Rank Your Records: Adam Franklin Plays Favorites with Swervedriver’s Five Full-Lengths
The frontman looks back on over 25 years of output with the seminal, reunited shoegaze act.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Of all the seminal shoegaze bands to reunite over the past decade, Swervedriver was the first. They didn't expect to start a trend or anything, but eventually My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, and Lush all followed suit, realizing that their music had become more vital than it was even during their early 90s heyday.
Like their peers, the Swervies (as they were nicknamed) had their own trials and tribulations to overcome during their original run. They signed to the influential Creation Records in 1990 and reluctantly became part of the Scene That Celebrates Itself, a disparaging name for the loud, pedal-obsessed indie bands that focused more on the floor than their audience. But the years that followed proved to be trying times. Throughout their first nine years and four albums, the Oxford band called six different labels home (including a brief stint on DGC, which dropped them just as they were about to release their fourth album) and struggled to keep a long-term drummer. When 1998 came to a close, they weren't planning on such a lengthy hiatus, but frontman Adam Franklin found himself toiling with a number of other projects.
Since reuniting in 2007, Swervedriver has done just about everything right. They did the reunion tours, reissued some of their older albums, and recorded and toured a new album. Now they're planning to look back a bit on those early years, with a North American tour in which they'll play their first two albums—1991's Raise and 1993's Mezcal Head—back to back.
"We did play Raise from start to finish in Australia and the UK," says Franklin. "This time we're doing the first two albums, and then at the end we'll start recording the sixth album as well. We'll play Raise, and I guess there will be an interlude with some sounds and visuals of our choosing, and then we'll come back out and do Mezcal Head. We've had people ask about playing our shows, but we feel there is enough going on there with just us. So we'll just be playing those two albums."
With this retrospective happening, Noisey hit up Franklin to rank the band's five records, which he did, although he had hoped to include the band's 2005 compilation, Juggernaut Rides '89 – '98. (We have a strict editorial policy that disallows any comps from inclusion.) "If an alien comes down from another planet and asks what Swervedriver album to listen to, I'd play him Juggernaut Rides, because it's bang, bang, bang, hit after hit." Sorry about that, Adam.
5. 99th Dream (1998)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Adam Franklin: Well, it's probably the one people most expect to be there for various reasons. The thing about all of the Swervedriver records, we've kind of had a point to prove because we'd never once had the same lineup and the same label and been settled. So there was something for us to prove, which was always a good thing. Maybe it put an edge on the recordings. The thing about this one is that it was both the first post-Creation and post-A&M album, plus there was more label wrangling. It was born out of chaos because we'd already been dropped after the third album, Ejector Seat Reservation, but then Geffen stepped in wanting to sign us. So we did the album for them, and then the girl that signed us lost her job, and another A&R guy replaced her who we didn't really know. I had this bizarre situation of being in the studio alone with the engineer and the new A&R guy, who was telling the producer to rearrange "These Times," with just the acoustics and without the electrics and the vocals. It was the first time I ever experienced that situation and it was really fucked up. So a mix was done of the whole album, and eventually Geffen pulled out, but let us keep the album, which was a nice gesture. We shopped it around and Zero Hour picked it up.
For me, there are the recollections, and you can't disassociate yourself from it when you're involved. It was a hard one to work out because it went through three labels, in a way. Around the time we recorded it, we had this idea to make it sci-fi-sounding and kind of electronic, but not with keyboards, with guitars. Then, me and Steve [George, bass] were in France and we saw Blonde Redhead play, though we'd never heard them before. They came on stage and it was like a shot in the arm. They just sounded great. So we went back into the studio and re-recorded "These Times" with Blonde Redhead in the back of our minds. That was the one song where we threw out the old version, brought in a new one, rejigged the running order, and it completely changed our whole perspective. I think there are some great tunes on there, especially towards the end, but I listened to it recently and there are things that bug me. Like the way I sang and the mix.
This was the last Swervedriver album before the band went on hiatus. At the time, did you think it would be the final one?
