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Interview with Nathan Roche for MESS + NOISE (AUS), 02/2015
How did you initially meet Bruno Adams?
I first met Bruno in Prague in 1996. I’d known his sister Bronwyn Adams (violinist of Crime & The City Solution) when she was living in London in the early 1990s. One time when I was visiting she played me a video tape that Bruno had sent her from Berlin. He’d moved to Kreuzberg with Once Upon A Time in 1989, I believe. They’d initially flown from Melbourne to London, but had stayed in London only a few weeks before deciding it wasn’t the place for them. I guess there was something of an Australian-friendly music scene in Berlin at this time, what with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds having been based there in the mid 1980s. Anyway, this video of Bruno I saw was a kind of “A Day In The Life Of An Australian Living In Berlin” affair. Bruno was telling a story to the camera about his girlfriend of that time getting involved in the hijacking of a Berlin tram! She’d been drunk, met some crazy guy and they’d gone on this wild adventure that ended with them both getting arrested. I was very impressed with the way Bruno told the story. It was almost like a theatrical monologue, with pauses for dramatic effect and very expressive facial gestures. My impression was that this guy was a natural story-teller, with a great flair for comedy and narration. The tape ended with Bruno doing a fantastic version of “St. James’ Infirmary” – solo in his living room, accompanying himself on guitar. It really blew me away. He had a fantastic natural Blues voice, what you’d call a “voice from God”. I was like, “Wow! I’ve got to meet this guy!” It was another five or six years before we did finally meet. In the interim I’d moved to Prague, and I met him at one of the last gigs of Once Upon A Time. It was at the Roxy Club in Prague. After the show I went up and introduced myself, told him I knew his sister from London. So it all dates from then, the spring of 1996 in Prague.
What led from this to the formation of Fatal Shore?
Just before I met Bruno I’d agreed to do a tour of Bosnia-Herzegovina under the aegis of George Soros’s People In Need Foundation – Cultural Aid to Former Yugoslavia. My Czech band, Southern Cross, were a bit dubious about going. It was still quite hairy down there, even though the Dayton Peace Accord had been signed – lots of unexploded landmines lying around, snipers in the forests taking pot-shots. I mentioned the upcoming tour to Bruno at the OUAT gig, and he immediately expressed interest in coming along. He was that type of guy, up for anything adventurous. We agreed that he’d come back to Prague after the OUAT tour finished, and that we’d work up a set of songs to play in Bosnia. So that’s what happened. A couple of weeks later Bruno appeared on my doorstep with his guitar and we spent two or three days putting together a set of songs by artists such as Lee Hazelwood, Jaques Brel, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf – songs that we both knew and loved and which were capable of being played by a duo. Most of these songs appeared on the first Fatal Shore CD, which was recorded the following year with Chris Hughes on drums. I already knew Chris from London, by the way. I’d met him when I supported These Immortal Souls at the Camden Underworld in 1991. Chris was playing drums with them during this period. But the origin of Fatal Shore was this very intense tour of Bosnia-Herzegovina that Bruno and I undertook. Bruno disbanded OUAT once he got back to Berlin. After Chris Hughes got involved, Fatal Shore really took off. I think it was Bruno who gave the band its name.
What was the songwriting partnership between you and Bruno like, how did these songs come about initially?
I think that more than Bruno I was coming from a traditional singer-songwriter background. I’d always written songs alone, sitting in my room with an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder. Very old school. I’d hear all the instrumentation and arrangements in my head, and would simply teach the completed songs to the band. Bruno was a little more left-field, especially when he was with OUAT. The impression I got was that Bruno would write the lyrics and maybe some basic guitar parts, then the songs were worked on with the band. Everybody had input. With Fatal Shore this collaborative approach wasn’t possible – not with Bruno and Chris in Berlin and me in Prague. I think we had about six rehearsals in the history of the band! It was more a case of Bruno and me each having our own songs pretty much complete. I think this was something new for him, to sit down and write a song from start to finish. But with Chris’s input the songs changed a lot anyway. There was a very strong intuitive connection between the three of us. We’d meet up to go on tour, and we’d actually learn the new songs in sound check – go through them once or twice then play them that same night. They always fell into place, somehow. The guitar parts that Bruno added were great. He had a sophisticated sense of rhythm, deceptively simple but actually quite complex. He could really get under the skin of a song. I liked that spontaneity, the freshness that comes from not practicing a song to death. And if the songs had good solid structures (which they generally did), it meant that we could go out on a limb in the instrumental passages, then return to the structured part of the song. Some of these excursions were pretty wild, we had no idea where they were leading. Pure intuition, more like jazz in that respect. There would be these intense guitar freak-outs from Bruno, while Chris would be wreaking all kinds of sonic and rhythmic mayhem with his Jam-Man loops and his unpredictably placed beats. The fact that for much of our career we didn’t have a bass player also gave the band a unique sound. It meant I had to keep everything really anchored with the electro-acoustic, otherwise the whole thing would fall to bits. We took a lot of chances, nothing was ever played the same way twice.
