The Swayback reflects on a decade of going for the musical nectar
The Swayback has been together for a decade, but you'd hardly know it from speaking with the guys. The way they talk and the way they interact with one another, they genuinely sound like members of a freshly minted high-school band getting ready to play their first gig.
"I have moments of the nectar that I'm going for in practice — the musical nectar where we're all together and sort of elevating our consciousness with the music — that are ten times sweeter than playing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or being in Spin, or any of that, man," says frontman Eric Halborg. "Those moments — that's the stuff that feeds your soul, and that's why we play."
"Everything is still exciting in the Swayback," declares guitarist Adam Tymn. "When I first started playing in bands — this band still feels like one of those bands."
The way these guys are still so obviously consumed with making music, it's hard to believe that ten years has passed already since Halborg and guitarist Bill Murphy first started playing together in Breckenridge.
By the time most bands have been around as long as the Swayback, they either begin to stagnate — the fire and creativity that first fueled the engine have been depleted — or they crumble under the weight of their own expectations or arbitrary self-imposed deadlines. Or, rather than being allowed to develop as artists in this singles-driven environment and move past their primary set of influences to craft something unique, many groups get thrust into the spotlight well before they're ready and end up wilting in the searing heat of notoriety.
The Swayback, meanwhile, has a certain timelessness that resembles that of the all-time great classic-rock bands that became more compelling over time. Rather than follow the career-minded cookie cutter bands that are enslaved by trends and focused on branding instead of passion, Halborg and company have spent their time cultivating their artistry. You know, the way it used to be.
"We're conscious about the business aspects," Halborg clarifies, "but it's so much more about the music first, because when we've strayed that way, we've gotten lost and we've lost time."
One more thing the outfit has in common with the endangered greats that came before it: The Swayback is driven by the interplay of a core duo.
"It was Bill and I learning to play off each other," says Halborg. "And really, this being the first band the two of us have been in, the two of us had a language together that we were working on, trying to figure out how to talk back and forth to each other musically. There was something powerful about not complicating that conversation. And then we just organically got to the point where we were like, 'Hey, you know what? I think we could go for having some help.'"
At first that help came in the form of keyboardist Shawn Astrom, who became the fourth member of the Swayback, bolstering the core of Halborg and Murphy, and Martijn Bolster, the act's most tenured drummer. An uber-talented computer wiz and audiophile, Astrom introduced Halborg and Murphy to Abelton, the program they used to slice and dice the songs for Long Gone Lads, their last album. With his help, the Swayback expanded the dimensions of its sound considerably. "From there, we realized the breath that you can take to have another player," says Halborg. "The space that that creates to be a little bit more sparse. Where before, Bill and I really had to be filling the whole show to make the sonic feel that we wanted. Once we brought Shawn in, it opened the floodgates of us being open to that possibility."
Astrom eventually proved to be more suited to the studio than playing live, so he and the band later parted ways. But the group realized the value of having another member. Enter Tymn, a guy seemingly destined to be in the Swayback. Born in California and raised in Broomfield, Tymn was a member of the dearly departed Denver band Vaux. Halborg met Tymn through Vaux bassist Ryder Robison, with whom he'd become great friends at the University of Colorado. Although Tymn didn't end up joining the Swayback until long after Vaux broke up, the seeds were planted one especially drunken night of debauchery in Chicago almost a decade ago. Tymn was on tour with Vaux, and Halborg and company were in the Windy City recording with Doug McBride at Gravity Studios when their paths crossed at the L&L, an infamous Chicago bar.
The anecdote is rather insane and much too lengthy to get into here — it involves a bloody bar brawl and overtures from a quintet of dominatrixes trying to coax the boys into joining them at their dungeon, and it ends with Chicago's finest doing the boys a solid by letting them sober up at a Dunkin' Donuts across the street rather than arresting them on the spot — but it encapsulates a moment that later proved to be pivotal.
Somewhere in the midst of all this mayhem, Tymn, exhausted from the rigors of being on the road, made a stunning proposition to Halborg. "He kind of took me aside," Halborg remembers, "and he's like, 'If you let me be in the Swayback, I'll get in your van right now and leave.'" The two recognized something kindred in each other, but they also both recognized that the timing and circumstances weren't right (not to mention that the conversation had taken place at five in the morning, after a night of heavy drinking): Tymn's band was in the process of inking a deal with Atlantic Records and about to head to England to record its landmark album, Beyond Virtue, Beyond Vice, with Jacknife Lee, and Robison was one of Halborg's best friends, as well as a bit of a mentor. More than that, though, Halborg and Murphy were still pretty sold on the Swayback being a trio at the time.
