The Gift of Listening: Remembering Richard Swift

Features, Local Music
12/13/2018
Dusty Henry
photo by Jess Wolfe

The role of a rock producer is to recuse yourself from the spotlight. For every George Martin or Steve Albini who’ve transcended this generalization, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of names scribbled in album jackets that get glossed over by all but discerning listeners. It’s by design, quite literally serving “behind the scenes.” A producer can be an unsung hero, a secret weapon, or a scapegoat to blame when you’re “not really feeling” the sound of a new record.

Richard Swift was something else entirely.

 

Swift existed between worlds. Some days you could find in performing on stage as a de facto member of The Black Keys, The Shins, or The Arcs, plus touring stints with Wilco and Cold War Kids. He was prolific in his own right, releasing eight solo albums over the last 15 year – his most recent work was The Hex, which came out earlier this year following his untimely death. But if you know the name Swift, you’re probably an indie rock obsessive who loves poring over the inner sleeves of records, fixating on the microscopic fonts to see who’s behind the curtain of your favorite albums. I know because I’m one of those people too. Records from the likes of Damien Jurado, Sharon Van Etten, FoxygenCults, Hamilton Leithauser, and on and on and on.

Canonization is a messy ordeal, one that opens itself to the things you’ve left out more so than the names you’ve included. But if I had to throw a name in the proverbial "Goblet of Fire" of producers who’ve defined indie rock in the past decade, Swift’s name comes up instantly. It’d be disingenuous to say that Swift was ignored during his time, in fact, he was seemingly beloved by anyone who worked with him and adored by the music nerds who were aware of his existence. When Swift passed away earlier at the untimely age of 41, you could feel nauseous gut punch reverberating from the artist he’s worked with and the fans who idolized his work. For those who knew who he was, it appears he wasn’t underappreciated.

 

I can often identify a Swift production before I even know it’s him. It’s not the placement of the drums or how forward or backward the vocals are mixed. There’s a warm haziness that coats the music. I’m not an engineer, so forgive me for my ignorance. From my experiences in practice spaces and being around musicians, it recalls to my mind the fuzzy, white noise of instruments and amplifiers stuffed in a room together. It’s not lo-fi, just the sound of electrical currents waiting to be given life. And when the music does begin, each instrument flourishes with distinct clarity. It’s a dichotomy that’s truly mind-boggling to me. How do you capture the grainy essence of life in the room with audiophilic precision? Swift made magic, bent realities, and defied reason.

The first record I can remember being aware of Swift was Damien Jurado’s Maraqopa, the first in what would be a trilogy that the two would record together. It’s fitting that this would be the record for me because really it hits all the high marks of Swift’s style. More than just working behind the boards, Swift would often perform on the albums he recorded. Maraqopa revels in Swift’s fingerprints with douses of psychedelia and dashes of R&B, particularly in the bass and keys. The album feels like a transmission from some great beyond, which is an apt fit considering the trilogy’s conceptual tale of a man leaving society for a dreamlike land. It’s the same feeling I get when I put on Foxygen’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic or Kevin Morby’s City Music. A mystical fog of sounds harnessed into a sparkling daze, a sound that would – and will – be replicated and expanded endlessly by rising artists and producers.

 

In a recent chat with Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan, I asked him if he had any strong memories of working with Swift on Care – Bazan’s solo album from 2017. Bazan’s response was reverent, technical, and verbose. He first told me about recording the drummers for the album closer “The Ballad of Pedro Y Blanco.” Bazan, somewhat out of practice on the instrument, first gave it a shot. After replaying the recording, Swift asked to give it a try himself. What Bazan heard blew him away – Swift’s playing was remarkably tight with the click track. But also just off the click in a natural, comfortable way. When Bazan pointed this out to him, Swift replied, “Man, the click doesn’t move.” It was an epiphany for Bazan – a parable about listening closer. It wasn’t the only moment in recording that he took this lesson from Swift. He shares this scene of listening back to the mixes in the studio:

”It was really loud in monitors. So loud. And part of that was it kept people from talking because you just couldn't not listen to what was happening. And that created an environment of reverence while listening to the playback that I've never really seen before. And I listened deeper as a result of it. It was almost like when the playback was happening and he was listening, you didn't really have access to him. You could sort of touch him and get his attention or whatever, but he was meditating on the music in a very deep way. Watching that over and over again, it just reminded me, ‘Oh yeah, all of this is about listening.’ And he just did that in such a crazy, deep way. I saw even more evidence of it than that but those are two really clear ways that I just saw one thing that he's doing that other people are doing. He's listening more deeply. He just is listening harder and that that moved me... Just that reminder. I can just see them listening in my mind. I can see him drumming and witness the evidence of that depth of listening.”

 

The truly transcendent thing here is that even without having the firsthand experience Bazan and other’s have had, this lesson comes through in nearly every work Swift touched. Something about the way he recorded and played demands your attention. It begs you, urges you, to lean in. Turn your ear to the drums, the bass, that wicked guitar line, those vocals careening through it all. Listening is the most obvious aspect of music, one that’s easy to gloss over. Swift’s legacy is monumental and to be continually dissected. We can’t have Swift back and he left us too soon, but this single lesson is one of his most powerful. To quiet yourself and listen to the music. Really hear it. To tune everything else out for just a moment.

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