Prince Charming: Adam Ant

King of the Wild Frontier returns to Austin – tonight

Aye aye, captain.
Aye aye, captain.

Adam Ant is speaking by phone from the offices of his new, self-owned independent label, Blueback Hussar Records. The first two-thirds of the label’s moniker doubles as the belated name for a character the iconic British pop star played, Ziggy Stardust-style, as the Eighties’ first true pop star. Catch him and his crew tonight at the Belmont.

Blueback Hussar returns as a character he created for Adam & the Ants’ second album, 1980’s Kings of the Wild Frontier, but it also comprises part of the title of Ant’s first new disc in 18 years, Adam Ant Is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter, which the London native released in January.

Whichever way you parse it, today’s iteration of Adam Ant is no different from the one who burned a hole through TV screens via MTV and vintage programs like American Bandstand and Tomorrow. There remains an uncanny pop intelligence and subversive streak behind the warpaint, feathers, and pirate gear back then. Back then, and mostly still today, it drew in double drum kits thumping tribal rhythms, Fifties rock & roll, cinematic and historical references, and the roaring Duane Eddy/Mick Ronson-damaged guitars of Marco Pirroni.

That pop sensibility paid/pays homage to the band’s punk rock roots. Antmusic was bright and refreshing, and didn’t entirely deserve Black Flag’s aggressively humorous sticker campaign: “Black Flag kills Ants on contact!” It also enabled Adam Ant to go on to sell 40 million records worldwide.

Ant, born Stuart Leslie Goddard in 1954, has had to shake off a lot to bring us The Gunner’s Daughter, much of which is chronicled in the grooves of this autobiographical, decidedly old-school double-vinyl LP. He’s fiercely proud of his new status as an independent artist, and of his road-tested live unit, broken-in over two years touring the world with the classics (including a memorable Austin stop last year). Those players will factor in the new material tonight at the Belmont.

The Chronicle checked in with Ant last month and enjoyed his intelligence, enthusiasm, his vintage English rock star charm, and softly-enunciated South London vowels.

Austin Chronicle: I was listening this morning to someone I suspect may have been a big influence on you: Johnny Kidd & the Pirates.

Adam Ant: Oh yeah! Johnny Kidd, I used to watch him when I was growing up on the television. Yeah, he did the whole pirate thing and had that big hit with “Shakin’ All Over” in the early Sixties. He was pretty good, Johnny Kidd!

AC: He had a helluva guitar player in Mick Green.

AA: I saw the Pirates quite a few years ago in London. They’d reformed, the original Pirates. They were pretty good.

AC: Once I discovered Johnny Kidd, it reminded me of your Kings of the Wild Frontier days. I thought, “Aha!”

AA: Aha! We used to do an encore a couple of years back with “Shakin’ All Over.” It’s a good live number, “Shakin’ All Over.” It’s so simple, it’s easy to get bang on. And the Who covered it on Live at Leeds, obviously.

AC: Generation X, all kinds of people have covered it.

AA: Yeah. It’s a good song.

AC: Great song! And that’s something I’ve noticed about your music over the years: There’s echoes of the best British Fifties rock & roll.

AA: I’ve always been influenced by those who came before. I grew up watching rock & roll on the TV. I was lucky when I was kid that rock & roll was on television shows a lot. You didn’t just have to hear it on the radio. You had a lot of those Fifties performers on the TV, and of course the Beatles were always on television, and that show Top Of The Pops had all the greats on. Obviously, as I was growing up, you could watch that and get into it. So, it was a big influence.

AC: That’s how I got into a lot of stuff, too. I can remember being 7 and watching late-night U.S. rock shows on TV and seeing David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, and even the New York Dolls.

AA: I saw the New York Dolls twice when they came over to England. They were mucking up the scene, as well. I saw them at Wembley, I think, supporting Rod Stewart. I think the important part of getting off on music is loving the music and loving the performers.

AC: It’s interesting that you brought this up yourself. I would listen to the early Adam & the Ants songs like “Deutscher Girls” and hear a lot of New York Dolls in it.

AA: I think those two albums were so important. They led to the whole punk rock thing that happened in London. Everybody that was starting in London was buying the first Modern Lovers album, with Jonathan Richman. That was a very key album to the whole punk rock movement over here. It didn’t come across as too punk rock by the look of it, but I remember it being available only in one shop in London. Everybody was coming down there and getting it, as well as Roxy [Music], Iggy [Pop], the Velvets [Velvet Underground], and Alice Cooper. I remember the Modern Lovers being a great influence.

AC: Jonathan Richman’s just such a wonderful songwriter to begin with. He’s always great to see live. You can’t help but walk out of one of his shows with the hugest smile on your face.

AA: I saw him last year at a festival. I was on a festival up north and he was on the bill, and I watched him from the side of the stage. He was just with a drummer, and he had an acoustic guitar, and he was playing away. You’re right: He does put out a lot of happiness.

AC: Getting back to those early English rock & rollers, you have a direct salute to one of those figures on your new album, “Vince Taylor.”

