A Sit Down with Swervedriver: An Interview with Frontman Adam Franklin

By Kayla Avitabile

After Swervedriver’s show at Sonia in Cambridge, we sat down in an interview with frontman and guitarist for the band, Adam Franklin. Our conversation revolved their latest album Future Ruins, but it was also a general chat on our conceptions of music and modes of expressing it. In this interview, Franklin emphasized that regardless of genre, at its core, music is more about the feeling it manifests in the listener rather than the details of the sound or the lyrics. While these elements are essential, it’s how they work together that make the so-called “magic happen.” Whether a music’s message is intentional, like a concept album, or just a spawn of subconscious thoughts, it revels in a sense of human emotion that no other art form can produce in quite the same way.

[The tour is] over in November, how does that feel?
Well in the context of the whole year it’s almost over. I mean, this tour still seems quite early—it’s maybe 10 shows in. [We did] February till about May and most of the summer we didn’t do stuff, and then we just started again. We did Japan, Australia and now we’re here, but that’s been across late September/October. Yeah, it’s been going on a long time (laughs). So in the grand scheme of things it’s almost over, but this US tour is another 2 weeks.

What are your favorite countries to tour in? Do you feel more comfortable back in England?
No, the U.S. is definitely more comfortable for us than England. We just did this thing in the U.K. It was at the O2 in Kentish town in London; it used to be called The Forum, before that it was called the Town and Country Club, and back a long time ago my mom lived near there. She would go—they’d have cinema stuff, like the news would be shown in the theater. So she used to go as a little girl, eat popcorn, and watch the latest news about whatever’s happening. And there’d be cartoons and things, but then many years later we played there with My Bloody Valentine when they did the Loveless album, and it was the place to go to in the early nineties. It was a great venue. We hadn’t played there for a long time, but we played there a couple weeks ago. And it was cool, but I mean it’s funny. We’re very aware that we get a better response from an American audience. We have friends in New York, and I lived in New York for a while. And Mikey the drummer lived in New York. In some ways, New York is as much a hometown gig as London is, ya know.

That’s interesting, is it true that also earlier in your career the U.S. sort of embraced your music as opposed to the U.K.?
Well I think so, yeah. Initially we only did stuff in the U.K. but then we got picked up by an American label A&M and we came over here. But it did seem like we sort of connected more somehow with the audiences over here. And there’s no way of explaining why that might be, ya know? That just sort of happens. In a similar way, when we first went to Australia, they kind of really got it as well. It’s okay in the U.K. Back then you’d do a two week tour of the U.K., but now we just do London, Manchester, Glasgow and maybe one other city because it’s not worth us going to other places because the crowds aren’t there. It felt less fun for us because the U.S. is more expansive, and more interesting to play.

Very cool, and how do you feel about Boston?
Boston’s always been great! New York has always been great, and we do Boston in a round-about for that show. We’ve always played many shows here, and as I mentioned on stage—this room actually—was quite a big part of the Swervedriver history because our first drummer—our second drummer really—Graham, who played on the Raise album, played his last show here. Because he was having things going on in his life at the time, but he left this venue when it was called T.T. and the Bears. I only found that out just when I came here. I went to get food at the front and the guy who’s an ex-professional basketball player called Skip said, “Ya know this place was T.T. the Bears,” and I said “No way!” It was Graham’s last gig with the band until he came and rejoined us for a few shows in 2015 or something.

Was that around the time, if I’m not mistaken, when you guys did a tour where you played through Raise and Mescalhead?
Yeah that was like 3 years ago, 2016/17. It was after I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, and Jimmy had a plan. I mean a lot of bands were doing that thing, playing a whole album in its entirety which is kind of a fun thing because you can know what song’s coming next. There’s less pressure in some ways.

I agree, there’s been a lot of bands lately who have taken a long hiatus and have come back and they’ll put out new music. But they’ll go on these tours where they’ll play through these fan favorite records. So that’s really cool that you guys did that.
The crazy thing to that too is that Jimmy suggested rather than doing one album, let’s do two albums, and I went “oh my god, two albums?”

