INTERVIEW : Adam Ant on Kings Of The Wild Frontier and the future
Following on from last month’s epic interview with the iconic Jordan, Eileen Shapiro catches up with Adam Ant on the eve of his big UK and USA tours for a rare interview…
Like a rollercoaster spiralling upwards, defying gravity, and with thousands of hearts dancing simultaneously as the anticipation mounts: suddenly he plunges into a death-defying, heroic descent, the speed rapidly increasing like a rush of water through the rapids. The audience is in for the ride of their lives as the iconic rocker Adam Ant takes to the stage in a kaleidoscope of brilliant colour and high-powered musical energy, performing his audacious and captivating “Kings of the Wild Frontier” album in its sequential entirety.
Celebrating 35 years since the release of “Kings of the Wild Frontier,” Adam will be embarking upon a North American concert tour in January/February 2017, accompanying the newly-released “Kings” deluxe, remastered boxset. Gone from the monochrome imagery of his first album “Dirk Wears White Sox,” the “Kings of the Wild Frontier” album is a heroic, dramatic, and colourful palette of glowing imagination, projecting this platinum-recording artist into epic and historic music success. With the “Antmusic” genre unique to him, Adam Ant’s music is more relevant and authentic than most sounds out there today.
After waiting nearly forever, I finally had the honour of speaking with Adam in a compelling conversation. I found him profound, gentle, poetic and most importantly, revealing…
When you originally recorded “Kings of the Wild Frontier” 35 years ago, was there anything else that you might have wanted to do, but weren’t able to, perhaps because of the lack of technology available?
No to be honest, we recorded it in a very remote studio out in Wales. Having had that break up with the first album, the “Dirk” album, with the original band going off to do Bow Wow Wow, I just wanted to get this new record done. So it was really grabbing the opportunity to make it sound the way…the sound I had in my head as regarding the percussion, and all the vocal ideas and all the kind of tribal influences that I’d been listening to. It would have been a lot quicker, made now, because you could just double things up in the studio. But it was actually a very traditionally-made album, just done by us in the studio hitting bits of wood, and hitting everything that we could find to get that sound.
In the light of it being the 40th anniversary of punk, back in 1976 to 1980, when people were saying that punk had suffered its first death, did you panic? Or did you know exactly what was next for you?
I think punk had become very much a caricature of itself and it got very grey and very political. The kids were wearing the same kind of drab outfits. I’ve never been a political artist. I keep that out of my work. I’ve never been interested in that. I think it had become quite excessively violent, the gigs were getting more violent because of that, and it was just not enjoyable. Post-punk brought out some interesting music, but I felt that I just needed a way to suddenly make it a bit more colourful. Up until that point, I’d only used black and white in the graphics, in the handbills and record covers and stuff like that. So I suddenly just wanted to do the opposite of that, something heroic and celebratory, really. That’s where “Kings of the Wild Frontier” came out, I wanted to be like a king; not just some guy hanging on the corner moaning about everything and spitting, and wearing safety pins, which I’ve never been interested in!
Adam Ant : photo by Andy Gotts
Looking back, was Malcolm McLaren’s career advice to you worth the heartbreak of him stealing your band?
At the time it was devastating because obviously we were buddies. Dave and Mathew, myself, and Leigh Gorman was the new kid who had just joined. There’s one thing a band splitting up, but with that there’s a friendship, and there’s the camaraderie, and that came into question. I think Malcolm saw a situation where he could conveniently get a really good band to back up the idea that he had.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, we’ve made up and everything, but it was devastating on a personal level. On a professional level, it turned out to be pretty good for both parties. I couldn’t have seen it happening without that. We were very close doing our thing, and then someone else came in and started casting doubts amongst us. That created a kind of mutiny if you like. But gladly they did Bow Wow Wow which I thought was a really good project and sounded great, and I did “Kings” which was my view of things.
Is it true that when you were going to release “Kings” with your signature ethnic beat, that Bow Wow Wow were trying to steal that sound in recording their album?
We’d all sat around listening to hours and hours of philosophy by Malcolm about taking rock n’ roll back to its basics, and playing us all kinds of records from Django Reinhardt to Charlie Parker, through to various ideas that Malcolm had in his head. He’d talk to you for about an hour on something, and if you were lucky you would understand a minute of it. Making those kind of ideas turn into reality just involves a lot of work. I just sat there and listened, and it sparked off certain directions for me. But what he was talking about in those meetings was pretty much what you hear when you hear the Bow Wow Wow sound.
