Saturday, August 15, 2015
Swervedriver - A Ripple Feature And Interview
Not quite 25 years ago, in what to the best of my recollection was a dank, cavernous gym somewhere in the wilds of suburban Maryland not far from the nation’s capital, I was privileged to see a double bill featuring the two bands who for my money were the two very best rock n roll groups from the 1990s. One I guarantee you’ve heard of, and the other I can almost guarantee you haven’t.
The headliner was Soundgarden. This was not the kinder, gentler Soundgarden of more recent vintage you’re probably more familiar with, featuring an erudite, well-coiffed, and bespectacled Chris Cornell, he of strumming for President Obama lore, and with freshly released, post-reunion singles debuting on the mainstream entertainment behemoth known as Sportscenter. This earlier incarnation was a fearsome, devilish machine, with occult-splattered posters in support of just-released Badmotorfinger adorning the walls and a maniacal Cornell whipping his mane all over the stage from here to breakfast. They were stunning. Just stunning. To witness “Jesus Christ Pose” now in performance is to revel in a musical tour de force – but back then, it was an otherworldly, out of body experience that shook your foundation to the core and rattled around in your memories for days.
But the openers were just as good, and it’s a crime you probably have never heard of them. Swervedriver. I urge you to get to know them. Now.
I can’t pretend to know why but somehow a relatively obscure psychedelic rock band from Oxford, England had the good fortune to hook up with Soundgarden on that Stateside trip. But climb on board the Soundgarden tour they did, fresh from their debut release Raise, and they laid the foundation for what would become a small but fiercely devoted US fan base that would grow substantially with their next release, the brilliant Mezcal Head.
The first incarnation of the Swervies, as they are referred to affectionately by message boarders and the like, would release two more records with moments of brilliance (most particularly the beautiful, aptly named jangle pop gem “The Birds” from 2000’s Ejector Seat Reservation), but Mezcal Head is their enduring sonic masterpiece, now justly referred to by many as one of the best albums of the 90s. Its visibility in the US Market buoyed by “Duel” being featured prominently in the popular Road Rash video game, the album bounces energetically from one up-tempo, T.Rex/Who – inspired, guitar-driven jam to another, with the brooding, introspective “Duress” and “Girl on a Motorbike” thrown in for balance. Smacked somewhat dismissively with a “shoegaze band” label by many (whatever that rather ridiculous term might mean), the band not surprisingly often drew comparisons to Oasis. In fact, however, when all is done and dusted a few decades hence, it is the Manchester City-admiring Gallagher brothers et al. whose formulaic arena rock shtick cannot hold a wee candle to Swervedriver when their collective bodies of work are laid side to side.
Again demonstrating some sort of cosmic synergy with Soundgarden, Swervedriver went on an indefinite hiatus in the late 1990s only to be reborn and reunited a good decade later, and put out a very respectable reunion album and head out on tour in support just this year. The band’s I Wasn’t Born To Lose You was celebrated very enthusiastically by veteran admirers of the band, and the record’s most rewarding moments, such as the swirling, melodic “Autodidact”, the sinewy guitars weaving their way through the closing minutes of “For A Day Like Tomorrow”, and the muddy psychedelia of “I Wonder“ stack up very favorably to any of the group’s standouts from 20 years ago.
The band headlined the Roxy earlier this year in support, ably mixing in newer tracks from I Wasn’t Born To Lose You with a well-balanced diet of earlier favorites (though notably absent to my chagrin was the bonecrushing catharsis of Raise’s epic “Deep Seat”), and frontman Adam Franklin was very kind enough to shed some light on some questions I posed to him a few days afterwards regarding the band’s current revitalization:
How did the band’s hiatus and your individual work with Toshack Highway affect your approach to songwriting for the new record?
