INTERVIEW: ADAM FRANKLIN on Swervedriver, Side-Projects and SOngwriting

By the time Swervedriver was formed, post-punk had evolved into its variety of forms. Guitar-experiments and a psychedelic-type-of-feel became the crucial components for the artists of the late 80’s-early 90’s. Just like Adam Franklin. Even though Adam’s name has always been associated with Swervedriver, he’s never stopped playing, forming Toshack Highway in the 2000’s and Magnetic Morning, then getting into fully improvisational project – Madam.

In this interview for Joyzine, Dan Volohov speaks with Adam Franklin about the productivity of Swervedriver and improvisational components, about psychedelic feel and lyrics, imagery and performing live, the recently released album Future Ruins and his writing process.

These days, when people speak about Swervedriver, it’s usually said that you were “born” when Alan McGee signed you, but you’d been playing for a while at that point. How do you define this timeline, when the story of Swervedriver has begun?

Well, we had been playing for less than a year at the point that Alan McGee signed us, that much is true. We had been voted ‘Best band in town’ in 1987 or something by Oxford’s gig-going public when we were called Shake Appeal but we had decided we wanted to change our sound – and one of the changes was that I was now the singer – which I was not too crazy about. So we had to get our chops together again and didn’t want to play in Oxford where everybody knew us, and we booked shows on bills in London under assumed names – for one show we were Rollercoaster, for another Junk. Eventually we became Swervedriver and started getting some attention again but what happened in the end was that we had just changed drummers and were only on our third rehearsal with Graham Bonnar when we heard that McGee wanted to sign us. This meant that all of a sudden Graham’s first gig with us was at Liverpool Royal Court opening for the House of Love. So, in a sense I suppose we were ‘reborn’ at least, when McGee signed us.

There were some songs from your early era you haven’t really been playing since then. Especially from the Raise era. How does it feel performing some of that material these days?

When we first played Raise in its entirety there were songs we hadn’t played in a very long time like ‘Pile-Up’ and ‘Feel So Real’, while ‘Lead Me Where You Dare’ had only been performed the one time in the studio and never live. It was a lot of fun figuring how to perform that one and also just great to play all of that material again.

Photograph by Renata Steiner

Listening to your recent LP Future Ruins I was comparing it to your early works. One difference that I noticed was that it’s much more melancholic. What defines the emotional coloring of each record of yours and what affected it in this case?

Future Ruins was written after Brexit and Trump so there was probably enough melancholia in there for three albums to be fair, with a fair amount of anger and defiance also. ‘The Lonely Crowd Fades in the Air’ sounds like ‘melancholy for the masses’, you’re right but that chorus is very uplifting. Darker music can be very exhilarating and uplifting of course – see Joy Division and Leonard Cohen.

In your interviews, you usually refer to that Raise period as the most prolific one – together with Mezcal Head. At the same time, just like with any records of yours, these two are separated by two years of silence. Was it the prolific working process in a sense of songwriting or something else?

The period from ’90-’94 or so was the most prolific period for us (as reflected by the B-Sides collections Honey Heavens Above and Youth at the Summit available here: The two-year gap between Raise and Mezcal Head was just because we were touring. In the ’60s some bands released two albums a year, by the ’70s it was still very much one a year but by the ’90s two-year album cycles became commonplace. These days it seems more like four. There’s no point in people getting impatient with Kevin Shields though! And fuck the guy from Spotify by the way, for telling artists they need to ‘up their content’. Not everything is a mass-produced commodity. 

When you find something new to work with, it’s always challenging to incorporate something new to the things you’re familiar with and known for. What helps you in this process?

Yeah, if there’s some new gadget or piece of music equipment that’s fun to play around with it’ll always get incorporated. One thing that has always constantly been evolving is the pedals we use onstage so if you heard ‘Rave Down’ live in 1991 and there was a tremolo part, that might have become a phaser part by 1998 and could be a stuttering delay today. Some parts can be more fluid that way but you wouldn’t want to mess with the distortion/wah’s at the beginning of ‘Sci Flyer’ for example.

