Built to Swill

The last time the band Swillmerchants was interviewed by the Advocate (“Selling Swill,” April 30, 2009), it was a pretty contentious affair. Then-contributor Rebecca Everett followed the rockers back to their lair from a prearranged interview at a local bar to listen to their last album, The Mint Hotel, and found herself immersed in a circus of drunken antics and half-slurred rock ‘n’ roll bravado that nearly got her knocked off her chair in the midst of a barbarous wrestling match.

A dutiful reporter (and one not easily fazed), Everett related the scene as she experienced it, taking it all with a grain of salt and filing a piece that sparked a hurricane of online comments that likely holds the Advocate website record for the largest collection of commentary contributed by the public. Comments ranged from the astute and engaged to sheer sophomoric idiocy, often involving hilarious name-calling and the occasional attempt at self-promotion by competing bands. Would-be online rock critics felt that the attention given the Swills was unmerited and/or that Everett’s portrayal of them was hyperbolic or inaccurate.

The band itself has taken it all in stride. Lead singer Rich Tardy, who by his own account was clearly wasted at the time of the interview and spewing chest-thumping verbal diarrhea, could only laugh at the tempest in a teapot the article managed to whip up. This time around, appearing relatively sober and just off training for a five-mile obstacle course/mud race the next day, Tardy recalled the hullaballoo with a fond sense of humor, recounting the flurry of criticisms with a smile and a chuckle.

“Wait, what was it?—‘It’s like NASCAR, except with giant sunglasses and less class’,” he says, quoting one of the more colorful critiques of his typically raucous on-stage persona. “That was hilarious.”

Both Tardy and bassist John St. Onge work for Tully O’Reilly’s in downtown Northampton, Tardy as a bartender and St. Onge as the primary booker for The Elevens next door, so that was where we met to talk about their latest shenanigans. These two form the core of Swillmerchants, having kept the band alive since 2006 through multiple lineups, starting with drummer Anthony Minalga (who also plays on the new album), and evolving from a group that basically just learned and played their tunes into more of a hive-mind that now includes two other guitarist/keyboardist/programmers, Rob Driscoll and Thom Lopes.

Both new-ish members have played equally productive parts in the new version of the band, and Lopes, who had just been officially included at the time of this interview, seemed psyched to be a part of it, even if efforts to support the new record had to be put on hold until he returns from a short trip to Portugal.

“Thom was a huge breath of fresh air,” says Tardy of the considerably younger new member. “He was making up parts to these songs all along. By the time we were halfway through the studio recording, he was just in the band. Plus, we’re kind of like Menudo—every time we have a new incarnation, we have to bring in a younger guy. Rob [the last “new” guy] is getting a little long in the tooth, so we were like, ‘Rob, you got any young friends?’”

The new album, which is called I Don’t Remember the World, features a vintage photo of Fritz Von Erich (a legendary figure in professional wrestling and father of six sons) on the cover. Tardy says they had the title for the album for two and half years before they had any songs, and also that they’re very happy that they took their time recording an album this time around; the band (and many of its fans) felt that The Mint Hotel may have suffered from a rushed production schedule.

“When we first did our little EP back in ’06 or so, Zeuss [at Planet Z studios in Hadley] squeezed us in and we did four songs in one day,” says Tardy. “Then we went and did the full-length at Zing, which, even though I loved… a lot of people seemed to like the more raw sound of the demo better.”

“[The Mint Hotel] was more polished,” St. Onge adds, “which isn’t necessarily us.”

I Don’t Remember the World started with rough recordings on Rob’s computer. “Once we had a mass of music,” says St. Onge, “we went back to do drums with Zeuss at Planet Z, who’s just legendary for drum tones. After that we took it to Mike Stitsinger [also of the band Space Captain] at the Autumn Den in Northampton to do the rest of the music and the mixing. The biggest difference on this CD is that it really had time to breathe. We actually wrote the beats, then taught them to the drummer. We could write parts and just take them to Mike when we were ready. We really just took our time a lot more this time around, and I think it came out much better. There was no time pressure.”

“It was a really relaxed summer of recording,” Tardy recalls. “These guys would go in, whenever, and record the music, and I could just get up and ride my bike to the studio and start doing vocals. We go way back with Mike, and we could just shoot over any time, all summer. It was great.”

