Juggernaut Still Rides: Behind the Scenes and Times of Swervedriver
Swervedriver have been away for so long that most assumed they were never coming back. Yet here they are, 17 years after their debut, in the midst of a full-scale tour. This is how they lived to tell.
They've been away for so long that most assumed they were never coming back. Yet here Swervedriver are, 17 years removed from their debut, in the midst of their first full-scale American tour in ten years. Somehow, this band and its music have endured despite an inordinate number of obstacles -- personnel changes and label difficulties chief among them. Theirs is undoubtedly a tale of hardship but also one of resilience. This is how they lived to tell.
The band began, as it often happens, with the demise of another. Shake Appeal had already earned some local acclaim in its hometown of Oxford, England when Graham Franklin, the band's frontman, left to pursue his growing interest in electronic music. After some deliberation, the band's two guitarists, Jimmy Hartridge and Adam Franklin (Graham's brother), decided to soldier on, rounding out the Swervedriver lineup with bassist Adi Vines and drummer Graham Bonnar.
While the band retained some connection to Shake Appeal's thrashy, Stooges-inspired din, it also incorporated the ethereal guitar tones of up-and-coming shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. The band's dreamy yet driving tunes caught the ear of Andy Allen, who immediately offered to manage the fledgling group. "[The demo] had an excitement and energy that I liked," recalls Allen of the early recordings. "I knew I would spend my money on Swervedriver albums, and that was good enough for me [to manage them]."
The very same demo was also passed along to Alan McGee, the founder of Creation Records, by a mutual friend, Mark Gardener of Ride. McGee was much enamored of the effects-laden guitar music being produced in Britain at the time, having already snapped up both My Bloody Valentine and Ride. While he saw certain sonic similarities between those bands and Swervedriver, he was arguably more intrigued by what made the young group dissimilar from its peers. "There were American influences," says McGee, reminiscing about the first time he heard the demo, while driving the streets of Los Angeles. "There was a Dinosaur Jr. and Hüsker Dü thing going on. I thought they were a really special band."
Those foreign influences both piqued McGee's interest in the band and convinced him that Swervedriver's commercial potential was greatest in the United States. Creation readied Swervedriver's debut, Raise, in 1991 and quickly set about finding American suitors. A&M secured the rights, allegedly shelling out $250,000 to Creation (David Cavanaugh, The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize, pg. 457). Raise, due to its heavy, pedal-reliant guitar choruses, was lumped in with other shoegaze records of the era, but what impresses so many years later isn't the guitars but the rhythm, pushed to a thunderous gallop by Bonnar. The emphasis on rhythm also allows the songs to stand in sharper relief, as opposed to being drowned out by layers of white noise. Famed producer/mixer Alan Moulder is still awed by Raise. "I liked the fact that Swervedriver seemed more rock than a lot of the other bands [at the time]. I always liked rock music but felt like I had to keep it under my hat because the indie world back then was [saying]: 'Don't rock too hard.'" He further confesses that "Rave Down" is his favorite Swervedriver song, despite not having worked on it. (Moulder has worked on every Swervedriver record except the band's debut.)
Raise hardly made Swervedriver a household name, but it did do well enough to set expectations for album number two. Unfortunately, Swervedriver was already starting at a disadvantage, having lost the rhythm section that had made Raise so distinct. Bonnar had left during the Raise tour. Just as the band was crossing into Canada, he decided that he needed to be with his girlfriend in San Francisco, and he never bothered rejoining his bandmates. Vines meanwhile, prior to the recording sessions for the second album, announced that he would be departing to become a full-time member of a band he had been moonlighting for, Skyscraper.
"We were wondering what the hell we were going to do," says Franklin of that post-Raise period. "I didn't really know, but I figured the first thing we should do was record 'Duress', which at that point was a two-minute demo. So we went to EMI's demoing studio and constructed 'Duress' with the house engineer, Marc Waterman." By the time they were done, the modest demo had ballooned to an eight-minute behemoth. "If nothing else, we were [then] a duo with this song called 'Duress,'" cracks Franklin. Help arrived soon after in the form of loquacious, manic drummer Jez Hindmarsh. Hindmarsh had just split from another EMI band and turned up at the demo studio to audition. "Jez came in and was a ball of energy, which was what we wanted," explains Franklin. "And he had a [studio] background and a lot of ideas about how to record."
