The Broken Family Band (Steve Adams)

by Shawna Ortega

The Broken Family Band called it quits in 2009, less than a year after this interview took place.

These guys are just like you. They have day jobs, they have families, they have good and bad hair days... and, in the case of lead singer/songwriter Steve Adams, they have a wickedly funny view of everyday life. With a songwriting style that can only be defined as all-encompassing, dealing with subjects from drugs to debauchery, The Broken Family Band manages to keep the streak of humor alive and well, thank you. A rather arduous task for a lesser man, perhaps. But Steve will be the first to tell you - grin firmly in place - that he is amongst the best lyricists of this generation. Indeed, when one can write a song about geriatric sex and make it sound remotely like rock and roll, to us that spells brilliance. And Steve has done so - and then some. Brilliantly.

He agreed to talk to us because, he said, interviews are cheaper than therapy. He was right. We felt much better afterward.

If the BFB are not on your radar, we suggest adjusting your settings.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): Anything in particular that you want to get off your chest?

Steve Adams: (laughing) My father didn't love me, and my mother was a whore.

Songfacts: We'll call Dr. Phil for you. (laughing) Okay, why "the Broken Family Band"?

Steve: I'm not telling you.

Songfacts: Why?

Steve: Because the reason that we were called it has changed. This is a difficult one. It was down to the circumstances that existed at the time when we started the band, but those circumstances have changed. So it was a joke, and it's even more of a joke now. (laughing)

Songfacts: Hopefully it changed for the good.

Steve: Yeah, it changed for the good. We thought they were all dead, but it turns out they're not all dead.

Songfacts: (laughing) That's good, then.

Steve: Yeah. But I'm not very well rehearsed at thinking about these questions. Feel free to prod me more.

Songfacts: Well, maybe this will be very therapeutic for you, then. The first song that that has my curiosity piqued, "Alone In The Makeout Room."

Steve: That's an interesting one. I think that every so often you write a song as an exercise, to try something out. The longer I've been writing songs the more I like to look at it as an exercise and sort of stretch myself a bit. And that was one that I thought I'd like to write a comedy song, and it was that simple. That's a really boring answer, actually, but that's what it sounds like. It was completely written as an exercise with no malice aforethought. The lady that I sang originally with as a duet, she and I got on quite well, so there wasn't any spite at all. (laughing) I was in a really good mood for the entire time I was writing it.

Songfacts: What kind of makes me curious is at the very end of it, you're both singing about how "I'd love to see you fry, I'd love to see you hang," and at the very end she's saying, "I'm going to treat you the best that I can."

Steve: I'll be really honest with you - because no one's ever been interested in this, and I never thought anybody would be - that's a sappy song that's been a little spoiled for me. Me and the lady who sang on the Balls version kind of fell out, and as she has a co-write on it I'm happier just letting it lie. It was just an exercise in writing a kind of comedy duet really. She had come up with some very rude words to end the song with, and when we decided she shouldn't use that, she re-wrote it into that very sweet version. We had some fun doing it live with other singers and we re-recorded a great single version with the wonderful Eddi Reader, but I don't mind if I never hear it again. It's been used on a movie over here, and they used the album version, so we'll probably leave it at that.

Songfacts: All right. "You're Like A Woman."

Steve: This must happen to a lot of people - you start writing a song about one thing and then you kind of get sidetracked and you end up writing a song about another thing, and the two things get mixed up in the lyrics. The beginning of it is about my ex-girlfriend, and the policeman, which is all true. And then I kind of made up stuff about going on. It hasn't got much to do with the writing of that song, but since, the ex-girlfriend in question and the policeman had their first baby about two weeks ago. I had dinner with them about two weeks ago.

Songfacts: Oh, good, so you're all still friends.

Steve: (laughing) Yeah.

Songfacts: What did you mean by "I'm like a kid, and you're like a woman."

Steve: When you're on like a first date, and somebody's better at choosing the wine. (laughing) Oh, I know, there is an interesting thing about that. It's "You're like a woman," God, I always forget this. Originally it was supposed to be funny because I was getting sick of writing songs in my head in an American accent, knowing that I was gonna sing songs in an American accent, and I thought it would be something an American would say; an English person would say, "You're a woman," and an American would say, "You're, like, a woman." No one ever picks up on the fact that it was supposed to be, "You're, like, a woman," as opposed to "You resemble a woman."

Songfacts: Oh, that's hysterical!

Steve: See, that's the point. If you put in stupid private jokes, people rarely pick up on them, and you end up forgetting them yourself.

Songfacts: This'll go on the Web, it'll exist forever. You can refer back to it. I have to ask you then about the whole American accent thing, because you lost me on that part. You were going to sing in an American accent?

