We Talked to Shoegaze Legends Swervedriver
"Shoegaze" is no longer a dirty word.
Of all the shoegazers, Oxford’s Swervedriver were definitely the odd ducks. Not because of anything they did, but because of what they didn’t do—they didn’t actually belong. While bands like Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and Lush all used effects pedals and layered harmonies to create opaque, engulfing sounds, the Swervies used their pedals to make loud, fucking rock music. The fact that Alan McGee signed them to his Creation imprint and their early gigs supported the likes of Chapterhouse, MBV, and Moose saw them swiftly pigeonholed. Aside from befriending some of the shoegazers, they never played the game. Instead, they toured North America with big alternative acts like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins (circa Badmotorfinger and Siamese Dream, respectively) and released albums that garnered more comparisons to American noise-mongers Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Hüsker Dü. And unlike, say Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride, Swervedriver didn’t succumb to shoegaze’s demise in the wake of Britpop; their fourth full-length, '98’s 99th Dream, was a highly underrated blast of noise-pop that allowed them to flourish for a decade—considerably longer than most “shoegazers.”
Another thing that set Swervedriver apart from their peers is that they reunited long before it became a nauseating, money-grabbing trend. However, like My Bloody Valentine’s reunion, Swervedriver returned in 2007 and used the opportunity to make new music. Though it took longer than most fans anticipated, their fifth record, I Wasn't Born to Lose You, is a reminder of just how great the band once was, and still is. While they haven’t changed much – the guitars still entwine in magical and melodic synergy, Adam Franklin still sings like a man who can’t be fazed, and the songs are still best described as Space Travel Rock 'n' Roll—this is one of the rare comeback albums that lives up to their glory days.
I called up frontman Adam Franklin to discuss the band’s first album in 17 years, why it’s OK for old bands to reunite, and how Vegas and cowboys kept their last album out of print.
Noisey: Congrats on the new album. You’ve been releasing music under your own name, with the Bolts of Melody, Toshack Highway, and Magnetic Morning since the last Swervedriver album. Considering your history with this band, does it feel different to release a Swervedriver album compared to your other projects?
Adam Franklin: It feels great, I must say. I’ve released records under all of those names, as you say, but ultimately I’m still known as the guy from Swervedriver. That is always the reference point. It’s great, getting together and producing a new album with Jimmy and Steve after all of this time. And I’m pretty happy with it.
How does being in Swervedriver now compare to 25 years ago?
I suppose, inevitably, the ways of recording have changed. When we were demoing songs we were emailing each other back and forth, and obviously that didn’t happen back in the day. With this record we felt we should go back to the source as far as inspiration. So in a way it does feel like the very early days of the band. Then, before you’d have an album or any record release, you’d have this blank canvas and it was kind of exciting. In 1989 we were wondering, “Oh, what would we do if we put a record out? And what would the cover look like?” Stuff like that. It was almost going back to that point again, rather than how we felt later on in the 90s.
You recorded some of I Wasn’t Born To Love You at Ray Davies’ Konk, where you made Ejector Seat Reservation. What took you back to that studio?
Well, a friend of mine was recording there and he asked me to play some guitar. And I said, “Konk?” I didn’t know it was still there, because there was all of these rumors that Ray Davies was going to sell it. It was really great being back at that studio because it has a great desk and a bright room. And in the hallway there are all of these rare Kinks instruments, like this mellotron. It’s just a really fantastic studio. Plus it was nice because that’s where we hang out in London.
We also recorded some of the record in Australia at Birdland in Melbourne, which is also a great studio. And there was a nice symmetry in recording the other half at Konk in London. But we were touring in Australia, playing about a week of shows, and our drummer Mike was in New York, and we had all of these ideas and songs. So we figured since we were all going to be together we should really make it work and find a studio. So we found Birdland, and were already rocking out, so we felt the songs were ready. Plus we had this live energy from doing these live dates. We actually went in and did five songs in a day.
Swervedriver has been reunited for eight years now. Why did it take that long to make an album?
I think really it was the other two guys more than me. It was about two or three years ago where either Jim or Steve said, “If we’re going to keep playing these shows we should work on some new material.” Like you’ve said, I’ve put out a number of records while Swervedriver has been back together. So it was great for me to do Bolts of Melody or Magnetic Morning, while having the Swervedriver energy filtering into those other projects a little bit. But now, you almost expect bands to reform when they aren’t together. And the latest mantra is, “We’re going to get back together but record straight away.” Which is a good thing really. Why not write some new material and make it more exciting?
After Swervedriver reformed, your peers and former labelmates like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and most recently, Ride made the same decision. What do you make of all those bands coming back?
Before we reformed, the two main bands to come back were the Pixies and the Stooges. A friend of mine said, “Let’s go see the Pixies,” because he’d never seen them before. This was in New York, and I was kind of like, “Yeah… OK,” a bit blasé about it. But when we actually got into the room the tension before they came on stage was palpable. It was something special. And then the next thing that came along was the Stooges, who, of course, I’d never seen because they were way before my time, but it was incredibly exciting. And you could see how exciting it would be, not just for the people who had seen these bands before, but especially for those who hadn’t.
I can see why these younger bands slag off the older bands getting back together because they sort of clog up the bills at festivals. When we were around playing in the 90s, we never would have dreamt of these bands from the 70s headlining these festival bills. So I can understand why those newer bands might be pissed off about it.
But I saw Slowdive before Christmas, and just saw Rachel [Goswell] last week when she was in Oxford. We hung out and had a drink, and she said it’s been great, because they’ve actually been able to do it with a light show in a nice room with responsive crowds. And as far as the actual music they make, it’s not as if they don’t know how to play anymore, it’s this big enveloping sound. They’ve come back to reclaim it all.