AA: I spent a bit of time living in Paris recently, and I spent a bit of time trying to track down the recordings of Vince Taylor – and of Johnny Hallyday, as well. The Vince Taylor story came about from this piece of jewelry I owned, a gold chain I used to wear around my wrist in 1977. It was given to me by this French girl, and I sorta asked her once, “Where’d you get it from?” She said, “My boyfriend Vince.” And it turned out to be Vince Taylor. So I went around wearing this bit of gold chain that belonged to Vince Taylor. That’s the key to the song.

And I think Vince Taylor was this very, very underrated rock & roller. He looked fantastic! Watching his work, he’s absolutely brilliant. He was an Englishman living in America, and then, living in France, he became a big star. There’s a lot of people interested in that song. I’ve gotten lots of feedback on that song from people who are discovering him for the first time. Which is good.

AC: It’s my favorite track on the album. I know some of his back story, so it made me appreciate the song more. I know he adopted that Gene Vincent leather-and-chains image and made it bigger in France than he did in England. Obviously he did “Brand New Cadillac,” which the Clash later covered. I know he apparently was also one of the inspirations for the Ziggy Stardust character, as well.

AA: He was an incredible performer. But then, again, in France he’s like Elvis. In France, he and Johnny Hallyday were the two biggest rock & roll stars. They were enormously famous.

AC: I like your new album quite a bit. It’s as good as anything you’ve ever done. Why did it take so long for you to get something out?

AA: I don’t think it was a conscious thing. I didn’t expect it to take that long. I think that with the Wonderful tour in ’95, I finished the tour of America and I’d had enough, really. I contracted glandular fever on the tour, and that held me up for a couple of years. I spent some time in Los Angeles, pursuing acting work. I enrolled in an acting class out there. I had my book out when I came back. I had my daughter. I was living in Tennessee a couple of years after L.A. Then, after that, my daughter was born and I came back to the UK.

About three years ago, I started getting – I’d been writing lyrics off and on. I just start to feel like I wanted to write again. So I started writing and I started recording with Boz Boorer, who I’ve worked with before. He’d previously been in my band, but he pretty much works with Morrissey all the time now. It started there, really. I felt like the time was right. And also, when I came back to England, I wanted to be able to do it with a bit more freedom. So I formed my own record label. That took quite a lot of time to do. And there you are. That’s why it took so long.

Plus I held back the actual release of the album by at least two years. I wanted to get out and do the live work first, and then release the album. Which I’ve done.

AC: Smart move: reestablishing yourself as a live performing presence, and then unleashing a new album.

AA: Well, that was actually a very natural thing. I actually felt like doing that first anyway, because I’ve always performed live. I had the chance to look back over my catalog and pick out my favorite songs and see what songs work best live, and get the right band to play with, which I did. So I just went out and did 150 concerts. I’ve got quite a few records out now, and I can switch the sets out and make it interesting. But I think that’s the way the business is done now. It’s gone back to live rock & roll, which is not a bad thing. And I happen to enjoy doing it. So, I’ve found that to be quite pleasurable.

AC: I was quite heartened to see you become an independent artist as well.

AA: Last year I came to the States for the first time in 22 years, really. We did 22 shows there last year. This year, we’re doing 24, including Canada. That’s something I hope to continue doing, as well as doing albums on a more consistent basis. I’m not gonna wait that long anymore.

AC: Do you feel that being your own label enables you to get albums out more consistently than you’ve been able to?

AA: Certainly. Having said that – having gone through the experience of putting an album together, getting clearances sorted out, the manufacturing, the distribution, pressing it yourself, doing everything yourself – it’s a great deal of work.

It’s no easy thing. It’s something that takes a great deal of stamina to do. But having done it now, I appreciate what the record labels did. I just don’t think it’s worth 90 percent of the profit, which is what they were getting. It does help you getting things done and also not wasting time. It’s cut close to the bone. I don’t play a gig unless I feel it’s necessary to have bothered to. I like to do things different. I like to do publicity before the tour. Normally, you have to do it when you’re on the tour, and normally you’re exhausted. I don’t think that’s very good for the person doing the interview, or the artist, because you’re just not relaxed enough.

It’s things like that I’ve tried to change. Also, I wanted to do vinyl. I wanted to do a double deck on vinyl, which is part of the concept of the album. You can imagine the trouble I would’ve had doing that with a major. They’re not interested in doing that at all. They’re not the slightest bit interested in doing that anymore. I think it’s just the way that it’s done. It’s not just me, it’s a lot of artists.

AC: And yet, ironically, vinyl has become the largest selling format! It made a full-blooded return.

AA: The big cost is getting the stuff printed on vinyl. It’s quite extraordinary, really. But it’s down to the artist to take the stand and make that extra effort. It’s quite difficult, really. But if you have your own label, there are many avenues out there to do it. The artist has got to do it. If the artist gives up and says “screw it” and lets everyone download it, then it’s going to disappear. I’ll certainly make an effort to do it on the releases I make, because I think it’s just important for me. But it should be important for the market, I think.

