Swervedriver: Back in the USA
by Jonathan Perry
The business of pop music can be a cruel and capricious thing, calculated,
driven by commerce, a repository for some of Madison Avenue's worst ideas and
most vacuous impulses. Too often, fabricated creatures like the Spice Girls
become ubiquitous pop culture icons -- selling so much and creating so little
-- while real artists with imagination and vision are sidelined and overlooked.
So it has been with Oxford's Swervedriver, a guitar-powered psychedelic band
who weave strands of My Bloody Valentine-style noise into the melodic fabric of
classic pop, and who have received more notice in this country for the albums
they haven't been able to put out than for the ones they have.
"Mojo magazine called us the unluckiest band in the world," says
Swervedriver drummer Jez over the phone from London. "And that's saying
something, mate, because everybody has crap luck at one time or another."
Swervedriver's began after their audacious 1991 debut, Raise (A&M).
In a span of five years the foursome (Jez, who often also engineers the band's
sessions, plus guitarists Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge and bassist Stephen
George) were dropped by three labels (two US and one British). And though
they've continued recording and releasing their material elsewhere, they
haven't -- until this week, when 99th Dream will at last reach these
shores -- had an American album since 1993. That was the year they issued the
roaring, majestic Mezcal Head (A&M), which had the misfortune to
arrive smack in the middle of a flannel-shirted grunge landscape. The CD was
all but ignored (a gesture Americans have accorded a surprisingly large number
of Brit bands this decade), and Swervedriver got dumped.
Although the band, who join Hum downstairs at the Middle East next Thursday,
found a temporary home at the British label Creation for their superb
follow-up, 1995's Ejector Seat Reservation, they clearly weren't a
priority, and the disc was distributed only in the UK. (The $25.95 I paid for
my import-only copy was worth every penny, however.) Then, after reports
surfaced two years ago that the embattled quartet had finally been picked up by
Geffen, nothing but silence followed.
"Three and a half weeks before Geffen was supposed to release our next album,
we got dropped," Jez recalls with an edge of frustration in his voice, though
he's happy to report that the band put their Geffen money to good use building
their own 24-track studio. "We don't know why [we were dropped]. You can never
get a straight answer out of those bastards. Our A&R guy got dropped three
hours before we got sacked, so there was nobody in there fightin' for us.
"Someone from A&M once told us that it takes four or five listens to a
Swervedriver album to see whether you like it or not. And in this marketplace,
unless you can hit immediately, it's not going to register with people. But
maybe with Spiritualized and Radiohead and Cornershop getting noticed these
days, more people are willing to listen to music that's a bit more complex."
That's where the New York-based indie Zero Hour, the latest label to take a
chance on the foursome, comes in. This Tuesday, Zero Hour will release 99th
Dream, the band's fourth album, which in essence is a re-recorded, revamped
version of the CD Swervedriver made (but never got to release) for Geffen two
years ago. Far from coming across as a panic-fueled second -- er, make that
fourth -- chance for Swervedriver, the album sounds like a self-assured
extension of the band's most vivid and lustrous work.
99th Dream opens with a whiplash riff that buzzes in a holding pattern
for a moment before napalm guitars crash into the dense, pulsing sprawl of the
title track. It's pop with air-raid sirens. Elsewhere, singer/guitarist Adam
Franklin's vocals hover and swell, weaving in and out of lush, swirling
guitarscapes and thrusting rhythms. The disc's spaciousness hypnotizes, its
intricacy dazzles -- and it's always Swervedriver. One track in particular, "In
My Time," showcases the band at their lithest and most sonically cunning. Like
Leeds-era Who, the group can sound enormous and expansive during their quietest
moments -- even Swervedriver's silences seem sculpted.
"We could do a song by the Spice Girls and it would still sound like
Swervedriver," Jez says. "I think that's why we haven't split up, that's why we
haven't called it a day. I mean, I'm 32 years old, and I don't have a pot to
piss in, but I don't care. Because for me, when I'm up there on stage and hear
it all click, I know I'm in the best rock-and-roll band in the world. And we're
just getting started."