Come Sing Along With Me: An Interview With Simon Ward

December 4th, 2014 by  |  Published in Interviews

The Strumbellas - promo

Kristopher Bras chats with The Strumbellas frontman in advance of the band’s return to Ottawa

If anyone had asked me a year ago to choose between seeing Neutral Milk Hotel and The Strumbellas, it would have been a no-brainer. Neutral Milk Hotel with a bullet. But when the 2014 Ottawa Folk Fest presented me with this very predicament by putting them in the same time slot on separate stages, I chose The Strumbellas. Since reviewing the band for Spotlight Ottawa in January, they’ve quickly become very dear to me.

Although NMH’s record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is still an indie-rock masterpiece, I just don’t love the songs as I do The Strumbellas’. And when you’ve got the chance to sing along with one of your favourite bands, that’s what really matters. The heart prevailing over the mind, if you will.

I still wish I could have seen Neutral Milk Hotel. But I haven’t regretted my decision to skip them—even though I’ll get many chances to see The Strumbellas in the future. And sooner than later.

On December 12th, The Strumbellas return to Ottawa, stopping at Mavericks during a bout of late-year tour dates. This week, I got the chance to have a talk with vocalist/guitarist Simon Ward about the past, present and future of the band—and the challenges along the way.

I was reading your bio, and there are three different terms used to describe your band’s genre. I’ve heard other ones as well, like indie-rock. Are all of these different terms a lot of nonsense to you, or did you set out to fit a specific niche?

No, they’re not nonsense to me. I really like it. I don’t think we set out to do anything specifically, but I really enjoy hearing all the different things we get called—it’s actually fun to hear. You know, one time we got called goth-folk, and I’m cool with whatever. I love hearing what people call our music because we didn’t set out to do anything. So it’s always fun to hear what people say we sound like.

You’ve said in past interviews that the Strumbellas don’t like to jam. That said, how was your band’s sound conceived?

We kind of forced ourselves to jam early on, because we weren’t good enough yet to go on stage. I guess when I said we don’t like to jam, it’s like, when we go out on tour as a band, and some of the bands will play a show, and then they’ll go back to the hotel and keep playing. They’ll play cover songs, and traditional songs, but we prefer to spend our personal time just chilling and hanging out with each other.

If you were to ask me after a show to pick out which members of the band grew up in Lindsay, and which didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Are Isabel Ritchie (violin, vocals) and Dave Ritter (keys, vocals) like family now?

Oh yeah, for sure. You’re right—they’ve become absolutely like family. We spend a lot of days in that van together, and you don’t really have a choice but become really close with the people that you tour with, just because you’re in such close quarters for so many hours of the day. Obviously, if you don’t get along your band is doomed. We’ve all become pretty close friends, for sure.

Did you know that you wanted to be a performer?

No, never. I mean, when I was growing up I knew I wanted to be something. But I’ve never really been a very good vibe kind of guy…I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then finally in my life I’m like “Hey wait a second, I’ve been writing music for a long time, and now I’m going to do something different,” and so that’s kind of how it came about. But I didn’t really have a master plan to be honest.

You released an EP in 2009 to very warm reviews, but then waited until 2012 to put an album out. Then, bam — you guys put another record out the very next year. Was it a particularly inspiring year for you?

You know, to be honest it was probably more about money than anything. We did our first EP in my apartment, and I did the engineering, and we did it all ourselves, so it cost us very little money. We were ready to do records after that, but after that we didn’t have any money, and we wanted to make sure that we did it right. So it was just a matter of finding the resources to make a record. Luckily, we actually saved enough money from touring to make a record.

Listening to the new record, it sounds like the sophomore jinx didn’t exist for you guys. Was it a good experience making the record?

