INTERVIEW: Ginger Wildheart - “Good lyrics always come from bad times”

Ginger Wildheart

In the interview for XS Noize, Dan Volohov sits down with Ginger Wildheart to discuss his newest album, "21 Century Love Songs", the secrets of a great show, DIY and punk-rock, Ginger's love of country music. 

the wildhearts

You mentioned that even having periods of insomnia, you still use these times working productively. I concluded that you're a workaholic. What was your creative climate like while writing the songs from "21 Century Love Songs"?

GW: Well, when I first started writing the album, It was before lockdown, and I just looked for ideas that would make an album. What happens is you get lots and lots of ideas in a pot. And then start feeling what kind of shape the album's going to be. And then you throw that idea out and that idea out and keep these. At first, writing an album is just shopping for ideas. When I started getting a feeling of what it was going to sound like, COVID happened. I broke up with someone I was seeing, and that was like a perfect ingredient for lyrics. Good lyrics always come from bad times, trauma or tragedy. Between good luck and bad luck, it worked perfectly.

Being a writer and creative, I think creative people need to have bad times and good times. That's important. It helps the creative process to have to deal with things. How many songwriters have you seen get successful make a lot of money, and they don't write anymore? What I mean, their writing is crap. Because they don't deal with anything, they are just spending money. I like dealing with adversity. A lot of people I know complain about insomnia. I like it! I get loads done when I have insomnia. I have a dog so that I can walk my dog all night. So adversity, bring it on! – I enjoy it.

You have experimented with the way your music is delivered to your fans. Whether it's a fan-club-only release or crowdfunding. With "21 Century Love Songs", you took a cinematic approach within the video presentation and the artwork reflecting your specific vision. What was the idea behind it, and why did you take this approach?

GW: I'm a film fanatic. Especially horror films. One of the constant things that the lockdown has provided is lots of bad food, alcohol, music, and LOTS of films. And books! I read a lot of books. But when it came to putting "21 Century Love Songs" together, I just thought it would be great as a movie, how these love stories are titled. I remember when "21 Century Love Songs", title first came out, there was a bunch of people online saying: "I hate it! It's a stupid title!" and I was like, "You don't even know! It's a tip of an iceberg!". I thought it would be great as a film. "21 Century Love Songs" – songs about anti-love, about how disconnected we are, about how there's no humility anymore. Humanity seems to be on a course of destruction.

We had less than a thousand years of technology, and already we're finding ways of killing ourselves. It's an album about how, as a species, we seem to be dead set on not being here for very long. It's an album about civilizations. If there have been many civilizations and they didn't do much, we won't report on them. When you think that there were 250 million years of dinosaurs successfully being dinosaurs. We are not going to make it for a million years. But we still call it "our world', "our planet'. It's not! If anything – we're tenants. These songs were not written as anti-love songs. They are written about love, not about being in love. Something like that could confuse rock fans.

So I thought: "I'd stick a big bloody heart on a cover, and they'd get it!" – "Oh, yeah, these are not love songs! There's a heart on a hook!" ( laughter ). Some people still don't get it. But I guess some people still don't get vaccinated because they think the government is trying to control them by putting something in their bodies, which is ridiculous. Because the government DON'T CARE ABOUT THEM but lest not go down that road.

When you started The Wildhearts, your community grew alongside you. And if back in the days, you could see the same fans travelling at your gigs, over the thirty years it's pretty hard to remember everything and every person. After the release of Sleepaway, you got the chance to see peoples' reactions - even through the comments on your socials. Is it something that brings you back to that close interaction with your listeners? Even though you still have conversations with them over your solo shows and so on.

GW: I think all communication is good. This community, they're not only there for us. Some people want us to succeed. And not everyone wants you to succeed in this world, the ones who want you to do well have got to treat you like they're made of gold. But the community help each other. When we're not there, when we're not making music and not touring, that's important. Because these people had been around for a while now, they got kids. Some of them met each other at The Wildhearts gig. And their kids' first gig was The Wildhearts. And they have been playing The Wildhearts since their kids were babies. The whole thing has become more than music now.