We did a bunch of touring, and then at the end of the Australian leg we thought they were the last shows we'd play, but we didn't really know. You never talk that much about it, but I remember feeling odd about things. The scene in London was changing and we didn't really connect with a lot of the bands we were playing with. I suppose we just thought we should put it down for a while. We didn't expect it to be the end. Pretty soon after that I moved to the States and we had to move out of the studio we had, so that kind of put a nail into the proceedings. For a long time it felt like that was the last album, and probably not the most satisfactory album to bow out with. But most bands, unless they bow out on the top, the last album generally isn't as good as the others.
The artwork features what I believe are clay figurines of the band. Did you ever hold on to those?
I think so. Jimmy [Hartridge]'s girlfriend Susannah did them. She used to make figurines of our previous band Shake Appeal, and she would also make them for friends and family. I'm sure some of the heads fell off at some point though.
4. Mezcal Head (1993)
This is an interesting and unexpected choice. I think most people consider this to be the essential Swervedriver album.
It probably is, yeah. It's definitely flawed. I mean, all of the albums are. But what is flawed to me about this album is the tracklisting. The songs were recorded during an optimistic period. Probably the most optimistic period for us, which came after the shake-up in which we lost two members. Graham Bonnar walked off in San Franscisco and ended up playing in the Brian Jonestown Massacre. We carried on without him, and then Adi [Vines] the bassist, who had a second band going called Skyscraper, decided to leave and pursue that band. That left me, Jimmy, and Danny Ingram, who was from DC and replaced Graham. Jimmy and I sat down and decided to regroup, and find a new band based in London. So we went into a studio off of Oxford Street with Mark Waterman, an engineer for EMI Publishing, and we recorded a version of "Duress" with a drum machine and me and Jimmy playing bass. We played it for people and everyone thought it was a new, exciting sound. So we ended up bringing in Jez Hindmarsh to play drums, and time was ticking, so Jimmy and I played bass. And it was like having two rhythm sections, because we're quite different. I think we would have potentially made a different record if we had retained the other two guys in the band, but because we lost them we felt we needed to build upon what we'd done on Raise.
This was probably the period where we picked up more fans. In the States we toured with Medicine and Smashing Pumpkins, and "Duel" got Single of the Week in both the NME and Melody Maker. It was the same week that Skyscraper released their first single, so not exactly Blur versus Oasis, but it was a nice little win for us. There were some great B-sides that never made the album, like "Planes Over the Skyline" and "The Hitcher." If those two tracks were on Mezcal Head, that might tip it enough to make it our best album.
Why didn't you include them on Mezcal Head?
We always wanted to have good songs for the singles and EPs, but I think in this case these were great tracks that should have been on the album. It's all opinion, of course, but I would have replaced "A Change Is Gonna Come" with "The Hitcher," and have "Planes Over the Skyline" as the final track instead of "You Find It Everywhere."
Interesting, because here in North America, A&M tacked on "Never Lose That Feeling/Never Learn" as the final track. Why did they add that?
"Never Lose That Feeling" was the interim single between Raise and Mezcal Head, and I guess they wanted to boost the album and put as much good stuff on it they could. That's the other big flaw with the album, and the weird part of playing it in full live in the States. Because in the U.S. the album goes from "You Find It Everywhere" to "Never Lose That Feeling" to "Never Learn." I've never listened to those 12 songs in that order. I mean never have I listened to the US version of Mezcal Head because, for me, the album ends with "You Find It Everywhere." But that's not how a lot of people think of the album.
Not only did Alan Moulder produce it, but he really kept you going after half the band split.
We recorded the "Never Lose That Feeling" with Alan, then went on tour in the States, which is when Graham left the band and we'd fired our management. The shit had hit the fan. So we came back to mix the EP and Alan was like, "Where the fuck is Graham? This shit is awesome and we have to keep working." We really liked how he approached things.
How important was he to this album?
Huge, really. We had rented a Rickenbacker and a Gibson Firebird and the sound wasn't quite right, so Alan turned to us and said, "You're not going to like what I'm about to say, but there is one bass that I think might have just the sound you're looking for." And it was one of those Steinberger, y'know those basses without the headstock? The very 80s-looking bass.
Dear God! Those things are hideous.