Being one of the innovators of guitar-music in the 90’s, you’ve never been creating compositional structures on the basis of sound-layers. In this sense, Swervedriver has always been a rock band. What helped you to keep this organic interaction within all the band-members taking into account your focus on guitar experiments? 

I think I know what you’re saying. If we’re talking within the confines of the genre we are often associated with, we’ve never released anything as weightless as To Here Knows When by My Bloody Valentine but then who has? We have generally always tended towards a rocking rhythm section it’s true and if you walked into the recording studio control room and took the drums and bass out of the mix it would sound quite different of course, and then you mix out the main guitars – well that’s the whole band mixed out but there will still be more ambient sounds coming from other guitars lurking in corners and instruments/pedals whirring around being quite abstract and experimental. But those main guitars we mixed out, they’re actually very layered, tightly constructed parts too. We’re a rock band but we were always fascinated by the production on the pop singles we bought in the ’70s and listened out for overdubs and things going on in Slade/T.Rex/Clash/Blondie singles or whatever and that’s always been our approach in the studio. 

At the beginning of your career, you were attracted by the psychedelic element of your creativity, exploring different forms of guitar music, especially with Mezcal Head. These days, you seem to be more attracted to textures and sound-landscapes. Is this due to changes in your approach\writing process or have the proportions or elements in your music evolved?

I don’t know that our approach has changed much since 1992 apart from technological advances. Well I guess the songs are slower but then hey, we move around slower too so we actually have perfect inner speed! All those early recordings have textures and soundscapes going on as part of the overall structure such as the sitar samples that were running through a Marshall amp on ‘Never Lose That Feeling’ or church bells on ‘Duress’ and the new recordings are much the same. We always saw recording music as not just capturing the live band but messing around and having fun with stuff on top too.

While asking this question, I was thinking that over that particular time – in mid-late ’80s-early ’90s, lots of guitarists had established themselves playing a crucial role for British guitar music. From Kevin Shields to Stephen Lawrie, Noel Gallagher and you. And it’s very funny – none of you used to observe psychedelic-rock-movement, experimenting with psychedelic elements within your play. What, in your opinion, pushed this generation of guitarists to put the bar higher and experiment as much as possible?

I’m not sure how many connections might run though all those Creation artists but I will say that many of the artists on the label were born in the ’60s and came from a generation that had grown up with ’70s glam and punk and then some of us delved back into ’60s psychedelia and garage punk and then that inspiration coupled with advances in music technology at the time, such as certain guitar pedals, drum machines etc, helped create a new kind of sound that used those influences as a springboard and in a way the ’90s really began around 1987/88.

What usually defines the combination of instrument and pedals you’d use?

Anything goes. It’s whatever the song requires.

Having another guitarist in the band, like Jimmy with whom you’d been playing with long before Swervedriver started, what keeps your interplay on the same level? 

Well there’s certainly a familiarity with each other’s styles after all this time, for sure. I think we know each other’s styles well enough to be able to write with each other’s style in mind or if we’re just jamming, we sort of know where the other might go.

I was listening to ‘Setting Sun’ and thinking that a part of your sound-formula is the development of one musical motive without too many shifts in the parts – like some artists combine loud and quiet elements, solo-parts etc. But how do you usually reach that whole spectrum of emotions that are present in your songwriting, being attached to some particular musical themes? 

I like ‘Setting Sun’ as it’s just a number of interlocking musical parts going round in their own cycles but some appear at unexpected bars and at one point in the cycle there’s a tonal clash that’s slightly jarring, but the song is over before you’ve properly had time to take it all in so you have to put in on again. That’s why it’s good to ‘leave ‘em wanting more’ sometimes. Some songs of ours basically sit on two or three chords – or one in the case of ‘Homeless Homecoming’ – and sometimes we have songs with tons of insane chord changes like ‘Electric 77’. It’s good to introduce that space from time to time, give everyone a breather.

