They say the devil's greatest trick was trying to convince the world that he doesn't exist. A decent ruse, but as the Swayback just proved, the devil truly is in the details. Although the act's latest, Long Gone Lads, has a loose, almost tossed-off, insouciance, its creators actually toiled endlessly over the tracks on DJ editing software, building and deconstructing them to the point of distraction before finally entering the studio with lauded producer Andrew Vastola for the sessions that produced Lads.
"Our only goal was to make something that preceded us," says Eric Halborg, the Swayback's frontman. "That was it. That was the only goal."
Mission accomplished. Lads is absolutely stunning from start to finish, both from a songwriting and production standpoint. Not only is this the Swayback's strongest material, but it's the band's best-sounding effort to date, and that's thanks in part to the members' meticulous preparation. From investing what amounted to six months in pre-production with venerable knob-turner Bob Ferbrache, to learning to record themselves at home, to rehearsing with a click-track the band spent close to eighteen months just getting ready to record the album, writing and rewriting parts, constantly practicing, tweaking and experimenting. In fact, several of Lad's tracks appear in their ninth iteration.
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"With some songs," explains guitarist William Murphy, "there's infinite versions that we didn't even finish editing. I would do too many guitar tracks or Eric would do too many vocals, and we'd just kind of pick the few good ones and shape them up."
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Once those tracks took shape, the players presented their sketches to Vastola, who indulged their ideas no matter how far-fetched they seemed. Although the Swayback has recorded at close to half a dozen of the area's finest studios with some of the best engineers, this was the first time the band's members really felt like they were given room to experiment, particularly on songs such as the fantastic "Queen's Dance," an ode to Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who requested John the Baptist's head on a platter. The ominous yet alluring track conjures up a subterranean disco housed inside a Middle Eastern opium den, in which Halborg's come-hither vocals straddle a seductive dance loop that he and Murphy constructed, and Vastola wisely chose to keep.
"Andrew was really good," says Murphy. "He indulged all of our ideas, even if they were bad. He would plug them in and then we'd realize — yeah, that was a really bad idea. Andrew let me do weird things; he let me run two amps. One was just doing something so odd, I didn't even want to listen to it, and then there was a normal one, and he recorded it all."
"But we knew where we wanted the weirdness, which was a huge part of it," adds Halborg. "We had recorded the weirdness a bunch of times ourselves and then brought it to Andrew, and he juiced it up."
"I think it was hard to convey our message," Murphy continues, referring to past sessions. "And this time, since we realized how to record ourselves, we could bring it in and show them, rather than explain to them with weird sounds or rough sketches of things. Like the vibe parts: If I were like, 'Hey, Andrew, this song's really heavy; I want to put some vibraphones on it,' it could be like, 'Whatever. You're fucking crazy. You're going to waste my time.' But then you'd have the opportunity to bring stuff in, and you can kind of look at it in an objective forum and see how it fits."
"With these other cats," Halborg chimes in, "with most of them, they'd be like, 'Hey, you guys are really good.' But it was cold; they'd never heard us, they'd never seen us live. We'd walk into their studios and set up these huge amps and blast them. So not only did he know us, but we knew what we were thinking for the first time, full-on."
While that's partly what attracted them to Vastola, they were also keen on what he'd done with their friends' records and were eager to see what he could add to their sound. Plenty, it turned out. While the disc was tracked live at Rocky Mountain Recorders, Vastola worked closely with the band, adding subtle flourishes on the back end, such as the layered vocal harmonies that enhance Halborg's already penetrating melodies. And while Halborg's sweaty bass lines and drummer Martijn Bolster's taut timekeeping are prominently featured in the mix, Vastola also left ample space for the unsettling backdrops created by Murphy's textured guitar lines.
"We all knew that we could play live — Born in the Flood, Photo Atlas, Hot IQs, whoever, all of us, Denver, collectively," Halborg muses. "We all go to each other's shows and support each other. We'd watch each other live and be like, 'Fuck, yeah, that's pretty rowdy. I like it. I like the way it looks, how it sounds, how they're feeling it, whatever.' But the next step was for us to project out of here, to have not just good recordings, but really good recordings that would transcend and let us go to other places, because the kid in Stockholm can't see me play live.
