All for One and One for All: An Interview With Swan Lake
What happens when you throw three of indie rock's most eccentric songwriters together in a remote cabin on Vancouver Island -- with only guitars and mics for amusement and the nearest bar over a dangerous mountain pass? Swan Lake, that's what.
Two years ago on the opening night of SXSW, Daniel Bejar and Carey Mercer kicked off one of indie rock's most exciting and musically volatile partnerships as Mercer's Frog Eyes backed Bejar's Destroyer for the first time. The juxtaposition of energies -- Bejar wild-eyed, eloquent and barely moving on the stage, Mercer a turbo-charged demon slashing away at his electric, red headband soaked in sweat and occasional "whooo-ooooo-oooo" escaping him like steam from an overheated tea kettle -- was shocking at first, but revelatory and, ultimately, just right. Frog Eyes brought out the anarchy that bubbles just under Bejar's elegant lines, while Bejar's meticulously plotted songs reinforced the structure under Frog Eyes' calculated madness.
The combination was so successful that Bejar decided to take it on the road. Frog Eyes opened then backed him on a series of shows in the US and Europe in 2005. It was on the eve of the European tour that Mercer's keyboard player dropped out, and Mercer asked his old friend (and former Frog Eyes member) Spencer Krug to come along.
Though Krug was the last to join Swan Lake, he had known both Mercer and Bejar longer than they had known each other. "We lived together for a year in this crumbling gross house back in the late '90s," Bejar remembered. "He then moved to Victoria, hooked up with Carey and Mel (Mercer's wife and Frog Eyes drummer) and they started Frog Eyes." He added, "When it was time to figure out the Destroyer/Frog Eyes, two-bands-in-one tour of Europe a couple years back, he seemed like the perfect candidate to do a million things at once and learn to do them really fast. Amazingly, he agreed, and it's on that tour that talk of us doing a record together first came up."
The 'Songwriter Project' Begins
Later that year, Destroyer and Frog Eyes recorded Notorious Lightning and Other Works together, but with Grayson Walker resuming keyboard duties. Still all three principals of what would become Swan Lake felt like they had more to do together and talk began to circulate of a new "songwriter project."
Mercer said that, while he enjoyed playing Bejar's songs, "I always lamented the fact that there was this context, this existing work that we had to jump off from....I never had the chance to attack one of Dan's songs fresh...and he'd never sung on a Frog Eyes song. I'd never been able to play guitar on one of Spencer's songs. It was always like this weird ...the energies always flowed in one direction, and I thought it would really be neat if they flowed in all directions."
The three of them gathered at a remote island studio in Vancouver (owned by Dante De Caro of Wolf Parade and ex- of Hot Hot Heat) to see what would take shape.
"I think there is a loose concept to the Swan Lake sound, but that mostly springs from the nature in which it was recorded, which was pretty formless compared to your typical band recording, and then trying to make things work through mixing, some well-placed mutes, etc." said Bejar. "I think Carey was really attached to this kind of swirling, bottomless sound, with the occasional chorus of hissing cymbals-snakes."
The idea was that each member would write his own songs, then the three of them would record them together. "There wasn't any collaboration with the writing itself," said Mercer. "I think most of the hard discourse and mode of communication...it wouldn't 'really lend itself to collaboration. It's too much, you know. I would have a really hard time, saying, 'Well, what now?' And also certain dominant personalities would come out. I think it's better. I think it's a minor miracle that we were able to give up even lines to each other. The point was not necessarily to write songs together but just to fill them out together."
"Songs as far as chord progression, main vocal melody, lyrics, etc., showed up pretty complete, aside from Spencer who did some scribbling and a bit of guitar-strumming in the corner, during the very early stages of things," Bejar concurred, adding, "That blows my mind, since his songs seem so fleshed-out to me... 'Shooting Rockets' was done a little on the fly (what's the drunken word for "fly"), but that's not fooling anyone... The collaboration angle, which was mostly a Mercer/Krug hands-on affair, kicks in with the instrumentation, arrangements and mixing."
