Incendiary speaks to the legendary Paul Simpson


Founder member of the Teardrop Explodes, leader of the reformed and much-underrated Wild Swans, Head on the Liverpool scene, and good friend to various Bunnymen, Erics-heads etc, etc… how could Incendiary have left speaking to Paul Simpson for so long? As ever speaking to Mages of this sort involves auspicious timing. Seeing the Wild Swans have released two magnificent singles recently – and given a much anticipated autobiography is on the way - we felt the time was finally right to speak.


IN: Paul, the new single is tremendous, especially The Wickedest Man in the World. Tell us why you felt the need to document such personal reminiscences on a record (I'm thinking of Coldest Winter for 100 Years too)


Paul: There’s a red brick Victorian building in Liverpool called Coleman’s Fireproof Depository - a deep time storage facility to protect and preserve people’s valuables, well, the older I get the more precious my memories become to me, particularly of the early 80’s and my time in the post-punk Liverpool scene. When friends start dying it makes you aware that you could just be the last repository of certain missing but vital pieces of information that go make up small but potentially crucial parts of the cultural tapestry of Britain in the late 20th and early 21st century. Things buried, be they lost treasure or dead bodies, have a tendency to make their way to the surface eventually. I am just compelled to record the things I haven’t quite dealt with yet. I often don’t know how I truly feel about things until I have written them down, so in documenting such personal things as a one-off sexual encounter or my father’s death I am helping myself to cope with the majesty and trauma (respectively) of it.

I love Samuel Pepys’ Diary, it’s the minutiae and the unsung minor characters that fascinate me and I’ll read any first hand account of a subculture; the Surrealists, the Impressionists, the Beats, CBGB’s in 1974 and 75, London punk in 76. John Savage’s book Teenage – The Creation of Youth 1875 -1945 was interesting. The people who really light the spark of a scene are rarely the ones who are remembered.


IN: What is it with Liverpool and a need for sentiment and story telling? Is the Pool really such a romantic portal?


Paul: ‘Portal’ is the exactly the right word to use. Obviously Liverpool is a seaport, 2nd home to half the world’s rebels and anarchists, and as such is filled with wild poetry, music and rebellion, but the city is also a portal for raw energy to gather and manifest into art. For whatever reasons, be they social, political, geographical or magical, unique things are born in Liverpool. The sentimentality probably derives from the Irish in me on my grandmother’s side and the Scots on my Dad’s side.


IN: The Wild Swans, less a band, more a state of mind? OR a danse macabre? (only joking Mr S, but I had the Edvard Munch Dance of Life picture in my head)


Paul: There are obvious parallels; the obsession with time, love, sex, decay, death and regret. I notice there’s a phallus in there, hidden in plain sight. On the surface the painting is pretty yet it also contains darkness and mysticism.


IN: It is great to see Mike Mooney and Les Pattinson involved in the new Swans. A case of old mates rallying round? Or deeper reasons?


Paul: At Ricky Mayme’s invitation I’d gone to see The Brian Jonestown Massacre when they played in Liverpool a few years ago. I was driving in circles trying to find a parking space when I saw Mike Mooney deep in conversation with some depraved looking hipster outside the venue. Having not seen Mike in a couple of years I leapt out and gave him a big hug and was surprised to discover the cool guy he was with was in fact Ricky. Now Ricky and I had not met at this point and had just been exchanging e-mails. I had no idea those two were connected but I found out later that they had met years before when Mike was in Spiritualized. I invited Ricky over to my place to hang out for a few nights and Mike, who Ricky was staying with at the time, came too.


We sat up late and Ricky and I talked about collaborating on a project together, then at Ricky’s request I played him some Wild Swan demos I’d recorded at home and within moments they had plugged-in and were playing along so beautifully. Flash, illumination, Abracadabra.


I play bass and so does Ricky but we needed a full-time dedicated bass-player for the first gig at Static Liverpool in July last year. My friend Will Sergeant suggested Les Pattinson but I thought he wouldn’t be remotely interested having just refused to re-join the Bunnymen for their Ocean Rain anniversary dates, but time was short, great bass players are thin on the ground in Liverpool and I thought what the hell and rang him at the boatyard where he works. I nearly fell off my chair when he said yes. Les is my oldest friend; our mothers actually introduced us to each other outside the infant school gates at the age of 4.


We literally grew up together; adjoining desks, sweets, toys, bikes, cigarettes, girls, Eric’s, guitars, births, marriages, deaths. When he quit the Bunnymen I didn’t see him for a long while so it’s been wonderful spending time with him again. I feel like something deeper is at work too. Who better to have at my side as I go over the top into no-man’s land than friends and old soldiers?


IN: Tell everyone about Tim Whittaker, we'd love to know much more about him


Paul: I don’t feel qualified to write about Tim. I knew him but not as well as I knew the rest of the scene. He was older than the rest of us and had been the drummer in Liverpool legends Deaf School. A great modern painter, down to earth, funny and wise. He shared the house in Aigburth with the Bunnymen and wrote a beatnik style account of the Sex Gods’ lost months in America. I wish someone would track it down and publish it.


