In conversation: Steven James Adams

“…Normally you wouldn’t route a tour through Bristol and Cardiff but the truth of it is I love coming to Bristol and I’m actually from Wales so I like going to Cardiff as well. I only bring that up because I keep reading that I’m from Cambridge — I’m not from Cambridge, I used to live in Cambridge. And I think if I tell small groups of people on a regular basis like this then eventually people will know that I’m not from Cambridge…So! Hi! I’m Steve and I’m not from Cambridge! Now here’s a song I wrote about not wanting to live in Cambridge anymore.” Steven James Adams on stage at the Louisiana, Bristol on the ‘Old Magic’ tour 2016.

It’s good to be disabused of one’s false notions. I first saw Steven James Adams when his most-noted group, the Broken Family Band, supported Françoiz Breut at the Portland Arms, Cambridge in 2001 — I assumed they were all local boys. Over past years I’ve seen the Broken Family Band referred to as ‘a Cambridge band’ so often that I’d simply assumed it to be true. As the man sat across the table now tells me, “I’m not from Cambridge, I just got stuck in Cambridge for a long time. Back then I couldn’t imagine living in London, then I got the urge to move and couldn’t believe afterward that I hadn’t done it sooner.”

Earlier, I was standing outside the Louisiana watching sunset over Bristol when Steven hoved into view from the direction of the train station with just a guitar strapped to his back having made the two hour trek over from London. Heading inside, we gathered a couple of drinks, admired the venue’s collection of old gig posters (Amy Winehouse in 2004 no less), chatted about the Walking Dead and at some point I switched the dictaphone on. “Oh, we’re doing this now? OK. Well, the last couple of years is probably the least I’ve done for a long time. You’ve got that album cycle thing people do where they put out a record then feel obliged to play it. I’ve never really thought I was going to get suckered into that, but then you kind of are because if you want to do the odd festival then…” He tails off. “Whenever it’s been affected by the need to make money I don’t do very well at it. I’ve got professional musician friends who I love and admire — and I think I would crumble under that kind of pressure; needing to tour for a certain period to make a living or needing to make the next record for money. I think I’d freeze. I wouldn’t know what to do. I love doing it the way I do. I don’t play live that much but I’ll probably be playing more this year than I have done for a while. I go through phases where I think, ‘Yeah! I’d really like to get out there!’ then sometimes…I don’t.” He chuckles.

For those who haven’t caught the man’s work, let me do something I rarely do and make a blunt recommendation: Steven James Adams is one of the U.K.’s finest songwriters – though he’d never say so himself. His latest album Old Magic came out in March and you really should catch him while he’s out and about. “I have a job. Or the honest answer is I haven’t had for a few months and I will have again once I’ve toured. I have a career that I enjoy. I’ve been lucky lately. I’ve had more time to spend on music, family. I guess I’ve put out less music since I had kids but that’s because I’m more interested in them than in the music. I could never understand that thing of – you have a job, then you go home and watch TV. That’s anathema to me. Obviously it’s nice to have a job and go home watch TV but if that was the whole of your life — with two weeks holiday a year — what would my sixteen year old self say if he knew that was all I’d add up to? What I find actually is if I’ve got lots of time on my hands then I don’t do much — you know that thing about ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person?’ I think that’s the truth of it. I write much better under pressure and everything seems to come together much better for me when I’m doing lots of other things. I’m sure there’s plenty else I should be doing but I don’t know when I will — I need to write a book! I keep talking to people who are in the middle of writing books and it sounds like the most arduous thing to be in the middle of. That’s the thing about writing songs, it’s what I do, but actually I guess there’s loads of collateral — about half-a-dozen songs that go by the wayside, but you forget about them as soon as they’re gone. I guess writing songs is quite difficult if I think too much about it.”