In the intervening years, Vaux disbanded, and Tymn went on to play with Ride the Boogie and toured with former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur. During his downtime, Tymn had been sitting in with Halborg and Murphy at Jinxed, the three-hour hootenanny/improv night they hosted at Rockbar in the latter part of the last decade. Unwittingly, those sessions set the stage for him to later join the band. The Swayback was in California for a few weeks, living in the studio and recording with Andy Johns, the revered producer who engineered Led Zeppelin IV and the Stones' Exile on Main Street, when it became apparent that they needed another guitarist. Tymn was the obvious choice.
The group reached out, and when they returned to California for the next batch of sessions at Capitol Studios in May 2009, Tymn was a member of the Swayback. His induction was a trial by fire. Not only was he joining in the middle of the sessions, but he was recording in a legendary studio with a bona fide living legend with a string of iconic albums in his discography — a daunting prospect no matter who you are.
"While he has the right to be an egotistical maniac, having worked with so many of the intangible greats, he is not," says Tymn. "He asked me the golden question one night: 'Adam, even if these cats don't make it to the top, will you stick with these blokes?' I said yes. He smiled at me, and he taught me that it wasn't about 'making it,' but it was about sticking with your mates and making good music. I learned Andy Johns is one of us."
Considering that the band's initial introduction to Johns was probably even more unnerving, though, there could hardly have been a better way to break Tymn in.
The Swayback met Johns through Halborg's brother-in-law, whose company produces live DVDs and had commissioned the legendary producer/engineer to mix the recordings. Bowers thought Johns and the band would make a good fit, and so he arranged for them to spend some time together in the studio. They went with the assumption that Johns had already heard their music and was interested in working with them.
When the band showed up, however, Johns informed them not only that he hadn't heard the music, but that, after hearing the songs, the music really wasn't his thing. Undaunted, Halborg and company rolled through each of the songs on the tape machine to Johns before ultimately resorting to breaking out a guitar and playing him some songs. The guys contend that Johns was making them prove their mettle. The Swayback eventually won him over, and he ended up recording four songs with the band and helping them to refine their sound.
"The biggest thing I took from Andy," says Halborg, "was the notion that Swayback was on a musical path that reminded him of the 'music first' notion that was prevalent when he first started making records. He would say, 'You guys are just cats man, regular cats that just want to play music at any cost. You remind me of the cats I worked with when I was young, like the Stones, Traffic and Zeppelin — blokes obsessed with making music and learning all you can about it.'
"It was something I always felt," he goes on, "but coming from him, it hit me that we were part of a musical tradition that has been going on forever, really. Andy was telling me how musicians these days were often prima donnas and obsessed with making it and business matters, and that he found it refreshing that we came into the studio hungry for nothing else but evolving our songs.
"We were open to his advice because we knew he was a true master at something we hold sacred. He would ask me: 'Where's this song going, man? What's it speaking to? We need it to take us on a little journey, man!' It led us to creating parts on Double Four Time that we would have never thought. Every time I write a song now, his ideas ring in my head. The new stuff I am writing is a shade more complex and laced with Andy's notion of movement and the song's journey more so than anything I was coming up with before I met him."
"Andy is part of the music history that forced me to listen to rock-and-roll records beginning to end," adds Murphy. "The bands he worked with I love, and I love so many of his records. Andy's ears are amazing. Sometimes we did not have the budget to rent equipment from SIR, so we had to use what we had, and he always made everything sound so amazing. He would twiddle with the knobs while I would play guitar, and presto! We would have the sound we were just chatting about."
"We got on really well," says Johns. "He [Murphy] had some good ideas, and the lyrics were quite interesting. They were very eclectic. I helped with their arrangements a bit, like I always do, changed drum parts around a bit, I expect. Came up with some guitar ideas. It went by very quickly. I just remember we had a lot of fun, and I liked everybody and we got on very well."
Just as working with Astrom, Tymn and Johns opened the band up to new possibilities, the addition of Carl Sorensen, who joined the fold this past February when Bolster left the band, has allowed the outfit to create greater dynamics and space in the arrangements. "There's trust that comes from knowing there's going to be a space for me to drop the vocal and the bass," notes Halborg. "He's just on it and loose, so I know I can hang notes a little bit and then pop back in. I know when I'm singing that the beat's going to be there when I drop my vocal back in."
"He gives us that room," adds Murphy. "A non-musician probably wouldn't realize how much room that breath creates, but it allows the whole band to slowly move into something or drop out, and it allows us to create dynamics. Before, we just had to kind of hang on and go for it."
"One of the huge things is I can tell that he's listening to my vocals," Halborg notes. "He's doing accent hits after I sing a word. And that's just huge to me. I know that he's listening to what I'm saying because I go uuuupppp, and at the end, he goes kack-kack, doing little cues to let me know he's listening.
