Adam Cresswell, Rodney Cromwell and Happy Robots

First published in Issue 89 of Electronic Sound magazine, May 2022:

WARTS AND ALL

Adam Cresswell IS Rodney Cromwell. Previously, he’s been Arthur from Arthur and Martha, a founder member of Peel favourites Saloon… and a man whose life was changed by a shattered jar of pickled onions

Words: Bob Fischer


“I used to deliver pickled onions to chip shops,” recalls Adam Cresswell, his face still betraying a trace of residual trauma. “They gave me a new car and filled it with pickled eggs, pickled onions and chip fat. I was driving on the back route to Brighton, listening to James Brown really loud, when another car came at me. I swerved out of the way, lost control, and ended up in a ditch. One wheel was stuck in a tree, and I couldn’t get out. I had to unroll the sunroof and climb through that, and another driver came over to help. He said ‘Are you alright, mate? You’re bleeding…’

“And when I looked down, I was covered in juice from the pickled onions. That’s when I decided to move to Reading and form my first band.”

Life’s all about these little turning points, isn’t it? And the curious meanderings of Adam Cresswell have zig-zagged in the most intriguing fashion. From death-defying pickled onion courier to cult success with Peel favourites Saloon; from seminal “tweetronica” duo Arthur and Martha to his latest musical incarnation, Rodney Cromwell. The first Cromwell album, 2015’s Age of Anxiety – released on his own Happy Robots label – was bedroom synth-pop with a troubled edge. The follow-up, Memory Box, is woozier, more psychedelic, with the occasional detour into Eno-esque fuzziness. It came as the result of another, more recent, landmark moment in his life: he was an early COVID adopter, falling ill in March 2020. 

“It gave me brain fog,” he explains. “It was like tripping, like I fell down a Kafka-esque, ‘Alice In Wonderland’ rabbit hole. So for me, Memory Box is a concept album. The first couple of tracks are standing on the edge of dystopia, then it descends into my own consciousness. It goes from hard synth-pop to something more hauntological, then picks itself out of the hole at the end.

“Essentially, both Rodney Cromwell albums have been about illness. The first was about me dealing with my own anxiety, and this one is about COVID. I had a feeling of ‘Am I going to die?’… and then I wasn’t dead. But I felt a bit different, and things had changed.”

He’s loquacious and funny, a deadpan raconteur par excellence. So why the invented persona, I wonder? Why did Adam Cresswell become Rodney Cromwell? He pauses.

“Originally he was just a pseudonym. I didn’t want people at work to know what I get up to in my spare time. So I did it as Rodney Cromwell, a name Matt from Saloon had given me years back… because I used to get people’s names wrong all the time.

“But then I supported a band called Massive Ego, who were all in make-up and wigs and leather. And I thought ‘How am I going to compete with this?’ So I went onstage in a woolly hat with a Sainsburys bag, hooked the bag over the microphone stand, and took out a little toy music box. I wound the handle and it played ‘The Internationale’. And that was really the moment Rodney Cromwell was born. He’s a geekier extension of myself.

“Look, I’m a bald, middle-aged man and I’m never going to be cool. So I thought I’d go the other way…”

He grew up in Maidstone, 30 miles south-east of London. It has mill ponds, a museum of horse-drawn carriages and a football team that plays in the National League South. But when I suggest his love of dystopian 1980s synth-pop was forged as an antidote to such leafy ennui, he bristles slightly.

“Everyone seems to think I sit at home listening to Gary Numan all the time,” he protests. “I don’t mind a bit of Gary Numan, but the first synth record I remember hearing was ‘I Feel Love’. I heard it on Tiswas, straight after a clip from The Empire Strikes Back.

“Then New Order’s ‘True Faith’ was the record that really converted me. I had my own telly from the age of 12, and when Charles and Diana got married my parents won a video recorder in a local service station. And I used it to tape Derek Jarman movies from Channel 4. So when I saw the ‘True Faith’ video, it really appealed to that love of weirdy, arty stuff. I was a pretentious, precocious teenager, really.”

