This year has seen an array of fine experimental releases come out of Merseyside.
Firstly, there was Luke Mawdsley’s sensational Morricone-laced Luke Two. Following on, and noise duo Polexia! served up their own version of twisted madness with their second EP, A Burial, A Resurrection.
Emerging from a similar milieu is Simon Ward, who under the S. Ward moniker first came to our attention during lockdown with his debut EP, Gürtelstraße.
Featuring the freight train blues of Angeline, the folk lullaby of Sleepless and the Cormac McCarthy-inspired John Grady, in many ways Gürtelstraße felt like a release produced by a lost soul occupying the space between early Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and Crime & the City Solution.
Suffice to say, Gürtelstraße left us wanting more, and two years on Ward delivers it with the superb The Collegiate.
Ward is a born storyteller. Also with a background in fiction, which has seen the artist release several short stories over the years, Ward is not afraid to go down those dark paths. Cloaked in the south gothic drama of John Grady, The Collegiate sees Ward refining his art, resulting in songs that are not only more immediate, but, at times, more defiant.
“It’s only a matter of time, babe/ And I’ll stay with you until I die,” Ward sings on the beautiful opening cut, Roots. The finest song he’s written so far, Roots brims with luscious string arrangements and Ward’s whiskey-soaked sing-speak vocal.
Following on is Hell, which is like a junkyard rock reverie (“I started running begging for the deep /Down in the gutter on the street”). Meanwhile, the campfire misery of Rotten Wood (“I’m changing but the rot is still in the wood”) is a fractured Waitsian rumble that sees Ward dabbling in a bit of Einstürzende Neubauten worship, too. No bad thing of course, and neither is The Collegiate: a strong addition to the S. Ward canon, and with two EPs in as many years, the Liverpool experimentalist has emerged as one of the bright new voices across Merseyside.
Earlier this month, on a bitterly cold Thursday evening, we caught up with Ward to talk about the The Collegiate, writing, the autoharp, and more.
Sun 13: So tell us about The Collegiate?
Simon Ward: “The Collegiate is my home. It’s where I wrote the record, an old converted school that looks like a castle. We named our first EP after the place I was living when I wrote those songs, too.”
SW: “Yeah, that was our first release, back in April, 2020. It’s a street in Berlin which translates to Belt Street. Sleepless and John Grady, those were the first songs I brought to the original line-up. Members have changed over time but it’s been five years since we started.
“I’ve always liked it when bands have some continuation in their designs. The Smiths and Swans are good examples. I named the records after the places I lived to add that sort of continuation. But their overall design repeats too and I painted self-portraits for both records. They’re time capsules, in a way.”
S13: I was to going ask about the artwork, there’s a lineage because you’re a graphics designer, too, right?
SW: “I’m a painter. A core part of my job is teaching digital art, but I’m not a designer, per se. I do all the designs for S. Ward though.
“Are you familiar with Otto Dix?”
S13: Yeah, I’ve heard the name.
SW: “He’s a German expressionist painter. My style is very much in the shadow of him. He painted his wife, Martha, loads. I coped a painting he did of her while it was on display in a Tate retrospective, relatively mark-for-mark. It took me about a month.”
S13: The songs on your new EP are the best ones you’ve done so far, I think. It’s more immediate on the ears. Like, Roots has an Eastern European vibe. Was that inspired sonically by your time in Berlin?
SW: “Not really. I learnt a lot from Gürtelstraße. Those songs were longer and each one had a drop-down midsection. I deliberately wrote shorter songs for The Collegiate and aimed for them to build more linearly. It was a conscious thing to me, specifically to lose that reliance on having some extended midsection to tell the narrative.”
S13: I see you as a storyteller. There are stories through your songs. Do you the lyrics come before the music or vice versa?
