Dreamer, troubled spirit, romantic visionary: PAUL SIMPSON is a mystical beast who has been called many things over the years. THE WILD SWANS’ main man and songwriter is back with the Swans Mark III and a new album, The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, hoping that this incarnation of his cherished band will assuage his fears and finally gain the acclaim he feels they deserve.
Retaining the boyish good looks from his days at the heart of a creatively dynamic period in Liverpool’s history, Simpson says he is “a little scared” about the prospect of doing a recorded interview, claiming to be a lot more eloquent with the written word. He cuts quite a melancholy figure as his eyes flit nervously about during our chat, attention not so much wandering as transferring their focus. His post-Romantic lyrics, too, have always had a tendency to take off on dreamy flights of fancy, taking in Milton-esque religious themes and nostalgic feelings of England, in a way not too dissimilar to Morrissey. In fact, though the Swans can count Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and Big In Japan (to name but a few) as friends and contemporaries, it is with The Smiths that they share the closest kinship, if only in the ideology and mystique of their front men. Both bands are also revered in a near-religious way by their fans, with the Swans’ supporters forming an English Electric Brotherhood that stretches from Maghull to Manila. This doesn’t particularly add up when you consider that The Wild Swans have had no major charting successes – other than the cult status of 1982 single The Revolutionary Spirit – and that they’ve endured decade-long periods of inactivity since their inception.
The Wild Swans were formed in those heady, early ‘80s post-punk days, when cross-pollination between bands was commonplace. And, what with all the like-minded individuals around, I suggest to Simpson that it must have been an exciting time to be around? “Yeh, well, it seems that way in retrospect,” he says, “but at the time it felt like everything was moving at the speed of glaciation, like nothing was really happening. Then it started to move quite quickly for everyone when Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe started that label [Zoo Records]. They put us in the studio to record the single [Revolutionary Spirit], and straight away it became NME single of the week, with Sounds and Melody Maker all over it, too. Yeh, they were interesting times…”
This was a period when Liverpool bands dominated the charts, with the likes of the Bunnymen riding high. “You see, all that kind of passed me by, really,” declares Simpson. “I only played keyboards on one single with the Teardrop Explodes before I left, and I didn’t particularly like that.” Simpson left on the eve of the Teardrops’ second single as he wasn’t altogether comfortable with the new “pop-centric” direction that Julian Cope favoured, and so missed out on their commercial success. “The Teardrops went on to major chart success, and the Bunnymen too, but Bill Drummond always said that Rev Spirit was the greatest thing Zoo released.” This isn’t necessarily surprising, as The Revolutionary Spirit is an epic, poetic journey of a song, a feat almost matched by the scale of English Electric Lightning from the new album. Its stream of conscious lyrics are typical of Simpson’s approach, reeling off like a soar away dream that flirts with the heavens, proving that the old talents are still there.
The current Wild Swans line-up bears hardly any resemblance to the original group, although long time partner and contributor Ged Quinn maintains an honorary role, and has supplied the artwork again. Ricky Maymi (of the Brain Jonestown Massacre) and Mike Mooney (Spiritualized) have taken up guitar duties, with Steve Beswick on drums, and Simpson’s old school friends Les Pattinson and Will Sergeant lending a hand here and there. Candie Payne has contributed backing vocals to the record, lending EEL and Lost At Sea an almost ethereal quality, helping to propel the tracks as they soar heavenwards. This all seems like a much more settled group nowadays, but I wonder if Paul doesn’t pine a bit for the good old days of the gang? “Hmmm, slightly,” he muses. “Yeh, I do miss that camaraderie a little bit. But, you know, I’ve changed over the years, I’ve got different wants. And I’m happy in my skin now as well.” Balanced on a more even keel, Simpson sees The Coldest Winter … as their defining masterpiece, “sort of like a mission that I never completed, you know. And it’s gotta be completed…”
Time will tell if the dream has come true.
The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years is available for pre-order from Occultation now.
The Wild Swans play the Stanley Theatre on Sat 11th June.