An Interview With J. Michael Ward of STNNNG and Safewords

I first met Jeremy Ward, the drummer for Safewords, back in 1999, when he was part of a fantastic duo called Wicketran. I recently had the chance to catch up with Jeremy and ask him a few questions about what he's been up to for the past decade. Interview by Erik.

How did you become a drummer? If I remember correctly, you began playing somewhat later than one might suspect. Was there a particular band or album that sparked your interest in playing music yourself or was it the result of something less pin-downable?

You might say I stumbled into it. I purchased my first drum set when I was 17 years old. At the time, I'd been talking with a couple of guys I knew from an online bulletin board service about playing music together. After watching them goof off on their guitars for a couple of "rehearsals," I asked if it would make sense for me to buy some drums so we could actually write songs. I thought learning to play drums seemed easier than learning most instruments and figured that we'd be playing shows in no time. Instead, we never played together again. I now had my own drums, though, so I spent the better part of the next year learning how to get good enough to start a band. In those days, I had just started listening to a bunch of recent era pop punk, so drummers from those bands became my immediate source of inspiration and course of study. 

When I first met you, you were playing drums in a band called the Abdo Men, which later became Wicketran. As I recall, the name change was the result of a rather odd circumstance. Would you mind telling that story? 

There was another band in town that had apparently started playing shows around the time we did. They were just a couple of kids playing with their dad, who was a music lawyer. They played a bunch of local fundraising shows and such, and they wrote us and requested that we change our name. We found out there were a few other bands with similar names, so we decided to come up with a new one.

How did you settle on Wicketran?

Justin (the band's bass player and only other musician) and I lived together at the time, and I just came up with a million of stupid band names - some real, some made up. We just agreed on one that seemed the least dumb. 

I remember attending one Wicketran show back in 2000 where you and Justin covered the stage with stuffed animals. You both seemed to enjoy adding a layer of playfulness to your shows. Do you have any favorite or particularly memorable stage gimmicks from that time? Did they have any relationship to the band's philosophy or musical aesthetic?

The show you're thinking of was with Deerhoof, Sicbay, and Bozart at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. That one was great. Deerhoof wasn't very well known at the time, and their guitar player, John Dieterich, had just moved out of Minneapolis to join their band about a year prior. There were only about 60 people in attendance. I was working at American Express Financial Advisors, and the company provided classified ads on its intranet. I placed one seeking to get a bunch of stuffed animals nobody wanted anymore, and was overwhelmed with the response - I got enough toys to fill two full garbage bags.

We always aspired to have the show be an all-caps SHOW, so we were constantly thinking of what we could do to add a sense of theater to the music. For this one, we decided that we'd open with our 13-minute epic, "Conquering Mount Shoehorn," which opens with a few minutes of Justin playing bass unaccompanied by drums. I just saw U.S. Maple for the first time a couple of months earlier, and I liked the way they'd start the show with just one or two musicians, with the others making their entrance during the course of the song. We wore white paper clean suits, and after a few minutes, I came out and dumped the animals all over the stage. I sat down, started playing, and everyone quickly picked up the animals and started throwing them around. It was great. For years afterward, the sound booth in the Entry had a stuffed Sylvester the Cat hanging above its doorway from that show.

Another show that comes to mind is when we played with U.S. Maple in January 2001. Our friend Andy Larson joined us on stage and chain-smoked through the whole set while tossing around a giant plastic ball called Bigens. There was a mic set up on stage and throughout the set, Andy pretended as though he was going to sing, but then always retreated back to his cigarettes. We dressed all in black and wore lights on our heads. Spectacle was really all we were going for.

Wicketran had a particularly close relationship with Bozart and, together, the two bands recorded and performed as Rogue States. How did that collaboration come to be?

We were both instrumental duos who played together a lot, so we thought it would be a cool idea to write songs and play shows as a quartet. Bozart's drummer was a much better drummer than me, but I couldn't play any other instruments, so he defaulted to guitar. Rogue States only wrote three songs and never played any standalone shows, but we played any time Wicketran and Bozart played together, including a few shows out west in 2001. We recorded with Tim Mac at his studio on 22nd and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis and released a 6-song split EP with all three of our bands.

After playing in Wicketran for nearly two years, you formed STNNNG with Nate Nelson. How was the transition from playing in a duo to playing in a quintet? Although you played drums in both bands, did you feel your role was different in STNNNG from what it had been in Wicketran? If so, how?

Before we were Wicketran, Justin and I played together in a three-piece band called Mustachio. That band was your standard line-up of guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Making the adjustment from that to just a two-piece instrumental group of bass and drums was far different than adjusting back to a bigger band. As a duo, you have to find a way to fill out the space that's left by the other instruments, so often the music winds up being more bombastic and busy than it is with a larger group.

