[ there's no place like home ]
by Mark Teppo

I'm watching a stream of Barry Adamson's new video for "Black Amour" -- the first single off his new record for Mute, King of Nothing Hill, and I realize the perfect word to describe his music: noir-ploitation. It's not blacker than black; it is just darker. His music creates a world of indistinct shapes and moving shadows; a world where life, death, heaven and hell are all held in the palm of the hand. It is cinematic -- luxuriously colored and textured -- while simaltaneously being dark and gritty.

One-time member of both Magazine and Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, Barry Adamson has shaped his career around the idea of soundtracks, both for films real and imaginary. Following a series of EPs, he released two fully instrumental albums in the late '80s/early '90s, Moss Side Story and Soul Murder. 1996's Oedipus Schmoedipus saw the inclusion of guest vocalists as Adamson began to expand his sound to include the pop song. Yet he never strayed far from the darker side of the street and 1998's As Above, So Below was the first record to merge both his phenomenal ear for the crime noir soundtrack and his own idiosyncratic vocal stylings.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Barry over the phone about his latest opus, The King of Nothing Hill. Being a fan of both cinema and noir, I had no trouble falling into the world of Nothing Hill. Barry, fortunately, was there to guide me, to show me the way out. His Virgil to my Dante, if you will.

I've been listening to your new record quite a bit. It seems that The King of Nothing Hill is much more of a self-contained soundtrack than some of your previous work. It is like a crime novel set to music.

Barry: I guess I'm coming from a place of self-examination, trying to come up with some answer to the human condition. So, from that aspect, it is exactly as you say: it is a bit like the crime novel, the mystery novel. What is at the very heart of the piece? Here I am calling myself the "King of Nothing Hill." So what is this "Nothing" about? Where is this place that is sort of deep inside the soul? Is he talking about a mountain that he's climbed? Has he reached the top of this mountain and found nothing there? There are all these ideas, I guess, both existential and those that are found in noir writing, in mystery fiction -- that is kind of my favorite place, if you like, to exist. That is the shape and the look and the feel of the record.

Is it an internal examination then?

Barry: I think people make references to this sort of thing, almost like "mining." You get your tin helmet and your food package and go in. You start chipping away and see what is there. I guess it is internal to begin with. For me, it is an emotional process. I get kind of whacked by something -- I experience something -- and then I hear what other people are saying out there in the world. I make sense of my experiences in light of other people and their experiences and see where the connection is. A lot of the theme of this record is that idea of being connected to something.

barry adamson's got that noir fever

If I get to the top of the hill and there is nothing there...well, I've got to be connected to something. Is the thing I'm talking about a place in the soul? Everybody has it or is all the one thing? So, yeah, it is an internal thing.

Hopefully, the record is externalized in the way that crime fiction is and when people hear it, they can say, "Aha, I know what that bit is about." It is an internal action to express something which then gets externalized.

If you look at this as one man's journey, then you have the statement of purpose up front with the opening track, "Cinematic Soul."

Barry: Yeah, it is where we are going, it is the statement of intent. But I'm also very aware of the power -- the "violation of expectation" as Leonard Bernstein used to write -- in the terms of "we think we are going this way." The power of cinema and music in both of those idioms can throw you off somewhere else altogether. I am aware that I am walking away from the wreckage of the last record, As Above, So Below, and into an era -- into a new beginning -- and I'm taking the spirit of youth -- in my son -- with me. I'm stepping up to the plate again and I'm bringing the guys in the band with me. It is, in fact, a statement of intent. I'm also aware that I am using this [song] to set the piece up as well. It is my incisive insight as well. "Hey, everything is great again. Here we are, we're off on this kick."

And then you immediately go off into "Whispering Streets" which seems to be the moment when the guy -- the hero, the narrator -- arrives at this new place and finds he just doesn't have the experience to deal with this environment.

Barry: You got it, yeah, you got it. It is also the part of the play where the dust settles. What do you do after the party finishes? There you are. "Whispering Streets" has a few weird things going on in it. It reminds me of a short story where somebody wakes up -- like a Kafka sort of thing now that I think about it as we're talking -- and then the cops come, break down the door, and take this guy off.

Yeah. "I don't even know how the gun got in my hand."

Barry: Something has gone down and he doesn't even know about it. He could have been drunk, maybe, and done something. Or maybe the community -- he did something for the community -- they've betrayed him by saying, "Well, sorry, it's not about us." I think perhaps it is a metaphor for conscience in a way, a metaphor for the ideas about guilt being possibly more about the things we don't do than what we do. This is my idea. I can remember being stirred up about something and feeling sort of powerless to do anything about it. Which left me with this sort of feeling. Which may be where the Kafka elements came from.

barry adamson - black amour
[ give a listen! ] "Black Amour" MP3

And then: "Black Amour."

