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Interview: Brad Pemberton (Ryan Adams & the Cardinals)

With alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams now retired and living the quiet life, writing books, I decided to contact the members of his loyal backing band The Cardinals to find out their own individual plans, now that the band has dissolved.

So far so good: last month, I caught up with with guitarist Neal Casal for a career retrospective, and today, Stereokillers, I have an interview with amiable drummer Brad Pemberton, as he enters his own post-Cardinals world.

For those of you that don’t already know, the Tennessee native has performed with Adams for years (Pemberton was member of backing band The Pinkhearts before joining the Cardinals in 2004), and has recorded with the likes of Patty Griffin and Willie Nelson. Pemberton was also a member of 90s rock act Iodine, with Cardinals bassist Chris Feinstien.

Stereokill: When did you first pick up the sticks?

BP: I was about eleven years old. All I had for a couple of years was an old snare drum and one pair of sticks that were wrapped in duct tape. I eventually added a bass drum, then a hi hat, floor tom, etc,. until I had a full kit.

Stereokill: Back then, who were your main influences?

BP: John Bonham, Charlie Watts, Ringo, Keith Moon, Bun E. Carlos, Topper Headon, Levon Helm, Stewart Copeland, Larry Mullen Jr., Stan Lynch, Steve Jordan, Bill Berry, and countless others. I still find inspiration from these guys all these years later.

Stereokill: Are there any present-day drummers you admire and draw inspiration from?

BP: Sure: Steve Ferrone [Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers] has become one of my favorites in the last ten-fifteen years. The guy is just incredible. I loved Stan Lynch with Petty, but Steve Ferrone just has the most amazing pocket. Sick! Taylor Hawkins with the Foos, and Dave Grohl as well – both monster drummers. Zack Starkey is amazing, and Chris Sharrock, now with Oasis, is a fantastic drummer. Some of my pals, Dennis Diken, James Wormworth, Bryan Owings, and Paul Griffith are all great drummers and sources of inspiration and advice for me.

Stereokill: How often do you practise when you’re not on the road?

BP: I try to play something every day, be it drums or bass or guitar; the latter two being an absolute blast for me. I’ll spend five minutes throwing down a drum part on a song idea, and the next five hours playing bass and guitar! Not that I’m very proficient at either one, but I can get around ok. I think it makes me a better drummer.

Stereokill: Do you play locally?

BP: I have a ton of friends in Nashville who are songwriters, so I do get to play locally a good bit. I’ve already done several gigs in town with several different writers since we got off the road in March.

Stereokill: What can you tell our readers about Iodine, your old band with Cardinals bassist Chris Feinstien?

BP: Iodine was a 3-piece rock band: myself, Chris, and Jay Joyce. It was a loud, powerful, beautiful sonic assault over these simply amazing songs. Chris and Jay were in a band together prior to Iodine, called Bedlam, which I auditioned for when their drummer quit – then Bedlam broke up before I did a gig with them. I had known Chris for years, and when him and Jay started Iodine, he convinced Jay to get me in the band. It was a huge thing for me, as I had been seeing these guys play forever. We ended up touring all over in a van through most of the nineties, made a couple of amazing records that I am very proud of, and learned a wealth of knowledge. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

Stereokill: Why did the band eventually split?

BP: We had been working very hard for a long time, and got to the brink of (relative) success, but it just never quite happened. Jay was already producing records, writing songs for other artists, as well as playing guitar on records (The Wallflowers, Iggy Pop). Chris headed to New York City, and shortly thereafter, I met Ryan [Adams]. Chris and I have both worked with Jay since then on several records that he has produced, and there has even been some talk about doing some new Iodine material, someday!

Stereokill: You’ve recorded with Ryan Adams for many years now. How did you first become involved in his musical ventures?

BP: I met Ryan sometime in 2000, at a bar called 12th & Porter in Nashville. I was playing with a friend that night, and Ryan was in the audience. After the gig, Billy Mercer, who was playing bass, introduced us. I really didn’t know who Ryan was, but I had heard of Whiskeytown. We ended up closing down the bar together that night, and we were playing together the very next day. That was the beginning of the Pinkhearts.

Stereokill: What can you tell our readers about the Pinkhearts?

BP: The Pinkhearts was a fun, fun band.  It was like an alt-country Replacements. Very Stones-y, Faces-y, and booze-y; basically a really good bar band.

Stereokill: Do you have any fond memories from this time?

BP: Oh God, absolutely! But I think it best if I keep those to myself, or at least until I write my book!

Stereokill: Was your working relationship with Ryan different back then, compared to how it is now?

BP: Ryan and I clicked right away, musically and otherwise. He’s the best rhythm guitarist I’ve ever known, so him and I fell right in together. But he has always – then and now – bounced song ideas off me. I think we understand each other better now, and we probably don’t push each others buttons as much as we used to back in the day.

