Richard Swift doesn't take offense when you fail to recognize his name. He may be touring with Wilco, but he hasn't burrowed his way up from the underground quite yet.
'It's not like I'm expecting people to know who I am,' he says. 'It's like a cult thing at the moment. Besides, I don't know if I'd ever want to be recognized by pop culture because I've never recognized pop culture itself.'
For a guy who eschews pop culture, Swift has received some sturdy support from its purveyors. The American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist recently appeared on Britain's tastemaking music television show, Later with Jools Holland (in the past, Holland championed acts like Radiohead and Oasis). Swift also played the 2006 South by Southwest festival.
Perhaps it's not so much that he dislikes pop culture. Rather, he didn't have much of a chance to absorb it while growing up a farm kid in rural Minnesota and Oregon.
'We didn't listen to the radio,' he explains. 'My parents didn't play records. I think everyone carries a bit of their childhood with them in everyday life, whether it's subconscious or conscious.'
He might never have discovered music out there in the boonies if not for a new sibling.
'My stepbrother moved in when I was 14, and he brought stuff like Frank Zappa and R.E.M. He showed me movies like [Zappa's] Baby Snakes. He always had an inclination to a bit of the weirdness. He turned me on to avant-garde music as well as pop music: early U2, Parliament and Funkadelic, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone were staples.'
He pinpoints that as the period when he developed a consuming, lifelong habit: collecting vinyl.
'You can see a record working,' he declares with a true audiophile lust in his voice. 'You see the needle and you see the record spinning. I enjoy surface noise. I like what [vinyl] does to the sound of a record. Part of it, too, is that it's not dispensable; someday I'll be dead and I can leave [these LPs] to my children, and they'll take care of them.'
Swift's massive library informs his music, which is lo-fi and eclectic, referencing everything from Tin Pan Alley to exuberant, classic pop. His clever, catchy lyrics are largely about his own life, though Swift hesitates to label them confessional.
'I don't ever sit down and think about a fictional guy named Bob and how I really want to get inside his head. A lot of singer-songwriters are that way, and I don't really meddle in that. I don't try to tell anyone else's story. I just try to tell my own and hope and trust that I'm not the only one that goes through this and that people will connect with it. Even when you're telling your own story, you're telling the story of other people.'
Swift's most recent album, Dressed for the Letdown, tells the story of a struggling artist--a first-hand narrative that could easily apply to artists in San Diego, where the cost of living has sent some packing for cities like Portland and Austin, Texas. 'To make art and somehow pay the rent,' he says, 'is getting more and more difficult.'
Yet, for the past three years, Swift has managed to do just that. After a decade of random jobs--ranging from a youthful stint at Kentucky Fried Chicken to construction to music production for country and gospel artists--this is a welcome change.
'Now, I basically listen to or write music all day long--every day, every week, every month. I've done my own thing for a while now and people are OK with that. I haven't been asked to change my records or change my image. I've achieved some stability. I'm free to do what I wish, which is what most people really want to do in life.'
Richard Swift opens for Wilco at the SDSU Open Air Theatre on Monday, Aug. 27. Gates open at 8 p.m. $25-$35. 619-220-8497.