AT HOME, KINDA, WITH RYAN ADAMS
An alt-country wunderkind who hates country music, a restlessly prolific songwriter stifled by his label, a reformed hell-raiser determined to maintain privacy in a celebrity marriage. For 20 tumultuous years, Ryan Adams has done things the hard way, but thanks to a thriving new studio-cum-clubhouse — and a surprising amount of pinball — he's finally at ease.
Out in Hollywood, heading east along Sunset Boulevard — where the famed strip’s sidewalk cafés and high-end boutiques turn to dirty strip malls and fast food joints — is a complex of unremarkable-looking buildings, surrounded by chain link and barbed wire.
At the corner of Cherokee Avenue, beyond an electronic security gate, is the world-famous Sunset Sound studios, whose recording rooms have been instrumental in helping shape epoch-making albums by The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Doors, among many others. On the western edge of the property sits a little two-story house, once disused, now marked by a neon sign above its front door.
“Welcome to Pax-Am,” says Ryan Adams. “This is where we make records.”
The 39-year-old singer-songwriter typically arrives here each afternoon at 4 to begin his day. Amid the roar of guitars, the clatter of pinball machines, and a haze of pot smoke, he’s sought to cultivate something special. Named after an imaginary record label he came up with as a teenager, Pax-Am is less a traditional recording space than an artistic salon where Adams' myriad passions and pals come together. It’s a place where a punk icon like Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra and a movie star like Johnny Depp get together to jam. It’s where Adams’ wife, actress/singer Mandy Moore, and Black Flag/Circle Jerks founder Keith Morris can feel equally at home.
For Adams, it’s also where he recorded a new self-titled album, which will be released on his no-longer-imaginary Pax-Am label this week. It’s a project that sees him fully and finally liberated from the music-business shackles that have hampered much of his career. But Pax-Am represents something even more profound: It’s the spiritual home Adams has been seeking for nearly 25 years.
“Ryan has been really smart about building his own little world in order to be able to create,” says Adams’ Hüsker Dü hero-turned-friend Bob Mould. “I always tell people environment is so important to the work, and you have to have a safe place to make your art. [Pax-Am] is almost like a party, and he’s the host with the most. And that’s really in stark contrast to the surly, almost mean Ryan Adams that I brushed up against years back.”
A decade ago, Adams was at his personal and professional nadir, physically worn by the excesses of his manic New York lifestyle, his fame — or infamy — outstripping his actual success. He was warring with a record company that was holding his best work hostage, coming off the most belittling reviews of his career, bickering with journalists and fans alike. He’d destroyed the wrist on his fretting hand after an onstage fall, nearly costing him his ability to even play music. And he’d been turned into a punching bag by a fickle public who’d once hailed him as the best of music’s bright young things.
How he reached that unsettling point and how he managed to alter course so dramatically is the stuff, Adams will tell you, that dreams are made of.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in late August as Adams, clad in his standard uniform — frayed jeans, patch-strewn denim jacket, and band T-shirt (today it’s Faction) — gives an animated tour of his Pax-Am studio and office space.
Though his tangle of rock-star hair is especially long at the moment, Adams’ physical presence belies his image as a sensitive troubadour. His build is muscular and compact, with Popeye forearms and calves. There’s something of a family pedigree in this; he comes from several generations of skilled laborers. Even today, Adams has the look of someone who makes his living with his back, not his voice.
“This is the control room,” he says, zipping through a series of homey spaces filled with analog recording gear, old upright pianos, and vintage Fender amplifiers. “Everything you see was built from scratch. When I found it, the whole place was empty. They showed it to me and said, ‘It's not really usable.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, it fucking is.’ It was like that scene in Ghostbusters where they walk in and see the firehouse for the first time. I totally flipped out.”
Charging up a flight of red carpeted steps, he leads the way to the main tracking room, describing its setup and sound in manic rapid-fire detail. “I thought I was trying to model it after Motown or the old RCA studios,” he says. “I put in a black-and-white linoleum floor, wood paneling, and these sconces. But when I was finished I realized I’d kinda built a little Masonic hall. Which is funny, ‘cause my grandfather was a mason.”
As he says this, Adams flicks on a giant ornamental lamp, bearing a Masonic symbol and the words: “We Have Seen His Star In the East …And Are Come To Worship Him.”
Around the corner — past large framed posters of Sonic Youth’s Sister and H.R. Giger’s creature from Alien — is Adams’ office, packed with books, records, and guitars, all neatly arrayed along the walls. He ducks behind his desk and rifles through some boxes, digging up copies of the recent 7-inch singles put out by the record label arm of Pax-Am.
In addition to his forthcoming self-titled LP, Adams is releasing a series of non-LP singles, every month for the foreseeable future. Of course, in Adams’ universe the term “single” is a relative one; his first, 1984, was actually an 11-track blaze of Replacements/Hüsker Dü pastiches, all in about 15 minutes. “That one came out with no press really, and it sold out in an hour or two,” he says.
