WHEN a musician takes six long years to follow up a rave-reviewed debut album, you might suspect writer’s block or obsessiveness, with much burning of the midnight oil to say nothing of the studio budget to get the sound exactly right. You don’t really expect him to tell you that he almost died three times.
To be fair to Steve Adey, he isn’t telling me this. The information is contained in the press release for sophomore album The Tower Of Silence – here at last after, well, a tower of silence. In a coffee shop in Edinburgh today, the 34-year-old Adey winces. He thinks the promo material has been overcooked, even though it’s pretty much accurate.
“Last year I went travelling in India, saw some amazing sights and caught some interesting diseases,” he says. He makes a joke about this but the Polycythemia, a condition of having too many red blood cells in your circulation, and the Dengue fever, which is spread by mosquitoes, were pretty serious. “I got really bad altitude sickness while trekking and was told by doctors I should leave India right away. But there was still time to be involved in a car accident. I only suffered bumps and bruises but I was lucky. The Dengue wasn’t detected until I was back home. My liver inflated to a serious extent. It was really hellish.”
Wow, I say, but at least he’s got good excuses for the delay rather than ones of overindulgence. He laughs. “I’ve actually got them too! After my first album [All Things Real] I wanted this one out the following year and the songs were actually recorded in three days. I sent the musicians away and started tinkering with the tracks. It seemed like a good idea to break them up, cut and paste bits here and there, but I think I enjoyed working on this record a bit too much.
“Actually, it drove me crazy. Three of the songs took over my life. I worked on one of them for longer than the rest of the tracks put together and it still didn’t make the final cut. None of the three did. I’d always had the track listing clear in my mind, so to not see them on it was pretty devastating. These songs took on lives of their own and just beat me into the ground. I survived the Dengue and the rest, but this album was almost the death of me.”
Adey’s music is slow-paced and sombre but full of atmosphere and feeling. His influences include Nick Cave, Talk Talk, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Will Oldham, having already covered the latter two. The studio isn’t just a recording location for him; it’s an instrument. For the first album the tracks were laid down at Longformacus Parish Church in the Borders. For The Tower Of Silence he used Edinburgh’s Buccleuch Free Church just round the corner from our café, where his guitarist’s father is the minister.
It’s easy to visualise Adey squirrelling away in his studio at home in the capital’s Trinity. He’d arrived early for our rendezvous, ordered his coffee and was promptly forgotten about. He must have ventured out before because he has a Polish girlfriend. But he admits the life of a musician can be selfish. “Sometimes I don’t leave the studio for days. If the recording is going well I don’t miss the outside world. A nice bit of it can be seen from my window: a park and, in the distance, Edinburgh Castle.”
How does Edinburgh influence his songwriting? “Well, I love the place on days like today.” (Let the records show that it’s coming down in stair-rods). And how do the churches? “They’re magical places in which to record. Maybe they inspired some of the biblical imagery in the lyrics, although Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave probably deserve credit here, too. I do feel our lives are spiritual, whether you acknowledge it or not.”
Many of the artists Adey admires took their own sweet time. Talk Talk were never wham-bam about releases. The subject of his song Mary Margaret O’Hara put out her debut album in 1988 and fans are still waiting for the follow-up (Adey is jealous of me for having seen the Canadian songstress play the Queen’s Hall, just round the corner from our café). And Calum Malcolm, who engineered The Tower Of Silence, presumably had to find other things to do between albums by the act with which he’s most associated, the Blue Nile.
The All Things Real debut was hardly a rushed affair either. An orchestra was hired, only for their contributions to be scrapped – “an expensive false start”. Adey has another job: restoring 1950s and 1960s mixing desks and other recording equipment, “the best of its kind ever made”. This can only add to the reverence he has for studios and it means he’s not having to make music to feed himself, so why hurry anyway?
“Well, I definitely think I should be speeding up,” he says. “A lot of the records I love, including Peter Gabriel’s albums from the 1980s, had a lot of money lavished on them. Back then the industry was rich and artists were encouraged to take whole decades between releases. It must have been wonderful being indulged like that but times have changed.”
Self-produced up until now, he’s willing to hand control of the sacred studio to someone else. “There won’t be a six-year gap next time. I’ve got a greater sense of my own mortality.” «
The Tower Of Silence is released tomorrow on Grand Harmonium