Steve: Yeah. We don't anymore.

Songfacts: What was the point of that?

Steve: Well, because we started as a country group, and we were doing it for fun. And it seems like it was the furthest thing from what I'd done before. I'd been in really earnest indie bands, being quite shouty and not singing particularly well, and I wanted to sing better, and I found that if I sang in the shower I always sang American songs, because almost all the bands were American. So I'd end up singing in an American accent. I think it's something to hide behind, and it took me about five years to realize that I was actually hiding behind it. It really annoys a lot of people over here, and it's probably done us quite a lot of damage in terms of getting anywhere, because there's nothing cool about putting on an accent. And I didn't make it easy for us, because I never pretended to be like an American wannabe or anything. The interesting thing is that it's never annoyed any Americans that I know of. I don't think they can tell. A Texan friend of mine once said, "You sound like a New Yorker pretending to be from Tennessee," which I thought was the kindest thing anyone could say.

Songfacts: If it helps at all, I haven't heard a single negative review on you.

Steve: No, we've been incredibly lucky with that. People say really nice things. But I think we probably would have been more successful had I not stuck to my guns. You know, just before we went to record our first record, I asked someone if I could sing all the songs in an English accent, and they said, "No, you sound more miserable when you sing in English. Why don't you do it in American? You might sound more cheerful." Once we'd done one record, I thought we were stuck with it. But I dropped it on the last record, mostly, and the new one we just finished doing there's no accent on it.

Songfacts: Has the newest one been released yet?

Steve: No, we're currently looking for a deal.

Songfacts: On your Web site you've got four songs that you can listen to. Are they from the new one?

Steve: Yes.

Songfacts: Cool. Because I listened to those, and I wanted to ask you about "Borrowed Time." What is a stairlift?

Steve: Oh, stairlift, I think you'd call it a chairlift. You know, old people can't get upstairs. That's about two old people getting it on in a chairlift. If you end up in an old people's home together, you'd probably still want to…

Songfacts: That's terrible. (laughing) I love that. Do you know what "chooglin'" means? Is that a shout out to Creedence?

Steve: Yeah, I'm glad you asked, because that would be like that "Like A Woman" thing. I thought I hardly ever used any Americanisms when I was singing in American. There's probably about half a dozen throughout all of our records. And then this one record that we've just done is like the most English phrasing. I think it's particularly English in its topics and scope and everything. And I thought it would be hilarious to put "chooglin'" in the middle of it.

Songfacts: But you don't know what it means, do you?

Steve: No, isn't it just that style of guitar playing?

Songfacts: I haven't the slightest.

Steve: Well, somebody had mentioned that even though we stopped doing country music, the rhythm guitar still does that stuff - chooglin' - like John Fogerty does, maybe.

Songfacts: Well, that's the best explanation I've heard.

Steve: Yeah, it's just a song about sometimes in a relationship you feel like you're rushing headlong towards everything, and you're panicking. I suppose it's a song about saying, "We don't have to panic anymore. We've got years ahead of us, but we still have to be nice to each other." And have sex on a chairlift.

Songfacts: Talk to me about "Salivating." Where did that come from?

Steve: That was just from being away with the band, thinking about gettin' it on with your lady when you get home. There's nothing more to it than that. It's one of the dumbest songs I've ever written.

Songfacts: "The money made a difference to how I feel about last night…"

Steve: Oh, doing a shit show and gettin' paid well.

Songfacts: That one was easy. Next. "You Did A Bad Thing." Tell me what the bad thing is.

Steve: Some people subscribe to that thing about you shouldn't ever talk about what songs are about, and some people are quite happy to talk about what goes on. But that one is one where I think there's probably nothing to be gained for anybody by me saying anything.

Songfacts: So we'll just leave that one alone. You did a whole compilation of Jesus songs. Do you guys have a heavy religious background?

Steve: No, not at all. None of us. I was brought up a little bit Church of England. I'm Protestant, but only a little bit. I don't think any of us have any anti- or pro-religious leanings. I've no idea, really, where the others stand on faith and belief. I'm an agnostic, and He's a good historical figure to use. It was actually that Jesus is featured in the rock and roll music that I liked when I was younger, really heavily. Velvet Underground, Jesus and Mary Chain, all those people would talk about Jesus. And it just seemed like an obvious thing for us to do. I think it's because it's one of the central tenets of country music, and if we were going to be pretending to do country music then I thought we should dive straight in.

Songfacts: And the songs "Walking Back To Jesus: Parts I, II, and III" - what inspired you doing a three-parter to that, and can you take me through those?