"And he knows that I'm really listening to the drums, and it perpetuates this pleasant groove," he goes on. "The two of us will catch something, and we'll both look at each other and be like, 'Oh, we're so locked in right now. Let's play around a little bit. We have the beat covered. Let's shade it and bounce around a little bit.'"
Sorensen came to the Swayback on the recommendation of Kim Baxter at Rupp Drums. "I called and said, 'Who's the best drummer in town?" Halborg remembers. "She's like, 'Carl Sorensen.' I'm like, 'Great. Do you have his number?'" A seasoned player who attended the Berklee College of Music for two years, Sorensen first started playing drums when he was nine. A precocious kid, he was torn between playing drums or violin; his hero, Sherlock Holmes, played violin, but the scales tipped toward drums because, he says, because "I thought to myself at age nine that the drummer gets all the chicks." Inspired by that epiphany, Sorensen played drums in middle and high school. "I got way into the whole rudimental approach — how many notes you can play, that sort of approach," he explains. "Then I remember graduating high school seeing Tim Martersteck play with Colin Stranahan and Peter Speer — they had a jazz trio — and watching Colin play, it was so not anything that I had been trained in, and it was very much more serving the music."
Sorensen has adapted this approach to his playing style with the Swayback. While clearly technically proficient, he's not an overwhelming presence in the band. On the four tracks he plays on the band's new record, Double Four Time, he does precisely what the music dictates. "We had moments in the studio with this kid," says Halborg, referring to Sorensen, "like we've never had, where you're playing and it sounds like you're listening to a rad record as you're playing it. Your fingers are moving, and you feel like you're listening to a rad record, and you're like, 'I'm playing on this rad record right now.'
It's a safe bet that those who have heard Double Four Time have had a similar reaction. While songs like the title track, "Steamrolling" and "Die Finks" bear the band's trademark strut, there's an impressive amount of musicality to be found throughout the record, especially on "Oh Baby" and "Thank You," which conjure the bluesy swagger of the Stones, and the delicate and dirge-like "St. Francis," which manages to be suitably dark without being dour.
Hands down, though, the album's biggest standout is the opener, "What Death Cares About," which contains Halborg's best lyrics to date. With lines like "Well, it ain't picky and it ain't tricky/It ain't about some point of view/It ain't picking sides/It don't care what you hide or what you've done/Or how you've overcome all your wicked ways/It don't care who stays," the tune reflects unflinchingly on the notion of mortality. As Halborg points out that "there ain't much death cares about as it blows your straw house down," the words bounce off major chords in a way that contrasts the morose observations and leaves you with a sense of unaffected resignation.
What's impressive about Double Four Time is its cohesive sound. Despite the fact that it was recorded in a half-dozen studios with almost as many producers, the album doesn't have a patchwork feel. More impressive is the sense that a decade in, the Swayback has barely scratched the surface of its potential. But while the band poised for greatness, its members are still not necessarily in a hurry to become another cog in somebody's machine, which is why the logo stamped on the back of Double Four Time is their own.
"I'm not saying we've been blinders-down to the music industry," says Halborg. "We have dabbled, but for the most part, we've kept people away from us. People come at us with their propositions, and we're like, 'That's not what we're talking about. That's not what we're talking about at all. We're talking about something sacred that we hold precious and that we're trying to develop.'"
To that end, the band has a surrounded itself with people who not only get what they're doing, but who are just as invested in it as they are. It's all about "circling the wagons to keep back the trouble," as Halborg sings on "Lost Lake Woods Club," referring to people like Jeff Kanan and Nick Sullivan from Silo Studios, who recorded four songs on the new record; Jason Livermore, from the Blasting Room, who recorded a pair of tracks and mastered the album; and particularly Samantha Hanson, who traded PR work for studio time so they could finish the record. "It's great," says Halborg, "because it's people who dig the music."
With a clear perspective, pure motives and a supportive network of friends, it's easy to see how the whole thing still seems fresh to the guys.
"It's so weird being a band for ten years and still feeling such newness to it," says Halborg, who still marvels at little things, like getting a new PA for the practice space, which allows him to finally hear himself when he's singing. Or how inadvertently adjusting the strap on his bass recently allows him to now play more efficiently. Or taking voice lessons for the first time. "It's really weird to have that. I don't know if it's because we haven't been slapped down by industry stuff or whatever. I think we've just been so excited with the process of making music, and I don't know if that's ever going to go.
"I don't know, though," he concludes. "I haven't toured 200 days of the year. Maybe if you do that, everything starts sucking. I don't know. But the way that we've done it to this point, we're still excited to go to practice."