Almost every pop musician starts out trying to sound like somebody else, and if he’s lucky he ends up sounding like nobody but himself. This truism becomes less tenable with the passage of time and the gradual exhaustion of new musical ideas. Even a field as huge as “American folk-rock” is reducible to a handful of artists who have covered everything the field represents.
And then along comes someone like Matt Ward, whose professional moniker is the more literary-sounding M. Ward. In 2000, he released a homemade album with the misleadingly academic title “Duets for Guitars #2,” which sold out its initial run of 1,000 copies and entered the realm of legend. (Rare at the time, it’s now widely available.) Sounding a bit like Neil Young, a bit like Tom Waits, and commanding a fluid, timeless acoustic-guitar sound, Ward didn’t seem imitative at all, though his folk-rockish compositions were hardly new. Fresh, yes. New, no.
“If you play guitar enough and learn other people’s songs you just automatically launch your own,” he says over the phone from his home in Portland, Ore. Ward’s delicate speaking voice sounds nothing like his singing voice, which is full of phlegm and vinegar, like a roadhouse blues singer with his head in the clouds. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he continues. “You piece together other people’s ideas into whole images that are completely your own.”
“Other people’s ideas” form the subtext of his next album, due out in February. Titled “Transistor Radio,” the record is, as he explains, “an experiment using different styles in much the same way a good radio program mixes different styles.”
This concept is mostly realized in the sequencing: A Spanish-inflected guitar instrumental segues into an old-timey gospel shuffle and then a swooning doo-wop ditty that could have been recorded in a coal mine. There’s a druggy, steamrolling rock ‘n’ roll song called “Big Boat” that sounds as if it were recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis after a three-day binge, followed by a whispery, jaunty jazz number set to a soaring pedal steel.
“Radio was so good in Southern California when I grew up,” says Ward, who recently turned 30. “What was special was being to able to get into the mind of a DJ and understand something he loved and why he loved it. It’s different when you have somebody who’s playing something because a company is telling him to play it. I wanted to say something about that.” The chorus on the sweet, melancholy “Radio Campaign” goes “Come back, come back my little peace of mind.”
In Ward’s songs, radio memories are mixed with the records his parents listened to. “If I had to pick one song that made me want to learn the guitar, it was ‘Julia’ from the [Beatles’] White Album, because of the sound of the guitar. At the same time I was also discovering Sonic Youth, which made me want to buy an electric guitar. It never ceased to amaze me that that those two very different sounds came from the same instrument.”
Ward’s only professional band, Rodriguez, leaned toward the latter. The trio was influenced by the Southern Californian hardcore band fIREHOSE, led by Mike Watt of the original avant-punk group The Minutemen. “We loved them and tried to imitate them,” he says. “But we didn’t really sound like them and ended up becoming something completely different.” After one album, produced by Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, the band split.
“I moved to Chicago and got into four-tracking,” he says. “Just seeing what I could achieve on my own rather than in a band format.”
“Duets” was the result, and the tapes made their way to Howe Gelb, the leader of the shape-shifting Southwest consortium Giant Sand and indie rock’s most assertive eccentric. Gelb released “Guitar Duets” on his Ow Om label, and then took Ward on his first European and nationwide American tours. “I played in Giant Sand,” Ward says. “It was an amazing introduction to performing. Howe goes out on a limb. He changes keys, tempos, moods, even songs at whim. He got into the habit of injecting covers in the middle of his own compositions.”
Gelb’s influence can be heard on Ward’s two subsequent records, “End of Amnesia” (2001) and “Transfiguration of Vincent” (2003). Whereas “Duets” was solid but standard singer-songwriter fare, the followups were like song ideas caught on the fly and preserved on the spot. “Transfiguration,” which landed on a lot of top 10 lists last year, is particularly intriguing in its attention to thematic detail but total disregard for stylistic consistency.
“For me, every record is experimental,” he says about his methodology. “I try to put ideas across in the production that mesh with the lyrical ideas. I know how it should sound but it’s important to open the door to curiosity, because that’s where things get interesting — the unrehearsed and the unprogrammed.”
Ward’s burgeoning reputation allowed him to use a larger group of musicians on “Transistor.” Participants included PJ Harvey drummer John Parish, the Portland band The Decemberists, singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt and, of course, Gelb.
He also just finished playing the pro-Kerry Vote for Change tour, where he was the guitarist for the Omaha-based folk-rock collective Bright Eyes.
“Portland and the cities are more for Kerry,” he says about the Oregon vote, “and in general the small towns are for President Bush. It’s a close call every election.” When it’s mentioned he’ll be in Japan on Nov. 2 Ward is quick to add, “I’ve already voted.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.