M. Ward Discusses A Wasteland Companion, and His Arizona Ties to The Meat Puppets and Howe Gelb

See also: fIREHOSE's Ed Crawford: "It Was Our Job. We F**kin' Showed Up Every Day."

M. Ward has slowly and sturdily built himself up as a songwriter and producer over the past decade, with a string of hushed folk, country, blues, and pop inflected records that don't cry out for attention, but quietly and intensely demand it. He released his latest, A Wasteland Companion, on Tuesday, April 10.

I discuss A Wasteland Companion in this week's issue of New Times, but space didn't permit me to share my entire conversation with M. Ward about his music, Arizona's musical statesmen The Meat Puppets and Howe Gelb, and making a record that skirts the line between live performance and studio craftsmanship.

Up on the Sun: Been a little while since an M. Ward solo record, as you've been busy with a bunch of other projects. When you are doing your own stuff, how does it work for you? How do you decide, "Now I've got an album?" I assume you're always writing songs.

M. Ward: I'm always writing songs, and I know that it's time to go into the studio when I have a finished batch of songs that seem to have some kind of relation to each other. Once that time comes, it's time to start the search for a studios to record in.

You recorded this one all over the place: New York, Los Angeles, Omaha, Tucson, Bristol.

Yeah, well, for the past ten years people have been telling me about studios all over the word that I never had the time to go and see for myself and experience. So this was the record where I took that opportunity.

In the past you've recorded pretty much everything by yourself, right?

Pretty much all my other records have been recorded in Portland Oregon with a few little things in different cities. In general everything I've ever recorded, everything I've ever produced for that matter, has basically been based in Portland, and a little bit in Los Angeles.

What was it like to stretch out with Wasteland Companion?

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I think it's a better reflection of what the last three years of my life has been like. You know, there's been a lot of movement and I just had an idea to make a new kind of record, one that was a cross between a live record and a studio record, and see what would happen. I imagine I'll be recording more records this way. It was a good "new method" for me.

Were you recording live with different combinations of people?

Something I like about live records is there's a bit of time travel and movement from place to place. That's not something you get in a record where everything was recorded in a couple weeks in LA. I think it's a matter of more influences in the sound. More risk, and I think that's a good thing.

Howe Gelb is on this one, among other guests like Zooey Deschanel and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. He was instrumental in the start of your career.

He was. One of my mentors, and he took me on my first tour of Europe. He was a great supporter and remains a great friend, and I'm a fan.

I spoke with him recently for our centennial issues and he spoke with me about his new album, Giant Giant Sand's Tucson. Like Wasteland Companion, it's got a differing sense of location. It expands the space of the record. Seems like a very fruitful approach to recording.

Yeah, the most important part is is working with the people who live there and work there.

What does the title of your new record refer to?

Well, it refers to lot of things. So far people have been coming up with interesting interpretations. One of the things I think about a lot is inspiration and where it comes from. Asking yourself what are the things that keep you going in whatever you do for a living. Sometimes you don't know what those things are until you are in a place of destitution, a place where nothing seems to be thriving or growing.

I think everyone has times or places they've experienced that. I like the idea of focusing on the part of life that inspires you to continue. I liked the idea that it could be a million different things. For some people it's music, for some people it's nature, a spiritual source, or a friend or family. So a lot of the record has the same sort of backdrop and shadows, but I hope that in the foreground there's something more hopeful.

The record starts with "Clean Slate," and ends with "Pure Joy," and between those there's some dark terrain. That speaks to the spiritual ideas you're talking about.

I think music plays that role for a lot of people. It's a gateway to transcendence or understanding, and it takes you to a higher place. Something that's great about being able to travel is seeing how music fits into people's lives. It's incredible, really, to see how many roles music fills. And I'm always amazed at music's power.

So the record features a lot of stuff that seems to hint at that search, but there's also some really fun pop songs. "Primitive Girl" and "Sweetheart" are both very fun and light. To me the last couple records have hinted at things like that, whereas your earlier records were more obscured or veiled.

I think every record should have it's peaks and valleys, and the more that I make records the more I've been trying to make the peaks brighter and the valleys darker. They offset each other, if it weren't for one the other wouldn't feel is good I think. I mean, that's life [laughs].

I don't want to get too gushy, but I've probably listened to "Shangri La," from Hold Time, a couple hundred times in my life. There's something about the way you phrase things in that song. I don't want to be cheesy, but that's a healing song, and I think that's a rare thing.

Well thank you. The lyrics to that song, the whole idea of the [opening line] "Up on the sun, this time tomorrow" comes from the Meat Puppets. They were a huge influence in high school; they have a record called Up on the Sun, and I hope everyone that reads this goes and buys.

You know, that's the name of our music blog here at New Times.

Up on the Sun?

Yeah. For people that spent your formative years, the sun is a oppressive force, but also this beautiful thing. You know, driving into work in late January and it's 70 degrees out.

It's your friend and enemy at the same time. Before visiting Arizona, The Meat Puppets were the only image I had of the state. I feel that everyone out there has Meat Puppets records and Up on the Sun.

Those guys are good statesmen.

[You've got] Howe Gelb and The Meat Puppets.

M. Ward is scheduled to perform Tuesday, April 17, with fIREHOSE at Crescent Ballroom.

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