SW: “Good question. I spent a good five years pursuing fiction. I wrote loads of short stories and a few failed novellas. Last thing I wrote was a collection of modern fables, got some of them published. I started writing in Berlin then I moved back to Liverpool to do a Master’s in Writing. But at the end of the degree, I got the job teaching art. That kind of meant that I had to pivot into painting, so I stopped writing fiction, but I was still doing music throughout. So the music came between that phase of pivoting between writing and painting. A lot of things that I had as ideas for stories went into the songs instead.
“In terms of writing the songs, sometimes, I will literally take a short story that hasn’t worked, and I’ll translate it into a song. We did one called The Boiler Room which began as a low-key but dead bleak ghost story; a man gets tricked into climbing down a sewer vent and ends up impaled, but people think he’s run away and can’t hear him so he just rots there. We were going to record it for this EP but we did Rotten Wood instead. We probably could have done The Boiler Room, too, and I regret not doing it now.
“But most of the time, it will be more like, I’ll get a melody in my head, a repeated line or an image, and then I’ll pick up the autoharp and find a chord progression that clicks. Then I’ll start a recording on my phone and I’ll just improvise for an hour or so. I’ll keep repeating and looping back to the core lines and, by doing that, the story takes form. I’ll listen back to the recordings and pick out the best sections. I don’t really ever sit down to write lyrics or a poem, and then say, ‘Let’s make a song with them’. I have done that before, but that’s not really the way I tend to write. It tends to be more like an elliptical hook, and then a story grows from it. Like Samuel Beckett.”
“Two of the songs on The Collegiate weren’t written on the autoharp, though: Hell and Rotten Wood. I wrote those with Chrissy [Connor – QUARRY]. I came with melodies and lyric fragments but he wrote their structure on bass.”
S13: On Hell and Rotten Wood, it was funny that you were talking about Otto Dix because both songs sonically remind me of Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, and he too has always been a champion of the underdog and people on the social fringes.
SW: “I could imagine Tom Waits getting painted by Otto Dix. I could imagine Tom Waits owning an Otto Dix’s painting, too. The shape of his profile and the places he occupies, he definitely would have fit into Weimar-era Germany, smoking and drinking whisky. I like Tom Waits.”
S13: With these new songs, I found that there was a sense of optimism. I don’t know whether you were feeling that, but then I heard the last track and it was like, ‘Wow that’s pretty dark’.
SW: (Laughs) “Yeah, I guess there is optimism but probably not in the way most people think of it. I think a lot of my songs, if they’re not literally about someone who’s about to die, they’re about someone trying to change their life in a significant way and failing to do so, whether that’s because they’re backed into a corner or unable to break a damaging cycle. There’s something comically tragic and relatable to that: trying to be free but never quite making it and yet, despite that, finding some meaning or peace in whatever our failures and trauma are.
“Like, you change, but you’re still a product of your past. You still carry things, even if you are able to overcome them. That’s the story of Rotten Wood. Hell carries the same theme but it’s a daft song lyrically. I wasn’t trying to say anything there, just painting scenes with increased tension, but it follows the same idea. I don’t know if it’s an optimistic view, to focus on life in cycles that may never fully resolve, but I guess that drive to change and to overcome decline or wounds is a kind of a ray of light in itself though.”
S13: I like when artists write things that they couldn’t have written 10 years before, because they hadn’t experienced those 10 years of life. And from my point of view, that’s optimistic because they are still here! To me that that separates good songwriters from not so good songwriters, because they’re prepared to go down those paths. There’s a progression in that.
SW: “Have you read Albert Camus?”
S13: Only The Stranger and The Plague.
SW: “The Plague was an important book to me in the past when I was having a bit of mental breakdown. There’s a section I can recount because it meant so much to me at the time. It’s not a strictly positive thing, but to me it articulates what I was kind of getting at before. It’s something that gives me a bit a wry smile about life and behaviour. It’s at the end when the plague doctor survives. There’s a passage which says, ‘He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city’.
“That notion stuck with me. It’s either Carl Jung or Herman Hesse, they were mates anyway, but one of them speaks of the laughter of immortals. This idea of the comedy life and the hero’s journey, you get to the end of the trials, like it’s answered, but no, it’s only the start of the game again and everything is undone. There’s something kind of hauntingly funny in that. I think that definitely plays into what I write.”
