When New York band Swear and Shake visited Nashville at the end of September, I got a chance to talk with them in between a photo shoot with MD Laidlaw and their show at the Music City Bar and Grill. In thirty minutes, we covered a lot of ground, during which I discovered the origin of the band, learned about the upcoming Maple Ridge LP, and found out what, exactly, sugarblasting is. Read on!
How would you describe your music for anyone who hasn’t heard it before?
Adam: Like an elevator pitch?
However you want to describe it.
Adam: It’s mostly storytelling. We do it through our indie rock sort of thing, where we have guitar-happy music, but there is definitely a folk element to it. We like to experiment a lot with different sounds and textures we create with our four different pieces. Get the story told, however need be.
So what is your favorite song from your upcoming album, the Maple Ridge LP?
Kari: Mine is Moving Parts. It’s a great story of…well, it’s interesting to say. It’s about this character who breaks someone’s heart, and she wants to put him back together the way that she wants him to be so that he’ll love her. It’s huge…musically big and strong, and it’s got a great story.
How does it fit in with the rest of the album?
Adam: In some ways, it’s the standout track, because, as opposed to the EP where most things were acoustic guitar and electric guitars, we’ve had a lot of time to experiment with a few different things. Moving Parts is a track that we have synthesized, and there’s a huge piano sound, and the drums were tracked in a large barn. So when Kari says that the sound is big, that’s exactly what it is.
Shaun: It’s a big sound with a lot of different colors and elements to it.
Tom: Tons of natural reverb, because the miking that we used for the drums was way far back, so you hear all the sounds of the barn in the song, too, which is cool.
Are you all from New York?
Kari: We’re all from New York, but we’re from different parts of the state.
How did you all come together? Craigslist ad?
Shaun: It’s a little more romantic than that.
Kari: Adam and I went to SUNY Purchase, a college in Westchester County just north of New York City. So we met there as two singer-songwriters, and Adam asked me to sing on his track, Johnnie, and that’s how it started. What was meant to be, I think, only a three hour “let’s test out the waters” turned into an all-day, hanging-out song session.
Kari: Different things not working, and then some did.
Adam: By that night, we started booking shows and thinking of band names. And then Tom and Shaun, I grew up with out on the east end of Long Island. So after Kari and I had something going and we had written a few songs together, we brought the other two pieces into the band, and it got the sound that it has now.
What are your major instruments?
Adam: I play piano, banjo, and guitar most of the time and singing.
Kari: I play guitar. I do play bass on a song. I’m gonna say that I do that now.
Is the bass guitar bigger than you?
Kari: It is. It’s big. I don’t really know if I noticed it being bigger, but it is heavy.
Tom: I do drums and various percussion instruments. Desk bells, tambourine, all that sort of stuff.
Shaun: I play the bass and I dabble with piano a little bit on a couple songs.
Adam: We move around the stage quite a bit actually.
Fun show to watch then!
Kari: Yeah, we’re excited for that, too. This is the first time we’re experimenting with that stuff.
Shaun: This tour is new.
Kari: With the record, what happens, for us particularly, is when we started recording all the ideas we had in the back of our heads for these songs, we got to experiment some. So once the track started sounding good, we tried to think of ways to incorporate that into our live show. Now we’re changing things up. We don’t have a fifth auxiliary member to go from instrument to instrument, so we’re just exploiting our own talents.
Shaun: Doing it ourselves.
Have any of you ever had formal lessons?
Kari: Yeah, each of us at one point or another.
What do you consider the better teacher – experience or lessons?
Kari: Definitely the experience. Hands down.
Adam: I learned a lot in my lessons. I’m going to disagree with that.
Kari: Yeah. Like, you can’t teach talent. We’ve actually argued this before. I don’t think you can teach talent. I don’t think you can teach that spark… that something else that happens when you play your instrument live.
Shaun: I think it also boils down to chemistry with the people you’re playing with. I think I learned the most just playing with people. Not so much playing out. Just playing with tons of different people. It’s where you really learn the most.
