Swervedriver: Shoegazers Ride Again
After 17 years of studio silence, Adam Franklin and Jim Hartridge bring back the noise.
Every decade or so, psychedelia returns in one form or another. Today, bands like Tame Impala, Temples, and Oracles carry the paisley-tinged torch. But back in the early ’90s, the leading practitioners of lysergic guitar freakouts were Britain’s so called “shoegaze” bands: My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, Moose—and Swervedriver. (The disparaging “shoegaze” label stemmed from the accusation that the bands were more concerned about tapping the correct pedal than engaging the audience.)
Formed in Oxford, England, in 1989 by Adam Franklin and Jim Hartridge, Swervedriver came out of the gate swinging. “Rave Down,” with its pounding guitars and machine-gun drumming, had as much in common with early punk as with psychedelia. Anyone yet to experience the one-two-three punch of Mezcal Head’s opening tracks, “For Seeking Heat,” “Duel,” and “Blowin’ Cool,” is in for a grand sonic assault.
After a 10-year break, the band hit the stages again in 2008, leading the way for the current shoegaze revival. They’ve just released I Wasn’t Born To Lose You, their fifth album, and their first since 1998’s 99th Dream. Many fans consider the new record to be one of the band’s finest moments. We sat down with Adam and Jim after a string of shows at the South by Southwest festival.
Who are your influences?Adam Franklin: Well, you have to love Jimi Hendrix. Marc Bolan’s an interesting case. The other night I spoke with Steve Kilbey of the Church, who is a big T. Rex fan. We agreed that when Marc was doing acoustic stuff, he used really weird structures. Then he learned to play electric guitar and became less imaginative in a way. He became more rock ’n’ roll, playing lots of E and A and blues scales. He was still a great songwriter, though. Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. were influences as well. It was great that J Mascis could do something so melodic and noisy at the same time. And the Stooges of course.
Jim Hartridge: James Williamson! He’s one of our original influences. We still play Stooges songs at soundchecks. He’s also Johnny Marr’s favorite guitar player, which is bizarre, isn’t it? Johnny’s such a light player, and James plays so hard.
Franklin: He’s intricate as well, though. You can hear it on the acoustic songs on Raw Power.
Did they influence the entire Oxford scene?Franklin:I don’t know really, but I think of Ride as sort of a cross between the Stooges and the Byrds.
Swervedriver was the heaviest band in that scene. Did you guys feel like outsiders? Hartridge: Have you seen the film Anyone Can Play Guitar?It’s about the Oxford scene, and how cohesive it was. At the very end there’s a clip of me saying, “Ah, there wasn’t really a scene at all, was there?” [Laughs.] But from the American point of view it might have looked like a scene, because the entire U.K. is a relatively small area.People know each other.
How did you two meet?Hartridge: Same primary school, same secondary school, same college and further education.
Did you grow up playing guitar together?Franklin: No. The first band I was in was with Si Quinn on guitar. His brother, Mick, was in Supergrass. Mick is playing bass with us on this tour, actually.The first time I ever played electric guitar was at his house when I was 16. His older brother, Simon, was in the Suspects. Mick asked me to join, and I said yeah, because I had a guitar, but no amp. The first riff I played through an amp was “Silver Machine” by Hawkwind.
Hartridge: I was in a rival band called the Bogarts, and we rehearsed in the same place. I was in a band with other people in the same circle. Our “Wheatley Scene.” [Laughs.] Wheatley is a village outside Oxford.
Adam Franklin and Jim Hartridge arrange their pedals in semicircles. Pedalboards are “just too dainty,” says Jim. Photo by Alex Maiolo
When did you two play together?Franklin: We were a bit bored with our bands. It was the discovery of the Stooges that really kicked things off. At our first gig we played “Search and Destroy,” “Chinese Rocks,” “Louie Louie”—Stooges-style—and “Ramblin’ Rose.” That’s it. When I was in bands before, if I did a guitar solo, it would be sort of like Hugh Cornwell from the Stranglers, or Robby Krieger. You can tell that they’ve worked it out in advance, whereas Jim would go off on an improvised thing. I was thinking, “How the hell does he do that?”
Hartridge: Maybe it was just laziness, never really bothering to work things out.
