swampfun

I just spent a week and a half on the road with the band Swampbird. All the new people and places were so stimulating and fun that I completely and unashamedly abandoned my attempt at keeping an online tour diary (although at one point that seemed a promising endeavor). I haven’t wanted to analyze the trip because I’ve been completely immersed in it. So instead of trying to recreate a tour diary from memory (and a sleep-deprived, partied-out memory at that), I’d like to use what I’ve learned and experienced on tour to try to answer a question that might be on your mind: Is Swampbird for real?

The band certainly has its detractors who would say “no.” I’ve talked to people who view the band solely as a group of self-aware liberal art school graduates who put on a campy southern shtick and sing about cliché country experiences they’ve never actually had. Truly, Zac Hale has never “shot [a man] for a mean look in his eye.” While singers and bands stretch the truth or write completely fictional songs all the time, I think Swampbird gets criticized because their fictions seem so far-fetched from who they are as people offstage. Yet this criticism is only valid if you think Swampbird is trying to be serious. So the question remains: Is Swampbird for real?

If you asked the band this question at their very first band-practice in the fall of 2010 at Hendrix College, they too would have said “no.” They’ve expressed to me multiple times that at first they really just used the band as an excuse to drink whiskey and party. Their very first songs (like the song “Bottle”, quoted above), were silly caricatures of the country-western style. They were just having fun playing music, cracking each other up, and performing at house parties. The problem is, when you try to write a caricature of a country-western song, you end up sounding a lot like a country-western song. The other problem is, the Swampbird boys are actually talented musicians and thoughtful songwriters. Thus, even though they were not exactly “serious” about the band, they consistently entertained both themselves and their audiences with their performances and Swampbird gained enough momentum to continue past the band members’ college life.

Flash forward to 2015 and Swampbird is still having fun playing music and cracking each other up, but they have clearly upped the ante. They still perform the freewheeling Hendrix-era classics like “Bottle” and “1,2,3,” but now accompany them with poignant and nuanced autobiographical numbers like “Ally’s Song” and “Brussels.” As the songs have matured, so have the venues. Though I’m positive they’d still enjoy rocking a house party, Swampbird now performs on major stages both in Arkansas and around the country. They’ve even filmed multiple professional music videos, one of which (Matter of Time) has over 10,000 Youtube views. Swampbird has left the swamp.

Despite all of this, I admit that I too wondered if these guys were actually serious about music, or merely using it as a fun drinking game. Regardless, I agreed to go on tour with them because I wanted to see some exciting new places, because I knew I would enjoy playing their songs, and because I like all of the band members as people. But like the beginning of all of my good relationships—playing in bands is a lot like dating by the way, but that’s for another blog post— I was just looking to have a casual good time and ended up connecting in a much deeper way. From Alabama to Maine, Swampbird showed me an amazing good time and won me over both musically and personally.

The tone of the tour was set on our drive to Birmingham. Dylan, who is currently in Canada, homeless and recording an album with Daniel Romano (aka living his dream), needed to call to cancel his electricity at his former apartment. Discovering he had a refund check in store from his initial deposit, he asked Zac if he could have it sent to his house and then asked the customer service operator if he could put it in the care of his friend. All parties agreed. When she asked Dylan for the name of his friend he had a moment of inspiration: “yes it’s first name Za, that’s Z, A.” spoken calmly “and last name Kale, like the leaf.” Forever after on tour Zac Hale was referred to as Za Kale, most often in a Jamaican accent. From “Wawawawawawawawa,” to “praise him” to “can you feel it” to “take me home tonight,” the inside jokes amassed on tour and the laughs came easy. Our second to last show was at a brewery in Portland, Maine on a beautiful sunny, temperate afternoon. The combination of an emotional tour, sleep deprivation, chemical enhancement, and cowboy music had us compulsively laughing onstage both between and during songs— it was great.

Indeed I’ve learned that the best way to approach Swampbird is with a touch of humor— they do. Honestly I laugh every time I hear the opening line to their song Gasoline: “Momma I quit talkin’ to Jesus, but I’m too ashamed to let you know, I put my faith in this goddamn rodeo.” From talking to him I understand that this is actually pointing to a real sorrowful feeling and experience in Dylan’s life, but this line is delivered in such an over the top classic-country way, that it is always funny to me. Swampbird intentionally exists in this grey area between humor and heartbreak and I think this is a brilliant element of the band— you can choose to either laugh or cry within the same song. This is nothing new; from it’s earliest incarnations, country music has always walked this line. Just ask Hank Williams. Yet Swampbird’s playful and sometimes irreverent attitude is perhaps what rubs some listeners the wrong way and leads them to question the band’s sincerity. I believe that they are simply following in the footsteps of innumerable self-aware country artists who weave between irony, obscenity, and honesty (e.g. Kris Kristopherson, David Allan Coe, Drive-by Truckers, etc.).