Steve: Yeah, it's really easy. I wrote one, the song called "Walking Back To Jesus," and then I thought about another song, and I realized I wanted to call that one "Walking Back To Jesus" as well (laughs), so I thought well then I'd write a series. I actually wrote the second one first, and then the third one, and then the first one. And it was just because it sounded like a nice thing to talk about, like going away from the flock and going back.

Songfacts: Okay, and "Part II," you wrote, "I'm not your only son, but I'm equal to whichever one you compare me to." That struck me. It's very profound.

Steve: There was a reason for that, actually, and that's that I feel quite strongly against the deification of singers in bands. I think it's a ridiculous thing to do, and people shouldn't think that because people are in bands they're any cooler than anybody else. I get annoyed with Jim Morrison type people, and that was the point of that, really. I'm not Jesus, but I'll tell you what, I'm not too bad.

Songfacts: "For Milton Mapes." And specifically there's a line in it about "all those haircut kids on the indie rock underground." Can you explain that?

Steve: I'm not being difficult, but if I had to pick one other song apart from "You Did A Bad Thing" that no one could ever benefit from me talking about, that would be it. In the spirit of cooperation, the most helpful thing I can say is it's one of the few songs that I have written when I was genuinely angry. And in fact, it's probably the only song I've written when I was angry that I've kept. And even I don't know exactly what I was talking about at the time. But it was to do with a specific event.

Songfacts: Who is Milton Mapes?

Steve: Well, that's interesting, because the title has nothing to do with the song. They're a really good band out of Austin, they changed their name to the Monahans. But they were a band called Milton Mapes who we were quite good friends with. They're really lovely guys. And we thought that song sounded a little bit like them, and we were trying to sound a bit like them.

Songfacts: I get it. "The Booze And The Drugs."

Steve: (laughing) Yeah… I'd not long been in London, and I was fully embracing as much of the night life as I possibly could at that time. And that was just a reflection of my state of mind then.

Songfacts: Let's go back in the past to "The Twelve Eyes Of Evil." Can you talk to me about that?

Steve: It's a nice song, but it's not about anything at all. My friend and I used to joke about creatures with beaks instead of eyes when we were younger, and they made it in there. And he always used to mock me for the line, "That stuff's been dealt with," as being something like one of those power ballad singers where you'd have hands on your head phones, and you could hear (in heavy-metal voice) "That stuff's been dealt with!" like a shaving commercial or something. We were talking about this very song the other night. And we only play that song now when we're nervous and we think people aren't going to like us.

Songfacts: Do you get down on your knees and sing it like a power ballad? Hold your hands to the sky?

Steve: (laughs)

Songfacts: "Living In Sin." Is this an experience you had?

Steve: No. I love this. I love what happened with that song that I thought it was quite a tacky, rubbish song, and it's probably one of peoples' favorites, ironically. And not that there are that many people that are interested in me, or us, but a small core of portly middle-aged men in England who I think they've taken that to mean I've been in some really damaged relationships or something. Whereas I thought it was just hilarious to make up a story about going out with Satanists, and that was it. Well, I was stuck at the time, couldn't write anything, and we were about to start making a new record. I thought we needed a couple more songs, and I listened to "Jesus" songs for the first time ever, and I think maybe the last time I listened to it to get some inspiration. And I thought, Oh, I know, I'll write a song that sounds like the Broken Family Band. So I was just trying to write a rip off of one of our songs, and got that. It's not true, it's only a song.

Songfacts: You're trying to rip off yourself?

Steve: Yeah. I don't think it's a very good song. Lots of people do. I enjoy singing it. The only bit I genuinely enjoy is the bit about he's thinking about drawing the line and praying to the dark world. But the rest of that song, I think, is a bit weak.

Songfacts: It's interesting to me that some singer/songwriters think that about certain songs of theirs, but they're the hugest hits with the fans.

Steve: Yeah, tell me about it.

Songfacts: Does it make you crazy?

Steve: No. I think it would do if the stakes were higher, if we were selling millions of records. The biggest song that we've ever had is a song called "It's All Over," off Balls. People are crazy for that. And it's quite an insubstantial song, I think. I really like it, and I love singing it, but anyone could have written that.

Songfacts: "It's All Over," insubstantial? Really? I think it's beautiful.

Steve: Thank you. Yeah, it's sweet, but it didn't take much to write. It doesn't have as much weight for me as some others do. But that's the way it works, isn't it? You have to be careful about which ones you record that everybody might like.

Songfacts: Along that line, is there any particular song that really took a piece out of you, that is autobiographical, and you put a lot of yourself into?

Steve: That is interesting. I'm tempted to say that some of the more miserable ones… oh, "Poor Little Thing," it's one of the Jesus Songs that I love, and I wrote it thinking it was about my twin sister, and then I ended up realizing it was about me. That was part of me, that's probably the one.

