A Matter of Balance: An Interview With Richard Swift


By Zack Adcock

The way Richard Swift talks is the stuff of underspoken genius. You can hear it in his sharpness, the way he evokes an image from the top of his head and allows it to flourish in supposedly everyday conversation. You can hear it in the music he makes, as well: in the graceful plunk of each piano strike, in the warble of analog recording equipment, in the way his voice shudders when he sings. Then, finally, you can hear it in the way he describes making said music, in the instinct used to create his small, brilliant pieces.

Allow a demonstration of Swift’s yin and yang: 2003’s The Novelist is a brief exercise (20-odd minutes) in which Swift presents an alternate universe where we never made it past vinyl, where the analog sound is king (to Swift, it still is). But there’s more: The Novelist harkens a time ruled by jazz, a ragtime foray that resists the electronic nature of today’s technology in every way, recorded on four-track cassette outside of the studio environment. In short, Swift achieves things in roughly 20 minutes that today’s balladeers haven’t even begun to touch.

Two years later, it is 2005. Swift is still waiting for the world to hear The Novelist, which they will; despite the record’s three pressings in various forms, it has only existed in a quantity of 2,500 copies. Recently, Secretly Canadian came across The Richard Swift Collection, Vol. 1, the most recent incarnation of Swift’s major pieces thus far, a two-disc glimpse into his past that includes both The Novelist and an earlier, less startling but still remarkable piece entitled Walking Without Effort. Secretly Canadian’s release of The Collection falls on September 6. This year has also marked the release of Instruments of Science & Technology, a new electronic record Swift has concocted that is virtually everything The Novelist resists, an Eno-tinged instrumental piece complete with synth lead. The yin and the yang.

“Jonathan Swift, in The Battle of the Books, was talking about the Moderns versus the Ancients,” Swift explains. “It’s this constant struggle of modernism versus the ancients. You have to realize that, yes, we are modern man but there are ancient truths, in music let’s say, that are constant. Those are the things I’m trying to hold onto in terms of music. Not even hold onto…it’s just what I believe and that’s all I can do, really.”

Swift, who grew up on a Minnesota farm and has since brought his North Country calm to California, claims that most of his music was culled from his experiences as a youth.

“Being by myself, cutting grass for my rabbits, bringing in firewood, and doing all sorts of farm stuff you do on a Minnesota farm has influenced me greatly,” Swift says. “Walking was my first LP and I did it in a studio. There were more people involved in some of the arrangements and recording. With The Novelist, I knew I had to do that by myself. I had to get back to what I feel most of my art is birthed out of, which is being alone with my thoughts, contemplating music or life or whatever it might be. So I just made sure I was by myself for most of the time. I can’t really say what made me choose to put sleigh bells on this section or that section. I don’t know exactly why I chose a lot of that stuff. It just kind of came out, I guess. That sounds pretentious, but honestly it’s true. I think that’s why I feel so happy about it. I feel like The Novelist, in a sense, and not to get crazy, is sort of beyond me. It was like picking arrangements and picking instruments and they just proved themselves right.”

Producer and colleague Elijah Thomson writes in Swift’s bio that The Novelistis an “audiophile archivist experiment [that] immediately ushers the listener deep into the recesses of Swift’s creative core for a kaleidoscopic trip aboard an intergalactic vaudevillian steamship with a speakeasy code-word”. Swift laughs at the comment, though he does not deny its partial relevance.

“That line’s a big joke in itself,” Swift says. “I think what he’s saying is that in the story of The Novelist there are, like anything else in life, three or four different meanings or layers, which turn into three or four other layers. At first glance you might hear The Novelist and think, ‘What is this? It’s kind of a display of somebody trying to create a vibe, or somebody trying to put all of their musical knowledge into one cohesive thing to impress people.’ I was almost doing the opposite. Most people don’t say that about a record that was recorded on four-track cassette. I guess that’s the joke about it. There’s this spirit of adventure saying, ‘Hey, let’s fucking look beyond our means of recording and our means of making music because it’s getting more and more clouded as not just pop music, but pop attitude takes over.’”

This is essentially Swift’s reasoning behind the technological resistance in The Novelist. Swift created that particular record amidst producing records for other people (what Swift refers to as his “day job”), a period of time during which he became partially embittered by the supposed perfection elicited by computer technology.

“It seems like pop music has lost its soul,” he says. “I mean, Neil Young used to be a pop star. That’s crazy to me. I’m not complaining, necessarily, because he’s happy and I’m happy and I have his records. I’m kind of happy he’s not a pop star now because his music would probably be a lot worse. But yeah, pop music has lost its soul because it’s become exercise. Bob Dylan is not exercise. Bob Dylan is destroying exercise. Bob Dylan can play a harmonica, but he chooses to blow the hell out of it and sound kind of crazy. He can play guitar. He’s been playing guitar for—how old is he now? 62? He’s actually an amazing guitar player, but he’s kind of playing a joke. He’s saying it’s not about exercise. It’s about my center, about my soul, about what I need to say. He had to [make Christian records] because see that there was futility in dogma. He might have been embittered by it, unfortunately. But whatever. It’s Bob Dylan. It’s his life. I don’t know him. He might not even know the truth.”

Swift consistently struggles with claims that modern acts are an influence upon him, creating a modest separation between the influence of record collections versus the influence of peer artists. Despite Swift’s clear appreciation for current music, he quickly denounces any specific modern influences with the exception of the vague veil of modernity itself.

