Ryan Adams is a prolific songwriter. There have been flashes of brilliance, and there have been duds. Overall, his output has been teetering on genius status. His solo work projects the freedom he has by working alone. One would think that an artist that creates that much music couldn’t be tethered by being a member of a band. Think again.
After his groundbreaking work with Whiskeytown, Adam’s rabid fans would be the last ones to imagine him as part of a group collective. But he has sworn that he is now a member of The Cardinals, his backing band on his last few outings. He no longer wants his music to be heard by Ryan Adams fans, but by Cardinals fans. While altruistic, it is also confusing, to say the least. Regardless, a new name doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the music. “Cardinalogy”, their latest disc, is a diverse mix of ballads, mid-tempo rockers, and even wistful reminiscing about New York, Ryan’s home. The record has been well received by longtime fans and listeners new to the Ryan Adams’ canon.
While this may sound like another Ryan Adams story, that really isn’t the truth. All the members of the band tout this as a group effort, and there isn’t evidence to the contrary. Brad Pemberton, Nashville native and drummer for the Cardinals, explained how this former backing band has earned the right to ascend from hired hands to full- fledged band members. When we spoke, he was preparing to play at The Apollo Theater that night, and things couldn’t have been better for Brad and the rest of the Cardinals.
Q. How did you get started in the music business?
A. I played in bands all through high school, and then played with my band Iodine for about a decade. I met Ryan nine or ten years ago, and have been playing with him since then. Since I live in Nashville, I’ve played with other musicians, not just Ryan, but for the most part, I’ve played in his band.
Q. It has been reported that this new record wouldn’t be a Ryan Adams effort, but rather a Cardinals CD. What changed?
A. When the Cardinals formed in 2004, that was always Ryan’s intent. But due to the record label’s concerns that no one would know who we were, it didn’t happen.
Hopefully, four albums later, the fans are getting the connection. We hope to have the next record be just a Cardinals record.
Q. So all the members are committed solely to the Cardinals?
A. I can’t speak for the whole band, but as far as I know and am concerned, this band is priority number one. That also goes for Ryan.
Q. Can you describe what it might be like when the Cardinals get in a room to write and record?
A. With this new record, Ryan brought in ideas after a band break, and recording a lot of stuff on Garage Band. He would send the ideas to all of us, and we would send our contributions back. In June, when we get together to rehearse the stronger material that we thought would make the record, it started to come together. In July, we started recording, and we all had a good idea what the contenders were, and began to hammer them out. From there, we gave them to management and other interested parties. The initial ideas were Ryan’s, but the arrangement was all five members. We’ve all been in the studio enough, and had prepared for the time, that it didn’t take months or weeks to get this record done. It was more like days to get it done.
Q. What are the plans for the Cardinals for the upcoming year?
A. I don’t know what I’m doing past next week. I’m going home to Nashville for a day, and then I’m leaving for London. We just try to concentrate on this record, but if you look at the last four or five years, there is almost a record a year. I would assume that by the end of 2009, we would have another record out. But I would like to stress that until this record has ran its course, we’re not going to look too far ahead. But there are always new tunes popping out in sound check or on the back of the bus. Neal had a great song idea a couple of weeks ago, and Ryan is always writing something. So there are already nuggets in place, and we plan to let them incubate and revisit them while we’re on the road.
Q. Can you put some perspective on some of the inspiration for the songs on this new record?
A. That would be more a Ryan question than a question for me. I’m sure that every song on this record is inspired or directed at somebody. Or rather, a feeling or idea. A lot of Ryan’s tunes are open to interpretation, that’s the great thing about them. They have a wide appeal because of the way it makes the listener feel. I really don’t know who most of the songs are about, and I’m not sure Ryan would, either. But he’s in a new place right now, with two and a half years of sobriety under his belt. The band he’s always wanted has come to fruition. The response I’ve gotten about this record is it is very positive and full of hope. That’s a fair assessment of this record. It’s not a doom and gloom record.
But to wrap an answer, I think he keeps things purposely vague, and is really about specificity.
Q. You’ve worked with a variety of artists, such as Patty Griffin and Hank III. Have you incorporated anything you learned from them into this band?
A. I played on my first record when I was eighteen, and I learn something from each experience and each person I play with. Hank II just wanted you to play as fast as you can for ninety minutes. It was like country music on crystal meth. I never got to play with him when he did the death metal stuff. He had a different drummer. Patty Griffin was great. Playing with them, and others, has been really educational, and I continue to learn.
Hopefully, in ten years, I will continue to keep learning and be smarter than I am now.
Q. How would you describe working with someone as gifted and as prolific as Ryan Adams?
A. I met him right after he put out Heartbreaker, and before Gold came out. I really didn’t know who he was, but I had heard of Whiskeytown. I wasn’t a big fan, because I was in a band named Iodine, and we had more in common with Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins.
We became friends before we were band mates. The first time I played with him I knew he was special, but I’ve always viewed him more as a brother. It’s like I’ve always had a gifted brother, but still just a brother. He’s an amazing guy, writer and talent, but he’s more like my little brother. I’m always aware of his gift, but we’re just friends. I don’t approach it any differently than anything I’ve done or anybody I’ve worked with.
Q. Do you have any goals for these last two months of the year?
A. We all are trying to physically get through this year. After our UK run, we’re going out in December with Oasis. Keeping healthy, that is the goal. We’ll take a little break over the holidays, and get back on the road next year. On our last run, everybody got sick, including band and crew. We all try to keep a positive attitude and play great shows.
And hopefully sell a lot of records.
Q. Do you have a family?
A. I’m married and have a son. I’m the only one in the band that is married. Most of the other guys have girlfriends. That’s the biggest struggle of being on the road. But when I’m off the road, I have several weeks or months to spend at home. But we’re all used to it, I mean really used to it. I’m the second youngest in the band, and I’ll be 40 next year. But working like that is all I know. When I met my wife, she knew what I did. She’s very understanding and supportive. That makes it easier to do my job. But it is tough, because I miss my son and wife when I’m on the road.
The Cardinals are perennially one of the most anticipated artists of this generation, whether it is on tour or record. Taking a look at their lives can help us all to appreciate their journey, and to acknowledge the highs and lows of career musicians. Armed with a sometimes genius, and a solid band of friends and tunes, it doesn’t seem like that will change anytime soon.