Interview #4: Adam Stafford

Adam Stafford is probably best known among music fans as frontman for Falkirk noisemongers Y’all Is Fantasy Island.  Having established himself as a highly talented songwriter he then decided to take a step away for a little while and focus on other projects.  Amongst these are his record label Wiseblood Industries, through which The Kays Lavelle’s debut record will be released next year.  Then there’s his solo music adventures under the guise of Size of Kansas, as well as his recent solo outing entitled ‘Awnings’.  On top of all this he found the time to direct a short film written by Scottish author Alan Bissett entitled ‘The Shutdown’.  This has gained worldwide critical acclaim and propelled Adam forward as an upcoming Scottish director.  He also recently directed the new Twilight Sad video.  He’s a top bloke and big support to the Kays, and has taken the time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for the Steinberg Principle.  Enjoy.

TSP:  You are possibly the busiest man that i know in the world of Scottish art.  You play in Y’all Is Fantasy Island, run a record label, have a blossoming film career and have all your little solo music projects on the go as well. Do you have this inner need to be constantly creative?

AS:  Totally! It comes back to the old Woody Allen quote – “Like a shark I have to keep moving forward or I’ll die”. For me it’s some sort of unfettered crazy obsession, I guess at the end of the day I just want to leave as much of my expressions behind before I die, which I hope isn’t soon, like a body of work so I can give my life some meaning.
TSP:  Wiseblood Industries, your record label seems to cater for a diverse collection of artists. Do you intentionally seek out acts who don’t seem to sit comfortably in the mainstream or are these just bands you stumbled across and fell in love with?

AS: I originally started the label because nobody would release any of Y’all is Fantasy Island’s records (except Winning Sperm Party, who I completely stole the label template from!). There’s only so long you can keep hammering on a door before you realise that nobody is going to answer! Which I’ve come to understand was a very good move; we can retain the mechanical and writing copyrights of the songs and recordings for when they will be inevitably used in the future  while the heaving old rusty ship that is the music industry sinks further into the myriad. But as I’ve went along, I’ve invited musicians who I’m a big fan of – Jocky Venkataraman, Michael John McCarthy, Jamie Sturrock, Kays Lavelle, Radiation Line – who perhaps needed an outlet to host their music onto the label. All of these acts are excellent in their own right and simply craved a proper forum for distribution of their music. And what’s more important is they’re all friends of mine who understand that they will always retain all the rights to their music and I won’t make any profit from hosting them on the site. As far as mainstream goes, who would ever want that? Unless you’re in a band for the all the wrong reasons, which sadly a lot of kids are these days. That’s the problem with the majority of Scottish music listeners, they’d rather bask in the blandness of Snow Patrol or The View than take a chance on say, Jocky or Eagleowl.  
TSP: There seems to be an ethos that the label is all about getting the artists as much attention as possible with a lot of the music being offered for free on the website.  What are your opinions on the fine balance that exists between Exposure and Income in music these days?

AS: My advice to young musicians would be: do what your parents did – get a job! No, in all seriousness, I think unless you are willing to tour your arse off and build up an international fan base organically or are just very lucky, there’s little chance you are going to sustain a decent living from being a musician, unless you are of the wedding variety. I see my music as something much greater than any “career”, it’s something that’s deeply entwined in my blood! Sure, I’d like to get paid for doing it, but if I can’t I’m not going to hide it away from the world, I want to share my creativity and I’d encourage others to do the same. Always remember, hype bands don’t come about purely by chance, they are part of intense marketing strategies and relentless media carpet-bombing campaigns orchestrated by faceless A&R’s at labels and PR firms who have a hand-in with the press. All that stuff in NME and Pitchfork, Observer Music Monthly etc, 90% is that. Real talent doesn’t count for anything these days. The DIY Underground is fucked! It’s all PR baby!
TSP: Turning to film making, The Shutdown written by Alan Bissett, and your debut film as director, has received worldwide critical acclaim.  Has the reaction to the film surprised you?

AS: It’s left Alan and I in utter shock, more so me than Alan, but yeah the reception has been completely unexpected.
TSP:  What’s been the highlight of all the attention so far?

AS: I guess just being taken seriously for once and showing it to so many audiences, who appreciate it and ask questions after they’ve seen it. Meeting other filmmakers who are on the same wave length, pitching new ideas to them and getting honest feedback and travelling about promoting it. I think the big highpoint was winning the two Jim Poole awards in November. Alan and I were stunned and really in awe of the other films in the competition. 
TSP: You’ve also turned your hand to making music videos, directing the new video for the Twilight Sad.  How did that compare to the work you did on The Shutdown and would you consider working on a music video again?

AS: It was more stressful than The Shutdown because we were shooting child actors in gale force wind and rain and shooting on film, which is expensive and takes time to get right. Everybody was amazing on that shoot though, especially the kids and the band who were both very patient. With The Shutdown, myself, Leo Bruges the cinematographer and a production assistant took a camera and made the film in 13 hours during one night. We were blessed with a clear sky; the rolling smoke in some of the shots wouldn’t have look so good otherwise. In terms of doing other music videos, if the song and concept is something I’m interested in, I’d have no problem doing more. I have a couple of music related videos lined up for next year which will hopefully come to fruition.
Film or Music?  Where does your real passion lie?