Stereokill: A number of songs from the Pinkhearts sessions appeared on Demolition (2002). Are you dissapointed that the majority of recorded material remains unreleased?

BP: Not terribly. I think the best material – more or less – made it on the record. It would be interesting to hear some of those tunes given a proper mix though.

Stereokill: Whilst in the Pinkhearts you supported the Rolling Stones. How was the experience? I’ve heard both good and bad about being a Stones support act.

BP: Man, that was one of the coolest things ever; I can’t imagine a bad experience opening for the Stones. Being one of my favorite bands ever, it was a dream come true. We did eight shows, although we were offered thirteen: Ryan turned down the last five to go make Love is Hell in New Orleans – pretty bold move! Those guys were all as cool as you could imagine and class acts. Ron Wood even made me an espresso after we played one night – surreal experience! We got to watch their soundchecks, which was great and often hilarious, and the catering was unbelievable! The audience usually didn’t care that you were up there playing; they were there to see the Stones, but we had fun every night.

Stereokill: Why did the Pinkhearts eventually disband?

BP: Ryan had his reasons, I’m sure. I think he needed a change, but you would have to ask him. We did the 4th of July show in Battery Park, 2003, and that was it. He made Rock N’ Roll, got a new band, and broke his wrist – all in a matter of about six months. I went and did a couple of tours with Hank III and Bobby Bare Jr that year, but by August 2004, Ryan and I were playing together again.

How did you become a member of the Cardinals, can you discuss why Ryan decided to form a more permanent backing band?

Stereokill: Ryan and I had an idea for this band all the way back when we met, but I think he had to play ball with the label for a while until he could form this band and make a really bold statement, like releasing three records [Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29] in twleve months. I think he always wanted to be in a band, but had to be a solo artist to make it happen – if that makes sense? After five years of being in a band, though, he may be ready to be solo again! *laughs*

Stereokill: The Cardinals suffered a few line-up changes. Were the respective departures of JP Bowersock, Catherine Popper and Cindy Cashdollar abrupt, or did the change feel organic?

BP: A bit of both. Cindy was only with us for about four months, right at the beginning, then [Jon] Graboff came in. And JP was gone less than a year later, and then Cat left about a year after that. But all the changes seemed to happen at the right time and for the right reasons, so there was never a huge shakeup; we just kept on rolling along.

Stereokill: Having previously played with [Cardinals bassist] Chris [Feinstien] in Iodine, did you introduce him to Adams when Popper left?

BP: No. Chris, having lived in New York for ten years, had already crossed paths with Ryan on several occasions. Chris was also hanging out some during the recording of Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, and ended up playing bass on that Minnie Driver record we did around that same time. When Catherine left, it was a no-brainer to get Chris.

Stereokill: Would you say the final Cardinals line-up was the ‘definitive’ one?

BP: I think so. It was the longest we had gone without a line-up change, and we all seemed to be on the same page musically and otherwise. Each line-up was good in its own way, but we really seemed to be firing on all cylinders during the last couple of years.

Stereokill: Which album are you most proud of and why?

BP: Tough one. I love them all for different reasons, but probably Cardinology. That, and the Follow the Lights EP are the two records that really reflect the last line-up of the band.

Stereokill: Do you have any fond memories from the studio? Which album did you enjoy recording the most?

BP: Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights were pretty much recorded back to back. We were working at LOHO Studio in the Lower East Side, and it was a very creative atmosphere. We were holed up in the studio, Ryan had songs coming out of him fast and furious, Jacksonville was Graboff’s introduction to the band, and there was just a great vibe going on – it was also quite the party, from what I recall. Tom Schick, the producer, really put his stamp on those records too, and Danny Clinch caught most of it on film. Unforgettable.

Which songs were your favourites to perform live?

BP: “I See Monsters”, “Rescue Blues”, “Beautiful Sorta”, “Magick”, “Blue Hotel”, “Hard Way to Fall”, “Love is Hell”, “Off Broadway”, “Crossed Out Name”, “Nightbirds”, “Cobwebs”, ”Meadowlake Street”, “Freeway to the Canyon”, ”Tina Toledo”, “Please Do Not Let Me Go”. Hell, pretty much any of them.

Stereokill: Can you tell our readers a Cardinals tour story?

BP: Sorry, I’m saving those for the book too.

Stereokill: Do you have a favourite venue to perform in?

BP: Brixton Academy in London is special, because I saw Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros perform there shortly before Joe died. The Forum in Melbourne is a great venue, Red Rocks is pretty amazing, and Madison Square Garden isn’t too shabby either! The Ryman in Nashville is pretty special as well, being my hometown and all. The Paradiso in Amsterdam is a good one, The Fillmore in San Francisco, The Apollo in NYC, Chicago Theater, The Fox in Atlanta. Too many to name them all!

