Swallows releasing rootsy new album Witching & Divining at Amsterdam Bar on Saturday night
Since releasing the 2010 EP Clear Sky Relapse, Swallows has honed it's live act, allowing new members to settle in while evolving into a complex combination of American roots and Old World folk music.
Their new LP, Witching & Divining, captures them like a firefly trapped in a jar. Each song is seeped in folklore, feeling at times like an interpretation of John Lomax's legendary field recordings. Throughout the album, the band introduces innovative percussion--featuring a metal pipe and a trashcan--as well as drawing on traditional instruments from around the world, including two cellos and a marimba.
The result is alternately reminiscent of Tom Waits and of contemporary revivalists Mumford & Sons, while retaining a dense, organic sound entirely unique to Swallows.
Gimme Noise visited their practice space this week for a chat while the band was preparing for their album release show this Saturday at the Amsterdam Bar.
Gimme Noise: How did a metal pipe and a trashcan become part of the band's sound?
Jeff Crandall: Most of these songs were really short pieces in the beginning. "Long Long Shadow" clocks in at five minutes now, but it started as a minute-long song. I was thinking of making it like a field recording, that kind of approach and Mike and I planned to record them with found-object percussion.
I didn't expect it to go in the direction it did with the band. We were practicing it when Aaron came up with his part, and I thought, "That's amazing! I guess we're going somewhere else with this."
It's like a band interpreting a song that was written for an entirely different purpose. I thought about making up a person who wrote all of the songs, and we're just the performers.
Mike Nordby: Some of that comes from Jeff's idea of "borrowed" music and starting with field recordings. From there we got the inspiration for using found objects. We started out looking for textural type of stuff: Sandpaper, buckets, glass. Ornamentation. Random sounds you might hear in the world that add interest.
Tyson [Allison] came in with this suitcase. He had shakers and this broken-down marimba, and an African box drum.
"The Winnowing" sounds like a song from Rain Dogs.
JC: I'm sure I have absorbed a lot of Tom Waits' music. I never sat down to write a Tom Waits song, but I really like the instrumentation and his approach to music, the atypical way rhythm is broken down.
We decided for a few songs - "The Winnowing" and "Walk Down" - not to use a full kit. Let's approach them differently. Justin used floor toms, and we experimented with other things.
JC: We all took it on as a project to write songs. So Tyson wrote a song on Clear Sky Relapse, and Aaron has a song on there. We wrote a lot of material. These songs are on an album because they're the ones we got as far as arranging, and had been playing.
It started under this idea we called "covert transmissions to the elementals." The idea was that there was always going to be some connection to the four elements or some kind of elemental spirit. That's why you see air, fire, water, earth. There's pagan references and there's Christian references.
Aaron Kerr: we weren't too direct with it. The idea was for it to be a general over-arching theme to write under.
JC: Every song had some connection. We were labeling them at the beginning, "This is a fire song, this is a water song." And so there's what sounds like a love song but it's basically a farmer longing for his water nymph to bring rain. A lot of it is left out, although a listener might hear hints and wonder. That's the covert part.
GN: Some of these songs appeared on the last disc in a simpler form.
JC: "Clear Sky Relapse" was a one-off. It was a song I wrote after a family member died. We built the release around that song and we had all these demos, which were intended for this new release, and so we added them.
MN: We don't really aim for a signature sound. We're more interested in the sound that fits each song.
JC: We wanted to sound more rustic. We were looking for something older that what people think of when they hear folk music, and the crossroads between European - Irish and Celtic - sounds and American folk music.
AK: There's a significant between English folk music and American folk music. It's like the difference between listening to the Beach Boys and the Beatles. There's a structural, compositional difference that's hard to pinpoint. It's like an accent. You can trace it back to renaissance classical music. There's a different emphasis on beats, on phrasing and melodic structure that has survived.
GN: Witching & Divining is the first appearance for a few members. It seems like this is a first album for Swallows in a lot of ways.
JC: There was a time Swallows had an album out and no band to play it.
AK: That was rough. Drummer moved, bassist went AWOL. That was right when the first album was coming together. We were obsessed with it and not really playing shows, and Jeff and I were killing each other in the recording studio.
Justin DeLeon: And still are.
AK: And still are. I think we have different philosophies.
GN: About recording?
AK: Yeah. I really like to do things in one take. There's a quote by Robbie Shakespeare. 'The first cut is always the deepest.' That's always the one, to me, that has the most vitality.
And Jeff is very particular about what he wants - I call him an alchemist. He likes to explore as many options as possible. He builds a lot of layers and then once he gets all those layers he takes them out one by one until he finds just the right combination. We've had some arguments in the recording studio.
JC: Not as many this time.
AK: Because we've been working together for so long we're compromising a lot more than we used to.
JC: And having Justin has been a part of that.
JD: I teach recording professionally so I work with it all day. I might have done things differently but Jeff had already started the process. I contributed some things, and I think in the end we all got what we wanted out of the album.
Swallows will celebrate the release of Witching & Divining at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall on Saturday, October 20th. Also performing will be Megonia, Jezebel Jones and Venus De Mars. 21+, 8pm. $7 cover.
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