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'Interview (May 2004)'   

-  Genre: 'Rock'

Because of their involvement with The Teardrop Explodes, Care and The Lotus Eaters, it's already easy to view Paul Simpson, Jeremy Kelly and Ged Quinn as pivotal members of the much-revered Liverpool post-punk scene. However, even their triumphs with these projects pale by comparison with what they achieved together as THE WILD SWANS. Indeed, during an all-too brief period (roughly 1980 - late 1982), this trio recorded one of the greatest debut singles of all time in "The Revolutionary Spirit" and two tantalisingly brilliant BBC Radio Sessions that in effect would become the band's elusive legacy.

Hotly tipped for enduring greatness at the time, the usual factors of bad luck, bad timing and a self-destructive streak ensured that while The Wild Swans would later reform for a troubled spell and two less satisfying albums for Sire, they would never quite recapture the pristine magnificence of their initial recordings and - worse - these incredible songs looked doomed never to appear on CD and be heard by the public years after the fact. That is until the Renascent label finally stepped in and presented us with the 2CD set "Incandescent": The Wild Swans' early recordings in all their glory.

W&H have been going into stellar raptures since hearing these gorgeous songs under the one roof at last and were delighted to be able to conduct an interview via e-mail with The Wild Swans' legendary frontman PAUL SIMPSON. He was kind enough to give us a detailed insight into those heady days which (lest we forget) also strongly featured luminaries such as Bill Drummond, David Balfe and of course the late, great Bunnymen drummer Pete De Freitas and we are truly proud to present the following text.

W&H: Paul, I know you're rightly proud that the music on Incandescent has finally seen the light of day, but were there times when you'd given up on The Wild Swans' history and thought the wider public would never have a chance to hear the band's magnificent earlier recordings?

Paul: I was levitating the day finished copies landed on my doormat. I was scared that I would go to my grave with no document of that period of the band but, thanks to Renascent, these early recordings are now safe. I always loved those bands who made one or two vinyl singles then disappeared forever like Manicured Noise or Bourgie Bourgie so the idea of double CDs by these lost bands is mind-blowing to me and I can understand why fans are exited. If I were a fan from the old days with just a battered copy of "The Revolutionary Spirit" I'd think Christmas had come early.

W&H: Let's talk about the band's very early days before the recording of The Revolutionary Spirit single. There's a photo of the first Swans' gig at Pickwick's in Liverpool (November 1980) inside the Incandescent booklet. Can you remember much about that gig and did you play many before Pete (de Freitas) approached you to do the single?

Paul: We were sandwiched between The Pale Fountains and headliners Orange Juice on the bill and I was pissed off with the Paleys’ manager for printing their names above ours on the gig poster making it appear as if we were supporting them. Edwyn Collins was sitting around sulking because for the first time ever he was upstaged before he'd even stepped up to the mic. After the Revolutionary Spirit recording session we played a residency at Club Zoo, Bill Drummond's club on 3 floors in Liverpool and then the Bunnymen's UK tour that the live tracks on Incandescent are culled from so it was very early days.

W&H Obviously you would have known Pete from your days with Teardrop, but I gather he approached you to say he wanted to make the first Wild Swans single. Is that right?

Paul: Pete and I lived in the same house in L8 along with the long-suffering Zoo Records secretary Pam Young. Evenings we would hang in Pam's flat discussing what madness Drummond and Balfe were planning next. Pete loved The Wild Swans rehearsal tapes and when I told him that Bill wasn't sure whether he wanted to risk the studio costs on us he couldn't believe it and immediately booked the studio for the following Saturday. Pete was so cool, nothing ever phased him.

W&H. He was certainly a man of vision and he'll always be one of my favourite drummers ever. You must miss him a great deal these days. Did you see much of Pete later on in his life?

Paul: Yes but not as much as I'd have liked. The last time I saw him he was walking down Liverpool's Bold Street towards me with the sun behind him. He had this corona of light radiating out from his head like some kind of deity stepping down to earth. We had a brief talk and as he walked away down the hill the strangest feeling came over me, like time had stopped. I remember telling my girlfriend about it later that night, then a week later he was dead.

