Adam Ant on How Performing an Old Album Is Like Acting in a Play

Adam Ant
Adam Ant Lorne Thomson/Redferns
Long before Captain Jack Sparrow, Adam Ant was pop culture's premier pirate. Rising to prominence in the midst of English punk and New Wave, Ant embodied the style and attitude of a pistol-toting dandy. He was the original Mr. Steal Your Girl, a rakish highwayman whose distinctive warpaint and Burundi Beat tribal drum sounds made him one of the 1980s' strangest success stories.

But Ant was more than a pretty face with a theatrical fashion sense. He also had a deft ear for hooks and song composition. Much of his work still holds up and sounds like nothing else out there. One of the crown jewels of his discography is 1980's Kings of the Wild Frontier. Mixing tribal drums, rockabilly licks, and Ant's cocky vocals, it's as energetic and exciting as watching Errol Flynn swing from a chandelier.

After things quieted down on the music front, Ant focused his efforts on theater and film. But he's started touring again. After completing a tour where he played the Dirk Wears White Sox album in its entirety at each stop, he's now taking Kings of the Wild Frontier out on the road.

Phoenix New Times talked with the singer about what it's like to revisit his older work and why it's so hard to follow in his footsteps.
New Times: You’ve done one album tour before when you performed Dirk Wears White Sox in its entirety. How was the reception to those shows? What was it like doing that kind of show for the first time?
Adam Ant: The Dirk Wears White Sox tour was really a bit of an experiment. I wanted to try that before doing Kings, and the response was excellent. It’s quite a different sort of demand on me as a performer. I realized it’s a bit like doing a play. Everything’s established, they know what’s coming next, what song is coming up — unless you decide to mix and match things.

In bringing these songs back and doing them live, are you trying to slip back into the character and role you originally played when you performed these songs? Are you trying to get back into the spirit of the Adam Ant who first performed these songs, or are you trying to remount these songs from a modern perspective? In other words: Are you doing Kings as the Adam Ant you are now?
It’s very much now. When you’re doing an album in its original order, in its original form, you can’t say, “Oh, I’m going to do excerpts.” You’re presenting the entire album as a piece of work. Again, it’s a bit like doing a play from scene to scene. Every song comes with memories that are tied to that particular song. But hopefully it’s not just a nostalgic thing. Obviously there’s a new band, and they’re excellent. It’s got quite a powerful sound. There’s a heavier edge to it now.

I can’t really describe how unique an experience it is. Doing Dirk Wears White Sox first was difficult because Dirk is such an unusual album. It was quite challenging to do live. And you know, with Dirk and Kings, we also get to give attention to the so-called album tracks. The songs you normally don’t play because you’re spending all your time with the singles. So it’s nice getting to play it all in its entirety.

Going back and getting reacquainted with these songs, was there ever a moment where it made you wish you could have done them differently? Listening to Kings now, performing it now, does it make you see it in a different light? Have you found something about that older work that surprises you?
I think I’m surprised by some of the demands the songs need. Trying to do them right live and avoid the temptation to use samples or tapes. That happens from time to time with bands, where they’ll sneak some of the old recordings in. We want to pay homage to it. But certainly with the drums ... the drums can be quite complicated. It’s very demanding for the drummers to produce that live. And with the album tracks, some of them we’ve never played live before so we’re in the rehearsals learning how to play a song from scratch.

So that was what surprised me: how much attention these songs demanded. And that’s what we’re trying to do every night: to improve. It’s a bit like athletes, trying to improve our time, trying to match what we’re playing as close as we can to the record. Because I can hear the difference in my mind. But what we play, it all ends up having its own personality.

You had mentioned earlier about the complexity of the drums. One thing I’ve been wondering about is how few modern bands have tried to pick up on what y’all were doing with that Burundi Beat. There are so many bands out there today mining sounds from the '80s, but I can’t think of many groups trying their hand at doing their own take on Antmusic. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about why that is. Is it that the drum sound is too complicated for people to pull off?
I think, possibly ... one of the things that came along in the ‘80s, obviously, and was adopted by a lot of other groups, even with the ones who had drummers, was synth-drums. Electronic drums. The whole influence of Kraftwerk on the punk movement, on early ‘80s music ... Most of the musicians from my generation came from punk, anyway. People like Human League, whom I’ve always liked — all the way back to their “Being Boiled.”

So when the idea came around to incorporate electro-drums with my sound, I just wanted to have the power of two drummers. 'Cause I had been doing quite a lot of research into alternative beats off the usual 4/4, stuff like tribal music, ethnic music, rhythms that were really complicated. Rather than have one live drummer and an electro-drum set to keep the other beat ... My sound always had a bit more live rock and roll to it.

Having a background in the arts and an interest in theater and film, did these interests make the transition easier for you into becoming a live performer? How much did they influence your style and approach?
It was primarily the videos. Nobody then, myself included, realized the revolutionary opportunities there was in that. Because suddenly people were seeing the music and not just listening to it. That’s when my training in art school came in, 'cause I did a film course. I went to the College of Art in London and I was used to making short films. So that started with the storyboards ... Writing the lyrics, co-writing the music, and there was this third element, this responsibility that a video would be needed to complement the music. I’d storyboard it out prior to shooting out. So in the end, instead of just being this promo thing — you know, a band standing in front of a brick wall, or just a band in a room — I decided to make mini-movies.

And with the costumes, which became the Kings of the Wild Frontier look, they were quite eclectic. With punk, things were very monochrome. With Kings, it was a chance to add richness and use lots of color and gold. Like pirates going into a port and grabbing whatever they could and keep moving. That kind of theme running through it. And the music embellished on that. Because punk by then had gotten very gray and political, a bit dull, so Kings was an opportunity to embrace finery and show off some bravado.

Adam Ant is scheduled to perform at the Celebrity Theatre on Sunday, January 28. Tickets are $40 and up via Ticketforce.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ashley Naftule