For Folk’s Sake Interview: Roses, Kings, Castles

Late last year, FFS met up with Adam Ficek in a rammed pub off Trafalgar Square to discuss the finer points of the music industry, twee-ness, and evading the Babyshambles brand long enough to become part of the burgeoning folk scene.

FFS: So, why this venture away from Babyshambles?

I mean, I’d just kind of drummed in Babyshambles but um, yeah around the start when we’d done the big arena tour in 2007. I think doing those big kind of tours you lose a bit of your touch with the audience I think. You know what I mean. So I just wanted to write some songs and make it a bit more immediate and that was my goal really at that point, because we were doing these big arena tours and they’re a little bit sterile.

I just started writing my songs and putting them up on MySpace really. That’s where it started – with those MySpace demos about a year ago. These are songs that have been drifting around for ages. And NME picked up on the MySpace and put it on one of their blogs, and it didn’t blow up massively but it went from about three fans to about 1,000. It was good exposure for me but I don’t know, I wanted to keep it a bit more internal and a bit more cosy to be honest – for it to grow a bit more organically. But you can’t knock that kind of press really. There’s bands out there that struggle to get that kind of press, or internet exposure.

You’ve come into it in a strange way. A lot of the folk artists have come right from the bottom, and they’ve got a little circle of followers, and word of mouth, but you’ve already got a bit of a fan base to start – people who are going to listen to it and see what it’s like immediately I suppose?

It’s really good, but I’m trying to assert my own art I suppose. I am intrinsically part of the Babyshambles stuff, which I love, which is part of me, but I don’t get to do that much song writing in that framework. My stuff is quite different from Babyshambles. I did a gig last night – it was great, I had a good crowd there – a good 30, 40 people, but some of them were just there because I play drums in Babyshambles. I think it’s really good that they turn up, but I’d like to be taken a bit more on my own merit. That’s really hard, because I know I’m only a year into it, and it’s a challenge to move away from that. I need to try to work out a way of doing it so it’s nice and gentle for people that were into Babyshambles but want to follow me as well.

Let’s get away from that for a second and talk about ‘Horses’. It’s almost a bridge between Babyshambles and folk.

There is that element in there, but Babyshambles always had that kind of testosterone-fuelled, laddish thing about it. In Babyshambles I couldn’t push the tweeness I’ve put into my music. Because I’ve not been writing or doing stuff with Babyshambles for a while now, a bit of the hardness of that music has worked its way into my own song writing. I think that in the end all the balls that I wanted to play was coming out in the Babyshambles environment, and my stuff wasn’t quite there because it was twee-er than I wanted to make it.

It seems that Donovan, and perhaps Bob Dylan also influence the sound on ‘Horses’?

I’m much more of a Donovan man than a Dylan man. I mean, all my family are huge Dylan fans, and there are a few songs I’m into, but on the whole, I find it a little bit lacking in melody sometimes. I love the sweetness of Donovan’s melodies and the way he shapes stuff, and the simplicity of his writing. I was really frightened when I first started writing because it sounded so simple, almost like a nursery rhyme. I was really worried because they were so simple and no one’s going to get it, but it is what it is.

How do you feel you’ve progressed from the stuff on MySpace to the material on ‘Horses’?

I suppose instrumentation – there’s much more percussion, there’s more instruments, it’s more formulated. I think it’s just stronger. Rather than me on a guitar now, I’ve put a baseline on it, I’ve put keyboards on it, glockenspiel, xylophone.

Obviously there’s some concern about being seen as the drummer from Babyshambles, but are you concerned about being seen as just a drummer trying to do all this as well?

Yeah – I mean I’ve never considered myself as a drummer as such. I’ve always seen myself as a musician that happens to play drums in a big band. That’s a really weird way of looking at it but I’ve always messed around with different instruments, so I’m not one of those drummers who’s really into the equipment – the labels and the brands and things like that. If you asked me to tell you what drums I play, I’d say whatever’s given to me really. I’m not into that. It’s great if you are into that – good luck – it’s really good to learn but for me, it’s all about the song – the music.