It's not everyone's interest to keep in touch with their community or their supporters. I don't see what's more important in the world than keeping in touch with these people because they have been here for a long time. Some of these people supported me for all my different solo things, bands and stuff for 30 years. They're like my boss. So, I do keep in touch with them.

I need to know that they're all right. I need there also to be "a quality-control". I don't want to sell them some crap, so they'd all disappear and buy someone else' stuff. So, it's essential to treat your people well. And every single person that likes The Wildhearts is a walking advertisement for The Wildhearts.

They wear t-shirts, they tell everybody about the band. They've got billions of records out. Tons of songs, and they make more fans every single day. I believe in keeping in touch with them in every way possible, whether online or speaking to them between songs. I am engaging them when we make records and letting them know what's going on. Sometimes, these people are like a help group for me. When I'm struggling with mental health problems, some of these people are experts because they have been dealing with the same thing for a long time. So If I need to go somewhere – whos is better than a doctor? Well, these people! Cause they're experts. It goes two ways. I need them; they are essential to me.

Commenting on your previous LP – "Renaissance Men", you stated that it reminds you of the debut Earth Vs. The Wildhearts. This one, "21 Century Love Songs," you compared to the second PHUQ. Were there any particular creation aspects that united that era with the current period in the history of The Wildhearts?

GW: Creatively – no. Because we wrote, rehearsed and recorded PHUQ as a double album. And then the record company told us: "You're not going to have it a double-album. We're going to make it a single album!" – this time, the record company haven't stopped anything. They liked the record, and they haven't got in the way. That's a big difference; they are behind us this time.

On a creative level, I think it's better now because there's nothing on the way. In the '90s, there were a lot of people in different departments of record labels that were just there to get in the way, trying to squeeze you into a hole that wasn't your shape. The main thing that's the same now is that the band is still completely dysfunctional. It's still a nightmare all the time. It's never stable. And I guess that's the charm with The Wildhearts; it's a bunch of dysfunctional people making an uncommonly good sound. I think that we're not Bon Jovi or any average bunch of professional musicians is probably what's interesting about the band. And what's surprising about the band – is that we're good. You can't argue with it; it's just the way things are. And we haven't developed a professional attitude yet.

"Remember These Days" - reflects that time at the beginning of the band. What pushed your reflection with this one song?

GW: On a lockdown, I was looking at a picture of me and CJ live. In the middle of lockdown, all you got was bad news coming from every single angle. People complain, "It's terrible! it's the worst time ever!". And it just got me thinking that when we first started the band, there were terrible times, and It made us the people we are; it made us the band we are. It informed the style of music we wanted to play by not wanting to be like these other bands that were on the radio.

"If you'd just make music a bit more like this, you'd be more successful""Yeah, but we don't like music like that!" - so it solidified the band, even during the bad times. It made us who we are. It just made me think: "These are good times! We're going to look back on these and remember these terrible times as being valuable!" – that something good came about it. So, it wasn't nostalgic as much as reminding yourself: "Don't take it all so seriously!" – especially when things seem terrible. Just remember – if you survive, it's going to be ok! It was ok the last time. It's always ok if you survive.

A line specifically caught my attention: "We Were Bits of Kids, Trying to Sing like Jake" - is it Jake Burns you refer to?

GW: Yeah-yeah! When we first got together, as The Wildhearts especially, we all liked a few bands when we got Ritch in the band. Ramones was the band we all liked, Motorhead and the Damned. But when Ritch came on board, he said he'd been listening to Stiff Little Fingers. And we were like, "You like Stiff Little Fingers ?! Oh, you're in!". We've always loved Stiff Little Fingers. And when we were auditioning for singers for a long time. We were looking for someone who sounded like Jake Burns!

Now that we look back, the closest thing to Jake Burns is me. I sound a lot more like Jake Burns than any of the guys who came through the door to the auditions. They all wanted to sound like heavy metal singers. And "Bits of Kids" is one of my favourite Stiff Little Fingers Songs. Also, one of Richie's favourite songs as well. So when I got that line, "We Were Bits of Kids, Trying to Sing like Jake", I thought about Jake. I sent it to Rich, and he was: "Oh my God! Jake Burns is gonna love that!". So when we recorded the song, I sent it to Jake Burns. And we had the response: "Yeah-yeah. It's ok!""Have you listened to it ?!""Yeah-yeah!" and after a while, he got in touch with us saying: "OH! My wife just said it's about me!" – "You didn't even know it is?! Why do you think I'm sending you the song ?!".

