Memento Mori: The Strange World Of… Barry Adamson

Ian Johnston speaks with former Bad Seed, ex-member of Magazine, musician soundtrack composer and David Lynch collaborator Barry Adamson in order to find ten entry points into his large body of work

Portrait by Adrian Boot

Since the late 1970s, the musician, composer, photographer and filmmaker Barry Adamson has carved out his own idiosyncratic path in music. Born and raised in the Moss Side area of Manchester, Adamson emerged from the punk/ post punk scene as an innovative bass player, first utilised to great effect by Magazine (1977-1981) and then as a founding member of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds (1984-1986), whom he would briefly rejoin for the 2013 album Push The Sky Away album and the subsequent tour.

Following his departure from the Bad Seeds in 1986, Adamson announced the start of his solo career with his 1988 dynamic reinvention of Elmer Bernstein’s main theme from the 1956 film The Man With The Golden Arm. This single gave due notice of Adamson’s formidable talents, as a producer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, and indicated the path that his career would follow. His debut album Moss Side Story (1989, Mute) was presented as a soundtrack album for a contemporary film noir crime motion picture that did not exist (long before this had become a trope) – the listener provided the visuals. 


Early in his career, Adamson’s evocative soundscapes inevitably attracted the attention of film makers, keen to co-opt his inherent skill for mood manipulation, leading to him composing tracks and soundtracks for a number of motion pictures. These included Derek Jarman’s The Last Of England (1987), Carl Colpaert’s neo-noir Delusion (1991), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), key score pieces for David Lynch’s crime mystery Lost Highway (1996), Michel Blanc’s The Escort (1999) and Carol Morley’s drama-documentary Dreams Of A Life (2011).    

The swinging mix of decadent big band jazz, sinuous funk, hip hop grooves, Sixties thriller themes, classic strings and soulful gospel that comprised the highly influential Moss Side Story continued on Adamson’s next album; the Mercury Prize nominated Soul Murder (1992). 

For his Oedipus Schmoedipus album (1996) Adamson invited guest vocalists on board. The album opened and closed with ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Pelvis’, a driving fusion of rock, gospel and funk, featuring Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker on lead vocal. The late Associate Billy MacKenzie delivered ‘Achieved In The Valley Of The Dolls’, while Nick Cave provided a considered acceptance of a relationship’s demise with ‘The Sweetest Embrace’.

Adamson moved to centre-stage as a singer of his own song compositions on his 1998 album, As Above, So Below. It is a position he has held in his solo career to date, tapping into diverse song forms (pop, avant garde rock, jazz, dance, blues) to reflect both personal and universal experience.

In 2002 Adamson recorded his final studio album for Mute, The King Of Nothing Hill and the next year, created the music for the Olivier Award winning ballet Broken Fall, with Russell Maliphant, Sylvie Guillem and the Ballet Boyz.

In 2006, Adamson formed his own Central Control label and released the Stranger On The Sofa LP, which received widespread praise and attention. Back To The Cat (2008), I Will Set You Free (2012) and Know Where To Run (2016) followed and in 2015 Adamson’s latest short film The Swing, The Hole And The Lie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Most recently, he released the Love Sick Dick EP, followed soon after by the Love Sick Remixed project, featuring reworks and remixes including the 6Music playlisted A Certain Ratio rework, Gazelle Twin, Jimi Tenor and ADULT. This year he returned the favour to one of the groups and reconvened with A Certain Ratio, singing on ‘Dirty Boy’, as featured on their new compilation ACR:SET.

I met up with Barry Adamson earlier this month in Victoria, London, to look back over his remarkable career – reflected within his new double album compilation Memento Mori – before his return to live performance with a full band and orchestra at the RNCM, Manchester on 29 October and the Union Chapel on 30 October in London.

Magazine – ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’ from Real Life (1978)

Barry Adamson: That was my audition piece.  As a kid, I was very much aware of something going on, initially around show business. I think a big thing for me was seeing people from Manchester have success, at a very early age; people like the Bee Gees, P.J. Proby, The Hollies. I was listening to the art of the song; putting things together. Also, it was very much a noir black & white world, you know.  Right up until my solo career, through Magazine, I felt that was the world I existed in. I always felt I could escape that black & white prison, that it could be dumped for a more glamorous existence; particularly through the siren call of cinema, listening to the television, linking everything together.

