Swervedriver returns from shoegazer history

Over the phone from London, Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin listens as I remind him of the last time I interviewed him. It was toward the end of 1998 — the band was on the road behind that year's 99th Dream — and, in a total fanboy move, I brought a setlist I'd snagged at a Swervies show for him to autograph. "Hey Mike, we'll be back!!!" he scrawled on the tattered sheet.

"Right, well, I suppose I kept my word, then," he laughs.

Indeed he has, even if it's taken Swervedriver nearly 10 years to make good on the promise. Freshly reunited, the band is playing shows in the U.S. for the first time since going on hiatus in 1999. Until then, the band had been exceptionally active, recording and touring relentlessly — via numerous headline outings or as support for the likes of Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins — despite career swings as volatile as the group's guitar-centric roar.

Emerging from Britain's shoegazer scene in the early '90s, Swervedriver possessed a tougher sound than most of its contemporaries. Sure, there were scads of guitar pedals providing layers of atmosphere that wrapped around Franklin's hazy drawl, but those trippy sonic waves rarely obscured the band's gritty riffs and penchant for richly melodic songcraft. And live, the band became a beast, those beautiful, propulsive songs combining with ungodly volume to easily take your breath away.

But by 1999, a decade's worth of bad breaks and rotten business dealings — Swervedriver was successively signed and dropped by Creation, A&M, and Geffen, resulting in half of its albums being either delayed or prevented entirely from getting released stateside — caught up to the band. With little fanfare, its members amicably went their separate ways.

Because the four musicians left on good terms, Franklin explains, a Swervedriver reunion always remained a possibility until coming to fruition last fall. He's quick to add that the band probably would have stayed defunct, though, if not for its dedicated fanbase. Swervedriver loyalists have created a repository of live MP3s at www.swervedriver.com, and a slew of fellow musicians — including early champion Bob Mould (ex–Hüsker Dü) — have cited them as favorites in recent times.

Absurdly enough, all these years later Swervedriver is still battling the record industry, these days over the fact that its albums remain out of print. "It's kind of painful to walk into a record store and there's the Swervedriver card thing and there's nothing in there," Franklin sighs. "But that's what you get for signing your soul away at an early age. You can't help but hate the fuckers that work somewhere like Universal, because obviously to them a label like A&M is a drop in the ocean, let alone a small band on that label. So when somebody approached Universal saying, 'There's this band Swervedriver, they have a few albums they'd like to reissue, can we talk about this?' I think the initial response was, 'We're sorry, we don't feel that it's worth our while to do this.' I'm like, 'You don't think it's worth your while but we actually do, and uh, there are mouths to feed, and we'd quite like people to be able to hear our records.' You just have to keep hammering away."

Yet the overall mood in the Swervedriver camp is a positive one. The first comeback gig, at the recent Coachella festival, went well by the band's and critics' standards. And the possibility exists that the quartet may write and record new material. For now, though, Franklin says, "There was definitely a feeling of missing these old songs, and we're all happy to be playing together, it's as simple as that." And then he begins to chuckle. "There's no sinister motive — we're not drug-running, it's not a front for some clandestine operation or anything. It's just fun to get out there and rock again."

 
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