There's a song on M Ward's engaging new album Transistor Radio called "One Life Away", which seems, on the face of it, to be about the dead, the singer envisaging those buried in the cemetery listening to the sound of the living walking around six feet above. According to Ward himself, however, that's only half the story. It's not just about the subterranean, but the Subterraneans, to borrow Kerouac's term for the bohemian community.
"It has various meanings for me, so it's hard just to pick one," says Ward. "I've always liked multiple meanings of the word `underground', its cultural resonances and physical resonances, and that song plays with that idea."
As Tom Waits once observed, there's a world going on underground - and it's usually a lot more interesting than that happening above ground, styled and sanctioned by the mainstream and readily available for your consumption. The term "underground music" was first coined in the late Sixties to refer to the largely uncommercial music of the hippie era, but was soon supplanted by the snootier "progressive rock", as bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and ELP crawled overground and themselves became the mainstream, with nothing remotely "underground" about them. Which is not to say that underground music disappeared: it simply went further underground, eventually emerging, bleary-eyed and clad entirely in black, as indie music in the Eighties.
M Ward - he's called Matthew, but prefers the initial for his stage name, a very indie thing to do - is a skinny, softly-spoken fellow with a shock of dark hair who resembles a cross between Nick Cave and Jerry Seinfeld. We meet amidst the hubbub of the Tate Modern a day after his solo show at the Bush Hall in Shepherd's Bush, where he had dazzled the audience with the fingerstyle technique that has drawn comparisons with underground legend John Fahey, Ward peeling blistering runs from his small, odd, black guitar - an antique 1919 Gibson with an unusually piercing tone, akin to a National steel guitar - and looping them through a sampler, building up layer after layer of intricately interweaving guitar lines.
It's the kind of blues-based stuff that Fahey himself might have released on his Takoma label, but Ward applies it in unusual areas. His last album Transfiguration Of Vincent featured a curious cover of Bowie's "Let's Dance", and Transistor Radio extends even further out, with covers of pieces by the Carter Family, Louis Armstrong, Brian Wilson and J S Bach - a transposition of the Prelude to the Well-Tempered Klavier with, he admits, a few poetic licences taken. His instrumental version of Wilson's glorious "You Still Believe In Me", from Pet Sounds, in particular, is quite, quite gorgeous, a thing of rare grace and beauty.
"I don't distinguish much between genres," he explains. "If, after you've heard a song, you can't get it out of your head, to me that is a sign that your mind is still digesting it. Usually, with most songs, it's like drinking a glass of water: it goes in and goes out in a second; then you have the other material that is clearly adding nutrients to who you are - maybe even your soul, who knows?
"I have no interest in drawing lines between the things that influence me the most," he continues. "I feel the same way about time, to a certain extent: my favourite songs that were written 20 years ago can sound like sentiments that could have been expressed a century earlier. I like that idea of pretending that that Brian Wilson song is a piece of classical music, because to me that melody sounds like something from Segovia, or something that maybe Bach could have written. …