Not everyone will appreciate Swampbird’s lyrics— this is fine (I’ve written before that it is better to be loved by some and hated by others than kinda-sorta liked by all). Yet if you listen to more than the words, you’ll notice that Swampbird does some very interesting things with the musical elements of their songs. None of the band-members are classically trained, but they use what they know about music in very clever ways. Going from loud to soft (and vice-versa) is something that everyone innately understands and responds to, yet many young bands totally disregard this effect and very few bands I know utilize dynamic volume as well as Swampbird. Furthermore, most bands overall play far too loud and drown themselves out— Swampbird doesn’t necessarily play soft, but stays low enough for every part to be heard coherently. Harmonically the band isn’t reinventing the wheel, but they are not writing the same I-IV-V chord songs that everyone and their mom has already written. They often use familiar chords and progressions, making their songs easy to listen to and understand, but vary them enough to keep both the audience and the musicians entertained. I’d like to pull out my music major/gigging guitarist credibility card and tell you to trust me when I say that Swampbird writes musically rich songs. They also build in moments of improvisation into most songs so that live performances are not merely cookie cutter renditions of their album recordings, but spontaneous and unique moments. I took full advantage of this fact and flexed my improv muscle at every gig we played on tour (Zac and Dylan delightfully laughed at me for never playing the same thing twice). I had so much fun playing these songs.

In addition to their song structures, Swampbird also handles the logistics of band management with great organization and planning. Dylan did a wonderful job of booking this tour, asking other bands and artists about each venue, and making sure travel lengths and lodging plans were all feasible. Additionally Zac operated as band treasurer during the tour, keeping tight records of all of our income and expenses (he also did a wonderful job calling and researching rental cars for the ride home). Pete Campos operated as band manager/free-safety, taking care of our payments, selling merchandise, driving the van, and selflessly letting us have the best sleeping spots wherever we stayed. Paul and I pretty much just played drums and guitar. Additionally when faced with difficulties, the band was never too flustered, but handled it with reason and direct solutions. In Boston, we stayed at the house of Dylan and Zac’s larger than life college buddy Conner (affectionately known as “Corn-dog”). We all stayed up far too late drinking and telling stories, and in the morning Dylan and Conner were abruptly awoken by Conner’s roommate: “Conner! You gotta go to work, you’re late! … Oh, dude, your van’s getting towed.” Dylan ran outside just in time to see the van getting pulled away. Dylan went back inside, slept another hour, found the place it was impounded, walked all the way there, paid for the van, and returned to pick us up.Naturally he was a bit surly about the whole ordeal, but simply solved the problem without even waking us up.

Yet the true measure of a band’s viability is not in its organization, songwriting, or attitude, but in the way it relates to people. Fans are a band’s life-blood. From my very first Swampbird show, July 27 at The Whitewater Tavern in which dozens of people were singing along to the swamp songs, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well people respond to this band live. Excluding Knoxville (Knoxville was a bummer except for all the money and pizza the venue gave us— thanks Barley’s), we either played to current fans or won new fans everywhere we went. Our last performance of the tour was an impromptu outdoor show literally on the sidewalk of downtown Portland, Maine in the middle of the afternoon. We had a few friends come listen and Paul had some family there supporting him, yet the majority of the audience members were simply passersby who decided to stick around. No one is going to get rich playing on the side of the road, yet the street is the oldest stage in the world, and perhaps the truest test of your appeal as an artist. There was no reason for anyone to stay and hear us play— if anything there was reason for them not to stay, assuming they were on their way to some other location— yet we won them over merely by merit of our sound (well, perhaps our look as well, but whatever it takes).

So, is Swampbird for real? Undoubtedly, yes. They are playing major shows, going on national tours, recording and selling albums, filming widely seen music videos, getting great press, and writing good music. Yet this doesn’t mean that they take it all too seriously. They still like to laugh, party, and hangout and during live performances you can tell that they are enjoying themselves. Personally, I find their attitude refreshing. Too many artists are completely humorless about their art. Certainly art can approach any subject, and certain tragic topics deserve to be handled solemnly, yet ultimately the act of creating art is obscure, ineffable, and useless. I appreciate Swampbird for having fun with it.

Swampbirdsellick

Big thanks to Nick, Morgan, Conner, Tim, and the Mallet Brothers Band for giving us places to stay and showing us the time of our life!