Fatal Shore recorded the three albums in fairly exotic and varied locations (Slovakia, Kentucky and Berlin). How did these landscapes affect the recordings?
There are four albums, actually. The last one, “Setting The Sails For El Dorado”, is a collection of demos, out-takes and alternative versions that came out on the German label Moloko + a couple of years after Bruno died. It’s dedicated to his memory. But anyway, the first CD was recorded in Lucanec, Slovakia. We were doing a Czech and Slovakian tour in the spring of ‘97, and some fans took us to see their mate’s studio, the morning after the Lucanec gig. It was really good and really cheap, so we booked it and came back a couple of months later to record the album. This studio was situated in an old factory building with concrete stairwells and steel railings. We put the amps in the stairwell and got this huge cavernous, metallic sound with lots of natural reverb. I remember Bruno being down one end of this corridor, me at the other end, and Chris in the middle. Great sound, you couldn’t have got it with plug-ins or effects. The place was so cheap that we could afford to stay in town for over two weeks and really work on the material, mix it properly, get unusual sounds.
The second CD “Free Fall” was an entirely different matter. It was recorded in a 19th century church in Covington, Kentucky. The way that came about was totally off-the-wall. Towards the end of 1999 we were on tour in Germany, crossing an iced-up mountain pass on the way to the next gig in Pilsen. Chris mentioned that some American record producer called Dan May wanted to produce the second Fatal Shore CD. He was offering us return air tickets to Cincinatti and a month in his studio with all expenses paid. Bruno and I were like, “Yeah Chris, sure, pull the other one…” I mean we were starving at the time, we could barely afford the gas money to the next gig. There we were in a small car, slipping and sliding over this mountain pass, and suddenly, out of the blue, there’s an American record producer offering to fly us to the States. It turned out to be true. Nico Mansy, who Chris had played with in Hugo Race & True Spirit, had married an American girl and moved to Cincinatti. He was working as an engineer in May’s studio, “The Church”. Dan had heard the first CD, really liked it, and wanted to produce the new one. So in the spring of 2000 we flew out of Berlin en route to Cincinatti. The project sounded great on paper, but the situation wasn’t quite what we’d been led to believe. Dan and his mates – well, I won’t say they were members of the Ku-Klux-Klan or the American Nazi party, but they did have quite strong right wing views. It was kind of like, “Well we know the niggers and the niggers know us, but the fuckin’ Jews man!” We were like “Whoa, wait a minute, what did you say? Are you joking or what?” The thing is they were joking, but they were serious too. Wind-up merchants, overgrown rich kids trying to be provocative. It turned out they were all stocks and shares guys who worked the financial markets – millionaire rednecks in suits, basically. Dan had his own band, Kursk, and he wanted to get into record producing. We were the guinea pigs, the experiment. So we were kind of trapped there in Kentucky with these people – no escape if we wanted to do the album! I mean, we didn’t even do any recording for the first week. Dan just wanted to party and show us off to the neighbourhood. It was like, “These guys are over here from Berlin and I’m producing them.” Meanwhile, Bruno would be out in the back yard, drinking with Dan and the guys, getting into political arguments, saying, “C’mon Dan, you’re an intelligent bloke, you don’t REALLY believe all that Mein Kampf bollocks, do you?” The thing is he did! I figured I was there to record an album and stayed out of it. I mean, you’re not going to convert these people to social democracy, so why bother? Do the album and get out fast. Dan was fine as long as you stayed clear of race, religion and politics. But like I say, he was a wind-up artist, so it wasn’t always possible. It turned out he’d just bought Pro Tools and was finding out how it worked as we went along. He and his engineer Jerry Chambers lost one of my songs in cyber space, when they forgot to save it with a title. Finally there was a big argument between Dan, Chris and Bruno over the racial thing. I wasn’t there, I was staying at Jerry’s place, out in the Cincinatti suburbs. But the net result was that Dan locked us out of the studio, so we lost two days of recording time. Finally he calmed down, realized he was being an asshole, and let us back in for the final day. We finished off the last vocal track three hours before the plane left for Berlin. I think those freaky vibes in The Church somehow transferred themselves onto the recording – all those SS uniforms and daggers and Lugers lying about did give a certain edge to the proceedings.
The third CD, “Real World”, was a sedate affair by comparison. We’d acquired a bass player, Yoyo Röhm, who was also a producer and arranger. We recorded it in his home studio in Berlin, a much more relaxed environment. He did all the string arrangements and organized these top-notch Berlin classical musicians to play on it. It doesn’t have the manic edge of the second CD, or the metallic, extra-terrestrial resonances of the first, but I’d say it was our most accomplished recording. Yoyo did a fine job, the production is really lush, really deep – in the way that Lee Hazelwood recordings are lush and deep.