Adams has always had an active online presence, regularly posting troves of unreleased tracks and lengthy message-board screeds against his perceived enemies; he now he uses his Twitter account to connect more cannily with his 600,000-plus followers. “The [new] single, I just put up a link on Twitter and fucked off and went about my day. I checked back a little later and it was totally sold out. I was like, Duuuude, are you kidding?”
When Adams is fully engaged, his eyes widen, his bright blue pupils flaring dramatically. His casual conversation comes out as a deluge of dudespeak: Everything is “wicked” or “totally sick” or “so fuckin’ rad.” His references are all Star Wars and sci-fi, superheroes and ‘80s pop culture. Sometimes he’ll bark out his words in imitation of Pee Wee Herman or Grover. And when he’s particularly proud of something he’s done or discovered, he’ll punctuate the announcement of his achievement with, “MmmmBooom!”
The latest in Adams’ single series is titled “Jacksonville” — the name of his hometown on the eastern coast of North Carolina. The city has loomed large in the iconography of his songs since the beginning of his career 20 years ago, as both a source of nostalgia and a place to escape.
David Ryan Adams was born there, the seat of Onslow County, on Nov. 5, 1974. He was the middle child — between an older brother and younger sister — of a contractor father and an English teacher mother who split when he was 4. “My mother was working, my old man was out of the picture,” he says. Pressed to say more about his father, Adams demurs: “It's too hard to describe in a couple sentences.”
Over the years, however, Adams has devoted more than a few lines to the topic. The betrayals of a besotted patriarch haunt his songs all the way back to his earliest efforts. His 2009 volume of poetry, Infinity Blues, includes a harrowing, seemingly autobiographical recollection titled “To My Father, the Drunk.” It tells of a family split by an affair, forced to live “in housing unfit for children” where “roaches … crawled over my brother’s face.” It ends with the lines: “I was back then, nothing but scars. But for my father, the drunk, who married a stripper when I was five. I hope you close your eyes peacefully and die.” (For the record, Adams says now, “There's nothing there to unearth ... Of course I talk to my family. But that’s too personal for me to get into.”)
Adams was essentially raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a Marine who’d fought in both World War II and Korea. The military cast a shadow on Adams’ early life — Jacksonville had long been dominated by the nearby Marine base, Camp Lejeune. Growing up during the Reagan years, Adams had a bifurcated view of his hometown.
“On the very edge of [Jacksonville] there used to be a line,” he explains, making imaginary marks along his desk, “where it was pawn shop, tattoo shop, strip club, pawn shop, tattoo shop, pawn shop, strip club, car dealership, pawn shop … like all the fucking way down. Then, there were all these big pine trees, and behind them was the military base. And the base was between us and the beach. They took all that land.”
Adams' childhood in the “old city” of Jacksonville was a more idyllic vision. “I lived in this beautiful neighborhood that had a duck pond and I just remember big open spaces and big thunderstorms — I’m talking, like, massive bright daytime clouds. Right around there was a Piggly Wiggly, a local pharmacist, a tobacco shop that … just saying that makes me want to weep. ‘Cause I remember my grandfather smoking a pipe and the smell of his tobacco.”
Not for the last time, Adams' voice softens and his eyes glisten when talking about his beloved “papaw” and “geemaw.” “I became who I am now because of my grandparents. I grew up sleeping at the foot of their bed between them, watching the Johnny Carson show. If my papaw would fall asleep early enough, then I could watch David Letterman. It’s one of my first memories: watching someone who’s making me laugh.” (Years later, Adams, who’s become a Letterman favorite, performing over a dozen times on the show, would share the story with him. “And we ended up having this beautiful correspondence,” he says. “Letterman’s always been a gentleman to me.”)
In elementary school, Adams was sickly and had trouble sleeping — a condition that would plague him for much of his life. He was often allowed to skip class and stay home with his grandparents. “I’m not saying I consult with psychics or seers, but I know some of those people," he says. "One of them told me: ‘You choose the parents you want to have as a spirit. You chose to be close to your grandfather and grandmother. You needed to be near them, because you've been following them for eternity.’ I like that idea. Maybe it’s all bullshit. But it really felt true to me.”
He learned to knit and crochet alongside his grandmother and was taught to prize the value of craft from his grandfather, a master mason. His hyperactive imagination was fueled by a passion for reading — first comic books and then, by 13, the sex and surrealism of Henry Miller. He flashed promise as a visual artist early on — for a while it seemed that might be his professional path. He would write and illustrate his own disquietingly strange short stories. His grandparents indulged and encouraged both his creativity and eccentricity.
“I was not some pretend goth,” says Adams. “I really would go into the woods at night alone, and be there by myself and sit in a tree in total darkness.” After a few hours he would hear his grandmother at the edge of the woods yell out after him: “'David Ryan, come on home, now, you bin out thar’ long enough.' And I'd come out of the fucking woods wearing a black cape. I was that guy. I was totally living in a different world.”