Mine was more…there are timpani drums in “Kings of the Wild Frontier.” There are 30 layers of vocals on it, which I did, so I didn’t fit into that idea that Malcolm wanted us to fit into. I had to put my hand up and say “this really isn’t working for me, I’m not quite getting the vibe off this.” When he got the band to say they wanted to leave, I certainly had the name and I had these threads of ideas, but nothing that fitted in with what they were doing, so I came out of it and went and started again. There was still a competitiveness. I thought, I’m not going to waste all this time sitting, listening to this lot and not use it, because I paid for it. I gave Malcolm £1,000 to manage the band. I think I got my money’s worth.
Adam Ant : photo by Michael Sanderson
When you released Kings in the USA, you changed the tracks. “Making History” was removed and “Physical” and “Press Darlings” replaced it. Why was that?
I didn’t change them, they were changed for me. I was quite shocked to see various tracks taken off. I know they had a meeting and they decided that they wanted to take certain tracks off, and they did. At the time there was nothing I could particularly do about it. So it was a big shock to me. That was one of the nice things about doing this recent “Kings” gold boxset is having it in its original form. They made the decision for me, I wasn’t consulted, there it was.
Why didn’t your label want you to tour “Kings” in the USA At the time?
No they didn’t, I think there was a lot of suspicion about guys wearing makeup and outlandish clothing, etc. They’d seen a lot of the glam thing, certainly people like T-Rex, who were great. I love Marc Bolan and Roxy Music being two of my favorite bands, big influences, just hit paydirt in America; it was still very “rock” then. Regardless of Alice Cooper and stuff like that, there seemed to be a lot of suspicion from upstairs about what we were doing? There was a lot of excitement about “Kings” when I went to New York and LA, but the actual decision-making upstairs in terms of budgets and commitment to get behind the band…I think there was a decision made where it was not “yo ho ho” as you might say, it wasn’t “the charge” that I thought it would be. That’s how we felt. We didn’t actually tour it, we just went over there and did a few showcase gigs.
We had the New York Dolls, they were pretty flamboyant.
I know, but that’s an American band, it was the stuff coming over from the UK. It’s very peculiar, maybe that’s just my imagination, but I did feel the fact the people that came (to the showcase gigs) seemed to love it, and I remember doing a very serious chat with Tom Snyder as well, which was quite a challenge for my first interview in America. It was a quite straightforward thing. Eventually we pushed on through and kept going. I didn’t tour America with “Prince Charming” either. That was just never going to be on the cards. It was far too expensive a production. “Goody Two-Shoes,” by the time I did the “Friend or Foe” album I went solo, I was able to go ahead and really play live a lot, play a lot of gigs, and I think that’s what you have to do in America.
Did your famous white stripe have a hidden meaning?
Well I’d been studying Native American various tribal makeup, and decorations to the face, and it was more like a war stripe; a declaration of war on all that kind of nonsense in the music business and the political stuff that I didn’t like. So we felt kind of heroic. I always find that very inspiring, that whole philosophy, to me; I felt it was appropriate just declaring war on the music business really. That’s what we did.
You’ve seen music go from vinyl to digital. What are your thoughts about the state of the music industry today? Especially since you own a label.
It’s really progress and you can’t stop it, but there is that tactile quality to vinyl and the boxsets and various things, and there is this idea that you own it, it’s yours. You’ve got it. Obviously there’s going to be an age thing, People that grew up with vinyl will always have a soft spot for vinyl. I think also that judging by the audiences that I seem to attract now, it’s quite across the board, and vinyl appeals to a certain contingent of young people too. I think sound–wise, vinyl is infinitely better. That is one of the considerations, why most artists of the vinyl generation do tend to push to keep it out there and make it available. It’s something that has survived and it’s growing. Wherever vinyl is avaolable, people seem to like to buy it. It’s just naturally having the energy, and I suppose the archive, to do it correctly. To put out vinyl in a good way, remaster everything. I find digital sound has not a lot of soul in it. There’s a track, it’s nice and clean, but there you go; it’s practical, that’s the way of the world right now.
Adam Ant : photo by Michael Sanderson
How do you guys make money with all the free downloads?
