FOR THE LOVE OF POP
Nashville Supergroup Swag finds that the best things in life really are free.
“When I was 15”, Swag mastermind Jerry Dale McFadden admits somewhat conspiratorially, “me and my friend went to the Holiday Inn that Cheap Trick was staying at in Norman, Oklahoma, to meet them before the show. And we did, and they were super nice. But that’s what cracks me up - 20 years later I’m in a band with one of them! Who’d have thought that it would come full-circle like that?”
Certainly not Swag drummer (and regular Wilco skinsman) Ken Coomer, who’s got a Cheap Trick story or two of his own to tell (“I was 16 years old with an afro, down in front, seein’ ‘em at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium.”) But fate has a knack for pulling people together. When Coomer and McFadden (also a sometime member of the Mavericks and Sixpence None The Richer), and their friends Robert Reynolds (also of the Mavericks), Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson, and solo artist Doug Powell all found themselves living in Nashville, frequenting the same haunts, and devouring the same kind of classic pop music, a creative synergy began to build.
Coomer describes Swag’s genesis as a logical outgrowth of their common musical tastes: “We’re full-on fans of pop. Even before we started to play together, we’d turn each other on to different things, like Guided By Voices, and Jason Falkner’s solo records. So we’re all fans of pop music - the beauty of the song - and it just seemed like a natural progression, really. Jerry Dale and Robert started writing while on the road [with the Mavericks] together. And then we all got together and we all wrote. Different people would come in and out. Then the four core members sort of emerged.”
But despite Swag’s casual coming-together, Coomer is quick to point out that the band’s debut, Catch-all (Yep Roc), is more substantive than your average tossed-off side project. With a sound founded on an obvious love of pop greats - from the Beach Boys to the Zombies to Nazz - the album is anything but five musicians pulling in opposite directions. It’s actually very intensely focused. “As derivative [of other bands] as it may sound”, Coomer notes, “it’s really a record that none of us have ever made before.”
McFadden agrees, believing that Swag has developed a life of its own, outside of all the easy name-checks of its staff. “I know a lot of people are going to be interested in [Catch-all] because of who’s in the band, but I think that, as an album, it holds its own. If you didn’t know who was in the band and someone just played this album for you, I would hope that you’d go ‘Wow, this is kind of fun stuff.’ And then it just happens to be all these guys.”
It’s actually a small miracle that all of Swag’s constituents could even converge long enough to record an album’s worth of material. With Coomer working on Wilco’s follow-up to 1999’s Summer Teeth, Petersson on the road eight days a week, and studio work continually tapping on the shoulders of the rest of the band, scheduling Swag time must have been like planning the invasion on Normandy. But the draw of getting back to making music for the pure thrill of it - the same drive that got these guys their demanding professional careers in the first place - proved strong enough.
“These are people I chose to play with”, Coomer points out. “Other bands just sort of come together, and it works because it works, but this is something I selected, and I love it! Are you kidding me? They’re my friends. Isn’t that who you picked to play with in the beginning anyway? Your friends?”
Comically Coomer equates Swag sessions to those meandering adolescent jam sessions. “It’s like when you were in a basement at the age of 15 and your mother brought down Kool-Aid. And you were like ‘We’re gonna be big stars!’ And there was always the brother-in-law who would come and be like, ‘You guys are wasting your time! You’re not getting any chicks! You suck as a band!’ And you’d be all deflated for a week, but then you’d come back and say ‘What does he know? He works in construction!’”
After years of working to forge their own individual songwriting voices, Swag’s members enjoyed indulging in a little nostalgia as well. “Certain songs were definitely [meant to be tributes]”, explains Coomer. “Like, ‘Different Girl’ is very ‘Let’s try to write a Pet Sounds song.’ Or ‘Lone’, the first song on the record. The whole intro - the ‘doodlee-dee do doo’ stuff. We were thinking about songs like the Hollies’ ‘Carrie Ann’, which starts with this nonsense. And we were like ‘Nobody writes that kind of stuff anymore!’ So we kind of tacked it on at the beginning.”
But the rec room days are over, now that the band’s released a record. With some tour dates underway (“Tonight and tomorrow night are our only rehearsals before we have an in-store on Saturday!” McFadden frets), and a late-night talk show appearance in the works, Swag has tumbled back into reality.
“We’re not used to having to sing lead vocals and stuff”, McFadden worries. “We’re like, ‘Oh my God, the focus is on me! I can’t deal with this!’ We’re waiting to see which of the late-night shows we’re going to do, but we don’t know which song.” It’s as though they’re cramming for the big test.
“Robert and Doug and I are primarily the singers, and all three of us would love to do a song on a late-night show like that, but then again we’re also kind of nervous about it. I mean, I’ve been on Leno, like, eight times, but I’ve never been the focus. I’d be nervous. I might even flub! Maybe we could stop and start over. Or”, he laughs, “we could just have Tom do a Cheap Trick song.”
April 9 2001
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