When he got older, he fell in with group of skateboarders in junior high and high school. He’d already been turned on to the Scorpions and Ozzy Osborne by his older brother, but it was a surrogate brother figure, a kindred small-town spirit and local record store clerk named Jere McIlwane, who further expanded his horizons to include punk. (McIlwane would die of a heroin overdose in the mid-‘90s.) Through other friends he would discover The Smiths and Misfits and come to worship the bands' flamboyant frontmen, Morrissey and Glenn Danzig, who represented the twin poles of post-punk masculinity.
The record bins of Jacksonville’s pawn shops would shape his tastes further. It was at a place called Pawn & Guns that he found a copy of Fuck, by an obscure L.A.-based SST band called The Leaving Trains. “Which is still my favorite record of all time,” he says, citing the song “What Cissy Said” as his epiphany. “That filled me with so much unbelievable, maddening passion to play music. I taught myself drums; it took no time. I taught myself to play guitar; it took no time. I could play bass right away.”
Almost immediately he was writing songs and making recordings on a little four-track. “When I was in high school, I used to pass out these cassettes that said ‘Pax-Am Records.’ That was my imaginary label. They were little compilations where I played all the instruments — one track would be like a Pet Shop Boys-sounding band, another would be a metal-sounding band or a surf-rock band. I had fake names for these groups, but it was all totally me. Nobody cared, of course.”
Eventually, he and McIlwane formed a series of buzzy post-punk bands: the Patty Duke Syndrome, Blank Label, Kotten. One day the vocalist for Patty Duke Syndrome didn’t show up for rehearsal, so Adams started singing, making stuff up off the top of his head. “I remember Jere looking at me like, ‘What the fuck?’ I was thinking, ‘Whoa, I didn't know I could do that.’ But from then on, I knew.” Music soon became so all-consuming that by his sophomore year, Adams quit school (though he’d eventually get his GED).
The real turning point came after the death of his grandfather in late 1991. “That really hurt me, and I didn't know how to deal with that,” he says. Not long after, his beloved cat Bully died as well. He took it as a sign. “I cried for three days straight, just weeping. On the third day, I packed one red book bag, filled it with some clothes and a couple Hüsker Dü cassettes, and left home.”
Though he couldn’t even drive, Adams knew it was time to go. "Where I was from, people were dying, going to jail, or having kids at 19 and never leaving. Strangely, I knew that it was going to be totally OK. Like, ‘This is what you're meant to do; nothing will ever fuck with you.’ Maybe my grandfather’s spirit was with me. But something did guide me, ‘cause I definitely had a clear path.”
Outside Pax-Am, the rush-hour traffic on Sunset Boulevard is slowing to a crawl. Adams walks down from the studio’s front porch and crosses Cherokee to a nearby convenience store. Ripping into a Balance Bar and popping open a bottled water, he shuffles along watching a group of teenage skateboarders from nearby Hollywood High doing freestyle tricks in the parking lot.
He sits for a moment and mashes away at the keyboard of his phone, dashing off messages to his manager, his wife, and Val Kilmer, who's looking for a download of Adams' new album. “He's an artist,” says Adams. “Like for real, man. He gave me a painting that's downstairs in the studio.”
Adams is feeling a bit edgy. Over the last few days, as he’s been doing press for the new album, his early career has been dredged up over and over. He can't bring himself to hold it in the same regard as many fans — and music writers — do. Even though Whiskeytown represents the briefest and most distant part of his career, Adams’ ‘90s alternative-country band still looms large for some, but for its chief architect, the group holds little meaning beyond mild nostalgia. “I can't be proud or embarrassed of what I did in Whiskeytown because I was so young,” he says. “I really was not a fully developed human being.”
After he left Jacksonville, Adams made his way to the nearby big city of Raleigh, in North Carolina’s college-filled Triangle region. For a while he couch-surfed, and eventually he got a job washing dishes at a pizza parlor. “I slept on the floor and ate canned food with a screwdriver. Still, I thought, This is better than where I was at.”
In 1994 he formed Whiskeytown. As Adams would famously declare in the group’s musical manifesto “Faithless Street”: “I started this damn country band, ‘cause punk rock was too hard to sing.” Today Adams says the foundational conceit behind the band was a pose — something his more strident critics accused him of at the time. “There's this wrong idea about me being identified with things that are Southern or country,” he notes. “I do not fucking like country music and I don't own any of it. I watched Hee-Haw as a kid with my grandmother, I only like country music as an irony. I liked it when I would get drunk.”
And yet, Adams excelled at writing songs that captured the downbeat essence of the genre: small-town picaresques, studies of drunken ennui, tales of soured romance. “I suppose playing country music felt like learning how to build a beautiful bookshelf or something,” he says. “There was a certain amount of honesty that had to be there and it had to hurt. I loved the discipline of that. It reminded me of the challenge of playing punk rock. But me playing country music … it was a false face. It was style appropriation.”
Nevertheless, Whiskeytown’s rise was fairly meteoric. They put out an independently released album, Faithless Street, in 1995. By the next spring, they became the subject of a major-label bidding war, signing with Geffen Records imprint Outpost. The resulting album, Strangers Almanac, came out late the following year riding a wave of hype — it was supposed to be the Nevermind of alt-country and Adams its Kurt Cobain, or at least the modern-day Gram Parsons, the patron saint of the genre (the two, coincidentally, share a birthday). By then, Adams had also fallen in love with a New York City publicist named Amy Lombardi and would eventually move to New York to be with her.