W&H:"The Revolutionary Spirit" is still one of my favourite singles of all time, but the day you recorded it in Liverpool sounds almost farcical according to Incandescent's sleeve notes, what with painters working in the studio while you were singing and so on.. Then Pete mixed the A-side in mono by mistake. Chaotic stuff. Are you surprised the end result has stood the test of time so brilliantly?

Paul: Our recording sessions were always farcical because we just refused to accept authority from anyone, producers, engineers, girlfriends, policemen, each other. The Revolutionary Spirit is such a unique record and so different from what other bands were doing in 1981. I remember a review of the time which said “sounds like a cross between The Bunnymen and Joy Division”. Talk about lazy journalism, I mean I loved The Bunnymen but they were never as subtle or beautiful as us and although we shared some grandeur with Joy Division The Wild Swans were scaling heaven not plumbing hell. I suppose the closest to it would be "Little Johnny Jewel" by Television or "Love Goes To A Building On Fire" by The Talking Heads. Not musically but just in a “Where the hell did that come from?” kind of way. It's one of those records that don’t appear to have any reference points or recognisable influences, it just stands alone.

W&H: I know the arrangement you had with Zoo (label) was very loose - as I believe it was with all their releases - but if Drummond and Balfe had had the money would you realistically have thought about making a debut album for Zoo?

Paul: Even if we had done a fantastic debut album on Zoo we'd have screwed it up some other way. We were cursed from day one. Before the Incandescent release I always thought we were like some exotic delicacy that only a few people in the world had tasted. The Wild Swans? I'm sorry sir that dish is no longer on the menu, the recipe was lost over 20 years ago. May I suggest The Icicle Works? No? Ah well sorry we couldn't help.

I think Bill Drummond used to interpret my perfectionism with bad attitude. He was impressed by the hair and French Resistance gear but I was always questioning Bill and Dave's methods and moaning about the Zoo artwork. I'm good at moaning. Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch were much safer bets; they let Bill manipulate their image. Bill nipped to The Army And Navy Stores and bought all the camouflage netting for The Bunnymen's Shine So Hard campaign exactly 3 minutes after I left his office dressed like Lord Kitchener.

W&H: Why did you have such hassles holding onto rhythm sections with The Wild Swans Mk.1? I realise the essential nucleus of the band was Ged, Jeremy and yourself, but the line-up that made the BBC Sessions with Alan Wills and Phil Lucking/ Baz Hughes really cooked. Did other people get pissed off with your methods?

Paul: There were so many bands on Merseyside in the early 80's that there was a drought of drummers and particularly bass players. The ones we did audition were either too good in a horrible slick Mick Karn, Pino Palladino way or were fumbling about in the dark trying to catch up with the rest of us. Sometimes applicants would drive for hundreds of miles to audition only to find out we had all these ridiculous rules like if the drummer had more than one tom-tom or twirled his sticks or if the bass player rolled his jacket sleeves up or cited Japan as an influence we'd be "Next". We were ruthless. We spoke in our own Swan shorthand and were so tight as friends that it was very difficult to get through our minefield.

W&H: Presumably you must have fond memories of the two radio sessions you did for Peel and Jensen? What especially springs to mind when you think of them and what did you make of producer Dale Griffin? I believe he wasn't easily impressed with most of the bands he worked with?

Paul: I have mixed feelings about those sessions but there was one fabulous moment when Arista A&R man Simon Potts came down to the studio with a big bag of weed. No Bleeding was playing back and his mouth fell open like he'd just heard Jesus was in the building. Dale Griffin was so jaded and old man rock that he went to the pub for lunch and took 3 hours of our precious session time. Then the engineer put flange on the bass on one track without telling us and when we asked him to take it off he couldn't because he'd recorded it to tape. When it was time for me to sing I thought we were doing a run through so I was messing with the lyrics, Dale was "Right, got it, next track". Having said that those sessions sound pretty good right now.

