Adam Ant on Fashion, Michael Jackson, His Current Comeback and That Mental Breakdown (Q&A)

Hot off a string of well-reviewed concerts, the 80s star who pioneered the pirate chic look, talks to THR about music, health and "growing old with grace."
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In the early 1980s, Adam Ant was one of the biggest pop stars in the world, instantly recognizable thanks to his MTV-ready style, a flamboyant look that paired a pirate-chic wardrobe with Native American-inspired war paint.

Three decades later, the onetime Sexiest Man Alive (as voted by MTV viewers) reprised the same look for his first U.S. concert in 17 years, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles on Sept. 13. Only this time, the now-57-year-old -- headlining with his band under the name Adam Ant and The Good, the Mad and the Lovely Posse -- topped things off with a super-sized feathered chapeau that could've been swiped off the head of an 18th-century French Revolutionary. Or Captain Jack Sparrow.

Such costumery would've been cartoonish had Ant delivered a shaky performance. But on night number-one of his Blueback Hussar Tour of North America, the self-described dandy marched onstage with all the pomp and swagger of Napoleon himself, delivering a sonically solid one hour, 45-minute show, impressing longtime fans and skeptical critics alike.

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The mostly sold-out, five-week tour -- which also included a September 22 stop at the Music Midtown 2012 festival at Atlanta's Piedmont Park, where Ant appeared before about 50,000 people and shared a bill with Pearl Jam, Florence and the Machine and Ludacris -- is a make-good for a U.S. trek that was originally planned for earlier this year. Ant said he was forced to postpone those dates due to his band members' visa issues.

In LA, the 25-song set featured both rare tracks and crowd-pleasers from each Ant era: late-70s punk ("Beat My Guest, "Red Scab"); early-80s new wave ("Antmusic," which inspired quite the crowd singalong, plus a rousing, partly stripped-down version of "Prince Charming"); later-80s solo smashes ("Goody Two Shoes", "Desperate But Not Serious"); and his early-90s makeup-less phase ("Wonderful"). He also debuted a new song, "Vince Taylor," from his forthcoming worldwide release, Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter, due out in January. 

And Ant was hardly the only one in costume. The concert was something of an early Halloween party, with band members and many ardent followers joining in the masquerade: His female drummer donned a gown and elbow-length gloves and a backing singer bustier and garters, while a number of his mostly over-40 fans (and at least one small child) emulated Ant, resplendent in vintage brocade and made-up faces bearing white stripes across their noses.

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About a month earlier, Ant (a.k.a. Leslie Stuart Goddard) showed a similar flair for flamboyant fashion when he sat down with THR for an interview at Manhattan's Paramount Hotel. When the Brit arrived in the restaurant, he was wearing eye make-up, penciled-in sideburns and a mustache, vintage rings on every finger, snug Vivienne Westwood trousers and a short double-breasted jacket designed by Westwood's son with Malcolm McClaren, Joe Corré, for the latter's line A Child of a Jaygo. (Ant recently announced that he is co-designing a clothing line, Blueback Hussar, with Rob Lucas of Pimpernel.)

Ant talked about the reasons for his extended stay away from music and how Michael Jackson inspired him to hit the comeback trail, plus how he safeguards himself from having another mental-health episode following a well-documented stay in a London psychiatric hospital in 2010.

The Hollywood Reporter: It's been 17 years since you last toured America and released your last record. What made you think the time was right for a comeback?

Adam Ant: I went to see This Is It in London after Michael Jackson passed away. I sat there and thought, "A lot of the performers are going." Poly Styrene passed away, and a number of other musicians. There is only a certain time in your life when you can physically keep doing this. I'm pretty fit, and I thought, now's a great time to get back on board. And I was writing; I'd had the album in the can. So I recorded the album, and I thought, "Let's go!"

[This Is It] was quite a good film from the point of view of the mechanics of putting a show together. That's how I used to put shows together -- not on that dance level, but when I did [1982's] Prince Charming Revue in Great Britain, it was very complicated. LIke putting together an opera. I missed putting the album and show together. [The film] gave me that little nod to get back on with it.

THR: Why such a long hiatus?

Ant: That's how long it needed to take, really. I think people forget that even prior to the success in 1980, '81, I'd started in '77 with the punk stuff. So if you take '77 to literally like the mid-90s, that's a long time. By that time, I'd wanted to do some acting. I started with the Joel Orton play [Funeral Games] at the Royal Exchange Theater in Manchester. Then I came over [to the U.S.] and did Equalizer, Amazing Stories with Spielberg, Northern Exposure. I enrolled in an acting class in LA with Harry Mastrogeorge -- Ray Liotta and Darryl Hannah were in my class. I also wrote a script, London Bridge, with a guy called Joel Surnow. Surnow then created 24. And I wrote a book.