Within the context of the band, Adams was busy building his legend. He bragged in interviews, cussed out critics, feuded with fellow alt-country contenders like the Old 97’s, and mocked legends like John Fogerty, whom Whiskeytown opened for. He went on stage drunk and high, berated audiences, fired band members regularly. Adams says part of his behavior was merely youthful petulance, a punk kid given too much, too soon. But some of it was a residue of his unsettled upbringing, which took the form of frequent panic attacks throughout his twenties. In the end, Strangers Almanac wasn't the Nevermind of anything, shifting a modest 150,000 copies. In hindsight, Adams treated the band’s career as theatrical exercise in self-sabotage, a performance art project.
The most lasting connection Adams made during this era was with Ethan Johns, who would go onto to become his long-term producer, collaborator, and confidante. The scion of British rock royalty — his father, producer/engineer Glyn Johns, worked with The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones — the two met while Whiskeytown were recording Strangers Almanac in Los Angeles, and Adams enlisted him to produce Whiskeytown’s ill-fated third album, Pneumonia. Adams arrived at the studio in Woodstock, New York, with more than 100 songs — a prolific tendency that would prove a mixed blessing throughout his career. Ultimately it was corporate machinations that officially finished Whiskeytown — Geffen and Outpost had been swallowed up as part of a massive merger, and though Pneumonia was completed, it would remain unreleased for two more years. By then, Ryan Adams had moved on.
A black earpiece dangling around his mouth, Ryan Adams is pacing back and forth in the kitchenette at Pax-Am. He’s doing a round of phone interviews with various media outlets in Australia. He seems bored by the task, searching for fresh platitudes about his various projects.
“Oh yeah, I’d like to think that anybody could pick up a guitar and say or do something romantic,” he says, rolling his eyes.
As he talks, a rep from his management company, Michael Meisel, hovers nearby to ensure that the day’s obligations are met. Meanwhile, Pax-Am’s house engineer Charlie Stavish and Adams’ producing partner Mike Viola are at the studio console prepping for a session with singer Yasmine Kittles of L.A. electro-noise band Tearist later in the evening.
Adams’ Q&A with a Melbourne radio show sours as soon as they begin to ask about his wife, a no-go topic. After years of maintaining a very public love life, Adams has become a zealot when it comes to guarding his and Moore’s relationship. “I just don’t share at all about my private life,” he tells the DJs politely. The other end of the conversation continues, with Adams visibly tensing. After a long pause, and without a word, he hangs up on them.
“OK, so I just hung up ‘cause I was on the radio getting asked about my wife,” he complains to Meisel, his voice rising. “I was really nice about it the first time, and I’m sorry, but I won’t repeat myself. The deal is this: I’m a private person and I’ll be a gentleman and say I’m not talking about my marriage ever. I’ll never talk about it. Ever. I’ll talk about rescue cats for a few seconds. But even there I don’t want to talk about my pets. If I have children I’m not going to discuss that with anyone ever. I’ll suggest it once and then I’m going to hang up.” (The following day Adams would send a tweet to the Aussie radio hosts apologizing for the call getting “disconnected.”)
Everyone grows quiet as Adams throws himself down into a couch, splays his legs out, and sighs: “I don’t really have a history of uplifting myself in the public eye.”
As the ‘00s dawned, Ryan Adams was considered damaged goods. That might have been enough to derail most careers, but then he decamped to Nashville to record Heartbreaker. Produced by Ethan Johns — and aided by true-blue roots musicians like Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Emmylou Harris — it was a career-making turn. Released on Chicago indie label Bloodshot in 2000, it sold 300,000 copies and re-established Adams as a major songwriting talent. The album was a chronicle of Adams’ failed romance with Lombardi, a record that he considered “a diary page on fire” and a “musical-style sandwich” and "convoluted."
Luke Lewis was one of the many music industry movers who connected with the songs. The chairman of Universal Music Group’s Nashville division, Lewis was a childhood friend of Gram Parsons who had spent years generating big country hits for Universal with acts like Shania Twain and George Strait. He decided it was time to start his own boutique imprint at the company to serve as a home for Americana singer-songwriters. Lewis happened to be friends with Adams’ manager, a hulking New Yorker named Frank Callari, who also worked with singer Lucinda Williams. Both Adams and Williams were signed as flagship artists for Lewis’ newly minted Lost Highway label in 2000.
Adams intended his first release for the label to be a double album, a mostly acoustic pop-flecked mood piece called The Commercial Suicide Handbook. “I really thought releasing [that] would've been in the spirit of what Luke wanted the label to be like,” says Adams. “But it was categorically shot down. What they wanted was another Heartbreaker, and I was like, ‘No way.’"
Instead, Adams headed to Los Angeles with Ethan Johns and began cutting an entirely new batch of songs. But Lost Highway also rejected the full 22-song version of that album, Gold. The released version would contain 16 songs; early pressings carried a special limited-edition bonus disc with some of the remaining material.