I suppose it’s dare I say a cottage industry, there’s always going to be room for limited editions. It happens in the book world and various publishing arenas. Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t be doing it for a company like Sony if it wasn’t going to make money, from their point of view. It’s just never going to be what it was. It’s very much a kind of niche thing. But it does show, certainly it works very well for artists that were around in the vinyl era, because obviously they’ve got a whole catalogue to reissue and re-release. There will always be room for people that like to collect and want to play their records on vinyl, or just like the original artwork and not something that’s like a postage stamp, and the lyrics etc. I can’t really see that ending as long as it’s available.
When “Antmusic” first came out it was revitalising, refreshing, adventurous, exciting, and it still is today. When a pop artist today can’t seem to stay relevant for 35 seconds, how is it that “Kings” is still so relevant after 35 years?
You don’t consciously think “this is going to change everything.” I think at that point you’ve got a big mouth and a sharp pencil. The main thing is to get the record out of your head sounding like that sound that I could hear, and not saying it’s completed until you heard it in the mixing room. We all got in there and it was very much an experimental sound.
Really the first track that encompassed everything, and I knew “Ah” that was definitely the sound that I think we can take as the blueprint of this whole album was “Dog Eat Dog”. That was the first track in the studio that all the other vocals, and the kind of crashing sound, and all the arrangements of the TWO drummers. I thought, “ah! oh, ok” that was the blueprint there. So basically from that we applied the same kind of premise to “Kings of the Wild Frontier,” “Antmusic,” and the rest of the album. So having cracked it on one track, you then take it to the other songs. Then fortunately, we were able to produce a record that was done pretty much in relatively one go, going into it with no distractions down in the studio in Wales. We were just more or less going into work every day and really doing it with no distractions whatsoever. So in a way I think it benefited from that certainly. I didn’t say it was finished until it was really finished. It was not a particularly expensive record to make, it was just a lot of energy that went into it. I’d waited a lot of years to get the opportunity to get that done.
Chris Hughes was in the band, that’s another thing; he was one of the drummers, so him behind the mixing desk, I think he played an important part as well, as one of the band. It wasn’t like bringing in an outside producer to put their mark on it. He knew because he was playing drums every night on the songs. We all had a good idea of what we were after. It wasn’t like when you sometimes bring in a name producer who makes some good suggestions and also makes some suggestions that might change the thing completely. We didn’t have that. I think that was why maybe its lasted, because it’s a time capsule.
What do you think it is about “Kings” that caused it to be such a landmark event?
There was an effort to make it look as good as it sounded. There was always this certain element to early punk rock where certainly the work that Malcolm and Vivienne were doing in World’s End: SEX and Seditionaries, their two shops that were very influential. Those clothes were expensive, it wasn’t tacky, there was always a sense of what one would say is a sartorial correctness about it. I wanted to do something that looked as good as it sounded, so the record having been made, you want to produce something that looks like it was made by the guys onstage so there were certain influences there, that I think we were able to project on the stage, through make up, clothes and attitude. The attitude was there. On our own, we were like buccaneers. The thing was, you’d docked the galleon, gone in and just grabbed everything you could put on, so the jacket was almost as if I’d taken it, put it on and run off with it. It was all that kind of playful, heroic thing: The Highwayman, The Buccaneer, and The Native American Indian, which I felt was always this glorious, certainly iconic imagery that appealed to me growing up, and still as an adult. It was that kind of feel for me.
Do you plan to record a live concert DVD, for “Kings”, as in “Dirk at the Apollo”?
I don’t know yet, but we’ll see. That’s quite a big undertaking. Obviously we’re still getting the tour straight and everything. May do it just depends, it was quite a lot of planning that went into that one. Hell of a lot of planning. We’ll have to see. Maybe.
How long did it take to get that one completed?
The “Dirk” thing “Live At The Apollo”? It was quite a lot of work went into that. It’s on the video I think, going to the Victoria and Albert museum and looking at some of the victorian models and stage sets and lighting ideas and taking the crew in there saying “have a look at this.” I think it’s on the DVD itself, the making of it. I knew that was the theatre that I wanted to perform it in, and I got Dave and Leigh, the original drummer and bass player that played on it. It was one of those things, it just came off. It was a hell of a lot of pre-planning in that to get it to work. It was worth doing, I was very pleased. There was lots of sitting in editing. But that album was an extremely difficult, very complicated record to play.
Do you recall your proudest moment as an artist?
