The Thin Line Between Optimism and Pessimism
An exclusive exchange with Adam Franklin on the return of Swervedriver
Thirty years ago, Swervedriver roared out of Oxford, England, brandishing loud guitars, copious effects pedals and an obsession with travel, whether by car or rocketship.
As the only member of the shoegazing brigade who could credibly note both Cocteau Twins and the Stooges as influences, the quartet – led then, as now, by singer/guitarist Adam Franklin and co-axe wrangler Jimmy Hartridge – propelled itself through sweet melodic wisps soaked in oft-brutal amplifier abuse, an arsenic-soaked candy crush that resulted in the classic firebreathers Raise (1991) and Mezcal Head (1993). Like a lot of guitar bands of their post-psych era, Swervedriver eventually let their pop instincts take the light, winding down the first half of their career with the less muscular, more graceful Ejector Seat Reservation (1995) and 99th Dream (1998). The band then bowed out for a decade, with Franklin as the most active ex-member thanks to popwise outfits Toshack Highway, Magnetic Morning and Bolts of Melody.
Ahead of the “Dreampop Bands Reunited” curve that took hold a couple of years later, Swervedriver reconvened in 2008, eventually releasing 2015’s comeback I Wasn’t Born to Lose You.
“We never actually announced that we had split,” Adam Franklin notes via e-mail. “Our band just sort of broke up because we were done with it, and then got back together because we were excited by it. After a while we found ourselves coming up with new ideas and we wanted to write and play new songs rather than just playing older stuff.”
This year brings Future Ruins, a potent brew of shimmering pop and rugged rock that gives equal time to swoon and swagger. The stimulative sonics wrap themselves around lyrics that look askance at the current state of world affairs – tracks like “Future Ruins,” “Drone Lover” and “The Lonely Crowd Fades in the Air” flirt with pessimism, even despair.
“I don’t think it’s pessimistic,” dissents Franklin. “I think it’s quite funny in places. I mean, we have to be realistic, but we have to laugh at the same time. In the end I think it’s quite optimistic, but it can be double-edged, like the line ‘we’re all gonna get there in the end, eventually,’ which you can read either way.”
Franklin’s assertion is backed up by the band’s longtime theme of travel, which indicates a consistent forward movement that implies optimism in its refusal to stand still or move backward. The line between optimism and pessimism for this album blurs into near-oblivion.
“There’s always been a negative/positive thing going on with our music, going all the way back to our first EPs in 1990, like the title ‘Never Lose That Feeling/Never Learn’. There’s this sort of extroverted, fun, fast-driving, space travel, sci-fi thing on one side and this kind of melancholy on the flip side, like writing a song about a break-up and calling it ‘Juggernaut Rides’.” There’s also the inherent exhilaration of loud guitars and brawny riffs that belies even the most miserable lyric. Does rock automatically kick against the pricks? “It certainly can do,” says Franklin. “Joy Division records are massively uplifting. ‘I Believe’ by Buzzcocks is a whole fun ball of confusion. I just think that if an album, a song or piece of art, whatever it is, is reflecting the pessimism of the times, then it can only be as depressing as the times themselves are. You have to tune in and out. I think that artists singing or performing about the bad things in life is one of the things that make life better and more bearable.”
As strong and vital as anything in its catalog, Future Ruins testifies to Swervedriver’s commitment to being a creative, working rock band, rather than a vehicle for nostalgia. Not that the group isn’t willing to indulge its fanbase – witness the recent tour which found Swervedriver steamrolling its audience with Raise and Mezcal Head in their entirety. Unsurprisingly, writing new tunes that keep the band excited without abandoning the stuff that keeps the old guard returning for every tour is the trick. “Neither of those has been that difficult,” says Franklin. “The nostalgia show might be a bit more lucrative than a regular show. But it’s not enough to keep playing the old songs forever, so it doesn’t really interest us that much, even though we did very much enjoy playing those albums. Coming up with new material hasn’t been a problem so far – it was more a problem of which songs weren’t going to end up on the album. There’s always a narrative of ‘how does their new material compare with their old material,’ which is completely separate from what we’ve been doing, because you don’t sit around in a studio dissecting how the songs compare to older ones – you just do what feels natural. You have to have an instinct for what your audience wants to hear, but also do what the hell you want!”
All this talk of optimism, misery, current events and keeping on keeping on begs the obvious question for any veteran band from the U.K.: how will Swervedriver be affected by Brexit? “It’s certainly affected our vocabularies, having to use that ridiculous word!” laughs Franklin. “We haven’t reached any particular endgame there yet – perhaps it won’t happen. I think that if something does happen, then we should probably embrace our heritage and return to being druids, pagans and witches, dancing around ancient stone circles in the middle of the night completely naked, chanting incantations and worshipping sun gods. There’ll be no car industry either, so we’ll all have to drive around in old bangers from the 70s. It could be great!”
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