Fans of Harry Nilsson know that there is only one genre under which his varied catalog can be properly filed: the “Harry Nilsson” genre. Take, for example, his 1971 album Son of Schmilsson: He jumps from Christmas song to droning love story to McCartney-esque pop number to a theatrical number about a spaceman. Nilsson’s bemusing and eclectic tendencies warrant their own category.
The same can be said of Minnesota-born Richard Swift. Like Nilsson, Swift glides fluidly among divergent styles, groups together bold tunes like a clothing designer mixing polka dots and stripes. The evidence is everywhere, from his instrumental album Music From the Films of R/Swift (released under the moniker Instruments of Science and Technology) to his recent Richard Swift as Onasis double EP and his newest, the five-song Ground Trouble Jaw.
Released as a free download in August, Ground Trouble Jaw opens with “Would You,” an airy, warm tune that suggests the Penguins’ doo-wop classic “Earth Angel” — kind of like the Mothers of Invention on their 1968 album Cruising With Ruben & the Jets. Swift continues this mood on the second track, “Lady Luck,” but the tone shifts with the intro of “The Bully,” a funny, monotone spoken-word song in the style of Nilsson’s ironic love song “Joy” or the Modern Lovers’ “I’m Straight.” The final two tracks, “The Original Thought” and “A Song for Milton Feher” (about the famed dance instructor and relaxation coach), channel White Album joviality and Nilsson quirkiness. Swift spoke with L.A. Weekly recently, via telephone from his Oregon home.
L.A. Weekly:Was there a strategic purpose, or a goal, in releasing Ground Trouble Jawfor free?
Richard Swift: I think it was void of either of those two things. I was trying to get around the business of releasing a record. Dressed Up for the Letdown [released February 2007] was finished about a year and a half before it was even released because I was going through negotiations with Polydor the whole time, and I grew so tired of waiting around for all these records to be released, you know? Polydor was this major-label situation, always asking you to change stuff on your records, which I was definitely uncomfortable with. I feel really fortunate I was able to get out of my contract with Polydor and have Secretly Canadian put out my records. It made me feel happy about making music again.
With the digital release, I was just trying to break ... not the mold with the industry, but to break my mold, to try to do something exciting and last-minute, and not have this big record buildup, like [in a deep, movie-trailer-guy voice] “You just wait until February ’08, when this record drops, it’s gonna change your world.”
There’s something really disarming about just being able to say, “Oh, hey, I’m putting out a record tomorrow.” It deflates the romance of rock & roll, which I appreciate because I’m not a big rock & roll romantic.
I find myself missing the accompanying artwork with this EP. The visual material with your other records is so interesting.
I do miss that. I mainly just listen to LPs, so you’ve always got this 12-inch object to look at; but there are the Ground Trouble Jaw films, and I do feel like the films are the moving artwork for the EP. Maybe it’s goofy of me to put out footage of me fucking around with a theremin and drinking beer with my buddies, but it’s also somewhat therapeutic — there’s a fondness there. The cover for the new Swift record, which will be titled The Atlantic Ocean, is going to be the most involved album artwork that [video artist] Lance [Troxel] and I have ever done.
One of the tracks on GTJ is “A Song for Milton Feher.” I’m wondering about your connection to him, because my mother was listening to that relaxation record of his while she was going through menopause. Some of his quotes are really nice and meditative: “Feel yourself pressed into the earth,” “Feel the earth holding you up,” “Make contact with the ground.”
Strangely enough, Milton’s a friend of mine. He’s 96, 97 years old. He is genuinely one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever been able to hang out with. How we met is phenomenal. You can never write this kind of shit. After my father heard the first record I ever made in L.A., he’s this Spanish guy, and he said [with a Spanish accent], “Oh, Richard, this sounds like you’re walking without trying too hard.” And I was, like, “Well, that makes sense, because I’m going to name the record Walking Without Effort.” Then, probably a week after I finished Walking Without Effort, I was doing my regular thing, flipping through record bins, and I came across this Milton Feher album, Relaxing Body and Mind (1962). I turned it over to look at the back, and one of the audio chapters was titled “Walking Without Effort,” and I was, like, “What!” So I bought the record, took it home, and about a month after that, I started having a dark period of panic attacks. So I started listening to that record in a different light, hoping it would help me to relax my broken mind.
I wanted to sample Milton’s voice for an Instruments of Science and Technology track, so I had to call him to clear the rights for that, and we started talking quite a bit, and we’ve been chatting on the phone ever since. And just this last year, we finally met up. He lives in New York, and I was there recording with Mark Ronson, so before the session started, I was, like, “Oh, I gotta call Milton and let him know I’m here.” Turned out I was staying two blocks away from his apartment! So we met, and I had about a six-to-seven-hour session with him. I can’t begin to explain how a connection like that works. It seemed life-altering just to be able to talk to him regularly, but to be able to spend a considerable amount of time together. ... If you wrote that in a movie, no one would ever imagine that it could be true.
The short films Swift made to document the recording process for Ground Trouble Jaw at the Wilco loft, along with various other eccentricities, can be viewed on his Web site, www.richardswift.us. Swift opens for Stereolab at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theater on Thurs., Oct. 23.
For further reading, check out the extended version of Rena Kosnett's interview with Swift.