They fleshed out the demos and wound up recording most of what would become Mezcal Head, their sophomore record, as a three-piece with Alan Moulder manning the boards. Production-wise, Mezcal Head was light years ahead of the grainy Raise -- no doubt due to Moulder's unique ability to, in McGee's words, "make records more violent and commercial at the same time." But Hindmarsh also deserves credit for adding nuance to the band's full-frontal assault, whether it was recording a cymbal rolling across the studio floor or suggesting to overdub a Kawasaki motorcycle on "Last Train to Satansville".
Many rightly identify Mezcal Head as Swervedriver's crowning artistic achievement. Indeed, it is a sprawling, stunning work, from the fiery opener, "For Seeking Heat", to the blistering 12-minute closer "Never Lose That Feeling/Never Learn" (U.S. edition only). One of Hindmarsh's proudest moments, looking back upon his time to date in Swervedriver, was listening to the finished album for the first time. McGee also applauds the record and believes its single, "Duel", was "one of the best tunes that Creation ever put out -- an absolute classic rock 'n' roll record."
Hindmarsh recalls an especially enlightening conversation he had with one of the A&M label reps. "I remember him saying that people needed to listen to a song by Swervedriver five times before they could even decide if they liked it or not. And in the world [of commercial radio] you don't get that luxury. [Program directors] won't spin a record five times thinking, 'well, they'll get it eventually'."
Despite the album's disappointing sales, the band was able to tour extensively in support of Mezcal Head. Bassist Steve George was added to the lineup shortly after the recording sessions wrapped. (Moulder was offered the role but declined, although admits he was "seriously tempted".) A four-piece once again, the band wound up as the opening act for Smashing Pumpkins, who were supporting their biggest album to date, Siamese Dream (incidentally, another Moulder-helmed record). "There were no shortage of [touring] offers," says Allen. The requests no doubt poured in thanks to Mezcal Head's singular innovation -- to have American indie rock, British shoegaze, metal, and even grunge not only coexist on the same record but blend seamlessly. However, one perhaps unintended consequence: the very synthesis that earned them the admiration of their peers and those in the music industry may have acted as a commercial glass ceiling.
Presumably believing the band had missed its window of opportunity, A&M dropped Swervedriver in the wake of Mezcal Head. Fortunately, Creation stepped in to finance a follow-up, which allowed the band to continue. The resulting album, 1995's Ejector Seat Reservation, never saw release in the States and is sometimes referred to as a lost classic. Andy Kellman of the All Music Guide claims it is the band's "finest hour". While the album is by no means a disaster or even mediocre, it is, contrary to critical consensus, the weakest effort in the Swervedriver catalog. Shedding the metallic sheen of its predecessor, Ejector finds Swervedriver at its most overtly pop. Some songs, such as the Bacharach-credited "How Does It Feel to Look Like Candy?" and the gorgeously spacey ballad "Last Day on Earth" benefit immensely from the reduced feedback. But mostly the scaled back production underscores that the band is simply not playing to its strengths.
Even if the album wasn't quite a landmark achievement, Ejector would prove, in hindsight, to be an absolutely essential transition record. "[After Mezcal Head,] we could have gone heavier, I suppose," muses Franklin. "But we weren't interested in going that direction, even if it meant we lost some fans on the heavy metal end of the spectrum." The album not only cleared a path for the band artistically but, as it turned out, professionally as well. Following Ejector, the band was picked up by yet another major label in the States -- a highly unusual occurrence and a testament to the respect it enjoyed within the music industry despite its lukewarm sales. This time it was Geffen, at the behest of A&R rep Jody Kurilla, who brought it aboard. As to why she was willing to give the band a second chance, Kurilla says, "When they were on A&M, I knew who they were and really liked them. So when I heard that their deal fell through and saw that they weren't signed, I contacted them. I got a lot of support -- I didn't get anyone at the label saying we shouldn't [sign them]."
With the new infusion of cash, the band began sessions for the fourth album in its newly constructed studio, Bad Earth. Franklin recalls the period, despite the financial pressures being temporarily lifted, as a rather difficult one for the band. Drugs had begun to take their toll, on Hindmarsh especially. "It was a drag being in that studio space, and Jez lived in it," says Franklin. "Drugs can expand your mind, and it's always good to make sure your record is going to sound good to people on drugs, but if creative decisions are being made by people whose heads are full of ridiculous things, then it's bullshit, really."