AC: I was very, very happy to see three tracks co-written by guitarist Marco Pirroni.

AA: They were older tracks, but they were things that had been mucked about with in and never finished. We knocked them up and put them on, as well. I think in the context of this album – being an autobiographical and being quite a story there – it was a good choice. So it fits in with the new stuff, as well.

AC: It just made me happy to see his presence there, even if it was on stuff that was laying around.

AA: We were together for 20 years. He doesn’t really like playing live. I haven’t seen him for a number of years. He formed a band called the Wolfmen, which he did quite a number of years ago. But I don’t know what he’s been doing since. He’s really against playing live, and I believe in getting out there and doing it. So, that’s a situation that’s going to prevent us working together, which eventually it did.

AC: Sad to hear that Marco is so opposed to playing live, because he’s really one of the genius guitar players English punk rock produced.

AA: He’s got his own sound. But if somebody’s just wants to play in the studio and not travel, you can’t deal with it. You can’t be in a band and do that. A band is a band to go and do the work. So that’s the best thing for him to be happy.

AC: I cracked up when I saw the title of the new album.

AA: I’ve had so much interest in the title of the album. It’s pretty much the introduction to Blueblack Hussar, who goes back to the character on Kings [of the Wild Frontier] album. It’s a fictional situation of what he would look like 35 years later, if perhaps he’s been an Eighteenth Century French pop star walking with Napoleon’s troops and got back.

I’ve actually read about that. And that was a metaphor for some of the previous dealings I’ve had in the music business. And the “marrying the gunner’s daughter?” That’s an old naval term for punishment. I put those two together, and there you have the long title. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it’s attracted quite a lot of interest.

AC: Every time, I tell somebody the title, I have to take a deep breath first.

AA: Take a deep breath and I think it should just get abbreviated down to The Gunner’s Daughter.

AC: The single “Cool Zombie” is about a period none of us knew about: You were living in Tennessee, raising a family!

AA: Yeah, that and pretty much the title track were fit into that period where I lived in a small town in Tennessee. I was getting married at the time – I’m divorced now. But at the time, my plan was to drive from Miami through the States and get married at the Elvis chapel in Las Vegas. En route, I stopped in this small town and read in this local magazine about this house that was in the Tennessee Valley.

I went up to have a look at it, fell in love with it, and I decided to own tools, buy the house, and live there. So we got married there in the local town hall. And I was there for two pretty blissful years. It was a lovely place to live: very, very quiet. Nobody knew anything about me, nobody knew I was a singer. It was pretty anonymous. It was a slice of Americana, and we lived there until my daughter was born. Then we went back to the UK.

I incorporated that into the album, and my next door neighbor was a guy called Ron, who was retired and had been in the U.S. Navy, and he had a Harley Davidson. He was a bit of a character, and he used to take me on the back of his bike and meet up with some of his mates in the woods and listen to music there. He was a big country fan. They had a small venue there. I noticed they had people like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash there, going back to their roots. It was pretty impressive, so I incorporated it into the album.

AC: It’s certainly the rootsiest thing I’ve heard from you. It’s the first time I’ve heard you do things with a blues tinge like that, or with the swamp rock elements that you hear all through it.

AA: That’s another thing: When I first learned the guitar as a teenager and back when I was 12, I taught myself via The Honky-Tonk Do-It-Yourself Blues Guitar Book by a guy named Stefan Grossman, an American. You had to buy the book and buy these blues albums by guys like Big Bill Broonzy. You’d learn by the track listing and they’d give you the notation, and you’d sort of learn the song that way. So, I kinda started off that way. The blues was the first music I learned. It was a simple form that led straight into rock & roll. So, it’s pretty much gone back to the basics for me, and I incorporated that into the album.

The flavor of the album is that no two songs sound the same, and there’s no one producer on it. So when you don’t go into one studio and work with one producer, you don’t come out with a particular sound. You expect the skill of the producer to be responsible for coming out with this one sound. But this one was recorded over a longer period of time. And doing a double gatefold album with four sides of music, you can come up with a different feel for each side of music. So that’s why this album is different, from my point of view, anyway.

AC: It is different, but it also feels consistent with what I feel is Adam Ant or Adam & the Ants recordings, because you always had a cut-and-paste ethic to your music. There was a ton of influences. You might hear on one song the tribal drumming, Duane Eddy guitar, punk rock guitar chords.

AA: Well, I think that’s all kind of in the vocabulary. You draw ‘em out. I mean, vocally, it tends to sound like whatever I sound like anyway. But it’s experimental, and it’s not an overly-produced record. And I say that insofar as playing some of those songs live, we can fill it out a bit. And that’s certainly happening, and the response has been good on that. I’m looking forward to working this record for the next year or so, and playing it live. So far, it’s going really well. Hopefully, you’ll get to hear it live and get to hear a little bit more of the actual sound of it.

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