All this led to seeing The Buzzcocks, I was a huge fan. Seeing The Fall. All these bands around at the time – you just wanted to be a part of it. Then I got lucky. I met this kid from school who had a bass guitar with two strings. He said, ‘You can have it. I don’t really want it.’  I went into town the next day to buy the strings and I saw an advertisement that said that Howard Devoto was looking for musicians to work with [Devoto left The Buzzcocks in early 1977]. It was too good an opportunity to miss. The spirit of punk meant that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso, thank God! I bought the other two strings, put the bass guitar on the edge of the bed, so it would reverberate and I could hear what I was doing, and went to the audition the next day. Devoto told me he had this song, like a Pete Shelley riff, and hummed it. I wondered what I had to do. I looked at the bass, at the open E string, and started playing that. Howard said, ‘That’s fantastic, you’re in.’ That was it! The following night I learnt some more on the bass, and so it went on, but that was the beginning.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds ‘From Her To Eternity’ from From Her To Eternity (1984)

BA: The end of Magazine in 1981, for me, was a disappointment, because it was my first job, if you like. I could see it falling apart in front of my eyes. Howard wanted to go somewhere different, didn’t want to go with us anymore after four studio albums.  I was wondering what was going to happen now. Right at the end of Magazine I went to Australia and I met Nick Cave’s cousin, who asked me if I’d heard of The Birthday Party. I said no and he played me ‘Mr. Clarinet’. And again, that was it! That’s what I’m talking about! I loved that, spitting in the face of whatever it was.

When they came over to the UK I was DJing at The Venue, saw them play and they were very special. I became a friend, hung around with them. Then Tracy Pew got put in jail for a tour and they asked if I could help them out playing bass. Later, when the Birthday Party imploded, and Nick was putting a new thing together, he asked me if I wanted to be involved in it. They were called The Cavemen, at the time. 

‘From Her To Eternity’ is such a great piece of music. It defines for me what that era was about: edginess and risk-taking, throwing the rulebook out of the window, creating a musical gamble together. I re-joined The Bad Seeds for the Push The Sky Away tour and played a bit on the album (released in 2013). We were working on ‘From Her To Eternity’ for the tour and it had become a big rock song.  I said, ‘Do you remember when we were in the studio when we were recording it, you were at the piano, you were talking about Elvis and were singing a passage very quietly?’ He went, ‘OK, let’s try it that way.’ Warren (Ellis) got a copy of the original recording on his phone, held it up to the microphone and the whole room was transfixed for the duration of the song. He’d forgotten about this. I had to include the track on my anthology, Memento Mori. Looking back, ‘From Her To Eternity’ changed the 80s musical landscape. The group writing credit was generous, really, there is some genius interplay with the piano there, that weird, creeping theme. Very cinematic.

‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ (1988)


BA: The idea was that I sign a publishing deal with Mute. I’d been working with them in the Bad Seeds, because I wanted to do cinema music. I wanted to put something out that was like a calling card, which is what Moss Side Story became. But I wanted to start with a homage to something in cinema. I was transfixed with this sampler I’d bought. It was this new thing that you could record into, it also had strings and piano, all these things you’d never heard before on a keyboard… I actually sampled the main theme from ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ at the beginning. The genius of the sampler is that you move further down the keys to slow the sample down. It just created this almighty sound. Wow! Considering what the movie is about, I thought maybe it should be slowed down.  I went into the studio and sat at the drum kit like Frank Sinatra in the film…  Another bit of luck, Bernstein’s assistant was a fan – if you did anything by Elmer Bernstein, he had to hear it, for approval. The assistant said, ‘Elmer, you’ve got to hear this.’ After the first few bars Bernstein said, ‘Sounds good to me.’  So, Mute were able to release it, but that it had the Elmer Bernstein stamp of approval on it was great.”

‘Under Wraps’ from Moss Side Story (1989)

BA: Moss Side Story really did what it was supposed to. People thought it was a soundtrack and I did nothing to dissuade them. That led to my first actual film soundtrack, Delusion, in 1991. The best thing, for me, that happened off the back of Moss Side Story was that got a letter from Hubert Selby Jr. He picked up a copy of the album and wrote to me, care of Mute Records. I opened it nervously and thought, ‘This must be a joke.’ He wrote, ‘I love your album. It sounds like a shoot ‘em up – and I love shoot ‘em ups.’  I was over the moon. I didn’t care what else happened with that record, I’d received praise from the king of the typewriter. That happened, but the album also had an effect in the industry as well.  Later (in 1997) I scored 35 minutes of David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Oliver Stone used three of my tracks in Natural Born Killers (1994).

‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Pelvis’ from Oedipus Schmoedipus (1996)

BA: I see my first three albums, Moss Side Story, Soul Murder and Oedipus Schmoedipus as a triptych, before I got going in another direction. On Oedipus I was sidling into song structure and also chose to feature guest artists – Billy MacKenzie of The Associates, Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker – who are the people I look too; in song, voice, character, humour and many other things. Really, it was like I was getting together with them, one more time, just to make some notes about where I was going to go next. 

I’d just finished Oedipus and I went to Los Angeles to work with David Lynch on Lost Highway. He showed me the party scene where Bill Pullman’s character meets Robert Blake’s Mystery Man. I thought of a track from the new album and said, ‘I think I might have something, it’s called ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’.’ Lynch said, ’Let’s put it up.’ We put it against the scene and he just said, ‘That’s great, that’s it.’ It was just one of those things. I don’t know how they happen.

