Adam Sweet

by
Adam Sweet
Nickie Shobeiry chats to local artist, Adam Sweet, about his debut album and the weirdest on-stage experience he's ever had.

(Image Credit: Graham Munn)

Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? If not, can you recall the moment you realised?
Well I’ve played music pretty much all my life, after picking up the guitar at 7 years old. I’ve had a desire to get out and play gigs since my early teens, but back then, I never thought music could be my profession. I followed an academic route through school and University, as it seemed the right thing to do for me then, and I used as much of my spare time as possible for music. It’s only in recent years that I have been able to turn my passion for music into a career.

You began gigging at 15; do you remember your first time on stage? How about the first song you ever wrote?
I remember it well – it was at The Royal Standard in Lyme Regis with my first band, Nil By Mouth. We were three very shy and nervous 15 year olds, so shy in fact that none of us would sing, hence the name. So we would play rock covers completely instrumental. It seemed to work okay at the time, but we had a very kind audience! It took about another five years from that first gig for me to get over my fear of singing and finally give it a go.

With Nil By Mouth we wrote some instrumental pieces, but I can’t remember the first song I wrote. There’s a song of mine called The Way You Choose, which is on my first live EP that I put out a few years ago. I’d say that is the first song I wrote that I actually played in public! Looking back at it now, it’s a bit patchy lyrically, but it’s a good snapshot in time of when I was starting out on the solo route, trying to figure out what I was doing.

How do you write your songs, and where do you draw your inspiration from?
Writing is something I have to work at. I can pick up the guitar and come up with a new riff or groove on an almost daily basis, but turning those ideas into a song is the hard part. I see myself as a guitar player first, and a singer/songwriter a distant second. But I’ve been working hard on it, and I like to think I’m starting to close that gap! What I have found with my writing is that there is no set formula – some songs have come along fairly quickly, and others have taken a lot of work to bring together. I find some of the best songs of mine have come from true events, adventures, or mishaps; things I’ve witnessed and experienced are always easier for me to write about. A lot of my writing has been done in collaboration with others, in particular my good friend, Steve Black, with whom I wrote most of the material for my debut album, Small Town Thinking. He is a wonderful writer and lyricist, and I’ve learnt a lot through working with him, but he is different to me, as he is one of those rare talents who are able to conjure up a story from nowhere. But again for the co-writing process, there is no set formula. Sometimes I take a song of mine to him that he’d sharpen up lyrically, sometimes I’ll rework one of his songs, sometimes I’ll put music to his words, and sometimes the music and lyrics all come along at once.

Could you tell me a little about the process behind the recording of your album, Small Town Thinking?
The album was recorded with producer, Alan West, at his studio in East Devon. We started out by recording my acoustic guitar and vocals pretty much exactly how I’d play the songs live at my solo gigs. We then started building the tracks around this acoustic spine. It took a while to figure out what approach we were going for in terms of the instrumentation, and we spent a lot of time experimenting. It soon became clear that we wanted to give some of the songs much more than a purely acoustic instrumentation, with bass, drums, and a fuller sound, that would allow me to let rip with some electric guitar work on there. However, we were starting to push the limits of what we could do in our small studio, and tracking the drums was proving to be problematic in the space we had, so we got in touch with Thomm Jutz, a friend of Alan’s who runs a studio in Nashville, where Alan has previously recorded himself. We were able to work remotely with Thomm using his expertise and bigger studio to get the best rhythm section sound we could. We sent him the core acoustic guitar parts and Thomm called in his go-to ace rhythm section of Lynn Williams on drums and Mark Fain on bass. They played to my guitar and then sent it back to us where I could add my guitar overdubs and vocals. I must admit I was a bit unsure of how well this method would work, and we had to place a lot of trust in Thomm, but when we got the first tracks back from Nashville we were delighted. After that, the rest of the recording came together pretty quickly. We called on Thomm again when we needed some other finishing touches, as he has some of Nashville’s finest musicians in his address book… for some harmonica parts he called in the superb Kirk ‘Jelly Roll’ Johnson (with a name like he was gonna be good right?), and David Henry added some stunning cello to weave in and out of my acoustic guitar on You Think You’re Lonely.

I learnt a massive amount during the recording, not only about the art of recording but also my playing, singing, and song writing. It was hugely enjoyable, and I am very grateful to Alan for sticking with it and spending countless hours in the studio with me. We’re both very proud of the album, and the end result is something we never knew we could achieve when we started it.