S13: Speaking of plagues, and tragedies, do politics play a part in your songwriting?
SW: (Laughs) “Not really. I kind of turned off a while ago. I still obviously pay attention to what’s going on and I have my opinions. I don’t really bring them into my art or into my work. If anything, I’d say it’s a retreat away from the world, to a degree, so I don’t bridge the two. I think with music, we’ve talked about human nature, or talking about yourself, or telling stories. You don’t have to set the world to rights. You don’t have to solve anything you’re reflecting on. You can illuminate things about an area of behaviour or yourself; you don’t have to provide solutions. I think bringing in politics, in a way, it’s an attempt to try and do that. Even if that’s just to raise awareness. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing! But I don’t approach things that way. It wouldn’t be true to me, so it’s never been something I’ve tried or considered. My dad was a Labour councillor, and I’ve got a socialist background and I still consider myself aligned that way. It just doesn’t directly lead into my art at all.”
S13: You’d been in Berlin for quite some time. Obviously back in Liverpool, how much do you see the local music scene influencing what you do?
SW: “It definitely does. I couldn’t have done what I have without it. It’s like a lot of things, you start a chain reaction when you go after something. In music, a huge part of that is meeting people to collaborate with or to play shows with and just hearing what’s going on.
“I mean, everyone’s connected, right? We’re a small city. Everyone has different projects together as well. I wouldn’t say collective is the right word, because a collective is a knowing thing. But everyone is able to do what they do because of each other. I’m very lucky to have met everyone that I have over the past couple of years in Liverpool, and it’s great seeing everyone else work together. Jack Wait (QUARRY) recorded both our records and added a lot to the songs, even just in terms of giving me advice on things to practice between the recordings. He wrote a score for the string and woodwind sections on Wound, too. Jon Stonehouse directed and filmed a video for Lonesaw. I met him through Ben [Bones]. Then Jon and another filmmaker, Cameron Brown, they shot the video for Roots. There’s a thread between people. Really beautiful what Jon and Cameron created too, amazing filmmakers.
“Also, our band’s weird because it’s got a post-punk sound to it, but it’s also got a folk element because of the autoharp and my singing and the arrangements. There’s Sara Wolff and Loris and the Lion and Gadzooks!, people like that. They’re kind of connected to us as well, through shows and the like.”
S13: The autoharp gives your music an acapella vibe, and I can’t think of any other artist playing it. How did that relationship begin?
SW: “I’ve known Jez [Halewood-Leagas – Polexia!] since we were teenagers, and her mum’s is a big industrial Goth/folk artist (Mother Destruction). She used to be in a band with the drummer from Death of June. She was playing Wave-Gotik-Treffen, this big festival in Leipzig. They have all different stages, it’s the biggest Goth festival in the world. I was only a teenager then but I was there filming her set with one of those old mini DV cameras.
“Backstage there was this band call Faun. It’s not really the kind of music I listen to, but I was chatting to the guy tuning his instruments and he had this mad thing called— I think— a Nyckelharpa. It’s like a cross between a hurdy-gurdy and a 12-string guitar and it’s got these big bass cello strings. A weird looking thing and if you picked it up you’d be more worried you were going to break it! I asked him and he said they are all custom made.
“It got me thinking about odd instruments and when I came back I looked on eBay and autoharps kept coming up. You can get these old Rosenberg ones from the ’20s, which are shit; if anyone’s got a working one they’ve done some magic on it because once the tuning pegs grind down, it’d be cheaper to buy a new one. So I bought one of them and I used to play it like a noise instrument. I’ve had four different autoharps since then. But really it came from the fact that I could never play bar chords! (laughs)
“I’ve been learning all this flamenco stuff recently on a nylon string guitar and I’m getting better at it but I’m still really shit at bar chords!” (laughs)
The Collegiate? is out Friday. Pre-order here.
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