‘Come Hell Or High Water’ from As Above, So Below (1998)

BA: As the years go on, I think about the things I was trying to do in song writing and this was the song that started it. On As Above, So Below song writing and singing became the dominant force. The calling cards had worked, I was in movies, and I was divided between making studio albums or making film soundtracks.  Having collaborated with the vocalists on Oedipus, I wanted to try it myself. I don’t know where that idea to sing came from.  On the opening song ‘Spilt’ on Soul Murder, I had presented myself as a kind of beat poet guy. I liked it, but it didn’t satisfy me.  I liked words and melody – I wanted to put them together. For me, with ‘Come Hell Or High Water’, I didn’t have to think about it.  The words kind of tumbled out. I was almost like a bystander watching the sentence construction, meaning, popular song of the past and the rest.  They seemed to meld together really well, so I went with it.”

‘Black Amour’ from King of Nothing Hill (2002)

BA: I was in a really weird point in time with that record. That song, for example, came off the back of being asked to do a commercial for Christian Dior, which I did. They said, ‘Can you make it like Barry White?’  Which is why it sounds like Barry White. I did this Barry White riff thing and I was particularly proud of the strings I did – to get the 1970s part of the song. James Johnston rocked up and played amazing guitar, priceless guitar. I took it to France and they said it was great before the executive producer came in and said, ‘What’s this?’ I said, ‘It’s what you asked for.’ ‘No, no, no, I didn’t want it to sound like Barry White, I wanted it to be Barry White.’ So that was it. They got Barry White in and he did something else.  

Later, I got a call saying, ‘Come to The Dorchester at four o’clock on Sunday.’ It was Barry White’s manager who said, ‘We are going to do a new album, we want you to think about coming in and producing it.  We heard your Dior thing and we want to get that old sound back.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ but six months later Barry White was dead. I kept the track on the album.  It’s quite funny hearing it now, there were cartoon elements I tried to put into it, I wanted have some fun.”

‘The Long Way Back Again’ from Stranger On The Sofa (2006)

BA: I left Mute because of the takeover by EMI. I was a bit overwhelmed by it all, and felt kicked to the wayside, so I made the move. It seemed like a boom town time, I guess. MySpace was around, you could put out records yourself, you could self-publish – it seemed like the world was opening up. How wrong I was [LAUGHS]. But I felt that EMI would just take one look at the books and go, ’Adamson – gone.’ I didn’t want that decided to start my own thing and see how that would go. I started with the Stranger On The Sofa album and ‘The Long Way Back Again’ was the song in there. That was written in a hundred-degree heat in a New York park, I got a few lines together then had to finish it off in a coffee shop with air conditioning. I then went straight in the studio and sang it. I’d had the music for a while. It was one of those songs; starting again. It really fitted with what was going on underneath. Sometimes songs are great like that, because you write that way. It’s only with hindsight, you go, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on.’

It was a strange period. By the time of my I Will Set You Free album I hadn’t moved from my own studio for a couple of years. I didn’t really like it so I don’t really have that much of a studio anymore, because I’d got into that habit of sitting there every day having no interaction with people. I think Daniel Miller [Mute] came around one day and that was it.

‘Up In The Air’ from Know Where To Run (2016)

BA: I love that song. That’s from the kind-of-comeback album I made after re-joining The Bad Seeds. I got back into the Bad Seeds again for three months, which turned into three years because of all the relentless touring. I needed to get back to me – back to the sense of self and what I was doing. But it’s hard, because it’s a very secure situation. You’re in the world of The Bad Seeds, a bubble. I could be there now, but I took a risk, like I always do. I’d been across America with them, took photographs everywhere I went. It’s probably possible to have a solo career and play with them, but I needed full concentration. I wanted to do a book of photographs, then I thought, ‘Actually, this feels more like an album then a photograph book.’ so I linked the two together. I related the songs to the images I was taking. I’d be in a hotel room looking at them, then I’d be working on a song and I could see that it had just come from that image. It was pretty much like the idea of writing for movies.  Film, if you think about it, is just still frames. That gave me another kick start. I had an idea for another short film The Swing, The Hole And The Lie, which was screened at Cannes. So, things were looking alright. I was enjoying myself doing these various art projects.

‘The Hummingbird’ from Memento Mori (2018)

BA: I definitely wanted to link this new track up with where I want to go next, to keep things moving before the Memento Mori collection. It seems to conform to my style of bright lights and dark shadows. As you move towards the light, the shadows fade. I was trying to paint this idea of redemption leading to freedom. So, the idea that the landscape has come alive is in that moment. It also had to link to the beginning, the themes that I’ve used throughout my work, the styles I’ve used throughout my world. There is almost a Bad Seed quality in there, that someone pointed out to me, and I thought, ‘That’s the song to put on [the Anthology].’

Momento Mori (Anthology 1978 – 2018) is out now

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