Q&A: Adam Ant on Returning to Music From Bipolar Disorder

Rolling Stone
Adam Ant performs at the Best Buy Theater in New York City.
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Adam Ant performs at the Best Buy Theater in New York City. Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Adam Ant was once one of the biggest stars in pop music. After starting out as frontman for the new wave group Adam and the Ants, the singer went solo in 1982 with Friend or Foe, which spawned the smash single "Goody Two Shoes." And his success went well beyond the charts, as he became a staple of MTV for his dapper, charismatic video persona.

As with many artists who hit the big time, he enjoyed an up-and-down ride, occasionally hitting the Top 40 again, with "Room at the Top" in 1990 and 1995's "Wonderful." But the album Wonderful was the last record Ant would make for 17 years.

At the end of the tour for that album, as Ant tells Rolling Stone, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After nearly two decades of non-stop touring and trying to remain "top dog," Ant began taking medication, battling his illness and living a real life.

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Last year, he slowly reemerged in the U.S. with a handful of sold-out dates and a strong new album, Adam Ant Is the Blueback Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter. That's just the beginning of his return to music, he says. The singer will return to the U.S. later this year for more dates, and he is already thinking of new material.

Ant talked to us about coming back to music, the new album, Muhammad Ali and becoming a public face for bipolar disorder.

For many artists who take long breaks, there often becomes a desire to make up for lost time. Will we see you much more active in touring, and are you already working on new music?
Yeah. I was playing live solidly through from 1977 to pretty much '90, really, and by the time I took a break from it, it was a welcome break. There were other things to do in life. But I think coming back to it now, you kind of appreciate how much you miss doing it. I'm back in the swing of things, really.

Were you pleasantly surprised and did it help motivate you to find you still had such a strong audience?
Yeah. I didn't take anything for granted. About two and a half years ago I just stripped down my songs to acoustic and started playing for friends on my own. And then I went back to some of the smaller clubs that I played during the punk days, the 100 Club and the Electric Ballroom and stuff. I made a conscious decision to come with performances first and tour first before putting the album out. That seemed to me to be paramount. And it seems to have paid off somewhat with the response to the record, and I was just absolutely delighted at the reaction in the U.S.A. after so much time away, because you can't take anything for granted. I was very touched by that, really.

That's also because the songs, going as far back as "Dog Eat Dog" and "Antmusic," still hold up today. Did that surprise you at all?
Thank you. I think it's just avoiding repeating yourself on the songwriting side. It does tend to be a bit of a temptation, with a string of hit records, to lock into a formula, and I've always tried to avoid that pretty much album to album – changing the sound and the approach to it. I'm just continuing that process. This album is a bit more eclectic, because it's taken longer to put together and I've worked with close friends of mine, co-writers Boz Boorer and Chris McCormack, who have both got studios in their home. And I just always envisioned this record as being a double-sided vinyl, so that's probably why, side for side, each song sounds different from each other.

How much did that come from the fact you have so much life experience to draw from?
Normally you don't have the time to really draw on that much autobiography. I've written an autobiography in my time out of music, which was a worthwhile and very challenging exercise to do. And I think it kind of seeped over into this record, because I suddenly thought there were times in my life that really no one knows about. No one knew I lived in Tennessee – I hadn't told anybody. I think the best way of putting that across was in a song. Normally you're on a kind of rollercoaster of album, tour, album, tour. So this is very different for me, and in a way it does come across as quite autobiographical. It's almost like a kind of novel over the course of the songs.

Were there things that emerged in the writing that surprised you or made you rethink your experiences?
Musically, I kind of went right back to the beginning. The first thing I learned as a young musician was I learned how to play the blues and then got into rock & roll from that. So musically it was going all the way back to the start. I had an opportunity to listen to great singers like Marvin Gaye, and a lot of the vocal attitude for this came from experimental things I'd not really done before. It was quite a relaxed feel to the record because I had the time to enjoy it. All along, I tried changing the sound and look of each record whilst trying to stay commercially viable, to avoid getting into a formula that sounds the same, but slightly modified. The difference between "Goody Two Shoes," which was really the first record I hit with in America, and Kings and Dirk [Wears White Sox] and Prince Charming is quite radical. This is really looking back on everything, and the look on this album is a nod back to Kings of the Wild Frontier – looking at that character, imagining what he would look like 30 years later. So even the characters have matured somewhat.

Did you feel less pressure having been away so long?
There's always the welcome pressure of a certain competitiveness, but there wasn't the kind of incessant chart pressure – "This week, you're number three," or number two. I'm behind that now, and I feel comfortable. I just want to make an album of different stories, if you like, drawing upon experiences that I've discussed many times in interviews. But I think the best way of answering certain questions is actually in a song, which allows the audience to make their own interpretations. I think it's quite a traditional record in that respect, but I've never really had the luxury of allowing myself to do that.