Recently, answering questions from your fans, you said that ‘Everybody’s Going Somewhere & No-One’s Going Anywhere’ was written in a real-life situation. At the same time, you have a lot of quite abstract songs like ‘Blowing Cool’ and ‘Wrong Treats’. Are you a writer who is strictly attached to writing about what’s going around you? 

I possibly said “written about real life situations”. The title ‘Everybody’s Going Somewhere & No-One’s Going Anywhere’ came to me at an airport in Portugal when we were returning home after a show. People were running around at the airport, like they always do, and my state of mind at the time was “hey, just chill out everybody!” Anyway I liked the turn of phrase and the theme of the song came to be about lifestyle choices, I suppose. 

The lyrics to ‘Wrong Treats’ are phonetic, because when the song was first written I just sang a melody with no actual words to find out which vowel sounds came naturally and worked better. Therefore, the final lyric that I wrote later, was written by listening to what I heard and sort of reverse-engineering some meaning out of the words and a kind of abstract meaning emerged from that, like all the stuff about “the back streets by the sea” and curfews. It always makes me think of Brighton for that reason. ‘Everybody’s Going’ makes me think of East Anglia actually but ‘Blowing Cool’ is definitely LA.

For some reasons, it’s always seems to be that your lyrical character\characters are looking for something – like in ‘Mary Winter’ or ‘Girl On A Motorbike’. Does this make sense in general and with these particular songs? 

It sounds highly likely actually! I imagine the character in ‘Mary Winter’ to be an astronaut who is stuck in outer space and wants to be back on Earth and would kill to simply hear the sound of birdsong or feel the breeze again. ‘Girl On A Motorbike’ came from news stories about the rise of fascism at the time but the song title kind of shrouds that and makes it sound like another fun song about vehicles. 

When you started putting I Wasn’t Born to Lose You together, Swervedriver got back together after a significant pause in creativity. But you, Adam, didn’t stop playing while the band broke up – you’ve been releasing solo-records as well as releases by Toshack Highway and Magnetic Morning. How did it feel to get together as Swervedriver and how much self-searching was involved in what you’ve been doing at that time with this band?

It was good because at first, as you say, we got back together and didn’t record anything new even though I had continued to release records as Bolts of Melody etc. We couldn’t have started writing and recording again straight away when we first got back together but we got into the mindset after a time. It was Jimmy and Steve really pushing for us to record a new album and I was like fuck yeah, let’s do it. It was important to come back with our first album in 17 years and for it to first of all not suck, and then secondly for it to in fact be great, and the hard work paid off for me because it’s probably my favourite record of ours. 

By the time you got back as Swervedriver, lots of musical festival had appeared. You’ve been playing Coachella and SXSW quite regularly. How do you feel playing bigger places, where the atmosphere is less close in comparison with clubs and where you may be less connected with the listeners?

I’ve always preferred playing on the second stages at festivals I think. A big stage outside in the middle of the afternoon at a festival can sometimes be exhilarating but it can also be a bit like what I imagine playing football at Wembley Stadium to be like. It can be a bit surreal when all the bands are getting rushed on and off the stage and everything sounds weird. Much better for your festival set to be around sundown in a tent.

As the members of Swervedriver you’ve always referred to an improvisational component as something extra-important for you. Around 2019 you started contributing to Madam – a fully-improvisational London-based project. How has getting into an improvisational set-up affected your songwriting? 

Yes, in 2019 myself and Sukie Smith (vocal) and Sarah Gill (cello) performed an improvised set at the Grand Ballroom of the Trafalgar Tavern on the banks of the River Thames in London which was spoken word, electric guitar and cello and that was the first time I had ever done a fully improvised performance like that. (available in three parts here) There are many sections of Swervedriver sets where you can improvise within a structure but this was really quite seat of the pants and let’s just see what happens. I don’t think we even had one musical motif worked out, we just started up and weaved around Sukie’s voice and performance – it was quite intuitive. 

Find out more about Swervedriver on their official website.

Interview by Dan Volohov
Header Photograph by Steve Gullick

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