Barry: We'll try seductions instead. It's another mask, another guise. We're getting to a place where we are starting to slide down the wall a bit. "Whoah. Hold on. Everything was going so well." Is this guy now with the peacock feathers and the bravado, is he hiding something? Is he hiding a desperation for this feeling of belonging? Whether it be through some kind of sexuality, some kind of [interpersonal] union type thing.

I'm kind of using it to suggest a whole other type of thing which is coming in the next track, "When Darkness Calls." People aren't going to like this. [Laughs] He's going to piss a lot of people off by playing this card, by wearing this mask. I guess it is all part of a greater psychology at work. This is my examination. Was it because of the feeling of guilt that you would then go into this stereotype? And when that stereotype doesn't work, is that when you open the door to let some sort of negative force come in?

When you get down to "Twisted Smile," you have this line: "Everyone is everyone." It seems that, in this track, you are talking about someone external to the narrative voice which has been running through the record to this point, but there is still this reference to the idea that it is just a mirror image. Even though you are seeing someone outside of you, you are just really talking about yourself.

Barry: Exactly. I think that is the heart of the record. I've gotten to the place now and I'm saying, "But don't forget, you aren't separate from everyone else." You're not going through all these things and ending up in this place alone. I guess it is almost said with a hint of desperation as well. Almost like a question mark. But I'm sure that we're all of this one thing.

But you've got to remember, Mark, that we can talk about this and we can bring out this microscopic examination, but I'm also very aware that someone will put the album on and unconsciously, maybe, pick up some of these ideas. I'm fine with that. If someone says, "Hey, I like the strings on that song" or "I like the guitar in this bit here," that's great. What gets me is that people can understand in the way that we're talking about it. That's what I like to provide within the music as well. It's a whole world. That's what I get from cinema, that's what I get from art that I really like.

But, lest we forget -- [Laughs] -- hopefully it gets played on the radio and people go, "Hey, that's a kickin' track."

There is a wonderful lushness to the record. There is a lot going on in all of the tracks.

Barry: I felt that was appropriate. I am hiding things and masking things. I'm trying to offset certain things in a certain way. And I thought that the way to do it -- try, anyway -- was to make a vast musical landscape. What I love about cinema is all of the stuff that is going on -- in the writing as well -- that gives you little clues about something. Little symbols that mean things. Like in "That Fool Was Me" when the New Orleans Orchestra walks through the middle of the track. It was a perfect moment to express sorrow and joy at the same time. Nothing else could have done it, and so I had to get it in there. I needed it right there to give the listener an unconscious, emotional clue as to what was going on. I like that. It is fun to do that.

barry adamson, listening

How do you build one of these songs? How many people are involved?

Barry: Well, I use the technology of the day, if you like. I start with an elaborate sketchpad which gets me from "A" to "B." Then I sit back and start to see how the themes are going and what I am building there, what I need to do there. I guess I do that first. And then I bring in keyboards and guitars and drums. Now that I think about it, I build it quite traditionally: rhythm section, guitar, some overdubs, then write the brass and strings and orchestra at the top end of it. In that way, once I can see that something is working, I can start to fill it in -- I can start painting, changing the colors. In this case, there was the idea of keeping it as lush and vibrant as possible. Like building blocks. Pretty much like I describe it in "Cinematic Soul." Build it from the bottom on up.

So it is the idea of bringing in people to make the sounds that we hear and not putting together a band and rehearsing an idea?

Barry: Yes, exactly. The guy who plays guitar on a lot of the record is a fellow named James Johnston from Gallon Drunk. I know his guitar style, and I know the sweeping kind of noises -- the abstract noises -- will be done one way. I can play guitar in another way that will suit certain things. Exactly. I find the people who do what they do, and they bring something to the table as well. They get it and say, "I know exactly what he wants."

Would you take this live?

Barry: That's the idea. I knew that it would be traditional enough. By starting with a rhythm section and the like that it would end up in a place where it could be played that way.

Would it be Barry Adamson doing a collection of songs? Or would it be King of Nothing Hill with other songs worked into the larger structure?

Barry: I have a presentation of As Above, So Below and this record, and I would stick in a few of the instrumentals from the earlier works like Oedipus Schmoedipus and Moss Side Story. I actually think I have enough varied material now to make kind of a show -- a traditional show and not so much this avant-garde trip. Traditional, but keeping that noir edge at the same time.

Would there be a visual component?

Barry: I don't think so. My theory is that there is enough there for you to bring up images on your own. The way I am on stage and the way I'd present the songs would be another level anyway. I think the screens -- beyond being damn expensive -- could be too much right now. I don't know. We'll see where it goes. But right now, I want the music to stand alone. But also be something that you can take away, something that you can go home and put on the player.

barry adamson - king of nothing hill
[ give a listen! ] "Whispering
Streets" MP3

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