The label had seized on the upbeat-sounding “New York, New York” as the album’s first single. Adams shot a video for it in front of the city’s skyline, with the Twin Towers in the background. This was in late August 2001, in advance of the September release of the album, the cover of which depicted Adams and an upside-down American flag.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Adams loathed the idea that his song — again, written about Lombardi — would be viewed as an opportunistic anthem. Adams appeared on Saturday Night Live that fall performing the tune (his second performance was cut from the program). After that, he put “New York, New York” in mothballs. “I basically said, ‘You cannot use this song — not in a documentary, or a commercial, or a TV show.’ Except for the fucking New York Yankees. I guess they’ve played it at Yankees games.”
The album did garner three Grammy nominations, and it sold nearly 400,000 copies in the U.S. “For the amount that the label spent on promotion, the label didn’t make any money,” says Adams. “I certainly didn’t.”
Fortunately for Adams, he’d hung onto his publishing, and another Gold track, “When the Stars Go Blue” — one he’d actually lobbied for as the first single — would go on to become a massive hit duet for Irish band The Corrs and Bono, as well as for Tim McGraw.
Even with Gold’s disappointing returns, his celebrity blossomed. He did a Gap commercial with Willie Nelson, palled around with Elton John, and opened for The Rolling Stones. He courted a stream of glamorous girlfriends, including billionaire heiress singer Leona Naess, indie film darling Parker Posey, and writer/model Jessica Joffe — and there were intimations of other celebrity dalliances (Winona Ryder, Alanis Morissette, Lindsay Lohan, etc.).
His relations with Lost Highway were strained — even more so when Callari quit managing Adams to work for the label. "This guy who was my protector became my antagonist,” says Adams. (Callari passed away in 2007 at the age of 55). Adams signed on with manager Ryan Gentiles, the young impresario guiding The Strokes’ career, but matters with the record company didn’t improve. "I couldn't tour because there was no record; they wouldn’t release anything I made.”
The label did put out Demolition, culled from his various unreleased sessions, in 2002. But Adams’ proper studio follow-up to Gold, the Smiths-influenced Love Is Hell, was rejected, then split up and put out, belatedly, as two EPs. His 2003 effort Rock N’ Roll was intended as a tossed off, trashy response, and it, too, was released with little support. Numerous other Adams projects never saw the light of day.
“Ryan wanted to put out everything he recorded,” says Lewis. “Never mind that being difficult contractually, it’s just difficult in terms of getting that much stuff into the marketplace. My major frustration was that I didn't think he worked hard enough sometimes on his projects — god knows he worked hard enough writing songs. But he’d be in Stockholm and jump in a studio and whip out a dozen new tracks. That was the beauty of him, too, though — he was oozing creativity all the time. Even in his worst of times.”
By the mid-'00s, the wider perception was that Adams had lost his direction. “It was set up so that would happen,” says Adams. “The suggestion from the record company was, ‘We don't give a shit about this.’ The emotional side of this for me was awful. It seemed like there was an audience, but they were blocking that. Which was really brutal.”
Callari had warned him early on of the backlash that was coming his way. “Frank said, ‘They're waiting for you in the weeds,’” Adams recalls. “‘No matter what you do, they're gonna come...and take you down.’” Sure enough, Adams made himself a target for establishment rock writers, a burgeoning corps of music bloggers, and gossip websites alike. Pitchfork writer Amanda Petrusich — who, like many of his media detractors, would be contacted by Adams personally — summed up the general feeling in her takedown of Rock N' Roll.
“The story of Ryan Adams' artistic decline is currently approaching epic, a long, complicated tale of public cockiness, big mouth bravado, and exasperated recordings: his churlish, fuck-off swagger was silly from the start, but Adams' self-satisfied smirk has got nothing on his newfound capacity to eschew every last one of his songwriter's instincts. Now, with a discography that's wiggling towards infamy, Adams shoots up one last middle finger to the slowly dispersing crowd.”
Adams’ most strident critics seemed aggrieved that he’d failed to fulfill their personal expectations of him — that he hadn’t become their Bob Dylan, their Gram Parsons, their Paul Westerberg. Others chastized him for refusing to edit his work sufficiently, or simply for wasting his talent in a clichéd pursuit of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
“I was super into drugs then,” says Adams, “but not shooting drugs or anything like that. I sometimes liked to take some hydrocodone, or cut my line of coke, when I was drunk, with a little tiny bit of dealer-grade heroin, where it just takes the edge off. I wasn't sitting there drooling, though. I was playing guitar and being coherent.”
He was, at least until early 2004, when he fell off a stage at a show in Liverpool, England, shattering his left wrist completely. He underwent a radical surgery and reconstructive procedure, then spent months recuperating and gobbling pain pills. The fall, he says, was a blessing in disguise.
“During that time I had to take so much Percocet ES, I couldn't go out and party,” says Adams. “I couldn't do speedballs or fucking drink or do coke or go crazy, which I had been. It was like I was being spiritually protected. After that period I was so sick of the painkiller, so sick of that high, I could never really get high on that stuff again. And I started to get clean.”
