Summarising Adam Stafford is a difficult task. I don’t necessarily mean ‘genre’, but rather those generic words us music writers sometimes switch out an artist’s name for so that features don’t sound like a court summons. Referring to “the Falkirk-born singer” is to write off a tremendous amount of what he does, while “performer” hardly works in the context of an album review. There’s “songwriter” of course, but it sounds so incredibly reductive. At the Glasgow launch show for his new album, Imaginary Walls Collapse, Stafford ended the night with a ten-minute monster of a track from Awnings, his 2009 experimental a capella album. Ingenious use of loop pedals meant that this auditory beast, which had built and built over minutes to stun the audience with a noise as wild and intense as being lost in the jungle, had been created from nothing more but layered vocal loops. We’d have applauded far more raucously if we hadn’t all just been stunned by something quite spectacular.
And yet, had it not been for the encouraging words of Matthew and Ian at Edinburgh’s Song, By Toad – which released Stafford’s latest album in mid-July – we might not have got to experience it at all. “Those guys talked me off the ledge a wee bit,” Stafford admits over a drink at just before the release of the album. “I was getting to sick of the merry-go-round that is being a DIY artist: playing the same places and not really picking up any more fans. It takes a lot of work to build a reputation, and it doesn’t happen instantly. I was having something of a crisis of confidence.”
Luckily for music fans, whatever was said worked. Imaginary Walls Collapse – a joint release from Song, By Toad and Vancouver’s Kingfisher Bluez – is one of the most extraordinary albums you are likely to hear this year. Although musically, the album is less challenging a listen than some of Stafford’s previous releases – not least that experimental a capella album – that doesn’t mean it is simplistic. Stafford calls on more additional musicians than ever before including guest vocalists Siobhan Wilson and Anna Miles, members of Zoey van Goey and Over the Wall and longtime collaborator Robbie Lesiuk – but rather than create any sense of a traditional band these contributions are chopped, looped and sampled to serve the artist’s twisted vision. Live, Stafford tends to be more of a solo performer – although both Wilson and Lesiuk joined him at the Glasgow show – so it comes as little surprise when he tells me that much of the recording process consists of blending parts together using the computer as a loop station rather than performing the songs live.
Technology is such a vital part of how Stafford performs that you’d expect his live performances to be as clinical as they are technically awe-inspiring, but as anybody who has seen him live would tell you the reality couldn’t be more different. Stafford tells me that he still uses the same five pedals that accompanied him through much of his previous musical adventure as the frontman of alternative folk outfit Y’all Is Fantasy Island, including the same loop pedal that KT Tunstall once wowed a nation and created a career with on Jools Holland. But from these tools comes a performance that is intense, emotional, unsettling and entertaining.
“I made the decision a few years ago that every gig I played was going to be a spectacle,” Stafford explains. “I was thinking about those performers whose stage act is like theatre – Tom Waits, David Bowie, David Byrne. I decided that I’d wear a shirt and tie, even though the support bands would probably be in jeans and t-shirts, because I think that that way you give out a different message that you can build into a different persona. Psychologically. It’s hard to describe…”
“It’s pantomime, essentially. But obviously there are elements of me in it too. I find it easier to get a bit more wild on stage, because you’re hiding behind the music. I suppose it’s like what theatre actors do: they’re immersed in this world, and although it is a version of them it’s not the ‘real’ them that they are projecting when they are playing a character.”
Stafford’s musical life began “in the same way that everybody starts” – playing in a few terrible punk bands as a teenager. From there he “drifted” into a collective of Falkirk musicians, who billed themselves as an improv collective called the Chuck Norris Machine. Stafford remembers the first of the two gigs that the troupe ever played; in the long-since demolished Falkirk equivalent of one of the bars from Patrick Swayze’s Roadhouse, complete with a huge Harley-Davidson in a glass cabinet in the centre of the room. An early, ignominious claim to fame was getting barred from the place, after playing an hour’s improv set to an audience of nine.
Y’all is Fantasy Island formed after the Chuck Norris Machine went their separate ways. Stafford had begun writing his own material, and forming a band with some other former Norrisers was a logical next step. The group released four critically-acclaimed albums, including an album of instrumental film soundtracks, before calling it a day in 2011.
“I think I still write the same,” Stafford says, when I ask him whether his approach to songwriting has changed now that he is releasing material under his own name rather than the less-exposed cover of a band. “Well, I don’t write songs that are the same as the songs that I wrote when I was 23, but they definitely come from the same place. I think if you ask any artist they’ll probably say that their writing has changed progressively throughout the years.”
“These last two, three albums I’ve been using the loop pedal and writing songs in that way, so there is less focus on having verses and choruses and having the music change. Perhaps the vocal melodies will change, or the guitars change, while the music stays the same throughout,” he says.
Using the pedals, Stafford says, can be both liberating and restrictive. It’s a process he likens to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a film that the director shot predominantly in one location and as close to one continuous take as possible. “I think he said afterwards that he didn’t think that the film was a big success artistically, but he loved working within that really restrictive framework,” he says.
“The main loop pedal that I use only allows me to put down just under 30 seconds, and I find the restriction of that really good because it makes me try to be a little more disciplined in what I do and what I add after that,” he said. “But then the other pedal, the tape echo simulator, is just a beast to use because unless you know how to tame it it can get really wild and psychedelic. I fin it both liberating and repressive to a certain extent, but I think that that repression is good because I think artists sometimes need limitations.”
Songs that sit outside of the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, and the use of loops and vocal experiments, mean that lyrics are almost an afterthought in Stafford’s compositions – something that he readily admits to. “I find lyrics quite a chore to be honest,” he admits. “They tend to be the last thing I do. I usually come up with the music and the vocal melody, and then I try to squeeze the words into that – and half the time they end up coming out as abstract nonsense that don’t mean a thing. It’s probably a reflection of the fact that I like abstract lyrics myself: something that you can listen to over and over again and pin different meanings to each time.”
“I suppose, in the early days, there used to be some kind of catharsis where I was trying to exorcise demons or whatever – the first Y’all Is Fantasy Island album was really, really personal. The lyrics on the new one are mostly direct reactions to things that are happening in the world, and on the news: the songs ‘Imaginary Walls Collapse’ and ‘Invisible Migration’ are about how displaced people have become after the financial crisis, and how we seem to be bowing down a lot to people who don’t really represent us or care for us. But there are little personal bits in there too,” he says.
As the success Stafford deserves starts to beckon – the partnership with Kingfisher Bluez seems set to introduce his work to a continent’s worth of new fans, while the backing of Song, By Toad got the album’s first single “Please” airplay from BBC6 Music – the musician (musician! that’ll do!) shows no signs of slowing down. Songs for the next record have been written already, he tells me, and while he has no intention of saturating the market with more music before the last album has a chance to bed down there’s plenty going on in Stafford’s world to keep him busy. Wise Blood Industries, Stafford’s own independent label, will release the debut album by Falkirk alt.country band Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo later this month (a split EP featuring both the band and Stafford himself was released on orange cassette by the label last year). Stafford is also an award-winning filmmaker, and is currently seeking festival listing for No Hope for Men Below, an “ambient retelling” of the 1923 Redding Pit mining disaster with words by poet Janet Paisley.
In the meantime, you can catch Stafford at one of the live dates he has coming up.
24/08 Glasgow, 13th Note (Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo album launch)
14/09 Edinburgh, Voodoo Rooms
05/10 Glasgow, Platform (Eastern Promise festival)
12/10 Aberdeen, Cellar 35