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Adam Stafford

Walls come tumbling down (in conversation with Stuart McHugh)

By • Jul 4th, 2013 • Category: features

Adam Stafford has come a long way. Not geographically, not really (the Falkirk-raised musician and filmmaker is now based in Glasgow’s west end) but in ‘artistic’ terms, his new solo album Imaginary Walls Collapse is far-removed from his early project The Chuck Norris Machine (a demo of which from the then-teenage Stafford was received (more than 10 years ago) at itm? Towers.
Adam Stafford

Since then, he’s fronted a ‘proper’ band, Y’all Is Fantasy Island, who released several acclaimed albums, but despite a constant string of collaborators, Stafford was always the prime mover – often performing solo shows with just a guitar and a loop pedal for company.

Now, with a respected indie label behind him and airplay from the likes of 6music, Stafford looks like he may be ready to make the leap from underground musician to… well, what? As a filmmaker, label boss and multi-faceted musician, the term “indie renaissance man” would be apt, if a tad grandiose.

With Imaginary Walls Collapse out any time now, it’s good to catch up again with Adam to discuss the new album.

My opening question makes the schoolboy error of focusing on the vocal-based efforts on the 10-tracker, which echo the a cappella stylings of previous release Awnings (purely vocal in nature) as well as Build a Harbour Immediately, which contained several tunes propelled entirely by Adam’s lungs.

“I would say it is only voice-based insofar as it has a lot of singing on it,” he counters. “The main body of the album was written on the guitar and that’s the way it’s been for a couple of years now. I tried purely a capella with the experimental album Awnings and I have a great love for the other voice-only tracks on Build a Harbour Immediately.
“There’s something to be said about stripping everything down to just human voice – it’s visceral and direct,” he continues. “But it can also come across as gimmicky – very few do it brilliantly all the time, I’m thinking of Meredith Monk, Bobby McFarine and Wounded Knee.”

It’s always good to talk influences (especially for the lazy writer) – Stafford has compiled a mixtape of tunes which cover some of his personal favourites, particularly those who have had a bearing on his current sound. Having seen Stafford play at a Baby Tiger show in Edinburgh six of seven years ago with just guitar and pedal (we’d been expecting the whole band to show up), I throw in another couple of names – Hyperpotamus and, just for giggles, KT Tunstall (whose loop pedal TV set for Later launched her into the public consciousness).

His answer is surprising. “I get the KT Tunstall a lot just because of the process of looping,” he reveals. “I’m not really interested in her music – there is nothing wrong with her earlier looped songs – it’s just not for me. I have a bit of problem with the whole “Loop Guy” tag because, although it defines what kind of music I play in a nutshell, it doesn’t paint the full picture”.

With his background in home recording as well as film work – which we’ll come to later – he is perhaps what the computer industry would term an “early adopter.”
“I actually had the same pedal she used before I knew who she was,” he smiles.

It’s apt that his own take on the situation steers well clear of KT’s smart but chart-friendy pop.
“I like to come back to an analogy that I’ve always used, that it’s like watching a Debussy string concerto and only talking about the strings – there are other things to mention: the melodic lines and rhythmic textures; the dynamics and structure of the songs; the fact that every musician finds their chosen instrument is a means to an end of communication and expression – the relationship is symbiotic.”

We have established that he doesn’t regard himself as alone in his field – so what has Imaginary Walls absorbed into its make-up?
“In terms of influence I definitely hear a lot coming through,” he agrees. “In fact, I would say that I am merely a facsimile of all of the music that has influenced the me: Steve Reich and Meredith Monk for their laying of textural repetitiveness; David Byrne and the Talking Heads for the song craft, the performance element and the post-punk edge; American funk and soul.”