But Jake Burns has become like a friend of the band. He's supported us. And said a lot of nice things about us. So, I don't think there's anything better for a band than having the people you admire and respect around and like what you're doing. That's precisely what you want.

It's interesting because many of the songs on "21 Century Love Songs" are tied together - lyrically, contextually, musically. So, if you would take them out of this natural context they're in - they'd lose this meaning. So is it all gets to you to writing mainly a record? Not a bunch of songs but a record that would conceptually reflect a particular idea.

GW: It was written with the song it starts with and ends with the song it ends with. That's how I kind of write. If I were a director, I'd film every scene in order of how they come. That's how I make records. But nowadays, the new way of promoting an album is to take songs from the album BEFORE it comes out. And I hate that! It's just the way people do things.

There's nothing you can do about it. But I hate that these songs are being taken out of this context and given to people to listen to, especially with these videos. And then people go: "I don't like it!" – "Well, you have to listen to the song before it and the song after it for it to make sense!" – and I wish people could have heard the album first and then have songs take off or put on the radio or whatever. But that's old-fashioned.

The way it's done now – they take songs BEFORE THE ALBUM comes out! I'm a massive fan of music; I'm a big fan of Sparks. And Sparks released six songs from the last album before the album came out. They all had videos. I was like: "I'm not going to watch ANY OF THESE VIDEOS! I don't want to hear a note of the music until I, being a Sparks fan, puts the needle on the record and sit back listening to the whole thing as the band meant it to be!". So yeah, there will always be some things I agree with, and I'm afraid I have to disagree with music promotion. But at the end of the day, it's a good job. The worst day of being a musician is better than the best day of being a plumber.

But when you're playing live. You, of course, can perform the record entirely from the beginning to the end. I was thinking about - the tempo, the energetics of the performance often dictated by the situation you're in. Acoustic shows are one thing. But when you're performing on Download or Bloodstock, the listeners' feedback can affect your manner of presentation. Doesn't it mean that a song can lose its meaning being performed in a different way than it's recorded? Without sounding exactly like on the record.

GW: It's a good question. Because I've changed my attitude towards playing live since we did Download Festival, I went on stage, and I was taken on stage with the dramas behind the scenes, troubles in the band, and stuff like that. It wasn't until the next show after that. Whenever it was. I realized: this is not about me! Writing an album and recording the album is all about me! Because I have to steer the ship, I have got to whip everyone in the right direction. But when you play those songs to people – that's nothing to do with me. They are their songs.

I'm there to do the best job of singing these songs and communicating the message, and talking and connecting with the audience, which is an entirely different thing than recording an album. It's so important! You can have a bad day making an album. It puts you back in 24 hours. You have got to go in the studio and repair the crap you've done – not live! You have a bad gig, and it's over. You blew it. And we blew it at Download Festival. It affected me in a really-really-really negative way. Until CJ said: "Let it be a turning point! Don't let it be a disaster! Let it be a turning point! Change things because of it!" And I've made some changes in my life. Now I'm more focused than I've ever been on how important and valuable live-gigs are—that connection. For the lack of a better word. So, I think, when you make an album – you make it for yourself. When you're playing songs live – you're playing for them.

You often said that while recording with The Wildhearts, you get yourself in a state when the situation leads you. When the button is pushed, and you should pass through red-light-fever somehow intuitively. Like a lot of young bands do. Do you still have the same set of feelings you've had while working?

GW: Me and CJ always record standing up for that reason. If we sat down – we got nervous because it was so far removed. We were certainly professional guitar players and not those punk-rock guys on stage. And so we stood up, and It all changed. We still record like that. I know a lot of people DO GET red-light fever badly. And I know some of these people who are still making their records – 10 years later!

