Justin Adams has the countenance of a mild-mannered history teacher, yet the creature he transforms into when he is on stage with Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters is a force to be reckoned with. The stage transforms him, organizes itself the way it would around a feral cat: there is a sense of mystery, a weightless intensity, a way of moving around that emits ripples of strange sensations across the audience.
This constant moving around, this restlessness, does not only manifest itself physically in his performances, but also serves as the bedrock of his genre-bending career. The son of a diplomat, Justin spent his early childhood in North Africa and the Middle East, soaking up the sounds of various cultures he encountered, funneling them into a headspace simultaneously populated by rock ’n’ roll.
When Adams returned to the UK in the late ’80s, punk music was dominating a cultural landscape that appeared startlingly different from the one he had left behind in his childhood. However, the post-punk era gave him the opportunity to sonically engage with the places of his past. He pursued music with the passion of a practitioner and historian keen to understand the overlap of different cultures, their common reference points.
Today, his collaborations span the globe, from legendary Gambian ritti player Juldeh Camara to the Led Zeppelin frontman, Robert Plant. Moreover, he has produced the works of countless musicians from all over the world, most notably the elusive Saharan desert blues band, Tinariwen, an experience he describes as “life-changing.”
Guernica caught up with him after a concert to talk about the pedantic nostalgia of classic rock puritans and the collusion between music and magic.
—Farhad Mirza for Guernica
Guernica: Robert [Plant] seems very much at home with the band’s [The Sensational Space Shifters] interpretation of the Led Zeppelin material. How did you go about reinventing these songs?
Justin Adams: To me and Robert, it was obviously clear that we didn’t want to be a Led Zeppelin covers band, and it was a funny feeling for me to be playing with Robert because I had never studied Jimmy Page, and in fact, my whole life had been about realizing that there had been this generation of incredible English blues-rock players, like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, who had done this amazing thing, to which there was nothing to add, really. So, I never wanted to play in that style at all.
We are not scared of making mistakes, we make things up as we go along, we entertain each other; and in my mind that’s the true rock ’n’ roll spirit.
When I was growing up, my idea of Led Zeppelin was all epic lasers, castles, and ten-minute drum solos—that sort of thing. When I went back to listen to the records, as someone who is really into psychedelic music and delta blues and all these other things, I could see where it was coming from. So, Robert and I started to develop a language for how we wanted to approach these Zeppelin songs.
Guernica: I think if you try to recreate those songs [note by note], you’re stuck with a losing wager. After all, Zeppelin was inspired by the mood of delta music and showed little regard for playing it by the book.
Justin Adams: Yes, I think what a lot of people forget is that a lot of the music in the ’60s and the ’70s was made in the spirit of daring, spontaneity, and adventure, so the minute all that sinks into this sense of a classic form, it has lost its spirit. I do understand the perspective of die-hard fans who complain that we don’t play the same as the record, but at the same time I think fans are getting an amazing deal because Robert is just as open and adventurous as he was in 1972. He has the same attitude now: We are not scared of making mistakes, we make things up as we go along, we entertain each other; and in my mind that’s the true rock ’n’ roll spirit, not this idea of copying, tidying, or cleaning up things. I don’t like that.
Guernica: You grew up in Egypt, the son of a diplomat, and of course, the influence of North African/Middle Eastern music resonates with most of the music you have made and produced over the years—be it JuJu, Tinariwen, or the Sensational Space Shifters. What are your earliest memories of that music, and how did you reconnect with it once you moved back to the UK in the ’80s?
Justin Adams: You’re right, my father was a diplomat and my earliest years were spent in Chicago, before we moved to Jordan, and then later to Egypt when I was 12 or 13 years old. I have much clearer memories of my time in Egypt: songs on the radio, the rhythms that accompanied belly dancers, the sound of the adhan—the Muslim call to prayer. I just soaked it all up. And then, of course, I moved back to England, right when the punk scene was happening, and later developed an interest in reggae and dub music.
