Richard Swift - London, UK - Spring 2007
13 Mar 2007
"...i think that a lot of people who are writing whatever's new out there aren't going to be around 10 years from now, but because of the style of music I make, the attitude behind it and my work ethic, i stand a chance of being around for the next 30 or 40 years..."
The blandly up-market K-West in Shepherd's Bush is probably not a typical Richard Swift habitat - picture a scaled-down version of the hotel in 'Lost In Translation' and you're on the right track - the subtly up-lit beige walls and tasteful dark wood panelling lack any sense of individuality or history, two qualities which have been inseparable from all Swift's releases to date.
He's here to talk about 'Dressed Up For The Letdown,' his third album in two years (following the impeccably ace 2006 double-whammy of 'Walking Without Effort' and 'The Novelist') which is yet again totally self-produced and jam-packed with all the lo-fi charm and hi-fi hooks that you could ask for.
"Fidelity-wise 'Dressed Up For The Letdown' sounds more like 'Walking Without Effort,'" explains Swift, "but song-wise it's much more like 'The Novelist'. Most of it was recorded in my living room or my bedroom - some of it on 8-track, some on 24-track to 2-inch tape, some of it on a computer then dumped back onto 8-track. I like to - well I had to - use different types of technology because I had no money, I was doing it completely on my own."
Although financial restrictions forced Swift to resort to home-recording as an alternative to using an expensive studio, the results so far shows that his self-taught production skills are better suited to his musical style than a big-name producer's could ever be.
"I don't buys books on 'How To Record!' or 'How To Write Songs!' or 'How To Make It In The Music 'Biz!'," he proclaims, "it's like any puzzle, you can figure it out, just like you can figure out how to play drums or how to meet with record companies. Most of my recording techniques come from looking at photos on the inside of Sly & The Family Stone or Beatles LPs, or from watching 'Sympathy for the Devil' and thinking, 'Oh! That's where they put the mike!'."
Whilst he readily professes his love for studio gurus like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, his easy-going, pick-it-up-as-you-go approach to record production means that Swift currently has no need or wish to bring in a producer to act as middleman between himself and the blank tape.
"I'm pretty opinionated so I think if I got a producer in it would probably lead to fisticuffs eventually," he says, "I really love artists that are self-produced. McCartney, on his first record, just moved out to the country and did a record on a 4-track - that genuinely turns me on artistically."
Since realising that home-recording was as workable an option for his music as it was for Macca's, Swift has never looked back. Why would he? - his albums have a cosy, lived-in quality that bigger budget records could never recreate, and he gets to spend much more time with his family.
"I find studios incredibly uncomfortable. There's more of a personal element when someone can literally roll out of bed and record a drum track. At the very end of the first song on 'Dressed Up...' you can hear my daughter say 'Can I try?' - I was recording the drum track when she walked in and spoke. I like it when you can hear kids screaming in the background or cars driving by, I find that kinda stuff charming. I have three daughters who are all really young and so we have incredibly loud jam sessions in our house, crank up the synthesizers and guitars and beat on drums - I've got a really cool situation in terms of family."
Without the constant worry of running out of time and money that haunts many a studio session, Swift is free to record whenever the mood takes him - meaning that his creative process never falls into a repetitive routine.
"I don't have any rules or guidelines for songwriting," he explains, "I wrote 'Artist & Repertoire' exactly how it is and recorded it the next day, but for other songs I like to take a little bit more time. For 'Lady Day' I had a four track, a drum machine and a piano and I just saw the shapes or colours of the song in my head before I actually knew what I was doing. It's a balance - half-accidental, half neurotically obsessed over."
This propensity for neurotic obsessing is a characteristic shared by many a self-producing artist and a result Swift predominantly works alone on his recorded output. But that doesn't mean he totally shuns collaborators - for starters he has his fantastically named backing band The Sons Of National Freedom who, Swift is quick to point out, are much more than just a bunch of session players.
"Recording is definitely more of a personal thing, but I like the idea of having a band behind me - I'm a big fan of Dylan. We haven't rehearsed in years so the songs sound completely different live to the record, and that's exciting to me. I love it when I see a band and they don't sound anything like the record."
Part of Swift's appeal is the singular vision he has for everything relating to his songs. He is in complete control of all aspects of his music: as well as writing, playing and producing songs, he also creates his own artwork and videos, making those artists who employ hordes of collaborators and consultants seem positively lazy and one-dimensional in comparison.
"Maybe I'm a control freak or something but I don't see why I can't be just as good as anybody else. There's no need for me to hire Michel Gondry or someone to do a video, I'd much rather take the video budget and buy myself the cameras so that I can make videos for myself and other people for the rest of my life."
