cardinology and 2010’s III/IV, and channelled his emotions into making music. “It was actually so healthy to go, this is a safe place to examine yourself, and I really did, I used that time, my friendships there, and I started to have a really good time, which is unbelievable.

“I went to the studio every day. It healed me.”

Adams made “a lot of weird, crazy demos”, searching for what he calls the equation for “whoa, I am fucking lost”. It wasn’t until last March when he “had so many songs that were so fucking intense” that he looked at the demos and “started to actually dig in” and focus on making what would become Prisoner, his 15th studio album of original material (due February 17th). The sessions were intense – one day he and drummer Johnny T. Yerington emerged from the studio, blinking into the morning sunlight, unaware they’d lost an entire day and night in the studio – but not as full-on as the final step of the process, where Adams had to isolate himself to “pull out the stuff that I could never access. I needed to shut everyone off for a while and completely destroy myself. I needed to become totally lost.”

What did that look like?

“Well… I think for other people it would be dangerous to do that, but I am overqualified,” he laughs. “I’m the guy that can go down there, and probably come back up. I was,” he adds later, “able to just fall apart a little bit.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Adams’ manager played a selection of songs from Prisoner in his office, starting with six that were guaranteed inclusions, and then, with Adams’ approval, wading through others that were still on the ‘maybe’ pile. A cursory glance at the song titles – “Do You Still Love Me?”, “Doomsday”, “Broken Anyway”, “Breakdown”, “To Be Without You” – suggests the narrative of the album mirrors the intense period of his marital breakdown.

“Yes and no,” he starts. “I want to navigate this with you in a way that’s true.” Which he does, in a rambling, tangential manner that touches on everything from elitism in art to his love of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac to the madness of the planet and how he likes songs “that sound clean and without edges”, but in relation to the question can be boiled down to one key point: “The fairest way to answer that is, as a writer, I literally work with what I have at the time.”

What surprised Adams most is that when he stepped back from the songs and observed them for what they were, he didn’t see a person who was angry. “I didn’t see a bitterness, and I didn’t see a victim, to me I saw an awareness. Which is unusual. Being who I was and having the experiences that I had, I would have expected more of that. And instead, it’s like I really did the work. I went inside and said, ‘OK, Ryan Adams, who are you in this moment? What the fuck is this? Can you accurately describe your internal surroundings? Because the exterior ones don’t matter.’

“I’m saying in a long-winded way, I went through the worst possible fucking thing you can go through, and I remained a foolish romantic person. I’m either completely stupid or it’s a blessing,” he chuckles. “I don’t know!”

Advance word on Prisoner had it sounding like a cross between AC/DC’s Fly on the Wall and Eighties soft rocker Bruce Hornsby – it doesn’t – thanks to an August interview with Entertainment Weekly. The piece quoted Adams as saying that after listening to Fly on the Wall, “I realised what I had to do for the record.” Cue headlines about his new “AC/DC-inspired album”.

“I saw that and thought, well, information is really uncontrolled now. But I have so much experience with this, like the whole ‘Summer of ’69’ thing. There’s a drunk person at your show, and for 45 minutes they’re screaming out every Lynyrd Skynyrd song they know, drooling on themselves going crazy, and then they scream out a Bryan Adams song as well. What’s the headline? There’s no headline there except ‘Ryan Adams Kicks Out Fan Asking For Bryan Adams Song’. There wouldn’t have been a headline for ‘Super Drunk Guy In Nashville Disrupts Concert For 45 Minutes and Was Asked To Leave’.”

Rather than crib its sound, Adams was struck by the way in which Fly on the Wall is constructed. “It’s all meat, and it doesn’t get into abstraction thematically. It stays the course. It hit me – that’s what I have to do.”

And so he sought to cut down the 80 or so tracks he’d written for the record by asking, “What really sticks out? What is really pushing its way to the front saying, ‘I can get the job done, and I have the story to tell, with no redundancies.'”

That he thinks he found those songs is one reason why on September 6th he tweeted: “Best thing I ever made, this record, these songs.” Another reason is that he feels like he’s finally “moved away from style; I have actually started to be more myself. I’m less afraid to be a combination of things.”

Ask him when he started achieving that, and he sets about dissecting his discography at length, the abbreviated notes of which are as follows.