[Laughs] They're something you'd never play on stage on account of them looking like shit. But we rented this Steinberger and it sounded great. That was the big, guilty secret of this album, that there is one of those basses on some of the songs.
3. Ejector Seat Reservation (1995)
This was almost a settled period for us. Steve George had come in and done all of the touring on bass for Mezcal Head, but this was actually the first album he was on. So this was the third different lineup we'd had recording an album. We got our own little studio space, and Jez had this 16-track and a live room downstairs, the desk upstairs, and started recording the album in a different way. A lot of the songs were started on an acoustic guitar, but we felt it was appropriate to kick those off so it would be in the same sonic ballpark as the demos. We also wanted to get rid of the sonics of Mezcal Head, because that album sounded really big and, to me, almost too in-your-face. We wanted something more organic and clattery. I think half of the songs on Ejector Seat were the demos that we had just built upon.
The album started out possibly the most optimistic, but it ended up the most chaotic because of the label shenanigans. A&M pulled out, and I think there were three advances they had to pay. The third option came around and the accountant said, "You're paying this band way too much money. They're not gonna make it back for you based on their previous sales. I recommend you drop them." So A&M said they weren't gonna fund the last third of the recording, but they also weren't gonna get in the way of us releasing it in the UK. This made a difference to Creation, because they were getting a hefty chunk of money from A&M, which helped keep Creation's head about water, although their ship was coming in thanks to Oasis. But it was a great time for us, as we were getting creative. We recorded horns at the Jesus & Mary Chain's studio, and we had strings.
But then the wheels fell off towards the end. Our choice for a single was "The Other Jesus," which was blindingly obvious. Alan McGee couldn't hear it, and he wanted "Last Day On Earth," which wasn't meant to be a centerpiece single. We felt uncomfortable about it, but went with it anyway. At this point in London, Britpop was coming along, and various bands were using strings and acoustic guitars, so I think that lost us some momentum in the UK. And then of course the album didn't get released in the US. So on the back of touring Mezcal Head and all of what we accomplished over there, the rug was pulled out from under us. I still think there are some great songs on this album. "The Birds" is still one of the greatest Swervedriver songs. "I Am Superman" is a killer tune.
Swervedriver, Adorable, and Slowdive were all dropped from Creation within the same year. Do you think that had more to do with the decline of shoegaze and the rise of Britpop, or was it more a financial decision?
I think it was both, really. If the tide had still been swimming in the "shoegaze" direction, then they would have held on to Slowdive and Adorable. But it was just crazy times. He had signed all of these bands and it was almost like football, where a club signs all of these players and just hopes they fit on the team. Those were the crazy, party, drug years, and the important thing to remember is that Alan had this breakdown or psychotic interlude. It all, actually, went down after a Swervedriver show at the Roxy or the Whiskey in LA. We saw him beforehand and then, after, we didn't see him. A few days later, we found out that he was taken to the airport in an ambulance and wheeled onto the plane. That is when he gave up the drugs and the partying. I imagine the title of our album didn't help. Ejector Seat Reservation is about a psychotic experience on a plane, which probably didn't sound too good to him. I imagine he didn't even really listen to it in detail.
So why wasn't this album released in the US?
Geffen wanted to put it out. I guess A&M had been stung before with Soul Asylum. They dropped that band after a couple of records and then they got picked up by Columbia, and then Soul Asylum had their big breakthrough album [ Grave Dancers Union]. So Geffen came to us and asked to put out Ejector Seat, but first we had to ask A&M, because they'd paid for two-thirds of the album. I always felt that Geffen should've made up a subsidiary and then sneaked it through under a different name.
2. Raise (1991)
The situation of wanting to prove yourself is a band's first album. We had "Over" and "Hands," with a whole different tracklisting I had in mind, like not having the singles that were from different sessions. But, again, McGee came in and made the decision to include the three singles, which, this time, was certainly the right one. So I'm sure it was strange to somebody that had bought the first three EPs, and then already own three songs when the nine-song album came out, so they're only getting six new songs. For a long time we thought it was lumpy because we didn't really like the "Son Of Mustang Ford" recording. But that debut album is everything we'd been doing built up to that point, and it's an incredibly exciting thing to be in a band recording your first album. Again, it's flawed. The mix is definitely flawed. I'm astonished at how low the vocals are on some tracks. You literally cannot hear them unless you really turn it up on a stereo. I think that's the appeal of this album. It has this sound that's warped like it's been left in the sun or acid rain for too long. It ebbs and flows, but something about it hangs together. It has some of the big Swervedriver calling cards.