To make matters worse, before Swervedriver was able to complete the record, Kurilla was let go and the band was passed along to a new set of handlers. Franklin soon found himself in a room full of strangers mixing the presumptive first single, "These Times". Franklin still sounds horrified as he describes the scene today. "I'm the only guy from the band who has arrived at this point, and I'm sitting at the back of the room listening to our [new] A&R guy tell the producer, 'Okay, I hear this song starting with just acoustic guitar and then I want this to happen and then this' and the other guy is just saying 'uh huh'. By the end, it had turned into some horrible indie-schmindie thing." He pauses as if to register the disgust. "Well, at least we got a chance to re-record it."
Franklin admits the reason he can't really listen to the band's fourth album, to this day, is that the experience of making it was so unpleasant. Oddly, despite the band's efforts to please Geffen and Geffen's efforts to rework the album, the label brass ultimately decided they weren't going to release the record after all. Swervedriver was abruptly dropped. However, in an unusual show of good faith, Geffen let the band walk away with the masters, thereby freeing Swervedriver to sign to its third label in the U.S., Zero Hour, which released 99th Dream in early 1998.
Franklin may find it difficult to listen to the album because it reminds him of the agonizing process of committing the songs to tape, but the good news is that none of that wretched experience comes through on record. In fact, whereas Ejector, at times, sounded like a band consciously struggling to sound different, 99th Dream manages to sound different with a natural, nearly effortless grace. From the opening bars of the title track, it's clear that Swervedriver was not unaware of the rise of Britpop and how it had changed the popular music landscape in its native Britain -- Franklin's vocals are clearer and more up front than ever before. But in true Swervedriver fashion, the band never wholly gives itself over to the sound, but rather incorporates elements, just as the band had approached other genres on Mezcal. The result is an album that retains the essential features of Swervedriver, but more effectively highlights the band's tunefulness as opposed to its brawn.
Swervedriver did tour in support of 99th Dream, but the band soon realized that it was preaching to a shrinking choir. "We played in Liverpool on a Tuesday night and it wasn't well attended," says Franklin of one night on the European leg of the tour. "People were calling out for songs from the first album, and it just felt lackluster. Anyway, Jez had gone off with some friends and it was me, Steve, and Jimmy in the dressing room, and for the first time, we discussed that maybe we had gone as far as we could go with Swervedriver."
The band did one more tour in the States before concluding with a rather anti-climatic jaunt in Australia as the openers for Powderfinger. The band's last show took place at the Bootleg Brewery in Margaret River just outside of Perth. Franklin remembers the night well because, to him, it felt like an odd end. "We knew it was going to be the last gig, and I wanted to play '[Son of] Mustang [Ford]' that night. But for some reason, we never got to it."
In the long ten years since their last gig, the members of Swervedriver have pursued various projects -- most musical. Franklin has remained fairly prolific during Swervedriver's hiatus, releasing three full-length albums as a solo artist under the Toshack Highway moniker and his own name. He has also been working with Sam Fogarino of Interpol on a new project called Magnetic Morning. Hindmarsh has his own music management/consultancy business, and wrote a book, Rider, about his experiences as the drummer for Swervedriver. Hartridge went on to work press and PR for record labels, and owns his own business as well. And George has moved to the countryside, where he has continued to write music on and off.
Of course, the obvious question this new tour raises is whether Swervedriver intends to become an ongoing concern or whether the band will go back into hibernation once again. Will they opt for the Pixies' approach to the reunion and limit themselves to live dates or will they, like the recently reunited Dinosaur Jr., record a new album? No one really seems to know for sure, including the band members themselves. Franklin expresses some reservations about a fifth Swervedriver record so many years removed from its last studio effort. "I realized when we rehearsed for the first time several weeks ago that the music I've been making [as a solo artist] is much slower and evenly paced than Swervedriver, and yet I kind of feel like that's more up to my speed [now]." He also seems unsure about how to approach a fifth album: "Would Swervedriver do something that sounded like a reunion record or would they make something that sounds like how a band would have progressed if they'd been recording together for the past ten years?"
Hindmarsh takes a cautious if somewhat more optimistic view. "We're going into these gigs with no preconceptions," he says. "But I'll admit that I used to drunkenly tell people that our fifth record would be our best. It's amazing what kind of shit you'll say when you're drunk. But in all sobriety, I can now say that I have a sneaky suspicion that I might be right."