A Whiskey-Soaked Interview with Richard Swift
Bourbon-assisted chat with The Shins keyboardist about salvia, depression, and death by shark, among other topics.
Richard and Thor. All photos by Gerry Mendoza.
The plan was to get drunk with Richard Swift and I did exactly that. Some may be familiar with Swift as a recent addition to The Shins (he joined on keyboards in 2011), but the 36-year-old has been releasing music as a solo artist for over a decade, with much of this output tapping into a listener’s sentimental side. Additionally, Swift has produced an array of acts, including The Shins, Jessie Baylin, Lætitia Sadier of Stereolab, Gardens & Villa, and Pure Bathing Culture. Recently I met with Swift in Cottage Grove, Oregon, located a couple hours south of Portland. It is here that Swift mans National Freedom, a recording studio tucked away behind his house and past his beat up tour van—a battered monument to too many hours spent on the open road. Creeping inside, I approached Swift from behind as he stood idly staring at a computer. “You scared the shit out of me,” he said.
After a cigarette (me) and some weed smoked out of an apple (him), we settled down for drink—his first in two weeks (he’d been abstaining due to illness). Meanwhile, I’d forgotten to eat dinner. Our bourbon-fuelled discussion includes topics such as salvia, depression, death by shark, and the merits of a college education.
Noisey: If you were going to punch someone dead or alive, who would it be?
Richard Swift: Bill O’Reilly.
I just find him really annoying. There’s just something about Bill O’Reilly that really bothers me.
Where would you punch him?
There’ve been times I’ve been tempted to do the up-the-nose, so that the nose goes into the brain.
The kill shot. I’ve heard that that doesn’t actually work, but it’s a good idea.
Oh, really? An urban legend.
A karate teacher told me that.
He’s like: Thor, comma, stop asking me about the kill shot… Chuck Norris made it up for Delta Force 4.
More music related, what are you working on or interested in right now?
Right now I’m in the middle of recording this band from France called Tahiti 80. This is their fifth or sixth full length.
I feel like you tend to focus on projects with some depth. Where do you feel like that plays with them?
They’re all family guys, and they’re all older than me. Xavier is actually going through a divorce right now, so a lot of the lyrics have to do with that. I didn’t realize that until we talked about it the other day. The lyrics are pretty heartbreaking if you know the situation he’s in.
You didn’t go to college.
I went for like half a semester.
I went for like two semesters. How do you feel about college as something you have to do and what you’ve been able to accomplish without it?
I don’t know if it’s an East Coast versus West Coast thing, but a lot of my friends on the East Coast are more concerned with college and what school they went to. I’m good friends with The Walkmen and I’m managed by the same people as Vampire Weekend, and those guys went to schools on the East Coast. It’s kind of this thing with them, you know?
My grandmother wanted me to go to college. She left me a college fund, which I spent on—not college. The other day someone mentioned something on Hulu like: “My kids don’t even have a college fund, we spent their college fund,” on a restaurant or something. I was like: “A fucking college fund? What the fuck is that?” I have three daughters and I don’t give a shit about a college fund. If I had a bunch of college kids come here—like pro audio college kids— they’d be horrified by the way I make records. I spent all that time educating myself, essentially.
Are you recording your own stuff?
Yeah, right now, off and on. I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve got a lot of scraps of ideas and I’ve recorded four or five tracks that I think could make the next record. In between making records for other people, I’ll have a few days to spit out these other songs. In this day and age, because budgets are limited, I’ve got to be able to get a band in here and record rather quickly, which I think helps inform the music anyway.
What’s been your involvement with The Shins lately?
Right now, James is promoting the new Broken Bells record, so, The Shins are on hiatus. We were on the road for about two years, promoting the last Shins record. I recorded a couple tracks for us for Record Store Day. James and I are talking about when and how we’re going to start recording the next Shins record after the Broken Bells cycle. I hate that word, cycle, but at that point it actually is a cycle. I think they’re just recording the record, touring minimally, because Brian [Danger Mouse] is super busy as well. I’ve heard that record too and it sounds really cool.
I’ve noticed, at least on certain albums, there’s a suicidal element in lyrics. What’s your opinion on suicide?
