January 31, 1992, Detroit: Swervedriver are playing St. Andrew's Hall while at their creative peak—right between debut album Raise and sophomore full-length Mezcal Head. The Oxford, England, quartet wow a near-capacity crowd that is rabid for the group's brand of motor-psycho'd shoegaze rock. When Swervedriver shift into alterna-hit "Rave Down," the crowd acts as if MC5 had come back from the dead and blown through "Kick Out the Jams."
Pumped from the show, I walk back to my car, only to find the passenger-side window broken and my leather jacket stolen. As it's freezing in typical Detroit winter fashion, the drive home is a damnable shiverfest, but the buzz from Swervedriver's fuzzed-out rock maelstrom makes it tolerable.
A car anecdote in a piece about Swervedriver is all too apt. As countless music-press features over the last two decades have stressed, these Brits evoke the exhilarating feeling of freedom one gets from flooring it down the highway, environmental damage be damned. Swervedriver's music is the wind in your hair as you whip across the interstate at 110 miles per hour.
Swervedriver rose to prominence on the revered English label Creation in the early 1990s, and therefore often get categorized as "shoegaze" (mea culpa), but in actuality, their sound veers closer to that of Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. Swervedriver's rock is strong yet vulnerable, dense yet ethereal, heavy yet uplifting, noisy yet sweetly melodic. They reconcile these opposing forces with anthemic gusto. Their music ferociously zooms, but it also caresses in times of need.
Credit for Swervedriver's hard rock with a soft heart mainly goes to guitarist/vocalist Adam Franklin. (He's joined on this American tour by guitarist Jimmy Hartridge, bassist Steve George, and drummer Mikey Jones, who also plays in Franklin's Bolts of Melody project.)
Swervedriver's star ascended up till 1995, when their US label A&M and Creation dropped them soon after the latter issued their third album, Ejector Seat Reservation. They carried on for another four years, releasing their weakest full-length, 99th Dream, in 1998.
Following Swervedriver's demise, Franklin kept busy with Toshack Highway and Bolts of Melody, whose 2009 LP, Spent Bullets, is a lost classic. In 2008, Swervedriver reunited. At that time, Franklin says, "We were outsiders in the music industry. It was a liberating feeling. We hadn't even considered getting back together in all those years. For some reason, in 2008, we got offered to play some shows, and for some reason it was right for everybody.
"The great thing about it was," he continues, "we didn't have a label, we didn't have management, we just had a PR person and a booking agent. We had a lot of love from a lot of people who wanted to see us play. We managed the whole situation ourselves. Everyone in the band had their own managing [role]. It almost was how it was before the band got signed.
"There's that great period when a band gets together and nobody can really get a handle on what the band's about and what they sound like, before you get dragged into the business side of things. In 2008, it was almost like a rebirth, really, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. We've tried to maintain that over the last few years."
Swervedriver toured Europe in 2009, Australia in 2010, and did some US dates last year. "Playing out gives us a chance to road test our ideas," Franklin says. "We're figuring out a few things, recording and stuff like that."
On that note, Franklin animatedly describes a couple of new Swervedriver tunes. "One song, 'Deep Wound,' has a Raw Power–ish guitar, but it also sounds like it has some Revolver, as well. I wrote another song, 'Good Times Are So Hard to Follow,' for a film called California Solo that's coming out this year. Robert Carlyle [Trainspotting, 28 Weeks Later] is in it. The song was commissioned by the director [Marshall Lewy]. Carlyle plays this old Britpop rock star who's been living in LA for 10 years. He writes these Bob Dylan–y sort of songs. It could be reworked into an electric, Swervedriver tune. They're coming from the same place, but they're two different sides of the same coin."
Franklin says that they've also reversed the sounds on "Deep Wound," and "now it sounds like Neu! or something. Kraut-rock bands like Neu!, Can, and Kraftwerk were all big influences on Swervedriver, but it's not something that's ever come across in the recordings. Perhaps that side of us will be more apparent with the new stuff."
Swervedriver are now in this odd sort of limbo. Despite having a sterling reputation and a catalog containing some of the greatest rock songs ever—"Rave Down," "Sandblasted," "She's Beside Herself," "Duel," "Last Day on Earth," and "Planes Over the Skyline"—they have no label. Furthermore, Franklin doesn't really care. What's more important to him is that some major producers and engineers are seeking out the band.
"If you have a big-time producer and there isn't a label, there are different ways of being able to afford to pay people what they're due," he says. "There are a couple of guys who produced Top-10 Billboard albums over the last couple of years who are interested in working with us. That's a great compliment—a band that hasn't existed for a long time, and you get big, commercial players who are interested in us."
Finally, what does Franklin think of the term "shoegaze"? Has it helped or hurt Swervedriver as a descriptor that they can't seem to shake? He laughs and says, "Ultimately, it's probably a benefit. People think it's a genuine genre. At least it marks out a territory. Overall, it's a genre that has to do with a progressive, sci-fi-sounding guitar. 'Gaze' is okay; gazing is fine. It's the 'shoe' part that gets me."