Interviewed by Daniel Johnson
To anyone who didn’t experience the early ’90s alternative rock boom, it might seem hard to believe there was a time when major labels gluttonously signed as many new bands as possible. Well, actually, it wasn’t possible, and in their short-sighted rush to capitalize on the success of Nirvana, they created an unsustainable system, signing more artists than they could ever hope to support, let alone develop. Few bands swallowed up in this binge, and the inevitable implosion, distinguished themselves by making anything that could last. Oxford’s Swervedriver were both the exception and the rule, creating brilliance in the face of near-mythical misfortune before eventually succumbing to it. Working with preeminent ’90s producer Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, NIN), they created a unique sound over a four-record run which was both visceral and cerebral – a propulsive storm of sprawling, raw guitar symphonies and widescreen studio vistas that was The Stooges by way of Sonic Youth. Frontman Adam Franklin’s songcraft anchored it all with literate lyrics wed to impeccable pop tunes in the manner of T.Rex and Elvis Costello. When the band slipped into a career coma around ’98, Franklin plowed ahead under the name Toshack Highway. His 21st century output has been both a progression from, and a summary of, his previous band’s work which has included solo acoustic intimacies, forays into electronica and lo-fi bedroom four-track explorations. In 2005 Sanctuary Records released Juggernaut Rides, a Swervedriver retrospective and rarities collection. This year will see the release of Bolts of Melody, Franklin’s first under his own name.
Let’s talk about Bolts of Melody. You’ve been sitting on this one a while, right?
Yeah. Around ’98 Swervedriver toured with the band Sianspheric. And then Ley [Taylor] from the band called me up and mentioned doing some sort of release, which ended up being the split release [Magnetic Morning], which came out on Sonic Unyon a couple years ago. And then Ley and I hit it off really. He turned out to be a good guy to bounce ideas off of. And we did a bit of playing together. And then at some point he said, “Why don’t you come up here to Toronto to record?” And his friend Dean Williams, who he records with as well, had a little cottage by a lake in a place called Hawkstone, Ontario. And we decided to go up there and record it. We did the drums in, like, three days with Matt Durrant, the drummer from Sianspheric, in a little studio in Toronto [Broadcast Lane]. And that was done to tape. And then we transferred it and went out into the wild by this lake and recorded on Cubase. And spent about two weeks laying stuff down. In the end I don’t think we put down any bass parts. I think that two weeks was almost exclusively putting down my guitars and vocals. And drinking loads, and jumping in the middle of the lake at night. You know, things like that. It was just three of us out in the wild. And it was a good way to record. Great way to record.
Charlie Francis is credited as a producer. So does his production come in at the mixing stage?
Yeah, we recorded all that by the lake. And then Ley put down various bass parts and various piano and odds and ends. And some of that is done through Renoise, which is his recording thing that he uses. And when that was all compiled, I was actually back in England. And Charlie, who used to live in London, and has moved out to Wales, has a little space with a Pro Tools rig in the attic of his house. And I just went there for a couple of weeks and we mixed it there.
Is recording for you always such a global affair?
[laughs] There’s also the first track, “Seize The Day,” which is from an earlier session in Brooklyn with a different engineer and a different drummer. And that track seemed to fit in nicely with everything else. And so, yeah, it was a three-country affair. It’s amazing these days how you can actually do that. I’ve got a friend out in California who was putting some bass parts on it, and Ley would send me stuff back from Toronto.
So when you were at the cottage, was Ley engineering?
Yeah, Ley and Dean are both pushing the buttons. Like I said, we went up there with guitars, bass guitars, bass amps, keyboards and bits and pieces – also a drum kit in case we wanted to do extra percussion stuff – but in the end, because of the time, it ended up being spent all on guitars and vocals. But yeah, both of those guys were just cracking open the beers and then going into the other little bedroom on the side which is where everything was set up. There was a Focusrite Platinum Opti-preamp thing, and a Mark Of The Unicorn 2408 MK II… I actually have it written down here because Ley said, “In case you want to know, these are the things we used up there.” [laughs] But I had never really used Cubase. For me [recording software is] just a means to get stuff down. What I’ve got at home is just a Pro Tools MBox thing. And Reason. I guess it just ends up being whatever one you feel like using.