Kari: I only took guitar lessons for about six months…maybe…total. Sometimes I practiced and sometimes I didn’t. But I became a better musician – I feel I became a real musician when I started with these guys and after recording the record, just because I learned how to fit into a group and not just have to support myself. I used to play as a singer-songwriter, and I would just have to play out and it didn’t matter if I f***ed up, because my voice was going to sound good on its own. No one knew if I messed up. Well, when I messed up guitar, people knew.
(Interviewer rambles about ten years of piano lessons that just didn’t take.)
Tom: I think musicians, for the most part, are born and not really made. It’s sort of like the way you are dictates that certain skill. There are very few students that have it, but the ones that do, I barely need to teach them. I’m just guiding.
Kari: The important role of the teacher is to be inspiring and motivating, so that your student, whether they have it or not, wants to continue to move forward. That’s the most important part.
Have you all played this style of music your whole life, or is it something you picked up recently?
Adam: I’ve been writing songs my whole life, but – well, not my whole life. I think in middle school I wrote my first song. And, you know, my songwriting has matured and gotten a bit more colorful over the years. When Kari and I started writing together, my songwriting really changed for, what I think, the better. For the first time, writing with someone else and sharing ideas in that kind of setting, creating lyric sets together and shaping each other’s songs, it’s been a totally different experience than doing anything on your own. So, although I’ve always written songwriter-y kind of songs, when Swear and Shake started having its own tunes, it really felt like a different kind of music for me. There’s a different connection.
Shaun: I feel like I’ve played a little bit of everything here and there, but I feel like this is a more mature, thought out sound than other things I’ve played.
Kari: I’ve played…well, I started by playing pop music. I actually have been writing since I was a really little kid. And when I started writing seriously, I was about fourteen. I was writing, like, soul-pop kind of music, and then I went into sort of an emo/righteous-babe records kind of phase. And this is more evolved. But is interesting what happened when I started working with Adam, because I was able to take a step out of myself and bounce ideas off of somebody else, which was really, really important in me becoming a better songwriter. I always wrote what I felt and what I knew, and Swear and Shake, where we’ve become storytellers, it’s less about me specifically saying “this is what happened” and more about me putting my feelings and emotions into a character. Exploring what that character would do.
Tell me about the name Swear and Shake.
Adam: We were just talking about this last night. The name could kind of mean something different to different people, and we like it that way. The name originally came from an old song of mine, off of an album of mine called Let’s Kick Fire, and there was a tune called Shake Me Endlessly. There was a line that says “Swear and shake me endlessly.” So it had a different meaning in that context. Taken out of context, we like the string of words, and when we started to try it on as a band name, we realized it had all these different meanings. At this point, Swear and Shake is a phrase that kind of speaks to the commitment of the band and our unwavering motivation to just constantly write more and be better and put on a better show. You know, it’s kind of a promise that we made to each other, and a promise that we made to our music and our songwriting and everything else.
How would you define success?
Adam: Success for me is when you play a show, and there’s people in the crowd that you’ve never seen before, and they’re singing your lyrics back to you. The first time that happened to me, I realized I wanted to be a songwriter and perform for the rest of my life, and nothing else would do.
Kari: I agree.
Adam: So I tasted it. I want more. And more.
Well, my next question is always “how do you know you’ve reached it?” and you already have.
Kari: Being able to do it full time…
Shaun: We’re not content, though, by any means.
Adam: It’s just a tasted of it, you know? Like, coming to Nashville and working with really great photographers and getting interviews with people nice people you’ve never met before, it’s just a dream come true. And it’s just that taste of it that really makes you want to keep going and not stop at all. Everything is just a taste of what we really want, and that’s to be able to hit the road full time and show our music to everybody. Not stop until everybody’s heard the name Swear and Shake and everyone’s singing along with the lyrics.
Kari: I think another obvious thing is to be able to do it full time and not have anything else to worry about. And, you know, for a while, I was working two jobs, but I was really working three jobs, because Swear and Shake is like my full-time job, and everything else is so I can eat and buy pants and stuff. All of us feel that our brains are totally consumed with getting the music out there and getting us to a level where we can just only do this and go on the road and make this happen. When someone says, like, do you feel like playing Madison Square Garden makes you a success, it’s not that necessarily. That would be cool, but I don’t think playing that would mean that I had made it. This is it, this defines it. For me, it’s literally just being able to pay my bills and go out and do what I love.