Y’all is Fantasy Island were always, for myself (and anyone with decent taste, of course) one of the top song-based acts in Scotland. Perhaps a bit dark in tone musically and certainly lyrically, it’s still not clear why they didn’t have more commercial success.
Adam Stafford

Since the band’s dissolution, Stafford’s solo work has shown similar potential for wider acclaim. ‘Vanishing Tanks’, on the album, sat well as a split single with RIck Redbeard’s consummate folk-pop songwriting while ‘Please’ (the tune heard on 6music) is a doo-wop, soul infused tower of song. Overall, however, and despite the at-times joyous choruses and soaring vocal lines, the mood, lyrically, is a tad… dark?

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he enthuses. “All brilliant art comes from sadness, bitterness and madness. But I’d like to think there was a thread of hope.
“Thematically I was thinking about mental demons, about childhood, about oppression and intolerance of vulnerability in society and about how authorities erect imaginary walls that keep us trapped, how they ridicule anybody who suggests an alternative or anyone who strives to be non-conformist.”

While the album launches are on their way, Stafford got the chance to road-test the new material some more with a charity show at Edinburgh’s Electric Circus.
I joked with him afterwards following an opening salvo of non-album, more experimental tunes before getting onto The Hits – well, the plugging of the forthcoming release. Such curve balls are the Stafford way, though his label bosses, present at that gig, were, shall we say, taken by surprise. But the independent nature is something that permeates through to the music, perhaps a result of running his own label, which put out the Y’all is Fantasy Island catalogue (as well as an early release from SAY-nominated PAWS and the likes of former YiFi drummer Jon McCall under his Bobby Womb monicker).

This time it’s Edinburgh’s Song By Toad doing the heavy lifting, leaving Stafford more time to concentrate on his music. Though he’s not alone.
“It’s all collaborative, from the moment my engineer/producer Robbie (Lesiuk, former YiFi bassist) presses the record button to the parts he writes and plays himself on the album, to the way Siobhan Wilson sang her vocal parts, it’s just that it’s mostly directed by my hand. If I was doing it all myself I think it wouldn’t sound as good, you need trusted collaborators to bounce off of.”

That said, the beauty is that he’s free to do what he wants, any old time – whether it’s releasing a split cassette with local pals Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, working with a band (as he has recently – and a YiFi reunion isn’t completely ruled out), or working on more abstract stuff like soundtrack music.

“I love both,” he says, “but I find myself moving more towards instrumental music that defines its emotion in the music alone. Words can often be distracting, but so can trumpets, so we’ll see.”

Working with other arists and not only musicians is nothing new to Stafford. And nor are soundtracks. Next up is a short film with Falkirk poet Janet Paisley. No Hope for Men Below focuses on the Redding pit disaster of 1923.
So the biggest surprise may be that he finds himself in a cobbler’s children situation – he’s yet to direct anything for himself, unless you count The Shutdown – an award winner at the Palm Springs and San Francisco film festivals. This joint venture documentary with poet Alan Bissett documents the Grangemouth chemical plant explosion which seriously injured his father and which he soundtracked.
Add to that list the monochrome video for Kilsyth doom-meisters The Twilight Sad, which scoped a SMIA award a couple of years back. Not exactly ‘Girls On Film’, but will we see a Staffford-directed video for a Stafford-pened tune?

“I just don’t think I’m the man for the job!” he says candidly. “I’ve already invested a lot emotionally into the writing, so then to come up with a visual concept fills me with dread!”

However, he’s far from ruled out a career in chart video production.
“I’d actually love to make pop videos for a living under a different name – stuff for Rihanna, Snoop Dogg and Beyonce – it’s the only medium that is about the pure aesthetic with no regard for emotional content and I think there would be something totally liberating about that. I can imagine it would be a lot of fun.”

Imaginary Walls Collapse is out any time now on Song, By Toad. It launches on Thursday 4th July at Edinburgh’s Wee Red Bar, and Friday 5th at the Glad Cafe in Glasgow.

2 Responses »

  1. Feat. a live shot of mine: “@isthismusic: Interview: Adam Stafford talks about his forthcoming album @AdamWiseblood”

  2. Thanks to Stuart over at @isthismusic for this article on influence, and the genesis of the new album: