“I’ve Never Begged For Acceptance And I’ve Never Toed The Line”
Ginger Wildheart is pretty exhausted. He’s just flown back from yet another trip to Japan, a country in which his band have been adored since their first recordings in the 1990s. But one of the most enduring figures from the modern British rock scene is hardly going to be floored by a bit of jet lag. This is a man who, ever since he squared up to the band’s first record company, has been tested to the limits. He’s confounded fans expectations, drank and drugged himself to near oblivion, watched his band disintegrate as a result of addiction and/or depression. And yet he’s always bounced back for more. Dispelling the tiredness with his honest-as-ever chat, he particularly perks up when talking about the far reaches of his vinyl collection. Considering their longevity, it’s perhaps surprising that he speaks even more excitedly about his band, The Wildhearts. But then, they are about to hit the road again (alongside Reef and Terrorvision), touring the UK and Australia. And, as he reveals in this interview, his rediscovered excitement is at such a level that a new Wildhearts album is even on the cards…
You come from a working class background in the North East. When you first came to wider attention as part of The Quireboys, that band had a bit of a glam rock edge. How did that look go down with your family?
I was from a very tough background, at a very rough time, where blokes weren’t encouraged to look weird in any way. From an early age I was into wearing leather trousers, white Winklepicker boots, and a ruffled white shirt with a tailed jacket. I’m not sure what made me do it, none of the bands I liked looked like that. I was into Sparks, Ramones, Cheap Trick and Motörhead. Later I came to love Hanoi Rocks because they dressed similar to me, but before they came along I was wearing this unorthodox get up, all in black and white, with my hair a complete mess. I went from looking like a Ramone as a kid to some weird, glammed up undertaker. My mother was used to me leaving the house looking like this, and feared for my life every time I closed the door behind me. And in all the years I dressed like that I was never beaten up. Maybe people admired my nerve…
That glam rock aesthetic stands in contrast to a lot of what you might occasionally see or hear in heavy rock/metal circles. Have you ever had to deal with extreme macho bullshit?
I hate all intolerance with exactly the same passion. I’ve had to stand up for my right to dress however I want, and I guess that scares off most intolerant cowards, which is all those people are. Where I come from, I used to get punched for just being a kid on the streets. I got used to taking a punch early on in life, so once I started expressing myself by wearing unusual clothing I was prepared to stand up to anyone to protect that right. Surprisingly, I never saw anyone acting macho or disrespectful around me. Not to my face anyway. I mean, I was always tall growing up, maybe that had something to do with it. But still, people always just let me be that weird penguin fella with the mad hair.
Although The Wildhearts have taken time off in the past, you never seem to. Where does that tireless work ethic come from?
It comes from being from a background where people just got on with things. No-one complained when they had to go coal mining, I certainly wasn’t going to complain about writing songs for a living. Music is me, it is how I express myself. It’s my language. I’d be utterly fucked without it. And songwriting just came with that. Even as a kid, when my friends wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, I wanted to be Malcolm Young. I wanted to know the chords. As I got older my knowledge and fascination with chords meant that my songs got stronger, and the message I was relaying got more confident. Once people started saying that my songs had affected their life in some small way, I considered that what I do to be a service, not a job. In writing about my own life and struggles I was able to help someone else, or at least just let them know that they’re not alone. For me, that’s just about the most amazing responsibility in the world.
Is burying yourself in work another kind of escapism?
Absolutely. I go through times of severe mental struggle, and the first thing I do with my sadness is pick up a guitar. And there’s always a song in the barrel. I don’t know what I’d do without music. I’ve tried hospitals, medication, you name it, and writing songs is the only thing that keeps me alive. The fact that I get to make a living doing this is incredible. I provide my own medicine and I get paid for it. It’s the dream.
You’ve bounced back as a band several times. Can you now see yourself continuing as The Wildhearts for as long as you’re able to perform?
To be honest, I hope so. I watched Lemmy carry on Motörhead throughout his entire, magnificent life, and when he died there was suddenly no Motörhead. I mean, obviously there couldn’t be without him. But the thought of a world where there is no Motörhead made me look at my life and realise that The Wildhearts mean a lot to many people. As much as Ramones and Motörhead mean to me. I have no right to deny anyone that comfort.
What was the closest you came to never coming back as a band?
When we all had drug problems. There were offers on the table, but I knew that if we got back together in the late ’90s, one of us would have died. Probably two of us. The only way of keeping people like us alive was to starve us from drugs; make it so we couldn’t afford enough gear to OD. It didn’t always work – junkies find money. But at least The Wildhearts wasn’t funding that lifestyle. If we weren’t all about the music I wanted no part of it.
Who’s the best band who you have supported and vice versa?
The best band we ever supported was Wolfsbane. It was one of our first tours and they taught us everything; how to have fun, how to control a crowd, but most importantly, how to treat a support band. We ended up nicking their entire crew, and their tour manager became our manager. The Midlands was like a second home for us, and some of us didn’t even have a first home! I pick our support bands so I couldn’t choose a favourite. For me the show begins when the first band goes on, so I always choose bands that I think are going to make a great night. Actually, two of my favourites, The Darkness and Groop Dogdrill, didn’t always go down that well with our crowd. But we have had some incredible bands play with us. Strapping Young Lad, 3 Colours Red, Therapy?, The Hellacopters. The list is as amazing as it is long.
Of the many musical projects you’ve done outside The Wildhearts, which do you think had greater potential than you perhaps achieved?
Hey! Hello! should have got a break. That was a great band, great music, great look, great players and performers. We just couldn’t keep a singer. I’ve seen that be a problem with bands throughout history, which is why I got lucky singing for The Wildhearts. It was something I never wanted to do, but we just couldn’t find a singer so I had to do it. Given my luck with singers, The Wildhearts certainly wouldn’t be featuring in Kerrang! today, or spoken about as a classic band.
Which of your projects outside The Wildhearts do you expect to revisit?
I will always carry on making solo albums, it’s something that means a great deal to me. It is my therapy and my medication, and my best friend. Writing for The Wildhearts is comfortable, I know the moves, the boxes to tick. Writing solo stuff comes from a place of raw emotion, and without that outlet I’d be in a very dark place. I couldn’t even consider it.
The Wildhearts song 29 X The Pain makes reference to some of the music that’s inspired you. Which of your biggest influences did you neglect to mention in the song?
Hundreds of bands and artists didn’t feature in that song. I was just making the words rhyme and picking whatever bands I love to make that happen. But there have probably been five bands every year I’ve been alive that mean just as much to me. I’m a music fanatic. I have a lot of albums, and they mean a lot. I could completely re-write 29 x The Pain every year for the rest of my life, and never mention the same band or artist twice.
What’s the best Wildhearts album?
If you ask a critic they’ll say our debut, Earth Vs The Wildhearts. Personally, I love Endless Nameless most because it was a statement of pure intent. We wanted to make something challenging that didn’t pander to commercialism, and we did it. Most people think it’s just noise, but I’m very proud of that noise we made. Very proud indeed.
You said last year that your head wasn’t really in Wildhearts mode, you were strictly focussed on Mutation and Ghost In The Tanglewood. What changed in order for you to return to a Wildhearts headspace and do you anticipate remaining in it long enough to write any new material?
Whatever I’m writing at any time is all I can think about. I get obsessed and consumed by music. So, while I was writing stuff for Ghost In The Tanglewood and Mutation III, that was it. I couldn’t have even tried to give The Wildhearts anything like the attention it deserves.This year I’ve been writing Wildhearts material again and I’m loving it. We’ll be recording a new album in November, to be released early 2019, and it’s a lot of fun — great riffs, great tunes and a fucking great band.
Is there any of your back catalogue that is off limits when it comes to deciding what to play on live dates?
With The Wildhearts it’s all down to what songs we can learn. I’m game for playing anything, but maybe someone won’t be too keen on playing drums, guitar or bass on a song they didn’t record, y’know? I respect that.
What’s the wildest or most unusual situation or scenario you’ve ever woken up in?
Well, waking up in a Thai jail takes some beating. Opening your eyes and you’re in a room about the size of a large classroom, made of stone, with no windows, and there’s maybe 100 people crammed in there. Murderers, terrorists, psychopaths you name it, they had a patch in this prison. I sat and watched the guy next to me die of tuberculosis. That was a fairly unusual scenario for me.
Are the fans in Japan still as dedicated as they’ve always been? How different is the touring experience there?
Japan is still the magical place it always was. Our fans over there are amazing. In fact, I feel more comfortable considering them as family than using the word ‘fan’. We have been through so much together, we’re on the same side now. Our supporters in UK are just as dedicated though, and mean every bit as much to us. The Wildhearts is a community. They look after each other and they transform peoples lives with their kindness. It has gone way beyond the fan-musician dynamic by this point. This is a huge family.
You’ve always been viewed as the leader of The Wildhearts. At different times in the life of the band you’ve kept faith with some other band members, despite acknowledged substance abuse problems. Has that worked both ways?
I think that point might be right now. In a world without Slayer, Motörhead, Ramones, Status Quo or Black Sabbath, I’d be a very lonely man if I wasn’t in a band like The Wildhearts. I need classic bands in my life, so being in one is an honour.
Let’s talk about your country album, Ghost In The Tanglewood. Is that music that you came to appreciate more in your later years? Which country acts/singers are your favourites?
I have always loved country music. Ever since I was a little kid that music has always been around me, whether it was Dolly Parton, Jason & The Scorchers, Lone Justice, The Jayhawks or Tim McGraw. Like rock music, I have too many favourites to name, for many different reasons. People like Johnny Cash teach you how to appear fearless, Willie Nelson teaches you to do what you love and that you can continue forever, Dolly taught me about lyrics and harmonies, Jason & The Scorchers taught me about splicing genres of music together, but keeping the heart of both. Country music has great teachers.
Country music is a form of folk music, and in the folk tradition music has two functions; dancing and storytelling. Storytelling folk songs often spoke about the news or were songs that taught a moral aspect. Have you ever felt like a storyteller with a message people should hear?
