Providing a Vintage Soundtrack To Your Modern Life: A Conversation With San Francisco's The Swerve

The Swerve's music is dark, haunting, groovy, poppy, catchy, psychedelic, and cinematic, and that's just scratching the surface, something you'll quickly come to realize upon listening to their excellent debut EP, Wonder. (Check out our review here.) Wonder sees the Swerve employing the use of real instruments, including guitars and drums, poured over waves and waves of pulsating synths and electronics, a sound that stands apart from many of the bands contemporaries.

The Swerve is one of the country's best and brightest up and coming acts, though its hard to call a group that features Mikael Johnston from Mephisto Odyssey and Dredsen and Johnston an up and coming act. Still, everyone has to pay their dues in the industry, and Wonder should sure as hell pay a lot of them.

After hearing Wonder, I immediately sought out the three members of the Swerve, Johnston, Jana Hanavan and D1, in order to find out all I could on not only the band itself but everything that went into, and came out of, Wonder.

Get eXposed Music: With affiliations with acts as monumental as Mephisto Odyssey and Dresden and Johnston, yet the Swerve remains a carefully hidden secret. How could that possibly be?
Mikael Johnston: Well, while the project has been percolating behind the scenes for a while now the project as far as the public is concerned is only a few months old and just had it’s debut EP release August 23rd. Before that, D1 and I had done a version of our song "The Virgin" which was included on a commercially released compilation in 2008, but due to both of our commitments to other projects our progress in completing production on our debut EP was at a snails pace. With that said at this point all three of us feel The Swerve is our number one priority moving forward artistically. This means our new fans won’t have to wait too long before getting our second EP tentatively called Taken Apart. As far as my other projects are concerned, Mephisto Odyssey is in semi-permanent moratorium and Dresden & Johnston has an album worth of music featuring Nadia Ali, Holly Brook and Jan Burton but the release date for that album and the accompanying video for the Nadia Ali song is still forthcoming.

GE: Tell me how the Swerve came to be a group. How did you get together?
Johnston: D1 and I wanted to create a project that encompassed both our love of electronic music production, vintage instruments and recording equipment as well as cult and psychedelic retro culture. This started with the first version of "The Virgin," which as I said before was released on a compilation in 2008. Once we had laid most of the musical parts I had an idea in my head to have a kind of layered female backing vocal that sounded similar to some of the Spanish and Italian film soundtracks from the late 60s and 70s. I had Jana lay down some ideas in our home studio and what she did was exactly what I’d heard in my head. That was really the birth of our trio even though Jana didn’t officially join the group until last year when we went on to record and produce the rest of the Wonder EP.
D1: Mikael and I have worked together pretty often over quite a while on various projects. We initially meant it to be a side project to explore all of the crazy different stuff we like to listen to. But then, you know, it just fell together.
Hanavan: I heard the song “the Virgin” that Mikael and D1 were creating; I loved the song because it was so cinematic and beautiful and had a couple of vocal ideas. Lucky for me they liked it.

