Blue-collar punk rock has seen a rise to prominence in recent years and at the forefront is Michigan’s The Swellers. Having kicked off the year by ditching their label Fueled By Ramen, the band have been able to crank out a brand new EP and it’s just like the garage days of yore. This month, the quartet are returning to Australia for the first time since Soundwave’s Counter Revolution and it sees a celebration of 10 big ones together as a force in the punk world. We caught up with Jonathan, the drumming half of the founding Diener brothers, to quiz him on label woes, basement recordings and keepin’ it real after 10 long years.
You essentially rung in the new year by leaving your label Fueled By Ramen, what was the decision behind that?
It was a long time coming I guess. We were friends with everyone there and we had a good time while it lasted. With the first record things went really well, then I think everyone on both sides kind of had really big expectations for the second record and we were just waiting for a lot of things to happen. Again, no hard feelings to the label or anything, but we just knew it wasn’t the right fit. Everything from the types of bands that were on the label to the way they promote a band like us. When we decided, they were cool enough to let us leave and right now, we’re just a bunch of dudes who still play in a basement. We’re a completely independent band in the States and we’ve been finding labels in different countries to get some real push over there which we haven’t really gotten before. Right now, it’s one of those things where we’re taking our time. We wrote a record kind of just talking about the frustrations of transitions, whether it was the label or our personal lives, and now that that’s completed, we’re in this really nice moment of clarity where we don’t know what’s coming next, but it’s exciting again. You don’t have the same expectations that you used to and if you’re proactive and productive, you get to actually control your future instead of just sitting there and waiting to die.
Would you say it’s ideal to be without a label? There are definitely some bands out there that thrive on the pressure of needing to get a record out.
It’s a strange thing. You hear of bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails and in the past few years they’ve come out and have been like, “You know what? You don’t need a record label, you can do it yourselves” but their bands have sold 50 million records each, and then clearly, they have a huge fan base so their name is worth more than the label and they’ll do well on their own. Kudos to them for kind of leading music in that direction. As far as we go, we wanted to show people that you don’t just sign to a label for the sake of signing to a label, you sign with the intention of something happening and actual promises being met. So we when wanted to do stuff ourselves, the way we looked at is was, we only have ourselves to blame if something goes wrong. We get to see the real possibility of it. It’s literally 100% on you. Obviously it’s more stressful and more time-consuming, but at the same time, you’re not sharing the money, you’re not sharing the stress, you get to keep it all to yourself which is really nice and the overall idea of it is, since you’re not sharing all this stuff, you get to see the money right away. People are always like, “If I buy a record, how much money do you get from that?” and you don’t have the heart to tell kids at shows, “Well, the label invested X amount into us recording, so by selling every record, we’re slowly recouping the cost and then once we recoup, then we get money.” But, are we gonna sell that many records to pay it off? I think it might have been Steve Albini, a few years ago he wrote this thing talking about how major labels and record labels in general have this weird system where eventually, you’re going to lose money regardless, unless you’re some strange phenomenon. So the way we’re looking at it, instead of putting in this huge investment and hoping it pays off, it’s spawned this resourcefulness, which is what punk rock is all about. When records aren’t selling anymore, you have to be resourceful, and that’s where all of this comes in together.
You’ve got your new EP Running Out Of Places To Go slated for release in mid October, would it be fair to say you’re just a teensy bit excited about it finally being out in the world?
It’s gonna be really nice. I think it’s a proverbial weight off our shoulders. As soon as it’s released, all the stress it’s been causing will be gone from our heads. Those are songs we wrote literally how we did when we started out: my brother and I in a basement jamming. He had some cool songs, we came together and did the lyrics, and I went through a break-up myself after a four-year relationship, and it’s one of those things where a lot of people are sorry, but it’s actually one of those mutual things and it’s kind of a metaphor for everything we’d just gone through where it’s like, you realise it’s better to be happy than comfortable and that goes for record labels, relationships, anything. It comes together to form this general message where it’s like, if you find out what you really want, then go for it. Everything from how we recorded it, how we’re releasing it, and the lyrics we wrote, all of it’s on there together. I’m just excited to share it with everybody.
Was it a more relaxed affair this time around?