Well there hasn't been a Toshack Highway release since the early 2000s so there's no real correlation between that material and the new Swervedriver album. I guess you're asking how the passing of time might have affected the song writing? This being a Swervedriver album, the three of us sent ideas back and forth and there was maybe a degree of discussion at the beginning as to what kind of album we wanted to make but the whole thing becomes less cerebral and more visceral when actual solid song ideas begin to fall into place. It's better to sleepwalk through it in many ways rather than thinking or talking too much about it but we certainly wanted to come back with an album that reflected the many different sides to the band and I think we managed to do that.
Are you partial to any of the bands out and around now?
Of course! Do you want me to name some? I like the album by Last Ex from Montreal and I've been getting into Death & Vanilla lately also. Those are the two bands I've been naming when I've been asked this question but really there's a ton of stuff out there. I listen to all sorts of stuff, old and new. And time flies so fast you often think you're listening to a new band only to discover it's already five years old or something.
What bands were you listening to as a young man that inspired you to pick up the guitar? Perhaps friends or family members exposed you to certain artists who had a big influence on you?
T.Rex, Slade, The Sweet, Mud, Mott the Hoople - all those various UK glam rock bands from the 1970s were what first got me into music. There were a couple of Beatles and Stones albums around the house and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and things like that and records my dad brought back from South America, but mostly it was me, my brother and my friend Mark lying under the radiogram listening to the chart rundown and miming to the songs with tennis raquets and all of that stuff.
Your dedicated fan base are nothing less than astonished that after almost two decades, the band has reformed. (Interestingly – the only time I had seen the band live was in the Washington DC area in the early 90s opening up for Soundgarden on the Badmotorfinger tour, and ironically that band also took a very lengthy hiatus before coming back very strong indeed.) So, the question that’s on so many minds – what was the tipping point that brought the lads back together again to compose more original music as well as perform again?
Well, the band got back together after 10 years of inactivity and then recorded its first album seven years later, so it's not quite true to say the band has reformed after two decades. In those seven years of the band being back together I released five albums - two as Adam Franklin, two as Adam Franklin & Bolts of Melody and the Magnetic Morning album. So I was quite busy doing those and enjoying doing Swervedriver live work inbetween and it was really Jimmy and Steve who were especially keen for Swervedriver to record new material because they didn't have that outlet I suppose, but we didn't feel the need to push it or dive straight into a new album and we did in on our own when it felt right.
“The Birds” is really an extraordinary song, almost definitely my vote for the band’s high point and for one of the most compelling and just purely enjoyable songs of the last 30 years. What is the song’s history? Is it just a bit too much of a coincidence that it evokes classics by the Byrds? (And thank you very much for featuring it last week at the Roxy show in Los Angeles!)
Thanks. The title of the song is a deliberate nod to the band, yes. I don't recall too much about its history - it's just another song in that respect but it does have a special and unique place in the band's back catalogue and shines a certain light I think. A friend of the band sadly passed away not so long ago and this song was played at the funeral which is incredibly touching.
What would get your vote for the band’s greatest musical achievement thus far, and why?
Today I'll say it's Everso from the new album - I just like the sprawling chords and melodies and the way the rhythm keeps looping out and then fixing itself again.
During the Roxy performance last week, it seemed the band purposefully balanced out the less familiar new material with the tried-and-true oldies. Do you agree that it was effective in connecting with the audience?
Well we wanted to play the new songs of course and so interspersed them amongst some of the 'classics'. It's been great that people have gotten into the new songs as much as the old ones and at the last show of the tour we decided to just play the new album from start to finish. People dug the whole set so I guess we did something right with this album!
Last and certainly not least, what’s your favorite football team? Our family are Liverpool supporters, big time.
This question could have really blown up in your face but you dodged a bullet there! Up the Reds!
Even supporters of such forces of evil like Manchester United and Chelsea must hope that Adam’s current focus on reinvigorating the band’s credentials remains strong and more sonic masterpieces are on the horizon. (just kidding, of course) The band is set to return to Southern California in September, and I heartily recommend you get on out to the Maison in Costa Mesa on September 25 and sport your Merseyside gear!
- Rhythm Slayer