Swervedriver Gazes Back
Even to Anglophile indie-nistas, the English foursome Swervedriver might be an opaque, peripheral memory. Throughout the ’90s, they made music more dynamic and sonically reckless than their “shoegazer” descriptive suggested, yet avoided the chest-beating bombast of hard rock and were too, well, British to be labeled “grunge.” Though critically caressed, credible and influential (impacting everyone from Radiohead to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), Swervedriver never made camp in the mainstream.
Belying their background in the bookish, bike-friendly university city of Oxford (where Supergrass, Ride and Radiohead were contemporaries), Swervedriver created cinematic songs littered with Tarantino-tinted imagery and an open-road obsession implied by titles like “Son of Mustang Ford,” “The Hitcher” and “Juggernaut Rides” (also the name of a 2005 double-CD retrospective). Influenced as much by the Stooges and Dinosaur Jr. as My Bloody Valentine and the Beatles, they were differently perceived and better received Stateside than in the U.K. At home, they were a hip-to-know cult band lumped in with the floppy-fringed likes of Slowdive and Chapterhouse; across the pond they played the big stages with the musclebound Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins.
“There has to be some reason why certain bands do better in certain territories,” mulls vocalist/guitarist Adam Franklin. “With a lot of the bands that we were really feeding off at the time — Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr. — somehow we had this yearning, perhaps this ‘American yearning.’ If you’re into rock & roll, it’s a country you’re always eager to go to.
“Just the idea of driving across the desert was always quite an intriguing thing,” Franklin continues, “although when we finally did get to drive across Arizona in a tour bus, we put on a CD of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express... kind of absurd! By the time we were on our second and third albums [1993’s Mezcal Head and 1995’s Ejector Seat Reservation], we were more, kind of, closer to home in our aspirations.”
Despite four albums of gorgeously gritty decadence and wistful, guitar-embroidered escapism, constant label dramas (Creation Records dropped the band a week after releasing Ejector Seat Reservation), lineup changes and the sudden explosion of a “Cool Britannia” movement (i.e., Oasis) condemned Swervedriver to perpetual “almost was” status. By 1999, the frustrations had sidelined the band — until last September, when that most Brit of board meetings, a chat at the pub, reanimated them.
“We just thought initially, ‘Let’s go out and play and see how it goes,’?” says Franklin, admitting that the rapturously received re-formings of the Pixies and the Stooges stoked his enthusiasm. “When we got together in the first place, it was never in any way a career option, and there was never particularly any plan for world domination — and I guess that’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
Swervedriver — completed by Franklin’s fellow founding band member, guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Hartridge, drummer Jez Hindmarsh and bassist Steve George (who joined in ’93 and ’94, respectively) — aren’t writing, let alone recording, new material.
“There’s enough of a back catalog to be concentrating on,” Franklin, now shorn of his once-signature dreadlocks, asserts. “But, also, we definitely thought that there’s a number of really cool songs we never played live, or barely ever, so it would be good for us to throw some of those in and also [good for] those people who did see us 10 years ago, because they’d be hearing songs they didn’t hear before.”
Tunes like “Why Say Yeah” (a split indie 7-inch with Sophia in 1996) and the aforementioned “The Hitcher” (which failed to make the cut for Mezcal Head), as well as B-sides recorded by Swervedriver’s early lineup but never performed by the later incarnation, may get aired.
“I think we always set things up in a spontaneous way anyway rather than being the sort of band that just counts in 1-2-3-4 and does a sort of rote version of the song,” Franklin concludes.
Perhaps that’s why the accountants who control what’s sold as rock & roll never could quite steer Swervedriver.
Swervedriver play at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theater on Sat., May 31.
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