Adam Cresswell is Rodney Cromwell. Previously, he’s been Arthur from Arthur And Martha, a founder member of Saloon, and a man whose life was changed by a shattered jar of pickled onions
“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 open the sunroof and climb through it, 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, 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 and via 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 synthpop with a troubled edge. The follow-up, 2022’s ‘Memory Box’, is woozier and more psychedelic, with occasional detours into Eno-esque fuzziness. It happened as the result of another landmark moment for him – he was an early Covid adopter, contracting it in March 2020.
“It gave me brain fog,” he explains. “It was like tripping and falling 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 synthpop to something more hauntological but picks itself out of the hole at the end.
“Essentially, both my Rodney Cromwell albums have been about illness. The first was 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 always used to get people’s names wrong.
“But then I supported a band called Massive Ego, who were all in wigs, make-up and leather, and I thought, ‘How am I going to compete with this?’. So I went onstage in a woolly hat with a Sainsbury’s 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 me. I’m a bald, middle-aged man and I’m never going to be cool. So I thought I’d go the other way.”
Cresswell 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 synthpop may have been 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 Numan, but the first synth record I remember hearing was ‘I Feel Love’ on ‘Tiswas’. New Order’s ‘True Faith’ was the record that actually 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 at a local service station. I used it to tape Derek Jarman movies from Channel 4. So when I saw the ‘True Faith’ video, it appealed to that love of weird arty stuff. I was a pretentious, precocious teenager.”
With a love of scratchy indie as well, I presume? Everything Cresswell has done has a whiff of C86 about it. That under-celebrated hinterland between The Smiths and Britpop. Small-town 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 indie, but there weren’t really any bands passing through Maidstone at that point,” he says. “I moved to Reading because I thought there’d be lots of gigs going on 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. We pretended not to like indie pop but we sounded exactly like Belle And Sebastian. Obviously we pretended to hate them.”
Saloon were formed in 1997, and Cresswell has a vivid recollection of how it all unfolded.
“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?’, and I said, ‘I’m going to form a band’. And he said, ‘I’ll join!’.
“So we went around the bar, looking for a woman in a rollneck jumper to be our Trish Keenan. We didn’t find anyone, but we did end up poaching Alison Cotton, who was playing with British Air Powers 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, the band’s spiky art-pop soon attracted the attention of John Peel.
“We sent him our first demo cassette of four tracks,” says Cresswell. “And about six months later it came back in the post and he’d written, ‘Not my cup of tea’ on it. We were mortified. 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 voted Number One in the Festive 50.”
Ah, yes. With two coveted Peel Sessions already under their belts, Saloon had amassed a vociferous following. And, not unreasonably, they rallied their faithful to vote in Peel’s traditional Christmas countdown of listeners’ favourites for 2002.
“When we formed, my brother told us, ‘You need a website’, but I didn’t even know what a website was, so he set one up,” says Cresswell. “If an email came to us, he’d print it out and fax it to me at work. 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 very long list. Our big number at the end of gigs was ‘Girls Are The New Boys’. And when our album came out, Peel 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 email to our fanbase saying, ‘Maybe you’d like to vote for ‘Girls Are The New Boys’? Or 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 around half an hour. But 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 ruined things for us. It soured things within the band.”
Was this another turning point for Cresswell? 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 then.”
The deadpan raconteur with tales of life-changing pickled onions has vanished. This is serious stuff.
“I couldn’t travel,” says Cresswell. “I couldn’t get on the Tube or anything. I still don’t use the Blackwall Tunnel. I hate it. Which, living in Catford, makes life quite hard. I did a gig where I was really late because I wouldn’t use it, and I had to go all over east London and Tower Bridge.”
Saloon announced their demise in October 2004, five days after Peel’s death. Cresswell concedes it “wasn’t the nicest of splits” and admits he contemplated quitting music completely until the timely intervention of enthusiastic Leeds promoter Alice Hubley.
“Alice talked me into doing something,” he smiles. “She moved to London and pulled me together. I met her when we were touring and we got on well. 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.
“Most labels wanted digital-only releases then, but we wanted to put records out… so that’s when the Happy Robots label started.”
Adam and Alice became Arthur And Martha. They made one album proper, 2009’s ‘Navigation’, and it’s great – Casio-powered 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. There’s one publicity photo, I tell him, that makes my teeth tingle. Cresswell is 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 photoshoot with you’, and we were at a Gilbert & George exhibition at the time. So it all just tallied. Peter and Jane, Gilbert & George… we wanted to be the classic two-piece synth band with that eccentric British vibe.”
You were described by The Guardian as “tweetronica”. Do you concede to 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.”
It’s a fascinating chat and Cresswell is 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,” he continues. “We lost several loved ones while making it, and the day before we released it, 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 in the NME. I was at my dad’s, and I thought ‘I’ll pick up the NME. That’ll cheer me up.’
And then came 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 the fact that some of his label’s roster could have stepped straight from a Blake Edwards film. There’s lounge lizard Roman Angelos, making 1960s muzak in a skinny suit. Hologram Teen, the disco-fuelled project of former Stereolab keyboardist Morgane Lhote. And the hippy, folk-horror stylings of Martha herself, now restyled as Alice Hubble. Is he a nostalgic person, pining for his pre-anxiety 1970s childhood?
“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 definitely don’t want it all back. I’m not desperate for it to magically become 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 and 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 Adam Cresswell has 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 multiplication tables for school. It’s a terrific album – and it all stems from a damaged jar of pickled onions. You just never know where these little turning points will take you.
“True. Although I can’t listen to James Brown anymore…”
‘Memory Box’ is out now on Happy Robots