Back in the 90s the press meant it as an insult to describe a band as “shoegaze.” Have you noticed a shift in how that word is being used now as opposed to how it was used then?
Oh yeah, totally. Back in 1989 it was a derogatory term. And now, people quite openly say, “We are shoegaze,” which is quite funny, actually. I think it just sort of appeals to people now because it’s heavy and melodic and moody, and you play around with guitar pedals. And has some longevity really. The actual terminology then becomes quite irrelevant. Like when Krautrock was coined in the early 1970s to describe what some German bands were doing it was also quite a derogatory term. But now it’s just Krautrock, you don’t really think about it despite it being quite offensive really. But suddenly there is this reappraisal of shoegaze, and on MySpace in 2006 shoegaze was a genre you could choose for your band! It’s amazing.
You’ve admitted that you had the chance to give your demo tape to J. Mascis and Sonic Youth, but instead gave it to Alan McGee. Do you ever look back and think, “What if I had given the tape to those guys?”
It would have been quite a different perception of the band. We wouldn’t have been called shoegaze. Because we were on Creation, the same label as Ride, Slowdive, and My Bloody Valentine. But that day we were walking into Blast First Records and they were coming along the street, and we were thinking, “Shit, rather than giving it to the other people we should just give it to these guys.” But back then we only had a certain number of cassettes, so we stuck to the original plan. It could’ve been quite interesting had they heard it because the perception of the band would’ve been different.
People always felt Swervedriver were more influenced by American guitar music. Stuff like Dinosaur Jr. and the Stooges. Did you feel American press understood you or even favored you more than the British press?
I think we were favored a little more by the American press. Obviously the first record sleeve had a graveyard of all these American cars, so I suppose straight right away we weren’t expressing particularly English influences, even though there were a ton of English influences with us: T-Rex, Sabbath, the Kinks. I’m not sure where it came from, but we always though we would express this wanderlust or something. And there were comic books like Love and Rockets that I would read and all these other influences, despite us never having been there. But, you know, the grass is always greener on the other side. And it really became this concept, one that people really bought into.
It was a shame that Ejector Seat Reservation never received a proper release. How bad a blow was it to not come out in the US after all the touring you did over there for the first two albums with bands like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins in 1992?
Both of tours were big because both of those bands were blowing up at the time. Most people had never heard of us, so there were a lot of people discovering us. So we had this momentum, and it’s funny because with that record we were actually trying to bring back more Anglicized references, and introduce them to America. And then we didn’t get the chance to. It was our US label A&M that pulled out first. And then Creation pulled out on the back of that because they weren’t getting the massive amount of money from licensing us to A&M anymore. So they couldn’t afford to keep us on. And it was a real bummer, but we just had to adjust. That’s when we first went to Australia, then we did a lot more touring in Europe and Scandinavia. So, you know, it was good because we ended up doing some things we hadn’t done before. But yeah, we were geared up for that American release and continuing where we left off. It’s a shame it couldn’t happen really.
You guys were playing your first album Raise in its entirety for some shows. How did you enjoy that experience of looking back?
It was really good, actually. It is fun doing the whole thing and people get excited because rather than doing just a regular gig, it’s like, “Wow, they’re playing that entire album!” And it’s interesting really because we were at the right stage for this new album, and it was really teaching us about the dynamics of how an album flows. That album does have a great flow—it goes in peaks and troughs. And there were two things we’d never played live before: a little interlude before “Sandblasted,” and the last track on the album had never actually been performed live at all. But yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Swervedriver albums on vinyl are pretty scarce and expensive on sites like eBay and Discogs. I know you reissued the first two a few years ago but has there been any consideration for reissuing Ejector Seat and 99th Dream?
There has been. It’s almost like there is a curse or something though. We were planning on doing reissues for the first couple of albums, but we had to pay the original labels for that. Though the first three were re-released on CD, but Ejector Seat still didn’t get released in the US. Sony were like, “Hold off on Ejector Seat.” So, there is a plan to get those two out again. But then 99th Dream is also tied up in ludicrous litigation at the moment. That was sold on, and it’s all to do with Vegas and gambling and cowboys really. But it is an album we will be re-approaching for release on CD and vinyl. Hopefully in the next 12 months.
3/1 Costa Mesa, CA - Maison *
3/3 Las Vegas, NV - Bunkhouse Saloon *
3/4 San Diego, CA - Casbah*
3/5 Los Angeles, CA - Roxy Theatre*
3/6 San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall*
3/8 Seattle, WA - Neumo's Crystal Ball*
3/9 Portland, OR - Doug Fir Lounge*
3/12 St. Paul, MN - Turf Club*
3/13 Madison, WI - High Noon Saloon*
3/14 Chicago, IL - TBA*
3/15 Grand Rapids, MI - Pyramid Scheme*
3/16 Cincinnati, OH - The Woodward Theater*
3/17 St. Louis, MO - The Duck Room @ Blueberry*
3/19 Dallas, TX - Club Dada*
3/20 Austin, TX - SXSW
3/21 Austin, TX - SXSW
3/23 Atlanta, GA - Terminal West*
3/24 Durham, NC - Motorco*
3/25 Washington, DC - Rock & Roll Hotel*
3/27 Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg*
3/28 Cambridge, MA - The Sinclair*
3/29 Philadelphia, PA - Union Transfer*
3/30 New York, NY - Mercury Lounge*
* with Gateway Drugs
Swervedriver's I Wasn't Born to Lose You is out via Cobraside on 3.3.
Cam Lindsay loves shoegaze and he’s on Twitter.