The world of popular music can at times resemble an old-fashioned battleground, littered with the dead, damaged and the traumatised, the disaffected running off to seek a quieter life and only the very lucky surviving intact enough to fight on. Brett Adams and Dianne Swann, the highly in demand duo who are The Bads, have had their fair share of adversarial skirmishes but continue to fight for recognition of their alt-country music. Mark Bell talked with the couple about caring less and maintaining a working musical relationship.
With the completion of ‘Travel Light’, their third album as The Bads, Brett Adams and Dianne Swann have written another chapter in a story that pre-dates even the 12 years they spent in London, battling for recognition in that toughest of tough music scenes.
It’s hard enough for the UK locals, so merely to survive for that long can be seen as some sort of triumph. But they did much more than that, supporting many top bands, touring with Radiohead, headlining their own shows and ultimately being signed to the UK wing of Almo Sounds, the label Jerry Moss and Herb Albert established after selling A&M Records for moonbeams.
Without going into too much painful detail, Almo Sounds was abruptly and unexpectedly wound up with their album only weeks away from release. It was a crushing turn of events that saw the pair return to New Zealand soon after – with a fairly jaundiced view of the music industry – and questioning whether they even wanted to continue making music.
Time has a way of smoothing over the rough edges of course, and England’s loss has become New Zealand’s gain. Brett and Dianne have applied the same tenacity and focus that served them so well overseas to carving out a niche for themselves and their country-inflected music back on home soil.
It was 2009 when I last interviewed the talented two-some, as they were about to release their second Bads’ offering ‘So Alive’. So it has been a while between drinks you could say, but with their third album, ‘Travel Light’, about to drop their enthusiasm and passion for making music seems to be undiminished. I get things rolling by asking whether there were any lessons learnt from their previous release that may have made for smoother sailing this time around.
“I think being less worried about everything in so many ways helps,” offers Dianne. “Like getting older and having done this for a long time, you worry less because you just don’t care anymore! And I mean that in a really good way. You care how it sounds but you don’t care as much what other people think, you just want to do something that you’re really happy with.
“Release-wise I think we were determined that we really could… that we know enough now to actually put it out ourselves,” she continues. “That it just means a bit of work. But we really know what we want and music-wise we also felt we wanted to have a lot of space and energy, that we didn’t actually want to spend too much time on parts.”
They didn’t either, knocking off the bulk of the tracking over a couple of week-long sessions at The Lab studios in Auckland, with resident knob-twiddler Olly Harmer at the desk. Production duties were spread between Brett, Dianne and longtime friend, collaborator and drummer Wayne Bell.
“A lot of the time it was just me, Wayne and Brett,” says Dianne. “So between the three of us we’d get the core of the songs down and then we’d get other people in.”
Those other people include electric and upright bassist Mike Hall (Night Choir, ex-Pluto) and multi-instrumentalist Dave Kahn (banjo, mandolin, violin, accordion and guitar) who has also become a regular (and very useful) addition to The Bads’ line-up. Another guesting on the album is go-to man Ben King (Grand Rapids, ex-Goldenhorse), who added a little extra vocal colour to the superbly arranged and executed backing vocals, always such an important aspect of The Bads’ recorded sound.
“One song we really thought needed a three-part harmony,” explains Brett. “But we needed another voice, a different sound, so we got him in for that and he sort of cuts through in the middle. Ben’s amazing because the harder he pushes it, the higher he tries to go, the better he sounds. He just sounds amazing when he’s at his limit.”
“The first song we got him to do was California, the first ‘sort of single but not really single’, and he just got there,” continues Dianne. “We got him to do this really hard, high vocal and unfortunately I think we broke him a little, but it sounds great!”
Listening to any Bads’ record, or indeed seeing them live as a duo, trio (with Kahn) or full band, Brett Adam’s endlessly inventive and stylish guitar playing is sure to make an impression. Other top musicians have not been slow to notice this, he’s an in-demand sideman who has worked with Tim Finn for a number of years and does guitar duties for the irrepressible and upwardly mobile Gin Wigmore when she is performing down under. (Dianne is likewise highly regarded as a backing vocalist and has become a regular add-on to the Opshop line up.)
I mention to Brett that this extra-curricular work must be a mixed blessing; good in that it provides useful income, but less so with the demands it places on his availability to gig and record with The Bads. Compound that with the fact that the rest of the band are also busy working musicians with their own careers to maintain, and the difficulties of getting all their ducks in a row for gigging and recording are plain to see.