Stereokill: Do you ever forsee a time when the Cardinals can get back together? If not, can you see yourself working with Adams in the future?

BP: I certainly hope so, but we definitely need a break. You can’t fix the engine while the car is speeding down the road, ya’ know? Everyone was a bit fried, so it was the right time to step back for a minute. I encouraged Ryan to go and get married, and have a life and find some peace; the guy hasn’t really slowed down in ten years, and he needed it as much as we did. Ryan and I have shared too much and are too good of friends to not ever do anything again, but I think we all need to do our own thing for a minute.

What will you miss the most about being in the band?

BP: Just the camraderie, with the band and our crew. Those guys are all like family to me, and I love them all dearly.

Stereokill: Do you have any idea what will become of Dear Impossible, the album written prior to Ryan’s decision to take a break?

BP: I have no idea.

Stereokill: [Lost Highway chairman] Luke Lewis stated that an “anthology” release is expected this year. Can you reveal any more about this?

BP: Again, I have absolutely no idea.

What are your plans for the rest of the year? Do you see yourself getting back into session work, or will you form another band?

BP: Right now, my family is top priority. I’ve been away more than I’ve been home the last few years, so home is where I plan on staying for a while. Connell, my son, is a teenager now, so I plan on getting some quality time with him before he starts high school, and I owe [my wife] Marna a much needed and long overdue Jamaican holiday. Work wise, I have a few recording projects already lined up, which should be really cool, but no plans for another band. Not right now, anyways.

Stereokill: You’ve recorded with Patty Griffin and Willie Nelson. What are some of your more memorable experiences from working with other artists?

BP: Well, the Willie record was definitely memorable – that guy is one of a kind! But they are all memorable in one way or another. They are all learning experiences for me too; I am endlessly intrigued by the creative process and how a group of people – sometimes strangers – can speak this shared language and create beautiful art. It is very good for my soul.

Stereokill: What are you listening to these days? Are there any artists out there that you recommend?

BP: I just bought the new Bob Mould record, Life and Times, which is great. Kings of Leon, being local boys, are one of my favorites. There is another local band called Cage the Elephant, who I’ve seen live, and they blew me away – and I believe they have a new record too.

Stereokill: What are your favourite albums of all time?

BP: The Clash – London Calling, Husker Du – New Day Rising, The Replacements – Let It Be, Cheap Trick – Heaven Tonight, Frank Black – Teenager of the Year, The Rolling Stones – Some Girls, The Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime, Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin, Los Lobos – Kiko, Sugar – File Under Easy Listening, Keith Richards – Talk Is Cheap, Soul Asylum – Hang Time, Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape, AC/DC – Back In Black, R.E.M. – Murmur, Tom Petty – Wildflowers, Neil Young – Harvest, to name a few.

Stereokill: Do you buy physical copies of albums, or do you download them?

BP: Both. Although, I try to buy physical copies as much as possible; I like to have it in my hands, and support Grimey’s, my local record store. The iTunes store is very convenient though, I gotta’ say.

Stereokill: Who would you put in your supergroup?

BP: Chris Feinstein, Neal Casal, Jon Graboff and Ryan Adams.

Stereokill: Can you tell our readers your own personal take on the music industry?

BP: From the artist side, things seem to be thriving. There never seems to be a shortage of new bands, and new technolgy is making it very easy for anyone with a laptop to make recordings and send it out on the internet for anyone to hear. On the business side, that same technology is causing labels to rethink their role and possibly their very existence. I think it will eventually work itself out, but thank God that’s not my gig.

Stereokill: Finally, what do you consider high-points in your career thus far?

BP: Man, there have been a lot. Opening for the Stones, jamming with Toots Hibbert in Jamaica, doing Saturday Night Live, playing with Elton John, playing the Apollo last year – even I can’t believe some of the amazing things I’ve been able to see and do. I feel quite blessed, and I just hope I can continue to create and play for the rest of my days!

  1. Campbell Miller on Tuesday 12, 2009

    He’s jammed with Toots Hibbert. Thats the clincher for me.

  2. Sandy on Tuesday 12, 2009

    Great interview!! Thanks!

  3. Campbell Miller on Tuesday 12, 2009

    Seriously though. Toots Hibbert.

  4. Stas Stas on Tuesday 12, 2009

    I vote for the superband to form, but hey it’s a limited democracy… Brad Pemberton right on!

  5. Mark - Total Drums on Tuesday 12, 2009


    Great interview. It’s no suprise that his influences include John Bonham and Keith Moon. Super drummers.


  6. [...] read our previous interviews with guitarist Neal Casal and drummer Brad Pemberton simply click the names. 0 [...]

  7. micky on Tuesday 12, 2009

    The man is a legend and a true gent. Amazing drummer!!!