Man, it’s tough to talk about suicide without getting too emo. It’s like: What do you think about cutting? I’ve dealt with a lot of depression, depression and some pretty severe anxiety, so I definitely feel like I’ve been to that point. I’ve never had a gun in my mouth, you know? I’m not even sure if it’s a physical thing. I don’t think it’s a spiritual thing. It’s more of an ego thing, in a way. Like on “Artist & Repertoire” when I say, “My name will go missing but the songs will be here.” Or when I say Richard Swift sells out, it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and I equate it to that Monty Python song, like always look on the bright side of life. “Life’s a piece of shit, if you look at it,” you know? It’s part comedy, I’m making these songs, and it’s therapeutic for me. I like how these things sound, they turn me on, they turn on my friends, and they turn on strangers that I don’t know. You don’t want to overthink it, but we’re all going to be dead and our grandchildren are going to be dead and our great-grandchildren are going to be dead. Our names are going to go missing, and that’s okay, but there’s technology that exists that can carry on some sort of thing that states that you were here and that you kind of cared. Maybe you were a little too sensitive, but you cared about the little details that everybody can kind of relate to.
I feel like artists often live for that. I mean, I feel like a lot of artists don’t value their own existence, and the thing they live for is the thing that’s going to reach beyond, however long they live.
Yeah, I agree. You have all these private emotions that you pour into a song, or a painting—whatever it might be—or a web series. You never know who it’s going to reach, or who it might inspire at the end of the day. We’re really turning into hippies now.
A lot of your lyrics seem to deal with your personal/family life. How do you feel about creating your own family versus the family you grew up with?
Well, we do pretty much the opposite of how I was raised. My kids aren’t really raised around religion. We’re really open with them, as opposed to the way I was raised. I get to relive my childhood: I get to treat my kids the way I wish I was treated, without being too spoiled or something. All my kids are artistic and free as people. Our middle daughter, Auna, she’s 13, came out to us five or six months ago. She feels completely comfortable talking to us about it. It’s never been a thing and has not been a thing since.
What do you feel is the worst thing in the world?
[Laughs] Probably anxiety and panic attacks. They can really take productive people out of our society for a time being, and sometimes forever. Technology probably helps in a lot of ways. We don’t really know if cave men weren’t having panic attacks, because they were sleeping in mud, and they didn’t know where the next meal was coming from.
How does technology help that?
We’re just more comfortable. At the end of the day, if you have a ton of anxiety you can always take a Xanax and chill out. I haven’t taken a Xanax in three weeks.
Speaking of which, you seem like the kind of musician that would have experimented with psychedelic drugs and things that can alter the mind…
I don’t think everybody should experiment with mind-altering drugs, but I think that certain people are prone to it. If you’re prone to it, then maybe you should try it. I smoke herb and I drink from time to time, but…
How much is from time to time?
Every day. I’ve never taken acid, because to me it seems like it would be too long. In terms of psychedelics, I’ve just taken a lot of mushrooms over the last 15 years and smoked Salvia four or five times over the last five years.
Would you rather be homeless or in prison?
Homeless, fuck yeah. Because that’s very free. It’s kind of like a strange, ultimate freedom, because that would really strip you of all comforts. It’s just you and nature. I feel like I could con my way back into society somehow if I was homeless.
However, you’re not guaranteed shelter or meals…
Yeah, but you can sort that out, there are places you can go. I think a lot of homeless people are mentally unstable, for the most part. People that have to sleep in their cars for a couple months and stuff—that’s a little different than your typical homeless person who’s screaming to nobody in the middle of the street, you know? Those people are either going to be in mental institutions or homeless. There’s no fucking way I would never want to go to prison.
To not being in prison (cheers).
Cheers to that. To not being caught. Would you rather be mauled by a bear or eaten by a shark?
I would so be eaten by a shark.
Right? Because you drown at some point.
My philosophy is that you should die in the most badass way, regardless of what’s happening.
A bear plays with you, it crushes your skull so that you just kind of…
So do killer whales.
They throw you up in the air.
There’s that new documentary, Blackfish, right? That’s about a killer whale.
That is terrible bourbon.
It’s not terrible! Are you kidding me?
It’s not terrible. It’s bad.
It hit me in a terrible way, just then.