Andrew Graham and Sean Leary of Swarming Branch talk on their unique songwriting witnessed on their upcoming album, provide a refined sweet potato taco recipe, and instructions for the perfect headstand technique.
Surreal Number is the latest record from Swarming Branch since the last full length, Classic Glass, around 4 years ago. What's the band been doing between releases? What makes now the time to put out some new material?
AG: Swarming Branch has always been a band that makes music based on friendship and improvisation. We've got a backlog of ideas waiting for proper support before they're released into the world. When you're 20, you think that everything that you write is God's gift to music. There were times when we thought we might be "discovered." But as you get older, you start thinking about things like "do I want to be playing these songs on tour 50 years from now?" And because you can play the old material live in new ways, using an improvisatory spirit, new material becomes less necessary to enjoy each show. And this pleases the fans you already have. But new material is still crucial. So you try to coordinate new releases with new opportunities that will bring new listeners. Maybe Shuggie Otis had some prescience when he declined the offer to join the Rolling Stones. Those guys aren't even allowed to play much new material.
As for what we've been doing -- I picked up the clarinet. I took one vocal lesson with LaMonte Young and decided quickly that I don't want to put in the work to become a North Indian classical music lifer. I have studied the guitar playing of Chet Atkins extensively to try to articulate the bass, chords, and melody in my playing as three distinct parts. I refined a nice sweet potato taco recipe: fry shoestring potato-sized pieces of sweet potato alongside onion and green pepper. Season the sweets with rosemary and garlic. Season the onions and peppers with Tony Chachere's cajun seasoning. Add black beans and zucchini late in the game. Garnish with hot sauce, sour cream, and cilantro. And always FLOUR tortillas with this one, though corn is better for other applications.
Now is a good time because an opportunity popped up with SofaBurn Records. But it's also a good time because musicianship and intention are being valued in underground pop and rock once again. People like Cate Le Bon and Weyes Blood are singing really well and not being overlooked for being overly serious or un-punk as they might have been ten years ago.
The new record sounds like you've honed in your sound for a more consistent or cohesive arrangement compared to previous releases. Was this a product of just figuring out what works for the band or a goal for you to have less aberration throughout a record?
AG: It was intentional. It started with a conversation with Dane Terry, our magnificent collaborator who has played piano and keys with us since 2009. I asked him in 2013 when we were touring Classic Glass what he thought we should do to improve moving forward, in terms of connecting with audiences. He said we needed to do more arrangement and less improvisation on our recordings. I took it to heart. We've also been working with Rob Barbato, a producer who plays the bass, and Drew Fischer the engineer. They helped us to identify which arrangement ideas were most successful on both the Rock and Roll #61 single and Surreal Number.
But this isn't "what works best for the band." We're still moving and changing. Every record needs to be different to meet our expectations. Expect more saxophones and steel guitar in the future.
As a listener, I find your songs to be some of the most unique sounding material around with lyrics and instrumentation that's just charmingly irregular. What/who are your inspirations as a songwriter?
AG: Thank you. I like Ray Davies from the Kinks as a lyricist. He had a comfortable childhood but was able to write lyrics from other characters' perspectives that identified with a wide variety of people, many of them quite desperate. I feel a kinship with Neil Young in that we both write moods more than narratives. But I mostly just love the sound of words, inside jokes, turns of phrase. A lot of this stuff starts with just talking to people. Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon are giants for me, for balancing complex chords with folk music, but I don't really enjoy their lyrics that much. Maybe they aggrandize mundane moments too much for my taste?
Musically, I like to listen to a lot of instrumental music. "East St. Louis Toodleoo" by Duke Ellington (1926 Cotton Club version) is my favorite song. I adore Chet Atkins early solo guitar work. Very hungry stuff. I love the Yehudi Menuhin/Ravi Shankar East Meets West III: Improvisations record. So most of the stuff I get really excited about is very different than what I'm able to play. It just seeps in. Hopefully we will be able to start having more instrumental numbers on future records while maintaining the interest of our listeners.