IN: I can't really leave this interview without mentioning the Late Great Jake Brockman


Paul: What can I say? Jake was open and beautiful, an ego-free pure spirit.

It’s horrible that both Pete and his closest friend Jake were lost to Liverpool and the world. Much as I love motorbikes and the rebellion and freedom they symbolize I can’t help but freeze now when I see one barrelling down in my rear view mirror and I’m just grateful that Will Sergeant has hung up his helmet. Just need Les to do the same now.


IN: What was so special about Erics in your view?


Paul: Well, it took me 12 pages to answer this in Jaki Florek’s Eric’s book All The Best Clubs Are Downstairs, so I’ll just say that I feel incredibly lucky to have been standing in Mathew Street

when the lighting bolt hit. Deeply sacred high magic at work.


IN: Could such a scene of people or indeed a state of mind exist now?


Paul: There will always be an underground, a resistance to the mainstream. The difference now is that the city-centre - the hub of the wheel where young artists and musicians from the provinces always gravitated to - has been rendered unaffordable. There are no cheap flats or warehouse spaces, studios or rehearsal rooms and therefore the art and music that is coming out of our major cities lacks the organic cohesion of like-minded kids finding each other and collaborating naturally.


In Liverpool, wealthy foreign and out of town students come to study at LIPA (Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts) where they are taught to play in all styles; slap bass, jazz, folk, punk etc, its an X-Factor/jazz hands approach where punk and rebellion are just lectures you attend. At the other end of the scale are the more organic home grown bands comprising of friends, but they are for the most part trapped in The La’s shadow, all desperately trying to sound like authentic Scouse troubadours rather than sounding like themselves. Their influences are so narrow that they just keep ploughing the same dead 1965 furrow.



To answer your question, yes in theory I believe a scene could exist again but I think if it does it will only be for the worst reasons, namely that the current recession will result in the return of cheap rents. A similar state of mind might be less attainable as the subculture is so fractured now and as the infotainment (horrible but useful word) industries have such a hypnotizing grip on the average teenager I cannot see one manifesto uniting enough people to make any real impact. The healthy rebellion of the class of 76/77 and the post-punk generation has been replaced by a ‘Whatever’ ‘What’s the point?’ cynicism. If a revolution comes I don’t believe it will be musical, it will be political. 


IN: What inspires you now?


Paul: In the last week of October I found myself out on a wild Scottish sea loch, alone in a kayak about half a mile from land on all sides, way out of my comfort zone. It was dusk and the weather was bad, no horizon line as the sky and loch were shrouded in an off-white mist, much like being in a photographer’s infinity cove with no spatial reference points, nothing tangible - just an eerie Old-Testament beauty.


I began to feel uneasy as if I’d stumbled into somewhere sacred that I shouldn’t be, like a burglar creeping around in a locked cathedral, but rather than paddling away I stopped, laid the oar across me and just sat there, rain pattering on my waterproofs and thinking that ‘this is as close to a dream as I have ever been and the nearest I will get to the afterlife in this world’.


Strange currents were moving around the kayak, probably just seals swimming beneath me but it was unnerving and the fearful yet awestruck feeling intensified to a point where, well.. I cannot adequately describe the sensation. I stayed there for what seemed like hours but can in reality have only have been about ten minutes before the darkness fell and the rain began to fall in earnest. I woke from the spell and paddled home toward the dimly lit storm lantern I had placed upon the shoreline in case I got lost. I was so inspired by this sacred transgression thing that I immediately painted 5 canvases in the next few days in a futile attempt to capture the sensation.  


IN: Tell us all about your book.


Paul: Well, I have just secured a very good literary agent who says that despite my not exactly being a household name, the quality of the writing will secure its publication. High-praise indeed. It has very little to do with music, it’s far more interesting than that.


IN: You seem to have a love of the arcane, and the past. Especially through old graphics or imagery. What is it that fascinates you?


Paul: I admire the innocence and the purity of times past, the resilience, the commitment to quality, when goods and services came at the highest possible standard. Despite the poverty and hardships and injustices of the past, to me the past seems preferable in many ways to the present. Obviously I wouldn’t want to go back to the days of slavery and slums and child labour, but we live in such a disposable age now where little is valued; I look at the British high street and I could weep. Subway, Starbucks, McDonalds. No one cares. If I see an old fashioned chandler with galvanized buckets outside I’m in seventh heaven.


Music has lost a lot of its currency now; it was everything to me when I was 14, now it seems to be placed on an equal footing with a new film release, a new computer game or a new pair of jeans. A new album is not a big deal to kids now, just a click of the mouse.


I aspire to the dignity of men of my grandfather’s generation.


For all our technological advances, as a species we have learned very little. I am embarrassed at how primitive we are; I mean think about it? Our governments still settle arguments with other countries governments by well, hitting each other. Civilisation will fall and hard, but it rise again. I am a pessimistic optimist.