Friday, July 19, 2013

An interview with Adam Ant

My interview originally appeared at

The dandy highwayman is back and busier than ever.

Last fall, Adam Ant returned to American stages for the first time in more than a decade. Most shows, including one at City National Grove of Anaheim, sold out – and by various accounts rocked with a harder edge than fans expected.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the amazing response," Ant said in a phone interview from his management office in London. "I didn't have a reference point, other than I hadn't put a record out in a great deal of time. So I decided to go on the road first to see what the demand and audiences were like."

Before that, Ant tested the waters by returning to some old club haunts around London. "They were gigs I used to play in the punk days; it was just to get a band together, really."

January saw the release of Adam Ant Is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter, his first studio album in 18 years, issued by his own Blueblack Hussar Records. This Friday, the singer returns to the Grove, promising a good chunk of the new material and equally generous set lists.

"Having been away for so long, you want to make it special," said Ant, 58. "It's nice to balance out the singles with B-sides, rarities and a couple covers thrown in. The set does tend to be a long one. So far, people seem to like that.

"We've got quite a large repertoire of songs rehearsed from all nine albums," he continued. "The more you do it, the better it gets ... I'm glad to be back and hope to be more consistent. Now I've got my own label, I can put records out on a more regular basis."

Adam Ant, born Stuart Goddard, started out as bassist for pub-rock band Bazooka Joe (the Sex Pistols made their infamous 1975 concert debut as Joe's supporting act at London's St. Martin's College) and he received guitar advice from Johnny Thunders of New York Dolls.

Two years later, Adam and the Ants formed; music/fashion impresario and Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren offered career guidance.

"He wised me up and listened carefully to the (1979 debut) Dirk Wears White Sox album," Ant remembers of the late McLaren, the subject of a reworked older song on the new album ("Who's a Goofy Bunny?"). "He was quite impressed with it and went through every song, asked me what they were about. Basically, it was clear to him that it was an art-school, esoteric record lyrically.

"He said: 'Do you want to have hit singles or make these cult underground records?'
"I said: 'I really want a hit single.'
"He said: 'You're going the wrong way about it. You've gotta put your face on the front of the cover and step it up a bit. You've got to listen to arrangements of great songs.' He was a great rock 'n' roll historian and had an enormous knowledge of the history of music. He played me everything from Charlie Parker to the Hawks – all these classic records – and made me listen to the structure because it all had to fit into 3 ½ minutes."

Although McLaren soon led a mutiny of the early Ants lineup to instead form Bow Wow Wow, the singer still became one of the more distinctive artists to emerge from the post-punk era. A dual-drummer style with Burundi beats and a striking visual appeal incorporating Native American face paint and pirate garb did the trick.

From 1980-83, Adam Ant enjoyed a successful chart run in the U.K., notching eight Top 5 singles, including the chart-toppers "Stand and Deliver," "Prince Charming" and "Goody Two Shoes" (that one also became his biggest hit in America, reaching No. 12). The first four LPs all sold upwards of 300,000 copies at home, attaining gold or platinum status.

When people would lump Adam and the Ants into the same category as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, however, it frustrated him.

"By the time we established ourselves, it was just before the music video boom," he recalls. "The New Romantics came along and their stuff was listenable. But it came out of the (night) club scene. I never stepped foot in those. I wanted to play concerts and get out as fast as I could. I still have to constantly correct people. My old costumes are now in Victoria & Albert Museum (since 2009) and I had to tell them: 'It's not New Romantic, it's post-punk.' "

Interestingly, Ant appeared on the Motown 25 television special in 1983, alongside Michael Jackson, who later wanted to know where the Englishman obtained his costumes.

KROQ's support played a big part in the band's success in Southern California, yet though he and the Ants would repeatedly appear in Los Angeles, his Orange County debut didn't come until 1984's Strip Tour, which stopped for a rainy night at Irvine Meadows, now Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

"Rodney (Bingenheimer) was really banging my stuff every night. It was mania when I first went to visit him at the station. I'm still in touch with Rodney and he's a great guy. We don't tend to have DJs over here as committed to music as people like that. KROQ really got behind me (back then) and was very excited. You can only feed off that. It really did create an excitement and party atmosphere whenever I came to play over there. It was fantastic."

After performing at the global Live Aid charity event in '85, Ant moved to L.A. His handsome looks helped facilitate an acting career that resulted in multiple roles in film, television and theater over the next 15 years.

In the interim, O.C.-launched bands No Doubt and Sugar Ray as well as Nine Inch Nails, OK Go, Unwritten Law, Rocket from the Crypt and English superstar Robbie Williams all recorded Ant covers – a testament to his continued influence among younger acts.