You said [on KEXP] you had 30 songs when you were making this album. So you could’ve done two albums, but why limit it to 10 songs?
Because I think a double album has to sort of have a reason. I suppose you could just record a sprawling mass of songs and put the whole thing out. I do like a lot of double albums though. I’m actually thinking of The Clash, Sandinista which was a triple album. The record label said they couldn’t put out a triple album, obviously it cost three times as much to press up the copies. So they gave up their royalties – a mechanical amount of the royalties – in order to do that. I kind of respect that as an artist’s decision. I mean The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street, Husker Dü, Zen Arcade, Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation, but I think you have to know that it’s going to be a double album rather than a sprawling mass of songs. I think when CDs first came, suddenly you got (because of vinyl you can only fit 40 minutes on two sides) people doing albums that are 70 minutes on a CD. And it’s kind of a bit (yawning sound). There should be some sort of restriction, something to reign you in.

Another thing: we had quite enough reasons to have a double album, but also when it came to concentrating songs on the album, Jimmy came to me and said, well what are we gonna do? We can’t just do overdubs on 30 songs. He decided, well how many songs can you get a lyric on? There were a lot of songs that had a great tune, but I couldn’t come up with a lyric for . . . a melody for the vocal or whatever. So what we cut it down to was those 13 songs. Then it made sense. These songs have vocal ideas. In the end, it’s also a good thing because selecting the 10 songs was almost like making a mixtape or a playlist. Because for the previous album that we did, we only recorded the 10 songs and we knew those were gonna be the 10 songs. We even knew the order of the songs. So the big contrast between Future Ruins and I Wasn’t Born to Lose You is just: we had this big sprawling mass of songs and they had to be culled down. But it’s probably good for quality control. Although, people say you’ve got plenty for another album, but again, you move on and kind of get new ideas. Some of those tunes would appear and some of those could be an outtakes album or whatever a couple years down the line.

I gotta ask, so since you guys wrote about 30 potential songs, are touring a lot, and still have it, you guys just put on a great show, it seems like you guys are still energized about performing and have a lot of years left in you. Do you think that the best of Swervedriver is yet to come?
Yes I would say so, yeah. But I’d have to say that wouldn’t I? I think in many ways we’re better at what we do in a live context. I think I sing better, control our sounds better, got this slightly unhinged angle to what we do, but that’s always been there. It’s not a slick show—things happen spontaneously, ya know. There’s a lot of spontaneous things partly because it keeps it interesting for us really. Because if you just did the same thing exactly the same every night, it’s like clocking in and clocking off. But sometimes it just goes off in a different direction. But I think maybe perhaps we should actually do an album more like a live [one]. A friend of ours came to the show in New York, she’s from Oxford, where we’re from. I’ve known her for many years, but she’s never seen the band play. And then she came up after [the show] and was like, “Oh my god you guys live is just off the hook, it’s unhinged.” And perhaps we need to get this unhinged thing in the studio.

I think a live album would be a really good idea for you guys and a live album you could have “a sprawling mass of songs.” To transition, how do you feel that your inspiration or writing has changed over the years?
It’s difficult to say because inspiration from songs can come from anywhere, really. I don’t know if it has changed. Often these ideas end up being these big, big songs, [but] they start out as these quiet acoustic demos in the middle of the night. You kinda know that Swervedriver is going to be harnessed in this big thing. Now certainly when we got back together and did the recent albums, we were trying to tap into what inspired us in 1989. Just records we were listening to, the films we were watching, A Clockwork Orange or something, J.G. Ballard books for the lyrics, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, etc. Obviously over the years things change, but you kind of follow what you’re into. But when it came to I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, we tried to hone in on what was there when we were at our start, rather than doing something completely different.

So channeling things you felt, re-envisioning them, making them come alive again. Was there anything specific you were thinking of with the album as a whole? It has this sort of dystopian title. You were talking about how you get inspiration from film, was that something present in this album?
Kind of. You watch films, and film music can be anything obviously, but it can be quite ambient. And what’s interesting is bands like us who did things in the early ‘90s is kinda called Shoegaze. But I think that music is there in a lot of film soundtracks. You could watch the new James Bond film and there’d be things there that wouldn’t be there in 1990. Lyrically, really dystopian. I mean it’s also an honest reflection of what’s going on in the world I think. The lyrical theme that developed goes across a few of the songs, and it wasn’t really conscious. But I don’t think these things ever are that conscious. And I think for this album, that a lot of it was kind of subconscious stuff. We just went in and recorded all these ideas that we had—which happened to be 30 ideas—without thinking about it too much. And you just follow the news, seeing lyrics, and not necessarily thinking about what you’re doing. You put it together and see what people think of it. There is a kind of theme I suppose, but it wasn’t a consciously thought out thing. It’s just a reflection of how we feel being pissed off about things that are going on in the last couple years in the world.

