SWITCHBLADE SYMPHONY: AN EERIE death-meditation festooned with autumnal reveries and songs of the hemlock? Not quite. While the latest incarnation of gothic bands is known as “dark wave,” the San Francisco duo freely admit they're merely exploiting the surface of that scene — it's a means, not an end.
“I really don't know why we keep getting called a goth band,” says bubbly singer Tina Root. “People assume we're into Wicca and all that. Our music is dark, but I think we could appeal to more than just gothic people.” With combined album sales of around 75,000, the band's SoundScan figures bear out Root's hunch. Moreover, Switchblade has been selling out shows regularly (New York's Irving Plaza just a few weeks ago), making money on tour rather than losing it, and moving the merch like crazy — not bad for a little indie combo muddling along primarily on word of mouth.
Whatever kind of label you slap onto their sound, Switchblade's music isn't nearly as menacing as the band insists it is. While token Transylvanian flourishes such as harpsichord-trickle, echoing wails and knelling bells are scattered throughout the band's discography, their imminent release, The Three Calamities (Cleopatra), ain't no gloom-tune cycle. Witness the sassy brass squawks with drums
that boom 'n' bap like a warehouse party in “Wicked,” or how throughout “Naked Birthday” the standard-issue keyboard mush you'd expect is leavened with the effervescent chime and toot of toy piano and calliope. Another sucker punch is the pulsing, trip-hoppy bass line snaking through “Anmorata,” kicking a hook that'll be with you for days.
The real money shot, though, is the classically trained voice of Root, who doesn't sing so much as shape icy baroque conceits with her powerful, super-controlled lungs.
“I wanted to be in Madame Butterfly,” she enthuses. “I loved opera, but it just didn't rock. I wanted to take that classical-music style of voice but also have a heavy beat and put something behind that and cut it up with a blade.”
Switchblade's eclectic debut album, Serpentine Gallery, set them somewhat apart from the Nosferatu and Morticia Addams look-alikes making '80s-esque synth-pop, but the band advanced light-years with 1997's Bread and Jam for Frances. Unfortunately, purist fans were put off by that album's sprinkling of turntable shredding, phat backbeat and other urban touches from hip-hop producer Mark V as not-so-subtle attempts at contemporizing their sound for the electronica crowd.
“I don't know,” sighs Susan Wallace, the songwriting half of the twosome. “We just do what we do. If I can make something dark and beautiful, I'm not thinking about whether people will like it or not. But it's important to connect with the audience. I can't handle ugliness at shows.”
Lyrically speaking, Switchblade's records are fraught with metamorphosis tropes and themes of transcendence. “Cocoon,” from Serpentine Gallery, is a rebirth song whose wistful chorus, “She is flying/Soaring through the air up there,” is just the tip of the psychic iceberg. Bringing da funk in the Calamities track “Therapy,” Root warns, “You better take a stand/And find out who you are.”
“This album was the most cathartic for us,” says Wallace. “It's like you'll never change unless you learn to master fear, anger, pain.” That kind of reality check is hardly standard fare in a genre known for its insular melodrama and sonic melancholy. Steeped in images of children, stars, clowns and nursery rhymes, Root and Wallace are intent on clawing their way out of the dark, not drowning themselves in it. But could all this transformation business be just a projected guilt trip over a refusal to grow up?
“That's something I'm still exploring,” says Root. “It's possible, because childhood is difficult. Maybe I am like a child. When I write songs, I'm fascinated by the idea of a child's world coming into contact with the realities of the adult one.”
BATHED IN THE COOL BLUE LIGHTS OF the Palace during a performance last year, Wallace was like the Wizard behind the curtain as she tweaked and controlled loops amid decks, DATs and hard drives. If she can't handle ugliness at shows, her partner doesn't even know it exists. Swaying narcotically back and forth with the mike, as if underwater, Root the puckish sprite blew kisses to the hardened hordes below. When one crabapple holler-
ed “Fuck you!” she giggled, considered the strange words, then bounced back with a singsongy “fuck you” as if she were a newly arrived space alien learning to communicate by imitating the grunts of Earthlings.
Next to me, a ghastly kid in full pancake makeup cracked a smile: “She's the happiest evil person I've ever seen.”