Eric Halborg's band The Swayback are Colorado rock icons. When a band has been playing together for as long as Halborg's -- it has been ten years since Halborg and Bill Murphy started the band -- they can lose steam, focus and mostly just stop rocking as hard as they used to, but thankfully and as Westword pointed out in their June cover story about The Swayback these guys have just gotten better with age. A fact that is abundantly clear on their new, slickly produced album Double Four Time.
Halborg recently chatted with The Huffington Post about the new album, recording it with legendary rock producer Andy Johns (who has been a part of producing music for Led Zeppelin, Television, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and on and on), and how the songwriting process works after all these years for The Swayback.
How long have you guys been playing as The Swayback?
Swayback has been together for ten years. Bill Murphy and I have been in the band since it’s inception. Adam Tymn has been in the band for 4 years, but it feels like he's been with us from the start. Carl Sorensen is rapidly approaching a year.
How did the band get its start?
Bill and I met in Breckenridge through Bill’s college roommate. We bonded over record collections and our general rock-and-roll fanaticism. A few months after we met we ended up driving from Colorado to the tip of Baja surfing and playing guitars and our musical bond formed. After that trip, Bill moved to Los Angles and I got my art degree from CU-Boulder. The day I graduated Bill called me and asked if I wanted to move out to Los Angeles to form a band with him. I said “hell yes” to the band part but “no thank you” to Los Angeles. I suggested he move to Denver to play music. Within a week Bill drove out in his '69 Cadillac from Los Angels packed with instruments and record crates and we set about to find a drummer in Denver. The inspiration to start the band came from the fact that we love music, we collect records, and wanted to make music like the people whose records we bought, i.e. our hero's. It's something we can cultivate and grow through out our lives.
How did you guys hit on "The Swayback" for a band name and why did it stick?
I had a bartender where I drank named Peggy Sue. She had cat rimmed glasses and red hair down her back. Bill and I walked into a bar and saw Peggy Sue playing a pinball machine. It was this perfect silhouette of her hands stretched out controlling the flippers and her deep curved back and popped out backside. We both kinda stared for a bit and Bill said to me “Wow, look at her swayback.” I had never heard that word before, but it was the band name the second it came out of Bill’s mouth. We liked the subtle naughtiness to it and how it felt in your mouth saying it; so it stuck.
You guys began as a trio back when you were playing before your S/T release in 2004, but have been playing as a 4-piece for a while now -- how does having a larger band affect live shows, recording, the sound and direction of the band?
Yeah, we were a trio for the first six years. Adding a fourth member allows us to execute and punctuate our songs much better in the studio and live. It’s nice to have another player musically have your back after playing as a sparser three piece. I think we can cover a bit more ground sonically and add all of the elements that exist on the recordings to our live show. It allowed me as a bassist and singer to hang bass notes longer and lets me get a bit more lost in the lyrics when I know that Adam is going to be adding his guitar textures.
When Adam came into the band on guitars and vocals we were able click into a wall of sound live where we envisioned it and the backing vocals that I had done myself on recordings were now in the live setting and we have always wanted that. Our drummer, Carl Sorensen, and Adam have added song writing skills and extensive studio experience so writing and recording have been really fluid and productive in this incarnation. The gang’s got bigger and wider and can cause more destruction basically.
With the often changing scene, how quick the lifespan is of so many indie bands, the changing industry at-large, and tastes of the band members, what has kept you going and together all these years?
It keeps going because we are all music lifers totally obsessed with song writing, recording studios, getting tighter live, music history, radio transmissions -- all of it. Our lust for taking in all aspects of music and seeing what we can contribute to it is endless so the journey goes on. We’ve also kept to a manifesto of open-minded creativity between the members. We never set a hard line definition of what the band would sound like or how a song will turn out. We bring song ideas to the band and there’s a democratic back and forth that puts each dudes ideas into what we end up with on record. I think each member knowing that they have a say and that the only goal is serve the song keeps what we come up with an exciting process.
What's it like to be an artist in Denver?
As an artist, living in Denver is great for developing and honing in on what it is you want to say musically/creatively. There's space and encouragement to be whatever you want artistically in Denver and that has given us the stages, space, and time to naturally evolve into something singular. I thought the scene was rad and full of talent when we started and it is even more so today. There is a big trend of collaborations and side projects with all the musicians in the scene and I think that brings a really creative atmosphere to Denver. What has changed in the last ten years is that the quality of the recordings and videos coming form the artists here have really jumped. Musicians/friends like Pictureplane, Nathaniel Ratelif, Gauntlet Hair, and Bad Weather California have broken out of Denver recently and they are some of my favorite acts making music period; regardless of them coming from Denver or not so that’s an inspiring thing to be part of.
How does the songwriting process work for you guys?
It’s a collaborative process and it develops a few different ways. I might bring in a skeleton of a song with the bass line, lyrics and melody and then we play it over and over to give the other members a chance to get used to the form. After that we add flourishes: riffs, specific drum beat tweaks, samples and the song naturally takes on a new direction and we edit and play it that way until we feel like it’s done. Or sometimes Bill will create a drum loop in Ableton and lay a guitar riff over it and I will add bass and vocals and we will cut up the song in Ableton until we get a form we want to take to rehearsal and the song takes off from there. We are constantly jamming out new ideas in the rehearsal space and we take tasty bits from those sessions and build songs from there as well.
When you guys set out to make a new album, do you have a theme in mind, a specific topic or feeling you want to get across or does it just come together organically?
