On Surfing Strange, Swearin' Establish the Facts and Dig In
There's something magical about Coney Island in September. The heat of summer, the neighborhood's lifeblood, is trickling away; cool air wafts down the boardwalk and through hotdog stands. Tourists have packed it in, but on a Saturday afternoon, New Yorkers still pile onto F trains to catch the tail end of the season, to ride the Cylone before it shuts down for the winter and dig toes into the sand before the weather gets too cold for T-shirts. The atmospheric volume is turned down; everyone wanders, subdued, amid the beach's vintage attractions.
This also happens to be a rare weekend when the majority of Swearin', the plucky rock quartet who crashed into the world last year with a critically acclaimed self-titled debut, are in New York. They too are in transition: Guitarist-vocalists Allison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride just moved out of Hazel House, a punk house in their previous home base of West Philadelphia, and are holing up for a few weeks at Gilbride's childhood home in Jackson Heights, Queens. And, on November 5, they'll release their sophomore LP, Surfing Strange (via Salinas in the U.S. and Wichita in the U.K.), a more contained, mature collection of '90s-indie angst that picks apart crumbling relationships with more sonic complexity than the band has ever attempted.
"For me, the first record was a lot more political, a little more angry, and this one is more about my relationships," says Crutchfield. She and Gilbride sit on their coats in the sand, the post-summer, not-yet-autumn wind whipping their hair around their faces. "I think a lot of it has to do with living in our house in Philly, our relationships with our friends. Somber, and more personal."
And while the self-recorded set was made amid the same sophomore-slump fears that plague most early feted new bands, it also came with another new challenge: It marks the first time the band will have actually put together a Swearin' album as established members of Swearin'. Having glued themselves together musically, Crutchfield says, it was time to make a record that would define the band as more than a ramshackle DIY party.
"In doing this record we had a lot more time," says Crutchfield. "We [were able to] figure out exactly the way we wanted it to be."
And that's exactly what Surfing Strange is: 11 songs recorded over the summer and produced by Gilbride that dig far deeper into the band's individual influences — the Breeders, Pavement, Frank Black — and lose much of the exuberant, scratchy restlessness of the preceding album. Crutchfield and Gilbride don't have a story to tell about their themes, really, except to say that, while Crutchfield may have ended up writing the majority of the songs on the first record, it's far more of a team effort this time around.
"We wanted to make people aware of the fact that [Swearin' is all four of us]," says Crutchfield of the fact that on Surfing Strange, the mic is passed around more evenly.
For most bands that kind of distinction usually becomes necessary with ego, or songwriting credits, but for Swearin', it's a different — possibly unique — story. That's because Crutchfield came to Swearin' already known for being one of a pair: She and her twin sister, Katie, have been playing music together their whole lives in bands like the Ackleys and P.S. Eliot, and Swearin' and Waxahatchee (Katie's big-deal solo project) are their first creative forays without each other. That's what the press focused on when the two acts' debut projects — Swearin' and American Weekend — were released, despite the fact that Swearin' is a democratic band, in which Crutchfield, Gilbride, and bassist Keith Spencer all contribute equal songwriting efforts.
"Waxahatchee is very much Katie; Swearin' is very much the four of us," says Gilbride. "It's easier [to assume it's Allison's project] — plus the fact that [Keith, Jeff, and I] don't like having our photos taken. We're also all in different places; it's rare that we're all in the same place unless we're on tour or working on music. That always leaves faces out of the photo. . . . But it's very important for us to have our own identity as a group of people, and have the fact [known] that the music is coming from us as a group of people."
Right now, that group of people is spread out, with Crutchfield and Gilbride (a couple) here on the beach, Spencer somewhere further north in Brooklyn, in town for the night, and drummer Jeff Bolt in Philadelphia. (He still lives there, in a house down the street from Hazel House, and commutes up to Brooklyn for practices.)
This is essentially the band's natural state. Unlike most of their DIY contemporaries, Swearin' wasn't forged in one city's scene. Though they'd call the scene in Philly theirs, Crutchfield, Gilbride and Spencer all met on the road while touring with other bands; they found Bolt through Katie while he was looking for a band in Philadelphia. They're just as unstuck now as they were then: While Crutchfield and Gilbride are camped out in Queens, they're not really living there anymore. They lived in Brooklyn in 2012, spent a year in Philadelphia, and now have mostly abandoned Philly as well, for sort-of-New-York, sort-of-nowhere: a touring band's existential living space.
But for all their rootlessness, Swearin' are, in fact, digging their heels in. And it's showing in everything from the more concentrated Surfing Strange to two months of nonstop touring, and even to their search engine optimization.
"We've finally gotten to the point where we've beaten the Frankie Valli song ["Swearin' to God"] on Google," says Crutchfield.
"Yeah, we made T-shirts with his face on it as an apology," says Gilbride.
As he speaks, "Macarena" floats across the breeze from somewhere up the beach. All three of us pause just for a second, to recognize the moment.
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