Thanks so much to Adam Dennis for the interview! Also I would like to thanks my friend Jessel that got me in touch with him. The Jordans are a great Australian band that have released two albums so far and many songs on compilations all over the world. Adam has also been involved in “ad”, “The Sugargliders”, “Captain Cocoa” and “The Steinbecks”, so you can tell the quality of his songs. So if you haven’t listened some of his fab music, maybe this is a good time to do so!
++ Hi Adam! Thanks so much for being up for the interview. I would like to start by the first song I’ve ever listened by you, “Mystified”. I still play it often and I think there’s something ‘mystifying’ about it actually. I was wondering if you could tell me the story behind this one song?
The lyrics were trying to capture several moods in one song. “Let’s run away” reflects that persistent urge to go somewhere else, experience something new and escape from today’s responsibilities. The song notes that everyone wants to change the world – and we do. Not necessarily for the better, just to suit ourselves. The thing is that the world is huge and troublesome, and it never does what we ask. Towards the end the lyrics ask “when you’re thrown out of the nest do you learn to fly or fall?”; I’m talking here about my own ability to quickly respond to challenges and land on my feet. That’s something I seem to face all the time. Ultimately the song proclaims that I’m mystified about life in general … but I have some values that will see me through. Ultimately it’s a love song, and a promise to do the right thing by someone even though I know I’ll never understand how the world works.
++So how did The Jordans came about? Who were The Jordans? It started as a three-piece band, right?
I actually can’t remember if the three-piece lineup came at the start. There’s every chance that I conceived of The Jordans first, and then later convinced a couple of musician friends to record something with me and play some shows. One of the drivers for presenting music as a band is that the music I write is more than just a guitar and a voice, it’s band music with drums and bass and all. I’m also a team player, and I thought that I’d like to have different lineups from time to time. Also, it’s not as if I’m a handsome guy with nice hair, so I’m probably best suited to presenting myself as part of a group, and make sure the other guys are better-looking!
++ And which “Jordan” did you pay tribute with the name? Not Michael Jordan, right?
Ha, no, paying tribute to a sports star would be a highly unlikely thing for me to do; especially an American one. No, I named the band after Louis Jordan, the great innovator, entertainer, songwriter and performer of the first half of the 20th century. The appeal of his music is enduring, and he could be incredibly funny but also touching. All of that is something to emulate – I believe music has a role in connecting with people and being uplifting, and Louis Jordan epitomised that.
++ Also on your biography it says you weren’t good but played and enjoyed two or three gigs. What do you remember of these gigs?
At the time I felt a great ownership of the music, and my original bandmates – Anton and Andy – were participating to help me out rather than through a deep commitment to the band or the music. They were – and are – good guys, but it wasn’t seriously their thing. Having only a few gigs – and not a lot of rehearsal – to bring it together meant that it felt rough and uncertain. I couldn’t relax into the performance knowing the rest of the music would look after itself. The feel of the band was fun though, and we enjoyed being silly. I remember doing one song – “Soul To Sea” – where I played and sang, and I had Andy play a solo on the recorder. I’m sure that Andy had never played recorder before, so I always ended up with a totally random solo, and everyone in the audience would laugh, as would we. I’ve never been one for playing covers in my own work, but I do recall that we did a Housemartins cover. My voice isn’t as high as Paul Heaton’s, but I muddled through. People responded well but I knew that this wasn’t the time or the lineup to continue with. I let it lapse and moved on.
++ But then you kept this name for your solo stuff. Why did you make that decision? You had already did some stuff just under AD. I remember that elusive 7″ I can never get on eBay for example. Why not use AD again?
I think of The Jordans as a separate entity from me. Even though I do spend a lot of time as a solo Jordan, I see the band’s music as having a flavour that transcends me and is different from other music that I think of as my solo material. Lots of people have called me “a.d.” for years, so it’s just one of my names. One of the reasons I haven’t released more music as “AD” is that when I write my name I don’t use upper-case anymore. It’s always “a.d.” … perhaps this is a conscious effort to tame my ego.
++ You usually recorded on a 4-track. I was wondering what advantages or disadvantages you had by doing so?
Yes, I bought that TASCAM 4-track for $850 back in 1982. I was very attached to it. In the first couple of years I would write songs and record my vocals again and again until they were bearable. Some songs I would do 100 takes on. Those songs never really saw the light of day because back in those days my singing was terrible. But those repeated takes helped me learn about singing, and eventually I could sing without being overly self-critical. As time went on, I started to get better and better results out of the four-track. I would record three tracks and carefully bounce those down onto the fourth track, then record three more. Six tracks can give good results if you’re really careful … and if you’re using a drum machine. I have come to believe that working within limitations encourages good art. There’s a painter in Melbourne who did a series where she confined herself to crimson paint on a black background. Sounds trashy, but she found ways to create beauty and meaning within that constraint. Similarly, limiting songwriting to what could be created on four tracks was a powerful inspiration for me. I listen to “Katydid” now and I’m amazed that those songs were produced from such a limited system – it’s not lo-fi at all.
