Ryan Adams Interview transcript
I: Is there a reason behind the album title?
R: There is a reason… but it’s not a very good story. About a year and a half ago, I was leaving the studio, trying to meet up with my gal pal to see a movie. And in my joking way being kind of persistent, very tongue in cheek, very funny, the kind of banter in a flirty kind of way. And she just came back with this expression I hadn’t heard in a long time, ‘easy tiger’. And that phrase just had a way of shutting a guy down in a very funny way. It has a laid back sound, just another way of saying ‘give me an hour’. Then I walked out of the studio and called Neil Casale, the Cardinals guitar player extraordinaire, and said “dude, if you remember anything, remember these two words: ‘easy tiger’.” He actually saved that message, and a year and a half later we had gotten some tracks together and were looking for a title, and I had forgotten all about that. Neil sent me an email just saying ‘easy tiger’, and I went “Oh!” and it completely fit.
I: So how did it fit, other than cracking you up in the first place?
R: Well it’s funny, one because I make a lot of records. Because it’s one of those expressions that, I don’t know why, it sort of evokes this mental image of a tiger taking a nap…I don’t know why. And also this record has a sort of mellow, lighter feel than even I expected, and I think that’s because some of the rock stuff had already been recorded and put away to make room for some of the stripped down stuff. It just felt like a lazy, kicking back record.
I: Well you write a lot of stuff, how do you decide “ok, these songs fit together as a project”?
R: Well, it’s different now. Not only did I ask for help in deciding what kind of record would the label really like, I also sat down with the head of the label because I didn’t want to perpetuate any distance or problems between myself and the label. I’ve realized that my idea for an album is pretty much wide open. And not necessarily complex, but I’m open to any style. And when I pick a theme for an album, it’s usually just an excuse to unload personal concepts about life or personal experiences can be filtered through these concepts and make the concept bigger than itself. I think that justifies exploring my own feelings or my own ideas about relationships, or love or loss. Because a lot of times just laying it out there in it’s raw state is boring to me, and because I listen to tons of music I get super inspired, and I go “wouldn’t it be great to make a record that sounds like…”, for instance if I’m listening to a lot of Journey, I’ll want to make a pop metal record about, I don’t know… frogs being taken over by these robot insects, and the impending frog-pocalypse (laughs). And even in that, some real fundamental truths about my life could come out, that’s when the real songs will seep out, maybe because I’ll feel shielded by that concept. And even if that’s not what is best for my career or my label, I try to think about what is good art- what’s the most magnetic principle or idea that I can try and create. So in order to tie everything up in my (record label) position, I asked Luke (label manager) ‘what kind of record would you like’, because I can pretty much make any type of record, and he was really inspired by me doing an acoustic album. He wanted a really stripped down album that he could listen to away from work and would really love. I think what he meant is a record by the guy that he had signed. And I went back to the Cardinals and ran the idea by them, because that’s usually my role in the band. And there wasn’t one person who said I shouldn’t do it. In fact they were saying ‘you should totally fucking do this’, across the board I got support, in fact Brad and Neil said they would sit down and help me do it. And at the end of the day it was very much a Cardinals process, where they would throw it back to me with what they thought. Then I handed it over to my management and said you know, ‘find what works for you, and find a sequence that works for you’. Because I don’t want to mess it up, I want to know what people think is the best stuff, and they had great success with that. There were a lot of great people over there that basically came back to the same 13 songs, and messed around with the order and ended up back where they started from a little bit. Now I view it as a piece of art, I haven’t even heard the whole album, but I have heard bits and pieces and I’ve heard other people talk about it.
I: How was it to give the seed of it up to the sequence of it over?
R: Crazy-making, maddening. I mean, I’m at piece with it now. I had a lot of producing ideas, things I wanted to do, but I had to just kind of go ‘ok, I’m not producing’. I had to keep my ideas on the floor with the tune and how to best build a track, but that’s where it had to stop. And then in the mixing process I don’t think I came down at all, I pretty much kept away, which is very rare for me. I usually come in and bug them into making shit records, but I had to find something else to do with myself, I had to do something I should’ve done before and that was develop a life outside of the studio. Now I’m more developed because I had to be, I couldn’t be in the studio, so my job was done and it was good for me.
I: When you say ‘become the artist Luke (label manager) had signed’, what does that mean to you?