It’s not necessarily around the awards and stuff like that. With the band it was just really getting the records out, primarily getting them out with a major label getting them out there. It’s nice to have the hits and everything, but I think being asked to do the ‘Motown 25’ by Berry Gordy was one of the proudest moments, on a personal level. Being asked to do that show was a great compliment. I don’t know why they asked me but they did! Just doing that was a big challenge. Sharing the stage with Marvin Gaye was a real highlight. Coming to my dressing-room door, knocking on my door. I opened it up, he was in a white suit and said, “Hello I’m Marvin Gaye”. I said “I know you are”‘. That was a dream-like moment, working with all your heroes that you’ve grown up with. It was nice, a great feeling.
I know it sounds corny, but if you’ve been in a band where you’ve heard “No” a lot, “NO.” We were pretty much the outsiders, and to actually get a record like “Kings” together, and with all its conflicting kind of contents, a recipe of different ideas musically, it’s a hybrid. I’m proud of the fact that this kind of hybrid did work. It was distinctive, people of all ages and all backgrounds seemed to go “Ooh!” It took us by surprise. It was a proud moment to actually get it in the shops and get it out to people.
If you could have your ultimate stage fantasy, what would you want to happen?
In a way, every concert is a bit like that, live. I think as a live artist there’s a certain feeling when you go on stage. It’s very raw and intimate, and I feel very privileged to be able to make a living out of doing that because basically it’s showing off. People seem to enjoy it.
I think it just came very close with the Motown 25. I was absolutely agog that night with just being on the same stage and almost being a guest performer. So in a way, maybe there would be a situation where you could be on stage and perform with some of your favourite artists or stuff like that would be good, but I kind of did it really!
You did, I actually saw it.
Quite an event for me. That’s a good question and hopefully I consciously try and make every show like that. When I come off stage I’m completely exhausted. You’ve given everything you could give, and the audience hopefully is as exhausted as you are. It is a great moment and a good feeling to go to bed with that in your mind “Oh wow!” and do it all again.
Is there anything that you do outside of music that contributes to your musicality?
Yeah I listen to radio a lot. I listen to all different kinds of music. Lots of classical music, and it’s all around really, just in my head. A piece of music, or you might hear somebody say something or it’s just incidental things all around. Its almost like having a bit of a radar going, for musical ideas; but with me it tends to be a lyrical idea primarily, and then just working on lyrics. I try to write lyrics every day. You end up with a big pile in the middle, then it’s a matter of sifting through, reducing the pile, like “oh that’s going to work in that song, and that’s going to be a story.” I think Keith Richards said it very well “sometimes you plug in and then the angels bring the songs down.” There’s almost that kind of ritualistic experience in my music. I’m thrilled to still be able to do it. I still find it the biggest challenge and the biggest reward.
Is there any chance of you ever releasing “Persuasion”?
Yeah well I’d liked to have released it when it came out. It was decided by the powers that be not to. I’d like to one day.
Everyone is very excited about the American tour.
Yeah, it’s been a long time coming. I’m looking forward to it.
Then in May you will be touring the U.K. again?
Yeah. I’m doing all the anthems: singles and the B sides, getting them up to scratch, it will be nice to do that. I haven’t done that before.
Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to add?
No, I’ll probably come up with some good answers after I put the phone down. You’ve asked some very good questions, very telling questions really. I think you’ve asked me some good ones. I’ll still be thinking about them.
You can call back if there’s anything you want to add to this later on.
Obviously you cover the same territory but in terms of “is there anything you could see yourself fulfilling on stage?” it would be something special, it’s an interesting question cause it’s never been a chore for me, it’s always been work. Within the realms of work, you know I love working, it’s always a challenge.
Anything else, you have free rein.
Just basically thankyou to the fans as always. I’ve tried to tour with every record, and I think “Kings” deserved to be taken in its entirety. It’s completely different performing an album in its entirety in sequence, because you know that they know the sequence, and they know the album. Actually playing it live is a real challenge. You really get the best out of a record. It was nice to do “Dirk” and having done “Kings” I think the response was very, very good indeed. I said “let’s go over to the USA and do it”, and hopefully I’ll be able to give that same effort for you and you’ll enjoy it.
Will you continue on to do “Prince Charming”, and so forth?
Getting involved with the boxset was an enormous amount of work. I did the white vinyl for “Dirk”. I think that impressed Sony enough to do “Kings.” It was an enormous undertaking, it would be nice to do it all though, down the line. But it is an enormous undertaking, so you have to allocate the time. I’d like to put a new record out along the way so, yeah…it’s not impossible, it’s in the realm of possibility. Hopefully one day do the lot of them.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.