As things came together in what would later be known as “shoegaze,” did you feel the bands involved had a common goal?Hartridge: Yeah. We moved to London, and suddenly we were surrounded by all these other bands, many that had moved from other places. There was also the “lurch” scene, which was London’s equivalent of grunge—bands like Silverfish, Th’ Faith Healers, Milk, who were doing much heavier things. “Shoegaze” was first used to describe a Moose show. There were light bands, like Slowdive, and heavy bands. We were friendly with all of them. I think we fell in the middle.
Franklin: Everyone was of the same mindset.We all mixed at the same pub in Camden: The Falcon.
Many of your songs are effects-driven. Do you compose with effects, or are they the icing on the cake?Franklin: We embellish massively with effects, but I think you could get away with playing our songs around a campfire on an acoustic.
Did producer Alan Moulder influence your sound?Franklin: Yes. Of course, we didn’t know what we were doing, and Alan really does. We needed somebody to steer the ship in terms of production, and he made things sound big.
Hartridge: We’d get a good take, and Alan would say, “Okay, go away for a half hour.” When we came back, everything sounded absolutely huge. It was like, “How the hell did you do that?” He got all the frequencies right. He found a space for all of the guitars. That’s his forte, really: finding a way through the dense forest of sound.
Franklin: John Catlin, Alan’s protégé, did I Wasn’t Born To Lose You at Alan Moulder and [producer] Flood’s studio. I assume he used our older albums as a reference point. Everybody used to mention that we layer our guitars. I always thought, “Why wouldn’t you?” It seems pretty stupid to be in the studio and not do that for this kind of music. Anyway, John’s got the same skills at placing guitars and all the percussive stuff after working with Alan for so long. He did a great job.
Swervedriver’s Jim Hartridge and Adam Franklin often swap gear. Hartridge notably plays Les Pauls, but he’s recently been playing an offset-shaped custom David Ayers guitar that belongs to Franklin. Photo by Liv Niles
What’s different about touring and recording these days? Franklin: It’s better, and we have more freedom. It might be harder for some bands, but we have a history to lean on. It’s so easy to make a record now. We’ve been touring the last few years, but having a new album has upped the ante. There are people who didn’t know about us, but have heard the new album. I’ve seen people tweeting, “I’ve just discovered this great new band: Swervedriver.”
I assume you spent considerably less making this record.Hartridge: Considerably less.Adam: For major-label bands it’s probably the same as it always was. The labels push bands to spend a phenomenal amount of money. If they don’t make it back, they’ll be dropped within one album. These days, they don’t want to spend a million quid twice over. It’s a dangerous time to get involved with a major label.You don’t have to, unless you’re trying to become an arena band.
Hartridge: It was a double-edged thing for us to be on a major label. At the time, it was the only thing to do, but we don’t own those records. The dreaded words “in perpetuity” are in the contract, so we can never get those recordings back. At the same time, if we’d been on an indie label, we might not have been well known in the States.
Adam, were always a Jazzmaster player? Franklin: I played a Jaguar on the first EP, Son of Mustang Ford, when I was also playing my Shergold Nu Meteor. On the second, Rave Down, we rented a Jaguar for some reason, but it didn’t have the right crunch, so we had some pedal on all the time. Then I realized the Jazzmaster is a bigger guitar with a bigger sound.
Do you still have the Shergold? Those are really underrated.Franklin: It’s still in good nick, yeah. I recently learned that only a few Nu Meteors were made. In 1980 there were only like 30 or something.
They’re associated with many bands: Joy Division, Genesis, Julian Cope, the Church. Franklin: I got mine in Wheatley, after I sold my first guitar, a Les Paul copy. It was an ugly guitar, but then we sprayed it purple—typical of the era, I guess. In ’85 our original bass player made the metal scratch plate. It looks kind of cool, and it plays like a dream. I remember the day I picked it up and went, “Fucking hell, this is quite good, isn’t it?”
Jim, you’ve always been a Les Paul player?Hartridge: I have, though I’ve got a lot of other guitars that we use when we record. There are three Telecasters on the album, for example. I’ve got a ’74, but funnily enough, the one that sounds best is an old Squier.
