“Did You Hear That?” – Adam Stafford Interview

Adam Stafford

Music interviews: often they are nothing but boring walls of text meant to promote albums and/or artists. Sure, we at Soul Feeder also wish to give the spotlight to artists we believe deserve it. However, we also wish to get to know the artist. By sharing 3 random tracks with the artists, we wish to ignite interesting discussions regarding relevant themes, lyrics and the song itself. What does the artist think of the tracks we love? This episode features art centipede Adam Stafford. What are his thoughts on tracks by Arca, Earl Sweatshirt and Jan Swerts? Also, what song would he recommend himself?


Adam Stafford's Fire Behind The Curtain album cover
Adam Stafford’s “Fire Behind The Curtain” album cover.

Adam Stafford is a musician and filmmaker from Scotland, best known for his work with his old band Y’all Is Fantasy Island, his short movies such as The Shutdown, which won numerous prizes, and his lauded solo music career. With his upcoming album, Fire Behind The Curtain, which will be released both digitally and on vinyl on the 4th of May, he radically breaks with his previous style, delivering a strong neo-classical project.

SF: First off, congratulations on your new album. It certainly turned out to be an enthralling listen. A major theme of the album seems to be prisons – both internal and external. Your music often seems like an attempt to box against these walls although to me it is not always clear when it breaks through those walls and when it doesn’t. What do you consider the main piece of the album emotionally and why? Was that also the hardest song to make?

A: It changes all of the time if I’m quite honest. I think that The Witch Hunt is definitely the centerpiece. It has everything the first disc of the record has been building up to: tension/release, piano/crescendo, strings, layered choir… but then, for pure emotional catharsis Penshaw Monument might be the centerpiece as it’s basically me chanting manically in phased patterns for ten minutes. The bowed slide guitar at the end of I’m You Last Week is a big emotional moment on the record for me too because it resembles a howl in a long tunnel. But by far the most difficult song to record was The Witch Hunt. You have lots of instruments competing for stereo field space, so the balance is important; we had a 9-piece choir layered three times plus an additional vocalist, guitar, percussion and beatboxing. The string players also found the arrangements and structure of the track fairly challenging on the day of recording.

SF: Another neoclassical artist that has been boxing against walls in the past few years is a Belgian named Jan Swerts.

First off, what do you think of this song and have you heard of the artist?

A: I haven’t heard of the artist but will do some more investigating. The song is very beautiful – maybe too beautiful if there’s such a thing! The orchestration is lush, the oboes that come in mid-way through is a lovely touch.

SF: Your own album is almost entirely instrumental – was this a conscious choice?

A: Yes, I’d got fed up of writing lyrics. The last few albums I released were all song-based like this. Matthew Young at Song, by Toad asked me why there were no lyrics on the album and I joked that I just couldn’t be bothered writing any, but the truth is a little messier than that. I found myself coming out with stream-of-consciousness bollocks that sounded interesting but didn’t mean anything, or the old love-lyric cliche that has been booted about the park like an empty tracksuit for so long. The majority of music I currently listen to is wordless and I wanted to explore that more. I did an EP of short instrumental guitar pieces for a film in 2012 entitled “Vessels Shifted” and it was my favourite thing (up until this album) that I’d done. Most of these compositions on the new LP are an extension of that style but with more ambition for the structure and the instrumentation.

SF: Your genre is quickly gaining in prominence, with artists such as Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm quickly becoming more and more famous. What do you think of their work and do you believe this is a sign of neoclassical music “selling out” or do you believe there is merely a growing interest in the style itself?

A: The term “neoclassical” is a bit misleading I think, even though it is an easy way to tag an unclassifiable movement. Essentially you have people writing nontraditional music on traditional instruments augmented by electronics. In the case of Aphex Twin, he has created something completely unimaginable in classical” circles, such as his Midi-controlled robotic piano that can play successive notes faster than any concert pianist. Saying that, I do think Nils Frahm is a real modern-day Satie. “Felt” is one of my favourite albums of this decade. I don’t know if either Frahm or Arnalds, or Tim Hecker, or Mica Levi, or any popular composer these days can really be accused of “selling-out” if that’s what selling your music to films and TV is called now. These people have been slavishly producing great music for years and syncing with media seems to be the only way of making any real money in music these days.

SF: In your song Museum of Grinding Dicks, you focus on the toxic role of (hyper)masculinity in society. As of late, we’ve seen a similar movement in a lot of genres with artists such as Perfume Genius, Arca and SOPHIE, who are pushing different ideas of gender norms but also sexuality.

What are your thoughts on this song and its imagery?

A: It’s strong. The visuals remind me of Matthew Barney, especially The Cremaster Cycle. The song is both theatrical and disorientating at the same time.

