Article written by Steven Fouchard (retired)
The current line-up. Longtime bassist Steve George (second from left) is sitting out the Canadian tour.
“It’s all kind of unresolved. Things always are, really.”
That’s Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin, sounding contemplative over the phone from his New York City home base. It’s a few weeks before the start of the band’s Canadian tour, which includes a May 5 Ottawa stop. Unresolved ambiguity, for several reasons elaborated on below, would seem to be a major characteristic of the band’s excellent new album, I Wasn’t Born to Lose You. It’s a concept that permeates the record both lyrically and musically. Which is not to say I Wasn’t Born… lacks the deftly melodic sensibility that’s present even in Swervedriver’s earliest and most metallic works. No. Like the band itself, it could never be that obvious.
What says it all about Swervedriver, for me, is how the mention of unresolved ambiguity leads to an erudite few paragraphs worth of analysis from Franklin; from the value of letting a note hang as long as possible, to setting the record straight on cars in the songs (hint: it’s not really about the cars themselves), all the way to oil addiction. All to say, they’re complex.
So, let others continue to belabour the shoegaze thing. I wanted to race directly to the heart of Swervedriver: the longstanding (and incomparable) guitar partnership of Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge:
It’s a nice touch that you’re credited in the record with ‘guitar left channel’ and Jimmy with ‘guitar right channel.’ It’s a reminder that guitar interplay is key to your sound. Can you discuss the creative process you and Jimmy share?
“Jimmy knows me well enough to know what I’m doing. Equally, I know how he plays guitar after all this time. I would never come up with something that would be alien to him. Even then, sometimes we get in the rehearsal room and play around with it. I’m playing one line he’s playing the other. But then I’ve got to think of the melody line to sing over the top. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh shit. I don’t know if I can sing that and play this,’ so we’ll swap. Going all the way back to Son of Mustang Ford. When it gets to the solo section, I think on the recording they were both played by Jimmy. When it came to doing it live it was, ‘So which one do you want?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’ll take this one.’ It is quite fluid in a way. Me and Jimmy have played in bands together for, I think it’s 31 years. We first played together in either ’84 or ’85. In many ways this is mine and Jimmy’s 30th anniversary; like we’re an old married couple.”
“Swervedriver’s always tended to be this band that’s in the midst of a bunch of genres. We were the shoegaze band that got single of the week in a metal magazine.”
I was going to suggest it’s probably significant to the work that you’ve known each other for so long.
“We met when we were nine or 10. He was in a band with my older brother and I was in another band. The band I was in was doing this post-punk, Joy Division/Bunnymen type of stuff. My brother and Jim were doing this Rolling Stones thing. At some point we were all getting disillusioned with our bands and me and Paddy from the Splatter Babies teamed up with Jim and Graham from the Roadrunners. We were all into The Stooges and the MC5 and started thinking, ‘Let’s put a band together that does that kind of stuff. It’s a bit different for all of us.’ In the ‘80s you had to be a little bit underground, or listening to the John Peel show, to actually hear good stuff because what was going on in the charts in ’85 was absolutely awful. It wasn’t even New Romantic, was it? In England it gravitated away from punk and post-punk into this horrible, sort of like, people on yachts sunning themselves in the Bahamas. You know, backing singers and saxophones. Bloody horrible, you know?”
You chose to include the lyrics with I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, which you tended not to do in the past. I was particularly struck by the last two words: ‘Unresolved ambiguity.’ That seems really key; there is a lot of ambiguity, tension and dissonance in the music. I’m thinking, for example, of Setting Sun, Everso, Lone Star.
“In the last 15 years or so, I became more interested in pianos and stuff. Like on the Toshack Highway album. There are things you can do on a keyboard or piano that you can’t do on guitar; you can just leave the notes hanging. For a while I’ve had this technique where I’m leaving as many notes hanging as is possible. That also creates a bit of dissonance and tension. On Setting Sun, it’s a weird loop that goes on. It starts at a strange point. The second guitar comes in at a point where you expect the cycle to have ended. The guitars make sense but are going against each other a bit. With those two words at the end, I just felt the artwork needed sort of a personal touch. People talk about whether anyone wants to buy albums anymore. There are things you’re missing out on if you’re not buying an album. It was Jimmy who said, ‘I think we have to have the lyrics on there.’ It does lead you into what’s going on underneath the surface a little bit. I think it’s funny that some of the reviews have said it’s almost like we’re picking up from where we left off last time; songs about driving in the night, stuff like that. There aren’t any songs about driving in the night. The first song is Autodidact. Having the ‘auto’ in there was conscious and it does mention ‘gas stations as churches’ but it’s not really just about driving. It’s certainly never been about muscle cars. That gets written of us sometimes.
“I’ve been listening to these Italian film soundtrack things from the ‘60s. It sort of feeds your musical mind sometimes. You don’t have to think about what a band were trying to express or their influences.”
The songs are just about wanting to get somewhere from somewhere else really. Son of Mustang Ford, in a way, is just a kind of love song; or the loss of love. Somebody’s got to get love back into their veins. Juggernaut Rides as well. It’s personal, not to me particularly, but in the sense of something screwing up in a relationship. It just happened to have a line at the end, ‘This juggernaut rides the sands.’ It was obvious that should be the title because it sounds more rock ‘n roll. You can’t really say a song is about this or that. It doesn’t really come across in the lines. ‘Gas stations as churches,’ to my mind, is something about the world now. Energy and petroleum rule everything. The leaders of the world will kowtow and go to the funeral of the Saudi king even though we know bad things go on in Saudi Arabia. It’s almost like saying petroleum is the new religion. At the same time, it’s just a lyric in a song. All the lyrics end up being stuff that was going through my head or going on in the world. It’s all kind of unresolved. Things always are, really.”
