Miles of Music newsletter,
Ken Coomer, Doub Powell, Jerry Dale McFadden, Robert Reynolds.
SWAG – Rock’s Quietest Supergroup Speaks Up
It's not the union of recognized rock icons that was Cream, nor even an exercise in nostalgia like Ringo's All Starr Band. Yet SWAG's pedigree is unmistakably pristine, drawing from gene pools as diverse as Cheap Trick and The Mavericks and artists as critically revered as Todd Rundgren and Wilco. While initially an exercise in off-time songwriting and playing brought them together, the anticipatory buzz - and the exceeding-the-mark follow through that resulted - cemented the need and demand for Nashville's hottest new pistol. Now with their first release hot off the press, the men of SWAG might just have to put their main occupations on hold to pursue that hobby of theirs.
SWAG is Ken Coomer (Wilco), Robert Reynolds (Mavericks), Jerry Dale McFadden (ex-Mavericks and now Sixpence None the Richer) and solo artist and Rundgren sideman Doug Powell. We were able to "catch up" with Doug Powell just prior to the release of Catch-All (Yep Roc Records) to talk about The Little Band That Could.
MOMZINE: How did you first get hooked up with this bunch? I understand that you and Jerry Dale are both from Oklahoma and were even in the same group way back when?
Doug Powell: The same group, but not at the same time. At the time I knew him, he was out here in school, we just had mutual friends, that's how we met. Then we wound up moving out here as well. At the time I came in, SWAG had been underway for about a year, and Rick Nielsen was going to come in to record some tracks so Jerry Dale was all excited. He invited me down to the studio so I could check him out. I went down and wound up singing background vocals on something or other, which is how I met Tom. At that point Ken wasn't on the session - there were revolving drummers as well. But as far as how I got... (laughs) Oh, I remember! I was asked to write Christmas songs for Hanson! I got one done, and I was telling Jerry Dale about it and he said "I want in on that! How many do they need?" So we wrote a song, and then Robert was like "I want in on this too!" So we wrote a song too! (laughs) And then Mark Hudson threw out everything that wasn't Hanson or Mark Hudson-written. So we had all these songs and SWAG decided to do a Christmas EP, so that's how I ended up in SWAG. The band kind of crystallized over the Christmas songs! And then we just kept writing songs together, which ended up with what you now have.
MOMZINE: I noticed that one song - "When She Awoke" - you had a version of that on your Curiouser record.
DP: Yeah, since everybody has all these other obligations, it's not uncommon for nobody to be in town at the same time. So Jerry Dale and Robert, who used to be in the Mavericks, wound up having all these songs together. And me and Tom were the only guys in town one time, so I had that song idea, he liked it, and we wound up finishing it up together right then and there. It was a magical little time.
MOMZINE: It's interesting to me because I really like your songwriting style and structure, but as on that song, for example, you seem to be open to the influence of the people that you're writing with. Not that that's a bad thing! Like on that one, you can almost hear Zander doing a song like that with Cheap Trick. Not so much the tonality of the song, but the chord structure and arrangement. There's another song you do with Ken that sounds like it could sit along something like "Can't Stand It" on a Wilco record. Not to say you're writing in another person's style, but more of a true collaboration.
DP: (Laughs) It depends on the situation. I usually go into a co-write with at least a couple of fragments, and maybe even more than that. And then I'll let the other writer maybe think they discovered the other bits? (laughs) That's a trick I learned from Jules Shear - sometimes you go in with a whole song written and you just suggest little parts at a time and see if the other person can beat it. And sometimes they can, and it turns into something kind of cool! But with Tom, I just went in there with the music for the chorus and we hunted around for verses. That one was a really weird thing; we hunted around for about half an hour and couldn't find anything we liked. Then all of a sudden we both played the verse exactly as you hear it, him on that bass part and me on those chords. It was as if somebody dropped the needle on the record and there it was.
MOMZINE: Maybe Tom had that idea coming in and he just let you discover it.
DP: Maybe the tables got turned there! (laughs) Then that was him on the bridge on that one, and I always try to sound like Robin Zander anyway! That's a little obvious one. With the Ken song, though, he actually came in with the first half of the verse and didn't know what he should do with it. He had never written a song in his life! So I just kind started stream-of-thoughting the song in front of him and he picked and chose what he wanted in the song, what his vision of it was, because I really didn't know. He went shopping with my ideas and I helped him structure it. That one is pretty much all Ken Coomer, I just helped him flesh it out.
MOMZINE: The band seems like it has a really nice, loose, Minus Five kind of vibe to it where people can drift in and out. But with all the outside commitments, how do you guys really find any time to work on this stuff? Stolen moments here and there?