R: I think it meant to be more elemental, if that’s the correct word, to be more natural- less interference between the concept of the song and the way that it’s heard. I think that he would have loved something that reminded him of “Heartbreaker” or “Gold”, where the idea was just for me to be a songwriter and just hit the tape clean. The way I view it is probably very different from the way he views it, but I think he saw this time when he thought I was in development. But what he didn’t know was that I’ll always be in development idea-wise, that my hands are always dirty in my next full thought, and I don’t keep a preconceived notion of what it is I do. It allows me to veer from good to bad, or from crazier rock type stuff to just straight songwriting. With all those things, there are songs on the other end of them, and I like the business of getting to find a tune. I think when I met him (Luke), I was very into songwriting where the songs were solitary and very confined to just me and the acoustic guitar- I was trying to write things that were very complete, without accompaniment. But there’s limits to that, I think that time ran it’s course, and before anyone could latch onto it I was moving on and getting better at different things and adding tools to better write tunes with. I didn’t find my niche because I didn’t want one, I just figure it’s all got to be good.
I: One thing that jumped out was there’s one song longer than four minutes. Was that concision an ambition? Was that tight focus something you were trying to do or is that just how they came out?
R: I think it happened in two stages. There were the tunes that everybody liked. There were two sessions, the first one to figure out the shape of the record, then a break, then a time when everyone was like ‘oh, wow, this is what it’s going to be’ because the boundaries were kind of set on what they wanted. And because of those boundaries I went ‘oh there’s a frame, I know how big the canvas is’. There was about a week where I do this thing where I tried to pitch a couple more tunes for the record to beat a couple that were already on there, which a few of them did. And I saw the peaks and the valleys, I saw the form, and replaced a couple of the peaks with something even more grand. Some of the tunes I simplified, it was a lot like being at a Knicks game in the last two seconds and you see somebody through up a halfcourt shot. I always do that, I’ll do that in the last hour of a session if I can. And I did that with a couple tunes that maybe the other guys weren’t so excited about, but were beyond demo form, and we hit the net twice, we saw what they could be and could really work in that environment. But we did set a time limit, and when that time was done there was nothing else that was going to happen to it except to be mixed. I think “The Sun Also Sets” was one of those where I was like ‘I know this will work, I know it’ll work’. “The Sun Also Sets” was a tough one to pull off, hard to play live, but if I’ve got that kind of wind in my lungs, that kind of belief system, it’s a tightrope of a song, you’ve just gotta not look down and keep moving to get that one to go. I like that challenge, the other ones are very natural and easy to remember.
I: Was there a moment in a song where you said ‘oh, this is what this is going to be’? Is there something that sits as that kind of pivot point for this record?
R: Hmm, I don’t know. I think two really did that for everybody, everybody really liked that song. It’s funny because that song used to sound like Swervedriver, it was full on electric guitars, that’s the way I was playing it for a while, but it wasn’t working. For me it could always be changed, because I’m consciously suppressing the idea that there could be more, more tunes. I love being in the fucking studio, it’s nuts. There were some things I couldn’t believe were even in consideration, like “Pearls on a String” was just scribbled out lines, and was just like ‘well, I’ll make it up as we go along’, tracked it, and before I knew it, it was done, and I didn’t even have time to think about it twice and was shocked that when this list came back to me it was on there. I don’t think it was ever defined though, the record is still happening to me, I’m still surprised that it is what it is. I kid you not when I say I haven’t listened to it, I thought it would be crazy making to do that whole listen to it a hundred times. I used to get all wrapped up in it, but now it’s like I know I was there and it worked and everyone’s got it, and lets all go do something else. It makes for me to have more energy in the studio and those guys to get more annoyed (laughs).
I: And how about taking that then out and playing it live?
R: Well the thing with those songs, almost every one of them had already been taken out and played live, with the exception of maybe two or three. They were out there because they seemed like they would work in the live show, there were more places to go so they started getting stronger and more developed because of it. I thought they were done, but at the last moments in the studio we changed some things where things just weren’t right or something was missing. It’s like trying to figure out a really good chili recipe, and it’s that time of the year, and then you’re like ‘oh, it needs some kidney beans, more garlic.’ God forbid I say this, but taking your time has it’s benefits (laughs). Although I think time can be good for a project, I think sometimes sketches can be just as beautiful as paintings, it’s really about the process. And sometimes a really great sketch is ruined by the painting. It was good because I can see the songs as sketches, for what they really are in all their stages and forms. These ideas got stronger, more mellow, wiser by time which is just great. That had to happen to me sooner or later, where I too liked it.