In the contemporary scene, my favorite records of 2016 were Weyes Blood's Front Row Seat to Earth and Big Thief's Masterpice, for what it's worth.
You guys are half based in Columbus, OH and half in Boone, NC. Respectively, what about those places influence the Swarming Branch creativity?
AG: When I moved to Columbus, I was a classic rock dude. Y103 out of the Warren, Ohio. Being in Columbus brought me around to VU and punk music because the bands that were playing cool shows and touring were more in that vein. So I stripped things down a bit after 2007.
Also, I studied film with J. Ronald Green at OSU. His courses on avant-garde film and video and documentary taught me that a piece of art tells the story of its provenance at the same time as it presents its content. The home recording talks about economics. The Hollywood film tells the story of the hundreds of people who create it. If you see high production value within the frame, it tells the story of the gaffers and producers and assistants standing just outside the frame. So you have to plan and save money if necessary and make sure your ideas and the way you realize them match. You don't pay $20,000 to go into the studio if you intend to go on the road as a duo and play little shows. It just doesn't make sense.
SL: Boone is very womb-like in the sense that it is sheltering and nurturing. The mountains are round and pleasing to the eye. The air is clean and the rent is cheap. On a personal level, I am very creative when I am Boone but that side of me has never been born into the public there. For me, Boone is the incubator, whereas Columbus, with its hundreds of thousands of lovely weirdos, has offered up the opportunity for me to emerge and realize my creative pursuits.
You've released a video for the first single from Surreal Number called "Initiation." What was behind the concept for the video and how was it brought to life?
AG: My dear friend Leigh Lotocki and I shot a bunch of footage in northern New Mexico and gave it to Pelham Johnston, of OBLSK, who turned it into something really special. He executed all of the masks/zooms/overlays that you see.
Where was the record recorded and what role does the band play on the production side?
AG: It was recorded at Comp'ny in Los Angeles. The band doesn't do anything in terms of engineering because Drew is just really effective and efficient. We make the lion's share of the decisions about most of the music, with Rob acting as a failsafe to make sure we don't overdo or undercook anything. He puts his foot down at the perfect times.
As a listener, I find your songs to be some of the most unique sounding material around with lyrics and instrumentation that's just charmingly irregular. What/who are your inspirations as a songwriter (or as a musician)?
SL: I gain inspiration from people who use their instrument or voice not to adorn themselves, but rather to undress. I know it when I hear it, and it tickles me. Gram Parsons was probably the first person I remember hearing that embodied that nakedness in his writing and singing.
Swarming Branch is slated for a tour across the US including a stop at a festival in Ohio called Nelsonville Music Festival. This festival seems to really be pulling together great lineups over the last couple of years and this year is no exception. First, what are your favorite parts of touring and being on the road? And secondly, what do you look forward to about Nelsonville and playing for a festival crowd?
SL: My favorite part of being on the road is hearing exciting music that is new to my ears. Sometimes we share a bill with a band that just really knocks your socks off and rekindles the musical love affair. Or we’ll make some new friends and we’re crashing on their couch and they put a record on the platter that lights you up in the best way. It’s a musical baptism.
There are several things about Nelsonville I’m looking forward to…The Hocking River, Michael Hurley and his beautiful windbreaker, swimming in the quarry.
Lastly, for anyone that knows Sean, you're aware he has one of the best headstands in America. Can you explain the technique and art behind the perfect headstand?
SL: The secret to a good headstand is what the yogis call “drishti” or gaze--placing focused attention on a singular point, sometimes visual, sometimes mental. Concentrating your drishti is a means toward eliminating distraction and achieving stillness, even in the most disorienting situations. Also, a big part of standing on your head is learning to fall gracefully when you don’t get it right. It’s a lesson in learning how to lose.