DP: It's pretty much stolen moments, yeah. With Jerry Dale leaving The Mavericks it did open up for a while but now he has Sixpence obligations coming up. Tom moved to New York, so it's very hard to get him coming around any more, although when we accrue a lot of these (SWAG) commitments he'll come down to take care of that. But when we go out and play on this record we'll go out without Tom, because you know, he's got that other band that he's in.
MOMZINE: I've heard of them, yeah, I hear they still play occasionally.
DP: Occasionally, yeah. Occasionally they're off! (laughs) So we'll be going with the revolving bass player when we're out on the road. At least half the time I think it's going to be Brad Jones, and it will be the mystery person the other half of the time. And we think that's an unbelievably privileged position that we're in, to have Brad Jones as your back-up plan!
MOMZINE: You just combined about three questions I had into one, which is good. Maybe you're leading me, like a co-writer.
DP: Y'see! (laughs)
MOMZINE: I was going to ask whose choice Brad Jones was for producer, because I think he has a Midas touch for whatever he does. And his solo record (Gilt Flake) was outstanding.
DP: Brad is a buddy of Ken and Jerry Dale, and I think Ken plays on one of the tracks on Gilt Flake. Me and Tom and Robert really hadn't met him before we started recording with him, but he is one of the most talented musicians I have ever seen. With the exception of Rundgren, probably the most talented musician I've ever met.
MOMZINE: You've got to give the guy a break, because I'm waiting for his follow-up record!
DP: I asked him about it and he said he has about one or two (songs) done, so give him about another 10 years. (laughs)
MOMZINE: Him and Adam Schmitt; it will be a turtle race. I was also going to ask about this tour. I'm sure you'll do a few dates, but what if the record takes off? Is everyone else ready to jump on it?
DP: Well, when we signed with Yep Roc, we had the mentality of "we know it will get out there, and we hope it will sell enough to warrant going in to do a second one as well". But Yep Roc has proven to be so potent that it's actually a bigger record now - and it's not even out - than anyone ever thought it would be. They've been lining up a ton of press and publicity opportunities for us, and if the record does get bigger, I think we're all prepared - well, I wouldn't speak for Tom - to take SWAG on as our main thing.
MOMZINE: For a listener, the record is really a wonderful collaboration because I imagine the guys in the band are roughly around the same age, or at least grew up with the same kind of influences. Plus the bands that everyone has been in have a common link of melody and harmony and even song structure to a point. Unlike an Oasis, where younger people are doing Beatle songs thirty years later, this is a group of musicians who have always had the natural influences in their bloodstream.
DP: It's a natural re-gression! (laughs) Some of ours songs are so completely derivative.
MOMZINE: But you've hidden it well; you can't just play spot-the-song-title as you go through the record.
DP: Well, maybe it's more apparent to us! Because there's the Kinks song, the Hollies song, the Beatles song. (laughs) But regarding the age thing, it's actually a pretty big spread. Tom broke the 50 barrier, and I'm 35 and the youngest guy. And we all have a different set of emphases; I mean nobody in the band really know a whole lot about Rundgren or the band Utopia. So that's just one of the things that I bring in, like everyone else does, along with a lot of the common grammar to everything that we do. It's not a dead lock on our tastes, but it ends up being a magical combination when we're in there (the studio) together. So as big of a pain in the butt as trying to get this band together is, when we get together it makes it all worthwhile.
MOMZINE: On the record, I know some of the songs were from the earlier singles, because I have a couple of them. Were the songs with the five collaborators the later songs? Like "Ride" and "She's Deceiving"?
DP: "Ride" and "She's Deceiving" and "Please Don't Tell" were all written in one afternoon. Not lyrically, but the rest was set down when we were all actually there, except Tom. We just booked a rehearsal room and went in there to just write as a band. There was another song that we were going to record but dropped in favor of the song that we accidentally wrote (laughs) in the studio. The songs that are Reynolds/Huff/McFadden - "Different Girl," "Louise" and "Lone" - were written when The Mavericks were out on the road; Scotty Huff is the horn player in The Mavericks.
MOMZINE: And a really nice vocal from him on "Different Girl," too.
DP: Yeah! And then when they got back from the road with those three they had a real head of steam and got everyone together, and at least another four came together very quickly.
MOMZINE: As a songwriter and a solo artist, this might be more natural for you, and a lot of these songs are really in your vein and that's what you do. But is this a different rush for Coomer or even Tom, guys who are in bands where other people monopolize the songwriting?