Were there songs of your own, deeper cuts, that became reference points for tracks on this album?
Some of the tracks are songs that I'd written a while ago. The dedication to Malcolm McLaren, "Who's a Goofy Bunny," I'd written way, way back, but I'm very close friends with Malcolm's two sons, Ben and Joe, so when Malcolm died I went into the studio shortly after to record the songs as a dedication to Malcolm. There was never a surplus of songs with me – when I was writing before, a lot of the early B-sides on Adam and the Ants singles, the successful ones, were songs that I'd played way back in '77 and hadn't thought worthy of being recorded because they were very punky. But I put them on the B-sides quite deliberately, and they picked up a kind of momentum of their own. Together with Dirk Wears White Sox, which was quite an independent-sounding art school album, it brought another life into it. So I never waste any songs. Any songs I have written I do plan to release in the future, but it's just the appropriate time and whether we're going to rework it completely or put it out as it was originally recorded. Sometimes an eight-track demo or four-track demo recorded in your room in Earl's Court in 1977 would have a certain appeal, but that's got to be the right time and the right occasion.

Have you found by talking about your issues with being bipolar that it's made a deeper connection with fans who appreciate your candor?
Yeah. I think the feedback has been extraordinary, really. I think the whole subject of bipolar disorder is in its infancy in terms of the public being aware it is an illness and not a disease, and not a kind of terminal thing where you have to feel shame. I think creative people, even going back to Winston Churchill, tend to come to it because they kind of have to make their living from abstract ideas, and it's not like going in and doing a job. It's actually a broad problem. I haven't really met a family who hasn't got a family member who hasn't suffered from something of this nature, like bipolar disorder. And it's been swept under the carpet. But I think there's an obligation to express it, not only in song, which I've done on a couple of occasions on the album, but with the media.

It took a long time for the industry to openly discuss addiction. Do you think the industry is now at the point where they can discuss illness in the same way?
I think so. Certainly rock & roll has always appealed to a kind of younger audience, and I think that is where a lot of the issues lie. [There are] certainly the pressures of modern life for young kids. I've got a 15-year-old daughter, and she has to do examinations. I remember the first instances I had of pressure or feeling bad were the pressure of examinations and wanting to do well in exams to satisfy your parents. So it's something with such a great taboo. In Great Britain the idea is there's only one thing worse than the poor house, and that was the mad house. But the medications are available now to really help the condition, and also it's a very, very complex subject. But the research will make this something hopefully more easily cured one day. I've got faith in that. I definitely think it's something that will help, but I'm very fortunate inasmuch as being able to write music and perform, it is a great therapeutic thing for me.

How did you discover it was bipolar, and not just the eccentricities of being an artist that people really encourage?
Bipolar, the term itself, means up and down, extremes, light and dark. I think any good songwriter has to draw on both – otherwise the music's going to be pretty boring. So sometimes you have to search inside yourself to go to some pretty dark places to produce the work. So I think that's why writers and creative people do succumb to it, because they have to go a bit deeper. But the first time I ever heard the term bipolar was in New York City at the end of the Wonderful tour in 1995, when I was told that I had contracted acute mononucleosis from drinking some water at a gig in Mexico. And one of the unfortunate symptoms of mononucleosis is a kind of depression. You get into a state where you literally can't get out of bed, you can't move. So unfortunately I did contract that at the time, and that was the first time I actually heard the term. But since then I've been fortunate enough to work with some very good medical people, who advised me to try and learn as much about the condition as I can in order to help them with either prescribing medication, or at least knowing what the medication is doing to those parts of the brain that need help. In my case a lot of it is due to overwork, stress and just not stopping. I did not stop from work 1980 until the mid-Nineties. It was like 24/7, and that's not a sensible thing to do. But nobody could've stopped me. There's that burning desire to create and be top dog, I suppose.

What advice would you have for young artists?
I would advise them to always be able to play live. Start live, play live, do as many live concerts as you can. My heroes are people like Muhammad Ali, so my approach is a bit like an athlete. And that really helped me as a musician, because as an athlete would train, I think being in a band is training. Going out on stage and doing two hours work live is training. Every night is a marathon.

Did you ever get to meet Ali?
I did, yeah. I queued up outside a book shop in Los Angeles for two hours and I met the great man himself, and had a very nice moment with him, and it was well worth the wait. Without Muhammad Ali and that example I think my life would have been pretty different. My whole work regime and my approach to things would have been different. I grew up in quite a wonderful generation in terms of heroic characters, as it was in the space program – that's been a great influence in my work, too. I've dedicated this album, part of it, to Neil Armstrong, because I think these very brave people, they were breaking frontiers all the time. Certainly with Ali in sport, he just changed it socially as much as in the sports world. He had the courage and the confidence, but he could always back it up with the boxing. It was always there. He could say something and then follow it up. I think that's a good thing to employ in music.

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