I always wanted to know what the music behind some music was, or where it came from, and that gave me a point of reference for understanding the music I was listening to at the time. In the post-punk period, you had people like David Byrne and Peter Gabriel who were just beginning to become aware of African music. There actually had been a tradition within English music of the ’60s of people looking eastwards, maybe in quite a naïve way, but nonetheless, you had musicians like George Harrison or Bryan Jones recording the musicians of Joujouka in North Africa. So, me and some other people really started picking up on that, and I suppose it resonated with me because it was the music of my childhood, and I was hearing it now filtered through the ears of someone who was listening to a lot of black American music and reggae, so it all started to make sense to me.
Going to Morocco was massive; that’s where I really found music which had the African syncopation and swing mixed with Arabic strains, and together they had this transporting, bittersweet quality. Going to the Sahara Desert and meeting the Touareg band Tinariwen was a life-changing experience. All through that time, I have just carried on learning and meeting musicians, and I keep finding links between different forms.
I like to go to old versions and find out what effect beats and scales have on your body, how they can transport you.
Guernica: Why is it important for you to go back to the original source of some music?
Justin Adams: The closer you get to the source, the more you begin to understand its essential nature. Perhaps, it was a natural consequence of thinking that I don’t want to copy the people I admire—I’d rather find out what inspired them and try to find my own way through it.
Also, on a very technical level, I am a geek who is interested in the intricacy of rhythm playing, so I like comparing and working out its details. I called the record I did with Juldeh [Camara] Soul Science because I was trying to explain to somebody what I felt about certain rhythmic or musical systems and the way they have a certain effect on the human body. And it is quite an ancient science of syncopation and scales, so I like to go to old versions and find out what effect beats and scales have on your body, how they can transport you. That to me is the essential function of music, and I like to find out how people understood and practiced it through our history.
Guernica: I heard your talk on distortion where you mention the bendir, a Tunisian frame drum. You compare its sound to the incantations of shamans who use spider’s webs in the mouthpiece of their masks to distort their voices. Do you think music is rooted in the desire to be transported, to perceive and interact with “the other world,” so to speak?
Justin Adams: I don’t know if you have seen Werner Herzog’s movie about cave paintings [Cave of Forgotten Dreams] where he talks about the original function of art as a sort of magical, hunting incantation. I think the origins of music have probably to do with magic and transcendence as well, so when I see one of those frame drums, I think of shamans, which makes Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” all the more interesting.
In Western classical music the idea of holiness, purity, perfection, and total beauty is expressed through clarity of sound—a bell-like sound. Obviously, that has its own place, and it’s a beautiful way of doing it. But I don’t think I am the first to point out that in Africa, the more buzzing the sound is, the more it indicates the other world—the spirit world. And in some traditional African dances, people wear masks in order to become the embodiments of particular spirits. I have heard that they often cover the mouth-piece with spider webs or something that resonates, so that their voice gets distorted, ceasing to be the voice of a human and becoming representative of a voice that comes from another world. In a lot of African instruments, you find a rattle, and sound engineers have a hard time making sense of it.
And, of course, then there are stories about early blues players in Memphis with broken amplifiers, who shoved pencils inside the cone of their speakers to distort their sound. So, there is some continuity and parallels there. And if you listen to Howlin’ Wolf, the way he naturally distorts his voice gives it an otherworldly power.
Guernica: Is it odd to you that people pay and gather to hear this other worldly voice, to be mesmerized, shocked, and entertained by it? As you say, the effect this voice is supposed to have on our mind is one of uprooting it from our plane of reality or taking away its narrative stability—at least temporarily.
Sometimes language is not enough.
Justin Adams: I think it is entirely understandable. The human condition is what it is. We can see beauty and wonder in the world, but we also face imminent death and uncertainty, and we often need to sidestep the idea of time and communicate with each other, not with words but with a sense of community and union. I don’t want to make an overreaching statement, but I think that’s the function of culture. So, I need that to live my life. All of that is essential to the way I live my life. I love communicating with people, and sometimes language is not enough. I think that’s what poetry is, where you can mess with language and get through to things that can’t be described or communicated through regular language or scientific processes.