It seems like there’s more emotion in your guitar playing, almost as if you’re in love with the instrument again, after the experimentation with electronics.
Yeah, I think there is more guitar stuff. I went through the keyboardy thing, and then the solo acoustic fingerpicking thing. But I guess there were just more songs on here that seemed to be crying out for a screaming guitar solo. So yeah, it’s definitely more back into the guitar thing for sure.
Yeah, it was surprising to hear all the solos. Because looking back I realized, as versatile of a guitarist as you are, you don’t do a lot of solos. I can think of maybe three off the top of my head. So even though you’ve never totally abandoned guitars, there just seems to be more affection for it.
For electric guitars?
Yeah, maybe that’s what I’m trying to say.
Yeah, I remember doing the Orange Album [Toshack Highway ST], and there was a song on there that, of all the songs on the album, we were saying, “What does this song need? I guess it just needs more guitars…” And I remember being really reluctant because the rest of the album had been playing around with electronics. And still using guitar pedals, but putting keyboards through them instead. And that song, I just couldn’t get into it at the time. After a while, you can get into an endless… with a whole chain of pedals, with this sound and that sound, you can almost live in them. You step into them and there are three lines of pedals… And I can see how you can move along that path, “I can get a little tremolo here, then have a delay thing coming back…” and it’s great, but in the end it just seems to hold you down too much, and you end up longing to just plug the guitar straight into the amp and play that way.
Yeah, there are a lot less bubbly sounds and effects, and it’s more about the playing on this record. Didn’t I see that you sold some of your guitars a few years ago.
I sold a Jazzmaster, yeah. Because I had two Jazzmasters that were almost identical. Back in the day we had different tunings, and for live stuff you could jump from one song to the next…
Oh, so you kept one.
Oh, yeah. Yeah!
Is that what you’re using on Bolts?
Yeah, there was a Rickenbacker and a Tele, but a lot of it ended up being the Jazzmaster, which is really the guitar for me. A Jazzmaster through a VOX AC-30.
Bolts has such a warm coloration, and isn’t fatiguing, which are the things that I usually associate with tape, but was recorded entirely on hard disk. Was that coloration achieved in the mixing stage at all, or was it more the mics and pres you were using?
Yeah, it’s both. Charlie is very much into the classic records. He grew up in the ’80s, well aware of how hideous everything sounded. So he’s definitely a man who’s going to skirt that kind of sound. And I think you can get that sound… it’s like a lot of mediums, such as graphic design, where people are actually working to make things look hand-made, with bits of pieces of tape over the top, or whatever. The advantages with digital are plain to see, but you’ve got to work against the robots and bring it back to the humans. The humans must win in the end.
I have this little theory about Toshack Highway. It seemed like there was a point where Swervedriver just stopped, where you might have been game to keep going, and so it’s almost like a way of continuing the spirit of what you were doing, but it’s the Adam Franklin version, what you were contributing to that spirit. And there’s a lot of self-referencing going on. For somebody like me who’s been following your music for years, it’s disorienting. For example the Everyday Rock’n’Roll releases, where there are demos or versions of old Swervedriver songs on there. And I’ve noticed this musical theme. It’s like your theme, this spaghetti-western type thing. It’s in the guitar line on “Sundown,” [from Bolts of Melody] and also in “Sci-Flyer,” “Last Train To Satansville,” “Deep Seat”… [hums the line]
Well, I’m quite interested in that because I think you are actually the first person to ever pick up on the connection between the guitar parts in “Deep Seat” and “Sci-Flyer,” which we always thought people would pick up on straight away.