I think I’m most comfortable in the role of storyteller on my latest solo album, Ghost In The Tanglewood. I’ve lived long enough to be concerned in only the truth, so this is a very honest album. And while I’m writing from my own point of view, I’ve seen enough to trust that point of view. And I’m happy to say that a lot of people trust my honesty too. There are very few things as important in this business as integrity. I’ve seen plenty of people do things for money or fame that have killed their spirit. Anyone who knows me and my work knows that I’ve never begged for acceptance, I’ve never written a piece of shit song for someone to make money from and I’ve never toed the line. For me, the real stuff is beyond the line. It might not make you rich, but it makes you authentic, and I know what I’d rather die with.
Following successful experiences with crowdfunding previous projects on Pledge Music, is that an avenue you would revisit again for other projects?
I think popular crowd funding platforms have been run into the ground by corporates using them as pre-sales for bigger artists, overcrowding the formula. Without direct communication with the audience, crowd funding is just another way of stinging people for money. That word integrity comes to mind again. As soon as something becomes a money maker, the first thing lost in the deal is integrity. A lot of musicians can live without that, and certainly most of the music industry can, but that relationship with the buyer was the most important thing about the original idea of crowd funding. Giving people something they can’t get elsewhere. Once that’s gone it’s time for people to start to get imaginative, and trying out new ways of making the deal sweeter for the fans. That’s what crowd funding should be most concerned about, always.
What’s the most extravagant thing you ever bought? Any regrets about things you have spent your earnings on in the past?
The most extravagant thing I’ve ever paid for was a drug habit. I spent a lot of houses, cars, holidays, swimming pools and luxury lifestyle on smoking cocaine for over a decade. I don’t regret it, I had a lot of fun, but it was irresponsible and really fucking stupid.
You’re a renowned Sparks fan. What’s your favourite lyric from a Sparks song?
Sparks have been educating me, as a musician and a lyricist, since I first heard them, 40 years ago. They still have no competition when it comes to lyrics. Their understanding of words, and disregard for popular taste, has made them an indispensable influence throughout my life. I regard no songwriters higher. As for my favourite lyric, I’m not sure I could seriously attempt to even begin to answer that, it would be like picking your favourite hair on your child’s head. But there is a lyric in Forever Young, a song about an indestructible man, where he states ‘I’ll sit and watch the history books get thicker.’ As an observation, that is just pure genius.
In 2011 you were so disillusioned with the music industry you considered quitting in order to do something else. What might you have ended up doing to make a living?
I would have got into managing, producing, working with bands and steering them away from traps set up to make music a more marketable commodity. I would have liked to have taught bands how to aim for a lifetime of doing this. I hope that in some way I’m doing that by default.
How different is your recreational time on tour these days compared to the past? Do you stay out of trouble these days?
We try to stay out of trouble, but it doesn’t stop trouble looking for us! These days the parties don’t last for days anymore. I won’t play with a hangover, which I used to do a lot. I want to feel fit and ready for anything, not just scrape by using desperation and luck. But we’re still fucking nuts, so it’s not like The Wildhearts have mellowed out. We just got smarter and more resilient. We’d be pretty hard to kill right now.
Is the band met with certain expectations because of your reputation for hedonism? How do you feel about that and how do you deal with it?
We understand that we have a reputation, and it is absolutely warranted. We fucked up a lot in the past, of course people are nervous in trusting us. We have to work for that trust. But one thing we always understood was that we are a very good band, we make a very good noise and we write very good songs. I think this is something that people don’t always associate with The Wildhearts. And this is why we figure we can take people by surprise with an album that knocks them on their arse. Sometimes it’s good to have a secret weapon.
You are a prolific songwriter. Have you ever had a period of writer’s block?
No, I never have. It’s not something I’ve even thought about, to be honest. I have always searched for an interesting life, and as long as I’m the owner of one then I’ll find plenty to write about. Life changes so much I don’t even understand how anyone could get writers block. Just go outside, y’know? Even your outlook changes so much as you age, your opinions are modified by time. There’s plenty of gold in coming to terms with life, especially being surrounded by humans. They’re a pretty fucking interesting species, for better or for worse.
You’re playing soon at a benefit show for Tim Smith. Can we hear his influence on you in any specific material you have recorded and what are the best releases by his band Cardiacs?
The Wildhearts are as influenced by Cardiacs as Ramones or Motörhead. When we started we were obsessed with Cardiacs. Every song of ours that features an extended riff section owes as much to Cardiacs as to early Metallica. And On Land And In The Sea is to Cardiacs what Master Of Puppets is to Metallica.
Words: Marc Rowlands
The Wildhearts are on tour in the UK with Reef and Terrorvision as part of the Britrock Must Be Destroyed Tour in May. Dates are as follows and tickets are available here:
4 Manchester Academy
5 Birmingham Digbeth Arena
6 London Eventim Apollo Hammersmith
19 Glasgow O2 Academy
20 Newcastle O2 Academy
24 Leeds O2 Academy
25 Bristol Motion
26 Portsmouth Guildhall
The ultimate review of Download Pilot with every single band covered!
Watch the animated video for Turnstile’s awesome new single, Blackout.