Guernica: Every performance is in some way a simulation of fantastical deaths and spectacular rebirths.
Justin Adams: That’s an interesting way of putting it.
Guernica: I felt that when I saw you guys perform live. There was a bit during the performance during, “Fixin’ to Die” [a Bukka White cover], that was centered upon you and your transformation into this intense, feral character. What were you feeling during this particular moment?
Justin Adams: On one level, there is a certain amount of humor and showmanship about it. It’s just a bit of fun: There is a guy going crazy on the guitar. I have no problem with it being perceived like that because I think entertainment is a perfectly noble occupation.
Then there is this other level, which is about letting the music transport you, and suddenly you feel as if you’ve become a drunken lover—and I can only think of this in metaphors—but it feels like the roof comes off. You are from Pakistan, so you must know the famous qawwali singer, Nusrat [Fateh Ali Khan]. I saw him many times, and at some point in the performance he would raise his hand to the sky and hit a high note. I am not raised in the qawwali tradition, and there is a lot about it that I don’t understand, but I could guess what he was getting at when the music soared and he let out this incredible high note. It was a feeling of “fuck it”—nothing else mattered in that moment but grabbing that one note by its throat.
Guernica: In fact, growing up in Pakistan, I heard all sorts of legends about musicians. The rite of passage for some voices was to shatter a wine glass with a single note. Others had to lend themselves to melodies that would summon a refreshing spell of rain. But do you ever get to see the reaction of the crowd when you’re in that zone, in between two worlds?
Justin Adams: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s quite jarring and exciting when you see someone in the thrall of being completely transported by the music they’re sharing with you. I am very sensitive to music, so I can quite easily allow myself to access that space in which I am completely taken over. And you can get quite a reaction out of the crowd when you do that.
One of my interests is to understand what constitutes the vibe of a place and what makes one concert different from another.
Guernica: When I saw you guys [The Sensational Space Shifters] at the Ancient Roman Theater in Taormina, a historic venue that rests on a quiet hill overlooking the Sicilian seaside in Italy, it felt as if the venue had come alive and joined the band. How important is the venue to your performance?
Justin Adams: Well, I think where you play is important. We are professionals and we have played in every sort of venue you can imagine—from some granny’s front room, to squats in West London, to Madison Square Garden, to the Sahara Desert. I have a lot of experience in playing all sorts of venues. And one of my interests is to understand what constitutes the vibe of a place and what makes one concert different from another. You can’t fully measure or calculate these things, yet they are absolutely evident once you’re on stage.
Dimensions, acoustics, structures, building materials, all these things can be taken into account when one analyzes such a question, but there is more wonder and mystery to it. Things like mood: What is the mood of the people there? What feelings and memories do people bring to a venue? Do they like it? Is it somewhere they used to go to? Do they have any special memories there? Was it easy to commute there? Also the weather can have an effect. And the history of what has happened in that place, and how people have used it, the sort of effect it has on you. These things can’t be measured; they jump at you when you’re up there.
Guernica: I have heard you reject the label of “world music.” Why is that?
Justin Adams: I am actually friends with people who were at the meeting in London where they worked out that term. And it was a particular moment in history when a lot of peers of mine in London were getting labels and radio shows to show an interest in their enthusiasm for forms of music that weren’t from England or America. There were people who were promoting Bulgarian choirs, West African guitarists, and qawwali music from Pakistan, and it was all to do with record labels, radio shows, and where to physically put this music in a record shop. So, these people wanted a category for the record stores and they came up with the term “world music.”
I do understand why it was made at the time, but it was made from a white Anglo-American perspective. It became a limitation. It was supposed to help marketing. If you look at it charitably, then you could say that that particular group of well meaning people put it together with good intentions. But it’s actually meaningless. All labels and names are meaningless. Big Bill Broonzy once said, “All music is folk music. I never heard a horse sing a song.” So, it’s similar when people say, “Is this music ‘world music’?” Well, it’s not from Mars, is it? In a way, I am happy I am not a journalist because I don’t have to come up with terms like that.