Just because you brought it up: Shoegazing. Is that a label that you’ve embraced over the years? Or rejected? How do you feel about the term? What the genre is?
I think all the bands rejected it at the start. It was a derogatory sort of thing, but over time it’s become this other sort of thing. And everyone’s like, fine if it gets people into the band, but I mean there are bands that were contemporaries of ours back in that period that weren’t dragged into that particular genre. Nobody remembers them, but since Shoegaze is a thing with My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, people investigate Swervedriver. And even though I don’t think we sound like those bands, we were friends with those bands. I’ve said it before, but people in Japan, Brazil, wherever in the world, have investigated Shoegaze or top ten Shoegaze albums and Swervedriver might show up in there, and three out of ten people will go, “this is fucking awesome.”

There’s kind of been a resurgence of Shoegaze lately. How do you feel about the trends in alternative right now?
I don’t know what the trends are. I think you get to a point where you hear stuff and you’re like, “it’s cool”. You like it and don’t think about the genre or the trends. Jimmy for example, has kids that go on Spotify and they know their dad’s record collection. But anyone can investigate any era of music, and that’s so different from when we were 18. You would watch the John Pill show on the BBC. That’s where everyone would find music like Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, and there weren’t many places to find that music. But now you can just go, “Oh, Echo & the Bunnymen?”, type them into Spotify, and hear them straight away. That’s a good thing! It’s good that people don’t have to buy music, but I think music is still very important, and it’s everywhere and people want to hear it. It’s in movies, documentaries, in coffee shops, etc. There’s music everywhere now, almost more than there ever was before.

What would you say to young people getting into music like Swervedriver, relating it to this idea of what it was in the 90s and what it is now? What would you say to the young people listening?
I would say that the music would have the same effect on people now. An 18 year who hears “Slowdive” by Slowdive in 2019 feels the same [things] as someone hearing it for the first time in 1990. It’s just a feeling isn’t it? It’s an overwhelming thing. With the Shoegaze thing, those bands were sort of slagged off a little bit for not having a message, whereas the Manic Street Preachers, they’ve got a message. But yeah, the music’s a bit shit (laughs). You don’t have to have a message; it’s the feeling of the music, and that’s where the power comes from.

You can argue that the feeling is the message. It doesn’t have to be lyrical.
No not at all. I quite often prefer hearing prefer the instrumental mix of some of our songs. I don’t have to hear my vocal, and that’s just a personal thing. There are records. There’s a Blonde Redhead album that my friend Sam from Interpol and I would love to just hear a version of without lyrics. He said, “oh maybe I’ll ask them to send one” and I said, “no, you can’t ask them that!” I would love to hear it because the music just cascades and all. There’s an emotion to music when it doesn’t have words. A lot of Brian Eno’s stuff is like that.
That’s interesting because I’m also a musician, and I was showing a producer music I liked and a lot of it had the mix with the vocals not up front. He told me that it was not mixed well, but I feel like it can be anything.
Exactly, the first thing is: it can be anything you want. But also when you’re in a rehearsal room, and you’re playing with a band and everything is quite loud and you can’t really hear—that’s what makes the whole sound. To think that you’re in a studio and to have the lead vocal way out front is not how it was conceived in many ways. The energy is where it comes from anyway! Things shouldn’t be precise and perfect.

The interview came to a close, but more importantly our discussion truly expressed how music is a personal and subjective experience. We talked of the timelessness of shoegaze, and this visceral feeling it creates, but modern listeners do bring a different set of ears to this music. The feeling is still there, but the reality is that we live in a different context than young people in 1990. When I listen to Future Ruins, I experience the general sense of dystopian angst, but that may be something different to someone else. That’s the beauty of this art form.

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