This makes me think of the essay you wrote for the re-issue of Raise, which talks about the discussion over whether you were going to call it ‘Raise’ or ‘Raze.’ You went in the happier direction then. Is there a greater sense of dissatisfaction, of questioning, in this album?
“I think there is dissatisfaction and questioning. Ultimately I think the lyrics are about humanity in the face of all the ridiculous crap going on in the world. The world is more insane now than when we did the first album. I think the population has doubled in the time I’ve been on the planet and that’s a shocking thought. English Subtitles is kind of about climate change. I sing, ‘It’s melting and it goes on and on.’ It’s not putting out a message, you’re just trying to make people sort of… I don’t know, really. It’s a big thing, you know?”
I was going to bring English Subtitles up as well. When the chorus hits, it’s quite uplifting, yet it ends with a refrain of ‘Darkness on the other side.’ It’s a great example of how you guys succeed in being, as you say in that Raise essay, ‘gritty yet pining.’
“Darkness can be seen as an evil thing obviously, but I was also thinking about how, on the other side, maybe in parts of Africa or somewhere, or even in the middle of Australia, the darkness is the lack of technology; it’s still a more natural world. So darkness is actually a positive thing in that sense. The Aboriginals of Australia are astounded that the white man is ravaging the Earth. There’s a lot of gold mining in Australia right now. They’re digging and digging, whereas the aboriginals say, ‘You’re supposed to honour this land. Worship the land, really, because it’s all we’ve got.’ I don’t see how it’s going to last unless things change big time. Everybody is thinking about change and nobody does because money talks.”
That said, the chorus of English Subtitles makes me feel better about being alive.
“We didn’t actually play that song on this [U.S.] tour until the last four or five shows. It did need the harmony vocal and we didn’t really have time to nail that. We were playing it at sound checks and stuff. When we finally did play it, a lot of people said it’s their favourite song and that they found the melody to be, as you say, uplifting. It’s interesting because we had nine definite songs for the album and there were two more to decide between. For me, that was one of the two. It was almost like the 10th choice for the album but it’s proved to be popular. There is an ambiguity to the lyrics but, if it’s uplifting, it’s kind of the alchemy of music and the words I suppose.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like the verse is pretty directly nodding to Sunset from Raise musically speaking.
“That’s interesting. I don’t think we were doing anything conscious there. I quite like the idea that it references Sunset. I think there is a relationship between I Wasn’t Born to Lose You and Raise. We recorded half of it in Australia and half in England. Both times, we were in the middle of doing dates where we were playing Raise start to finish. Because we were playing that album we were thinking about how it flows and I’m sure that kind of bled through into what we were doing for this new album.”
I was thinking of what I call your ‘cousin’ songs like Mars, which also quotes Sunset. It’s a cool thing to do. Why not reference yourself?
[Laughs] Yeah. Scrawl and Scream was a re-working of Afterglow. Now that you mention it, I can totally hear that. It’s the same chord I think; G. It makes sense.”
I also really wanted to talk about Red Queen Arms Race. It surprised me because it’s rare for you guys to be so specific in terms of genre. In that sense it reminded me a bit of Flaming Heart, the overtly blues-y hidden track from the Ejector Seat Reservation album. Are these a case of you guys just kind of flexing your musical muscles a bit? Showing off your vocabulary?
“With Red Queen Arms Race the only precedent maybe is Laze it Up. It’s kind of stoner rock really. It’s something we haven’t really expressed so much. We’ll occasionally break into an early Black Sabbath song in soundcheck or something. That song’s kind of like the band we were before Swervedriver; Shake Appeal. When that riff first emerged we thought, ‘This could actually add an extra dimension to the album that’s important to have.’ Swervedriver’s always tended to be this band that’s in the midst of a bunch of genres. We were the shoegaze band that got single of the week in a metal magazine.”
You recently talked about the process of what you called ‘cherry picking’ influences. That’s not a radical idea but it’s not easy to make something wholly original out of it as Swervedriver has always done.
“I’ve been listening to these Italian film soundtrack things from the ‘60s. It sort of feeds your musical mind sometimes. You don’t have to think about what a band were trying to express or their influences. This soundtrack stuff is just purely musical with no agenda. The band Broadcast did an album a few years ago with The Focus Group. That’s an album I play regularly. It’s just found sound; it’s almost mad. I’ve never put it on the van; someone would probably say, ‘What the hell is this?’ It just washes over you in certain situations. And then all those things come to bear on this rock band, Swervedriver, which has its own sound. It can’t escape its sound; no band truly can escape the sound it just naturally makes, but those influences can change things around. On this album, there’s definitely a couple of songs that are Scott Walker-influenced. But of course it doesn’t sound like Scott. You wouldn’t necessarily notice. There’s Scott Walker on one side and Black Sabbath on the other. Any band should be open to influences that inspire what they’re doing. Because chances are you’ll stumble on something a lot more interesting than if you’re just listening to all your contemporaries who are supposedly in the same genre.”
Will we be seeing [longest-serving bassist] Steve George back in the line-up for the Canadian tour?
“I don’t think so. We’re going to do the Canadian leg, then go straight over to the UK and then a break after that. So I guess we’ll see where we’re at. It’s a shame he couldn’t make it out, but it’s been great having Mick [Quinn, of Supergrass] on board. We’ve also known him since we were 10 and he was probably four or five. He’s from the same village outside Oxford as Jim and me. The first band I was ever in, when I was 16, his older brother was the other guitar player. The first time I ever played electric guitar plugged in was in his family’s basement. We called it ‘The Cellar’ and all the bands used to rehearse there. So that was cool. [Having Mick in the band] was like taking it right back to when we first played together.”
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