With a love of scratchy indie as well, I wonder? Everything he’s done, I suggest, has carried a whiff of C86. That under-celebrated hinterland between The Smiths and Britpop. Smalltown music collectives, pints of crap cider, gigs in freezing pub backrooms. Boys in cagoules and girls with pink hair bobbles.

“I do like a bit of jangly indie, but there weren’t really any bands passing through Maidstone at that point,” he recalls. “I moved to Reading because I thought there’d be lots of gigs there. I used to follow Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Broadcast. And then I hung around the jingly-jangly guitar guys when I was in Saloon, because we were signed to Track & Field. But we’d pretend: ‘Urgh, we don’t like indie pop!’. We sounded exactly like Belle and Sebastian, but obviously we pretended we hated them.”

Saloon were formed in 1997.

“I remember me and Mike Smoughton – my best mate – went to see Austin Powers at the cinema in Reading. Afterwards, he said ‘What are you going to do with yourself now you’re here?’ I said ‘I’m going to form a band’. He said ‘I’ll join…’

“So we went around the bar, looking for a woman in a rollneck jumper to be our Trish Keenan. Which we didn’t find, but we did poach Alison Cotton, who was playing with British Air Power before they became British Sea Power. And Matt Ashton, who was working in Tesco and did actually turn up in a rollneck jumper.”

With singer Amanda Gomez providing mellifluous vocals and the occasional rollneck jumper, the band’s spiky art-pop attracted the attention of John Peel.

“We sent him our first cassette demo, with four tracks on it,” remembers Adam. “About six months later it came back in the post and he’d written ‘Not my cup of tea’ on it. We were mortified. But then, the next day, he played our first proper single, ‘Futurismo’, on his show. And then every single record we released after that. But it all soured after we were Number One in the Festive 50.”

Ah, yes. With two coveted Peel Sessions already under their belts, Saloon had amassed a vociferous fanbase. And, not unreasonably, rallied them to vote in Peel’s traditional Christmas countdown of listeners’ favourites. This was 2002.

“When we formed, my brother said ‘You need a website’ and set it up,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know what a website was. If an e-mail came to us, he’d print it out and fax it to me at work, at a company that sold dishwashers. And I’d write my answer and fax it back to him so he could reply.

“Then he started a mailing list, and we’d hand out cards to people whenever we played. It became a really long list. Our big number at the end of gigs was called ‘Girls Are The New Boys’. And when our album came out, John played that a few times. The previous year, our song ‘Impact’ had got to Number 12 in the Festive 50 without us doing anything, so I sent an e-mail to our fanbase saying ‘Maybe you’d like to vote for ‘Girls Are The New Boys’? Or maybe vote for someone else instead… we really like Herman Dune’.

“I sent it, forgot about it, then the Festive 50 was played out. And blimey, we were Number One. And it was brilliant… for about half an hour. But the champagne – well, the Lambrusco – hadn’t even gone down before I went on the Peel forum and it was all ‘URGH, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? NEVER ‘EARD OF ‘EM. WANKERS. CHEATS!’

“So we’d gone from being the plucky underdogs to the band people hated. Because we’d beaten The White Stripes. And it really ruined things for us. It soured things within the band.”

Was this another turning point? It sounds like the experience left a profound impression.

“It did a bit. Certainly for me. That’s where my anxiety started. I didn’t even know what anxiety was before that”.

The deadpan raconteur with tales of life-changing pickled onions has vanished. This is serious stuff.

“I couldn’t travel at the time,” he says. “I couldn’t get on the tube or anything. And I still don’t use the Blackwall Tunnel. That’s the one I’ve maintained – I hate the Blackwall Tunnel. Which, living in Catford, makes life quite hard. I did one gig where I was an hour and a half late because I wouldn’t use the Blackwall Tunnel and I had go all over East London and Tower Bridge. I can do other tunnels, though. The Dartford Tunnel is fine.”

Saloon announced their demise in October 2004, five days after Peel’s death. He concedes it “wasn’t the nicest of splits”, and admits he contemplated quitting music until the intervention of enthusiastic Leeds promoter Alice Hubley.