GE: Let’s talk about your bio – which states, “the Swerve is an organically driven electronic trio from the United States, whose intention is to create a vintage soundtrack to modern life.” How exactly do you intend to accomplish this feat? It sounds like quite the task.
Johnston: I think D1’s description is really a definition for what I call 'future retro,' which is what we are. We’re a modern band making music in 2011 and using a lot of modern technology. However we’ve infused our sound with cult, psychedelic and retro ideas from the late 60s through the early 80s (which was arguably the greatest period in recorded music). We use a lot of vintage electro mechanical and acoustic instruments as well as vintage synthesizers and effects, but we also use a lot of modern technology to process and add to the music. For instance the song "The Virgin" has both live and electronic instruments throughout. However the song began with a loop we made in Native Instrument’s Reaktor (which is an awesome program). We used something called the Life synthesizer within Reaktor, which is a virtual synthesizer based on an early computer program “The Game of Life,” which was invented by mathematician John Conway at Cambridge University in 1970. I think the Life Synthesizer is one example of what I call future retro but it goes far beyond that both artistically and culturally for us as a band.
D1: We all have a lot of broad tastes that excite and drive us. The Swerve is really about us being able to call upon those, and really tap into that passion. Many times, we end up working with many of the instruments, influences, vibes, styles, and whatnot of all the vintage music we love. But we live in a modern world and a lot of the music we love is music that's new and exciting and being right now. Also we are aware that we and the people who listen to our music live today, not in 1972. So, the result ends up being a delicate balance of all of these influences and passions.
Hanavan: To take elements that we like from the past and put our own twist on it. Explain to me what the term “Retrotronica” means and how does it begin to describe your sound? Mikael Johnston: Retrotronica is a term I coined to describe what I feel The Swerve is. We are a modern live and electronic based band infused with the essence of a retro sound. Retrotronica as I’ve defined it is a word to describe any music that combines the ideas of electronica, retro, psychedelic and or cult ideas and sounds. This interpretation leaves it pretty wide open for us, which I like. We can have one song that borrows from a 60s or 70s Italian film sound track while another may have drums or synths styled after an early 80s electro pop or new wave song. With that said there is definitely a common thread between all our songs that ties it all together.

GE: What inspired your debut EP Wonder?
Johnston: For me the Wonder EP is a collection of songs that explore the dark or uncertain aspects of ourselves, and our relationships with others. This EP is extremely personal for me on many levels but I think these emotions are something very basic, even primal that most of us have struggled with in one way or another.
Hanavan: Our love of music and our enjoyment of working together combined with our daily struggles and dreams.

GE: Your imaginative use of actual instruments laid atop a bed of pulsating noise creates such an ambient, lush and ultimately welcoming sound. What gave you the idea to use real guitars and drums?
Johnston: Truthfully for me it was the fact that I love to play real instruments but also wanted to keep an electronic undercurrent to the music. I’m a guitarist primarily but also play some bass, synthesizer and sing at times. I haven’t been able to outwardly exploit my musicianship on a regular basis in my past projects so this has been a very welcome change.
D1: All of those things; the real instruments, the electronics, analog synths, and digital gadgets are all part of our musical landscape from everything we listen to and love. It just seems natural to blend them together. Hanavan: Mikael often begins writing a song on guitar. But I think having real guitars and drums makes the music feel more alive.

GE: I know a magician never reveals his secrets, but how were you able to create Wonder’s rich, layered sound? Although it might not be immediately noticeable to the naked ear, there is quite a lot going on sonically in both the foreground and background of these songs.
Johnston: Wonder started with an acoustic guitar and we built on top of that and it just grew. We added a vintage organ sound by micing a real Leslie cabinet, followed by analog synth lines with an ATC-X and a moog, live bass, heavily processed electric guitars, live drums and layers of vocals. I may be forgetting something LOL, but those are the main components.
D1: Our secret to rich layered sound is: rich layered sounds. Seriously, we build our songs with a variety of different instruments and we record every single one really well. The magic, I guess, comes in how we weave everything together.  

GE: Wonder is only four tracks – well three and an instrumental. When the hell are you going to drop a full length?
Johnston: Our plan is to drop another EP towards the end of the year and then a full-length album in 2012 followed by live appearances. We also plan to support some of the songs with videos and remixes.

GE: Do you have plans for vocalist Jana Hanavan to contribute more to future songs, perhaps those off your forthcoming full length?
Johnston: She’s already contributed to both the vocals and writing on the next EP and I can’t wait to finish it and play it for you. Not only do I feel we’ve already grown as a band but Jana’s skills in the studio while tracking her vocals for the new EP have taken off in a big way. She’s grown so much in such a short time it’s remarkable to me.
D1: Yes.
Hanavan: I am singing on the next EP and I think Mikael and I are going to do a duet as well.

GE: Anything else you’d like to add while you have the chance?
Johnston: Yes, thank you to all our friends and fans that support us and for those that are new to our band check us out at one of the links below.