Because they're terrified of committing to something, I think all great art is not finished art. It's abandoned, and I think the same applies in a studio. You're recording something and if it's good enough, if it gets a feeling, most importantly, if it gets the passion of what you're going to get across and it's got a few mistakes – fuck it! Keep the mistakes! They mean NOTHING. If your voice is cracked or it goes a little bit out of tune because of the emotional involvement – that's the most important part. That's the part that's going to speak to people. Not the part you're singing really in tune.

We got very good at abandoning our art. Record it, get it down, make, so it feels good – move on! And I approach all recordings like that. I've made over 30 albums, and I approach them all precisely the same. Make sure that you get the sentiment and the passion down, and then keep the mistakes!

At some point in your career, you started writing more songs exploring the topics of mental state. "Disease", "My Head Wants Me Dead", "You Do You". Some writers find it interesting to explore this struggle of a lyrical character with themselves. Is it your case?

GW: I've said a few times that I turned into kind of a reporter on the human condition. And obviously, the only subject I've got is me. So, I just write about my experiences as a human being. And when they connect with another person and their experiences – then it's beyond the music, comments, and something else. It's a connection.

Obviously, in the beginning, I was just an angry kid writing about being pissed off about anything. For a lot of it, I still feel that anger. But a lot of it, I just kind of yelling at the weather. Do you know what I mean? There's nothing you can do about it. Now I can use lyrics to at least voice my frustration and not just be shouting for the sake of it. Just voice my frustrations. Voice what I'm frustrated about. Even really about what I did fixing it, how I deal with it. If someone gets in touch with me, saying: "That song spoke to me!" – then I'm on to a good thing.

If I have one person per album tell me that something connected with them, I consider that more important than just being a musician. And I take being a musician very-very seriously! I think being able to communicate with people is vital! I think that's why musicians were there in the first place. I grew up in the '80s when bands thought it was all about being on motorbikes and partying. Because I was a little punk-rocker, I thought, it all was stupid. I thought all those bands were stupid! I didn't even know why I thought it was stupid!

Surely, you can sing about partying. I always do it because it doesn't mean anything to me. I like to feel that "I get to know something about the musicians through their lyrics!". I also like a lot of the musicians who write terrible lyrics ( laughs ).

When you're writing, does it usually comes to both lyrics and musical line, or does one of these goes after another one is done?

GW: It changes all the time. Often, you get a lyric and a melody, and they are both strong and complement each other, especially if it's a chorus. Then you can base the whole song around it, and you can hang it around this chorus. Sometimes, you just get a phrase, And I say: 'It's a good phrase! I'm going to keep that until I'd find a good melody for it!" and sometimes, you're just walking around, getting this lovely tune in your head. I put them all on my iPhone, in my memo. Some of it is– words, some of it – poetry. Some of these – me, singing in the middle of a fucking supermarket. And some of them are just: Na-na-na-na-na! Na-na-na! Na-na-na! And I know what I meant! But as far as "What comes first ?" – it changes pretty much every song!

Your acoustic releases are the whole big topic for discussion. But I was wondering - coming from punk-rock downstroke-type-of-playing, how much has got into acoustic side changed your writing part? Even though all the elements are still there. And you still play damn-good downstroke-punk-rock.

GW: ( laughter ). Yeah, I'm a Ramones and Metallica fan. Downstrokes are where it's at! Before punk-rock, I loved country! The first music I fell in love with – because it was on the radio a lot. I have loved Dolly Patton since I can remember. I wasn't really mad about the Beatles, but I was mad about country music. I think I learnt what I like about songs THROUGH country. And I still feature a lot of country.

The other band is The Sinners – it leans more heavily on country and rock n roll and early 70's kind of bands. But that was a passion of mine and still is the passion of mine. That exists and coincides with punk-rock, hardcore and thrash and all these other things that I like. I like pretty things as well. I don't just like ugly things, but I do love ugly things.

Writing songs like "Greetings from Shitville" and "TV Tan", as well as "Renaissance Men", you are always keen to unite hard-rock expressivity with some light elements, almost pop. Having those elements connected in your sound from the very first days of The Wildhearts, how do you manage to operate them in a way they don't clash with each other?

