In Random Rules, we ask our favorite rockers, writers, comedians, or whatevers to set their MP3 players to “shuffle” and comment on the first few tracks that come up—no cheating or skipping allowed.
The shuffler: Singer-songwriter M. Ward released his first record, Duet For Guitars #2, in 1999 and has been chugging along at a steady pace in indie rock ever since. His latest solo record, A Wasteland Companion, was released earlier this year on Merge Records, home to another of his projects, the Zooey Deschanel collaboration She & Him. He’s also a member of supergroup Monsters Of Folk and has recorded with everyone from Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle to Neko Case. His next live show is August 7, 2012 at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, New York.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, “Fallin’ Ditch”
M. Ward: I like Captain Beefheart. [Producer and songwriter] John Parish, years ago, got me into Captain Beefheart. He’s got a pretty intimidating catalog. He’s got a bunch of songs, and you don’t know where to start, but I think Trout Mask Replica is a good place to start for people. It’s definitely dark. I think anyone who appreciates Tom Waits or Jack Kerouac would appreciate Captain Beefheart. He’s very dark, very atonal, very poetic, very strange.
Leadbelly, “Honey, I’m All Out And Down”
The A.V. Club: Leadbelly is often cited as an influence for different artists. When you listen to music, are you consciously thinking, “How can I use things I like in these songs on my songs?”
MW: Absolutely. My main influence for making records is older records and older singing styles, but especially older production styles and older guitar styles. When I’m in the studio, I’m constantly referencing older songs. I don’t think I’ve referenced Leadbelly in any songs that I’ve produced, but there’s obviously a lot to be inspired by in this record. I don’t have a ton of current records, if I’m being honest. I have a few. Maybe we’ll hit one of them.
AVC: In theory, you could only listen to old records, not new, and you’d never run out of material to discover.
MW: It’s true. I discover an artist that I like, mainly a guitar style or a voice that I like, and I start to obsess a little bit, and then I have to collect all their records. Now that we have iTunes, it’s very easy. I still pace myself, but I normally don’t buy a record until I’ve finished listening to the previous one. I try to do the same thing with books, too. You go to the bookstore, and it’s overwhelming how many books you can buy. In general, I don’t really like to go buy a new book until I’ve finished the last one I bought.
MW: This is off her newest record, Soldier Of Love. I have all of her more recent records. I don’t have any of the ones she did in the ’80s. Those aren’t that interesting to me, but she is one of those rare record-makers where her music seems to be getting better. I think her production choices are great. I think the best record to start with for anybody who feels very cynical about Sade is a record called Lovers Rock. It’s beautiful.
AVC: Have you seen her live?
MW: I haven’t seen her live, but I’m a big fan.
M. Ward, “Radio Campaign” (demo)
AVC: Do you keep demos and material you’re working on in your iTunes?
MW: Yeah, I do.
AVC: Do you try to come back to old demos and rework them?
MW: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s mainly my life—going through old demos, trying to make them better, trying to finish them. The one I’m on right now is “Radio Campaign,” and it’s just the demo version of it. It’s a song that I eventually put on a record called Transistor Radio. It’s a pretty good song.
Lee Ranaldo, “Painted Green”
MW: Sonic Youth is a huge influence. Their records and The Beatles’ records inspired me to buy electric guitars when I was in high school. Sonic Youth and Joni Mitchell, those records got me interested in learning and experimenting with alternate tuning. I just did a tour of the East Coast, and I was very fortunate to have Lee Ranaldo open up the shows with his great band and supporting his new record, which is also very great.
AVC: Do you remember the first time you heard Sonic Youth?
MW: I do. It was a video for “Kool Thing” on MTV. Or it might have been on KROQ, actually, in Los Angeles. Yeah, I think I heard it first on KROQ.
AVC: What do you remember about it?
MW: I just loved it.
AVC: You went right out and bought the record?
MW: I bought two. I just remember the guitars just sounding like they were coming from another planet. After that, I went out and bought all the Sonic Youth records and Ciccone Youth, the side project they have. I was really interested in fIREHOSE before that, and found out that Mike Watt played on Sonic Youth records, and learning about this SST [Records] family, I think that was sort of my introduction to what a record label is, what it could be, what it should be. I think it can be a family of musicians, and I feel that way about Merge.
Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins, “Big Guns”
MW: Great record.
AVC: Didn’t you work on this record, Rabbit Fur Coat?
MW: I co-produced it with Mike Logan. “Big Guns” is one of the songs Mike produced. Jenny came up to Portland. I can’t remember what year it was. We recorded it at Jackpot! Studios in Portland. We recorded half the record there, and she made the other half in Omaha. Obviously a great talent, great singer.
Chuck Berry, “Nadine (Is It You?)”
MW: He’s one of those guitar players and songwriters that the more I discover, the more I love. I think he gets pigeonholed as someone who only did one thing.
AVC: The duck walk?
MW: Yeah. But he’s definitely in my top five favorite guitar players of all time. My band and I have been covering “Roll Over Beethoven” for the last couple of years, and we recorded a version of it in Austin, Texas, and just released it as a B-side. It’s somewhere out there in the world of iTunes.
AVC: Have you ever seen him live?
MW: Never seen him live, never met him. Last time I was in St. Louis, I got a tour of his little theater he has where he plays a lot. He’s a huge influence.
AVC: When you’re on the road, do you stop and sightsee or do you just go to your venue, do the show, and then go home? I think there’s a notion that touring’s so romantic, like, “Oh, you get to go to Europe,” but it’s not really like that.
MW: There’s nothing really romantic about it except for when you have a day off, and then you get to see stuff.
AVC: What’s something you haven’t seen on tour but keep meaning to see?
MW: There are a lot of places in the world that I have not toured that I would love to go to. I’m going to South Korea in two weeks for the first time to play music. I’m going to Mexico City in the fall to play music. Those are two places that I’m excited about going to.
The Beach Boys, “You’re So Good To Me”
MW: They’re right up there with The Beatles as far as catalogs I return to pretty much on a daily basis. I listen to The Beach Boys more than I listen to The Beatles now. I met Brian Wilson the last time I was in New York City, during The Beach Boys revival. That was a pretty thrilling moment. He’s one of my heroes.
AVC: What did you talk about?
MW: It was just a very brief introduction, and then he went onstage. But they sounded great, and all of those later Beach Boys records we reference in the studio during my records, and we reference a lot of Beach Boys in making She & Him records.
AVC: Do you think your music is more Beach Boys or Beatles?
MW: Too hard to say, but I’m hugely influenced by both of those catalogs.
AVC: The record this song is on, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), came out in 1965 and was the ninth studio record The Beach Boys put out. They were just churning out material.
MW: They did. When people talk about The Beach Boys, they talk about Pet Sounds. I think the Today! record and Summer Days are just as good. I encourage people to go out and buy them.
Howlin’ Wolf, “Howlin’ For My Baby”
MW: Incredible record. His records have another one of my favorite guitar players of all time, a guy named Hubert Sumlin. This is actually a song that I covered for the TV show True Blood. They ended up putting it on one of their soundtracks.
AVC: Those soundtracks are pretty diverse.
MW: The programmer is a great programmer. I love this song. The cover version I did with my friends is somewhere out there on iTunes, “Howlin’ For My Baby.”
AVC: Was it something they asked for or you suggested?
MW: I’d been performing it with my friends live and just decided to record it in the studio. That’s the version that’s on the record.