Adam Ant talks touring in the South, the deaths of Elvis and Bowie and more
Adam Ant has a soft spot for the South.
The British New Wave icon has toured through Florida a lot over the decades, often launching or ending tours here from his early-’80s MTV prime through his latter-day legacy phase. For a couple of years, he lived in rural Tennessee. Getting out off the beaten path in the American South, he said in a recent phone interview, is “quite breathtaking.”
How did such a big, striking personality known for big, percussive singles like Goody Two Shoes and Stand and Deliver fall in love with small-town America?
“If you’re flying, then you just see the airport, but in a tour bus, you get a bit more time and a bit more exposure to every state,” he said. “It’s a bit like a different country — different accents, different people. So going around is a real adventure. It takes you quite a few trips to be able to say you feel you did America. It’s so different from anywhere else in the world. It’s so vast you can’t imagine it.”
That vastness has seeped into Ant’s music career, too. After emerging as a poster boy for New Wave pop in the early ’80s, Ant dialed his career back a bit, spending several years off the road and focusing a bit more on acting. His musical output has been sporadic, but his most recent album, 2013’s Adam Ant Is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter, was defiant and resilient in both tone and spirit, occasionally harkening back to his roots in London’s stylish punk underground.
Since returning to regular North American touring in 2012, he’s played Tampa Bay twice, with his latest tour, a celebration of his singles, hitting Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre on Friday (click here). Before the show, Ant talked about his band’s early days and the ongoing losses of his friends and musical heroes.
When you’re getting ready to go on tour, do you feel like you run a tight ship as the guy in charge?
We don’t mess around. We don’t just go in and socialize and hang out. We book the time going and rehearsing and use up as much of the time we have. It’s the same with recording. We usually demo the songs quite heavily, so when you’re going to record the master, you’re still looking for embellishment and new ideas, but you’ve pretty much got 90 percent of the job done. I don’t use the studio or rehearsal room to pass the time, if you like. You could say it’s quite an ordered ship.
You lived in Tennessee for several years. Does the American South hold special appeal to you?
It’s very different when you tour the States in a tour bus. The South, initially, you just see the major cities, Houston and Dallas perhaps, in and out. They’re quite modern cities, very beautiful, modern cities. So when I happened to be visiting the South on a vacation, it was the first time that I’d actually seen the countryside, and it was quite breathtaking. It’s a bit like an American coming to the U.K. and instead of visiting London, visiting Kent or the Lake District or a tiny little village, that kind of affair.
That region of Tennessee is small, it’s rural, it’s conservative. You obviously didn’t grow up that way. When did you realize you had a desire somewhere within you to embrace that sort of lifestyle?
It was pretty insular, really. It was an A-framed house on top of a mountain, and apart from going to the local store, there really wasn’t a lot of mingling in with the local community. I might have gone in for a breakfast or stuff like that, but it wasn’t a city or a large town. It was purely by chance that I 'd happen to come across that (home). Didn’t really put a lot of thought into it; just happened to be that sporadic decision that you very rarely get the opportunity to make. So it was just purely by chance that I happened to find a place and be in a position to want to settle there for a little while.
And your time in Tennessee inspired the song Cool Zombie, right?
To a certain degree. It was quite nice to have a break and start writing again, and so it did spawn that. The very close neighbors next door to me, they were very nice. But I literally could count on one hand the amount of families I knew. But at that time, it was very nice to have the privacy.
Cool Zombie also instigated a bit of back-and-forth between you and Liam Gallagher. What it’s like to be in a public feud with one of the most notorious public feuders in pop music? Was there a part of you that was just surprised to see a guy that big taking shots at you?
Not really. It was just one of those things, it’s all water under the bridge now. It was a bit of misinformation I think on both parts to kind of — I really don’t want to discuss it in particular, but it was a bit unnecessary in the whole affair, and I’m glad we’re both just getting on with stuff. It was just one of those things that happens in the music business, largely by rumor, and then it gets blown out of proportion.
On that album, Adam Ant is the Blueback Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter, you also wrote songs that were tributes to Malcolm McLaren and Vivenne Westwood. Why reach back that far to find inspiration for your new music?
I thought it was the right time. Malcolm had passed away, so it was kind of a reminiscence and a dedication. I think it was quite a nice gesture to be able to write about them. I write about things that interest me at the time, and I find the material sometimes can be retrospective and it can sometimes be contemporary.
We just passed the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. At that time, in the London punk underground, did Elvis Presley’s death matter? Did people around you care, or was everybody over Elvis when he passed away?