During the 2000s, Ant's much-publicized scrapes with the law led to short stints within Britain's psychiatric care system. Since then he has admitted to suffering from bipolar disorder. An autobiography, Stand & Deliver, came out in 2006.

"The good thing about the book was I had a lot to write about ... I'm actually somebody who writes in a journal consistently. So that was extremely helpful. It was the first time I'd ever looked back at all. I found it a big challenge, but I enjoyed it. I'm glad I managed to put down that phase of my life. In the future, I'd like to do something else."

For the sprawling double-album Gunner's Daughter, Ant primarily collaborated with Boz Boorer, best known as Morrissey's guitarist and co-songwriter and a member of '80s rockabilly act the Polecats. The pair had previously worked together on 1995's modest U.S hit CD and title track "Wonderful."

"Coming back into it was a gentle thing. I hadn't really written anything during that period. I was just beginning to get ideas. Boz has a nice, well-equipped studio in his home and had some backing tracks that he played me. We started with 'Vince Taylor,' 'Marrying the Gunner's Daughter' and 'Dirty Beast.' Those songs all had a very guarded, private, relaxed recording atmosphere that helped me enormously on this record."

The new release contains some of the most personal lyrics Ant has ever penned. Swampy, slide-guitar-infused lead single "Cool Zombie" is about a few years he spent living in Dayton, Tenn., with his ex-wife during the late '90s.

"What impressed me from living down there was an incredible love of music – not just country, but also folk and blues," he recalled. "The first music I actually embraced as a teenager was honky-tonk blues guitar. You'd buy the (instructional) book and a record like Big Bill Broonzy, listen to the track and learn the song. So the new songs were pretty much all written on guitar and they have a simple blues beginning."

Other songs have a demo quality or were recorded using a laptop. Among the more "produced" standouts is the edgy "Hardmentoughblokes."

"I always like a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek humor in my records. That is a statement about the genre of British gangster films like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Coming from London, it's quite an exaggeration of some of the real underground characters I've experienced."

Elsewhere, the apologetic acoustic guitar ballad "Cradle Your Hatred" finds Ant belting away (he should do more of it); an industrial-tinged piece called "Shrink" has lyrics about medication and could easily find a place on alt-rock radio today; and the spacey "Bulls---" is a fine cross between old favorites "Vive le Rock" and "Stand and Deliver."

"This album was so eclectic, written at different times with different people and studios ... some of them are under-produced." But he says that last track and "Shrink" are "just the opposite ... I was quite happy to embrace a bigger production sound (on those)."

Recently, Ant made his first music video since the '90s, for "Cool Zombie."

"It looks splendid, like a little film, and was not a cheap venture. Nowadays videos don't really merit that kind of production value. But I think I needed to. Felt very happy to do that."

photo by Andy Gotts
During his heyday, Mr. Goddard was known for taking a hands-on role in creating what became iconic videos before and during the early days of MTV.

"I like to have as much control as you can have," he explains. "I went to art school and studied how to make short films, how to draw a storyboard out. For me, it was just an extra avenue beyond the responsibility of the lyrics and music ... it was a new opportunity to introduce a skill that I had no idea I'd ever have to use. It came in very useful.

"At the time, a lot of the record companies' idea of a video was standing three blokes in a room with a lampshade and a Venetian blind and that would be it. I wanted to make proper little movies, which I did. Fortunately, when MTV came along, 'Goody Two Shoes' broke me in the States, but I also had four other good videos in stock. All that came back for me and worked in the U.S.A. It was fabulous."

If he had to choose which of his old albums still stand the test of time, Ant insists "it would have to be Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980). I've drawn upon it as a starting point to this album: reintroducing that character as the Blueblack Hussar now, if he was a French Hussar and walked across Moscow in 1812 and come back.

"When I listen to Kings, the breakthrough record, I think it's a very hybrid and experimental sound. You always look back to your early success as the one that is your most important piece of work. The hardest thing, which a lot of bands discover, is that second album. You've really got to keep up the pace."

With: Prima Donna
Where: City National Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave.
When: July 19
How much: $25-$35
Call: 714-712-2700 or 800-745-3000
Also: Ant appears July 20 at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., $30-$40


ida said...

I always learn so much from your interviews, and this one is no exception. The show at the Grove of Anaheim last night was great ... and of course, the outfits and makeup that some of the attendees wore add to the spirit.

ida said...

Another great story. I always learn so much from George's interviews. Last night's show at the Grove of Anaheim was great fun. I'm glad to see him in such good voice and form.