Swervedriver leader puts legendary shoegazing band back on the road
If you are only passingly familiar with the band Swervedriver, the word that likely comes to mind at the mention of their name is “shoegaze.” If you were unfamiliar with the band Swervedriver, then you would be better off, because you would have no preconceptions. In either case, you’ve likely never heard of Adam Franklin, the band’s singer, and principal guitarist and songwriter.
Swervedriver started in Oxford, England, in the Late 1980s, the product of two friends, Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge. They were signed to Creation Records in 1989 after they gave a tape to Ride’s Mark Gardener, who then passed it to Alan McGee of Creation. Between 1991 and 1998, Swervedriver released 4 albums: Raise, Mezcal Head, Ejector Seat Reservation, and 99th Dream. Creation dissolved while the band were touring on Ejector Seat, so it received minimal promotion. 99th Dream was released on an indie label, again with minimal promotion. Between 2001 and 2013, Adam Franklin released 2 albums under the band name Toshack Highway, as well as 4 “solo” albums. In 2008, in the midst of Franklin’s solo releases, Swervedriver reunited at Coachella, and subsequently toured. In 2009, Franklin, along with Interpol drummer Sam Fogarino, cut the album A.M. under the moniker Magnetic Morning. Finally, in 2015, Swervedriver came out with their latest album, I Wasn’t Born to Lose You. Reports are that the band are working on a new release as of this writing.
And that catches everyone up.
Obviously, Adam Franklin is a prolific writer. Just looking at his official releases, the man has released work at least every 3 years, and that’s in the midst of touring and writing more music. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I have listened to every release Franklin has made. And I’m certainly not going to “cram” the last few releases that I haven’t yet heard from him just so I can write this piece, and there is a reason for that: I LOVE the music of Adam Franklin. Let me explain.
For me, Swervedriver’s writing can be exemplified by a lyric from the title track to their 1998 album, 99th Dream: “Architecture, nature, alcohol/Space travel rock and roll.” Their debut album, 1991’s Raise, is a dense pastiche of whirring, grinding, oscillating affected guitars that alternately hint at, and explicitly mimic both the imagined sounds of space ships, and the very real sensations of shifting gears in a manual transmission muscle car. It’s really no wonder critics easily slid Swervedriver into the same Manila envelope of “Shoegaze,” along with then labelmates Ride, Slowdive, and of course My Bloody Valentine.
But Swervedriver were distinctly different, just as each of those bands was. They had a toughness and a dangerous quality to them that their counterparts in the scene didn’t seem to have. Also, as “outer spacey” as some of their work was and is, it has always emanated from the perspective of a real person. The music of Swervedriver seemed to be more about taking drugs, driving out to the middle of nowhere to see how fast your car could go, do donuts, and stare up at the stars in the hopes of extra-terrestrial contact that may provide some kind of an explanation for the human experience. On the brilliant track, “Sci-Flyer,” Franklin writes,
“They said, ‘Is this who you love?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘But she only has two arms and one smile.’ ‘That’s all right. That’s enough for me by a mile.’ Below the apes Above the angels” [/perfectpullquote]
As Swervedriver continued, their work became a little more concrete. Even amid the haze of guitars and effects, the solid outlines of poetic writing, coupled with pop sensibilities seemed to bleed through more. Their biggest selling album, Mezcal Head, which featured their biggest single, “Duel,” was a logical next step in the band’s progress. Both “Duel,” and “Girl on a Motorbike” were even featured in various versions of the video game Road Rash. This shift in their writing suited Swervedriver for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that, especially prior to the 2009 re-master, it seemed the technology of the recording process couldn’t really handle the thickness and sheer number of instruments on Raise.
The writing became even more cinematic and classically psychedelic, but also more overtly “indie rock” and concise on Swervedriver’s third release, Ejector Seat Reservation. Sound effects, while always buried in their tunes, became more obvious and upfront in the mix. The song, “How Does It Feel to Look Like Candy?,” were it not for the speed, crushing guitars, and addition of horns, could feel like something from the Velvet Underground’s catalog. The track “The Birds” sounds like it could have come from…well…The Byrds.
By their 4th album, 99th Dream, Swervedriver were still moving forward, but with more of a nod to the density and themes that got them noticed in the first place. Songs like the title track, as well as “Up From the Sea,” “Stellar Caprice,” and “Expressway” reinforced the sci-fi and the motor themes that were always present in one way or another in Swervedriver’s music. The record’s closer, “Behind the Scenes of the Sounds & the Times,” has always been, in my mind, their version of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Bold As Love.” After a prolonged instrumental that initially leads one to believe the song is only instrumental, Franklin’s voice steps in with lyrics like,
“Score your provisions, score a smile Hit the road for a million miles Pack your vision and set your dials”
Following his band’s initial demise, Adam Franklin continued onward and inward with a variety of bands and solo projects. All of them are excellent. Some, like Black Horses, explored the more cinematic elements to Franklin’s writing, while some, like Toshack Highway, were more atmospheric and electronic. Still others, like his solo works, allowed us extensive glimpses into Franklin’s achingly beautiful lyrics and subtle playing via acoustic numbers like “Ramonesland,” from Bolts of Melody, with lyrics like:
“I think she’s gonna float off sideways Disappear into the ether It’s another sunny afternoon Boulevard East in the Autumn And you’re living in Leonard Cohen Land When you want to live in Ramonesland”
And now Swervedriver are back. They have been touring and playing their first two albums in their entirety to packed houses. Further, their latest album, I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, is a fitting continuation to the Swervedriver cannon. It is a mature, expansive record, filled with new sounds and a different kind of energy, and lyrics like, “Gas stations as churches/Hold fuel forever, still” from Autodidact, and from I Wonder?,
Behold this rhythmic creation It’s beautiful and true And if the boundaries divide you Take care of what you do”
Each of Adam Franklin’s releases, both with Swervedriver and without, hit me in the same way. Within each project are a couple to a handful of songs that are viscerally undeniable to me and demand that I play them on repeat. These suck me into the deeper cuts of the record that require just a little more time to digest. Eventually, Franklin’s overriding vision for the album begins to emerge, and I am able to feel the essential role each song plays in the whole. This is the stuff “real” albums are made of, and which has largely been lost in today’s “One MP3 at a time” mentality.
Few artists can match the depth and breadth of Franklin’s catalog of songs or consistency of producing excellent work. He has emerged as a guitar player and soundscape creator of virtuosic ability. Franklin is also a poetic songwriter on par with the best, who can morph from “space travel rock and roll” to heartfelt explorations of real emotion without ever losing an ounce of the dangerous quality with which he started.
So, am I going to “cram” those few Adam Franklin-written albums and songs that I have yet to digest? There is no need. This isn’t a review. This is a recommendation. From a friend. So absolutely not. I love the fact that there is still more music from Adam Franklin and Swervedriver waiting out there for me to discover, to actually “hear,” and to take my own sweet time to process. That’s how much I love the music of Adam Franklin and Swervedriver