The three of them spent about three months making the album, first at the converted barn studio, later at a house in Victoria. "We had to quit the barn, actually, because Dan was the only one who had his license and the drive is over this treacherous mountain pass, so we couldn't drink," said Mercer.
In the beginning no one knew how to approach the project, with its three songwriting sensibilities and loosely defined collaborative ethos. "We finally figured out that maybe the best thing to do would be to go into the recording room and just sing with the acoustic guitar," he said. "That was one of the radical moments of my time playing music, just sitting there listening to them play. The project unfolded in real time, I suppose. It was wonderful to hear it. Obviously we hadn't sung the songs a million times, either, so there was that kind of fresh, invigoration. It was just such a victory."
Once the initial tracks were laid down, Mercer and Krug did most of the mixing and arranging, supplying the distinctive percussion tracks that give Beast Moans some of its surreality. Early on, it had looked like Mel Mercer might do the drumming, but she took one look at the boys' club atmosphere of the early sessions and exited. Left to their own devices, Mercer and Krug crafted drum beats by recording each element individually. "We would record the high hat track, and then do a snare, and then I would do a kick drum and then we would put it all together," said Mercer. "It makes for a pretty jerky drum track...it's quite unsettling."
Distinctive Sensibilities, Tangled Together
Because the songs came to the studio more or less finished, fans of all three songwriters will easily spot their contributions. "Widow's Walk" and the "The Freedom" have Bejar's unmistakeable tightly wound literacy, "The Partisan" Mercer's hedonistic release and "Nubile Days" Krug's skewed pop complexity.
Asked about how the three of them differ as songwriters and what their strengths and weaknesses are, Mercer hedges a little. "Well, I can tell you what [Dan] thinks his strengths and his weaknesses are. And I think it's interesting because they're the exact opposite of Spencer's," he said. "He would say that he's a complete dullard on his instrument and totally bereft of any kind of musical sophistication. His strengths lie in the lines and the words. And Spencer would say the opposite. He would say that he can barely form language, but he has a sophistication with the music. That's where he feels most comfortable. I think that I kind of work on both to the same degree. They're both probably equally important."
When asked what he admired about Mercer and Krug, Bejar said, "Tough one to answer, too many things to list." He added, There is a degree of musicianship and studio savvy and being able to place sounds that I totally do not have but have recently thought to try and cultivate a little more, if one can even consciously do such a thing. My writing style's been pretty etched in stone for a while now, as far as me taking on Krug-isms or Mercer-isms... Though once in a while I try to go squiggle squiggle on the guitar like a certain someone."
Not a One-Off, Maybe a Tour
Bejar, Mercer and Krug decided not to take Swan Lake to the labels that release their primary projects -- Merge, Absolutely Kosher and Sub Pop -- and instead chose Jagjaguwar to issue the CD. Mercer said that he had always wanted to work with the indie, because they had always come to his shows and put his band up when he played Bloomington. Jagjaguwar, said Mercer, made no touring demands on Swan Lake, but did insist that there be at least one more record from the band.
"They were worried and, I think rightly so, that it would be seen as some sort of obscurest side project," said Mercer. "I understand when people say that, but it bugs me too. It's not like these were songs that got skipped over for 15 years and finally, you know, it's like heh heh...The songs were written consecutively for this project, so they don't really seem much different between working that way and working on your primary project."
And what about that tour? Can we look forward to a road show bringing three of the most distinctive and interesting sensibilities in indie-rock to the masses? No one's ruling it out, (not even Bejar who hardly ever plays live) but scheduling is likely to be difficult.
Still Mercer sounded almost like he was looking forward the live iteration of Swan Lake when he took a stab at describing what band members have in common. "The fact that playing rock music is such a bombastic cliché, and it's such a gross world, but nonetheless for some perverse reason, you know, you trudge on," he said. "You don't just trudge on. It's your life. It's a life in cliché but it's spent also constantly trying to escape it."