An early Japanese Squier?Hartridge: Yes. It’s really good. Mine has a humbucker—and a great rhythm tone. I’ve also got a newer Squier Jazzmaster. Some of them are terrible, but mine is actually quite good.We used a Danelectro on this record, too. I went to do a soft part on “Everso,” and engineer thought I meant to just mic it acoustically. He convinced me to try it, so we just put a mic out in front of it.It wasn’t plugged in at all, just close-miked. When the sound fades out, it’s just that Danelectro.
Franklin:Some of the backing tracks on the album were recorded in Melbourne in a one-day session. I used a great Les Paul that I bought from Tym Guitars in Brisbane.
What is the offset guitar that you play, Jim?Hartridge: That’s a guitar Adam was given by David Ayers.
Franklin: He’s a luthier in Arizona. He made one for Debbie Smith from the bands Curve and Echobelly. He just approached me and said he’d like to make me a guitar and asked what I wanted. I found this picture of a “Telemaster,” which has a Jazzmaster shape, but some Telecaster features. He showed up at a gig in Portland with that amazing guitar.
Hartridge: It’s got a really good whammy bar.
Jazzmaster-style?Franklin: More or less.
Do you record with full-sized amps, or low-power combos?Franklin:In the London studio, we both used a Marshall JCM800 on every song.
Jim, I noticed you’re playing Blackstars live.Hartridge: Yeah. They sound like Marshalls, but they’re thicker. You’ve got to pick and choose with Marshalls—some can sound thin. I didn’t even know what to expect with the Blackstars, but I got the half-stack and the Artisan combo. The combo sounds best. It’s got no gain control—just the natural sound. I’m very happy with them.
Adam, you’re still using an AC30 live?Franklin: Yes. For a while I was partially sponsored by Matchless, who are great people, and I played a DC-30. Vox AC30s had a habit of blowing up or doing other strange things, but the Matchless ones are really sturdy. I do prefer the Vox, though. I also use a 50-watt Marshall JCM800, going through a smaller [Mesa/Boogie 2x12] cabinet. I’ve always had the Marshall for the grit and the Vox for the chime. The crazier pedals go to the Vox, with the signal split at the reverbs, delays, and Roland Space Echo. The Marshall holds it all down.
You’re using the new RE-20 Space Echo pedal?Franklin: Yeah, a nice guy I know who works in a guitar shop in Minneapolis came to a show and said, “Adam, I want to give you this.” I said, “I can’t accept this!” His girlfriend said, “Look, he’s not going to take no for an answer.” The thing about real Space Echoes is, you need your hands to play around with them, so it’s a bit counterintuitive to have it down at your feet. There’s one particular setting I like for swells at the end of songs.I also use a Boss Feedbacker and Distortion pedal for a sound that no other pedal makes, because mine is broken. It doesn’t hold the note, like it’s supposed to—it oscillates. I always dread it fixing itself. Years ago I was onstage at Cat’s Cradle [in Chapel Hill, North Carolina], and it did. I picked it up and threw it down on the ground, and it was fixed! Or broken again [laughs].
Hartridge: It’s my pedal, actually. I bought it 25 years ago, and it didn’t work. Adam started using it, and I haven’t gotten it back since.
Jim, why do you use two Whammy pedals?Hartridge: The original Whammy has a setting the others just don’t do. For some reason, it’s not on the later versions, and it’s the best sound in the pedal. I use it on three songs, so I keep that pedal on that setting. I use the other one just for wobbling down a tone or two semitones. I should mention that I also love the Line 6 Echo Park. It does the backwards tape thing well, and some other cool things.
Franklin: I did a tour last year with David Baker from Mercury Rev, borrowed his Echo Park, and had to buy one. They’re ugly pedals, but great ones, and you can stomp them like a boss. It doesn’t have any fiddly buttons.
You guys still use a lot of Boss pedals.Franklin: It’s funny: People get obsessed with boutique effects. Someone online was discussing our rigs, and how many Boss pedals we use, and said, “They get a pretty good sound, considering the gear they use.”
Franklin: They’re quite sturdy.
Hartridge: They’ll last your whole life.
You don’t use pedalboards—your effects are laid out in semicircles.Hartridge: I can’t stand hunting for a little switch on a tight pedalboard. If you’re in a rush, you can’t be delicate. It’s rock ’n’ roll! Pedalboards are good for carrying around. Beyond that, I don’t understand them one bit. They’re just too dainty.
Watch Swervedriver playing a live set in the KEXP studios.