A month ago Whitewater Tavern was packed for the final show of the eight-year old Little Rock band The See. Over the course of the cathartic hour and a half long set, I saw audience members dancing and singing along and at least two bearded band-members kiss former bandmates on the lips. Since 2007, when Joe Yoder (vocals/guitar) and Dylan Yelnich (bass/keyboard) founded the band, The See has played countless shows, recorded two-full length albums, been dubbed the “Kings of the Scene” by the Arkansas Times, and toured the country. Despite numerous cast changes (Louis Watts played guitar and sang briefly before leaving the band, then Eric Michael Morris joined on lead guitar, then Dylan and Eric left the band, and finally Jason Tedford and I stepped in on bass and guitar respectively), The See was able to endure because the signature pieces were always present: Tyler Nance’s heavy drumming and Joe’s infectious singing. The See is finally ending because the voice and vision of the band is going away. Joe is moving to Kansas City, and thus Arkansas is losing one of its best songwriters.

Joe started writing songs in seventh grade when he first learned how to play a power chord on guitar. Enchanted by his new power, Joe brought his mom to his room to hear his first song equipped with verses, chorus, and a bridge. When teenage Joe wasn’t at school or work, he was likely seeing live music at Vino’s or buying CD’s at Rod Bryan’s record store Anthropop (sadly, this is a very dated sentence— Anthropop is closed, Vino’s has declined, and no one buys CD’s anymore). Inspired by local groups like Ho-Hum and Ashtray Babyhead, Joe started his first band Attacking the Audio in 2000 when he was a sophmore in High School. He and his bandmates Mark Chisenhall and Taylor Willet recorded at Blue Chair Studio when it was still just a small shed. Soon after, Joe started another group called the Dischordos with Charles Lyford, Gaines Fricke, and Tim Tellez. In both of these groups Joe was the cornerstone piece, playing guitar, singing, and writing songs. Joe also played bass for a couple of other bands in high school, but recently said to me “any band I have been in, even if it was a jam band that I was playing bass for, I would always write or lead the jam. Song writing is my strong suit, not my ability as a player— it’s how I contribute.”

After moving to Tempe, AZ to attend college at Arizona State, Joe and Mark formed a more mature version of Attacking the Audio with fellow Arkansas transplant Louis Watts. Although Joe’s musical skill and creativity was apparent in college, he was still experimenting with his sound and artfully imitating his favorite groups. A home recording from 2003 called “All for You” showcases not only Joe’s love of Radiohead, but also two trademarks of Joe’s songs that he has carried with him to this day: 1. Long moments without any vocals, highlighting the instrumental side of the song and 2. Drastic section changes, switching from one mood to another within the same song. Listen for yourself.

ALL FOR YOU

Joe graduated from ASU in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in film and theatre. Despite such a practical degree and likely countless job offers, Joe (like many graduates) didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. After a bad breakup he left Arizona and went to Nicaragua for a month to build houses with his dad. He then moved in with his parents in Springfield, MO to save up for an epic road trip with his friend and band-mate Louis, all the while continuing to write and record songs. Joe and Louis spent nearly three months traveling all over America before Joe finally moved back to Little Rock in the summer of 2007, wishing to start a new musical project. By the time Joe moved back to Arkansas, though just 23 years old, he had been writing songs for over a decade.

Given Joe’s musical experience, a talented rhythm section in Dylan Yelnich and Tyler Nance, and numerous connections to the Little Rock scene, The See quickly gained popularity after forming in 2007. Joe even wrote some of The See’s most enduring songs when they were still just a three-piece. The song “Selling Gold,” written during this period, may be the band’s most popular song and to me is the prototypical Joe song, incorporating a long intro (almost a separate song), biographical lyrics, passionate singing, and a catchy guitar riff that can stand on it’s own with out lyrical support. Here is the very first version of the song recorded in 2008 at UALR, (though there’s a more polished version on The See’s debut EP Selling Gold if you can find it).

SELLING GOLD

The See hit their stride after lead guitarist Eric-Michael Morris joined the band in 2010 and provided the chord support, solos, and counter melodies the band needed. They played numerous shows in and out of town, performed at festivals like Arkansas Sounds and Riverfest, made it to the finals of The Arkansas Times musicians showcase, and continued to write new material. In 2012, Joe, Dylan, Tyler, and Eric recorded and released The See’s first full-length album, Pretending and Ending, with songs inspired and organized by the progression of birth, to childhood, to adulthood, to old age, to death. Fittingly, the tastiest ear-candy comes early on in the 15 track album. If The See had been in a bigger market with wider distribution and better promotion, I think we might be hearing the song “Hey” on alternative radio stations throughout the nation.

