There’s a lot more to Richard Swift than what’s in our August 30 issue. Swift himself said, “I think primarily people think of me as just some dude behind a piano singing, you know, like sad bastard songs.” Sure, his latest Dressed Up For the Underdog might be heavily steeped in Beatles-inspired melodies, with hints of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith’s moodiness, but Swift says he has plans to release two vastly different records, which draw from a larger pool of his interests, everything from Can, Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin to Link Wray, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. Swift also talks about the music that inspired him early on before embarking on his musical career. Here is our interview with him in its entirety.
Westword: Your new record has been getting a lot of praise. Would you call this a breakthrough of sorts?
Richard Swift: I don’t really have a clear perspective on that stuff, necessarily, because I keep myself kind of hidden in away in a cave, lets say. All the press that’s been sent to me via managers or friends has been nice and positive. It seems like there are some people out there who get it, for the most part. I just try not to get wrapped up in that stuff, because it could completely change: I could put out this Instruments record; I could put out these rock-and-roll EPs; I could put out my next record -- and they could be just as good in my eyes, if not better than my previous work -- and people could possible hate it and just totally pan it, and not really totally understand where I’m coming from. So it’s hard to say, but I’m going to keep making records that are interesting to me and totally different. That’s what I’m in it for, ultimately.
You’ve been working on Instruments of Science and Technology. How has that been going?
I think primarily people think of me as just some dude behind a piano singing, you know, like sad bastard songs. That’s part of what I do musically, but there’s the Instruments stuff, which is strictly instrumental electronic music in the vein of Can, early Kraftwerk and Neu! to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Venetian Snares and all that kind of stuff. And I’ve got this weird rock-and-roll record that I’m going to release, probably in January. Then we’re releasing the Instruments LP in February, and then releasing the second rock-and-roll EP in March.
I recorded this Instruments LP almost three years ago. Since then, I’ve recorded loads of instrumental stuff, too. There’s a lot of stuff in the can ready to come out. Then I basically took four days and recorded an eighteen-song rock-and-roll kind of record, and there’s a bit of dub in there as well. I’m going to split those in two nine-track EPs, about 20 to 25 minutes each; It’s kind of in the vein of Link Wray, Bo Diddley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby and Mad Professor. I don’t know; it’s kind of a mix of different stuff I listen to.
What instruments are you playing on these new records?
On the Instruments of Science and Technology it wouldn’t be fair to say exactly what I use on that stuff. Part of the fun of electronic music is figuring out how people make sounds. It’s a lot of vintage and relatively new synthesizers. A lot of stuff I do is recorded to four-track cassette. Some of it’s really lo-fi, some of it’s really hi-fi and some of it’s no-fi -- I really don’t know what to call it. Then I play drums on all that stuff. And then on the rock-and-roll stuff, again, I just kind of make all these records myself, so I’m playing drums, guitars and different organs and pianos and stuff. It’s kind of like ´50s dance music or something. It’s hard to describe, like a mix of Link Wray and Robert Pete Williams on the guitar tip and then Muddy Waters Electric Mud. All the instruments kind of vary.
Do you write your songs mainly on piano or keyboards?
No, it kind of varies. Some this new rock-and-roll guitar stuff I wrote on drums, and then I would record drum tracks and record guitar parts. I don’t really stick to piano. I play guitar as much as I play piano. And I play drums as much as I play both of those instruments.
What kind of stuff did you grow up listening to?
I didn’t really grow up listening to much music at all, to be honest. My parents didn’t really have a record collection or sit me down and play me records. We listened to a lot of talk radio on family road trips and stuff. Then, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I bought myself a Walkman, and I’ve kind of had headphones on ever since. Early on, I was just really into R.E.M. My older step-brother and his friends turned me on to REM, Frank Zappa, Bootsy Collins and James Brown. So I kind of started out pretty normal, I think. And then, obviously, as the years went by I’ve gotten a lot of records and listened to a lot of records I really love. When I was about a fourteen or fifteen, I started buying records, and, then, when I was about seventeen or eighteen, a friend of mine Greg became my musical mentor. He kind of sat me down and said, “This record is called Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, and the reason why this record is important is…” Because I was living in Minnesota at the time and I had no idea of Mojo magazine or Q or any of that shit, he sat me down and said, “This is Pink Moon by Nick Drake. This is Leonard Cohen’s first record. This is why Highway 61 is really important." He’d just sit me down, and it was like I got to go to school and learn basically everything that’s influenced me to this day.
Any records you keep coming back to?
All of them. I was just listening to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On; that’s a record I listen to all the time. Or McCartney’s first record. This last US tour we did, we listened to that first McCartney record in the van every single day of the tour for four weeks straight. All those records, I just kind of cling to that stuff. I don’t really buy loads of modern music. There are certainly bands I like that are around these days, but it’s not like going out and buying every single Wolf record that comes out.
You tune “National Freedom” on Dressed Up really reminded me of McCartney, especially the flugel horn…
Beatles, McCartney, Lennon to Cole Porter -- all that stuff is a huge influence on me. When I’m doing my Richard Swift records, I am exploring song and melody, hopefully, to my full capacity, even more so on this new stuff that I’m recording, once I get back from this Wilco tour. I’ve got it all demoed up; the next record’s written and I’m really excited about it. But yeah, so definitely there’s a lot of McCartney influence there, especially on that one song. Nice peppiness about it.
How old were you first started writing music?
I was probably about seventeen or eighteen when I started fooling around with writing songs. I didn’t really start taking it seriously, though, until I started writing material for Walking Without Effort, the double disc I released a few years ago. That’s when I really started taking it serious. I think early on I took it for granted, because once I got my head around song-writing, it was really easy for me, and arrangements and whatnot. So I think I was really lazy and was really fine with just kind of, like, not necessarily selling myself out, but I was totally fine working on other people’s records under pseudonyms and that sort of thing. Until I figured out exactly what I wanted to do with my own material.
How did you decide on what direction to go into as far as songwriting goes? Was it kind of an organic thing?
I think it’s a mixture of both, really. When my family and close friends heard Walking, which was essentially the first record I’d done on my own, they were just like, “Gosh, that makes so much sense. That totally makes sense that this music will come out of you.” So I think it was a culmination of me knowing that I wanted to do something that was a bit timeless and something that couldn’t be easily dated as, “Oh yeah, that’s a certain type of sound, you know, a fad that was around in music a while.” I think that with the kind of music, even with the electronic music and rock-and-roll, it’s still got this timeless quality. You can’t really pinpoint when it was made. When I released the double-disc, I had just played an in-store show in Texas, and the guy had booked the in-store honestly thought I was like just some guy from the ´70s. Then he found I was actually kind of young. So maybe I have tricked them; I don’t know. I’m not really concerned with time or with rules, and I think that’s reflected in the music pretty well.
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By the way, how old are you?
I turned 30 last March.
On this tour with Wilco will you be playing solo or with a band?
I’ll be playing with my friend Casey, who’s another multi-instrumentalist friend of mine. [We’ll be incorporating] drum machines and vocoders and banjos and pianos and synthesizers, synth bass, a couple of electric guitars. So there will be enough instruments there for a band, but it will just be the two of us. So it keeps it interesting and keeps the cost down. When Wilco invited me out on tour, they said, “If you could do this solo, that would be great.” That way it would cut down time in between bands. You know, setting up, tearing down, all that kind of stuff. I’ve actually been kind of enjoying the duo shows more than the band shows, recently. But I like mixing it up.