Although Swift seems content with both his career and personal life now, it wasn't always this way. Many of his songs plough a darker, more melancholy furrow then his confident demeanour might suggest, and the title of 'Dressed Up For The Letdown' captures the black humour at the heart of much of his work.
"That phrase just popped in my head one day and I thought 'That's what I'm gonna name the next album,'" explains Swift, "the title is just about getting through the tough shit, all the disappointments, and dressing yourself up accordingly. I've been completely broke for the last 5 or 6 years so parts of the record are about my struggles with the music industry. It also deals a lot with life and death - people have likened it to 'All Things Must Pass' by [George] Harrison. I was going through some serious depression and anxiety - I was mentally very unhealthy. I had to learn to rise above the material world but also to be in the material world enjoying myself - I was just trying to get through that mindf**k."
The critical success of the 'Richard Swift Collection Volume 1' - a double-disc package of 'Walking Without Effort' and 'The Novelist' released in the UK last year - must have gone a long way toward reassuring Swift of the quality of his work and boosting his psychological state. What's interesting is that Swift is far from happy with his widely-acclaimed back catalogue:
"I'm completely embarrassed by the songs on 'Walking Without Effort'," he says, "I like that it's incredibly intimate and stripped down, but lyrically I cannot listen to it, whereas I'm one hundred percent proud of 'The Novelist'."
It's quite a shock to hear him renounce what is clearly a very accomplished debut, but in all honesty 'The Novelist' is lyrically in a different league. What caused such a change in shift from the more familiar pop vocabulary of 'Walking Without Effort' to the distinctive stories and characters in 'The Novelist'?
"I just took some time," says Swift, "I wrote and recorded 'Walking Without Effort' in a matter of days so I came into the studio with very loose song ideas. Then, because of my embarrassment of those lyrics and their simplicity, I pushed myself very hard on 'The Novelist.' I just hope I get better and better at making my point lyrically rather than being vague and foggy."
The narrative devices of 'The Novelist' are revisited on 'Dressed Up For The Letdown', with Swift exhibiting his ability to mix fact with fiction, as things that he has experienced and witnessed merge seamlessly with the imaginary.
"The whole point about art is that it's from yourself but it's also an observatory thing," notes Swift. "'The Novelist' is about myself, my grandfather, Jonathon Swift, Jack Kerouac and some good friends of mine that are novelists, like my friend Lance - he moved to New York and when he heard 'The Novelist' he was like, 'You wrote that record for me!'"
The buzz created by both high regard for his previous releases and great hopes for 'Dressed Up For The Letdown' means that Swift is now poised to move labels from the respected indie Secretly Canadian to the huge major Polydor - a big change for someone who pressed and released his output off his own back for so many years. But he remains unfazed by Polydor's industry clout and feels no obligation to make his music more commercially viable - if anything perhaps Swift has greater artistic freedom due to the lifting of his previous financial constrictions:
"My A&R guy has just had a number one record with Klaxons, and he's also got Scissor Sisters and Rufus Wainwright, so it eases the pressure off me. I can make the records that I want to make and not worry about selling millions and millions of records."
The recent hype surrounding the release of 'Dressed Up For The Letdown' suggests that he's poised to move up into the indie singer-songwriter major league, but Swift couldn't be less interested in the efforts of those whom many would term his contemporaries:
"I don't really listen to anything new," he declares, "I certainly would never listen to any new singer-songwriter. We've toured loads with The Walkmen, they're one of the few bands these days that I really respect and there's this really talented new kid on Secretly Canadian called David Vandervelde. But I don't really keep my ear to the ground about what's going on today - if I do it's to electronic music."
Swift's offhand rejection of the majority of the current music scene is in keeping with the profile which much of his press has suggested - a quirkily archaic songsmith mired in the music of yesteryear. Swift is clearly much more than this, and is quick to defend himself, with reference to his machine-music side-project, Instruments Of Science and Technology:
"My electronic music is a mixture of Squarepusher, Dick Hyman, early Kraftwerk and Can, and even 'The Novelist,' which people thought was kind of an 'old-timey' record, has loads of synthesizers and sound manipulation. I want to make music that's void of time - not 'old-timey' or 'new-timey', just void of time. What is 'vintage'? I don't really concern myself with labels. I think that a lot of people who are writing whatever's new out there aren't going to be around 10 years from now, but because of the style of music I make, the attitude behind it and my work ethic, I stand a chance of being around for the next 30 or 40 years."