“It was Alice who talked me into doing something,” he smiles. “She moved to London and pulled me together. I’d met her when we were touring and got on well with her. She was very chatty and we started hanging out. I had a couple of Saloon songs left over, and we just put a set together. It was a time when most labels wanted digital-only releases, but we wanted to put records out… so that’s when Happy Robots started.”

Adam and Alice became Arthur and Martha. They made one album proper, 2009’s Navigation, and it’s great. Casio-fuelled slices of low-octane pottering performed by a duo who look like they’re about to embark on a 1950s camping holiday. It’s that C86 aesthetic again, isn’t it? There’s one publicity photo, I tell him, that makes my teeth tingle. He’s on a park bench wearing beige knee socks and C&A shorts. It’s one of the most coolly uncool things I’ve ever seen.

“That was Peter and Jane grown up!” he exclaims. “You know, from the Ladybird books. I remember a style magazine phoning up saying ‘We want to do a photo shoot with you’, and we were at a Gilbert and George exhibition at the time. So it all just tallied. Peter and Jane, Gilbert and George… we wanted to be the classic two-piece synth band, but with that eccentric British vibe.”

You were described by The Guardian as “tweetronica”. Do you concede being twee? Or have you come to hate the word?

“I’ve grown to accept it. Twee is fine!” he laughs. “We were twee. You can’t dress like Peter and Jane and say you’re not twee…”

It’s a fascinating chat, and he’s refreshingly open. There’s light and shade in equal measure. Turning points galore. The profound and the mundane, all mixed together.

“The Arthur and Martha album was fun, but it was a really hard time for us personally,” he continues. “We lost several loved ones while we were making it, and – the day before we released the album – I was in hospital with my mum, when she died. So we literally just put it out. To mostly good reviews. And one annoyingly horrible one… the NME. I was at my dad’s, and I thought ‘Oh, I’ll pick up the NME from Sainsbury’s, that’ll cheer me up…’

And then another hiatus.

“I’d had enough, and I had other things I wanted to do. Have children and decorate. Even now, I have to take Happy Robots sabbaticals.”  

There is, I suggest, a retro quality to almost everything he does. The vintage synths. The Ladybird homages. And some of the Happy Robots roster could have stepped straight from a Blake Edwards film. There’s lounge lizard Roman Angelos, making 1960s muzak in a skinny suit. There’s Hologram Teen, the disco-fuelled project of former Stereolab keyboardist Morgane Lhote. There are the hippy, folk-horror trappings of Martha herself, now restyled as Alice Hubble. Is he a nostalgic person, I wonder? Is he pining for his pre-anxiety 1970s childhood here?

“Not as much as you!” he laughs. “I’ve got a few vintage Star Wars figures, but I don’t spend ages listening to old music. And I’m not a snob who doesn’t like modern pop. I’ll happily listen to Lady Gaga or AURORA.”

My relationship with nostalgia, I tell him, is slightly double-edged. I love ferreting around in the weird little corners of the past, but I don’t want it all back. I’m not desperate for it to somehow magically became 1978 again. I’m happy to live in 2022.

“I’d probably rather it was 1997, when it felt like world peace was achievable,” he smiles. “I remember being at Tutu’s club with Mike when the Labour government had just got in, looking out over the Thames thinking ‘This is the most exciting time of our lives’. It didn’t last that long, but looking back they were the best times we’ve ever had. But no, I don’t think of myself as a nostalgic person… or at least I don’t define myself as that.”

Nevertheless, the cover of Memory Box boasts a faded depiction of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, and the music might be the closest he’s come to emulating the drowsy, dreamlike wistfulness of his beloved Broadcast. “Your memory box, like a play-pit of sand / Meanings blow in the breeze, so I can’t understand” he chants softly on the title track, almost audibly sinking into broken afternoon sleep. ‘Butterflies In The Filing Cabinet’, meanwhile, features hissy, 30-year-old recordings of his brother Dom, practising his times tables for school.

It’s a terrific album. And all ultimately the result of a damaged jar of pickled onions? You just never know where these little turning points are going to take you.

 “True. Although I can’t listen to James Brown any more…”

Memory Box is available here:
https://rodneycromwell.bandcamp.com/album/memory-box-2

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

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