I ask about his writing process, how it has evolved and he merrily changes his mind. “It’s easy to write songs.” He laughs. “I was writing songs from the age of fourteen until my mid-twenties and every single one was almost entirely devoid of merit which is really annoying because — you know when you get an earworm? My punishment for whatever misdeeds I’ve done in this life or previous lives is that I’ll get songs that I wrote when I was sixteen popping back into my head on a loop and they’re uniformly shit. And horrible. And annoying. I don’t know what happened with the Broken Family Band because I went to see Texas, saw lots of bands, came back and wrote a few songs and from that point on I was better at it. I think I just needed to reboot…”

There’s no pause, he just rolls straight into another about face. “OK, I say I don’t know what happened, I do know what happened. I said I was going to stop doing music and then I started again so it was like hitting a reset button. I’d just been getting it wrong all the time — I was trying to be really cryptic and sound interesting right up until my mid-twenties and then one day just realised I should just follow that lesson of ‘write about what you know’. That was the lesson I learnt. And now it’s really small lessons like there was a record I did where I realised, when I’d finished, that I’d used the same word in nearly every song and recently I’ve realised I find it really easy to write songs where I start by asking a question. You don’t want to repeat yourself — it’s not that I don’t want to write songs that ask a question, but I don’t want to get caught in a rut. It’s all these little fights with yourself but just keep doing it and you get better — unless nobody likes your music in which case you need to stop. I’ve seen a lot of people who have been doing music for ages and no one’s listening to it. I end up thinking ‘If it’s giving you pleasure, then good, keep on doing it. If it isn’t then…’”

“This next song has a guitar solo on it — and I can’t really do guitar solos. So what I’ve learnt is if the audience — which tonight unfortunately is you — if you could scream during the bit where the solo should be — to the level that’s painful for you — as an expression of joy, what will happen is it’ll release endorphins and you’ll enjoy the rest of the gig slightly more than you otherwise would have. It’s a trick and I’m not the first person to do it — and the Flaming Lips aren’t the best at doing it — but I promise you it works because every time I’ve done it, it’s been amazing. Are you with me? (Audience: *Yeahhhh…*) OK, except it has to be a bit longer than that because it’s an eight-bar solo.”

Steven’s first band, he doesn’t mention anymore. But his second, the Broken Family Band, cut a swath of quality records across the years 2001-2009 until, eventually, they just stopped. “What happened? When we started we deliberately had really low ambitions — my ambition was that we made a record that people liked. I’d been in this rubbish indie band and I just wanted to make one record that was good and that people liked. And it was really important that people liked it because I don’t think we’d done anything that we liked so I guess I wanted affirmation. But as soon as we knew we were good and as soon as we’d done one record it became that clichéd thing of ‘Well, we’re now doing it for ourselves.’ And as we got bigger — and we did get a bit bigger — more people got involved, there was more expectation, and I think if you do it for a long time you necessarily end up going in different directions. Some people in the band wanted to get famous, some people wanted it to just be like a weekend band and for me…It was neither of those things. I was really into making this connection with people, I got addicted to getting all these people in a room and feeling like we’re all doing the same thing and we’re getting loads of attention. I’m getting loads of attention! And I guess the more we started feeling like we were grandstanding the less I enjoyed it. Gavin (Johnson), the bass player, would always say ‘The minute this stops being fun I’m out.’ In fact I think the decisive moment was on stage at a show in London. It happened a couple of times before but there was just a point where we were on stage and I suddenly felt absurd standing in front of a band playing an electric guitar. It’s difficult to explain, but I just thought ‘I’ve had enough of doing this for now.’” He waves a hand toward his guitar propped alongside him. “And I don’t feel absurd standing up on my own because nothing’s resting on me — it doesn’t matter if I get it wrong. It’s just me on my own.”

