John Rogers, guitarist, lead vocalist and extremely bright spokesman for the fledgling Denver-based trio Swoon, is on a quest. "We're in search of the biggest groove," he says. "A monster groove. A groove better than sex."
He's definitely on the right track. Attending a live performance by Rogers and his Swoon-mates (bassist/vocalist Damon Garr and percussionist Sam Shiels) is akin to standing in front of unlatched floodgates when the water is running high. Once the show starts, you're immediately immersed in an overwhelming wave of thick, heavy, nearly assaultive melodies that lifts you up and takes you for a ride. If ever a band was well named, it's this one. Swoon makes music to faint to.
Given influences as diverse as Tom Jones, the Beatles, Sonic Youth, early Kiss and Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, it's difficult to sum up the sound these musicians make with a handy comparison. Their approach defies categorization--and when listeners try to describe it, they wind up fashioning clumsy hyphenations such as "post-Seattle-guitar-noise-psychedelia." Surprisingly, the only thing Rogers finds wrong with this term is that it isn't inclusive enough. "I'd like to throw `harmonic and melodic value' somewhere in there, too," he says.
Labels aside, Swoon is simply a tight rock threesome whose songs are marked by a signature coup de theatre: the players' ability to draw melodies from a bass-driven sound. These three highly interdependent musicians often seem to be fighting each other for volume preeminence, yet their efforts result in a unified style that marries distortion to heavy rhythms. "We're very percussive--we work off rhythmic ideas," Rogers explains. "I started off as a drummer, and I carry that with me as a guitar player so that our songs are very syncopated." Indeed, Garr's omnipotent bass and Shiels's powerful drums hold Swoon's songs together. Rogers's bellows periodically sound like part of the instrumentation, but just when you think his singing has been smothered by the music, the vocals will briefly surface, only to be dragged back into the tumult again.
Although Swoon first hit the local scene in 1993, its musical crusade began three years ago, when Shiels and Rogers (then in his drumming mode) first played together as members of the bands Francis Theory and Saint Lucy Altarpiece. Those groups eventually fell apart due to what Rogers feels was a noticeable lack of vision. "We had conflicting opinions on what we were doing," he says. "And I developed an idea of what I wanted to be doing, which among other things involved singing."
In short order, Shiels and Rogers parted company with their former associates, added bassist Garr and embarked on a new journey. Nonetheless, some elements important to their previous groups remain--particularly those that evoke religiosity. For proof, look no further than Swoon's rehearsal space, located in a downtown Denver warehouse: It sports a churchlike ambience exacerbated by an attentively lit, blue-velvet tapestry depicting da Vinci's "The Last Supper" draped over one wall. "It's an inspiration for our words," Garr declares. Later, Shiels points out, "As a trio, we're like the father, son and holy ghost."
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Rogers doesn't call on heavenly guidance when creating his lyrics, since Swoon's songs are more than inspirational enough to feed his muse. The music is created first--"and then," Rogers says, "the vocals come in about halfway through. Usually we'll come up with two or three riffs to kind of get an idea of what key we're playing in and what chords we want to use, and then stick a vocal to it and get that first verse down. And then we let the song write itself."
This revelation seems surprising given how methodically planned most of Swoon's words seem. Among the band's best works is "Drive-By Shootin'," a song whose imagery--evoked in lines such as "See-saw for twisted ones/To blow the little ones away/Playground full of kids/Watching out for the ricochet"--is precise enough to remain safe from accusations of contrived explicitness. An additional subtle touch: Rogers's vocal is largely embedded in the music itself, rather than standing above it.
Given the strength of Swoon's innovative style, the members of the group could be forgiven for looking beyond Colorado. But for now, Shiels is satisfied being right where he is. "A lot of people bad-mouth Denver all the time and try to get away, but a lot of them end up coming back," he notes. "Some say, `Oh, there's no scene here,' but I think it's getting a lot better." Adds Rogers, "People come to our shows, and at this point that's all you can really ask for."
That and the monster groove.