What was Bruno like, personality-wise on and off the stage? Do you have any particularly fond memories or incidents that stick out in your memory?
Hard to put into words. There were a lot of facets to his character. To a certain extent he was acting a role. He had that ability to project a persona that natural born actors have. He was really charismatic, a very powerful performer on stage. At the same time he’d be taking the piss, going in and out of role, provoking a reaction from the audience with his presence, his quality of absolute “there-ness”. Not in a confrontational way, but with warmth and humour, passion and humanity. But it did wind a certain type of person up, and I think he found that amusing. This impulse he had for comedy isn’t to say that he didn’t take himself and his music seriously. He most certainly did. But at the same time he had this kind of bigger view, like he was looking down on himself from somewhere up above and laughing. He’d have me in stitches on tour with these parodies he’d do of stock Australian characters – right-wing politicians from the Country Party, brain-damaged psychos from the suburbs, aggressively inquisitive immigration officials. He could have had a second career as a stand-up comic. Yet he was an extremely sensitive guy. He could convey these really deep, very real, very soulful emotions. As far as his off-stage character is concerned, I think I can say that I’ve never before or since met a human being who seemed so free of malice, envy or any kind of hatred for anyone. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a hippy. Bruno was a big strong guy, and he could take care of himself in a fight, if the situation was forced upon him. But in my experience he was always reactive, never proactive. If you were his friend you could count on him, he wouldn’t let you down. He had a big heart and he took friendship very seriously. You don’t get many people like that these days. Certainly not in rock and roll, which is famously full of self-obsessed dickheads.
How do you think Bruno felt about his musical career, reputation and appreciation or lack thereof in Australia?
He never talked about it, actually. Not to me anyway. He certainly never came across as embittered. He had his life in Berlin, a family to support, songs to write, bands to play with – and a huge network of friends, both native Berliners and Australian ex-pats. He was well liked and highly respected, a larger-than-life character who attracted attention wherever he went. People responded to him, he was part of the furniture, an important fixture on the Berlin scene. He promoted gigs too, at Café Zapata for example. He gave lots of new bands a chance, especially if he thought they were doing something original. Every bar you went in with him, someone would come out of the shadows and say “Hey, Bruno! What’s happening, man?” He was known for being fair and pragmatic, never stuck-up or precious, no hidden agendas. Certainly not a saint, he was too real for that. But he had this immense positive energy that just swept you along, you felt somehow enriched by knowing him. I think he was too busy living his life to dwell on stuff like his reputation back home. There were so many in Berlin who loved him. At his funeral it was amazing – about two hundred people showed up, most of the Berlin underground scene was there. And anyway, I think he was appreciated in Australia. Maybe not by the public at large, or even the critics, but by the cognoscenti. People like Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney and Warren Ellis knew and respected him. Mick Harvey, on “One Man’s Treasure”, did a great version of Bruno’s song “Planetarium”, which has to be one of the most achingly beautiful songs ever written. And I think Bruno’s reputation as a songwriter will continue to grow. The Oslo-based New York singer Mark Steiner has just done a very nice cover version of “Closing Time” on his new album “Saudade” (a Portuguese expression that describes the slightly joyful feeling you might experience when thinking about lost loves, or people no longer present). Bruno did what he did to the best of his considerable talents and abilities. He put out the best music he was capable of making, then let the chips fall where they may. I mean, it wasn’t like he was networking the whole time, trying to be flavour of the month. Maybe at the end, when it was obvious the cancer was winning, he did get introspective. But even then, even when he knew he was going to die, he never lapsed into self-pity or bitterness.
Did you ever see Once Upon A Time play? If so, what were they like live? And how did audiences respond abroad?
Yes I did, several times. There was the gig I mentioned earlier, in Prague, on their final tour. I also saw them a few times after they reformed in the early 2000s. They were mesmerizing live, almost too much, quite overpowering in fact. The word “apocalyptic” springs to mind. They had this huge gothic-blues sound, dark and swirling, like a vortex that sucks you in. Some of OUAT’s instrumental workouts were quite experimental, with a lot of sonic passages and free-form jamming. Chris Russell and Chris Hughes added a lot to the sound, and they had this German bass player, Ollie Peters, who was very much of the Tracy Pew lineage. They did tend to get lumped in with that whole post-Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Berlin thing, but to me they sounded more like The Doors. Or maybe the more psychedelic end of Dr. John. The way that they could go from pop-inflected melodic numbers like “Holley” to “Book Of Words” or Whirlwind”, which to my ears are reminiscent of “Horse Latitudes.” Bruno also had a powerful sense of drama and dynamics in his performance, but without the self-conscious pose of Morrison. OUAT pulled quite large and enthusiastic audiences, and were well known in central Europe – Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary. But this was on an underground, slightly avant garde level. They never broke out commercially.