I ask about the Problems record from 2005 which he put out under the name ‘The Singing Adams’ and which I thought was the starting point for his most recent band — which turns out to be another of my false notions. “Oh yeah! But that’s quite different from ‘Singing Adams’ — the band. Don’t mix those up. I was just being lazy. ‘The Singing Adams’ was a project I did as I was moving to London — it started while I was living in Cambridge and the Broken Family Band had taken a few months off. I got a grant to make it which also helped me move to London. Soon after that I did get a band together for it and we played a handful of shows, just a handful, but the bass player from that ended up being in Singing Adams. I think it’s funny that they’ve both got the same name and I pretend to get cross when people mix them up because in my head they’re completely different — but obviously they’re the same thing just with slightly different people. When I was getting together the band that became Singing Adams I just thought ‘Oh, I’ve already got a name — I’ll just take that and take the ‘The’ off.’ I think it’s something I do with lyrics too, annoying semantics, changing one word slightly so everything is supposed to mean something different. The distinction between Singing Adams and the Broken Family Band is the important one because the Broken Family Band was a long-term serious relationship while Singing Adams was like a fling with someone from the office and it was genuinely a lot of fun. It felt like quite a light relationship between us all, we all got on very easily, just a group of mates playing, with my name over the door — I think they were all aware of that — but it was very much a band and it felt like a garage-y, gang, band.”

I fetch another drink while Steven considers a question I asked about how his voice has gotten richer over the years — I come back and he lays out where one change occurred. “A big thing about Singing Adams was being able to sing with other people who could sing, all of those guys could sing, and I started getting really into singing with a group of people. And what’s happened with my solo stuff, because it’s just me, I’ve been trying to get the audience to sing a bit. You always feel like you’re being a bit of a Mumford when you’re trying to get a bit of a sing-along. But you do get this lovely feeling when you have this communal experience and so many people have come up to me after shows and said ‘I’d love to sing along with those bits but I don’t have a good voice,’ and I just think that some fucker once upon a time told them that they couldn’t sing. There’s nothing better, to me, than the sound of a child who can’t sing singing — I think it sounds brilliant, it’s an amazing sound. It doesn’t matter about singing in tune, there’s a Silver Jews lyric, one of my favourites, ‘All my favourite singers couldn’t sing’ — I think most of us who really love music would agree that we have favourites who couldn’t sing or have difficult voices. It’s a real thing to sing and, for someone who has been a singer for a long time, I didn’t embrace singing. I think it’s being afraid to put yourself out, afraid to actually ‘sing’ in case you get caught out for being rubbish. So I would affect a voice, a tone of voice, an accent. Now I’m more used to it and I suppose it’s probably just what singing is; if you spend time getting in touch with what your real voice is, then you get better at it.”

The final Broken Family Band album, Please and Thank You came out in 2009. “It’s not a very good record I don’t think and the reason I don’t like it definitely isn’t the others’ fault. At least half the band wanted to go in a more rock direction and I think I was trying to second-guess them and to write myself into being more that sort of a thing. I think that record is a perfect example, for me, of a person, losing sight of what they’re good at. That’s not what I’m good at…Words fail me. I hate that last record. I think there’s some good things about it and it’s definitely not the band’s fault — I can’t stress that enough — I just don’t think I knew what I wanted to do at that point.” Like a clearing of a congested throat, the first Singing Adams single was out within a year, then a solitary album, Moves, followed a couple of years later in 2012.

To be honest I’m all at sixes and sevens, I’m surprised anybody has come out. I’m always delighted when people come out to see me — but I’m particularly delighted that…You’ve…Come. So this is for you. And don’t feel any pressure, but I haven’t eaten in four days. I’ll be at the back afterward if you want to buy anything from me, or maybe just say hello. If everyone in the room comes and says hello to me I might get over my fear of strangers.”