I think there was that part of the so-called punk idea that everything in the past was rubbish and all that mattered was punk. I was never really interested in the spitting and the safety pins or that nonsense. I liked the Sex Pistols, and that was about it. Adam and the Ants were very much outside of that anyway. So my liking of Elvis and rock and roll music that I’d grown up with was always in there; it was always something that was a big influence. Elvis’s death was tragic, I remember when he died, it was a very sad day in general, so it’s obviously a great loss to everybody. I never thought, Oh, he was something that didn’t matter, because he did.
I was at a punk show when your friend Michael Jackson, died, and someone announced it at the show, because it was a small crowd. Even in that setting, it kind of shook the room. I can imagine that for any musician, no matter what style of music they play, the death of a member of your tribe, so to speak, has to hit you in a significant way. And you must be seeing it around you now, even with people you know personally.
Yeah, well, that’s life, isn’t it? Or death, as you might say. But no, With someone like Michael Jackson, it’s always tragic, but I the circumstances and the whole circus surrounding it all, the unfortunate nature of everything, it gives it a different kind of attention, and there’s a certain degree of lack of respect initially. We tend to keep quiet about it until such time as it all dies down, and then when you’re asked about someone’s past, you can give a respectful answer based on their ability, and their donation to music in general. And certainly, Michael Jackson, they don’t come bigger than that; they don’t come more prestigious than that. It’s just one of those things — everybody enjoy it while you’re here, and do the best work you can. I think that he certainly did.
Last year we lost David Bowie and Prince and George Michael. Is it surprising to you that you’re now something of an elder statesmen among your peers, of that generation of pop and rock music?
I haven’t really thought about it. Through (bassist and producer) Andre Cymone, I kind of knew Prince, vaguely; met him a few times, and always had a great admiration for him as an artist. That was a real big blow for everybody. And obviously, Bowie, everybody grew up with Bowie. You don’t think these people are ever going to pass away. When they do, it takes you back a few steps. There’s a very precious part of your growing up that has gone, but then it dies down, and they’ve left you the most important legacy, which is their music, which lasts forever. That’s the whole attraction to doing rock and roll, because you feel like the record’s good enough to last. Certainly they did, them two.
Are there people from your peer group, or any of your idols, who you feel like maybe aren’t receiving the sort of credit they should be while they’re still living?
That’s quite a difficult question to answer. I mean, someone like Glen Campbell was always someone that was so consistent that you didn’t realize the body of work that he’d done. Same with Johnny Cash. When Johnny Cash passed, it was someone who had gone through so much, and they make films about them, and you discover just how great they were. It’s the longevity that they have, and the consistency that they have, and the originality that they maintain.
Maybe the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who’s quite an extreme example of how bizarre things can become. He’s quite an interesting character. I did meet him on one of the American tours. He’s quite an unusual character, if only because he sort of stuck to his guns. However much his ability may be questioned, he still stuck to his approach and his wildness. Bowie covered one of his songs, so it’s quite an interesting other side of there coin there.
The years that you took off the road, about 1986 to 1992 — looking back, that was a really transformative time in music, between the rise of hip hop and alternative rock. Do you regret not being a major part of that?
I don’t think it’s a regret. You’re aware of it, and you’re aware of this new style of music coming in. When house music came along, or acid, or stuff like that, that didn’t particularly appeal to me in the context of my work, but you’re still subconsciously taking it in because it’s the big thing. So it’s not a question of regretting not having been a part of it, or being able to incorporate it in the work. I think I would have incorporated it had our songs been appropriate, but with my way of writing and my sound I’m after, there wasn’t a great deal there for me to pick out. I think it’s nice to see the new stuff coming in and have a bit of fun as an audience, as opposed to, thinking, Oh, I must learn from this, I must do something like this and incorporate it immediately, so I can be current and hip. Which can be be a bit of a downward spiral if you’re not careful.
Is there any part of you that wishes you could start over again today? Would the Ants make anywhere near as big of a dent in 2017 as you did in 1978?
I don’t think you can, no. Thinking back on it, on the ups and downs and possibly the amount of work involved, you go, Oh, can I do that again? Would that be, not doing concerts for three years prior to going on TV and then suddenly supposedly being an overnight success? Those three years, they were the antithesis of being a successful artist or a pop star or whatever. There wasn’t the responsibility and expectation from every record. It might have been tough, but that was the learning ground. So I don’t think Adam and the Ants enjoyed an easier time.
It was a kind of revolutionary time. Punk had broken a big hole in the dam, and it was going to come in, and it did. It was a kind of uncertainty, not really knowing what was going to happen next. It wouldn’t be right to go back and tell (myself), Would I do this? Would I get the right manager and would I get myself to a major record company? You learn by your mistakes. I made enough of them, you know. I think Oscar Wilde said, “Experience is the name we give our mistakes in life.” And I think that experience is invaluable.
-- Jay Cridlin