For fans of '90s shoegaze, the past few years have been a rush of reunions: Slowdive. Ride. Lush. Swirlies. Okay, hear me out. Unlike their UK contemporaries, the at-the-time Boston-based band followed a more lo-fi path, combining a DIY, punk aesthetic with their swoony, well, "swirly" guitars. In 1992, they released their first single "Didn't Understand" on the now-iconic Slumberland Records, a label synonymous with that east coast '90s dream-pop sound. The band then signed to Taang! Records, releasing the EP What To Do About Them and the 1993 LP Blondertongue Audiobaton, which ranks at #11 on Pitchfork’s “50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time” list and was just reissued late last year on vinyl.
Their time with Taang! was tumultuous, and since the turn of the century, releases and tours have been sporadic, with most of the music self-released or shared via their website. So, when the band recently announced their first west coast tour in over a decade, we had to know why. We chatted with founding members Damon Tuntunjian and Andy Bernick right before they hit the road. KEXP presents the Swirlies this Friday, August 11th at Barboza with Cruel Summer.
KEXP: First off, where the hell have you guys been? I mean, sure, there have been a few teasers here and there — The Yes Girls project in 2000, the Joyful Noise Recordings flexi in 2016 — but, what has been keeping you busy during the past decade?
Damon: We had a gap after the tour for [the self-released LP] Cats of the Wild Volume 2 in 2003 (our last trip to the west coast) — primarily due to graduate school for me and Andy. We have however kept the band active by touring every other year (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and now 2017). For the 2013 tour, we opened for Kurt Vile (our guitar player Rob Laakso is one of the Violators & now is in the Sea Lice). We have had very little recorded output (apart from periodically releasing live recordings via our Magic Strop series, which we self-released via our website). We are trying to change that pattern -- so our recent flexi is at least a baby step in the right direction. Most of our time is taken up by regular life -- jobs, family, etc. It’s also difficult to coordinate sessions on account of the band members all living in different cities (and countries).
What was the impetus for this west coast tour?
Andy: Michael Stock [founder of the long-running club night Part Time Punks, held at The Echo on Sunset Blvd.] has been talking to Damon for years about doing a show in LA. It finally came together this summer. We've all wanted to come out this way for a long time, too.
So, late last year, you released a vinyl reissue of 1993’s Blondertongue Audiobaton. Why that album? What was the process like for the reissue — did you revisit old master tapes or remix anything?
A number of labels were interested in working with Taang! to re-release the LP on vinyl, but Taang! was rather non-responsive to their requests and after a few years, they ultimately decided to do it on their own (without consulting us). They own the masters, digital rights, everything; we have little control over what they do and are rarely invited to give input.
Our only involvement in the reissue was making sure the art looked right. (The initial art that Taang! produced for the reissue wasn't good). After trying to get it on the right track, Taang! just let us re-do the art ourselves (with the help of Damon’s friend Viktor Hober), and we did our best to make it look almost exactly like the original. We also made a special poster for the release (an annotated schematic of the LP jacket artwork). Taang used the original plates and stampers from the first pressing -- so there was no opportunity to remix/remaster it. Other than that, we have no idea what Taang! did with the release -- how many they made or sold, etc. Can we talk about the Taang! situation? Did it have any bearing on the Swirlies’ absence from the music scene? Has that relationship been mended? Will more reissues be on the way? It’s a demoralizing situation. We hoped the Blondertongue reissue would be a fresh start, but there was no change. Just before leaving for this tour, we learned Taang is reissuing our "Brokedick Car" 7” -- this was the first we heard of it. The Taang situation is only part of the reason for our lack of output. We haven't lived near each other in many years, and writing songs remotely hasn't been easy. But we're still at it, always hopeful. In the early 2000’s, free from label commitments, you launched your own label: Sneaky Flute Empire. What was it like getting a taste of running a label — were you surprised at how much work it was, or, alternately, surprised at what a piece of cake it was? Damon: It was just a way to release our own material ourselves on a very small scale. The last release was a 7” of live recordings we did for our 2015 tour -- just 500 copies (sold at shows and our online store.) We haven't put a great deal of time into it over the years, but it’s been enjoyable when we have done it.
Nowadays I live right across the bridge from them in Malmö, Sweden (I’m a dual citizen these days) -- we even shared a studio space for a while. Anyway, at this point, they’ve been as much as an inspiration to me as maybe I was to them in the beginning. It’s a complete honor to have had the opportunity to work with those guys, and they have been great friends. Andy, what can you tell us about your side project Wild Fruit? Is there just the one 7” on Dischord? Andy: That was somewhat short lived. I was in it with my friends Franck Cordes and Renee Tsao, mostly doing Franck’s songs. The 7” was self-released, but Dischord is nice enough to include recordings by DC bands in their catalog.
How do you guys find the time to do Swirlies stuff? What has been the biggest obstacle to future Swirlies stuff? Once every two years is about all the time we've had. Distance and a general lack of free time have been the biggest obstacles.