But that was it. Singing Adams halted — and Steven James Adams stepped out alone. “I’ve got two young kids and I stopped Singing Adams, that band, around the time we had our first kid. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do a band or tour — it’s that I didn’t want to rehearse, that seemed like dead time. It was more that I knew the songs and I felt like I was spending hours teaching them to other people so I thought ‘Maybe I should do it on my own for a bit?’ And that’s lasted longer than I thought it would.” The next album, House Music from 2014, involved quite a cast of collaborators and I inquire about that. “It was the first record coming out under my name, so I think I felt like I should get as much stuff on it as possible in order to compensate for it only being me and not having a band. Which sounds like I’m doing it down but I think I did a really good job of it and that Neil Rogers, who recorded it, did a fantastic job and all the people who played on it were ace. In hindsight, it was like me grabbing everybody, gathering them all round me and saying ‘Look at this! Isn’t it great?’ Instead of just letting the music do its thing.”

I mention that the press release posited his latest album, Old Magic as a reaction against that. “It’s true actually, it is true…Dan (Michaelson) was such an obvious choice to work with this time because I knew I needed to strip it down and, if you’ve ever heard any of his records, there’s not masses of instrumentation, he’s very good at simplicity. I’d recommend his albums ‘Distance’ or ‘Blindspot’ — and I’ve just heard his new album, don’t know if it’s out or if he’s even announced it, but it’s properly gorgeous. Sonically it’s a step up for him but it’s still quite limited in its instrumentation. He’s really into brevity and I think that rubbed off on me a fair bit. I’d be saying ‘Oh hang on, that song needs another verse or another chorus,’ and he’d say ‘You’ve done that. You’ve done the verse, you’ve got the chorus — move on.’ That’s why the songs on Old Magic are relatively short — because he kept letting me know when it was enough. It says in our press release that we were ‘working in a bubble’ but that doesn’t even come close to it. I think what was amazing for me about this record was the audience was Dan, my friend, who I’ve known for years and years — and I would defer to his taste ahead of almost anything when it comes to something like this. I guess it stripped me back to being more of ‘what I really am.’” He says the latter in a heavy tone of self-parody. “It took ages — we didn’t actually spend very long doing it but it took ages in between sessions. We lost track of how many days in the studio. Not very many but spread over a long period of time — four months or so. And every time we were back together — because it was usually just the two of us — it really did feel like a project we were working on together.”

One of the reasons I’m not in a band anymore is that I hated being on stage and getting all hot and sweaty — but I appear to be stood on a radiator. Maybe I’ll take my shirt off. Should I? Another thing that’ll happen tonight is I’ll talk too much until about two-thirds through the set where I get annoyed with myself for talking too much. In this song I’ve promised I won’t interrupt it by doing an anecdote but I’ve realised every time I do this song I do end up doing the same anecdote. So don’t relax too much because I’m going to ruin this song by talking half way through it.”

Old Magic, to me, is a record of soul, intelligence, heart and, crucially, laughter. The weightiest sentiments — like the commentary ‘Togetherness’ makes on the antipathy many Brits express toward foreigners, (“You can care for our kids, clean our old peoples’ homes, build the places we live — leave us alone,”) — are expressed in light, delicate lines. There’s always humour leavening deep musings — witness the whole of ‘Kings of the Back of the Bus’ (“What happened to you? You were the one who would push to the front of the queue. Now it’s just — wait and see. Check the load and bend from the knee.”) Later at the gig itself my girlfriend leans over and whispers “Is he always this hilarious?” I tell her I’ll play her the interview tape when we get home so she can see for herself that it’s not a pose — he’s genuine and genuinely funny. “…The whole time me and Dan were making the album we were really bloody-minded about any decision about the arrangement or the instrumentation, that it was about making sure it worked for the song rather than working to make the song something people will like. There’s nothing about it where I was setting out to make something people would like and I think we ended up making some unusual decisions — like the arrangement of ‘the Golden Bough’, it shoots itself in the foot. In order for it to be a song that people would love it should go on for another five minutes. But the logic that we created for it was ‘No, that stops now,’ because…This is a very long-winded answer…I think the more true to yourself you’re being with stuff, the more likely you are to find the essence of what you’re good at. And why I’m pleased with this record is because we stripped away any artifice — there’s no pretending on it. So there’s bits where there are lyrics I feel I’m slightly embarrassing myself and I think that’s how you should do it!”

