KEXP Exclusive Interview: Swirlies

Janice Headley

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.

Blondertongue Audiobaton was recently listed as #11 on Pitchfork’s “50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time” list — what was your reaction to that news? Coming up in the ‘90s, did you associate with that scene or find influence from it? What did influence the Swirlies? Pleasantly surprised -- Pitchfork panned a couple of our other releases, so didn’t expect anything positive from them. Influences early on? Initially, we liked the more aggressive late '80s indie stuff -- like You’re Living All Over Me and Isn’t Anything. We were also really influenced by hardcore, since we came out of that scene in Boston, as well as a lot of the twee K, Sarah, C86, and Postcard stuff that the early Slumberland crowd was also into. We were always sort of misfits in both the Boston noise scene and in the Slumberland scene though, so I think I’d generally say that we just rolled along and did our own thing -- though we certainly had some bands that we loved playing with and had great relationships with (Velocity Girl, Madbox, Kudgel, Pitchblend, Lilys, Monsterland, Slughog).

You two are the only founding members heading out on this tour. Why? What do you think has been the magic that has kept you guys friends for so long? Andy: We’ve had a revolving lineup since the beginning -- Damon’s the only one who has been on every tour. Even our first US tour (for What To Do About Them) had a fill-in bass player (Morgan), since I was busy with school. Adam Pierce and Rob Laakso have been with us since ‘96 or so, Deb Warfield for over 10 years. Elliott Malvas has been rotating between bass and lead guitar as needed for the past five years. Rob is busier now with Kurt Vile and other activities, but he tries to join us on certain legs of our tours -- he’ll probably play with us at the Portland show, as he lives there now. Damon and I have known each other since high school -- we still have a lot of the same interests, and we connect musically (most of the time), so it’s natural to just keep doing it when we have time.

Let’s talk about artist Ron Rege, Jr! How did he come to do artwork for early Swirlies merchandise and albums, and why have you continued to use his artwork? What do you think of his comic books? Andy: We met Ron in Plymouth around 1988 or so -- he was friends with some guys from Plymouth who had a blisteringly-fast hardcore band called The Stigmatics (Ron wrote some lyrics for them). Damon and I went to high school with the drummer (Jim Gadbois), and when their guitarist quit in 1988, Damon joined up on guitar. I had a car and would drive Damon to practice and take photos of the band. Later, Damon and Ron both went to Mass Art and lived together in Kenmore Square and played music together (The Puffins). Damon tells me they were assigned the old Longwood building auditorium (now Beth Israel Hospital) as their studio space and used it as a practice space instead. I was still learning bass at the time and played there with them a little bit at that spot. Then Ron and I played some music together (we recorded a proto-version of "Pancake" together). Ron was involved from the beginning with artwork, and he would often join us on stage to make noises (and also sometimes contributed segue material to our records). It was extra special to have him make some drawings for this trip. [See the flyer above.] His comics are great -- Skibber Bee Bye is a masterpiece, and his work now is getting really far out. Damon, how did you get involved with the band Mew? (Who are, incidentally, also on tour right now, playing Saturday, August 19th at Neumos!) What drew you to work with them? You lived in Sweden for a while, right? Or are you still there? Damon: Mew saw us play at a festival in Denmark in January 1994. Jonas recently sent me a scan of his ticket from this show (we’ll have to post that on our site!). I also have a picture I took of the crowd and you can see Jonas and Bo pretty clearly. Hilarious. Shortly after the show, they sent me a demo cassette of their band -- except it was blank. The cover had a weird drawing of a girl with this kind of Hello Kitty face and a tight t-shirt and a panda bear and a red heart between them or something (I probably used it as a blank tape for 4-tracking). Maybe the Panda was crying or something -- can’t remember. I can see Jonas adding a detail like that though... HAH. Anyway, I thought that it was pretty funny that nothing was on this panda girl love tape, so I wrote them back and told them. Then they sent a replacement with music on it -- and I was totally blown away. I thought it sounded like Pale Saints. I especially liked the female vocals on a song called “Say You’re Sorry.” A short while later, Bo got my number and called me to ask if I would come to Denmark to produce their first record. I didn’t think I could actually manage that on my own and I suggested that they instead use Rich Costey (who engineered our Blondertongue and Salons... records and a few other things) or the two of us together. Rich was busy -- but Bo thought I could do it on my own (he is very persistent). So I went to Denmark on my own and did it. I think one of the first things I said to them was, “So, where is the girl singer?” and they said there was no girl -- just Jonas. We all hit it off and became great friends -- some of the closest friends I’ve had in my life. They sort of adopted me as their good luck charm and had me play on all the following records -- though I wasn’t on the last one since I was too busy with work (sorry!!).

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.

photo from the road, via the band's Instagram
photo from the road, via the band's Instagram
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.

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