What was the story behind your song, At Times Like This?
This song was the very first thing Blacky (Steve Black) and I worked on in our first co-writing session together a few years ago. Before this, I had never really written with anybody before, so I didn’t know how or if it would work with him, and I was a bit nervous going in. But as soon as I got to his flat, we sat down and he said he’d been working on a few ideas, and he handed me a sheet which read “Small town thinking / big time drinking / the future’s sinking tonight…”, and straight away I knew it was gonna work! I quickly came up with a riff, and there we had our first song started – just like that. It ended up as the opening track on the album, and that very first line, Small Town Thinking, made for a very fitting album title.

The song itself is an observational one – doing what we do, we spend a lot of our time in small town drinking establishments (no bad thing of course!), but in doing so, you get to do a lot of people watching; you see couples and sometimes it’s clear that they are not getting on, or there are problems at home or money worries, and they are in the pub to try to push the problems to the back of their mind – to forget. But despite the bleak outlook, the message is a positive one – even though they are struggling to get by, they are sticking together to try and turn things around, and as the closing lines say: “You’ve got to understand, they still hold hands, at times like this”.

What are your favourite song(s) of your own to play?
It’s hard to pick a favourite – I enjoy them all, despite the number of times I’ve played them. The groove of the Next Man After Me is a lot of fun, and always goes down well with the guitar players in the audience. It’s always great when the story songs come across to an audience, and people seem to particularly enjoy the story of me getting ripped off when travelling alone in Santarosa St! You Think You’re Lonely is a real epic and a great one to close a show on.

What was the last song you wrote about?
I’ve got a lot of half finished songs on the go at the moment, the most recent of which I’m still not sure what they’re about! But the last one I finished with Blacky fairly recently was a relationship song. It focuses on our imperfections and differences, but it’s still pretty positive and upbeat.

If you had to pick the top five artists that have influenced your sound, who would you pick?
The top five would probably have to be Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Cream. Nowadays, my influences are broader as I’m not just playing classic rock and blues anymore, but it was these bands and guitarists, plus a few more, that had the biggest impact on me when I was starting out and totally shaped the way I wanted to play guitar.

If you could pick any artist to tour with, who would you pick?
I could reel off countless musical heroes of mine and legendary bands it would be a dream to tour with, but in an attempt to be a little more realistic, one of my favourite new bands at the moment is The Temperance Movement. I saw them at the Cavern here in Exeter a couple of Summers back, and again more recently in Bristol. Their style is right up my street – a no-nonsense blues-rock band with ballsy riffs and swaggering grooves all built around good song-writing. They’ve got plenty of energy live, and it’s all very real and unpretentious, which I like. It’d be cool to get to open a few shows for them.

What is your favourite instrument? If you could pick up any instrument in the world and instantly be able to play it, what would you choose?
Well that’s easy, the guitar of course – in answer to both questions! I’m still not able to play it as well as I’d like… I never will!

Would you say you prefer playing acoustic or electric guitar?
I don’t think I prefer one or the other, but if you’d asked me when I was younger, I would have definitely said electric. When I was in my teens, I only ever played electric, and it wasn’t until I went along to a jam night and the drummer didn’t show that I realised how stuck in a rut I was with it. They handed me an acoustic guitar to get up and play some songs solo and I really struggled. From that point on, I decided I needed to do something about it, so I soon traded in a pointy rock guitar that wasn’t getting much use and got myself a half decent acoustic guitar. I’m so glad I did, as I’m a better musician for it and it’s enabled me to do what I do now. The two require a different approach, but I see the two as just one instrument now – being an electric player makes me a better acoustic player, and vice versa.

When performing to an audience, do you ever improvise, or do you stick to the songs in their original form?
Yes definitely, I improvise all the time. That’s the beauty of playing solo – you have the freedom to do what you want! I’m constantly trying things out and playing songs how I feel them that day, even on songs I’ve played hundreds of times. It’s the same in my band too, and that’s another thing I like about the three-piece set up – you’ve got the space and freedom to improvise, and if one of us fancies taking it somewhere else, the other guys will follow… usually!

In your opinion, what is the best part of being in a band?
The best part about being in a band is the sound you make! That might sound a bit silly, but I love the fact that I can get together with just a bass player and a drummer and make a glorious sound that is more than the sum of the parts. I’m a big fan of the simple three-piece set up – guitar, bass, drums, and a voice. It worked for Hendrix, Cream, even Free – Led Zeppelin were just three instruments. I love the simplicity and the power.

