Louder Than War’s Stephen Tudor recently caught up with Jimmy Hartridge, guitarist with Swervedriver, ahead of their first album for 18 years.
Wrestling down the ferocious wall of sound and creativity that exploded on this sceptred isle in the early nineties and belittling it as ‘shoegazing’ was not the music press’ finest hour. What the hell were they thinking? Looking back now it’s cringeworthy to the point of chewing on your own fist that a fictional ‘scene’ that amounted to a media in-joke was forged to the detriment – even derision – of such majestic and diverse talents as My Bloody Valentine and Ride. Evidently the need to replace ‘Madchester’ with something – anything – was greater than the sum of our sanity and journalists from way back then should, aptly, look to their feet in shame.
With hindsight it is very clear that the era in question spawned a lush crop of fantastic bands that produced soaring, distorted brilliance the equal of anything being thrashed out across the Atlantic and pride and place among them was Swervedriver.
Geographical cousins of Ride and having a penchant for near-drowning the vocals beneath a swirling euphoria of guitars gained them reluctant entry to the shoegazing club but Swervedriver always drew from a larger canvas. Raise, their debut lp released on Creation in 1991, evoked the Americana of freedom and never-ending highways. Their follow-up Mezcal Head contained the swaggering Duel and soon after America called with stadium tours with Smashing Pumpkins opening up a million new ears.
The world was suitably scorched and theirs for the taking but the band suffered more than most with record company chopping and changing leaving their third album in permanent limbo. In 1998 they were done. Or so they thought.
A reunion tour that kicked off at Coachella reignited the passion and eventually led to here, the imminent release of I Wasn’t Born To Lose You, Swervedriver’s first collection of new material in eighteen years. It’s a sweeping, swarming buzzsaw of revelry that can legitimately be viewed as their best work to date.
Prior to showcasing the all-guns-blazing Autodidact and others on a nineteen-date US tour Stephen Tudor caught up with guitarist Jimmy Hartridge to discuss The Stooges, curries, and a lifetime of being a Swervie.
We’re weeks away from the release of your first album in 18 years. What is your mindset at present? Excitement? Nerves?
Excitement certainly. We’ve been out on the road doing various things since 2008 and we’ve been toying with the idea of doing an album for years. Getting it out now is amazing really and even though it’s taken an incredible amount of time it doesn’t seem that long because life is short.
The reaction to Setting Sun and Autodidact has been extremely positive.
I’ve got a teenage daughter who’s fifteen and she seems to think a lot of people her age are into the band and that kind of nineties music which is great. I think quite arrogantly that we were ahead of our time because in Britain a lot of people were only into bands who sold newspapers. It’s understandable because we live in a capitalist world.
If you were transported back to the days of Shake Appeal – with your whole musical journey ahead of you – what would you do differently?
We did it the right way although we did burn ourselves out. If we hadn’t the audience would have burned out anyway because in Britain fashions change very fast and is media-led. That’s why we knocked it on the head in 1998 – it seemed like the interest was waning from the audience, the press, and also the record company support. You have to be realistic about these sort of things. If you’re not selling enough records your career cannot be maintained.
But retrospect is a useful tool and if you look back on it the music has stood the test of time.
It’s interesting that you mention time because Jez Hindmarsh (Swervedriver’s former drummer) was once told by someone at A&M that it takes four or five listens to a Swervedriver album to get a true feel of it. And this was said as a negative! Is that part of the problem these days? That everything needs an immediacy in order to connect?
A commercial record will get to the top of the charts for good reason: It’s commercial so everybody will like it. Our music is more demanding so if you’re trying to be a commercial act that’s not ideal. But music like ours tends to have more of an enduring quality if you’re prepared to put in the time.
It often means more as a consequence.
I think so and a lot of my favourite bands such as The Stooges are regarded as being incredibly influential but at the time nobody cared much about them. Everybody is familiar with The Stooges now but in 1969 they weren’t really and a lot probably thought ‘God, what a horrible racket’. Quality music often takes time like all left-field art.
You’ve been lumped into several scenes and genres in your time – from shoegazing to grunge to being described as alt-rockers. What interpretation of Swervedriver annoys?
The shoegaze thing used to annoy us a lot. It didn’t suit us at all but having said that I can see why it happened because you’ve got to describe us as something and around that early nineties time there were a lot of bands lumped in together. My Bloody Valentine didn’t fit either because they were pretty violent rock.
So it used to annoy us but now we have conversations and actually use that word ourselves which makes me feel kind of dirty because it was invented as an offensive tag. It meant you weren’t engaged with the audience because you were too busy staring at your pedals.
I can’t believe now there are shoegaze clubs in America. They’re proud of it
Did it feel at the time like you were being put into a box?
Yes but if I was a journalist I would have done the same. It’s like trying to describe a flavour. If you have a curry you might say it’s like a chilli but people who specialise in curries and chillis might each find it offensive but you have to describe it as something.
A lot of people who liked Slowdive liked us and vise versa so these things do work and you can’t get too offended looking back on it.
Back to the present, what are the themes that lie at the heart of I Wasn’t Born To Lose You?
It was a strong desire to maintain the synthetic that we had. We didn’t want to slacken off. If we hadn’t imploded in ’98 we would have put an album out like this.
