When it comes to touring acts, there is a hunger for ’80s artists right now. That appetite has led not just to steady ticket sales but to record-breaking ones that rival or surpass even the hottest band du jour. But for the artists who have stayed at or returned to the top, filling venues on their own rather than as part of some B-list “retro tour package” requires more than simply showing up and phoning in the hits.
Stars like Depeche Mode, Morrissey and Adam Ant know that nostalgia will only get you so far. They also know that they need to sound as sharp and sultry as ever and that visual elements are more significant at this point in their careers, both in terms of stage production and their own physicality onstage.
Taking a novel approach to the hits that fans grew up with also helps, and Ant — who brings his ANThems Tour to the Greek Theatre on Saturday — has been doing that very well. He played his 1980 sophomore album, Kings of the Wild Frontier, in its entirety the last time he was in L.A., at the Fonda. This time he promises hits from his entire career, as well as B-sides.
I spoke with the notoriously private musician (born Stuart Leslie Goddard) by phone from his London office as he was prepping for the tour. Here is Ant in his own words.
On landmark album Kings of the Wild Frontier:
Though Ant had released a fairly well-received debut, this was the record that made people take notice. It sounded like nothing else at the time, thanks to the multilayered rhythms throughout and the organic beats from not one but two drummers.
“We used Burundi beats and tribal rhythms. I thought it'd be interesting making the rhythms a bit more grandiose, a bit more theatrical and a bit more classical, so I also put symphony drums on it and arranged the two drum kits. … Having two drummers makes it much more bold and complex. The first time I saw two drummers working together onstage was with James Brown. I thought that it was so rock-solid and they made such a tight groove together. Then I was working with Malcolm McLaren and the other members of what became Bow Wow Wow, and that’s when the idea for using Burundi beats came in. I just took it outside of that because I had already immersed myself in traditional and tribal music from all around the world. You can really hear the different uses of drum patterns on the album.”
On his Prince Charming style:
He came out of the punk era, but Ant’s embellished look channeled historical fashion references that blended 18th-century military dandy looks with swashbuckling pirate garb. He’s credited with starting the “new romantic” movement, and while some considered him “new wave,” his look was less about a genre and more about overall extravagance and nobility.
“I had many years of being an outsider and playing small places and not really enjoying a lot of success, and certainly after losing members to Bow Wow Wow it was like starting from scratch again. I think there was an element of wanting to feel like a king again. Wanting to feel a bit royal. Lyrically, I felt that music had kind of lost that nobility a bit. I think the punk-rock era by that point had become very gray and very political. I wanted to do something more heroic and dramatic. “
On the dangers of filming some of his videos:
Ant suffered serious injuries on set for both his signature hit “AntMusic” off Kings and “Stand and Deliver,” the mega-hit off of its follow-up, the Prince Charming album.
“I had a little accident during the scene where I sang, 'Unplug the jukebox and do us all a favor, that music’s lost its taste, so try another flavor' in 'AntMusic.' We hired what we thought was a professional knife thrower to throw daggers into the side of the jukebox behind me, but the first time he came too close and sliced my ear.
“For 'Stand and Deliver' I had to jump through a glass window and land on a table. They said, 'Oh, that’s sugar glass, don't worry about it.' So I jumped through it and then felt this warm trickle down my face. I had split the top of my head open. Sugar glass does cut at a certain angle. But it looked good on camera.”
On his videos' pop culture influence:
Ant’s video aesthetic was cinematic, with a decadent feel. It continues to influence fashion and film to this day, including Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which used his music and featured a look-alike character played by Fifty Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan.
“I was thinking more in terms of a film instead of just a video back then. I storyboarded everything and a lot of work went into them. But you try make it all look as effortless as possible.
“I enjoyed Marie Antoinette very much; it was a beautiful film, and the director made the most of a very limited budget. I’m not sure it was influenced by me, but there are some similarities, I suppose.”
On the autobiographical aspects of “Goody Two Shoes”:
Ant took some well-documented breaks over the years, but they were never about the clichés of rock stardom, such as drugs or alcohol. He was always about hard work (sometimes working too hard) and never hedonism.
“I asked the question before the media could ask. I wanted to head off the innuendos of the time, and the song and a video reflected that. That video was very tongue-in-cheek, too, with an English feel to it and a lightened mood. But I think I've always tended to look at music and songwriting as a craft and a profession. Trying to keep a level head on it. My grandfather was a great influence on my life … work hard and do your job and get on with it. Having that working background can benefit you for something like rock & roll, which can get a bit out of proportion. Fortunately, I've never been interested in drugs. I always found that a turn-off. I didn’t have a problem with that, so I focused on the work.”
On the two famous collaborators on “Strip”:
It was never highly publicized, but Ant’s '83 hit “Strip” featured both Phil Collins (on drums) and ABBA singer Anni–Frid Lyngstad (on the spoken-word portion of the song).
“I simply asked them and they said yes. I loved Phil Collins' drum sound with Genesis, so we contacted him and he said he’d like to come and work with us. We used the Polar Studios, ABBA's studio in Stockholm, to finish the album with ABBA engineer Michael Tretow. Then we asked if we could get Frida to do the spoken-word part of the song, and she agreed. Sometimes if just you ask people, they will give you a yes, which is quite nice.”
On the birth and evolution of “Physical (You're So)”:
Covered by Nine Inch Nails and, more recently, Poptone (Bauhaus' Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins' new project), Ant’s “Physical (You're So)” — added only to the American version of Kings — might be his most beloved non-single. It showcases his sensual vocal style, his music’s post-punk attitude and his stage and camera appeal.
“It's just a very low-down and raunchy song. Sometimes songs just come to you. I don't know where they come from but I think the angels bring them down. It came out very quickly. It's just a quite playful one and I never thought too much about it, but then Nine Inch Nails took it to another level. I like to play it at the end of live shows, as it closes things nicely.
“Throughout my career, I tried to make a point of each album looking and sounding different from the one before. The clothes were part of that. They are really just an effort to give the audience something different than before. It’s all a celebration. It’s like going out on a date; it's quite a turn-on to do it, and hopefully you turn the audience on, too. I think Jim Morrison was the master of that. It should never be too forced. You just get out there and go into a bit of a zone. And live, the audience reaction and the atmosphere are what make it all possible.”
Adam Ant plays the Greek Theatre with special guests L7 on Saturday, Sept. 30.