Barry Adamson's musical roots almost seem like a cliché. In the heyday of early punk, he heard that Buzzcocks co-founder Howard Devoto was auditioning members for his new band, so the young Adamson procured a two-string bass, played all night, and went in the next day to capture the bassist spot in Magazine. After that, he played on a track of The Birthday Party's album Junkyard and went on to join Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. In 1988, Adamson decided he wanted to do soundtrack work, despite not knowing anyone in the business. With the backing of his record label and a lot of guest appearances, he released 1989's Moss Side Story, a soundtrack to a non-existent movie. This led to actual work on the films Delusion, Gas Food Lodging, and Lost Highway, and now television for a BBC cop drama. His soundtrack work has not kept him from releasing other brilliant albums in the meantime: Moss Side Story was the first of a trilogy of cinematic records, and was followed by Soul Murder in 1992 and Oedipus Schmoedipus in 1996. Adamson's music mixes jazz, funk, house, and soundtrack atmosphere, all with a punk willingness to experiment and try new things. His current release, As Above, So Below, is the first on which he actually sings, and to great effect. Adamson recently spoke with The Onion, explaining why, after all these years, the cinema is still king.
The Onion: What is it about soundtrack work and soundtracks in general that resonates so strongly with you?
Barry Adamson: I think it's about an emotional connection between sound and imagery, and just the kind of... I realized very early on that that was the place where the stomach churns, and where you get the idea of what's really going on. Underneath the pictures. It's sort of like the emotional world of the film, really. I kind of came from this sort of place of needing to connect to something. Very early on, that's where it happened for me, in a musical sense.
O: So it was soundtracks that first gave you the churning. When did punk rock do the same thing?
BA: Punk rock was almost like the way in. I mean, there you are, a teenage kid, and you know you're sort of interested in music, and that's the sort of form it takes: You're watching TV, and some of the music on the TV is really happening. Plus, with your peers, you listen to all this other stuff. Then you've got the radio and everything. Punk rock was the door that opened and said, "Come in, because what's going on here is people like you; this is the job opportunity of a lifetime, and you don't need to prove to me that you already have this stuff down before you do it. Just come in." That spirit has taken me a long way.
O: Just the knowledge that you can do it because you started doing it in punk rock?
BA: Yeah. I always call on that spirit if ever there's a musical change, where I wanna go to a place maybe around that; it goes like, "No, you can't do that; you have to do this first and you have to be this first." Same thing with the solo career, you know? The idea to do film music without any film. It's like, you know, in the punk-rock sort of spirit of just getting out there and doing it. It sort of carried me a long way.
O: Do you think soundtrack scores have a greater impact than three-minute pop or punk songs?
BA: I think it's a totally different world. I'm probably of a rare group of people that... Historically, it was about being in an age when we were still hearing a lot of stuff... It's come full-circle. You know, we're hearing a lot of stuff from the '60s and '70s again. And then, suddenly, toward the end of the '70s, there's this kind of nihilistic explosion of raw emotion. I think that although [scores and songs] do seem worlds apart, in some sense, for me there seems to be a link in terms of the way you're called upon in a soundtrack to really inform what's going on. I guess with the punk-rock sort of three-minute burst, you're lifting the top off this lid of anger and frustration. It was right for me that the frustration got lifted in that way, and then there was another place there underneath that.
O: Is there any particular movie you look at and would like to have scored? Any movie you think you could have done a better job with, or taken in a wildly different direction?
BA: I guess that when I see a movie, if I think the movie is great, it's because it's a complete thing: The soundtrack is working really well. Everything's working really well. I don't really think, "I could have done that better." I think whatever is on that movie is the director's choice, and that's the way it is. I was thinking of... Somebody asked me this once, and maybe I would actually do it as a project, to actually do score material for a film like Pulp Fiction, which has all these songs in itwhich I'm not against at all. But a part of me would be interested in taking some of the songs away and making a dramatic score to follow the action of what's going on, because it wasn't done. That would be an interesting challenge, I think.
O: In today's era of DVD and laser disc, that seems like a feasible project for the second audio cut.