GW: I think all the songs you mentioned are considered to be country songs. Those choruses "Come on over with something to do, baby…" – that could be a country song. Again, it's my love of pop. The first music I fell into was glam-rock around 73-74. They were all big choruses with lots of harmonies. The band named the Sweet, I'm still copying off the Sweet now. I got more things to play with, I got Motorhead, Metallica, Discharge, I got industrial, and I got Big Black. They weren't around when the Sweet were around. But the blueprint that the Sweet gave me is pretty much the same! Still, fairly aggressive vocals.

Very sweet harmonies in the chorus, big guitar riffs, driving rhythms and great tunes! That's still the blueprint that's still in my DNA. There's a lot of music, obviously, SINCE the Sweet. Punk-rock is the main one. I like to shoehorn it and make it more of my personality. Like I tell any musicians out there: "Don't play anything you don't wanna play. It's essential only to play the stuff you like. Because you know it's good enough…" – the Sweet were a really good band!

Trying to copy the Sweet is not easy. And many bands sound like a bad version of someone else's band – that's why sticking with music you love and mixing it all up as many different things you can from your musical collection, from your collection, and you won't regret anything! Even if it won't work out! Even if you would regret it. You won't regret selling out as well. Keeping integrity in this business is important because they will try to take it from you.

Before our interview, I've been listening to "Institutional Submission", thinking how amazing this person is from a structural point of view. Your start with something heavy, and the light goes to the other spectrum of it.

GW: Thank you! Again, it was just me going through, taking all my favourite bands – Agnostic Front, Discharge, Motorhead and a little bit of Cardiacs in there. It's all stuff I like. And again, it's going to be heavy; it's going to be good! If you want to try and be as goon as Motorhead. And if you're not – people are going to laugh. We all love that sort of music. So, we all know when we get it right. I know that it's something The Wildhearts are going to play well.

With quite a lot of your songs, you speak about unity within your fans and within the band. In 2018 you re-united with Danny [McCormack] – who's been one of the band's founders – alongside you and CJ. Do you think it gave you some new sense of what unity is? 

GW: Not really. This is The Wildhearts. This is not a professional group. We are a bunch of dysfunctional human beings making a nice sound. Unity means a different thing to everyone. And I hope everyone in the band considers a certain amount of unity in the group. But as far as The Wildhearts being like The Monkees, The Beatles or something, smiling happy – it's never going to be like that. We are never going to expect it to be like that. We expect it to be a nightmare most of the time.

You performed the songs from "21 Century Love Songs" within your recently played festival- The Bloodstock. What was the reaction like, and what it was about basically?

GW: Bloodstock is a magic gig for us. The first time we played there, we had to get a different drummer. Because Ritch was on holiday, it was the first time we played Bloodstock as a band. And it's one of these times when you know that there's going to be a good gig. You get a feeling. You get a sense of being grounded - Nothing's going to affect you. Weather, conditions, or the sound. Both times we played Bloodstock; it was the same thing. We just felt like this was going to be great. And then the audience, something let us know they're going to like it before we even started playing.

We're not like every band on Bloodstock. That's a heavy-heavy festival. We go on there, and the only real intense thing with the Wildhearts is our personalities. The music is not that intense. Compared to Napalm Death. Every time we play Bloodstock, the sun comes out. And it's a perfect soundtrack for that. You don't want to watch creator in the sunshine. You want to watch something that makes you smile. We know we're going to have a good gig. And I think we can play with every audience and make them appreciate it because that's not pop music. It's edgy; it goes have riffs, it's loud, it's channelling the spirit of Motorhead.

As well as the spirit of those like Slayer and Status Quo. If you give us your time – we're a hard band to dislike. Unless you don't like tunes, it's heavy riffs—melodies, harmonies, well-crafted songs. And we're a kick-ass-live band. Get us on a good gig – we're good. Get us on a bad day, and we fucking suck! I think it's the same for EVERY GOOD BAND IN HISTORY.

ginger wildheart
Credit: Ami Barwell

21 Century Love Songs is out now on Graphite Records 

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