Music - Pop: Pulp faction's rising star

`I wasn't an undiscovered genius,' admits Simon Warner. `Most of what I was writing was hideous.' Ben Thompson talks to a champion of the ordinary about what brought him out of the cycle of chronic underachievemen t

Ben Thompson
Thursday 18 September 1997 23:02

It's a rare thing to be able to say with absolute confidence that a star is born. But for anybody fortunate enough to witness one of the string of live appearances with which orchestral roue Simon Warner heralded the release of his debut album Waiting Rooms earlier this year, there were no two ways about it. Here was a star not only born but proceeding from the womb directly into orbit.

Warner's appearance was a striking blend of natural beauty and fading artifice - imagine the young Julie Christie auditioning for the role of Ozzy Osbourne's ghost. His orchestra were not the usual raggedy-arsed bunch of music school ne'er-do-wells shooting their leader disdainful glances behind his back, but devoted acolytes still marvelling at the richness of the arrangements he'd presented them with. The opulent musical settings scored by co-orchestrator Richard Benbow were perfectly offset by a voice that was Neil Diamond in the rough. And Warner's magnetically louche stage persona was the perfect vehicle for lyrics that combined flamboyant verbosity with a rare emotional exactitude.

Which reluctant urban early-riser could fail to warm to the words of Warner's "Moody"? "Sonic attrition! Death to road technicians with drills who pneumatically stunt my vocation to snooze". There can have been few more sympathetic summaries of the feelings of the recently apprehended fare-dodger than the hilarious "Ticket Collector", wherein an impassioned Warner struggles in vain to justify having travelled too far on his Travelcard: "Oh Watford, what would I be doing in Watford... except seeing family". You don't have to have been to Watford to know what he's on about - the great thing about this man's songs is their ability to transcend the individual circumstances of their inspiration by inflating the everyday into the epic.

Arriving at Warner's flat in that sick part of London which still insists on calling itself SW6 despite being north of the river, the first thing that strikes the visitor's eye is the songwriter's tool-kit - hand-held tape recorder, guitar and notepad - spread across the floor. The second is that the troubador in question looks a lot healthier without his make- up and is rather less androgynous off-stage than on. He also has a surprisingly well-ordered CD collection. In fact, the atmosphere of harmonious solitude is a long way from "Kitchen Tango", Waiting Rooms' hysterical meditation on the perils of flat-sharing: "He's finished the tea, he's eaten my beans, how does toothpaste run out in one week... unless he's guilty?"

Warner's keen eye for disarray and disillusionment did not just materialise out of thin air. He was raised by his mother and grandfather, his dad having disappeared - never to return - shortly after coming back from a six-month government course in Russian ("I like to think of him in 007 terms, but he's probably just a sad civil servant in Twickenham"). As if that wasn't bad enough, he then spent the bulk of the eighties languishing in a motley assortment of struggling indie bands. "I wasn't an undiscovered genius," he admits ruefully. "Most of what I was writing was pretty hideous."

Lacking a suitable creative helpmate, Warner would present puzzled guitarists with systems of ornate chord structures, only to be curtly informed that they would "jam a riff and he could sing something over the top". "I'm sure improvisation is healthy for certain musicians," Warner says doubtfully, "but for me the whole thing has to run more along the lines of a dictatorship."

Two things happened to rouse Simon Warner from his waking nightmare of chronic underachievement. His road to Damascus moment came when he saw a video of Jacques Brel. The legendary Belgian's performance was "everything rock music wasn't - one minute he'd be on his knees weeping, the next he'd be acting the goat". He also stopped drinking. Having read Baudelaire as an adolescent, Warner had got a bit carried away by romantic ideas of decadence. "On the one hand, I was supposed to be experiencing everything life had to offer. On the other, I was drinking on my own, a lot, at night. "In terms of writing," he proclaims grandly, "I'd wholeheartedly recommend any kind of abuse." He admits that coming off the sauce gave him the energy to translate his dreams into three dimensions.

His orchestra was assembled via the pages of Loot. He can't exactly remember what the advert said, but it probably mentioned Debussy and Ravel and something about working for nothing. Having spent a couple of years mastering the art of orchestration with the college-trained Benbow, he began to hawk embryonic versions of some of the songs on Waiting Rooms around songwriters clubs and indie dives. "Because it was different, we were always assured of at least a voyeuristic reaction - `Dear God, what is this idiot up to?'" Warner had a manager and a demo tape as early as 1992, but the word still wasn't ready. "The people we sent it to said `This would be all very well as a support for the Rocky Horror Show but what are we supposed to do with it?"

Suddenly, the climate changed. With the advent of Jarvis Cocker, the outre suddenly became de rigueur. "I do remember I was a bit disappointed hearing `Babies'", Warner confesses, "because I wanted to be the first, but in a lot of ways his success made it possible for someone like me to be heard." Simon Warner eschews the archly raised eyebrow which so hobbles The Divine Comedy and My Life Story, rival pretenders to the post- Pulp crown. By expressing the essence of everyday transactions in a very grand way, he aims to emphasise their beauty, rather than mock their ordinariness. "It's difficult to express this without sounding completely feeble," he wavers, "but a girl with a massive pile of washing dropping two socks and stamping her foot in rage is quite a beautiful thing."

Simon Warner's second and third albums are already planned: "Waiting Rooms part two, but sonically better," and then "Tilt [the most recent, heroically inaccessible, Scott Walker album] with jokes". If there was a bit more justice in the world, his debut would currently be basking in the post-coital glow of Mercury Prize nomination. There is some justice, though. Warner is about to get a big push, beginning demurely enough with next week's low-key vinyl release "The Wrong Girl" - then gathering pace in November with his first proper single, the irresistibly up-beat and disease-ridden "Wake up the Street". "I always loved the way Burt Bacharach could write quite frankly deranged chord sequences," he says, "and put such a beautiful simple melody over the top that people would be bloody- well whistling it at bus-stops."

`Waiting Rooms' (Rough Trade CD/LP) is out now; `The Wrong Girl' follows Monday

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