BA: Maybe I'll write a letter to a certain Q, and say, "Look, let's get this show on the road, on the lasers, and you can just push a button to decide whether you want the song score or the other score." It could be good.
O: It could work. It can be effective to use soundtracks like that, but it also helps to sell a lot more soundtracks. Unfortunately, that's sort of being taken away from the director at this point.
BA: I think so. I think musical supervisors are having their heyday.
O: Why did it take so long to find your voice, so to speak?
BA: I guess I looked around me, and my reference points were the people I've just mentioned in terms of cinema scoring, so I had a pretty healthy obsession with all things cinematic. The songs were the songs. That's something else. That's for the people. Where I'm at is trying to get this thing together that's born of emotional connection with the music and the picture. It never really presented itself to me. I guess I was out in a situation where the decision for me to create was sort of out of my hands in terms of the way I would create, which this time was by writing down words. I thought they were going to be stories that may get rid of pieces of music that I would therefore create. I started "Jazz Devil" [from As Above, So Below] in that way. Then I realized that what I was getting at here could be a sort of narrative that would probably use one voice, and then some of those narratives took a lyrical form rather than a storytelling form. One thing kind of led to another, and the next thing I know, I was at the mic. It's a very strange journey; I don't know quite how I got to that. But I think there was something about completing Moss Side Story, Soul Murder, and Oedipus, feeling like that was a done deal in terms of the soundtrack and imagination and all this sort of stuff. Then, when I worked on [the soundtrack to] Lost Highway, something kind of closed, and then something opened. I do believe that thing of, like, one door closes, and the next one's made of gold. I kind of just went with it because I felt like, from starting off with Moss Side Story to working on Lost Highway... Not to be arrogant at all, but I felt I'd come full-circle. I felt that some of the stuff I was getting at there, I was getting at in a much clearer way on Lost Highway. The actual score itself, not what's on the record. So, something kind of clicked with me that enabled me to move to somewhere else; I didn't entirely know what it was. Then, lo and behold, after the record's done, I kind of get it.
O: When you started out with Moss Side Story, did you find it hard to assert yourself as a solo artist after you'd been a sideman for those prominent frontmen?
BA: Well, it's really strange, because as far as I was concerned, it wasn't so much like a solo career, you know? I was just setting out to make sort of offbeat library music; if a director could hear me, in some way, they would approach me for something similar for their films. I started off doing these demos, and I guess, just because of the way I was used to working, those demos started to become an idea, which started to become Moss Side Story. At the time, I really didn't have a record deal or anything; I had a publishing deal. I sort of went to the record company and said, "This is kind of coming together for me in a way that's not the way I was going to do things initially. So what do you think?" And I told them about this idea, and they said, "Yeah. We think that's a good idea. You should put that out." It became this first. I then had a solo career, even though I really didn't think of it as a solo career. Do you know what I mean? It wasn't really like, "Okay, now I've left there; I'm going solo!" It followed through in a very odd way, 'cause the conversations we had were strictly like, "Okay, you do this music and we'll try to get this music placed somewhere." I suddenly had a solo career.
O: Are you making a conscious effort to bridge the fan gap between jazz and rock?
BA: I think there's so much snobbery around. That "people with guitars"... I guess it's that area. The guitar area. For me, I think it's more of a... See, I go from that place of like... I think "Jazz Devil" rocks, for example, when it hits this one section. I guess people are so tied to labels. I love guitar. I'll DJ a radio show and play, like, Archie Shepp followed by Sonic Youth, and for me, there's not much difference. I know that sounds like, "Hey, what do you mean?" but there's something in the music, the spirit of the music. It doesn't matter about the form. There's something in both that I certainly get off with. Maybe that's me. Maybe that's my background. Maybe that's where I come from. I've been around kids in America who just go like, "This is hot." Something grooves; something's got this sort of spirit about it; they dig it. But then, of course, we all like to compartmentalize things and give out labels and all the rest of it. It's not so much like I'm consciously going, "I'm going to put this together and this together, and so, therefore, it's like this new fusion." It's just the way I do it. It's the way it comes out. Hopefully, you know, it'll have some kind of sting where it'll hit a spot somewhere. It'll break down the barrier. Definitely.