Interview: Adam Stafford

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Scottish music-maker Adam Stafford has been undergoing a quiet transformation over several releases now, gently spiralling out from his songwriting base into neo-classical forms and minimal shapes.

His new album, Fire Behind the Curtain, sets the world to rights in all sorts of ways, reflecting interpretations of art-rock, ambient, drone, vocal experiments and electronica through a classical lens.

As double-album opus, it confronts head-on Adam’s lifelong struggle with dyslexia and acute depression, and sees him finding new releases for old demons.

It feels like the culmination of many years work, over which time he’s picked up a Scottish Album of the Year nomination for 2013’s Imaginary Walls Collapse and performed alongside Warpaint, Norman Blake and King Creosote.

Here, Adam opens up about the record, his inspirations and how he channels his depression to fuel the creative process…

How did you first got into making music?

I got into it the way most people my age did – by trying to learn Nirvana songs on acoustic guitar at high school. And also the allure of joining a band with your friends and it being a bit like a gang.

How has your sound evolved?

It’s mutated, certainly. I first started taking it seriously when my last band, Y’all Is Fantasy Island, split up in 2010. I would say that primarily I’m a songwriter and I have been a songwriter since I was a teenager. But now I’m trying to move in a more experimental direction. Certainly, on the last few releases it’s becoming more about textural composition rather than about formal song structures.

What’s pushing you into that direction?

I think it’s a combination of things. Some of it has to do with what I’m listening to at the moment – I suppose you would call it neo-compositional music. People like Meredith Monk and Mica Levi.

I’m moving away from writing lyrics too. If I’m honest, I think I struggle to write good lyrics and to be satisfied with the lyrics that I’ve written.

Instrumental music gives a breathing space for the listener to project their own concepts and images onto the music. Even if the lyric is opaque, you’re still creating a scenario, a narrative so to speak.

Do you find more freedom in instrumental music?

Yes. Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate what you want to say within a song structure.

What’s the thinking behind your new LP Fire Behind the Curtain?

There was a conscious decision to try and craft an ambitious double album that could command the listener’s attention. It would require the listener to sit down and fully engage with it on a musical, technical and emotional level.

I think I was inspired by lots of big ambitious work. There’s an album by a band called Stars of the Lid from 2001 called The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid. It’s a monumental two-disc album of ambient instrumental music. I wanted to do something that had that kind of ambition, that took it’s time to unfold.

How did your album take shape?

I’ve been writing it incrementally for eight or nine years. I think the oldest track on the album is The Witch Hunt, which was written at the end of 2009. I’ve been playing it live ever since.

Most of the rest of the songs came about in practice sessions that turned into creative writing sessions. I’ve just been doing it in between releasing albums of more song-based stuff.

Then in 2016 I wrote the final half of the record – the last six songs in very quick succession. They were a response to a fairly terrible period of bad mental health. I was trying to distract myself from that.

I always had an idea we would score and orchestrate some of the music and we would bring in a choir, there was always that ambition behind it. I’ve been in conversation with Pete Harvey, who composed and arranged the strings, for the last three or four years. It’s been gesticulating for a long time.

Stepping back from those songs now, how do you feel about them?

Those last six tracks were written when I was feeling pretty lousy. A few of them are really angry and visceral, like Invade They Say Fine, which is a direct reference to how my depression comes on. It will invade my mind, it will shut down my body and I have to just say fine, it’s going to happen and this is how it’s going to be.

I wanted to try and articulate that musically and without words. It’s quite an ugly track. There’s no pop in it, it’s quite raw. Then Museum of Grinding Dicks is a very angry and cathartic, almost noise-punk track. Listening to it now, the emotion makes sense.

Do you access a different creative place when you’re feeling like that?

I think so, yes. Sometimes with an onset of depression you can’t do anything. The only way I can really describe it is by being paralysed by a terrible empty emotion. You can’t even get out of bed sometimes, never mind pick up a guitar. I certainly do think if you channel that into the music it can be cathartic and it can really help with the process. Music is almost like a therapy, for me anyway.

The record is really sonically diverse – how would you frame it?

It’s certainly minimalist inspired. There are also a lot of other influences in there. For example, electronic music but not dance music. Things on Warp or Kompakt, or by Aphex Twin or DJ Koze. The repetitive element of the record is definitely influenced by a lot of electronic music.

It’s not completely classical leaning either. There’s a lot of guitar and a lot of guitar disguised as other instruments like saxophone – they’re all played through a Mellotron pedal. It’s still guitar, but it’s emulating something else.

What’s going to be keeping you busy for the rest of the year?

I have a few live dates in Scotland in May, album launches, and maybe a short tour of the south of England in the summer.

How do you feel about taking the album on the road?

For the album launches, Pete Harvey and Robbie Lesiuk, who produced the album, will be joining me. Pete is playing all of the strings parts. He’s going to recalibrate the compositions for cello. Robbie is a multi-instrumentalist, so I think he’ll be switching between bass and keyboards. We’ve also got a drummer as well.

When it comes to playing shows down south, I think it’s just going to be myself and Robbie. I’ve been playing these songs just on my own, just as a solo artist, for the last five years or more, so I’m used to them.

Adam Stafford’s new album Fire Behind the Curtain is released by Song, By Toad on Friday (4 May). He plays at Summerhall, Edinburgh on Thursday (3 May) and the Hug and Pint, Glasgow, on Friday (4 May).

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