It was actually one of the easiest times we’ve had writing songs. Even easier than when we first started our band. The one strange thing is like, with that last record, there was that thought in the back of our heads that it was our second record, “Maybe we can do something really big with this, maybe we can do this as a single” and with this record, none of that existed. Even if we would start questioning ourselves, we would just look at each other and go, “Who cares?” that’s kind of the mentality where you can write a good song, but you don’t have to have some weird script reasoning for writing the song. The second we threw that out the window, everything was just so relaxed and nice. The actual sound of the songs, one song is more of an indie song I guess, that opens the record, and the lyrics are very consistent throughout. We were telling people the other day that it’s a pretty angry and emotionally charged record, and they said, “Oh so it’s all fast?” and it’s like, “We never said it was fast.” You can hear the emotion in each song without it being fast. We ended up having two fast-paced songs, two mid-paced songs and one slower song, but all of them have this cohesiveness so when it’s all together, it’s the perfect reflection of the last year of our band. That’s why we’re so excited for it.
With this year marking the big 1-0 for you guys, was touring halfway across the world ever on the cards when you first started out back in 2002?
It’s really strange. When we first started, it was literally just us playing in our basement and having fun, and a lot of people don’t know about this, but my dad’s childhood friend was a songwriter, and he heard our three-song demo and he came down to meet us and he said, “I wanna have you guys record at this studio and I wanna send your stuff to labels and make you a big band”, obviously he had nothing to do with the actual songwriting, but he paid for studio time for us and we recorded this demo super early on and our program for the future was basically, “We’re gonna be on a big label, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that” and when none of it panned out and we kinda realised… Like, we did the Vans Warped Tour, a little bit of it, and we were like, “You know what? This is our world. Where you’re from really isn’t what we’re trying to do” and we’ve leaned more in that direction ever since. The dreams of, “Well we could be big like Hanson when they were young”, that dissolved. These things kept happening and they’d kind of just crumble, so our vision of playing arenas by the time we were 18, that changed every year and became lesser and lesser and lesser until it became this nice reality where we are now. Obviously we didn’t think that a band named The Swellers was gonna last this long, I can at least say that [laughs]. My brother and I are still making music together and we never thought we’d be playing this many places. In our heads we were like, “We’re gonna be so big in Flint, Michigan!” and that was it, so it’s pretty cool the way it’s all turned out.
You’ve also had your fair share of line-up changes over that time. Would you call the band as it is now the definitive Swellers line-up?
This is definitely the one. The main reasoning is, it’s almost at four years, which is almost half the band’s lifespan, and on top of that, we have dudes in the band with us now who are kinda like tourlifers, they’re like us, they don’t really know anything else. Your life is: you pack your stuff, get in the van and you’re gone for a month at a time and you do that for half a year. Obviously over time you start making more money, but right now we’re at a point where the dudes are 30 and they’re OK sleeping on floors still, and that’s the kind of people we want in a band. Not saying that they’re losers by any means, but saying that we’re all in it for the same reasons. If something does happen, we’ll all feel it’s been worth it the whole time. Before, when we were all younger, everyone would kind of struggle with the pre-quarter life crisis where they’re like, “Do I go to college? Do I keep this job? Do I do this?” I even had some of those moments too, but now I know that this is what I want and we all know that at the same time, so this is the line-up. This is it.
With 10 down, there’s hopefully a hell of a lot more to come. Have you put much thought into the next 10? Or are you content to just take everything as it comes.
A little bit of A, a little bit of B. Short term, we want to sign to a new label and work on a new full-length record, we’re hoping some time next year would be cool, and then long term, I’d love to be in a band til I’m 50 years old. I’d love to be one of those guys, you know, like Green Day. Obviously they got big pretty early on, but they’re one of those bands where they’re in their forties or even fifties, but they still do what they do, they tour once or twice a year all over the world, and then they’re done and they get to spend the rest of the time with their families. They’re still doing what they love, they’re just doing less of it. That’s the perfect mentality over touring. Over time you get to do it like that. Again, I’d love to make this a living, and it’s just one of those simple things where doing what you love is always worth more than anything. We want to just see how it goes. Maybe things will completely change, but we’ve done all of this stuff and we’ve got stories to tell, and that’s always going to be more important to us than a retirement plan I guess.
The Swellers / Endless Heights Tour Dates
Fri Oct 12th – Fowlers Live, Adelaide (AA)
Sat Oct 13th – Bang, Melbourne (18+)
Sun Oct 14th – Ferntree Gully Hotel, Ferntree Gully (18+)
Tue Oct 16th – The Basement, Canberra (18+)
Wed Oct 17th – The Patch, Wollongong (18+)
Thu Oct 18th – Hot Damn, Sydney (18+)
Fri Oct 19th – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle (18+)
Sat Oct 20th – Thriller, Brisbane (18+)
Sun Oct 21st – Elements Collective, Brisbane (AA)