Before this summer, however, things were a little stalled for Swillmerchants. With all this breathing room, the creative process took a while to get off the ground. There was some perception within the band that life had drifted away from its musical mission, or that the song mill was a bit backed up, and that maybe that was the real reason for their not having made another record yet.

“It was hard, for me, to get this done,” says St. Onge. “Sometimes, even when you’re stuck for like a six-month period and you’ve sort of lost any of the identity you thought you had, you’re still almost clinging to [the fact that] you can make this music. Then you listen back and you go, ‘It’s genuine enough.’”

Tardy also ‘fesses up to some writer’s block, but acknowledges that sometimes it’s worth being a little creatively constipated because the reward becomes that much more of an “Aha!” moment. After initially feeling that writing material for a new album was “almost like a chore,” and even getting to a point where the band, at practice, asked themselves, “Are we done or what?”, inspiration struck in the form of what may encapsulate Swillmerchants’ finest quality: motivational self-taunting.

“I wrote this song, which is on the new album, called ‘Zero Miles Away,’” he says, “which was basically just me being pissed off that we all lived pretty much right around the corner from one another and yet, still, nothing was happening. After that, the songs just started coming one after the other, but that one’s still my favorite song on the album.”

The other band members nod in agreement, all expressing recollections of a similar feeling of shared frustration that, fortunately, reached a snapping point at around the same time, resulting in a flood of mutual productivity.

“The main advantage of having waited for the writer’s block to break was that everything that got recorded was natural, not forced,” says St. Onge, “There was no ‘What are we doing next? Are we going to tour? Can we get this on the radio? Why are we doing this?’ It didn’t matter. We just decided that we were going to make this record sound the way we wanted to, and there was nothing beyond that. There were times when it was all Rob, times when it was all me—it didn’t matter. Whoever was coming up with stuff that was moving us, that’s what went onto the record.”

The Swills are nothing if not a pragmatic unit. When I ask, “What’s the coolest piece of equipment you guys own?” Tardy immediately responds, “Thom.” The band laughs, Thom included. When I ask what the advantages of Thom are, they begin listing them: “The smile, the hair, the girls.”

They also own an Emu MoPhat synthesizer that they call “the purple box,” which is awarded the title of second-coolest piece of equipment. After some discussion, however, it’s agreed that perhaps some of the best sounds and effects they’ve used were byproducts of basement genius supplied by Driscoll.

“Rob built this telephone-microphone thing that we used for, you know, like those walkie-talkie-type vocals,” says Tardy. “It sounds way better than any of the computer-simulated versions of the same thing.”

We wrap up the interview with talk of football, scab referees and comments from passing Patriots fans. Tardy is an ardent Bears fan, and his team could well be in Super Bowl contention this season. Considering this and something like a newfound humility on the singer’s part, plus apparent efforts to foster self-discipline and health (and even despite some likely lapses into his former incarnation as a pure rock buffoon), this might well be his year.

“This whole summer of recording has just made me totally come back to believing in the idea that this is what I love and what I want to do,” he says, summing it all up. “And I’m really, really psyched to be doing it with all these guys.”

“It’s reinforced what the band was about from the beginning,” St. Onge adds, “which is being open, honest and genuine with what you’re writing, and really just focusing on putting the music on the disc that you want to hear.”

The other band members, Driscoll and Lopes, who’ve been quiet as church mice for most of the time, also raise their glasses in camaraderie and nod their assent. Tardy (still anything but shy or under-spoken) also puts in a word for the silent partners.

“Rob had a quote once that I loved,” says Tardy. “‘I leave all the words and the quotes to you. I’m just the guy with the beard who makes music.’ Of course, sometimes he shaves the beard… .”

“Yup,” Rob says with a smile and a nod. “I can’t always be Rick Rubin.”•

Swillmerchants host a CD release party along with Outer Stylie, Strobe Horse, The Prodigal Kings and Chainwave on Nov. 3. 8 p.m., The Elevens, 140 Pleasant St., Northampton, (413) 586-9155, swillmerchants.bandcamp.com.

Author: Tom Sturm

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