How long have you guys been playing together?
Adam: Since spring of 2010.
Not very long at all!
Adam: Just over a year. We released our EP a few months after getting together as a four-piece band. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the EP, which is this Thanksgiving, which will also be the release of the new record.
I’m really excited about the Maple Ridge LP.
Adam: Ten new tracks! No one’s ever heard them, except for little YouTube videos of them, which don’t quite suffice. You can see Marbles and These White Walls.
What drives your sound? I guess you’ve already mentioned that there’s a difference between the EP and the upcoming LP.
Tom: It’s going to be a world of difference, not to mention that we’re working with a new producer, Ben Goldstein, who is amazing.
Adam: That’s a great answer for what drives our sound, because the producer that we’re working with now, his whole thing is all about the performance. It’s all about getting the right energy, getting the right take, and making sure that there’s the same sort of connection as a live show on the recording. And when you get the thumbs up from him, you know that you actually have the energy there. So he’s stopping at nothing to give the Swear and Shake recordings the same integrity and intensity as the Swear and Shake live shows.
Shaun: But they won’t sound the same.
Kari: This record, I think the biggest thing that will make it sound different is that we really, obviously, from the time we released the EP, we’ve grown much closer and gotten much better as a band. You can tell with this record. The EP was more about our songs and me and Adam, and now it’s a clear, this is a four-piece group project. Everyone has a presence. I’m excited for that, too.
Who wrote Bones?
Kari: I did.
Can you share what Bones is about?
Kari: Sure. It’s kind of like… when you give up everything you have to help someone that you love, and you give up your voice and your feelings and everything to help this person get to where they need to go.
This is your first time down south…
Kari: As this group, yeah.
Have any of you been to Nashville before?
Shaun: I have. I used to tour with a group. I do love Nashville. It’s the only place you can go at ten o’clock in the morning and see a live band play. I love that. It’s truly a music city.
Kari: Biscuits and bands.
So what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you at a performance? Most people say they can’t share… Do you have a story?
Kari: Nothing that crazy has happened.
Adam: We can make something up, though. Actually, Shaun and I did a week and a half long tour in Mexico. We had a lot of stuff thrown up on stage.
Shaun: I think we got socks.
Kari: Like worn socks, or like fresh socks?
Adam: And Catholic school uniform vests. Stuff like that. That was good. We didn’t keep any of it.
Anything fun on the road?
Kari: Funny things happen between us…
Adam: They’re very self-indulgent experiences, though.
Kari: Nothing like…we’ve never hit anything or met anyone famous. But we have fun together. Make up funny stuff. Mess up the room. We can’t let that get out or hotels won’t let us stay there.
(Interviewer promises not to print anything further… Interviewer might have lied.)
Shaun: There was this one time Tom had a hairdryer and these sugar packets, and he was sugarblasting people. He would open up the sugar packet and turn on the hairdryer, and anyone who wanted to get sugarblasted had to walk in front of him.
Kari: He’d say, “Alright. Who wants to get sugarblasted?”
Adam: And then he’d blast him right in the face.
Kari: It obviously had nothing to do with alcohol.
Adam: We’re really waiting for Nashville to do anything crazy.
Kari: You know, this is really kind of reflective of the kind of people we are and the kind of folk-rock music we make, is that after we were done throwing things around and rearranging the beds and doing all that stuff in the hotel room… We cleaned everything up! We put it all back where it was supposed to go. I think I even tied the garbage bag up and we took it with us. You know, like real hardcore rock bands, they just leave everything everywhere…the bottles, syringes, whatever. And we’re like, okay, seriously? The chicken bones on the hangers have to go. Get this vacuum cleaner out here because we’re going to have to pick up the sugar all over the floor. We like to have fun, but we’re really nice.
(Interview does keep the promise not to print the Gatorade story…)
Be sure to visit Swear and Shake’s website so you can keep up with their tour dates and keep up to date on the release of the Maple Ridge LP. You can listen to the tunes from their EP and “like” them when you visit their Facebook page.
Photo by MD Laidlaw of Laidlaw Photography.