AS: I’m intensely passionate about both really. I think music comes more naturally, I almost don’t have to think about it, it just pours through me, whereas the process of making a film is concentrated, long and precise. That’s not to say there’s no room for improvisation or experimentation, just if your idea is not refined enough you will end up with a bad film. As long as there is integrity and honesty in your vision, in most cases any artistic risks you take will pay off.
TSP: Most people will know you best for your band Y’all Is Fantasy Island.  For a while, not so long ago, you seemed to be churning out YIFI records at will.  Was there a conscious decision on your part to take a break from recording with the band to focus on your film making and solo stuff or was this more enforced upon you?

AS: At the start of 2009 we were having a great time, playing to packed, attentive audiences, going down to London to perform for Vic Galloway and Huw Stephens, then the audiences started dwindling back home and we realised that we’d just worn them out. A break was needed. We really killed ourselves trying to get the LP No Ceremony right and by April we were burnt out after 2008, recording and releasing and performing music constantly over the year. My vocal muscles, are, as the throat doctor told me, like a little cardboard box and every time I sing it’s like I’m “booting it against a wall”. I don’t think I could handle belting out Punk Rock Disco every night for three months.
TSP:  Turning to the solo stuff.  There’s a real change in direction from YIFI stuff.  What influenced you to make music in such stark contrast to your band, and should we expect to see such influences coming through in new YIFI records?

AS: I just want to constantly progress my art and move forward trying new things, I can’t comprehend bands and artists that stay within their comfort zone, I mean why would you want to stay in that same place philosophically? The whole idea with Awnings was that I was going to set myself a challenge to try and record a techno album by only using my voice. Well, I don’t know if I succeeded, but the basic idea was to try and push my vocal ability to it’s limits, to try beatboxing and layering rhythms, taking a starting point and following it without knowing where it was going end. I’ve always loved experimental music, but i’m not sure if Yifi have ever represented that because the music is so song-based. Awnings was about getting as far away from “songs” as possible and guitars. I’ll probably go back to that but they seem boring as fuck to me at the moment. Songs, with their confinements of verses and choruses are a prison, but it takes a lot of dedication to ease yourself into the prison system once you’re there.

In terms of musical influence I have Michael John McCarthy to thank for turning me onto the chants of Meredith Monk and the Steve Riech album Music for 18 Musicians. The moment I realised that creating a cappella music was feasible was when I saw the awesome Wounded Knee perform in Glasgow. My jaw was on the floor, he was so inspiring. At first I thought I was just ripping the shit out of him, ha ha, but I think his a cappella music is more abstract than mine and hopefully we can both bring new and totally different things to the table. Ariel Pink, Panda Bear, Daniel Johnson, I could go on forever….
Are there any artists in Scotland that you truly believe people should be keeping an eye out for in 2010 or that excite you personally?

AS: My favourite album this year is by an experimental collective headed-up by a musician called Daniel Padden called The One Ensemble Orchestra and the LP is called Other Thunders. I think they’re Glasgow-based and the album is astonishing, very cinematic and discordant but with bursts of thumping choir and Keltzma gypsy hoe-downs and weird improv vocal noises. I can’t believe it didn’t get more attention on it’s release for a Scottish band, but then again it’s like what I said about PR! I’ve seen them live too and they are flabbergasting.

Leo Bruges the Edinburgh filmmaker made a film called Fist Full of Roses last year that is among one of the best mid-length documentaries I’ve ever seen. It got snubbed by quite a few festivals because of its length, I think mainly, but I would fervently recommend it. It follows a complex but troubled figure around the streets of Edinburgh at night, there’s a horrible brooding malevolence in the film that finally explodes. Hopefully Leo will get the opportunity to screen it more regularly in the future.

On the subject of films and filmmaking in Scotland, I would also like to praise Peter Gerrard, not only for being a great producer of some of the best work that’s coming out of Edinburgh at the moment, but also for being a great director. Hi short film Motion/Static, that just ran in competition at International Documentary Festival Amsterdam is a staggering work from a future visionary and I would also recommend anybody that gets a chance to see it does. Edinburgh at the moment seems to be the hub for great music and filmmaking, and people are starting to sit up and take notice

TSP: What keeps you wanting to make music?

AS: I don’t know why! Probably like I said before, this insatiable desire to keep creating art so I have a body of work that I can leave behind when I’m gone. People don’t pick up real guitars these days and start a band, they buy plastic ones that they can plug into their Xboxs. Creativity in some quarters is getting more and more stifled by the gentrification of rock`n’roll. It’s so sad.
What does 2010 hold in store for Adam Stafford the:

a) musician;

More albums! I’ve written three albums worth of material this year. I hope I can release at least one next year.

b) film maker;

I’m developing a short re-imagining of a mining disaster that occurred in Falkirk in the 1920s with Alan Bissett that goes into pre-production in February. I’ve also started writing a feature film about a night-shift train driver who tries to infiltrate a Black Metal cult in a ghost town in the North of Scotland while investigating the disappearance of his daughter. It’s a psychological horror and it will be the most beautifully shot film to come out of Scotland. Trains, Black Metal and infanticide – my three favourite things in that order! Hopefully I’ll finish that by the end of the year.

c) boss of a record label?

Lots of exciting new releases from great artists: a new Jocky EP, The Kays Lavelle album, new stuff from Jamie Sturrock, hopefully putting out the single by Burnt Island who are fronted by the author Rodge Glass and… new mini from Michael John McCarthy, aka Radio Trees. He’s a busy man, but I’ve heard 80% of the new one and it’s class!


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