“Yeah, we’ve had to put stuff off,” he admits. “And when I’ve gone on tour we’ve had to put things on hold a bit, which is slightly annoying, but it’s what I’ve had to do. Sometimes I’ve been thinking I’ve got to make a choice, if I wanna do this I’ve just gotta not be a sideman. But it’s good when it works out, and lately it has really worked out and I’m so happy that we’ve got this time.”
With Gin currently in the US and Tim Finn gigging less while he applies himself to writing musicals (he has two under his belt – ‘White Cloud’ and ‘Poor Boy’) a good-sized window of opportunity for promoting their new album has presented itself. They plan to grab it with both hands, with gigs planned through March.
Perhaps as a response to the vagaries of availability of the full line-up, and no doubt the expense of moving a five-piece around the country, Brett and Dianne have worked up duo versions of their material, often augmented by Kahn, which has proven an ideal vehicle for exploring some of the smaller population centres without incurring too many costs.
These off-the-beaten-track experiences are often the most memorable in a touring musician’s life. Speaking as one who has played Stewart Island (twice) and the Chatham Islands, I can attest that there has not been a big city gig that could hold a candle to either place in terms of hospitality, scenery, friendliness and unique experiences. Not to mention crayfish… In short, they’re memorable in a way that just another urban conglomeration will never be. I can tell that Dianne feels the same way as she talks about a small festival they played along with Finn recently, by the shores Lake Rotoiti.
“We played two shows with the three-piece and it was so much fun, and just meeting those people that have developed their lives around something like Lake Rotoiti, I really, really love it. You meet such great people and you get to see some amazing things and stay in some great places.”
It’s the sort of touring that stokes up the feel-good bank account in ways that shouldn’t be underestimated. Playing pared-back live versions of their songs has also thrown up some unexpected benefits, which have paid off in the studio when it came time to push the red button, as Dianne explains.
“Playing as a trio or duo kind’a helps because you have to have the parts… it’s just the two of you holding it together so we actually do hone down the guitar parts a lot more in that way. You sort of have to have precision – that helped with a lot of stuff really. We’ve really developed a love for doing the songs in a more stripped back way, it’s such a different thing.”
Their songwriting seems to have taken a step up since the last album; to my ears anyway there’s a greater stylistic breadth across the 11 tracks of ‘Travel Light’, more of a willingness to step outside conventional song structures. It also seems to find them embracing some darker themes, albeit in a generally upbeat way.
“I think possibly some of the songs that have come about since the last album – the world’s taken a bit of a turn in a lot of ways,” notes Dianne. “It’s become a bit more serious, there’s been a lot of dark things happening. There’s a lot of poverty and personally there’s been a lot of stuff in our lives that kind of brings you back to reality quite quickly, like my mum dying. I think yeah, the songs are reflecting that. That’s how I feel anyway.”
As a co-habiting couple making music together, it seems natural that most of the songs on the album should be co-writes, although they do write separately. It was those songs that were the most difficult to choose when it came to a final track list. They can’t really take a vote, so how did they make those difficult decisions?
“We were happy with the co-writes so the body of the album would be made up of that. The problem was actually selecting the solo writes that we’ve both got quite a lot of, and you know that you don’t get to record that often, but it was mainly what we thought the album needed. We left those ones to choose till the end.
“But you have to say that we really do care about music, so when you work with anybody you’re going to come up against… If something’s worth keeping it’s worth fighting for and we fight about music and everybody knows that! We don’t throw things but…”
“Killer looks…” offers Brett.
I can’t help wondering (out loud) when you live and write and travel and gig together, whether musical couples need to find strategies to keep their professional and private lives separate to some degree, if only to prevent worldly stresses following them home like some unwanted pet and ruining any relaxation time. (Though I think I already know the answer to that one.)
“We have been together for a long time,” says Dianne. “And for as long as we’ve been together we’ve been playing, which definitely has its disadvantages but we really don’t know life any other way as two people together.”
“We don’t really keep it separate though, music, work and personal life, adds Brett, “There’s no strict, ‘Now music time’ It’s not like that, unfortunately, that’s probably the wise thing to do!”
Dianne takes up the baton again.
“So yeah, we’re probably totally dysfunctional, but the advantages are you get to enjoy the same thing, you get to travel together and it’s actually quite hard for the person being at home if you’re out playing with a band because, you know, it’s a lot of fun and you can’t pretend that it’s not.
“I’ve seen a lot of relationships break up with musicians and their partners because of that, and we actually get to experience some great things together, and the feeling of doing a great gig together is really fantastic and recording a great song – it’s a great thing. So it definitely has its downsides, but definitely has its ups too.”