Has the way you write songs changed much over the past year?

Not really, no. I think it still just happens. I don’t try too hard, and I’ve been thinking recently that maybe I need to try harder, to push these songs out and really sculpt them, but the way I’m doing is just do them really simply, and words just come. I don’t profess to be a lyrical genius, and there’s no great musing behind it. I don’t read that many books, and that’s what I think makes it quite a sincere art form. There’s not that many preconceptions about where I want to go and what I want to do, it just sort of comes out. It’s an odd way of doing it but I’d say it’s quite a nice way of doing it.

Apart from Donovan, is there anyone else you’d say was an influence?

I really like people like Bert Jansch, who kind of have this nostalgic romantic notion about just travelling around and playing, or turning up and playing in people’s living rooms, It sounds really clichéd now, but breaking down the barrier between performer and artist. To exist on that higher platform where you’re the performer, and nobody sees you before you come onstage, and ‘I’m like God’, I couldn’t be that kind of person really. I’d much rather just sit down and have a drink.

Probably because of nerves I find it hard, but afterwards I’ll quite happily mingle and answer questions. I find it hard to adopt that personality where people say “oh you’re a rock star now” but not really. What does that mean? Fundamentally I’m a musician. I love music, and to me that’s really what I want to do. There’s this whole other side to it – the clichéd rock star, swanning about, doing what they do.

You had an album out in September ‘08. How was the recording process, and how happy are you with the result?

It’s quite weird – it depends what day I catch myself really. It depends on how I listen to it. I mean, it is what it is. It’s very rough. At the time it was great, because I’d done all the demos and went to my friend’s house in Norwich, and between his bedroom and my bedroom we just knocked out this scratchy, scrappy album. It’s a bit of a scruffy child, and I want to really raise the stakes now. I can listen back to it with fondness, but there’s a few songs that I think now, if I was making an album I wouldn’t put them on there.

It sounds like you’re raising the stakes a little bit with ‘Horses’ with the recording, and everything coming together a bit better. So what have you got in line next then?

I’m not sure really. I’m so in debt now with this album. I’ve stopped all my PR and everything that I was paying for, just to get the album out there. I’m touring in January. As long as I’ve got time for Babyshambles [there are plans to start working on the next album], so I’m just going to try to hit a few shows in Europe and the UK, just get around and try to spread the word really, which is difficult in itself.

It must be hard work, already being in a really successful band and then having to try to start up a second band on your own.

It’s a really humbling experience. I’ve done instores and three people have turned up, and it really does bring you back down. I really want to play small venues and build up from that level. I was in Mansfield last night, and there were 30 people there, asking why am I in Mansfield when I can get £500 a night for doing some Nokia party? But I don’t want to do that. I mean, that’s money I could do with but part of me thinks, they don’t actually want me for the music, they want me for the brand Babyshambles.

Sometimes you’re torn, because Babyshambles have not been touring recently, and the money’s getting a bit tight. I’m going to try to do it the hard way, how a lot of the artists I love have done it – starting out themselves. Although it’s really hard to get away from the Babyshambles tag and I do use it, when we’re trying to get a review or something, I do try to compromise between using it too much and getting put into that box, and just being taken on your own merit.

You’re playing some more ‘unfashionable’ destinations, like Skegness?

Skegness, Mansfield, I really love it. I mean last night in Mansfield was hard. I was talking about one of the songs and how I wrote it, and one of the guys in the audience piped up with “what are you on about mate?” and I just laughed, and smiled. Gigging’s just different in those kinds of places, and it takes a certain personality to just go there on your own in front of a crowd of 40, 30 of whom are probably big Babyshambles fans.