++ I’m always impressed with Australian bands that tend to sound a bit like the great 80s janglepop from UK. Maybe it was just pure coincidence, but what were your influences?
As a teenager I started with Pink Floyd and Aussie band Skyhooks. The ‘Hooks were a rock band that made great pop music, referencing Australian places and themes. Then, after dabbling with early punk, I moved on to Talking Heads and Midnight Oil. I loved the energy of the Heads on ’77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. The Oils were something else, however. Their performances just blew me away, they captured something that gripped my soul with its power. Again, they talked about Australian places and culture. Next it was ska – The Specials, The Selecter, Madness. I was in a ska band for a while. Then Captain Cocoa approached me to replace their trumpet player, and I fell under the spell of indiepop. It would be fair to say that the local indiepop kids directly influenced me, so the UK influence was second-hand. I did end up with a good collection of albums from the Sarah catalogue, and I always liked Edwyn Collins, but that came after I found the elements of indiepop that worked for me. So … it wasn’t quite coincidence, but janglepop wasn’t a direct influence on my sound at the time.
++ And how did you love Melbourne? What were your favourite bands back then? Do you think there was nice scene happening in the early nineties there?
I loved Melbourne in the 80’s. I saw lots of bands for all of that decade. Early on, we’d go to the Jump Club and see The Models or Do-Re-Mi. There was such an experimental element around at the time. It was great, but a lot of the time it was a bit intellectual for me. Later I was into ska because the local ska bands were great fun. The energy, that feeling of being compelled to dance, was heady stuff for me. When I fell in with Captain Cocoa and The Sugargliders I was exposed to a bunch of great little bands that often came and went in the space of a few months, and I enjoyed this sometimes-fragile music that was often compellingly confessional. The late 80’s and early 90’s were an especially good time for new bands and new sounds. It felt like it would never end.
++ That first The Jordans release was a tape on the Red Roses For Me fanzine. How did Steve Genge heard from you guys? I heard The Sugargliders had to do with it?
This is taxing my memory a bit. I had a track on a Mind The Gap compilation, I think Steve got in touch after that. I’m sure I have a copy of that tape around here somewhere. I got some studio time with Anton and Andy, thought we would do a high-quality release for RR4Me. Recorded four or five songs, but the mixes were terrible. I swear they were sped-up. Ultimately only one track on the tape was of the band, the rest were my 4-track recordings, as they were much better than the studio-quality tracks. Ironic. Early in the 2K’s Steve Genge got back in touch and asked for a Jordans track to put on a compilation CD he was releasing. It was lovely to renew that connection a decade later.
++ Talking of which, you produced lots of their stuff and well, later you were part of The Steinbecks. I’ll try to stick to The Jordans on this interview, but I wanted to ask how did you enjoy producing The Sugargliders and how did you knew them?
The Sugargliders supported Captain Cocoa at the Punters Club one night. Josh Meadows approached me because he’d heard that I had a 4-track and knew how to use it. Josh was maybe 19, Joel was 16 at the time. They started coming around to my flat, and ultimately we recorded a lovely little tape entitled Crime & Punishment (Jumping Someone Else’s Bandwagon). There were some gorgeous songs on there, some evocative lyrics. This was before Josh played guitar. I really wanted to be a part of what they were doing because I knew these guys would evolve into something interesting. I felt like ‘other’ member of The Sugargliders as I was involved in every recording session but one, and I was their live sound mixer as well. At most gigs I’d mix their set, then get up on stage for the last couple of songs and add trumpet or another guitar and vocals. The scariest but most satisfying night was their final show at The Club (formerly the Jump Club) in 1993, I guess it was. They played material from before the Sarah releases, right up to the last singles they’d put out. All the lineups were there, but of course it was Josh and Joel who were the core, the heart and soul of the band. By the time of that show we’d already started recording the first Steinbecks album. It was far more collegiate. I still listen to that album and hear something special. I wasn’t a member of Steinbecks Mark II, but we’ve stayed in touch and I’ve played trumpet bits on a few of their albums. They’re recording a new album right now – as am I – and Josh and I meet up at the railway station in Melbourne to chat and share work-in-progress songs. We give each other very honest and constructive feedback; it’s a great relationship to have and of course it’s lasted a long, long time now.
++ Anyhow, let me get back on track. Some years later you released your first album, “Katydid”. I believe it was 1997, and the tape was released in 1991. Before asking you about the album, I wanted to ask, what happened with The Jordans during those 6 years? I’m pretty sure you were writing songs!
