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The Patriot Ledger
April 2001

SWAG makes its way into spotlight - one musician at a time 

Jerry Dale McFadden and Robert Reynolds have a lot in common, namely a love of 1960s rock'n'roll and an itch to write songs.  But as members of the Mavericks, in which frontman Raul Malo wrote most of the band's music, they didn't have a chance to play their own songs.

Over many long nights on the road with the country-rock quintet, Reynolds and McFadden began holding their own songwriting sessions, getting together to write and play their own creations.

Simultaneously, Ken Coomer was having the same experience in the roots-rock band Wilco, where Jeff Tweedy is the leader and main writer.  Back home in Nashville, Reynolds and McFadden asked Coomer to join them in an impromptu band.   Before long, McFadden recruited a musician who lived in his apartment building, Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson.  Singer-songwriter Doug Powell joined the sessions somewhere along the line, and when the ad-hoc group played a few local gigs the response was immediate and positive.

That's basically the history of the sideman's supergroup Swag, which makes its Boston debut Sunday night at the Middle East in Cambridge.   (You can also catch them on Conan O'Brien's TV show on Friday night.)   Swag recorded its debut album, 'Catch-all', during breaks from touring with their day-job bands, and the rootsy Chapel Hill label Yep Roc Records picked it up and released it last month.   Swag is making a whirlwind tour of 20 dates around the country before the members return to their main bands.

"This turned into a bigger thing than we ever expected", McFadden chuckled from his Nashville home.   "Robert and I started writing songs of our own as a little outlet, and it just blossomed into this band.  I'm still not really sure how it happened... organically I guess."

The new album's tunes include material by all five Swag musicians, writing alone or in various combinations.   "We originally had a lot of stuff written by just the two of us", McFadden, the Mavericks keyboardist, said. "We decided to do a record because we had some money to blow, and we started amassing friends to play on it.  Ken Coomer and Tom Petersson were there on the first incarnation - the first four or five songs we recorded.   It worked almost from the get-go.  We used other people at different times, but it started making sense as a core of these five guys.   We all love early pop;  specifically 1960s British pop - Kinks, Zombies, Beatles, Small Faces.  It all came together because this was something we all really wanted to do."

The question of getting clearance from the main groups, or their record companies, was not a problem.   "That subject came up, and Robert thought we'd have to get clearance", McFadden said, "but it wasn't an obstacle.  It turns out that with Wilco, Jeff Tweedy is the only one who's signed to their record company, and Cheap Trick is currently without a label, so everything worked out fairly easily.   We made this album on our own, and then licensed it to Yep Roc.  We're still kind of surprised somebody wanted to put it out.  We didn't feel it would get much attention, but we just felt we had to put it out."

Despite the members' humility over their little project, there was quite a buzz in Nashville after the CD's release and some of the early Swag live shows.  (The group's name is musician slang for free goodies, like T-shirts, etc., that touring bands accumulate.)   "We chose to go with Yep Roc, over some majors which had expressed interest, mainly because of the sincerity of their love of this music", McFadden said.  "They're not interested in how much money and how soon they can make a buck off this, but they truly love the songs."

The '60s influences, from Brian Wilson to Sergeant Pepper, permeate every song, but "Please Don't Tell", in which Reynolds pays homage to Dave Davies, carries a decidedly Kinksian flavor.

"Ray Davies showed up at our South by Southwest gig", McFadden said, "and he stood by the side of the stage and basically freaked us out.  We were all going 'uh-oh, is he going to catch all the riffs of his we copied?'  For sure, you'll hear some Kinks influence, 'cause we stole some of his stuff.

"Like most musicians, we all love all different kinds of styles.  Wilco is like the Mavericks in the sense that if they try anything different, people say they're trying to live down their country influences.   But it may be that they love jazz just as much as country.   The connecting thread in this band is that we all love and appreciate the Beatles, the Hollies, the Kinks, the Zombies and so on."

The other thing about Swag is that it allows the sidemen time in the spotlight.   This leads to some funny situations.

"I used to front my own thing:, McFadden laughed, "but in the Mavericks of course we're used to NOT being the focus.   None of us are quite used to being up front all night.   We're doing the Conan O'Brien show and we're not sure what song we'll do, because everybody has different songs they sing.  We're all a little scared to step up and sing on national TV."

Swag has been in the works for more than four years now, so this project isn't exactly an overnight sensation.   As the various songsmiths have honed their craft for Swag, some of their work has even crept into their main bands.

"Some things have turned into Mavericks tunes", McFadden said.  "On the last Mavericks record, the tune 'I Don't Even Know Your Name' started out as a Swag number, and we co-wrote a couple of the songs on the last Cheap Trick record.   I also play in Sixpence None the Richer, and their leader, Matt Slocum, brought in a song he'd purposely written in Swag style for Sixpence, so our stuff has seeped into the other bands."

Mainstream success may not be in the cards, but Swag's members aren't worried about that.

"Our approach is to primarily try to be ourselves, and not attempt to fit any genre", said McFadden.   "We'd love radio airplay, but the music is not written for that.  We just try to write a good song, the way it might have been written 30 years ago."

Jay Miller
The Patriot Ledger, Boston
April 19 2001

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