There are a bunch of songs using an automotive theme on the record. Where did that come from?
It's a sort of T-Rex trick. He sang about a Cadillac and Rolls-Royce, but of course, Marc Bolan never learned how to drive. And it's the classic Chuck Berry and Beach Boys thing as well. More than anything though there is the Sonic Youth song from Evol, "In The Kingdom #19," which is about the automobile accident, where this guy is staggering around the freeway. There was this wanderlust for us, because at that point we'd never been to the US. It became the name of the band and first song, "Son of Mustang Ford," which gave people something to go by when it came to Swervedriver, I suppose.
What exactly is that image on the album cover?
That was uncredited. It should have been credited. Douglas Hart of the Jesus & Mary Chain did our first three videos and the cover has two slides from the "Sandblasted" video. We were on tour in San Francisco at the time, looking to go party, when our manager sat us down and made us go through this box of various things, including slides from the video. Avi put a couple of them together, held them to the light and said, "This looks good!" In the end it was like, "That will do." It's not like we thought it was a great cover. I think, in time, that's another happy accident. Now I think the cover looks great. It's a cool, enigmatic record.
1. I Wasn't Born To Lose You (2015)
Why is this your favorite album?
Well, it's new. It's in your head. I keep seeing this thing called a heritage act. Like, what the fuck is a heritage act? It's basically a band that was around 20 years ago that have come back. I guess that's how the kids see it. I'd have been pissed off in 1991 if bands from 1971, like Mungo Jerry and T-Rex, were headlining the festivals. Now kids get to listen to the whole history of rock 'n' roll, which is great if you're a heritage act. For me, it's about the latest thing. I mean, I put out like six albums between 99 th Dream and I Wasn't Born To Lose You. But apart from it being the newest album, it's also a great fucking album. We knew we had to come back and prove ourselves after 17 years away. It was a different lineup, labels had all been blown out of the water, so it needed to be something people could relate to, but also something that pushed things forward for Swervedriver. With this one I think it was perfect. Even the cover. The sleeve artwork is a photograph by Eddie O'Keefe. We bought the image off him, and the design was laid out by this guy Eric Lee. It only struck me recently that there are two feet out the car window pointed to the sky, almost like a kiss-off to shoegazing.
Did you feel pressure to make a record that sounded like the band people remembered from the 1990s?
It was hugely important. There were other ideas knocking around that were not Swervedriver, but we couldn't come back with something that was completely different. We just wanted to find that point between the middle where it's Swervedriver, but also an attempt to push towards the future—sounds and influences that weren't on earlier albums. Almost in the same way Mezcal Head had to follow up Raise, this album had to follow up that whole catalog.
In 2007 Jimmy called you about reforming Swervedriver. You had done Toshack Highway, Magnetic Morning, and Bolts of Melody, so you kept busy after the band ended. How much did he have to convince you to get the band back together?
Not that much. I guess it had been brewing up. It had been nine years since we last released an album. But occasionally I would hear a song in a bar in New York and think, "Shit, that sounds really good. I've forgotten how good that song is. It's a shame I'll never play it again." Jimmy had been in touch with Jez and Steve and called me saying, "I think people are up for doing this again." And I said, "Why not?" So this weird day in September, 2007, my relationship was ending after this phone call, and then a few hours later there was another phone call from Jimmy asking if I wanted to bring back Swervedriver. One door closes, another door opens.
Why did it take so long to make a new album?
We didn't start it until 2013. I was doing all of these other things, like Bolts of Melody. I think the time wasn't right, and the lineup changed a bit. Graham came back in for a bit, but then he couldn't do a US tour and Mikey came in, and it just kind of gelled. I think then it felt right to do another record. Jimmy and Steve were very keen to do one, but I had Bolts of Melody as an outlet, so they were really chomping at the bit.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.