Through that part of the 90’s I was involved with the Sugargliders then the Steinbecks … and was in a ska/rockabilly band as well. Sometimes I’d be playing or rehearsing four or five nights a week. I was also heavily involved in my day job, too. That left only limited time for The Jordans. But yes, I was writing and recording all that time. In a sense it was a brilliant opportunity to work slowly and really refine my music.
++ So alright, Sonorama Records listens an 8 track demo and decides to release you. Did you send him that demo? And how important was this label for you? Were there any other offers?
Huh, that cassette was called “eight”. Lower-case again! And it wasn’t a demo, it was something I put together as much for my new love (now my wife) as much for Dan at Sonorama. Dan approached me with the idea of putting out a single, and when he got the cassette he couldn’t pick two songs from it. He suggested that if we added a few songs it’d be an album. When he asked how that sounded as an idea, I was so excited. It felt like a new lease of life, a recognition that The Jordans was something far bigger than my spare bedroom. At around the same time Josh and Joel had re-started The Steinbecks with a new lineup, and I welcomed an opportunity that took my focus away from feeling left out of their new work. Sonorama was a mighty little label because Dan was a true enthusiast. He wanted to do the album properly, as did I. I shelled out for serious mixing time to get the best out of my recordings, and Dan reciprocated by paying for a yellow CD case to match the artwork, and a proper booklet inside the case. I liked the whole package of that CD, it was very satisfying.
++ Did you name the album because of the insect called katydid by the way?
The lead song is “katydid”, which is mixes a pun on the Susan Coolidge book “what katy did”, and the name of the insect. When I took the cover shots, I included a cheap plastic cicada-lookalike insect because I didn’t have a clue what an actual katydid looked like.
++ After this album you got Shane Hill to work with you and start recording on a 16 track studio. How did these changes affected your traditional methods and the sound of The Jordans? Was it easy to adapt?
Shane and I go back a long, long way. Shane was the lighting guy for my first band when I was 16. He was cooler than most of the guys in the band. Later we formed our own band, and he was the singer. I remember he and I sneaking into the big music shop in Melbourne with a huge sheet of paper, taking a Stratocaster off the rack and tracing around it. Shane then made an incredible Strat copy out of marine ply – the guitar weighed almost nothing and had a really distinctive sound. After a few years Shane went and played other music and eventually got involved in other things. We stayed in touch, and I asked him to join me in creating the 16-track studio and work on some recordings. That was in 1999, which was also the year I got married. Shane was my best man. The learning curve on the new studio was steep. It shouldn’t have been, it’s not like it was that technical, but it took a lot of work to get good sounds out of it. Probably the biggest difficulty was that our ears and tastes had matured, and we now expected so much more of ourselves. My songwriting had changed too and now reflected some of my earlier influences, especially in the sense of being more in touch with my country and its landscape.
++ Under that new way of working you recorded and released your second album Hallelujah Mine. This was released in 2001. Looking back to your back catalogue that reaches 10 years then. How do you think your songwriting and recording had matured by now?
I had undergone a lot of changes in my life. A long-term relationship had ended, a new one had started. I’d been forced to take a long look at myself, got counselling to help deal with depression, got married. My songwriting became a lot more internal, more about self and feelings than it had previously been. Once we got the studio under control we found that the sounds we captured best were voice and acoustic guitar. I had always been an acoustic player, but recorded and performed with electric. The time that passed between the first and second Jordans albums marked a move to acoustic as my principal instrument, which then flavoured the songs differently. As a result the two albums sound very different at first listen … although some of that difference is also because we used a real drummer instead of a machine!
++ This is when you relocated to the country, right? Where exactly? And what do you prefer, country life or city life?
Yes, we moved to the country at the end of ’99. We’re on five acres in the Strathbogie Ranges, central Victoria. Our house is about 600 metres above sea level, so the air is thinner but the weather is great. Often in winter we’re above the cloudline, which gives us this gorgeous winter sun. I still spend a lot of time in the city, but I couldn’t live there now. Aside from anything else, being in the country means being able to play the drums any time I like!
++ From the stuff you’ve released so far, what would you say was your favourite song of yours and why?
That’s an impossible question for any songwriter to answer, I think. I have different favourites every day of the week. However, there’s a song on Hallelujah Mine called “Love Comes To Ground” that I’ve recorded again on F-35, so I must be fond of it. When I wrote that song I was convinced it was the best thing I’d ever written. I went to the building my wife worked in and waited outside with my guitar case so I could play her the song. The security guard got all aggressive, so that when she emerged she found me in the middle of an argument. We sat down a few doors away and I played her the song. It’s the most excited I’ve ever been about a newly-hatched song. After the album was released though, I found myself performing it solo in a quite different way and I loved that too, so I had to put it on the new album. Another song I’m fond of is one you might not have heard, called “When I Get a Job”. It was recorded in 1997, and when I mixed it I noted that it went for exactly two minutes. A couple of days later Bart Miaow turned up at my door asking if I had a song I wanted to contribute for a Japanese compilation single. He said it should be short because they were going to put four songs on the 7″ … “about two minutes”, he said the song should be. Weird coincidence. It’s an odd little song, very upbeat but with a slightly dark heart to the lyrics. There’s a Shakespeare reference in the lyric that I like, although no-one’s ever commented on it. The compilation was called A Melbourne Holiday, and it came out on translucent blue vinyl from Clover Records. Quite the collector’s item.