DP: I don't want to and can't speak for Tom, but I assume it would have been for Tom had Cheap Trick not become more of a democracy as far as the writing goes, since his return, anyway. But for Coomer, yeah! It's an entirely different animal than Wilco, because he doesn't write songs there. I'm not sure how they treat his creative input, whether he's just 'the drummer' or any other thing, but SWAG is a democracy. If the drummer doesn't like what I'm doing, he's welcome to tell me! (laughs) And that's the cool thing! Conversely, I sat down and played the drum part to "When She Awoke" to show him what should be there, what I wanted. And he agreed, and he played it. He was playing something totally other at first, but I showed him how to play it like a guitar player! (laughs) And Robert as well is in a band that's dominated by one guy, so that's really the spark that started the band right there - Robert being in The Mavericks and them being a dictatorship. He needed a release, definitely. Jerry Dale, who was a staff writer writing pitch songs, needed to express himself without having thoughts like, "Is Tricia Yearwood going to cut this song?" But the best part is that this was a band that was not conceived to be a viable commercial product . It was just to have fun! It wasn't even thought about to get a bunch of songs together to get a record or anything. It was just to get together to have fun!
MOMZINE: That's probably the secret, because that's what's coming out of it for the listener.
DP: Well, that's my theory, anyway. For me, the attraction is to be in a band that is a democracy since I'm a little one-person unit where I'm never contradicted or questioned when I'm doing my stuff!
MOMZINE: And you always show up on time.
DP: That's right! (laughs) Although why I like being a one-man band is that I really don't have to rely on anybody. I am there on time! I can do it whenever, and I always win the fight.
MOMZINE: We talked about some stellar outside people like Brad Jones. You've also got a killer collaborator in Bill Lloyd on "I'll Get By".
DP: Yeah, that was a fun one - another one like the Christmas song where Mercury called up and said, "We got this band Swirl 360 and we need songs - whaddya got?" I gave them a couple and they said, "Uhh, what else you got?" (laughs) So I called up Lloyd and told him I had to write one and get it to them (Mercury) in like two days! So I went over his house and we wrote that song in about an hour and a half. And once again it was a Mark Hudson production, and he didn't have any publishing on it so he nixed the song. But me and Bill Lloyd both liked the song and said, "Let's rework the song, change the words so they're not so Neanderthal, and maybe we could use it." SWAG was really the first thing that came up for its usage. Had Bill been working on a record at the time it would have wound up there. And one time there were a few gigs that I couldn't do because I was working with Todd in Hawaii, so Bill took my place. I guess that makes him the "seventh SWAG" (laughs) if Brad is the sixth! And Bill is good buddies will all those guys from way back, so it's just natural to have him in there too. He's a great guy and a really great talent; it's a fun thing to work with him.
MOMZINE: I really like his work myself. When you are going out and doing a gig, are you throwing in material from your own careers and learning each other's songs? Or does some of the SWAG stuff bleed into shows you do with your own bands?
DP: We've never really been in the position where we had to play long enough where we didn't have enough SWAG songs yet. But we are going to go play some full shows as well as the 45-minute openers, so we may well supplement the show with a Jerry Dale song or a Doug song. Actually, we did do "Can't Break My Heart" (a Powell song) once but that was a while ago. We're going to tour Spain in late April and do it as a half-and-half tour because the label that put out SWAG there also put out More (Powell's latest solo record on Not Lame) at the same time. o they wanted the both of us to come over at the same time and kind of "Rockpile" it. But no telling if one of my songs will come out one night and get SWAG-ified!
MOMZINE: That would be great. I think Not Lame does a great job promoting their product, and their label is like an imprimatur, like when you used to see Motown on a record you knew what it was, and also that it was great stuff. I know that Bruce (Brodeen, Not Lame label head) is a big fan of yours, as am I, so I'm hoping the success of SWAG also makes people go back and check out your catalogue. And if Mercury ever unchains Ballad Of The Tin Man, that would be nice; it's still one of my favorite records of the past few years, I enjoyed it a lot.
DP: Uhh... you more than me, that's for sure.
MOMZINE: (incredulous) You didn't like your first record?
DP: I find it very hard to listen to now. I just hate the singing on it, for one; I don't like most of the songs on it and I'm not a big fan of the production, either.
MOMZINE: Well, then I guess I hope it stays locked in the vaults then for your sake! (laughs)
DP: Well, I'm glad one person likes it. I just felt I had one mode of singing then, and that was full volume, all the way out, all the time.
MOMZINE: Well, that was your Broadway record!
DP: (laughs) Someone did compare me to Dennis DeYoung (Styx) in the way I sang, and that kind of scared me.
MOMZINE: I would run screaming from anything described in that manner, yes. But I do hope that SWAG does bring some more attention to your solo career, because I'm sure you're going to continue with that as well as SWAG too.
DP: Yeah, I'm roughly done with the next one at this point. That's my selfish reason for being in SWAG, to draw the attention. Because everybody in SWAG has a story but me! (laughs) Everyone says, "Who's that guy?" I'm the 'nobody guy' in SWAG!
MOMZINE: Well, you have a story now.
Thanks to Doctor Bristol for his transcription, and to Doug Powell, one of rock's truly good guys.
Miles of Music
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