Arias of Alienation . . .
Anday McCarron – Vocals/Guitar
Swimmer, named after a mildly psychedelic Burt Lancaster film, is making a name through strong songs, an intense live show, and singer Anday McCarron’s voice – a fifth instrument that goes from croon to yowl to roar in seconds flat. Swimmer has navigated New York’s intensely competitive band scene on its own terms, performing songs like exorcisms — from “Surreal,” the dumbstruck prelude to a suicide; a plea to “tell it like it is” in the song “Dirty Word”; to the rail against a reality of abuse entitled “It’s So Perfect,” all of which are on the group’s debut CD Surreal.
“The songs cover the whole range – a bit of all the sad things in life,” McCarron admits with a self-effacing laugh. It’s his talents to turn these moments of emotional hurt into stately, anthemic pop songs of visceral power, enduring melody and yes, beauty.
In concert, to see so many tones emerge from McCarron’s one set of lips is scarcely believable. When the band was recording Surreal, the engineers found two or three tones on the singer’s vocal tracks. They told him that he had his “own distortion;” McCarron’s bandmates — Jeff Thall – guitars; James Elliott – bass; Chad Royce – drums — attest to his having the loudest singing voice they’ve ever heard. In concert, he backs away from the mike. “What you hear is how I feel,” he says. “I want to capture everything with my voice – and not be stereotypical about it.”
Anday McCarron has spent his life countering expectations: middle child, a recluse, raised in Glasgow, Scotland to firmly middle-class parents. “When I was 10 years old, I refused to take the IQ test they were administering in school, because I thought they were judging me,” McCarron recalls, “and I got away with it, because I had an answer. When you have an answer, you can convince people.” At age 16, McCarron’s parents gave him the option to continue with his rigid Catholic school education, the altarboy’s world of uniforms, Sunday church, and corporal punishment. His answer was no.
In his late teens, he moved to London, where an obvious talent as singer and songwriter had industry types falling all over themselves to line up McCarron as the next something. But he found himself disillusioned by the scene he fell into, a scene that just wasn’t about the music. He had visited New York every New Year’s Eve, and considered it to be “a real city.” So, he left London, moved to New York, and found the musicians who would bring his songs to life.
All of the Swimmer band members agree that visual impact is as important as the sound. “We don’t go on stage looking like the guy who pumped your gas,” says bassist James Elliot. Drummer Chad Royce agrees. “If everyone in the audience was blind, the visual aspect of our show wouldn’t matter — but the audience isn’t blind, and we want to give our show an exciting look.” Indeed, the band hosted a crucial major-label showcase gig at a downtown club’s transvestite night, complete with hardcore videos and drag queens. “We don’t like making people feel too comfortable with the music or the image,” McCarron says. “We don’t want to be predictable.”
Nowhere is predictability more a problem than in the guitar-band wasteland of the late ’90s. “It’s desperate right now . . . perfect timing for us,” McCarron believes. “Music is so categorized. You’re a groove band, or you’re a melodic rock band, or a dance band where the lyrics don’t matter. I don’t see why you can’t have all these things in a song – attitude, melody, power, drama . . .” Guitarist Jeff Thall, whose arsenal of effects belies a volcanic technique, sums up: “We’re taking guitar, bass, and drums and making the most modern sound possible.”
Feel the one-two punch of Swimmer’s songs – arias of alienation that find redemption in sheer sound. From heavy rock to glam grind to post-punk dissonance, Swimmer makes sense of pop music from Dylan to Jane’s Addiction to Radiohead – and moves on. Without wearing influences on their sleeves. McCarron claims to never sit down and listen to music for pleasure, taking inspiration instead from extra-musical sources, like comics and outrageous television evangelists. “I really relate more to comedians than other musicians,” says McCarron, though there is no overt humor evident in Swimmer’s songs. “By that I mean that comedians are usually manic-depressives. They sit and think a lot.”
“It’s hard to say without seeming arrogant,” McCarron prefaces, “but we’re ready now.” The proof is in their Maverick Recording Co. debut, Surreal, a record confident enough to make you forget this band’s youth, to forget your expectations. Confident enough that five months after its recording, Anday McCarron still hasn’t listened to it. “I was there,” he laughs. “What’s to hear?”
Jeff Thall – Guitar
Jeff Thall, SWIMMER guitarist, counts among his influences some of the usual guitar-hero suspects – Steve Howe, Brian May, The Edge, and Jimmy Page. But throw in his love of Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and his studies with Steve Stevens (best known for his guitar work on Billy Idol’s seminal ’80s hits), and you end up with one heck of an eclectic guitar player.
“Diversity, color, and interesting textures are what I aim for. I really enjoy making strange sounds, countering the melody lines – not the standard three-chord formula.”
“A lot of people think we use tapes or loops at our live shows to get some of the sounds that we do,” Thall says, “but it’s just Anday and myself on guitars.
Thall has clocked many hours playing professionally since learning guitar as a teenager. “The first concert I went to was a Yes concert, and it was there I realized that I had to be in a band,” he says. In addition to his early influences, he counts Radiohead, the Verve, and Alice In Chains as current inspirations. “Those bands have a true, distinctive sound. You hear them and know it can’t be anyone else.”
James Elliott – Bass
James Elliott, SWIMMER bass player, started out as a kid, as many musicians have, with forced piano lessons. “I hated it. It was a chore,” he says. “And I couldn’t play along with my favorite records.”
Not discouraged, he picked up the bass at 13 and found a thrill by quickly being able to accompany his beloved albums. These ranged from Rush to the punk-laden Repo Man soundtrack, in addition to his parents’ music library – especially the Beatles’ White Album and the original “Hair” Broadway soundtrack. To round things out, he also credits diverse bands such as Danzig, Jane’s Addiction, Murphy’s Law, early ZZ Top, and The Cult as major influences.
Elliott studied classical and jazz bass at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan (a school which counts top 40 babe Jewel among its alumni), and a brief stint at the Manhattan School of Music. He then went on to spend some time in Florida stinting with hardcore bands.
“Swimmer is not a jam band,” he says, “but there is some leeway for each of us to contribute, and so something different happens at every show.”
Chad Royce – Drums
Chad Royce completed the SWIMMER line-up when he became the band’s drummer in summer of 1997. Royce grew up in Connecticut, land of garages and spare bedrooms, where his parents didn’t mind when he started playing drums in the 4th grade.
“I had a band by sixth grade – we did a lot of Van Halen covers,” says Royce. He also played in his junior high school band, which had, he says, “Eight drummers, we all switched off between snare, bass drum, etc.”
Royce was in a funk band that toured regionally during his college years at liberal bastion Brown University, and then went on to formally study music in New York City in The New School’s Jazz program.
“That experience was great. I took classes in Brazilian drumming, other percussion techniques, piano . . . and learned that since I grew up with rock and not jazz, I am not meant to be a jazz drummer.
“But that training really comes in handy for playing with Swimmer,” he adds. “These songs demand dynamic drumming – there’s a soft-to-loud shift that happens quickly. It’s very challenging, and the jazz training gave me the chops to be able to pull it off.”
Royce also studied with recent Genesis drummer Nir Z. The young skinsmith also counts John Bonham, Charlie Watts, and Stewart Copland among his influences. The Meters’ Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste is also one of his favorites. “His grooves are always a melodic part of the song,” he says.
Modern rock fan at heart, Royce loves Soundgarden, Radiohead, and the Foo Fighters. “Dave Grohl is my favorite drummer,” he says. “He is so powerful, so original, and a great songwriter.”