Oh yeah, it was totally great. I don’t personally have any sense of pressure or worry about making a record. I’m just going to make a record that I want…I have a very simple philosophy that if you work hard then it’s worthwhile. So I’m not really worried about that. The process is good, if I feel pretty good about a song then I’m confident in it, and I just feel so good in my heart about it. So I wasn’t nervous at all. I mean, you’re always nervous about getting it right in the studio, that’s what definitely worries you. You hope that you get captured right, and you get along with the producer and stuff like that, and that’s always a hard battle because you only have so much time to make the record. But if you feel good about it, you’ve just got to go out and make the best of it, and hope that people like it I guess (chuckles).

You’ve mentioned in the past that you don’t like to travel, but every year you guys do more tour dates. Internally, has there been a mounting sense of horror and dread for you as you watch The Strumbellas gain popularity?

That’s a tricky one, because I don’t ever want to sound like a complainer because you know, we’ve been blessed to be able to go out and see all of these places playing music for people, and it’s really a beautiful thing. But on the other hand, I have a mind that is not (hesitates)…being on the road sometimes gets really hard, just on my mental state, so…and I have to leave my kids and stuff… little things like that make it really hard. I’m grateful to go out and to play music for people, and that’s one of my favourite things. I really like to do it.

When I saw you at Zaphod Beeblebrox at the beginning of this year, you seemed sort of…if you don’t mind me saying so, kind of haggard and tired. But then when I saw you later this year at Folk Fest you seemed a lot more relaxed. Is it something that got easier for you as the year progressed?

No, I’m still like that. I’m just a “high and low” guy, you know. I’ll be really friendly one day, and then I’ll be kind of sad the next day. It’s just kind of my personality, and I think that’s kind of a function of our music too. It’s either in your face, or it’s really down and out. There just seems to be no medium ground in my life or anything I do, so…that’s just me to be honest.

You toured the United States last summer. Which American city did you guys love playing in the most?

Oh man, there was a whole bunch that we were just so excited to go through, like New York City and Chicago, and Austin, Texas. San Francisco. There were a couple of towns in Carolina, and Seattle. I really mean it when I say that it’s been a pleasure to have been able to go through all these places.

How many attempts did you guys need to film the “End of an Era” video?

I think we did it around eight times, but I think it actually got used on the second time. And if you’re watching it you can still see imperfections in it. We were getting tired, so we just picked the best one.

If I were to make an analogy about your lyrics, I compare them to how being in a really cold room can make hiding beneath blankets feel even more cozy. Is there a specific mood that you’ve intended to create, or are you writing what you know?

Oh man, I am the least artisty guy really. It’s just pretty straight forward, old country music. It’s not very complicated, writing the lyrics.

With the band putting so much more time into it every year, has this caused tension for you as a family man?

It’s a really hard question to answer. Again, you have your highs and lows in the family life too. You just hope that you can get through it. But I think that we will. I think we all know it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, to try and make the band grow as big as possible before we’re too old, and I think everybody is on board. But I think with everything in life, even if we were working at home in a 9 to 5 job there’s still ways you can have problems. I think it’s all good, but in any relationship you’ve got to compromise and work together and try to get through it as best you can.

So how old is too old?

Well, it’s a good question you know. I guess it depends on the individual person. But those long days in the van, you know start to…I’m amazed by some of the bands that last as long as they do, because it’s a funny lifestyle. Late nights, and long van rides. I’m not sure how old is too old, but I also don’t want to miss the opportunity. We all feel really healthy and excited about what we’re doing.

When you see other bands that have that kind of longevity, quite often it’s just the vocalist and guitarist who are from the original lineup. Can The Strumbellas exist without its original members?

I don’t think so. I think we’re a pretty strong team, all six of us, and even our manager. We’re just a really strong team. We wouldn’t be The Strumbellas if we lost a member. I think if a member goes, if that ever happens, probably no. Cause we are a bit of a family, and we all did this together.

What’s in store for 2015? Any plans to record?

We’re going to make a record. We’re ready. I’ve written a record worth of material, and I’m ready to get back into the studio. So absolutely no pressure, but we’re going to do that as soon as possible.


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