Songfacts: Wow. That's an interesting process to go through.

Steve: You usually find they're not about what you thought they were about six months down the line. What always happens, I write a song, record it, think it's really good, and then maybe six months later I'm playing it live, and it suddenly pops into my head, "Oh my God, this isn't about this, this is about that." That's what happens to me. I don't know if it happens to other people.

Songfacts: Do you think it causes you to sing it differently?

Steve: No, because it's only got so many notes. Unless you just sing it with more feeling, no.

Songfacts: Are there any of your songs that you would like to particularly talk about?

Steve: No, I've never talked this much about songwriting in my life. So there's nothing I'd volunteer. Although I do agree with the people who say I'm one of the best lyricists of our generation. I'm quite happy to stand up and say that. (laughing)

Songfacts: Congratulations. (laughing)

Steve: Thanks.

Songfacts: Is there a favorite song that you have to perform?

Steve: It changes all the time. At the moment it's one of the new ones. At the moment it's probably "Borrowed Time," because it's got this brilliant drum solo in the middle, and playing it live you think at any moment it's all going to fall apart. And because we've turned into a rock and roll band... I think we were a lot quieter for a long time. But we're quite heavy now. So it's all quite exciting.

Songfacts: Yeah, you guys have such a wide genre. I don't know that I've ever heard that big of an expanse of styles in any one band.

Steve: I think that's because there are outside pressures that bands have, like they want people to buy their music, and they want people to like them. And I think we want people to like us, and we want them to buy our music, but it's always been far more important that we keep ourselves interested. We just want to make nice pop music, but we don't want to get bored playing the same songs over and over again. And so the boredom is very low. Once you've made a record, you don't want to make the same record. We made the same record maybe two or three times, and then realized that we want to evolve. So we just want to get heavier.

Songfacts: Once you get in that groove, though, would you stay there?

Steve: No. We'll finish up as a chamber orchestra.

Songfacts: You said you're looking for a record deal, so are you looking to sign on with a major label, or do you want to stay indie?

Steve: We wouldn't dream of going to a major record label. We'll go with an indie. We're talking to a few people at the moment, so hopefully it'll all be agreed and signed in the next few weeks.

Songfacts: I'm glad to hear you say that.

Steve: There's only so much art going on in our band as it is, without somebody actively donating it. It's true, we are a bunch of artless chumps, and if somebody came in in a suit and started trying to take the art out of it, there'd be nothing left.

Songfacts: That happens so often, it's so ugly. Now, did you grow up in Cambridge?

Steve: No. Two of us were born there, but we're a long way away.

Songfacts: Have you done anything internationally? The States? Are you planning on coming here ever?

Steve: Well, we'd like to. It's a lot of work to go and play in America when you've got limited time. Because we all do other stuff, we have jobs and things like that. But we did once, and we played our worst-ever show in Austin, Texas, and that kind of put us off, because I thought we were horrific. At the moment we're more interested in doing Europe, but recently we've been getting a lot of e-mails from people in the States. I'm not quite sure why. Maybe we'll do something next year if we can.

Songfacts: "Leaps." That's a great song, and I would love to know more about that. And I would also like to know about the video.

Steve: It's just a rude song. And joyfully so. I thought of it as following a long tradition of '40s songs, but having been in sort of pop music format. But the video was entirely someone else's idea, and we really enjoyed it.

Songfacts: How did that work? I watched it, like, three times trying to figure it out.

Steve: Other people were doing our arms, and we controlled our legs. It's really weird to explain, but we had these little wooden legs, and tiny trousers, and we controlled them with our hands behind them. And other men with very long arms did our arms.

Songfacts: Did they have to audition for that? (laughing)

Steve: They were all found for us. It was a very long shoot under hot lights, with men covering each other from behind. It made for an interesting day. We all got on much better afterwards.

Songfacts: You and your band mates seem to get along really well, too.

Steve: Yes, we do. Although we like each other better when the music is any good.

Songfacts: If anything is to be reaped from the wrestling videos, then I guess that's it.

Steve: (laughing) If you can't wrestle, what can you do?

Steve was mercilessly grilled on November 2, 2008.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Juan Bronnard from Zaragoza, Spaincada vez que escucho una cancion de la BFB o de singing adams tengo ganas de ir a UK, buscar a steve y a sus musicos y darles un abrazo.
  • Neilhoragreat interview, thanks for doing that... only just lately really discovered the bfb and managed to get a long to the last 2 lunnen gigs which were terrific. cripes if they ever need someone to drive them round europe for nowt then i'm there... done 4 tours so far, but only for lovely people and it's not the say job!
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