"So to have really good recordings, that's the catalyst for the scene," he adds. "And I think Andrew is doing that, just naturally, because he grew up in that studio and he knows it. He has killer ears, and his pop taught him right with patience, dealing with bands and getting performances out of people, all that stuff. I don't think it's his biggest quality, but I think it's an interesting one: He does have pop sensibilities. That Photo Atlas record — it's Alan's voice, but then it's three echoes of Alan's voice, and boy, didn't that make it sound that much better. When I heard that, I was like, 'I play with Photo Atlas all the time; I love Photo Atlas, but this takes Photo Atlas to another level' — another level where it is artistry, where you are sort of painting these songs."
Or splicing them together, in this case. Penning the songs for Lads, Halborg and Murphy often sat side by side, manipulating their ideas in Ableton Live, a DJ program that a friend and part-time collaborator, Shawn Astrom, turned them on to. The result is a sound that incorporates all of their disparate influences. Listen closely to Halborg's brooding croon and you can still hear shards of the Misfits and the spirit of the Stooges in his vampiric sneer, while Murphy's careening guitar lines continue to draw upon the vintage work of early U2, as well as the minimal arpeggios of '80s-era Brit rock and shoegaze.
The two came to their love of music early. Murphy, who was weaned on the sounds of KROQ in his native Los Angeles, began taking guitar lessons when he was seven, as makeshift daycare after his mom was in an accident. He had inordinately large hands for a little kid, and before long, he was playing Beatles songs. Meanwhile, Halborg was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, where, thanks to his older siblings, he was singing along to Frank Zappa songs and obsessively listening to everything from Zeppelin to Talking Heads and the Smiths. "I would sit in my closet when I was in kindergarten," he recalls. "I had the little FM radio, and I would sit under a blanket and listen to the radio all day and all night, wouldn't sleep, just listen to the radio. I just thought it was amazing that there were sounds that I could get in my closet."
The two met in Breckenridge, introduced by Halborg's future wife, who'd roomed with Murphy in college. Murphy, schooled in indie and alt-rock, was by now heavily into electronic and punk, while Halborg, a student at the University of Colorado, had been a faithful reader of NME and Melody Maker, with tastes that ranged from My Bloody Valentine to Ride. The two headed to Mexico, where they spent several months bonding, surfing and eating tacos. After that, Murphy returned to California and Halborg went back to CU, where he earned a BFA in photography and design.
Five years later, the pair reconvened in Denver and formed the Swayback, going through — by Murphy's count — at least 47 timekeepers before they found Bolster, whose precision drumming slices through the mix and serves as the band's anchor. Bolster was sold the first time he saw the Swayback, gushing to Halborg that his band was the best he'd seen locally. A short time later, when the Swayback parted ways with yet another drummer, Bolster, a highly sought-after and well-paid engineer who hails from Holland, lobbied for an audition. He immediately won the slot, partly because of his tireless work ethic, which matched that of Halborg and Murphy.
"That was big with us," says Murphy, "because we would rip through drummers. We would out-practice them with a three-to-five-practices-a-week type of thing. They couldn't keep up. He hadn't played for three months when he tried out for us, and he was better than a lot of people that we had played with. And Martijn will just be there. We can be like, 'Martijn, let's practice at six in the morning,' and he'll be like, 'Okay.' And we'll just march down there and practice. It's not an issue."
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Their shared drive paid off with Lads. But as good as the album sounds, and as happy as they are with how it turned out, you get the sense that they really view it as more of an entry point — as though Lads were merely a record they made while holding down day jobs (in Murphy's case, that's in the Westword classified department) and maintaining other obligations.
"I don't want to say it's a perfect record," Murphy stresses. "I think it's perfectly reflective of that time frame in our life, of us coming from different angles, coming from electronic versus organic, and introducing us into a studio that met our needs."
"We're not like, 'Oh, we did it,'" Halborg adds. "We're like, 'All right — finally! What's next?"
The Swayback drives this point home on Lads' opening track, "Concrete Blocks," which contains these lines: "Music puts concrete blocks on feet/Even when victorious, let there be no joy/And if we succeed, we are just doing our job/With these concrete blocks on feet."