Why do you think he stayed abroad living in Berlin since the 80s?
I guess because he liked it! He really fit in with the whole Berlin post-Bad Seeds, post-Neubaten, post-Die Haut scene. All those guys were his friends and contemporaries and they respected him. There was a cohesion to the Berlin scene at that time which I think Bruno found very attractive. He was like a fish swimming in his own water. There were personal reasons too: his two marriages and three kids. I just think he’d built up such a network of relationships he couldn’t imagine going back to live in Australia and leaving it all behind. Basically, he loved Berlin and Berlin loved him back.
When hearing about Bruno’s illness, which he sadly died from, how did this affect the band and your relationship with him. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 did he change now being aware of this?
I think it was actually 2004 when Bruno was first diagnosed with cancer. Initially they thought it was a stomach ulcer, and the doc simply told him to stop drinking. When after three months the pain was still there, he went for some tests and was told he had colon cancer. He took the news philosophically and made his mind up he was going to beat the disease. He started to have chemotherapy, and they shrank the tumour till it was operable. We never stopped gigging, even though Bruno was frequently in pain and tired from the chemo. So he had the operation to remove the tumour, and at first they thought it had been successful. He wrote a lot of songs in this period, some of which ended up on “Real World”. You can sense the feeling of rebirth, the belief that he had survived a very dark period in his life, on songs such as “So Glad I Did” and “Between A Heaven And A Hell”. But a few months later they discovered they hadn’t got all of the tumour out after all, that it had gone into metastasis and the cancer was spreading through his body. This was truly heartbreaking. Imagine having gone through all this, feeling like you’ve been reprieved from a death sentence, then having your new life snatched away. Bruno and Katka had just had their second kid too. A horrible, tragic situation. Somehow he kept going, picked himself up and refused to admit defeat. We continued gigging, though sometimes he was in such great pain that he had to lie down on the stage to relieve it. One time we had to fly him back to Berlin from a gig in southern Hungary, when he needed hospital treatment. But in spite of all this he insisted on continuing with the tour and missed only a couple of gigs. After the last one, at Ebensee Kino in June 2008, he took the cable car and hiked around the top of a nearby mountain. Talk about a lust for life! Can you imagine what he must have been going through all this time? The feeling of encroaching, inevitable death, and the sheer bloody-minded determination to keep on living and loving and making music in spite of everything. He’d lost a lot of weight by then. Finally this big, hale, hearty guy with a huge appetite for life was reduced to a bloodless skeleton. Even then, when his cheeks were sunken and his skin was grey, the light never went from his eyes. Not until the last few weeks. Finally he did start to get this distant, faraway look, as if he were gazing out across some invisible line, some border. It could have been the morphine, but you really got the feeling he was staring into the void. Did you know that a documentary film was made about the last year of his life? Helena Giuffrida, Bruno’s first wife, shot it, and it follows him (literally) right up to the end. It’s called “So Glad I Did”. It tracks him as he goes about his daily routine, all the things a person has to deal with when suffering from terminal cancer. Bruno agreed to be filmed. He wanted to deal with the whole thing scientifically, almost like it was an experiment. So here we see a guy who knows he’s going to die in a matter of months, visiting the hospital, discussing his condition with the doctors and nurses, talking to his friends, his family, his kids, telling them papa’s gonna be going away soon, meeting with the funeral director who’s going to bury him, visiting the cemetery so he can pick out the plot where he’ll be buried, being pushed in a wheelchair by Katka, sitting in the park taking the sun. All without any trace of self-pity, no feeling of bitterness that he’s drawn the short straw. To me it’s incredible how he was able to face death in this seemingly detached way, especially when he loved life so much. What he went through was really hardcore, but he wanted it to be documented. If it was going to come down, then let it be real, this is death and death is an inescapable part of life. The last scene shows him lying in the coffin, with his two younger kids (four and seven at the time) trying to comprehend what has happened. They’re making it into a game, laying flowers around his head, saying stuff like “He was here before, but now he’s gone” and “Feel his skin, it’s cold now, he’s different”. Man, it’s about the heaviest film you’re ever likely to see. I don’t know if I could take seeing it again.
Any other things you’d like to mention about Bruno, and his influence on people both musically and other?
Well, I could go on for several more thousand words and still not capture his essence. I think it’s clear from what I’ve said that he left an indelible mark, on me and many others – both musically, and as a person. Let’s just say that he was one of the most impressive, inspiring human beings I’ve ever met and leave it at that.
Click here to read the published article with interviews by Katka Adams, Chris Hughes and Phil Shoenfelt