It comes together organically without a theme in mind. We are not the type of band that has fifty songs for a record and then trims it down to ten for a release. Each song we write is its own beast that has been every-which-way-rubix-cube edited and demoed by the band multiple times before we go into a studio to record it. Double Four Time was recorded in six studios in two states with six producers and it’s hard to tell that that many hands were involved in making it. I think the toiling and cultivating that we do for each song leaves a heavy Swayback fingerprint that leads to our records fitting together without us consciously trying to make that happen. Bill and I have become engineers and producers since starting The Swayback. This helps out a lot with making records in that we are constantly thinking about how a song translates from the rehearsal space to record. Bill and I are both putting out new music by bands we have recorded and dig on our record label LGL Records. I put out a single and am working on a full length by teenage shoe-gazers The Baltic. Bill is working with a band called Vega Evaga on their debut record. I think having Swayback making records and the two of us recording records for other bands keeps our heads thinking about recorded music and studio execution and it translates to us being focused when Swayback is recording records.
You just recorded Double Four Time with legendary record producer Andy Johns -- how did this come about?
My brother in-law Pete Bowers worked with him in Los Angeles on mixing concert DVD sound. Pete asked us to come to Los Ageles and record with him because he thought it would be a good rock-n-roll match. We were thrown to the wolves basically with Andy because after driving from Colorado to California and sleeping on the floors of this studio for two days, Andy showed up and had never heard of us and never heard our music. We had to win him over in the studio and we did just that. By the end of the sessions we were sleeping at his house, drinking whiskey and throwing knives in his backyard.
Andy's a legend that had his hands in recording music that I grew up listening to obsessively like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. When I first realized we were going to be working with him I couldn’t help but think about all the hours I sat listening to Led Zeppelin 4 on headphones and that somehow absorbing sounds that he helped create would translate to us vibing with the man who dialed in those sounds -- and it ended up that we were indeed on the same wavelength. Andy also produced Television’s Marquee Moon that came out of late '70s NYC punk and Swayback has always been a mixture of early rock-n-roll with punk sensibilities and Andy’s discography fit perfectly with what we do.
What was it like recording with Andy?
Working with Andy was truly amazing because his mere presence and the history of who he has worked with (Led Zeppelin, Television, The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Mott the Hoople, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton) conjures something great out of you on every take. We recorded at Paramount Studios (where Hendrix had his Los Angles after show jam sessions), Serenity Sound Studio, and at the legendary Capitol Studios. There were huge black and white photography prints at Capitol Studios of musicians that had recorded there like The Beatles, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra. It dawned on me that the Sinatra print had him singing into the same microphone I was using in the studio and that Adam was banging away on Nat King Coles piano that lives permanently in Studio B. Mind blower. The history of rock-n-roll was basically spinning through my head as I tracked with Andy and the inspiration and power that came from those thoughts were readily channeled into our tracking.
Andy was strictly analog. He had his hands on the mixing board faders and the knobs of the outboard reverbs, compressors, and effects as he molded our sound. There was an engineer that ran Protools for Andy but he never touched the program. He scoffed at the notion of cutting together takes if there were mistakes, rather he asked me in his proper British accent: 'We get full takes and you get it right all the way through. Right, Eric?' Right. And then you nailed it cause this guy recorded John Paul Jones and you’re inspired. Swayback has always been guarded with outside influence but we instantly opened up to Andy who we consider a master of something we hold sacred. He suggested new parts to our songs that we’d write with him on the spot and track them for permanent record 15 minutes later.
At the start of recording the bass for 'What A Pity' Andy said to me, 'Alright Eric, this song is be recorded a half step down' and I said, 'We’ve been playing the song like this for a year' and Andy said, 'half step down then, Eric.' And when the tape rolled and I was playing with my fingers as I always do -- Andy said, 'This one’s played with a pick, Eric.' And I said, 'I always play with my fingers Andy.’ He said politely, 'with a pick then, Eric.' And that was it. I played it a half step down and with a pick and as it turned out the song was easier to deliver vocally and the picked bass gave the song its drive.
One of my favorite memories was singing through the reverb tanks at Capitol Studio that were designed by Les Paul and located under the parking lot. This is no reverb pedal or outboard reverb effect. It was my voice being sent to speakers in an underground chamber and a mic inside that chamber sending the sound of my voice being bounced off the walls down there to the control room where Andy was recording it. Nerdy, I know, but the sound surrounding my voice was so rich it startled me.
Andy would say, 'You’re a proper rock band Eric. Just cats who love music like me.' And we became friends with him and he drove around in our van through Los Angels taking us to his favorite guitar and amp shops between takes. Andy liked that we drank and partied while we recorded. He said it reminded him of recording sessions from the '60s and '70s. And at 60 he was right there with us. The desk behind the mixing board looked like the aftermath of a blow out party with liquor bottles, distortion pedals, ash trays, guitar strings, and whatnot, strewn across its entire top. I think we were celebrating what was happening while it was happening which created a loose and creative vibe to the recording sessions that produced magic between Andy and the band.
Who would you cite as some of your biggest musical influences that have shaped the sound of or just inspired The Swayback?
Junior Wells, Elmore James, Ride, The Cure, Sonic Youth, Wire, Tricky, The Vikings, The Jam, The Clash, The Smiths, Four Tops, Donna Sommers, Thelma Houston, Kurt Vile, War On Drugs, Girls, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Manchester scene and punk in general.
When you're back from tour, where are your must-eat and must-drink spots?
What's next for The Swayback?
Swayback is playing three festivals in Colorado this summer: Bohemian Nights New West Fest in Ft. Collins, Market Street Summer Fest in Denver Aug 11th, and Higher Ground Music Festival Aug 25th. We are writing new music, making a video for one of the tracks off Double Four Time and doing a two-week tour surrounding our CMJ performance in October in New York.
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LISTEN to the Double Four Time stream on The Swayback's bandcamp site:
Photos of The Swayback: