“I hope you have your marijuana screen up,” says the band manager as he opens the door to the greenroom at Webster Hall. Inside, three-fourths of the Sword — John D. Cronise, Bryan Richie, and Kyle Shutt — huddle around a guy counting out piles of cash. (It wasn’t a drug deal.) Onstage, Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III sound-checks his drums, sending shockwaves of thunder through the empty venue three hours before the show.
“Do you want some Coke or ginger ale?” Richie asks. “We have hummus. With little cherry tomatoes.” The band’s rider, he says, just asks for hummus “with stuff.” They’re not particular about the accompaniments.
The band is mid-tour, on concert date 34 of 50, promoting the release of High Country, the fifth album of their twelve-year existence. The record is decidedly lighter than the classic heavy metal sound that defined their early career and, predictably, has garnered mixed reactions from metal purists.
“People would hate it either way — or some people would,” says Cronise — guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter-in-chief. “To me it’s really not a weird thing for a band to put out a different-sounding album. I think it has to do with where we started, in the particular kind of genre that we started in. That particular genre and those particular fans are a little bit less open to change and variation. Once they hear one thing, they kind of want that thing over and over again. I think if we had started in any other place, with any other kind of music, and had just changed things up, it wouldn’t really be as remarkable.”
Bass and keys player Richie chimes in: “It’s bizarre, because if you come to a show, or if you have seen the Sword before, there’s really no departure sonically when we play a new song versus an old song. Dynamically, there are some differences, but we’re the same exact band playing the exact same instruments.”
This is true save for the Sequential Circuits Six-Trak synth he purchased off of eBay and had hand-delivered by the seller this afternoon. It’s the same model of synth that appears on the album and will debut alongside Richie’s foot-operated pedal keyboard at Webster Hall to replicate the spaced-out textures achieved in the studio.
The energy in the room feels a bit slack, probably owing to life on the road. The Sword seem to pride themselves on the balance of moderately comfortable yet economical commuting they’ve established over the years. They travel in a van with a trailer, not a tour bus, and stay in budget hotels. After more than a decade of this routine, they’ve become connoisseurs of the free hotel breakfast.
“I’m all about that free Raisin Bran and shitty coffee in the morning,” says Richie, “like, the more the better. Why Starbucks when I’ve got Best Western? Sometimes it’s like the rustiest of rust water.”
“I hate when they have shitty other shit,” says Cronise, “like the tiny little Styrofoam cups with the shitty little lid and the tiny white sugar packets and powdered creamer. When they have just the crap accessories…then you can tell the coffee’s almost always going to be terrible.”
Naturally, they’d rather be at home than on tour. Home now means different places for each of them. Though they first came together in Austin, only Vela (the newest member of the group) lives there now. Disenchanted with the rapid development of the Texas capital, Cronise moved three years ago to Asheville, North Carolina, and guitarist Shutt is relocating to Brooklyn with his fiancée in January. Richie resides in Taylor, Texas, an up-and-coming community about forty miles north of Austin.
“If we could just come play a show and hang out and then go home, that’d be great,” says Shutt about being on tour. “Shit was fun ten years ago.”
“The eating habits are absolute bullshit,” offers Richie. “The eating choices are absolute bullshit.” So much for that hummus.
“If you have addiction problems or something…you’re fuckin’ in trouble just because it’s like free booze all day,” says Shutt.
“Yeah, exactly,” agrees Richie, who says he’s a lightweight. “It’s like the first thing they offer you. ‘Oh, you’re a band? Here, how ’bout some beer?’ We have to tell people, ‘Hey, we’d like the coffee first. Can we get the coffee first? The beer can come whenever.’ ”
“Then the coffee shows up at 8 p.m.,” Shutt concludes.
All complaints aside, the band recognize how lucky they are to make a living exclusively from music, which has been the case for about two years now. They attribute some of this to their knack for keeping road expenses to a minimum.
“I’ve seen bands that go on these big tours and then go home, and all the dudes work at clubs and bars in their off time because they spend all their money on tour because they had a huge bus and all this shit,” Cronise observes. “You can do it in ways that aren’t going to make you have to do that if you can bring in a little more [on tour].”
“We’ll take a little discomfort for a little comfort when we’re home,” says Richie. “That’s the way I always look at it. It’s like I’ll deal with this bullshit to relax and stretch out at home and be cool and not have to jump back into doing something immediately.” He jokes, “And we’re available for consulting at a very high hourly rate if any bands want to. We’ll gladly have a band intervention with them for — what do you think?” He turns to Cronise. “About $250 an hour? $500 an hour? I don’t know. We can split it.”