Another question on the self-awareness present in his lyrics, which is usually defused with gentle chiding and a degree of self-flagellation, elicits the answer; “I think…It’s a funny one because it’s what I do — writing songs — I love doing it. You say ‘self-aware’, at my vainest I will think ‘I am a self-aware person,’ I get told I’m self-aware a lot — so I must be. But I don’t understand how songs come out the other end or what happens when someone hears them — and I’m not interested in that as long as they land on people and people don’t hate them, then I don’t expect people to get the same thing out of hearing them that I got out of writing them.” And when I ask about whether there’s a lyric he’s particularly proud of Steven replies; “No, but I was out after my gig in Brighton with my friend John Smith who played guitar on House Music and his favourite lyric of mine, as he’s always fond of telling me, is ‘I’m in the rooftop part of the club,’ and I have to keep telling him ‘it’s NOT ‘the rooftop part of the club’ — it’s ‘the ROPED-OFF part of the club!’ So if you put me against a wall I would say that my favourite line is ‘I’m in the roped-off part of the club,’ because it’s the most absurd, pointless and untrue thing I could possibly say. But, honestly, no, I’m sure it’s an obvious thing to say but I’m not a fan of me — if you say the name of a song I might say ‘Yeah, that’s a great song,’ but…” And then, having been too charmingly self-effacing to mention a favourite lyric, he proves eminently capable of declaring what one of his worst is — 2003 B-Side ‘Canada’ apparently; “Some of the worst lyrics I’ve ever written — it’s terrible. It’s awful. Really awful. Really bad.”

As a last question I wonder what his ambition is after some fifteen plus years in music. “The long game — that’s the answer. When I was a kid I wanted to be James Atkin out of EMF, they were the big band in our neighbourhood. So it was always at the back of mind — you get a band together, you get a bit famous and then you stop. Now the idea of fame would amuse me; it’s such a ridiculous idea. It’s certainly not what I’m after — I’ve spoken to a few people of a similar age or who have been doing it around the same length of time as I have and I think you’ll find that if you’ve stuck around doing it as a long as this and you’re not scrabbling for gigs and you’re not scrabbling for a record deal then you feel fortunate. And I think that’s the truth of it — I’m really fortunate to still be able to do this without any pressure or weight from anywhere. My new record has just come out, it’s all lovely, I’m about to play some shows and then I’ll vanish for a bit and pop up again sometime. I mean, I think it’s easy to get bogged down in the fussy annoying bits but the payoff is brilliant. It’s fantastic being able to meet new people and being able to show off to people — it’s great! I think what’s always frustrated me is that people have positioned it as a lack of ambition and it’s not a lack of ambition. It’s an understanding of the place one wants to be in the world. This music is not going to get me the Superbowl interval. I think it feels like life or death when you’re starting out until you’ve got a body of work behind you. Now I feel like the only thing I’m up against is I’ve got to make sure I don’t get shit! Now that really is important and it’s enough for me to keep my head above water.”

And at that I tail off into chatting about the Guns ‘n Roses reformation and rumours of Axl Rose’s inability to hit the high notes in ‘Sweet Child of Mine’. We say goodbye, see you at the show later — then, as he walks away, Steven turns and, with a half-smile, says; “So just don’t stitch me up OK…?” I spend the rest of the night thinking that cautious wish could be the bashful last line to so many of his songs.

Old Magic is available now via Fortuna POP!

About Nick Soulsby (46 Articles)
Nick is the author of 'I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana' (St Martins Griffin) and 'Cobain On Cobain: Interviews and Encounters' (Chicago Review Press - February 2016). He lives in Bristol.
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