A lot of them are there because I’m the drummer in Babyshambles and they think I’m going to get off and take loads of drugs and get drunk. It’s not like that, and I think they kind of scratch their heads when I’m finished but they do like the music and songs. It’s not ‘cool’ music as such I think, it’s not ever going to be as chart-friendly as anything like Babyshambles. It’s not aggressive, it’s not punchy enough for if you’ve had a few pints. It’s not that kind of music.

How much of an influence has Pete [Doherty himself been]? Have you sat down with him when you’re thinking about lyrics?

Not really, not on lyrics and stuff. We tend to keep ourselves to ourselves. If I sit down and write stuff with him it’s usually for Babyshambles. We co-wrote a song on the last album. We’ll probably co-write a few on the next album, so when he gets involved it normally becomes a Babyshambles kind of track. There’s a few that I could have put on the album, but it’s quite nice to have as just my ideas, and develop it from there really. It’s nice to keep it a bit separate, because as soon as I go down that road with Pete it turns it into something else, and it’s one step harder to separate that.

What’s the set-up when you play live?

When I play live it’s just me solo. I haven’t got a band, which is a bit of a problem. Not a problem, but I need to address it. I haven’t got a band because I play all the music on the album so I go out by myself and try to sell it as me, performing my songs acoustically. I will have to get a band eventually, but I just don’t want to complicate it with a band yet, although from a live perspective the audience will want to hear band versions of those songs at some point, but I’m all right for now.

Why do you think the label you’re on at the moment haven’t been more supportive of you trying to branch out?

I haven’t sold enough records to make anyone a lot of money. I approached a lot of indie companies as well, and they wouldn’t touch it. A lot of the indie companies I tried, they’re not indies anymore. They’ve got someone big in their pocket. If you’re not going to sell 10,000 copies they’re not really interested. EMI were going to pick it up, but they made me wait for about two months, dangling me, and then they wouldn’t give me ownership of it, so I’m in no man’s land for a while. I can’t describe how hard it was, because I’ve got no idea how to do it. It’s really demanding at times, but it’s a great achievement when you think “I’ve done all this by myself”. I think we’ve sold around 500 albums but even that’s all been done by myself.

Do you think with the wave of people like Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn and Jay Jay Pistolet being on the up, they’re going to look back on this in 18 months and think “I wish we’d signed that guy up?”

I hope so but I still don’t think they know which musical bracket I fit into. People have to get their head into a place where they can accept you. Even now I think people aren’t quite sure were I fit. It takes quite a while to assert yourself, and to work out where you’re placed musically. All those guys who do folk music, their music’s connected by the ethos and the way they promote themselves, rather than the harmonies, because it’s all very different – all those guys. Fundamentally, how would you describe that folk scene? What are the integral elements of that scene?

There’s a DIY attitude to it all – getting on and enjoying what you do, and everything else seems to come from that. I think people pick up on that and feed on it. Seeing people enjoying what they’re doing is great.

Yeah exactly. To be honest, Peter and Carl in the old days were in a way the early folksters. A lot of these new folk people would never admit it, but the whole ethos that Peter started with the Libertines has evolved into Laura Marling, Jay Jay and all that kind of stuff. They’ve taken that kind of community-based stuff and embellished it with the use of technology and stuff. Unfortunately, a lot of bands as they get bigger don’t realise that that was their strength, and they lose that sense of importance for their fans. I’ve seen it in ‘shambles. For me, I’ve always remained really connected, and not tried to get on that high stool. I think Peter hasn’t either but it’s easy to slip into that. Really easy.

Babyshambles and Libertines did have folky elements with a harder sound, and that attitude to songwriting – really writing about what you mean, is important.

I suppose it’s quite subjective, the good thing when I started writing songs was that I didn’t think about it, it came out naturally. They’re all quite personal, and maybe people can’t relate to them. It’s only with the ambiguity of parts of the songs that people can really relate to them.