“I especially get frustrated with people are like, [in a voice of pretension] ‘Dude, I love your music. It’s kind of like a John Brion meets Rufus Wainwright, kind of. But like, smoky voiced’,” Swift says. “Chances are we have the same record collection, maybe. But I don’t hold either of those guys in high esteem in terms of influencing me artistically or mentally. I think they’re talented guys, but I think we were trying to say, you know, forget about what Billy Graham says; let’s get back to what Paul was saying.”

Swift quickly amends by commenting that Brion and Wainwright “deserve their artistic dues”, reiterating that his frustration is with the people claiming these acts as influences.

“Maybe these critics need to go out and buy all those records these guys are completely ripping off,” he says.

Swift claims that the Beatles were the “last bridge between heart and pop music that was pulled off well”, naming, in what is perhaps his most clichéd moment, the most gargantuan of pop bands as his biggest influence.

“It seems to me that the Beatles are just a strange mix,” he continues. “It’s weird to me that those guys were able to be in pop music and actually be pop music at the time and still make music that will probably never be forgotten. More than Michael Jackson and Madonna and all this other bullshit. I think Prince will be in there too, with the Beatles.”

Swift mentions Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Sings Newman as a particularly formative influence, but perhaps the most logical comparison would be to Van Dyke Parks’s Song Cycle, a truly strange record that seems to, in many ways—and despite its being released 37 years ago—get at the same things Swift does in The Novelist: a resistance of modernism coupled with a charming recognizance of the past. All Music Guide calls Parks’s effort “a thematically coherent work, one which attempts to embrace the breadth of American popular music; bluegrass, ragtime, show tunes—nothing escapes Parks’ radar, and the sheer eclecticism and individualism of his work is remarkable”. Case in point: with perhaps less emphasis on the bluegrass influence, the same could be said regarding Swift’s work.

Along with a piece titled The Novelist comes the baggage of narrative: it is no surprise that this work presents a story, a sense of cohesion throughout. But this narrative was not necessarily a goal, and the vague and oft-tossed term “concept record” dumbs Swift’s instinctual creation down.

“Put it this way: I think a lot of records happen that way,” Swift says. “All of The Novelist‘s songs were written individually, and as I started putting the songs together and I knew I had the songs I wanted and the instrumentals and everything, they did fit together. I started to see this line. Even now I see the line. I guess it’s something I knew subconsciously that basically shared itself externally, in the record obviously.”

Despite the fact that The Novelist is Swift’s crowning achievement to date, this prolific and expressive artist has more tricks up his sleeve. Swift suggests even further musical exploration and he clearly prefers less-trodden avenues, especially those he’s yet to wander himself.

“I wouldn’t get caught up on whether my next record is going to be a ragtime record or anything like that,” Swift explains. “To be honest, I’m almost done with my next record and I’ve started the one after that. So it’s hard to say if The Novelist represents me musically right now. It does completely at that point, and I’m 100% proud of that record. I don’t have any regrets about that record. With Walking, I have some regrets, but what are regrets? They don’t do me any good.”

For Swift, the release of Walking Without Effort has been an exorcism of closet skeletons, to an extent. While he does not deny that pairing the two efforts together as The Collection gives a grander picture of his musical schemes, he claims that Walking is representative of a younger, less specific person.

“I chose to live my life in obscurities, I suppose,” he says. “I was 20 or 21 when I did that record. There are a lot of things to deal with in life and I felt like I needed to chill out and trust my instincts.”

Yet another facet of Swift’s vintage mindset is his dedication to vinyl. Swift’s singles are always released as limited quantity 45s and he intends to keep it that way.

“When you grow up and you’re obsessed, say, with this movie called Rockers,” he explains. “This character Horsemouth’s life consists of going around on a motorcycle with a Lion of Judah painted on the gas tank and selling 45s off his motorcycle. I mean, as a kid that was all I wanted to do: Sell 45s off the back of a motorcycle. It’s not necessarily strange to me because I have a 45 collection and my friends like 45s and I listen to records. I like the art form and I love the sound and it was just a dream of mine to get music onto vinyl because that’s how all my favorite records sound.”

Though this dedication to the vinyl format might seem exclusive to some, to Swift it is simply a logical matter of choice.

“Do people feel excluded because they don’t have HBO?” he asks rhetorically. “Fucking get HBO or don’t complain about it. I feel like it’s something I want to put out. Some people might not have CD players. They’re pissed about not making tapes anymore. It’s kind of more special to me, though. We print up 500 copies of them and it’s this whole other view of the music. Maybe I’m trying to keep stuff a secret. I don’t know. I’m trying to figure this out now, why I’m prone to do some of this stuff.”

It becomes odd writing this piece, mostly about The Novelist as Richard Swift’s most remarkable piece while it is far from his most recent. Instruments of Science & Technology is equally important to find the balance of Richard Swift; perhaps the most important aspect, whether or not it is the most significant. Swift spoke before about the demolition of classical instrumentation, of what “pop” means. With Instruments, Swift does these things, but at the same time, in creating an open-ended instrumental record, he demolishes the role of songwriter as well.

“I just felt like I had to make that record,” Swift says. “That, in itself, is making a statement of life, too, just as much as The Novelistor Walking Without Effort. It uses these really open electronic sounds that are played with more of a jazz feel, like Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis or the Jack Johnson box set. It’s kind of hard to explain. It’s all the distractions that technology proves, but it’s also the tranquility that you can find through technology.”

With these statements, Swift brings true meaning to his perhaps benign statements earlier about life’s layers; about layers each possible truth hosting a series of other, farther-spanning truths. But no one can say that Richard Swift does not make music from the heart, the music of truth.

“I think it’s just a matter of balance. With everything,” he says.
This fall, Richard Swift will tour with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Walkmen, the Posies, and Earlimart. He will tour across the country and back. Visit him on the Web at richardswift.us.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/swift-richard-050915/