HEY

In early 2013, Dylan and Eric left the band on good terms in order to pursue their careers, but Joe and Tyler, encouraged by their strong new album, still wished to continue The See. Furthermore, they had already booked an April gig in Denver for a friend’s birthday that they didn’t want to back out of. Luckily Jason Tedford and I were eager to fill in and provide the missing pieces— I played good lead guitar and Jason gave the band literally everything else it needed (bass, foot pedal synth bass, amps, pedals, practice space, recording capabilities, and tour van). We played our first gig together at a Pizza restaurant in Denver to a largely lesbian audience who loved our big beards and loud rock (the opening artist performing at the party was a local lesbian singer-songwriter who brought out a large lesbian following). We introduced The (new) See to Little Rock at a Garland Street Art Party later that spring, and by summer I had realized one of my teenage fantasies: tour the country with a rock band. You can read about The See’s sandwich fueled do-it-yourself tour of summer 2013 in my past blog posts here.

Joe is not your stereotypical rockstar. Despite an enormous voice and robust appearance, Joe doesn’t revel in being in the spotlight. Joe makes music because he loves to make music, not because he wishes to be the center of attention. I suspect he enjoys writing and recording songs more than actually performing them—The See has certainly spent more time in the studio than on stage the past two years. The result of this time is an album called Borealius. It is a collection of old and new Joe Yoder originals enhanced and updated by the band and recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jason Tedford at his own Wolfman Studios. Tyler, Jason, and I are all pleased and proud of our contributions to this album, but I still think of this as Joe’s parting gift to us all as he leaves for Kansas City (it is quite literally a gift as you can download it for free here).

BOREALIUS

I suppose I should mention that Joe is my brother-in-law. He and my sister Liza are moving in July so that she can do a medical fellowship at a hospital in Kansas City. Joe’s no slouch either: he’ll be going to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to get a masters in social work. They’re facing a new job, a new school, and a new town, yet the most significant change is the new life that one of them could literally be holding in their arms at this moment. This past Wednesday, Liza gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.

Bridget Murray-Yoder is an adorable creature— as my friend Carmien said, “she looks like a human and not a potato-dinosaur, which is what most newborns look like.” I would love to spend the rest of this blog talking about how she is objectively cute and will surely be the most magnificent person this world has ever seen, but you would probably stop reading. Also, this is a music blog (I am reminding myself), so I think instead I’d like to tell you what this monumental moment means to Joe’s musical life. In sum, “suddenly everything has changed.”

You, reader, are warned that this paragraph is going to get flowery for a moment. When I saw Bridget, I felt my world expand. When I held her, I couldn’t stop gazing at her sleeping face— I wanted to make her feel happy, comfortable, and loved forever, and I’m only an uncle. I know that Joe and Liza are experiencing these feelings to an even higher degree. Yet songwriters rarely touch on selfless love. Most songs are about heartbreak or lust. This is because they are true forces that everyone has felt preoccupied with at some time, and good songwriters often sublimate the pain and passion of their life into their art. And that is exactly how I would brand Joe’s songwriting: he takes the real experiences and emotional content of his life and translates them into something that sounds good. Thus, I can’t wait to hear how the new dimension of fatherly love sounds in his future songs.

I am taking it for granted that there will be new Joe Yoder songs. Although he doesn’t (for now) have a band to play with in Kansas City, I know that Joe couldn’t stop writing songs if he tried. Songwriting has been a primal urge of his since he first started doing it in seventh grade. Joe admitted to me that he dreamed of gaining fame and fortune with Attacking the Audio, the Dischordos, and finally The See, yet I’ve seen firsthand that this is not why Joe writes songs and plays music. When we went on tour, Joe enjoyed himself, but also missed being at home with Liza and didn’t try to indulge in the proverbial “rockstar lifestyle.” Despite discovering a mild distaste for touring-band life, Joe was writing songs for the next See album within a matter of months. Joe doesn’t write songs to get rich or to attract girls (though I’m sure those have been motivators at various times in his life), he writes songs because he is good at it and it allows him to communicate his most honest thoughts and difficult emotions. Talking about why he writes songs, Joe recently said “when you believe you’re good at something, and people tell you you are, really cool things can develop in anything you do. So songwriting became a huge part of who I am and how I cope and relate to others. It feels great to create things that others can appreciate and listen to.”

Joe played his first song for his mother in seventh grade because he wanted to show his new means of expression to the person that he was the most deeply connected to. 18 years, 6 bands, 2 albums, and scores of songs later, and Joe now has a child of his own. I imagine that she will now be the first to hear his new songs. Because, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

MOM