Could you share one of your favourite on-stage memories? How about one of the weirdest?
One of my favourite gigs has to be my album launch show. It signified a real milestone to get that debut album done, and we put on a real good show with many special guest musicians to a packed hall full of friends, relatives, and fans. The support I got that night was quite overwhelming to be honest – so much so that I wish I could remember it better – it all went by in a bit of a blur!

As for the weirdest… well, there’s too many to mention – I keep thinking I’ve seen it all, and then I realise I haven’t. Most of it you couldn’t print, but one of the cleaner tales is when I was playing a small Summer festival with my rock band, The Perfect Strangers. We were on stage in the main tent doing our thing, when as we hit the last note of one of our longest and heaviest songs, the whole tent slid down the central support pole and collapsed on top of all of us – the bar, audience, and all. We were stood on stage still wearing our guitars trying to hold the canvas above our heads while they fixed it.

What would be your ultimate venue to perform in?
I guess a typical answer to this would be somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall, and while it’d be a dream come true to step out on an iconic stage such as that, I don’t know how enjoyable it’d be. I’ve seen a few shows at the RAH and the sound is usually pretty poor… it was never designed for rock bands! For me, the ultimate venue is anywhere with a good sound engineer in a space that’s full of people who want to listen to me play my music – and if I could do that lots of times in lots of different places, I’d be a very happy man!

You joined the label NEO Music in 2012; in what way has this affected your life as a musician?
Well without NEO Music, I don’t think I’d have made music a career, certainly not as a solo artist anyway. It has given me the support and the confidence to really go for it. Without the belief and dedication Alan West has shown me, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to make my first album. Yet at the same time, it hasn’t changed much – it’s a totally independent set up; there are no budgets or record contracts or anything like that, it’s just a few like-minded individuals who are willing to work together and put in a lot of time and effort to help us all make some progress in a very difficult industry.

What is it about your music that you feel is different?
I really don’t know if it is different, and I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel with what I do, but I’m also not trying to follow any particular style or genre. I just make music that I think is good, play it the way I feel it, and try to do so to the best of my abilities. I think that’s all anyone can do, and you just hope others will enjoy listening to it! 

Why is music important to you?
Music is just something I’ve always felt the need to do. It took a while to really grab a hold of me after I first picked up a guitar, but ever since it did in my early teens, it’s never let go. There are so many aspects of it I enjoy, from performing live, collaborating, creating, and recording, right through to tinkering with guitars and amps and experimenting with different sounds and equipment. Even the travelling I enjoy, and of course all the new people you meet and places you see along the way. I’ve got a constant need to get better at what I do, which keeps inspiring me to stick at it. I’ve never stopped playing, even when I had a decent ‘proper’ job with a very stable career ahead of me, I was always out gigging as much as possible – so much so that the ‘proper’ job just got in the way, so I packed it in. The music has always come first. 

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received as a musician, that you feel is relevant to people from all walks of life?
It’s hard to single out one piece of advice. I’ve had plenty of it over the years, most of which has been good and very welcome, though that’s less often the case when I’m getting it while it’s approaching last orders in the Nags Head! Anyway, I think the best advice is the simplest – if you want to be successful at something, you have to be good at it first. There are no shortcuts. You see people on the TV all the time now who expect to be able to ‘make it’ without putting in the work first, and I’m not even sure they know what ‘making it’ is. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what it is either, but to me it doesn’t really matter. What I do know is I want to have a long and enjoyable career in music, and I can only expect to have that if I work as hard as I can to be as good as I can be. Obviously, this requires a hell of a lot of commitment, so you have to love what you do, be true to yourself, and take your work very seriously – without taking yourself too seriously.

What can we expect next from Adam Sweet?
I’m working on new material at the moment, which I’ll be starting to test out on audiences soon. I’m thinking I might put out an acoustic EP to tide people over until I do my next full album, which I hope to start working on as soon as I have enough songs that I’m happy with. In the meantime, the gigs keep rolling on with regular appearances and residencies at local venues here in Devon and further afield, and I’m looking to get out to lots more new venues around the UK this year.

And finally – a kind soul offers you any rider request in the world. What would you pick?
Haha, well I don’t really see myself as being one for making outlandish requests, but I’ll happily take whatever I can get! Though a cup of tea and some chocolate Hob Nobs is always a good start…