You don't remember Swervedriver. Not really. They're the quintessential band you've heard of without ever actually hearing. You discovered them late or after-the-fact, if you discovered them at all. But don't beat yourself up. If it weren't for an unlikely source (a snowboarding video that featured the band's “A Change is Gonna Come”), I probably wouldn't have heard of them, either.
In fact, Swervedriver slipped past the ears of most people entrenched in the '90s alt-rock explosion. One simple reason why is that their sound wasn't so easily defined. They weren't grunge or hair-metal refugees or pop-punks or boy-band material. They're most often referred to as “shoegaze” because they're British and kind of spacey, but that boot don't exactly fit with all their heavy guitars.
No, the boys from Oxford inhabited their own little sonic island, although they weren't exactly alone on the musical archipelago. Other bands that had developed a distinct sound—Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr.—were hitting their stride when Swervedriver released its full-length debut in 1991. But while those bands eventually became darlings of the Lollapalooza youth movement, Swervedriver was left behind.
The original lineup began to splinter as early as 1992, and band members continued playing musical chairs until Swervedriver officially called it quits in 1999. But now the band is touring again after nearly a decade on the shelf.
Guitarist/vocalist Adam Franklin, the longtime captain of the good ship Swervedriver, says the reunion is pure happenstance.
“It was really just spur-of-the-moment,” Franklin tells CityBeat. “The time was never right in the past with either all of us or some of us not really being into it. For some reason, back in August, [guitarist] Jimmy [Hartridge] called me up and said, ‘Are you up for doing this?' And I said, ‘Yeah.' It just seemed like the right time.”
Of course, it didn't hurt that—like Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies—Swervedriver's music experienced a popular resurgence during the band's absence. Since the last official Swervedriver album (the Wrong Treats EP) was released in 1999, the band has arguably garnered more popularity and praise than it ever did during the initial run.
“It's almost humbling,” Franklin says. “I know there are a lot of people who never got to catch the band at the time, and they're really stoked about [the reunion tour]. That's kind of exciting.”
Franklin recalls the last years of the band's first voyage with far less enthusiasm. He describes a disastrous chain of events that led to the band being shuffled between record labels, growing increasingly frustrated as their music collected dust. Both 1995's Ejector Seat Reservation and 1998's 99th Dream (their last official full-length) experienced lengthy delays before either were released.
“The last three years were label woes, really,” Franklin grumbles. “We were left just, like, holding this baby.”
Despite being in perpetual label limbo, Swervedriver managed to release four full-length albums between 1991 and 1999. Their debut, Raise, is widely considered to be the gold standard. Not only does the disc play host to three of the greatest heavy-guitar tracks of the '90s (“Rave Down,” “Sandblasted” and “Son of Mustang Ford”), it also sports one of the best opening tracks ever, the stampeding “Sci-Flyer.”
The song—with its layered and effects-laden guitars slowly building alongside thunderous drum rolls—also happens to be one of the greatest driving songs ever. Franklin says it's mostly coincidence that so many songs in the Swervedriver catalogue seem to fit perfectly with a long drive. Then again, the phenomenon is oddly appropriate considering the band has encountered so many bumps and curves in the road back to indie-rock prominence.
“We used to quite often listen to new albums whilst driving around country lanes late at night around Oxford or when driving up to London,” Franklin reflects. “[Maybe] we were subconsciously also wanting our music to sound good whilst in transit.” Swervedriver plays at 9 p.m. Friday, May 30, with Film School at The Casbah. 619-232-HELL. www.swervedriver.com.