W&H: I feel to this day the nine songs from Incandescent’s first CD (choosing either of the Rev Spirit and God Forbid mixes) would have made up one of rock's greatest debut LPS. I suppose this is a hard question to answer, but do you concur?

Paul: All these recordings come with so much baggage attached it's hard for me to be objective about them but yes, I suppose it would. If I'd had more drive and Jerry had more discipline and respect and Ged a bit more faith we'd have been huge.

W&H. It's certainly true that while your contemporaries were from the Eric's punk scene that launched the Teardrops, Bunnymen etc, you were all far less interested with the likes of the hip late 60s element such as The Doors, Velvets etc. Was it this and your literary interests that ensured you sounded so unlike the rest of the bands around or was it an alchemical thing involving the input of the three of you?

Paul: For me all that reverence to bands of ten years before was madness. We'd just blown off the doors with punk, why try and emulate the previous generation’s heroes when you could explore new territory? It was definitely a chemistry thing with The Wild Swans. Jerry was the mind, Ged was the body and I was the soul. Ged was the unsung hero of the story, he was our John Cale. Whenever I'd call at his flat there would be some sombre classical piece on his record player. He'd be in an immaculate white shirt but his arms would be covered in black paint from a scary canvas he'd be working on. While he was making us tea I'd play with his cello or the human skull on his mantelpiece.

W&H: Paul, you mentioned in the impoverished early days of the mk.1 line-up that you would often choose the books if you had a choice of buying food, records or books when your Giro arrived. Which authors helped shape the songs you wrote in the band's early days?

Paul: Knut Hanson's 'Hunger' was a big one for me. All that frozen, starving lovesick hallucinatory gloom. Henry Miller was a favourite too because I was always torn between spiritual striving and total sexual debasement. We may have looked like effete poets but in 2 years The Wild Swans shagged more girls than all the other bands on Merseyside did in a decade.

W&H: I realise there was precious little money available to the band at this time, but how much input did drugs have on the band's music? Was acid ever something you indulged much in?

Paul: The acid phase was just me really. Between quitting The Teardrop Explodes and forming The Wild Swans I had a very intense period of experimentation but after 5 consecutive bad trips I'd pretty much done with acid by the time The Wild Swans came into being. We smoked a lot of dope and did a bit of speed but never at rehearsals and even after hours never in a slothful way. We'd use it as a tool, like witchdoctors.

W&H. One of the most notorious episodes concerning the mk.1 band was the Dave McCullough interview in my old paper Sounds. Does it amuse you now that he made it up? I know you got a right slagging at the time from the band, your publicist and even your Mum! For what it's worth it's from reading that "interview" and hearing the Jensen session that I got to buy Rev Spirit and love the band...

Paul: I'm glad if Dave's article turned a few people on to the record but I was not a happy boy that week.

W&H. You mention in the Incandescent sleeve notes that one of the reasons you were seen as awkward in the media's pursuit of you was the simple fact that you had no telephone and were uncontactable as a result. Ultimately, do you think that isolation from London and the media contributed to the demise of the original band?

Paul: Moving south was unthinkable to us, and living in London would have been like dwelling in the belly of the beast. The truth is that, apart from Simon Potts at Arista, the A&R men at the time just didn't know what to make of us. They loved the look but this was pre-Smiths and no one would take a gamble on our sound. All the fuss started after we had split up when it was too late.

W&H. You went on to do Care after the first Wild Swans split, which was promising, but short-lived and I imagine quite traumatic. Was that the case?

Paul: The chemistry just wasn't there. Ian (Broudie) and I became much closer after the group split up but then we fell out again over nothing at all and as a result we haven't seen each other in 15 years. I was so traumatised by Jerry's betrayal in forming The Lotus Eaters that I was only giving 20 per cent to Care. Ian can write songs for England (in fact he did) but there was no direction, no concept behind the group and because I wasn't in my right mind we came across as a bit bland. I'd like to apologise to him for being so crazy. I screwed everything up.

W&H: When you reformed as Wild Swans Mk.2 (still with Alan Wills) you recorded the excellent Janice Long Session that opens Incandescent’s second CD. It shows a new maturity, certainly, but - as yet - the spark was still very much there. "Holy Spear"’s such a great song and I'd never heard it before! Why oh why did you drop that one?

