The Billboard Q&A: Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams' music is often overshadowed by his eccentric behavior and the pure volume of his recorded output. But on "Cardinology," released Oct. 28 via Lost Highway, his songs are the real story, not

Ryan Adams' music is often overshadowed by his eccentric behavior and the pure volume of his recorded output. But on "Cardinology," released Oct. 28 via Lost Highway, his songs are the real story, not Adams himself.

In fact, the artist is so happy with the evolution of his band the Cardinals during the course of five albums in the past three years that he says he'd be content if his name was dropped entirely from the packaging. "The stuff we do communally is 10 times better than the stuff I come up with," he says.

Adams may be overstating things a little, and such comments should be taken with a grain of salt from a guy who moments earlier was going off on a tangent about '80s pop metal. But there's no question the camaraderie he shares with guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Brad Pemberton, pedal steel player Jon Graboff and bassist Chris Feinstein has helped him create one of the most focused albums of his career.

Adams' newfound clarity is music to the ears of Lost Highway chairman Luke Lewis. "He's acting grown-up right now," he says with a laugh. "I kind of miss the petulant child occasionally."

"Cardinology" fulfills Adams' deal with Lost Highway, and Lewis is somewhat wistful about the likely end of his often rocky working relationship with the artist. The pair fought frequently over how much music Adams could -- or should -- release. Through it all, though, Lewis remained the musician's "biggest fan."

"We took some pretty harsh criticism for putting out so much music, but we could have put out more," he says. (In 2009, Lost Highway will issue an Adams anthology featuring several new songs.) "As much as we've tried to accommodate him by putting out a lot of records, a major-label deal is probably a bit restrictive for Ryan. My sense is he'd be better served by being independent, and by that I mean totally independent."

You seem to be more comfortable with the Cardinals than in any prior incarnation. What do they bring to the table and how do they help you feel confident?

Ryan Adams: They just make me feel more confident, I guess. I've known Brad for like nine years. We've been best friends, except for this one year-and-a-half where we didn't talk anymore. We had one of those old lady fights. I've known Neal for 11 years. We wanted to play together, but we're both Scorpios, so we had to work out some of that stuff. I'm a little brain dead today. I'm still recovering (from the flu) and I'm not quite well. So sorry. I'm a little scattered.

Hey, if Def Leppard started a cooking school they'd be Chef Leppard. You should say that in Billboard. Chef Leppard. Pasta mania! You know, "Pyromania" is such a good record. What the fuck. Even the cover is stupid good. I mean, where is our Def Leppards and stuff? I understand that there's no White Lions, because, like, White Lion was specific to that time period. And I understand why there's no Tesla, because Tesla were downplaying the big thing, you know? But I guess Tesla are back, right? Did you hear the new Xasthur album, "Defective Epitaph?" It's so brutal. It's still really good.

Def Leppard have a new album, too..

Def Leppard do have a new record?

Yeah, but there's a Tim McGraw duet on it.

A Tim McGraw duet? That guy. He covered one of my tunes, "When the Stars Go Blue." He famously said in a quote, "I don't know what the hell it's about, but we were just really kicking that day." If he only knew what the song was about though (laughs) ...

Did you work on this batch of material all together?

It's the way like any band works. Some of them are collective, some are brought in skeletal and some are brought in and I think they're done. But when I bring them to the band the arrangements always ultimately totally change, and usually for the better, because I make odd choices for placement. But then when those things change, the words change. Sometimes how things will be sung too, because it's all about the harmonies. This record, I had gone through a really heavy ... I had like post-traumatic stress disorder and I basically needed to work some of that out. The guys threw me 40 to 50% of the lyrical stuff. There's a lot of mixed stuff in there.

We did a really great record that sounds totally like the Cardinals. It's pretty much live on the floor. I think we did it in a really brave way. We did it raw and like we were doing a gig. We kind of knew the songs from rehearsal. But I was sort of under this contract with Lost Highway Records as a solo artist, and we basically had to do our last little compromises in how to throw it, you know? But after this, shit's going to get weird and awesome. Because we're into bands like Oasis and Foo Fighters: big, monolithic rock bands who really explore all those areas. That's what Cardinals is. That's what it is to me. That's the work I want to do. I kind of feel like my phase, the Ryan Adams phase of my life in terms of my name being on a record, has mellowed for me right now. That's really not on my mind. When I say my band, I mean like the band I'm in; the gang I'm in. The stuff we do communally is 10 times better than the stuff I come up with.

When you work up an old song, do you feel like it's a different song now with the Cardinals' touch on it?

I do. I do feel like we're celebrating an old song by making it new with the Cardinals. But also what we're doing is saying, hey, here's the song Joe wanted to hear. Say goodbye! There's no chains on the machine now. We're going to kick it out and it's going to be louder and more rock, and much more sophisticated than anybody probably expects. A lot of our work, song-wise, has been done in the lab. We haven't really exposed that yet. We know what our thing is going to be now.

What have you added back into the live rotation?

I think we recently added 45 songs back in. We have "the blueprint" and "the menu" and "the master list." The master, master list is too long to even explain. It's really ridiculous. We kind of have knowledge of every song, but we've moved things to the forefront that not only are melodically strong but just work all the way around. We're getting a handle on some of Neal's stuff. By the time we come around next time, it won't be weird for people to see total duets, complete split-up vocals or three-part stuff.

Also, the changing instruments thing really works for us. We all play several different things and are really digging on that. Neal and I both mess around with piano and keyboards, but Neal is an accomplished player and I play like a cat fell across the keyboard and ran. The black keys; the minors. I can still yank a tune out but when I take it to the jam it gets a bit canned for me. I think that would really come around.

Can I request some stuff from "Rock'N'Roll" when you get to New York?

"Rock'N'Roll." Last night I was bored and I recorded an acoustic version of that entire album. I'm not kidding. I got bored and sat around with my acoustic guitar and recorded the album front-to-back on Garageband.

Man, put that on your blog.

No way. I'm not putting that on my blog.

I want to hear it.

Yeah, well? I did it just to see if the songs are any good. "Wish You Were Here" done like James Taylor-style is really, really good. I remember when I made that record. It was really awesome. The record label was really happy with it. I got a couple of really funny one-liners in there. And then we got to put out "Love Is Hell," which is cool, because they thought that record was morbid, which it was. I was probably listening to too much Jesus & Mary Chain. But I really felt like Lost Highway got their money's worth on that record and "Love Is Hell."

How do you wind up grouping songs into an album track list when there are so many to choose from?

We don't make those decisions. I'm not part of that process. The band might be. We have a kick-ass manager and a lot of trust going there; they know better than we do. Instead of making dinner, we make a buffet, and we let them pick what they think should be dinner the next night. We make a sampler, taster menu, and they pick what they want for Thanksgiving.

I think it's way cooler that way. It's not weighing in. I have zero to do with the track listing. When the movie wraps, I walk. Because I come up with a lot of skeletal ideas, it wouldn't then be fair for me to say, this has to go or this can't go. That's not diplomatic or democratic. That's not how bands work. I do my part and I trust. It's going to sound weird, but I like playing just about anything. So I don't really have to pick.

I'm afraid I have to go. Do you think Billboard is going to be okay now that the recording industry is shot to hell? Hang in there, and remember, Les Paul copies only cost $60 to $100 so you can start rocking any time. Big props to Billboard magazine. I don't understand how you work or anything like that or what it means, but Neal and me and Brad say hi. We're going to jam now.