During the earliest stages of his solo career and time with Whiskeytown, “although [he] was telling the truth… [he] just wasn’t going to the canvas naked”. When he made 2005’s Cold Roses and 2004’s Love Is Hell – “the complete record,” he specifies – “that was me in an unhinged, beautiful, druggy kind of way where I was really inside my own story. That’s all I wanted to be, inside a fantasy world where I could be the character in my own pain, or my own joy, and it worked and it was great.”

By the time he got to Easy Tiger, he was “sober and didn’t drink and take hard drugs, and I think that allowed me to be a little clearer”. Things hit a speed bump with Cardinology – “I wasn’t really present, the band and I weren’t getting along all that much, and I didn’t really love making that record” – while 2011’s Ashes & Fire found the newly-married Adams “trying to talk [about what I was feeling] in a way that was unguarded but wasn’t going to point fingers or show insecurities that I thought could affect my personal life. I actually worked really hard on trying to find a way to steer myself into a new zone, and I think working some of those muscles helped me prepare to write more openly and evenly, so Ashes & Fire helped kind of go closer to where I wanted to be.”

“I went through the worst possible fucking thing you can go through, and I remained a foolish romantic person.”

After abandoning the follow-up because it “sounded like Ashes & Fire 2“, he began making his self-titled album at Pax·Am. “That record was me starting to feel like myself. That was me going, I can play an acoustic guitar and that’s what it’s like. But I could play a song like ‘Gimme Something Good’ and that’s what it’s like when I play [electric] guitar. I can still have that moment of the Grateful Dead, and moments of Daydream Nation Sonic Youth, and those can all wrap around to Don Henleyisms.” In short: “All these things started coming together and I realised, I don’t have to tear them apart. I don’t have to tear apart that I was born in the Seventies and raised in the Eighties.

“That power in me grew,” he adds, “where I’m getting to know myself and trust myself … and I know what’s up. And that affected the new record.”

A new Ryan Adams album often comes with certain expectations, not least from those who yearn for a return to the sound of breakthrough LPs Gold or Heartbreaker. “But is that same present going to be as lovely the second time?” he reasons. “Is that same kiss going to mean as much to your lover the second time?

“I don’t want to be the governor of someone’s fucking creative idea of me, I don’t want to run for president of their expectations,” he adds. “If they think they’re disappointed now, imagine how much more disappointed they would be if they were to learn I was trying to create a construct for the listener that would please them in order to benefit me financially or illuminate my career in a way where I reached maybe a higher status, that I’m only filling when I go to do my job in a false way. I think that’s how you become Dierks Bentley, right?”

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Adams onstage at Sydney’s Factory Theatre, Monday, December 5th

Fast forward to December, and Adams is onstage with his band at Sydney’s Factory Theatre, performing Prisoner in full for media and industry. He’s in a good mood, prefacing one of the album’s more lyrically fraught moments, “Breakdown”, by saying it’s “about getting super stoked and having an awesome peanut butter and jelly sandwich”. His levity may have something to do with him being “blazed”, but then it might also be due to the fact that, at 42, Adams has found a level of comfort onstage that for many years evaded him. His hypnotherapist helped him realise “there was no expectation of me that I wasn’t creating for myself. And that really, the point of everything I was ever trying to do was to be the same me [onstage] as I was every day.”

Which is?

“In my real life I’m fun to be around, and joking all the time and playing pinball and a goofball. I have my moments, but I don’t walk around sulking in some dark mood.”

Accordingly, where in the past Adams’ shows had the potential for volatility – whether it be from lighting or flash cameras exacerbating his Ménière’s Disease, or from perceived slights from the audience – these days he says he approaches concerts like this: “I’m going to go play, and there’s these people and I love them, they’re here to listen to tunes and it’s going to be great. Even if there’s a terrible person there, we can fix that. I can make a joke. That one person who’s still trying to live out the ‘Summer of ’69’ thing, you go, ‘Hey, man, I just want to let you know, I love you, man, I respect you so much, everyone does. And we all hear you, we know you want me to react, and it’s not going to happen. So whatever attention you need I’m going to give it to you right now, and just say I came all this way, sleeping in a tiny little coffin bunk, travelling across the country, pooping in weird toilets, just to come play to you, and you’re OK, and I’m OK, and we all love you.'”

His eyes widen. “And you’d be surprised! People clap! They go crazy! And I can see the person, they’re getting poked fun at a little bit, but that humility comes back and then you might see a grin. And I always think, I left this place better than when I came. And that’s my job, right?”

Top photo: Adams in Newtown, Sydney, Tuesday, December 6th. Credit: Max Doyle.

From issue #783 (February 2017), available now. 

In This Article: Ryan Adams