THR: The 2006 autobiography?

Ant: Yeah, Stand And Deliver. Then I went to live in the South, in a place called Dayton in Tennessee.

THR: It's hard to imagine Adam Ant living in Tennessee.

Ant: I lived in Tennessee for a couple of years. I enjoyed that. There, my daughter, Lilly Caitlin, was born. I decided that I was going to be like a house husband, so I was with her for the first five years, changing nappies. That's the hardest work I've ever done, the child-rearing thing. But as Lily older, I started to think about [music], and I missed it, the creative process and the live side of it.

THR: The new album title sounds like it comes straight off a movie marquis: Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter. What's the story behind that?

Ant: Blueback Hussar is the character I came over with in '80 with the war paint and the brocade. That's the name I'm giving him now, 30 years later, if he was an officer -- a hussar -- and if he'd walked to Moscow and back with Napoleon's army. I did a photo session with Lord Snowdon, the Queen's brother-in-law, and he took a photograph of me all dressed up in it, and it really did capture the look. I'll be using that in the promotion of the record. [As for the album title], marrying the gunner's daughter is a naval term for putting 'em over the cannon and giving 'em a beating. That's a term for punishment, which is a metaphor for being involved with a major record company for so long.

THR: But now you have your own label, Blueback Hussar Records.

Ant: I thought I was working for myself before, but you're not -- you're working for a record company. It's a bit like being under one of the old-style Hollywood film contracts. Those film actors, they were told what films they were gonna do; they had no choice. When they broke out of that system in the late 60s and the actors took the power -- that's the change in the situation with me now. I can pretty much choose what I want to do, when I want to do it.

But having said that, I appreciate now what it is that the record companies actually do do. It's quite a difficult job to get a record out, to distribute it, manufacture it, make sure the shows are sold out. But I'm quite embracing that. It's a learning curve.

THR: Your mental breakdowns have been well documented. [Ant, who has a history of depression, was sectioned by authorities in his native England, most recently in 2010 following concerts during which he yelled obscenities at the audience.] Are you concerned that the stress of touring could lead to an other episode?

Ant: The main thing with mental health is to realize the alarm bells and the triggers that cause it. In my case, it's primarily due to overwork. Not taking any time off for 20 years, it's hardly surprising that I'd succumbed to that. Anybody who's been through any kind of mental illness will tell you that you have to be very careful and live each day as it goes, taking an appraisal of the situation. I've learned to really just say no. If I don't want to do it, I won't do it. There's nothing that can make me do anything. That was not the case before, where it was all, "Just do another few gigs," and "We've got to have the record out next Thursday." It was a [hamster] wheel that you go round and round on. You've got to know how to get off it. You have to be your own judge on what's going on around you. I'm in a position to do that now because I work for myself.

THR: You were an art student who became a music-video sensation. These days, MTV doesn't play videos, and there isn't a lot of emphasis on album artwork. Do you have any plans for the visuals of this record?

Ant: I'm doing downloads, but I'm also doing physical product. I'm doing a double vinyl sleeve gatefold that will enable people to read the lyrics carefully if they want to. The front and back covers [will feature] two oil paintings of a young girl in a Nelson hat by the top British female portrait artist Mary Jane Ansell. She's won the BP portrait prize in Britain for two years running.

THR: Speaking of visuals, your publicist pulled out a picture of you in the ornate military jacket you wore in the early '80s side by side with a shot of Michael Jackson in a very similar one...

Ant: He phoned me and asked me where I got the jacket from, so that's why it's the same. I told him where to get it in London, and he went and got it and started wearing it. It a hussar jacket, a theatrical costume from Bermans in London. I sent him down to my friend who worked there, and he walked in and got the same jacket. He said, "I want an Adam Ant jacket," and they gave him one.

THR: You inspired him in the fashion department, and he posthumously inspired your return to music. So are you nervous about these comeback shows? 

Ant: No. I've never really been nervous about any concerts. I enjoy it so much.  All that matters is getting the songs played well, trying to get them to sound as close to the record live, which isn't easy, because my music is quite complicated to play. That's why I've done so many shows leading up to the U.S.A. [In the last two years] we've played to over 200,000 people in Britain alone. The band are very seasoned now. It's serious work. It's a craft, and I'm serious about it. This is me having fun; this is me surviving. This is dealing with growing older with grace. There's still lead in the pencil -- there's still a few shots in store. 

Adam Ant and The Good, the Mad and the Lovely Posse play New York's Best Buy Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 6.

Twitter: @THRMusic