Ryan Adams: "Maybe I am a jerk sometimes"

The Americana star opens up about his battles with drugs, his fight with a rare disease -- and his brilliant new CD

Published October 9, 2011 10:00PM (EDT)

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It has been two years since Ryan Adams' last record and six years since the last great one -- a sentence you wouldn't have imagined writing during the early part of the last decade, when Adams was alt-country's great young hope on a can't-miss streak. But then came battles with critics and confrontations with fans; the petulance was followed by an era fueled by drugs and alcohol, and finally a diagnosis of Ménière's disease, a painful and sometimes crippling inner-ear disorder.

But "Ashes & Fire," out Tuesday, is the stripped-down and gorgeously melancholic album some admirers had given up hope he'd ever make again. It's a grown-up "Heartbreaker" -- not as raw, of course, but as emotionally bare, with careful craft and hard-won experience in place of the old exuberance and pride. The album's second half is as moving a set of songs as he's ever written.

Calling from his new home in California earlier this week, his wife Mandy Moore in the background, Adams was feisty, fascinating and thoughtful, more excited to talk about metal than his own music, and more than willing to revisit his own wildest days.

"Ashes & Fire” is your first album in two years, and follows  a string of albums with the Cardinals that you weren’t completely happy with. There’s a really consistent emotional thread, a true focus. Did you feel like you had something to prove, that this was a comeback of sorts?

Hmm. Do you know Ratt?

The metal band? Sure, I went to high school in the ‘80s.

The record that would sum up what I was thinking is this record called “Infestation” by Ratt. They made a new record and it’s fucking bad-ass. It is so good. So good. You’ve got to listen to this song “Best of Me” first because it’s sicko. In the time that I was off, when I was dealing with my Ménière's disease shit and doing all this work with different therapists and different doctors, I basically … well, I predominantly listen only to metal. Usually I would say black metal almost always, but in the car I’ll listen to anything from Ratt to Queensryche to fucking Satyricon. I get this record and it is like the quintessential Ratt record. I mean it. It is like “Invasion of Your Privacy” or “Dancing Undercover.” It had this sensibility and this focus and they encapsulated everything that they are – not everything that people say Ratt are. I remember thinking, I want to be that. I’ve been that in the past and I would love to be that now. I think that was probably the really big focus turning point.

I would definitely have to say it’s all about Ratt.

Did you feel like you lost that focus on the previous albums?

No, but I mean... – [long pause] -- Not really. I’m thinking this out because I want to answer in the correct way. Because I had been doing records with the Cardinals, and because I was on this record label that wasn’t allowing me to do what I wanted to do anyway, I wasn’t able to go through a natural progression of focusing in and widening the territory of my mind. Because of that, I basically ended up in this place where there was a lot of unfinished qualities to my records, because what they needed to be and what I wanted them to be was being fucking edited. It was compromised from the beginning. I wasn’t able to get to a place like I have with "Ashes & Fire" with that record label. There was no consistency, there was no support. You could say, well, I could have done them anyway. There were literally people at that record company who it was their pleasure – it was their pleasure – to make it difficult for me to do my job.

There was one dude who worked at my old label who actually had been at the label Whiskeytown was on, my old label all the way back. He’s the most unpleasant person and the biggest dickhead I’ve ever fucking met. I couldn’t believe I had to suffer that twice – it was non-fucking stop. You have to understand something, I’m so fucking happy not to have to deal with that shit anymore. It is amazing. It is unbelievable. Every time it is time to go to the studio and do something, I am so excited.

Did you spend the two full years working on it? That must have been hard for someone who’d happily put out three albums a year in the 2000s.

Well, the record was written in a little under six months. There was no writing at all for a year and a half, maybe a year and eight months. Before that time was just recuperating from 2009. I wasn’t writing at all during the Cardinology tour because I was suffering. I hadn’t really written anything since 2008.

You used to walk around with a laptop of hundreds of unfinished songs. How difficult was it to switch that side of your brain off?

No. I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind at all. I was also in quite a lot of pain. I was dealing with Ménière's. There was no way to think about any of that shit when you’re as sick as I was. I was just thinking about not wanting to be in pain and to be better.

What has the treatment involved over the last couple years?

I did a lot of work to get there. I did a lot of lot of lot of lot of work to get there. And you know, it’s hard to describe what I was going through because it was pretty fucking intense. But I got there. I did a lot of acupuncture, acupressure. I don’t eat salty foods. I exercise, I get as much sleep as I can. I have a regimen of vitamins and supplements I take to keep my body and the hormonal structure of my body in the right place to not cause stress and not trigger a Ménière's attack. I changed my whole life in order to beat it.

That’s also made it all the more important to stay away from drugs and alcohol. How did you change that part of your life? A recent story said your only vices these days were crossword puzzles and tea.

I never had any blowback from drinking or drugs. I never long for them. I don’t long for smoking. I don’t think about any of that stuff at all. I have a different kind of sobriety than other people might expect. I don’t go to AA or NA. I don’t ever think about wanting to drink or do drugs. I’ve never had that since I stopped, which is really great. Now, I live in California. We stay close to the green here. You can take that as you like. When I quit drinking and doing drugs and all that stuff, I never cut out weed from my life. But I’m also not like a stoner. I actually have it really easy. I was lucky. I have some friends who got sober and it’s a daily struggle for them. I just don’t have that. It was gone. I was done with it and it went away.

You don’t miss that life at all? There’s a line in “Lucky Now,” on the new album that goes “I feel like somebody I don’t know / Am I really who I used to be.”