When his wrist finally healed enough, he bought an old Buck Owens Americana guitar — the red, white, and blue acoustic he’d seen the singer strum on Hee-Haw as a kid — and went back to Jacksonville, to a place near his grandmother’s house, and began to relearn how to play. “Every fucking day, there would be tears steaming down my face as I struggled to play Black Sabbath songs,” he says. Months of excruciating rehab work followed, but eventually, Adams regained his mobility and ability.
“In fact, I had better dexterity than I ever did. At that point in my career, my playing changed, my writing changed; everything got better.”
Friday afternoon, back at Pax-Am, Ryan Adams is in a better mood. He’s dressed in the same denim ensemble, save for a white Minor Threat T-shirt. The previous night’s session with Yasmine Kittles went well. Johnny Depp — with whom he’s just completed a new single — came by to hang out and play.
At the moment, Adams is hunched over a Spider-Man pinball machine in the corner of the studio. He’s removed the game’s protective glass and is trying to find out why it keeps shutting off mid-play. He pokes around and quickly diagnoses the problem: a defective relay cable. “You know how Alice Cooper’s thing is he plays golf?” he says. “Well, my shit is pinball.”
Located just a couple miles from the studio, Adams has a 3,500-square-foot warehouse, a former custom car shop that he’s converted into a private arcade. He’s been buying pinball machines, repairing and restoring them, for the past few years. His collection now numbers 120-plus vintage machines — from rock-themed games featuring The Rolling Stones to sci-fi favorites like Stargate, as well as a pair dedicated to horror hostess Elvira (a friend who appears in the video for the new album's first single, "Gimme Something Good"). “And I found the Holy Grail: Krull,” enthuses Adams. “It’s one of only nine machines ever made.”
Typically, after a late night of recording, he’ll go to the arcade with a few friends and “sesh out,” as he puts it. More than just a collector, Adams is a student of the game, of its history. He’s planning on becoming part of its future too. “I have ideas for games based on sci-fi stuff … and a couple designs for bands, like Black Sabbath and Dio,” he says. “But I also have bunch of original concepts I’m working on.”
The last major remaining pinball manufacturer, Illinois-based Stern, continues to put out new machines, but the graphics on its games are mostly photoshopped and based on a popular license. “I think pinball should have a different vibe,” says Adams. “There should be original handmade art, stories you never heard. There should be music made specifically for it. So there’s new people, rogue companies, kinda pushing the whole thing forward. I want to be a part of that.”
Adams credits much of his current success — and his ability to indulge pricey passions like pinball — to his manager, John Silva. Adams signed on with the Nirvana and Beastie Boys minder in 2004, and found a new patron and protector. Silva negotiated more favorable terms with Lost Highway, though conflicts remained.
After bottoming out with Rock N’ Roll, Adams made a decision to pull back from the cult of personality he’d been trading on and instead become part of a band, forming The Cardinals with New York guitarist and Strokes associate JP Bowersock and bassist/vocalist Catherine Popper, a fellow North Carolina native. Adams released three albums in 2005 alone: Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights with the band and a solo record called 29. Over the next few years, he toured extensively and followed with a couple more albums and EPs; not all of them were wildly received by critics, but they did help Adams expand his audience, garnering the best Billboard chart showings of his career.
More significantly, by 2007, Adams was experiencing some serious, unexplained health issues. There was persistent ringing and squalling in his ears, harsh debilitating jaw and neck problems, loss of balance, and constant fatigue and flulike symptoms.
“I couldn’t get out of bed,” says Adams. “I thought maybe I had Epstein-Barr. Really, I thought I had something worse wrong with me. That there was a serious internal fucking issue. There was a panic in not knowing.” Adams was eventually diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a disorder of the inner ear affecting balance and hearing. There’s no known cure, and most of the treatment is focused on alleviating the symptoms, which tend to occur in discrete attacks.
“For me, it’s like someone's talking and I hear what they're saying, but I don't know what they’re saying,” says Adams. “Or when people flashed lights at me onstage I would get uncomfortable incredibly quickly. And it would spark a little panic attack, and then I’d hear a pressure in my left ear — WAAAAH! — like Godzilla screaming. Then I'd have trouble focusing … and I start losing my sense of balance.”
Compounding Adams’ problems was the fact that he’d given up drinking and hard drugs — even cigarettes (though he remained and remains a marijuana smoker, noting that it helps with his Ménière's.) “I had a terrible time trying to sleep for years after I got sober. I was taking prescription meds to sleep. They weren’t making me a lunatic or anything, they were just holding me together.”
The final period on tour with The Cardinals proved especially difficult. “I had a couple really bad [Ménière's] spells. I came off of all the shit I was on — the sleeping meds and stuff to combat the fatigue of Ménière's — in order to be able to stay on the road. That was the most fucked up experience of my life. I went into the DTs coming off the medication.”
With his behavior growing increasingly strange because of his health woes, rumors circulated that Adams was doing hard drugs again, that he was backsliding. “I didn’t care what anyone said. I was just trying not to die. And every day I thought I was going to die. It was the worst ever. I was sick as fuck.”