When Nate and I started STNNNG, we knew we wanted to do something fun and somewhat confrontational. We wrote three songs together in my practice space with the goal of recruiting our friend Adam to play second guitar. At that point I realized that I wanted someone to sing, too, as I thought it would provide for a more exciting stage show than having one of our guitarists tied to a mic. Nate and I went and saw my friend Chris perform with his Jesus Lizard cover band called The Basilisk at Big V's in St. Paul, and at the end of the show, we asked him to join us. He agreed, and a couple of weeks later, we played our first show.

STNNNG played as a quartet for two full years, so I guess you could say the transition was gradual. It was interesting going from an instrumental band comprised of bass and drums to a band with vocals and just guitars and drums. Jesse joined the band on bass right before the release of our first album in 2005, and that opened up a lot of doors for the songwriting process of our second record. In a quintet, you're able to do a lot of things you can't accomplish with a duo, but in a duo, there's less bureaucracy to getting your ideas accepted. There are pros and cons to each arrangement.

STNNNG has played shows with some pretty legendary post-punk groups such as The Fall and Shellac. How was it to work with figures as notoriously opinionated and driven as Mark E. Smith and Steve Albini?

Playing with Shellac was a special treat because they agreed to come play a secret show with us in the 7th St. Entry for the release of our second album. Their bass player, Bob, had been to several of our shows in Chicago, so we asked them if they'd be interested in playing with us in town. They booked a "proper" show at the First Avenue Mainroom in order to cover their expenses, but 200 people got a condensed, surprise set from them on that Saturday afternoon. Keeping that show a secret for 5 months was one of the most challenging things I've had to do in any band. We wanted it to be just like a normal show with our own fans helping to celebrate the release of our new record, but also give them this great surprise that one of our favorite bands would be playing, too.

That said, Steve is just a regular guy. I don't really know him, but I've met him a couple of times and he's very polite and cordial in regular conversation. I don't view him as any more opinionated than anyone else, and I think it's strange that anyone who disagrees with his viewpoints gets so worked up over them.

As for Mark E. Smith, I never met him. We played a show with The Fall in 2007 where he left his hotel room in time to come perform and left the venue immediately afterward. By virtue of playing the show, some people who have never seen us before got exposed to our band, but I have no opinion about Mark E. Smith as a person because we've never spoken to one another.

After parting ways with STNNNG in 2009, you started Safewords. How'd the band come to be?

I met our guitarist, Colin, through our mutual friend, Phil. We were playing together in a band called Getting Even before our work and school schedules took away our ability to get together on any sort of regular basis, so Colin and I both quit that group before they ever played their first show. Several months after I left STNNNG, Colin asked if I wanted to play in a new band with him and his friend, Jed. He sent me a couple of demo recordings, and I agreed to give it a shot. We've played about 20 shows in the last year, so we're still learning how to play to each other's strengths and weaknesses. The music is a lot more linear than my previous bands, therefore I have to be very cognizant not to step on the songs by overplaying.

What's the future look like for Safewords? Any plans for a record or a tour?

We recorded 9 songs in June 2011 with Matt Castore at his studio in St. Paul. Last I heard, there was for sure one single in the works, but there might be two. I stay pretty hands-off in terms of the business end of the band, so I can't say with any certainty when or where these recordings will be released.

As for touring, there are no immediate plans. I'm currently working and going to school full-time, and Colin is working on a degree as well. If there is a good opportunity to get out of town that makes sense, I'm sure we'll consider it at that point.

Speaking of tours, you've had the opportunity to perform around the country with both Wicketran and STNNNG. Do you have a favorite venue in which to perform? What makes it so special? 

The only venue that sticks out off the top of my head is the Circle A CafĂ© in Milwaukee, WI. It's a tiny little room - no larger than your living room, probably - with a great jukebox and friendly staff. They only do occasional shows, and your band can only really play to 40 people at most, but it makes a lightly-attended show feel packed. Bands play on the floor and there's no separation whatsoever from the audience, so that's a plus, too. 

You've been the webmaster for each of your bands' websites, if I'm not mistaken. Thus, in some very real ways, you have helped create and cultivate a public image for your groups. Do you find that working with a visual aesthetic affects your perspective on performing or vice versa?

Websites and performances are two completely unrelated ideas, in my opinion. I make websites for my bands because I enjoy it, and I think it's important to have a place for people to find out about upcoming shows and releases. Certainly, the design of a website could relate to the perception or image of the band, and I try to keep those aesthetics in mind when I'm putting a site together, but to say that it affects my perspective on performing would be a stretch, indeed.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of web design, it might be nice to wrap up by asking if there are any websites to which you'd like to direct readers?

Sure. Anyone who is interested in learning more about my current and former bands can visit http://www.jmichaelward.com. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer them!

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