Paul: I don't know what happened there, we were probably stoned and forgot about it. I like that session, it contains Lycra. Tight but relaxed.

W&H. You say in the album sleeve notes that "Holy Spear" goes "all 'Marquee Moon' the middle”. Indeed it does. "Marquee Moon" is still one of my favourite albums ever and I know both Copey and Will Sergeant raved about it. Was it one of those things on the Liverpool scene where you could trust someone because they liked that album?

Paul: Absolutely. Marquee Moon was it for me. Cold and brittle like frost on glass. I've bought it four times. I replaced it on vinyl when the original import copy wore out and then I bought it on CD because the track Marquee Moon had an ending rather than a fade and most recently the Rhino reissue with the extra 5 tracks. Mind you I even like their second album Adventure which everyone hates.

W&H. I would imagine when Ged left the important creative balance in the band shifted irrevocably?

Paul: God yes. Overnight The Wild Swans became exactly one third less beautiful.

W&H. The whole business of being on a major label didn't really suit the band's way of working either, did it? Was this altogether a depressing experience and were there times when you felt bands like The Smiths had come through and rather stolen what could have been your thunder during the time you were away from the scene?

Paul: Being on a major was just one compromise after another. To be fair, Sire did give us a huge push in America and we even had a hit single in Germany but it's at home you want to shine. The Smiths psychically destroyed us. They had the pretty jangle and the soaring vocal melodies but with the extra winning ingredients of big blouses, gladioli and humour. We were prop and humour-free. I know I keep saying it but that beautiful keyboard refrain from There is A Light That Never Goes Out is Ged's from "Enchanted". Later I would just crumple when voices from the audience would accuse us of being Smiths copyists but inside I'd be thinking how these morons were revealing to the whole concert hall how ignorant they were.

W&H. When did The Wild Swans actually finish for good the second time? I have a fine compilation on Viper Records featuring a wonderfully poppy tune called Melting Blue Delicious you laid down in 1989, with (I think) Chris Sharrock on drums. Was that the last thing you recorded as The Wild Swans?

Paul: It was in the closing days of 1989 that Sire dropped me after failing to release the second Wild Swans album Space Flower in the UK. I was so broken by everything that had happened to me that I just wanted to disappear for a while. Little did I know that it would be another six years before I would release another record. Space Flower (the Ian Broudie-produced Jerry Kelly free psychedelic pop album) was reissued in Japan a few years ago where it enjoys a cult status.

W&H. You've been involved in Skyray since then. What are you currently occupied with and would there ever be a chance the original Wild Swans would record together again?

Paul: I've written a Paul Simpson solo album called The Whirlpool which, with Ged Quinn playing on and with me singing again, will be closer to The Wild Swans than Skyray but I don't have a record label sorted yet, I mean I'm not exactly Morrissey regarding the comeback stakes. I don't think the original line-up of The Wild Swans will record again, one leg of the stool is broken and the trust is gone and anyway I'm a Gemini, I have to keep moving forward. For me The Wild Swans was like a beautiful, holy, sexy, disturbing dreamy nightmare about breaking into heaven to have sex with the angels. Unfortunately I was woken from my reverie by someone yelling into my ear "Paul, it's 3 a.m. it's pissing with rain, it's your turn to clean the toilet and, oh yeah, your dog is dead".

W&H: Finally, there's a great quote from Jeremy on the sleeve for "Incandescent" where he says: "We seemed to be interested in anything other than promoting the band, knowing instinctively that self-promotion is for careerists, professionals and the desperate." If you had the time over again, would you have done anything differently?

Paul: If I had my time over again I would begin each Wild Swans rehearsal by addressing the other members with "You are astounding people, scintillatingly brilliant, I value you beyond words, thank you for being my friends."    

(FOR FURTHER INFO:http://www.renascent.co.uk )

WILD SWANS, THE - Interview (May 2004)
WILD SWANS, THE - Interview (May 2004)
  author: TIM PEACOCK

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