Now, you’ve got bands that are singing about such direct things – going to this nightclub, taking this drug, driving a Ford Mondeo – there’s no ambiguity there. This is how it is. And I like that romance. Even with the older bands – The Beatles, The Stone Roses, The Charlatans are quite ambiguous with their wording, and you can read into it what you want. It’s quite a journey.

The Stone Roses definitely had themes to their songs, rather than direct ‘this is what this is about’.

Yeah, and I think at the moment we’re coming out of it. I think a lot of this direct lyric writing doesn’t come from the heart, it’s just about recounting an experience, and I can’t really connect with a lot of it. Lyrically I just like to keep it really ambiguous.

So what’s next, apart from a hell of a lot of hard work and self-promoting?

I’m going to push this album for a few more weeks then the single will be out and I’ve just got to step back because I’m going mad. I’d like to get an hour of songwriting in somewhere, and I think ‘shambles is going to be taking off again so I’m going to be really busy. I want to get another album out as well. I could work on another album and have something which might be a lot more commercially successful, but I’m not sure what I want. I’d rather be churning out an album a year, which is maybe not the best thing commercially, because it might not have the impact, but I’d rather just do that. It doesn’t really give you much time to think – it’s quite spur of the moment. If you work on a song for a year or two it loses any sense of what it had in the first place.

It sounds like you’re a bit jaded with the industry – a lot of these new acts coming up haven’t really experience it, and it’s more of an adventure for them.

Yeah, and that’s great. I’m very jaded and I need to try to get out of that. I think because normally in a band you’ve got a manager, and they provide a kind of buffer zone for you against the inequality and the unfairness of the industry. If you haven’t got the money or the promotion, you have to work so hard. I think if I was just starting out now and I didn’t have the Babyshambles name that I do, I’d probably give up because it’s so hard, and no one wants to touch you. I’ve wasted so much money on PR, and stuff. The people who are making the most money in the music industry are the ones that go out on a Friday night and say “Yeah, we’re in the music industry” and they’re the lawyers.

It just sort of sits badly with me a bit that the artists get a raw deal. It’s always been that way in the music industry, and it is an industry, it’s a business. Sometimes you forget because you’re emotionally connected to the wares that your selling. If I had a manager, he wouldn’t be emotionally attached to it but because I’m selling it, to these people effectively I could just be a barrel of oil. They want something to sell on. I haven’t got that emotional buffer zone that I need – someone to manage it, dealing with people that don’t see the connection that you have with your art, dealing it with people who just see it as something to sell, be it on a radio show or in a magazine with advertising space to fill.

That’s hard, and it’s horrible, but it’s lovely to go out and play gigs and take all that shit away. It’s very easy to get jaded with the industry.

To get away from that depressing line of questioning, who are you listening to at the moment within the new folk music that you’re into?

I really like Rod Thomas. He’s great. I really love pop music – not like Girls Aloud pop, but bands like The Housemartins, bands that have a pop sensibility, not manufactured as such, just with a bit of guile. Tom Williams and the Boat as well I’m a big fan of. There’s a lot of bands out there that are picking up, like Emmy the Great and people like that, Jay Jay [Pistolet]. I think they’re all in the same little scene, on this little rotating kind of carousel which I can’t expect to be part of because of the connection with Babyshambles. It’s kind of like I’m a one man venture really, going out and doing it, but time will tell and we’ll see what happens.

Anything else you’d like to say about your music?

It’s got to be real, and it’s got to be sincere, and I think that a lot of bands aren’t. At the moment, Indie is king, with Topman fashions and all that. Indie is the mainstream now, and the undercurrent is new-folk, or whatever you want to call it. Britpop kind of destroyed the Indie music I used to listen to when I was younger. That stuff was good because it wasn’t marred by the commercial side of things. That’s what makes this an interesting time. These new folk artists can get popular, but they can’t break through and get really big because they’re not made that way, and if they change the way they write and promote themselves they’ll be changing the ethos that makes them what they are.

Interview: Mike Didymus

Roses, Kings, Castles are on tour throughout the UK this month.