++ I see on your site that there are two CDs slated to be released in 2011: “Small Things” and “F-35”. Care to tell me a bit about each of them?
F-35 is a very unusual piece of work for me. Late last year I was frustrated that I’d been busy and unable to finish recording the next Jordans album, “Small Things @ LightSpeed”. I felt a bit stifled and blocked. It struck me that I was coming up to 35 years of owning my acoustic guitar, a Fender F-35 Dreadnought manufactured in 1976. I’ve written so many songs on that guitar, and decided that I’d do a kind of tribute album to it. Even more unusual, I decided to put it out under my own name, so it’ll have “Adam Dennis” on the cover. That feels strange to me, but good. I’ve got to remix two songs and then it’s done. It’ll be a fairly limited release I think, probably 200 physical CDs, although I hope it’ll be available for purchase on iTunes. It’s about a month from release. When I started it I decided to limit my options, so there’s only three mics on the drums, only one on the acoustic. It’s as plain as I could stand it to be, and I purposely tried to leave mistakes intact. At the same time, I know I have to live with it forever, so I want it to sound as good as I can … it’s quite a challenge to meet both those requirements, but I’m nearly there. The vocal performances are pretty good, and I’m pleased to say that I played every note myself. Shane came up and did some engineering at a critical point in the process, which was a bit of a circuit-breaker and helped me clarify what I was trying to do. I’m looking forward to finishing the album and getting it out the door.
“Small Things @ LightSpeed” is the next Jordans album, although the name on the cover will be The Jordans Play. The name change is to help me keep some visibility on the Internet. When you google The Jordans, you get a lot of references to a popular sports show, then to a Formula One team, and finally you find links to me. I figure that the new name will have fewer competitors in the search space. The album, meanwhile, sounds very different to F-35. It also sounds very different to the previous Jordans albums. Like Hallelujah Mine, it’s taken a tremendously long time to record. I put the drum tracks down in early 2009. I have this sneaking suspicion that I’ll find I can’t stand the playing on a couple of songs and have to redo them from scratch … but I still want to see the project completed this year. My solo album has a personal and family focus to it, but the Jordans album tends to look much further afield. There’s even a song about the world ending, with all of us flying to Venus. Hmm, that sounds a lot stranger than it really is.
++ Going a bit back in time, I know you from the Airpop compilations on Apricot Records. I just read and found funny that some people thought you were Swedish. How did this confusion came about? Was that the strangest thing that has happened to you as The Jordans?
The Apricot boys were lovely, asking me to be involved in two Airpop compilations. I’m not convinced we were a good match at all, but it was nice to be there. I think the Swedish thing came around because Airpop was a German thing, and no-one expected that an Australian band might be involved. Also I think I enunciate my lyrics fairly clearly, which a lot of Swedish popsters also seem to do. The strangest thing to happen to me in the Jordans context was when I did a phone interview with a street mag, and when my wife got hold of a copy she was saying “what the hell were you talking about?” I read the article, and in response to the question “how long do you think you guys will continue to work together?”, I was quoted as saying “we’ll be together until chickens fall from the sky!” It’s a great quote, but I didn’t say it. It still makes me laugh.
++ Let’s wrap it here. I was just told by Bart from The Cat’s Miaow that the best food originally from Australia are Tim-Tams. Do you agree? Or would you recommend me something else?
A: Bart is correct, however Tim-Tams have now extended their range to include lots of variations. I especially love dark chocolate ones with a caramel centre. When The Steinbecks were recording their first album, we’d be in the studio late at night drinking coffee and eating Tim-Tams. The standard challenge is to bite off the diagonally opposite corners of the biscuit, then dip one corner into the coffee and suck on the other corner, using the biscuit as a straw. You have to do this fast because the coffee dissolves the biscuit into a soggy mess in your hand, so you have to suck hard then shove the Tim-Tam into your mouth as soon as you taste coffee. When you get it right, it’s great. But when you get the timing wrong it’s a disaster. A bit like being in a band, really.
++ Thanks again Adam, anything else you’d like to add?
Just keep your eye on http://adamdennis.info and http://thejordans.com.au for news of my forthcoming releases. I really want people to hear this material … I guess that’s all a songwriter really wants, isn’t it?
Thanks to you for a well-researched interview. It’s always a pleasure to talk to someone who really thinks about their work.
The Jordans – Mystified