In from the cold

Published

Laura Doherty verbally jams with Adem, and tries to avoid the f-word

If you type ‘ADEM’ into google you’ll find info-sites on Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, a rather complicated and nasty sounding brain affliction. “It’s also Danish for ‘breathe’, or ‘breath’, which is quite nice – at least it’s not Danish for ‘rubbish.’”

So, here I am sitting with post-rock hero/ new-folk singer-songwriter Adem and conversation has turned to googling oneself: “It’s one of those things everybody has to do at one point, and thank god Vashti Bunyan did it, because if she didn’t she wouldn’t be making music today – she looked herself up one day and realised she was a cult hero and so thought ‘I can do this!’”

It’s convenient (for my own linking purposes) that he should name-check Vashti; one of the last times Adem performed in Glasgow was as part of his ‘0 Degrees of Separation’ tour, a tour which brought Vashti Bunyan, Juana Molina Vetiver, The Elysian Quartet and other assorted friends together to play each others’ songs as an ensemble.

The crossovers of artist, genre and space combined to build a new sound in each artists’ back-catalogues. Their coming together acted in a way to challenge the now conventional approach to touring and remove the constrictions between songs, sets and artists, eliminating the feeling of artist seperation- hence the title.

It’s Adem’s style to push the boundaries of performance: he’s also known for organising improvisation sessions where large groups of people are encouraged to bring along instruments with an aim to work together to create a ‘cosmic sound’. “The idea is that you’re in a band for a session and the set is called ‘The Assembly’; I’ve done Assemblies with up to fifty people in places like Tate Britain, the ICA, The Barbican. Whenever I do it there are always musicians and non-musicians; everyone brings something to the table that’s different, I think it’s valuable to have both. It’s open to all, that’s the point of it, it’s not meant to have any edges.”

In fact, the first time I encountered Adem live, he was in the centre of a circle of children in Barrhead library attempting to eke out some coherence in a cacophony of clumsily hit tambourines. I hazard to ask whether this rather noisy experience was typical of the Assembly experience: “It’s never normally children, no. Those library shows were organised by the council – it was a good idea on their behalf. It was an interesting project but I didn’t find it satisfying; there were just too many people who didn’t care about what was happening. Most people were just having a laugh and sort of embarrassingly banging things, so that was a fun one, especially when I’m used to having quite established formal presentations of full on improvised music.” He pauses for a moment to consider the experience before adding: “But I’m very pleased that I did it.”

As an experimental artist he clearly embraces that interesting concepts can also lead to failure, but that’s all part of the plan. Much of his work stems from building particular creative situations that were unavailable to him beforehand, so to have tried and to have failed is surely better than to not have tried at all.  “All the improv stuff that I had been in touch with in London was either really dry self-help stuff or really intellectualised, small club art with, for example, references to one solo from seventy-three – proper jazz – so it was very isolated and kept separate. I thought ‘well, this should be fun! Someone should really do something’ And like so many other things I do I did it because nobody else was doing it.”

It’s this very attitude that leads me to feel that Adem has become something of a new-folk troubadour in recent years, the ethic of a wandering spirit who – along with his solo albums and work with Fridge (a rather ifluential post-rock outfit also featuring Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet) – is also organising his Homefires festival, collaborating with others on tours such as zero degrees and his occasional dalliances with the likes of The Fence Collective (“I’m an honorary Fencer, having never released a record on Fence Records I’m still kind of part of the outer circle- peering over the fence into next door’s paddock”).

I compare him to a bit of a newly styled Johnny Cash, showcasing his friends together on his travelling ‘Johnny Cash Show’, a new sound but with a refreshing old-school folky spirit. It seems I have used the f-word somewhat too freely: “I’ve never really listened to that much folk, I’ve spoken to James Yorkston about this – he plays a lot of traditional music, but he still considers himself as more of a singer/songwriter. I’d rather be considered as an interesting musician, someone who’s trying to push and change things with music. The problem with folk is that people have this idea that it’s not ‘folk music’ unless it’s been through the mouths of a thousand people, but it has to have started somewhere. I’m pretty sure ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys has been through quite a few mouths, so is that folk music?”

I have to butt in and stop him here in his tracks, his last album ‘Takes’ was an album featuring reinterpretations of the songs which moulded him over the years, taking in the likes of PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins, Bjork and Aphex Twin and producing new versions via his own style – how can he escape being tarnished by the folk brush now? “That’s what Takes is about – it’s part of the point. Just because The Orb used part of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint doesn’t mean they’re folk musicians, I think it’s just that they have roots and sources in the same places and have translated it in a different way – it’s the new folk”

As the interview wound to a close I got caught up in a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ as a contender for the night’s cover duet with support act Mary Hampton. As I left I couldn’t help but wonder what song they settled on in the end and what the covers of the future will be; will this ‘new folk’ eventually translate into echoes of tradition and what will stay around forever – God only knows.