SF: In an interview in 2014, Arca made the following statement: “I guess all of us have a little bit of both, masculinity and femininity, and bridging the gap between those two things is really fertile.” Do you feel like society’s focus on a dichotomy between femininity and masculinity causes certain groups to move to extreme sides of the spectrum?

A: Yes, certainly. I came of age in a toxic hyper-macho Scottish culture that if you didn’t play football at school, it was automatically assumed you were gay. Females were seen as sexual trophies or objectified and vilified openly in the school playground or over a round of banter. A lot of the stuff I grew up around hopefully wouldn’t fly now, but I still have a nagging feeling that boys and young men have broadly the same opinions as they did 20 years ago, especially with the pornification of pop culture and the Internet. Scottish male culture has a real issue with its warped view of what masculinity really is and many men in this country struggle with repressed emotions, this leads to alcohol, drug abuse and severe depression. I am one of those men too. So yes, I think if we were more open and honest about our shared masculinity and femininity, people and society would get on a lot better.

SF: To what extent do you believe misogyny is prominent in your genre? Do you believe there would be more prominent female neoclassical artists if particular things changed?

A: I can’t comment on any misogyny in orchestral or compositional music per se as I don’t really move in those circles. But just like anything, I suppose, the gender equality gap is wide – how many female conductors do you really see leading an orchestra? There were several complaints recently about a BBC4 program regarding Minimalist music and how it was one big sausage party. To sum up a whole movement in 2hrs is tricky, I suppose, but to omit pioneers, like Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk, is a sin. In the UK, Mica Levi is leading the way in genre-bending compositional music for film, and up in Scotland Anna Meredith is roundly celebrated, so these are positives for female artists. But this is the music industry and things have still got a fair way to go.

SF: Another very positive movement in music is the increased openness regarding mental health issues. On Invade They Say Fine you managed to recreate feelings of anxiety and dread musically. Other artists have attempted to do so through lyrics. Especially in hip-hop, a genre that is still known for its “tough” reputation. This has led to a few breakthroughs in the genre. One artist, Earl Sweatshirt, has created an entire album regarding his depression called I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and this is its lead single:

Again, what are your thoughts on this song?

A: This is the most interesting of the three, I reckon. Just so rich in atmosphere and imagery. It reminds me a lot of that first Canibal OX album, the jaunty gameshow melody at the end really wrong-foots you as a listener. Also I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – I really can identify with that title!

SF: Your album is almost purely instrumental. Do you believe it is harder or easier for you to express these kinds of feelings in words?

A: It’s harder for me because so many writers have gesticulated so eloquently about depression before. It really has to come from an honest place if you are going to do it. I have probably written all I can write about depression on my previous LPs “Imaginary Walls Collapse” and “Build a Harbour Immediately”, going even further back to my first band Y’all is Fantasy Island. “With Fire Behind the Curtain” I wanted to create space for the music to express itself and for that emotion to feed into whatever concepts are evoked in the listeners themselves.

SF: Do you believe there is more acceptance throughout the music industry these days for mental health issues?

A: There is a dialogue beginning to open up, not just in the music industry but in wider society. That is why I am speaking up about my struggles with depression now, to try and help reduce the stigma. Saying that, the music industry itself is a veritable hive of anxiety and depression. You already have fragile minds expressing and sharing their most vulnerable thoughts and feelings, so when you have a hyper-competitive industry built on the rewards of capital gain and the infallibility of taste and cool bearing down, you will get very depressed creative people. And everything feeds into that sense of low self-esteem and insecurity. Rejection in its many forms, be it a tastemaker blog ignores your emails, or a radio show not playing your album, or you can’t get a booking agent – these indirect passive actions affect every musician’s sense of self-worth as an artist. How about big monetary awards or prizes that pit musicians against one another? When you don’t win or even get nominated your self-worth sinks even lower still. Your friend’s band is becoming increasingly popular. They are being asked to play all of the festival bills that you hoped to be invited on. Then they are off doing a world tour with one of your favourite bands, and you are still playing basements to a dozen people and thinking “why can’t that be me”? So yeah, the music industry is a real cesspit of anxiety, jealousy, rejection, aggressive competition, poverty, politics, late nights/low mornings, alcoholism… who’d figure there’d be so many depressed people within it? And sadly, the actual music is usually the last thing that is considered.

SF: Finally, is there a song you wish to recommend to our audience yourself? If yes, which song and why?

A: I’d like to pick a track from Dominique Lawalrée from the recent retrospective album First Meeting. I’d never heard of him until last year when this track was playing in a record shop. He seems to be one of these figures that should be better known outside of his native Belgium – a scrapped album on Brian Eno’s label in the late 70’s appears to be a real lost opportunity! The way this track builds and the various key changes is just absolute perfection IMHO!

Adam’s new album, Fire Behind The Curtain will be released digitally and on vinyl via Song, by Toad on the 4th of May 2018. Listen to Zero Disruption on Soundcloud.

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