I: Did you know going in that this was going to be a different process? Was it a deliberate decision to let this one unfold differently?
R: No, it wasn’t deliberate. But seeing it now, the sessions yielded a lot of ideas, and some of those ideas are going to be on the box set. There’s a whole albums worth of ideas in there. There were two albums after Jackson City Nights that came out of a lot of really intense jamming, part of a larger amount of time sifting through ideas to come up with the best ones. Some of them were just riffs, some took five months to develop. I think a lot of filtering happened, a lot of ideas got filtered out or filtered through. The couple of records on the box have their own charms, and the Cardinals are on there thankfully. Cardinals records take longer, if it really was a ‘me’ record, the way I perceive my own art is sketches, and some of that is awesome. Like punk rock records, some of the songs are trash, and some are meant to be trash, and there are some that you can’t get outta your head- Misfits songs are like that, “Hollywood Babylon” or “Where Eagles Dare”, I mean those are accidental hits. And then there are punk rock hits and funky stuff in between, “We Are 138” is a cool tune, but it isn’t like “Where Eagles Dare” where they just stumbled into grace. And I like that, to me records are really like an extreme sport- how hard can you work, how fast can you work, and how many tunes can you turn out. And then you bring them all up to speed, because they can’t all be jewels to me, they can’t all be gold- you’ve gotta have nickel and copper and weeds. But throwing it over to the Cardinals and the producer toughens them up. Because working with Jaime (producer) he really lets them all up lets them all come through and then works everything out. I’ll sit and sing something until I’m blue in the face, but sometimes it just won’t work. And I used to not be like that, I used to think everything sounded great, I used to be fucked up. I’m still like that, I’m still excited by the whole recording and songwriting process, but some things just sound good across the board- like Appetite for Destruction. I remember punk rock people liked that album, metal people and pop music fans all liked it, nobody knows why. Maybe it’s ‘cuz it’s just kick ass, it’s clever, it’s a raw element. I think I’m coming to the point where I understand that, and as someone who writes a lot of tunes that’s kind of against that process. My creative process isn’t a reaction to that, it isn’t a reaction to anything, it is what it is, so having that in my personality is wild, but I can also perceive music in a different way now. Now I can say some of this stuff works and some of it doesn’t, but it will never affect how I write.
I: You said earlier you didn’t want a niche. With those three records in ’05 they were all in different slots- Cold Roses was the jam record, Jacksonville was the honky tonk record. Do you take different things from those records in how you move forward?
R: Yeah, I think those records are the process of moving forward, but the jam part of it is just the Cardinals, that’s what we’re like live. All of the new songs, playing them live, they sound like Cold Roses when I’m playing with those guys and those electric guitars, because we’re not just playing for the studio. When we get into the meat and potatoes of it, they really open it up, especially me and Neil. I think it was a discipline to play them stripped down, and Cold Roses was like ‘oh God, this is totally a band, I can’t believe it’. And all those jams, that just happened, I think because Brad opened up to the idea of just letting go of the really structured, metered bits, and loosened into this groove concept. And I think maybe for him it was a Sandonista type process, where for me it was an American Beauty kind of Black Flag combo mixed with all these other principles of classic rock, all the things that I like all coming together, and I was like ‘right on’. I knew people would see it as a little Grateful Dead jammy, but other parts of that record aren’t like that at all- the Southern bits, some of the jam bits like Iommi opening up in the middle of one of those Sabbath records just kind of finding his groove over a few notes. And of course, the better I got at that and the more communication I had with J.P., we got like Weir/Garcia evolutions, like listening to Yes or that stuff. And then, we had a week left over from the Cold Roses sessions, and I wanted to do like a Workingman’s Dead vibe, a real hardcore country album but a masculine one, one our dads would listen to, but unironically, like they wouldn’t know if it came on a jukebox, that was the original intention. When I started talking to Neil, he already knew that’s what the idea was, and that was just unreal to me. Neil would say to me “well the Cardinals thought it would be like this”, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. Embracing that was the way forward, so Cold Roses was just a way through to see how I play with that band, and now the Cardinals thing is like ‘checking into the Cardinals’, and away from it I have other possibilities. But that one became sort of a Frankenstein, it’s sort of on it’s own doing it’s own thing. It’ s intense that I actually ended up in that type of a group, it’s intense because we’ll be in an arrangement, and Brad will be like ‘this doesn’t really feel Cardinals’, and he’ll be so right, there’s some stuff that works and some doesn’t. I’m excited about that and about getting through this whole time that’s for Easy Tiger, and then let this box set come out so I can do Cardinals because that’s where I go to explore this type of writing and figure out how I fit into that, what I can bring to that. And then also do my own stuff that takes a while, maybe get a metal band going.
