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Pest Control: Adam Ant Shares Lessons of a Life in Music

Adam Ant / Photo by Andy Gotts

Given that Adam Ant came to early ’80s prominence daubed in wild face paint and dressed like a scourge of the seas, he may not have been a lot of people’s first choice to still be making hungry new music more than 30 years later. But on the surprisingly rootsy and autobiographical new Adam Ant Is the Blueback Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter — his first all-new album in 17 years — the 58-year-old post-punk icon (both solo and with the Ants) and sometime actor (Tales from the Crypt, anyone?) proves he’s more than just a man in a hat.  

From his home in England, the resurgent songwriter spoke with us about being wary of major label contracts, why the U.S.A. matters, and taking inspiration from the Cure.

Having been with three major labels, you just don’t walk out of those contracts that easily.
I spent most of my career with Sony, and then I did MCA for an album and EMI. So it did take quite a lot of the time I was away to sort all the business side out. Once that was all cleared and I actually felt like it was the right time to make a record, I had a choice of having a go at it myself and learning the ropes and seeing how you actually put together an album and taking care of all the boring stuff musicians aren’t usually concerned with. I’ve learned a lot more about the actual production and manufacturing of a record than I did before, so it’s been a learning curve, definitely.

The words “cost effective” have come into my vocabulary a lot more than they used to.
Our whole industry’s changed so much now. It’s a bit like the Wild West out there. Every few months, there’s the new savior of the business. “Oh, it’s gonna be Spotify. Oh no, it’s not Spotify, it’s this, it’s that.” At the end of the day, I’m just bringing specialists in to do a particular job under short terms of employment during the making of the record and then moving on. I kind of know where every penny’s gone, and I think that’s the main difference. The buck stops with you.

The business without Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Dylan and Springsteen would be a sadder place.
Every time they bring something out, there’s talk about it, so that’s what keeps the business going. Any artist — whether an actor, writer, playwright, film director, musician — there’s gonna be ups and downs. There’s gonna be periods where it’s lean, where you’re not popular, where you’re not gonna be the flavor of the month, where things don’t go right for a particular project. The test is to go through that. And whatever you say about these people, they’re still doing it. They’re still getting the work out there, and sometimes an album takes a while for people to get into. And I think that’s the thing I’m going for.

Events in the ’80s were highly relevant to the attitude people had toward music.
It seemed to be some kind of highly decadent period of time where the music was perhaps secondary, but I never really came out of that. I came out of the punk-rock thing. So for me it was always playing pubs, clubs, anywhere I could play, and trying to get a record out. I took on a flamboyance or imagery that I thought was exciting as a reaction to what I thought punk had become, which was very gray, very political, very sorry for itself and a bit listless. So when I came to America, with the importance of video, it was this marvelous opportunity for me to express my ideas visually. To me, it was like making another piece of the record. It was more work, but it was actually useful work.

You can’t say you’ve done a major rock’n’roll tour until you’ve toured the U.S.
It’s the only place you can really go and play 60 or 80 concerts. Every state is like a different country; this remarkable change in culture from state to state — from accents to attitude. It’s completely unique, and you go over there and you suddenly get immersed in this nation that sort of came from Europe, so you’re finding a Polish community or a Russian community or a French community or an Irish community, and you speak to these people and they say, “Oh, my granddad came from Dublin,” or they assume I’ve met the Queen because I’m English! It can be that dated, but when you actually go out there and see [the United States] as it is, it’s an intricate, rich cultural nation, which is fascinating to somebody coming from this small island over here.

Taking time out is very, very important.
The most important thing that I’ve learned would be pacing. When you’ve made an album, toured, done all the promotion, to literally take three years between albums is perfectly acceptable. It seemed at the time, and probably now would be the same for most musicians, that to take time out of that industry is very dangerous. When I was doing it, it was an album a year, four singles a year, four videos a year, two tours a year. It’s a bit too cut and dry. When I started doing some acting, it was oh, you’ve given up music. No, I haven’t given up music. I just want to try this out.

If you continue the way you’re going, eventually chart success will come your way.
A band like the Cure doesn’t consciously seem to me to set out to make hit records. They’ve always kept their independent vibe. They just do what they do and, eventually, if they can survive, they get the acclaim for it and they get an audience of their own. But very few bands last long enough to do that. At the time I did [1980’s] Kings of the Wild Frontier, it was a hybrid: I was halfway coming out of an indie phase and just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We decided to make some three-and-a-half-minute singles and it came off.

If you’re trying to be the best in what you do, there’s a price to pay.
There’s a natural kickback at some point or another, so be careful what you wish for. It’s the experience that matters. I think it’s as much of a success to enjoy the ride, and sometimes you can be so immersed in getting there that you don’t enjoy it at all. In fact, it can nearly kill you. So just be careful with that.