No. I got everything I needed to get out of it. I had a fucking great time. I had a great time. But I didn’t – I wasn’t addicted to drugs in the way that an addict lives. That needs to be said. I did not take drugs to live, nor did I ever take drugs 24-7. I never took illegal narcotics to the point of addiction that if I didn’t do it, I would be sick. Ever. Nor did I take drugs during the day nor did I drink during the day. It was something that I did that augmented the writing process of music sometimes, or at some point was something that I did as a kind of nightlife-oriented thing in New York. Sometimes it was something I did to stay up later hours to write in the studio. But I never went to rehab – although I have sat in AA meetings, I did not ever do the steps. I did not do the chips. I never, ever relapsed, ever, drinking again and never did hard drugs once I stopped. I was like, I’m burnt. This is lame. I looked back one day, and wow, that doesn’t even seem like it was real. I remember it. But it didn’t destroy me, you know.

If drugs helped augment your creative side, has it been difficult writing without them?

You know, I never did any consistent writing on drugs. It would just be a place to go when I jammed. All the songs I wrote in the past, there’s an attention to detail there that I feel like is above and beyond the feeling of drug writing. I’m not saying I’m writing pretentious, fucking, you know – I’m not writing pretentious music that’s dying to be considered intellectual, because fuck that. At the same time, it would be more or less fair to say that if you listen to my music there is a sense of literacy there and also a sense of craft, that wouldn’t normally be associated with somebody that is completely fucked off their head on drugs. There’s a balancing act there that I don’t think you can get from being wasted.

There was a big story in the New York Times in 2007, a couple years into your sobriety, with the headline that started “Ryan Adams didn’t die.” Was it difficult to read that friends thought you were so out of control you might not make it?

That was a really embarrassing article. The amount of actual intellectual information I gave (the writer) for that article was over the course of several days and long conversations about my music and who I was. I spared no expense talking about what goes into my music. I wasn’t able to make a second appointment with the writer and someone was supposed to tell him. A friend of mine was very ill. For some reason, my management didn’t pass along that I couldn’t make it. By the time I saw him after that, he said, “This really seemed like something the old Ryan would do.

It exaggerated my situation to such a degree. And of course that piece will be the lead piece forever. It made me look like someone I wasn’t. It was humiliating.

Pieces like that can shape a reputation – or confirm one that you already had.

I think I’ve been incredibly raw my whole career. A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to look cool and spend time being guarded and putting up walls. I just never had the time. It seems more honest to say, “Hey, this is who I am.”

Some people over the years have said that guy’s a jerk.

Maybe I am a jerk sometimes. Maybe I’m not. I think most people are kind of a jerk once in a while. All my career, it’s like “Ryan Adams is a jerk.” No, I am not consistently a jerk, but I’ve had bad days. Like nobody else has bad days? Everybody else is a saint? And when did it become imperative that fucking musicians have to be Nancy Drew? Didn’t anybody grow up with KISS? What is going on? But yeah, I get a bad rap.

Do you think being super-prolific contributes to that rap? That people don’t trust someone for whom things seem to come so easy, or that the stylistic shifts over the years made you look undisciplined?

What am I supposed to do? Write the same record every time? If somebody wants to show me an example that makes sense to them that I should be mirroring, that’s fine. I would still tell them to fuck off. The painter normally uses bone blacks and definitely aquamarine blue, but for some reason this set of paintings uses fire-engine red. These images can’t mean what the artist means. It’s weird. It doesn’t feel weird to me. It feels like chords.

I think that we live in a time where it’s easier to be suspicious of dedicated men and women, people dedicated to their craft, because the world around them inspires them to be lazy. It inspires them to be negative. It inspires them to be snarky. There’s nothing in the design of modern culture which inspires people to be great and to be grand and to think in terms of grand thoughts. People don’t write letters, they text message. People don’t make telephone calls, they send emails. People don’t go to a store to purchase albums and put them on a turntable – they download them or they listen to streams of them and then they fucking review the work someone has done for six months or a year or longer, they review It after breezing past the songs for 30 seconds online and doing a Google search and using what they misunderstand as wit to make snarky references.

There’s millions of people sitting in front of screens. Sitting in front of screens. They might as well be in an office building at home. At least for right now, until something changes – which it will – they’re sort of steering culture and art, and they’re steering it towards the mouth of this grey beast where the idea is … the most negative, the most snarky comment must be the most commendable, and then everybody falls in line.

The good thing about me is I never had a platinum record, so I’ve never had to answer to the idea that I had a career downfall. I’ve consistently made records. Emmylou Harris told me a long time ago when I made "Heartbreaker," she goes the point is to keep your job. The point is to do your job and keep your job. It isn’t to try to win something. It’s not trying to figure out how you can do it so great once that you don’t ever have to do it again. I think I’ve been pretty successful in that I’ve always done what I want to do to the best of my ability, and that feels really good.

You love Ratt and death metal, you grew up with punk and Sonic Youth. How is it that the music you love is so different from the music you most often make?

I think If you’re a chef and you make fine food, or whatever kind of food you make, you serve this food to people and it’s your passion to cook for them. You put your heart and soul into your food. You make a soufflé, and though it is based in the tradition of how a soufflé is made, you put your own touch on it. Maybe you garnish the dish with different kinds of vegetables, or maybe the drink you recommend with the dish would be different, or the soup that you would make would be based on something -- but it would have your own take. That’s what you do. You spend your time in the kitchen. You make food for people, you’re nourishing them, you’re putting yourself into it…

Are you the chef in this metaphor?

I’m the chef, right. When I get off work, even though I do what I love, right, I want to fucking eat pizza. I’m tired of soufflé, exquisite French dishes or whatever it is I’m making. When I’m out of the kitchen and I’m not cooking for people, I want to eat pizza and drink soda. I require a different experience to keep myself happy.

And these days, have you finally found that happiness?

I love my life. I love my life and I have a good time every day. Every day is a gift, that’s how I feel.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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