I: Was there anything you were listening to or that was touched on for inspiration for Easy Tiger?
R: Just my own stuff, just my own craft. You know, at 32 – am I 32, 33? – 32 I think. At this point, all the Dylan stuff except the new Dylan record, all the Sleepy John Estes, or older Joni Mitchell records, any of the stuff I used to listen to I feel like I went to college, read the textbooks, and graduated. I know that I know all that stuff. It’s imprinted in my mind and I learned all the lessons from it and I went through all the emotions that were going on in those records as those I were watching a movie and I’ve seen the movie so many times that I almost feel like I never have to listen to them again. That was a couple years ago, 5 or 6, so I only subscribe to the new stuff for my listening enjoyment. The new Dylan is the only Dylan for me. I follow it and I love it but I just wouldn’t listen to Blood on the Tracks, I just wouldn’t need to. I’m so caught up. Because I write songs and have written so many and have gone through the influences of so many styles – and I am still 100% behind, because everybody who really made a dent in music or really took music to heart, they consumed music and it ruled their mind, their spirit and their body and their music reflected it. I have just been so influenced in the best way, and I’ve eaten those meals and I’ve been nourished by them and now because I’ve gone through that, going to write literally feels uninformed by anything except those lessons. I freed myself because I didn’t shun the idea of being influenced. I went through all of the emotions of the influence until there was peace, I went through the anger and sadness and denial and now when I go to the guitar I’m free. I know how it handles and I’m glad that I removed the world from it by putting it all through it. It’s my one intellectual free space now. Musically, I didn’t take lessons but I took notes and understood. I don’t know if I even have a style now. I think if anything I may be devoid of style because I learned all those stunts, those tricks, and it’s powerful.
I: There are two Easy Tiger songs I want to ask about. What’s the genesis of “Halloween Head”?
R: “Halloween Head” is kind of like that space between normal and panic attack. It’s sort of like when people see The Exorcist or Friday the 13th and then they go to the kitchen and they have to turn all the lights on. They know there’s nothing in there but they’re still a little freaked out. That’s “Halloween Head”. It’s like the funky’s been turned way up. I’ve noticed in my sobriety that there are more quirks, more funky things, headtrips, happening on the street that I was mute and numb to because I was in my own world. Now I’ve developed a sort of Jedi trick on my own; I’ve learned to be zen about that stuff and stay in my own space, I can view it and it doesn’t touch me, if I’m cool with me. The other side of that is if you’re chemically staying in that state and shielding your thoughts, ideas and dreams from the world to better keep your own place in your own book of your life. I’m a very distractible 30-something type guy, and so “Halloween Head” to me is sort of a static electricity when things are weird and you’re on the cusp.
I: You said that you didn’t sequence, but I want to ask about ending on “Taught Myself to Grow Old”.
R: That was John Silva’s idea. He was very passionate about that from the get-go. He was really heavy about “Goodnight Rose” or “Halloween Head” opening, and he always said “you gotta end with ‘Taught Myself to Grow Old’.” I didn’t quite understand why until this one time I heard it pre-mastered in the early days. The final arrangements hadn’t been done because the thing just got finished. Which is great. I didn’t know people worked that hard on finishing records, because me, I just go, “look, the thing’s on the tape, let’s print it!” I’m the Ed Wood of emocore, you know what I mean, it’s not even fast. But I do remember listening to that sequence one afternoon when I was participating in that stuff. I remember that song hit me very hard as a last song. I didn’t know how intense it was until I had to sing the thing. I could barely get the fucking words out of my mouth the first time I had to sing it with the band. I was choking up, I must have had shit on my mind that day.
I: But did it feel like something when you wrote the song?
R: I don’t know what I was like that day. It was just a funny day. Several of the songs that are on the B–Sides, tracks I really dig that fit the same principle, they all went down that day. Listening to it, I said “whoa, there’s something here, maybe we could do it.” It was a leap of faith.
I: So how many did you cut?