His health failing and his contract with Lost Highway finally ending, Adams decided to reset his life completely and leave his home of more than a decade in New York City. “I romanticized the shit out of that place in poetry and songs and paintings, but it was like I didn't exist to it,” he says. “I had lived there for so long and yet I'd see a little New Yorker piece about me and it’d say, 'North Carolina songwriter…’ and I was like, ‘What about me being a West 9th Street-living motherfucker?’ I realized I didn't belong.”
In early 2009, Adams announced on his website he was quitting music, played out his final dates with The Cardinals that spring, and then started a new life. “I never even went back to New York. I left my apartment for someone else to pack up. I didn't go to say good-bye to anyone or anything. I decided it’s over, and I headed west.”
It’s getting late on Friday night, and the crew at Pax-Am is antsy. Most of the evening has been wasted waiting around on Adams. Earlier, he'd received a call from his wife about a plumbing emergency at their place, and raced off in his late-model Porsche to tend to that.
Now, back at the studio, Adams is surfing the internet, reading about his friend, Henry Rollins. The former Black Flag singer has been forced to make a mea culpa for insensitive comments in his L.A. Weekly column characterizing Robin Williams' suicide as cowardly. Adams scratches his left shoulder, near the spot covered by a Black Flag tattoo. “I dunno, dude, I think Robin Williams was brave,” he says. “He ended his operating system. That’s sounds like a pretty terrifying concept to me. Some people are just not into the pain.”
As he ponders this, Viola and Stavish are looking to Adams to signal whether they’re going head to the arcade to play pinball or follow through on the evening’s planned recording session.
“I don’t know, maaaan,” Adams drawls exaggeratedly. “You tell me. I know how to make music. I know how to play pinball.”
“We’re set up to jam,” replies Viola.
“We’ll let’s jam, then.”
Stavish, who recently joined Adams' touring band, checks the levels and begins recording. For the next 45 minutes, the trio — Viola on guitar and vocals, Stavish on bass, and Adams on drums — will write and track material, most likely bound for Viola's solo album, in a free-flowing manner typical of their nightly sessions.
In between fills, Adams shouts instructions to Viola. He helps to arrange the song on the fly, effectively producing the session from behind the kit: “Mike, in the solo section, just think of the solo in your head, but keep the rhythm going with us. It’ll feel a lot better on the track to have an ‘event’ solo. But I like this a lot. It’s so fucking Big Star!” says Adams, giddy and gleeful, chomping on Now & Later candies, clearly in his element.
It didn’t take long after Adams limped into Los Angeles in early 2009 to make major moves to improve his life. After a string of well-publicized romantic relationships, he very quietly married Mandy Moore that spring. They first began their courtship during Adams' low period. “My wife once said, ‘You were like a bird in too small of a cage and I was watching your wings thrash against the side of this thing. You needed space. You needed to just fly free,’” says Adams. “And she was exactly right.”
Adams began to enjoy the Southern California good life. He sought treatment for his Ménière’s, working with a hypnotherapist to reduce the panic attacks. He started eating better and working out. “I hiked and got a dog, I adopted cats and wrote songs,” he says. “And I slept. I slept like I never had. I totally crashed in this beautiful way. I let go of all the false ideas of my late twenties and early thirties, this construct of who I was and how I thought I should be. That struggle was over.”
He also launched his Pax-Am label in earnest. In 2011, after an unusually long — for Adams, anyway — three-year break, he was ready to make a new record. Adams initially reached out to Ethan Johns to produce, but Johns suggested someone else for the job: his father. “Initially, Ryan was a bit intimidated maybe,” says Ethan. “But Glyn was always a huge fan of his.”
Where most people assumed Adams would’ve indulged himself with a sprawling, unkempt record as an expression of his newfound freedom, he went the other way. Recorded at Sunset Sound’s famed B Room, Ashes and Fire was a finely wrought folk record, arguably his best work in a decade (the songs were heavily informed by the illness of his geemaw, who passed away before its release). Adams spent the next year-plus doing a solo acoustic tour in support while Pax-Am studio was being built. Once he returned, Adams and Glyn Johns set to work on a follow-up in the spring of 2013.
Adams was itching to cut at his gleaming new recording space, but Johns preferred to return to Studio B. “I guess Glyn wanted to be comfortable in a room he knew," he says. "But it was a mistake for me spiritually. It was like I was in Cloud City but had just gotten the Millennium Falcon back and I want to go for a drive.” The untitled record was mixed and sequenced by Johns, even given a release date. Then, Adams scrapped the whole project, at a cost of more than $100,000. The more difficult part for Adams was telling Johns. “I never really had that conversation,” he admits, sheepishly. “I was kinda lost at that point as to what to do.”
Enter Viola, the Massachusetts-bred, L.A.-based rock 'n' roll veteran. Discovered at age 13 by maniac/visionary Hollywood producer Kim Fowley, Viola has had a long and varied career that included helming Mandy Moore’s 2009 album, Amanda Leigh. “Ryan came by the studio when I was working on Mandy's record,” recalls Viola, “saw how I worked, and liked the way I was doing things, I guess.”
