The SwillMerchants opted to do their interview in a bar. Shots were poured, passed and downed before I could switch on my tape recorder.
This is par for the course for these local rockers, who are legendary for their whiskey-soaked antics on stage and off. Besides working nights to maintain that reputation, the roguish rockers recently took a little time off to record their first full-length album, The Mint Hotel.
The band has offered rock clubs all around the Northeast their raw, energetic sound and lubricated stage show for nearly four years. With their evolving sound came a few lineup changes, and the band is super-stoked to finally release the album that showcases their new direction.
"If you think you know something about us, come to the CD release and see that you don't," bass player John St. Onge said. St. Onge and frontman Rich Tardy are veterans of the band's original line-up, and the pair could not be more enthusiastic about what they've created with their new bandmates. "Listen to the 12 songs, come to the show and I fucking dare you to find better," Tardy said.
You can give a listen May 15 at the band's CD release show at the Iron Horse. "It's gonna be a great show," St. Onge said. "We don't play quietly like the other bands there."
The SwillMerchants say they invited like-minded loud-rockers Yucky Octupus to support, because of their similar energy and presence on stage. "Yucky is opening for us because they're the only band on our level for the live show," Tardy said.
Experienced audience members know that a real Swills set features violent energy, abused equipment and the occasional stage dive. "We're on the stage to kill it," St. Onge said. "It's not hard—it's about responding to the crowd, how much liquor is in the room and how much liquor is in the people. It's just feeling the energy."
Tardy has no doubts about the band's stage show: "We don't need to talk about the live show; the live show is fucking great."
"The problem we had before was that our live energy wasn't captured on the recording. Now it is. The goal was to get the same sound as we have live, with all the same energy," St. Onge said.
This time around, the band recorded with longtime friend and local producer/engineer Eric Arena. "Eric has seen and listened to us from the beginning, so he knew the sound and the live energy, and how to capture it," said keyboardist Matt Silberstein.
Work on the record has spanned almost two years, and it features the work of three drummers and three guitarists. The band finished recording in February with the latest additions to the Swill family: drummer Peter Riley and guitarist Bobby D.
The recording captures some of the band's party vibe—Tardy's hangover is audible on "Tigerbeat." "The day I had to lay down vocals, I had the flu—or I'd just been drinking for five days straight—and you can hear me coughing and spitting in the background," Tardy said. But he continued reassuringly: "We're professionals in the studio. We'll drink you under the table, and then record you under the table and outplay you live."
That approach has paid off—The Mint Hotel is as fresh as the name suggests. Swill-sound has always been an angsty, bass-driven rock with infectious energy, but the new album offers loads of new stuff, and does everything in big style. Heaps of MGMT-esque keyboards and thick guitars give many tracks a intriguing vibe, and, Silberstein said, their synth-heavy songwriting was influenced by '80s pop like Aha, The Cars and Crowded House. Each track is dynamically different; "More about the City Later" has a hip-hop feel, "The Passenger Who Never Falls Asleep" is a keyboard-driven oldies charmer, and "Before the Fever" even rocks a little fiddle.
"People are going to be surprised," Tardy said. "Listen to the album or come to a show and you're gonna be like, 'Holy fuck, I didn't fucking expect this.'"
Pressed and packaged album in hand, the SwillMerchants are finalizing plans for a busy summer with gigs up and down the East Coast. Their creative juices still untapped, the band will head back into the studio in August to record new material. Tardy sees the CD release as a jumping-off point: "For so many local bands, their CD release is their swan song—the peak moment of their career," Tardy said. "For us it's the beginning of what we're going to do, not the culmination. We're looking forward."