R: It’s all on the records or on the B–Sides. Only the ones that had any kind of weight to them made it through and the other ones just broke up, dissipated or didn’t materialize. It’s not like those ideas are lost or gone forever, it’s just an approach in foggy weather. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Doesn’t mean you won’t land it later.
I: Now that the fixed forms of these songs are coming out, how do you think these songs will sit in the live show?
R: They’ve been doing good in the live show. They’re powerful, mighty powerful live. Maybe some of the best songs live, ever. They just – ooph! The performances are more intense. Those are great performances on the record because they are not overcooked and they’re revelations, because a lot of those vocals were pretty much at event horizon, so I’m not underselling or overselling and they are not dawning on me in a new way. They’re very honest. It just does it and it’s not wasteful. There’s economy in the emotional approach. We still go very quickly, but – for me – more attention to detail than in the past. I think I can tell if I’m hitting it or not. Those tunes have to feel like they weren’t stacked up because they weren’t stacked up. It’s just the elements that make them complete. But live, it’s kind of like their meaning is deepening and the intensity is deepening. I spend time not overselling them because I didn’t even know what some of these tunes were about until now. Sometimes I’ll be in the tune and I’ll make a conscious decision to go, “I deal with this feeling right now.” I’ll almost want to sob. I’m almost want to get all fuckin’ Oprah. They are very intense. I’ve gotta say, these tunes might be good. They might be good later, which is ironic considering it’ll probably be my last one for a long time so I can let the metal through.
I: Which of these are surprising you?
R: I didn’t realize how subtly conversational “Rip Off” was, because my intention for this record when I wrote the lyrics was to stay as conversational as possible and to write the way I speak, and the more I did that the happier I was with the form, where it wasn’t so stacked. I wanted to write like, how does conversation flow go when it’s about stuff? I thought that was another way of being economically, to be more truthful, less poetic… almost like less talk, more rock, or undoing poetry from the lyrics. I think “The Sun Also Sets” is pretty heavy, but it’s always been heavy. Some parts of “Goodnight Rose”, I never quite know, when I’m singing the song, if I’m the character I’m singing to is me, or if it’s a bad thing or a good thing or a sad thing or a hopeful thing. I think that the way that I wrote it could be almost like the kind of shit people tell each other when it’s really fucked up and there really isn’t anything good gonna happen. Sort of like somebody soothing someone they know in a dire situation before ultimately bad shit’s coming. I don’t know if it’s optimism or pleasant pessimism, and that’s heavy. It isn’t like a grand tune that says everything to everyone, it’s just a lot and very unconscious. The song will start and before I know it those questions are turning into notes, and so it’s still happening to me and giving that vibe of, fuck, which is it, which is it? An emotional riddle.
I: Tell me about the box set, how far on plan we are and what’s happening.
R: Today is day one of the last ten days, and these are the final transfers. Some of it is being remixed because it was never in a mixed state. Some of it, people have had access to in varying ways for years. Like “Forty-Eight Hours” or “Suicide Hand” where people only had vocals and guitar and no other instruments and there was never a mix. So that’s getting mixed. Because of the amount of material and the amount of work it was gonna take to figure out what all that stuff was and how best to present it and what to do with it, I became overwhelmed and I just passed the buck and asked Jamie if he thought he could handle it by being Executive Producer. But the other stuff too, I think some of it’s garbage and some of it’s great and I think it’s good to keep all of it viewed in the correct way. They’re handling it, so it’ll get a better treatment, because I wouldn’t know where to begin with it.
I: So what’s the count?
R: I know five records, at least. I think it’s Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours, Pinkheart, Heartbreaker, and Black Hole. And maybe a B–Sides record for all of my smash hit singles, and their B–Sides, called Let It B-, and one of them could be a rarities collection, something like Demolicious. Then there’s the original Rock N Roll album, which I was on the fence about, but people around the project really like it, so it could possibly be in there. And I gotta say, there’s a lot of material for Cardinals, and we’ll start making records, and then I’ll be able to do the metal record. We haven’t found those players yet but we should be able to do a real aggressive, fun, uplifting, energetic rock band. Maybe Chester and Jamie will be in that band. What a solo career! I was just joking, too, I didn’t really mean any of this shit, Heartbreaker to now. Eight years, I was just fucking around. Now I gotta get back to figuring out how to do a band. It’ll be good for me. It’ll be an all-new way of playing. Maybe I can make a musical project where the fourth wall isn’t already broken before I get there.