Adams and Viola spent several weeks in the studio engaged in a series of exploratory sessions, the results of which became a 30-track collection of demos dubbed Alien U.S.A. Sonically, the material was informed by the strange listening jags the pair went on, poring over ‘80s LPs: Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby deep cuts, the more outré Hall & Oates productions. In their late-night, pot-fueled deconstructions of these records, Adams landed on the kind of album he wanted to make: a dark-wave pop platter powered by pumped drums, sinewy electric guitar, and minor-key melodicism. “Once I figured that out, big songs started coming,” says Adams.
The communal sprit of Pax-Am was felt on the new tracks Adams began to make: Johnny Depp is credited with guitar on the searching “Kim” and “Feels Like Fire”; and Mandy Moore provided the ghostly background vocals on “Trouble” and “Am I Safe.” Several songs are also redolent of Tom Petty’s moodier albums like Damn the Torpedoes and Long After Dark — largely owing to the presence of Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench, an Adams favorite.
After 13 solo albums, Adams decided to call the record, simply, Ryan Adams. Though he claims he couldn’t think of better name, the title also suggests a measure of pride in the project. “I can listen to this record front to back, every track,” he says. “I can't say that about a lot of my other records. There’s a joviality and a weirdness there.”
To those in Adams’ circle, the album represents a subtle but important breakthrough. “He’s really able to get to the core of what he wants to say," says Mould. "And the choruses on these songs are pretty ridiculous … he’s written an incredibly catchy record. But it’s also refined, there’s a work ethic on display.”
Back in the studio, Adams is coaxing Viola to lay down a melody line for the song they’ve been working on, suggesting rough lyrics, dummy lines to get him started. “How about you say: I’m on the couch, the couch is in space, you know it’s floating away-aaaaayyy,” sings Adams. “That riff is epic. We gotta put this on tape…and put a real drummer on there.”
In less than an hour Adams and Viola have written and tracked the music for two sparkling numbers as well as a couple of rambling covers. “It’s like this every night here, that’s how all the shit gets done,” says Viola.
Over the past year or so, Adams — sometimes alone, but mostly in tandem with Viola — has been on a tear producing other artists. He’s recorded projects for Fall Out Boy, Butch Walker, and Liz Phair and helped make one of 2014’s best pop albums so far, working with ex-Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis on The Voyager. Adams and Lewis had known each other only casually, but she’d been struggling to make her third solo record for years. She messaged Adams on Twitter and asked if he’d be interested in a producing a track for her.
“I went in and he’d put together a band,” says Lewis. "We cut my song live and realized we had several more hours booked with these musicians. By the end of the day Ryan asked me if I wanted to recut my whole record at Pax. He basically kidnapped my record, in a good way.” In the studio Adams plied Lewis with psychological tricks: He told her to write her own Oasis-style anthem, forced her to listen to Creed incessantly before laying down vocals. “I had been stuck in the mud for so long, I needed a person who could push me ahead. The casual, low-stakes environment for me was crucial."
“That's the vibe here,” says Adams. “No one’s on the clock, there’s no day rate. Anybody that we love that needs to play and come work here, it’s no big deal. Like I always say: ‘We have plenty of tape.’”
Mould, who’s become a regular visitor to Pax-Am, says the studio represents an idealized creative space. “I was over there last week, walked in, and Ryan’s like, ‘Here, grab this guitar, let’s write a song.’ Any time you step in that door, you gotta figure that the red light is on.”
As Adams’ punk rock godfather, Mould sees Adams’ transformation as a real victory. “When you have to grow up in public, it’s never easy,” he says. “I’m happy that he’s gone from this kid who left home at 16 with a bunch of [Hüsker Dü] cassettes in a bag to where he’s at now. To see him having established this long career, and to be at his peak and have this place, this cool home... That’s a beautiful thing, actually. ”
Today, Adams' creative world is more in his control than ever. Significantly, before parting ways with Lost Highway, Luke Lewis handed him the rights to all his unreleased material (“I thought it was the righteous thing to do,” says Lewis). Still, Adams doesn’t have any plans to release his once-promised box set of “lost” albums (though he may press up copies of his long-rumored Blackhole LP for the next Record Store Day). In general, he seems content not to look back. “If we're speaking on a cosmic level, then you're never in a better place than you are in the current moment,” he says.
A couple months from now he will turn 40, but even that doesn’t have him feeling especially reflective. “Every day, I'm living it pretty great, exactly as I want to, right here. A party or something would just be a distraction from this already perfect existence I've created for myself.”
At this, Adams gets up and motions to follow him. He heads upstairs, to the balcony of his office. He walks out and points at the glowing Pax-Am sign, almost touching it. “Look at that. This is how good it is. At 7 every night, that fucking neon sign comes and it’s like…that’s a party.”
“Look at that shit, man,” he says, surveying his garden below. “Look at that magnolia tree right there. Just like in my grandmother's front yard. Every night here is a dream come true.”