by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, March 1998
"It's been a bit like 'Tubthumping': Knock us down, we'll get up again. And all that sort of bollocks."
Jez, irreverent drummer of the ever-battered Swervedriver, is talking about the group's horrifying label woes, which would have easily destroyed a less determined band.
The calamities first started after the London-based foursome's second album, 1993's Mezcal Head. Swervedriver's A&R representative at A&M was sacked, which landed the group squarely on the label's backburner. The band delivered their third album Ejector Seat Reservation, and was told it couldn't fit into A&M's release schedule for another year and a half. Frustrated, Swervedriver asked to be released from their contract. A&M consented, sending the band into a long period of financial turmoil.
The next domino to fall was the group's overseas label, Creation. Creation was in that lean period between the financial disaster of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and the Oasis explosion, and couldn't afford to sustain an uncompromising band like Swervedriver without A&M's support. Creation released Ejector Seat Reservation with near-zero promotion, and dropped the group soon afterwards. Strike two.
Jez (short for Jeremy, no last name provided) picks up the ugly story from there.
"Fairly quickly, Geffen expressed interest in a worldwide deal. We were trying to get Ejector Seat off A&M and to let Geffen release it, because it was only going to be released on import here. Our angle to A&M was, 'Look, let us have the album. No one's interested in us.' To keep the Geffen thing quiet, and try to get the album back for nothing. But within two days of Geffen being interested, somebody in the system put it on the Internet that we were being courted by Geffen, so then business affairs from A&M were on the phone, saying 'You gotta pay us all this money if you want to buy the album.' So it's stuck in limbo in this country now. Which is a real shame, because I'm still extremely proud of that record."
Geffen signed the band anyway, and the future seemed rosy again. Swervedriver recorded their new album 99th Dream over a year ago, and the disc was slated for an April, 1996 release.
But then, catastrophe struck again. "Three weeks before it was released, our manager rang me up in the morning and said, 'The head of publicity at Geffen has been on the phone, and all the first reviews are in and everyone likes it. It's looking really good.' It was like 9 o'clock in the morning and I was in a hammock, saying like 'Great, excellent.' And then a half-hour later, he rang back and said 'Oh, business affairs has been on the phone -- we're dropped!' That really hurt. We thought with Geffen, we'd found the right label and were on our way."
Again, a departed A&R rep was the crucial factor. "That probably had a lot to do with it, yeah," Jez says. "Because when they get into these A&R meetings and it's a financial concern, everyone goes 'Swervedriver...they haven't sold that many records. Anybody know anything about them?' And everyone's like [makes stammering noises], because they're all trying to deal with their own things. With hindsight, we're all very pleased that the album didn't come out on Geffen, because we feel that we probably would've had the same kind of treatment as we've had in the past. 'Oh, Beck's album is coming out! Everybody drop what you're doing, and work on Beck!'"
Other labels lined up to fill the void, but Swervedriver eventually picked Zero Hour, a somewhat surprising choice, given the company's low industry profile. Impressed with the label's enthusiasm, the band also looked forward to being a top promotional priority for once. Cynics may smirk at the group's downward move from a major to an indie, but Jez laughs off such implications.
"It's like the Spinal Tap thing: 'Is the appeal of Spinal Tap waning?' 'No, no...our audience is just becoming more selective.' I suppose it's like living in a house and wondering what the neighbors think. If you worry about the neighbors, you're going to paint your house a color you don't necessarily like, aren't you? It's tough shit, really. We tried the major route, and it didn't work. It wasn't like that option wasn't there again. There were two majors we could've chosen from, but we would've just been stuck in the pile again. We thought that we'd try a different way. I mean, this way, we get a better royalty rate. So why not? And who gives a fuck what anyone thinks?"
Thus, 99th Dream is finally available, months after bootleg copies spread through the underground. There's one important difference between the Zero Hour and Geffen issues: the track "These Times," which has been re-recorded. (The Zero Hour version is better produced and 40 seconds longer.) Otherwise, the album is another luxuriant dose of the band's curling melodies and dreamily buzzing guitars, led by evocative roars like "Up From the Sea," the title tune and "Behind the Scenes of the Sounds & the Times." Singer Adam Franklin's voice continues to improve, while the group sustains the move toward shorter, song-based rock begun with Ejector Seat Reservation. A motif of Latin rhythms also deepens, via "You've Sealed My Fate," "In My Time" and the gorgeous instrumental "Stellar Caprice."
"It's a bit more laid-back," Jez says of the album. "Also, in the past, we've worked on 48-track and stacked layers and layers of guitars and stuff. On this record, we stuck to 24-track and tried to consolidate the guitar parts more, so it was less of a nightmare when it came to playing live. That's always been a bit of a problem, having the two guitar players stand in the rehearsal room going, 'OK, I don't have a nine-neck guitar, or limbs to play it. How the fuck do I play all these parts?' This time, it's been a lot easier, since more of the stuff is recorded as a straight live track. Two guitars, bass and drums, all in one go. That helps a lot.
"Also, there's a track called 'She Weaves a Tender Trap.' That's like a one-take, all-four-of-us thing, and it has a lot more air in it, a lot more space. Whereas in the past, we used to try and fill every single hole. That song sort of defines a change in the way we're thinking. I think we're headed that way, to leave space to let the music breathe a little bit."
Of course, the advantage here is that it's an independent album recorded with Geffen's major-label budget. "That would be right," Jez laughs. "And we built a really nice recording studio with their cash, thank you very much. Oh, and I bought a motorcycle as well. I ride down Sunset nearly every day, and stick my finger up at that [Geffen] building as I pass."
Swervedriver's next goal is a worldwide tour, something they haven't done in three years. "We've wanted to go on tour for a long time, because we want to get to that point where we're really good live again. It takes a few gigs to do that, and rehearsal has a limited appeal to us. We do as little of it as possible. We like to go out and play a lot of gigs, and then after about a month, we kinda 'get there.' We can just feel it. There's that occasional moment when we realize what we're capable of, and then you go 'Yeah, this is worth doing.' It still gives you a fuckin' knock in the balls. I think we're stronger than we ever have been."
"Every now and again," he continues, "we've all individually thought, 'OK, what the fuck are we going to do now? Is it time to just stop?' Because it hurts so much when you get dropped. But then we get together again, and we get on so well as a set of people, and we play a tune and go 'Fucking hell!' Even sometimes when we haven't rehearsed for awhile, we just plug in to test the gear and have a jam. They're really amazing jams, some of those things, and it's like 'OK, this is a really good band.' We still enjoy it. We still think we've got something to offer as a band, and as a set of musicians."
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