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Q&A: Ryan Adams

Mr. Heartbreak talks about playing Strokes songs and why he loves Madonna and ‘Crocodile Dundee’

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

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I was just having a dream about Darth Vader,” says Ryan Adams when the phone wakes him at home in New York at two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. Welcome to Ryan’s world, where no dream, thought or emotion goes unexpressed for very long. The prolific Adams, who seems to come back from every trip to the bathroom with a new song, has followed up last year’s Gold with a collection of demos called, appropriately enough, Demolition. In the strange way these things work, it is his most focused album to date, thirteen songs of heartbreak and longing that prove he has the rock & roll smarts to go with his rock & roll heart. As for that dream, “Darth Vader had a band, a four-piece band, and his band was really good. He was playing a radio festival, and X was there, and I was really happy because Exene [Cervenka] finally came to see me play. So I want to go back to sleep and see if I can talk some more to Exene.” An hour after he does, we sit over coffee and yogurt and talk about music.

What’s the first record you bought?
The first four records I owned were the Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow, the Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc., Corrosion of Conformity’s Animosity and Black Flag’s Damaged.

How old were you?
Thirteen. There was this video show called Night Flight that was very important to my understanding of popular culture, and they played Bad Brains’ “I Against I,” a Sonic Youth live clip and “Another State of Mind,” by Social Distortion. So I immediately went out and bought Social Distortion’s Mommy’s Little Monster on vinyl, Sonic Youth’s Sister on cassette and Bad Brains’ I Against I.

What’s the first song you learned to play on guitar?
I never learned a cover. The first thing I ever learned on the guitar I wrote myself. But I could never play anybody else’s songs. Nowadays I can learn ’em pretty quickly. I mean, I learned the Strokes record on banjos and mandolins and shit.

You’ve played the Strokes record on mandolin?
You can play “The Modern Age” on mandolin if you really want to, and “Someday” sounds really fun on banjo. I had a tooth pulled when I was living in the Chelsea hotel [in New York]. I was bored, and I needed something to do, so I was like, “I’m just gonna learn someone else’s record for fun.” And I was talking to the NME, and maybe it was the Vicodin, but I mentioned that I’d learned the Strokes record, and they made a really big deal out of it. So when I saw [Strokes guitarist] Nick [Valensi], he said, “I heard you covered our record. How does it sound?” I was like, “It sounds like a blues album.”

Did you play it for them?
[Drummer] Fabrizio [Moretti] has heard the most. I’ll go to Fab’s house really late at night and I’ll play a Dock Boggs song, and then I’ll play one of their songs, and he won’t even recognize it at first.

What record do you love that people would be surprised to find out you own?
Madonna. Although I don’t know people who don’t really like Madonna. There’s something about the lost Eighties for me, like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink Sixteen Candles, Mannequin. I spent the Eighties looking for the alternatives to what was already happening. And now I’m going back and putting together the pieces of what was pop culture and realizing that I was wrong. Crocodile Dundee is funny. Fuck if all that didn’t mean something to me, and I just wasn’t paying attention.

What song from recent years do you wish you had written?
“Sweetest Decline,” by Beth Orton, ’cause she says, “It’s like catching snow on your tongue,” and the moment I heard that line, I fell incredibly in love, not only with her but back with myself. But I just recently started writing songs in reaction to other songs. One song I was working on last week was called “Boys,” which is a reaction to “Boys” by Britney Spears. I wanted to write a song in defense of men, because we’re not all players. There are romantics who don’t think about panty lines and don’t talk shit about women. And just because Britney can’t find one doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to be chastised for it. The song doesn’t attack Britney or anything, it attacks this preconceived notion that men cannot be romantic intellectuals.

What’s your makeout music?
I don’t listen to music when I’m making out.

Too distracting?
No. It just never really happens like that. One thing is, there’s not a lot of making out going on right now. I’m taking a break from romance. When I go out to a bar, it’s usually to sit in the corner and write. But sometimes you have three or four cocktails and there’s a pretty girl and you just know that’s gonna happen — you’re gonna kiss just to kiss. Which is fun, and very young. I’m only twenty-seven, so I still have my card for a little cheekiness. 

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