For our retrospective on Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac, we spoke with founder Ryan Adams via e-mail about the record and the band that made it.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: When's the last time you heard Strangers Almanac, or even a cut from it?
RYAN ADAMS: Honest I cannot remember. Probably sometime around the time after it was finished. Not for a long time.
Thinking about the album, is there anything you would change now, in terms of writing or recording or track selection?
No, not really. I never liked the album. I prefer the version we recorded with G. Elkins/ C. Stamey in Durham. I could never connect with the "band" that made Strangers. It was, in my opinion, not a representation of the band I was in. That being said, it was not in any way a reflection of the good work of J. Scott or the band. I suppose those ideas just did not survive, for me, the long process of recording. Also I was not very thrilled to be in the band at that point.
How does Jim Scott rank in your memory as a producer?
He is incredible. A fantastic engineer. And funny and very supportive. It might have been a different story had we sort of just headed his way when the songs were ready. but things moved rather fast for the band. It was a normal routine to demo a record and then record it in several different places back then, in order to spend as much money as possible perhaps. I don't pretend to be someone who survives artistically from a series of second guesses and flow charts.
Historically, there's been a lot of talk about pressure being on Whiskeytown to meet expectations with Strangers Almanac. Did you feel that? And, if so, was that more prevalent in writing the album and demoing it or actually recording it?
Ha. Now that is funny. There was no pressure. Maybe that is how it looked from the outside. But WT were, in our best day, all about dicking around and having fun. We were SO not a serious band. Still we had a thing that floated us through all that. There were bands at the time who worked VERY HARD at this very thing. The Backsliders, 6 String Drag (who were working on their first major label record at the time) who really really deserved the "crown" whatever that is. They knew the names of all the good bluegrass bands and could, you know, talk about country music history with authority. I mainly just wanted to please Skillet. Seriously, I LOVED his expression when I brought him something that made him really smile and get excited to play. It made me excited to play. And with Caitlin, I would stay up forever at night looking for the perfect words and chords to tunes that I knew would get her excited and also would be something emotionally provocative for her, as she was and is very well read. So there were always two wonderful things to work on for me, to play music with my friends.
When Skillet left (he quit the same day as Steve Grothmann (who I had little connection with really)) that was the second I knew it was more or less over. In spirit anyway. Not to take away anything from the others. After that it was just a series of compromises and really some sort of desperation that kept me working on the project. I thought maybe another situation would come along eventually that would give the project that same since of "a happy go lucky punk ass gang," you know. It did not happen.
Also, not meaning to disregard all the work Phil did for the band, but his dynamic mixed with mine could never be balanced without Skillet. It would be like saying Sadlack's could have worked without Michelob Dark Draft. It just wasn't scientifically possible.
I actually wrote "Inn Town" about that very thing in a way. I used Mac (WWAX/ Superchunk/ MERGE badass) "first known" 7 inch song as title for my own, in a weird way, referencing how I felt rather lost returning to Raleigh having made something I knew I did not believe in totally. Maybe it came off as a rip-off but at the time I was trying to slip in references to how it felt to be a fan of records making a record and being rather disappointed after it was all said and done. My own little sad tribute to how it used to be so grand to imagine making one of those thing myself I guess.
When you were writing and/or recording Strangers Almanac, did you ever think it would be the sort of album that warranted this double-disc treatment?
No way. I did not believe it would come out at all actually. There were more than a few things wrong with myself personally and our band was not communicating. I secretly wanted to quit and find Skillet and try to start the band we originally talked about, which, oddly, was really more about our shared influenceAmerican Music Club/ Gun Club/ Husker Du/ Bob Mould-Workbook/ Soul Asylum/ Replacements.
What's your most vivid memory, with regard to writing and recording Strangers Almanac?
Vivid. I have to say none of them are vivid. They are more like fogged rain windows or smoked glass. i remember more before all that. I was so sick from drink/drugs then and depression that I have trouble connecting. I used to think to myself a lot when we were playing or recording "make it stop." ... Or i would think about ways I could disappear and go home and not hurt anybody's feeling too much. Oh wait, I once remember playing pool upstairs at that wooden place above Hillsborough St and having fun. I don't remember who that was with though. Ha.
Anything especially frustrating in the studio while making this one?
A bit about the guests: When did you first meet Alejandro Escovedo and Greg Leisz?
I think I met Alejandro in Nashville maybe when he came to record. Maybe I met him briefly before that in Austin but you know, he is one of those guys, you meet him and you pick up where you left off from some other lifetime I imagine. He is very lovely but we were never that tight. I think other people put us in the same room like puppies, you know, like, "Let's put those two together and see what happens" kind of thing.
In several respects, from the lyrics about The Comet to the mood of the record in general, this seems like a record very connected to North Carolina, but it's also got a pace at some points that reflects living in New York. Do you think geography affected your writing on Strangers Almanac, and does it still?
Any book, any reference book, on writing, if it is over 50 pages, will have a chapter on "exploring local color." It is essential in translating personal meaning to the reader in verse. Just essential. You don't want to end up like Paul Auster writing a book on Mister Blue and Mister Brown for 300 pages. Of course you could go too far and end up like Alain Robbe Grillet and describe a boat pulling into a harbor for 20 some pages.
I like describing where I am and wishing I were to help create that sense of claustrophobia that comes along with being stuck inside your head all day. As for NC/NYC references, I knew very well I did not belong in Raleigh as there were more than enough people happy to remind me that also. And I never made any mystery my entire life that I would make my home here in Manhattan the minute it was possible. So there is certainly some of that in there.
If you had to hang your metaphorical hat on a song or lyric here, which would it be?
Rarely do I wear a hat but often am I engineering hooks.
And if you could forget one song or lyric here existed, which would it be?
Your released output now is certainly higher than it was then, but the bonus material and what¹s omitted even reflects a lot of work in a studio or in front of a microphone in general. Do you find recording to be a compulsive thing at this point?
When I worked at Wake Plumbing, I never felt it was compulsive for me to drill into concrete to lay down plumbing lines we had been late getting to. It was a means to an end. It was the way forward to get to a place where I could afford to live without working for a few months in the summer to write. So as being someone who lives and writes, I do not know anything else. It is exactly what I am and what I have always been.
I am compulsive only in letting myself be moved maybe too much by my life and the lives of others. I think this is a rather horrible and beautiful place to be, and there is always another mystery to be solved, be it emotionally or otherwise. I am rather compulsive about reading and watching Letterman. I am terribly upset if I am not at home in bed in time for Dave Letterman. And maybe Bahlsen Choco Leibniz buscuits.
In the No Depression feature from 1997, Peter Blackstock talks about the deal A&M was dangling in front of you as a solo artist. After having been a solo artist for a while now, do you think you should have taken it? What lessons did you carry away from sticking with the band for this and another record?
I was not going to let Caitlin down or the fact that she had left a life that was working for her at the University so that I could go down with the A&M label as a footnote on a roster of footnotes. That being said I respected the people at A&M greatly, and called some of them friends, but it was far out of their hands by that point what would be my fate there and I suspect on some level they knew that then and now. It would never have worked.
Also, I knew Skillet would come back eventually. Of course it was not the same as before, but that was my little hope, my fingers-crossed promise I kept to myself. ("Just keep it rolling, and he will return and we will laugh again.")
Do you ever miss this band? And do you ever miss this region?
No/no. No regrets. I am honored to have had those friends. I would not miss them the way I do now completely and laugh fully like I do sometimes thinking of the past if I did not have the ability to let it go.