I was trying to describe the new album to a friend of mine and the word that came to mind was ‘accomplished’. It feels mature as you know exactly when to let a song breathe and when to rock out. Is it fair to say that I Wasn’t Born To Lose You is an accumulation of your experience and experiences? And are you still learning things about music today?
You can learn and learn forever but in reality you get to a glass ceiling and tend to stay at that. You could practise music as an academic study but it’s not really our sort of thing. We’re happy with the way we interact.
The word accomplished is good because that’s something we lacked in the early albums when we didn’t have the production skills.
This album was a long time in the gestation period. There was a lot of emailing and then meeting up occasionally to rehearse and then going away again because we all live in different parts of the country. We had a lot of time to think about arrangements and production and approach it professionally but when we came to record it we did it very, very fast.
Will you employ the same methods for future material?
Yes because it’s the only way you can do it these days. Spending three months in a studio and costing the record company half a million quid, those days are out of the window. This way seems to work pretty well.
What influences seeped into this record? What have you been listening to in the past couple of years?
I can never think of new stuff when people ask me that (laughs). I listen to the same stuff I always did but the album I’ve been listening to most over the past couple of months is Beck’s. It’s just won a Grammy so I guess that’s a bit boring because everyone has got that…
…Apart from Kanye West.
True. Morning Phase has got such great production on it. I also listen to a lot of 6Music which plays interesting music all day, every day. That’s what the Americans have always had and we never had over here.
In creating the album is there a particular song – or a moment somewhere in the creative process – where you thought ‘Yeah, we’re back!’
There was one particular moment of joy when recording the guitars on English Subtitles Most of the stuff you do one track at a time but we did the guitars together just for the hell of it because we were both plugged in. It’s like when you’re jamming with your mate in a bedroom and it really works. Also piling the guitars on Autodidact. People used to point out our guitars were layered on our records but I always thought its nuts not to lay them out. Why wouldn’t you? If you hear something that should go in you put it on.
We did half in Australia, in Melbourne, and then the other half in North London. The Australian session was special but we really enjoyed our time at Konk Studios too because that’s where albums three and four were recorded.
There was a feeling that what we was recording was good. There wasn’t any doubt and there was nothing half-hearted. People aren’t going to be disappointed.
You mentioned ‘album three’ there. Do you consider Ejector Seat Reservation to be under-rated, perhaps even unappreciated, due to the troubled times it was conceived it?
Yes absolutely. A lot of people regard that as the finest of our four albums but it wasn’t released in America – it still isn’t and you can only get it on imports – so it was a disaster and as a result our biggest audience wasn’t able to purchase it or review it in any way. There’s a lot of colours on that album and what gets me is the last song on there, The Birds, is probably the most commercial song we ever did and nobody knows it. We always play it live and it’s a great number but it’s never on the radio. Everybody knows Rave Down and Duel but not The Birds because it wasn’t a single and the album wasn’t released. It was a great shame and part of the reason we couldn’t carry on because you lose momentum. You put out something you think is really good…
You’re about to embark on a tour of North America. How will it differ from the tours of the early 90s?
It will be less chaotic. In some ways it will be more enjoyable because the chaos was a bit much. I didn’t know where we were half of the time but we’ve got more input so the approach will be a bit more organised. Now we’re in control of our own destiny and have more of a clue what’s going on.
It will be really good fun. We still have the same sense of humour and the same joy in the music. In fact me and Adam were talking about this the other day and we figured we’ve been playing together now for over thirty years. Which is completely mad.
While we’re on a loved up note, Raise has been described as being ‘incurably romantic’.
There’s a lot of on-the-road mythology about that album. As a piece of work it can be viewed as romantic, that notion of not wanting to settle anywhere. People aspire to that. ‘Incurably romantic’…that’s a nice compliment actually.
Away from music who are your literary and cultural inspirations?
My cultural inspirations are pretty much always musical. My literary influences are a bit like Noel Gallagher’s…nil. I read on the road but since I’ve been family orientated I just don’t have time.
What are you most proud of?
The fact that the legacy (of Swervedriver) has been appreciated by a wide range of people all over the world is a great thing. We could have been stuck in one era like some kind of sixties band like Herman’s Hermits – where it doesn’t work outside of that decade. Whereas I get the impression our work will really stand the test of time. It means a lot to so many people across large swathes of time and that’s pleasing.
Prior to taking your hiatus in ’98 Adam said “It cropped up – ‘Is this fun? Are we having fun doing this?’ I guess we kind of weren’t.”
What about now? Are you having fun again?
Absolutely. If we weren’t we’d still be on hiatus in inverted commas. We weren’t enjoying it at that time and touring our last album just seemed to go on and on and on. It didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere and was a bit pointless, almost machine-like.
We got fed up with living in each other’s pockets all the time. It just naturally sort of fell apart and we were happy to not be together.
When we did get back everybody was so pleased to do it. The fact that we’ve got a new album is what is really exciting. You have to keep creating and we can’t wait to get out and play these songs.
Swervedriver’s new album, I Wasn’t Born to Lose You is out March 3. You can pre-order a copy from Cherry Red’s website.
All words by Stephen Tudor. More writing by Stephen on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.