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The Swayback – The Birth of a Band

MTV may have a show about the making of a band, but in the real world, musicians and artists have to make it completely on their own without the instant exposure of television or a music big wig fine-tuning their every move.

After nine months of gestation, The Swayback is discovering how a band comes to life, and how to make it in the big, bad world of music.

It was January of 2002 at the annual Punk Rock Bowling Tournament when I first met the Swayback team…when they were just a twinkle in someone’s eye. Guitarist Bill Murphy had just moved from Los Angeles to join bassist and lead vocalist, Eric Halborg, here in Denver. The two had already been joined at the hip years before when they hit it off in Breckenridge, where their love for collecting vinyl and creating music helped to build their instant chemistry, enabling them to start, what Eric describes as a, “god-awful punk rock band.”

Bill ended up moving back to Los Angeles and Eric returned to Boulder to finish his study of graphic design and photography at University of Colorado. When Eric graduated, it was time to make a baby band, for real this time.

Bill wanted the place of birth to be L.A., and to that, Eric replied, “Fuck L.A. I’ve been there to visit you and people are lame. Come here. People are nice and we can play more shows than we could, perhaps, there. We can really get it all down here.”

As anyone knows, getting a band started is full of challenges, from defining the sound and style to rounding out the talent. When it came to hitting the beats, they start off sans drummer, using the artificial intelligence of a Casio to fill in. When they actually searched for the real thing, the revolving door went around 16 times.

Eric thinks back on one of their best drummers who had a secret love for the big H. “Yea, it was so sad,” he reflects. “He was a xylophone player who had a full ride to University of Colorado for Theory, but he was also a drum prodigy. He was amazing.” When they discovered his habit, they knew that the drummer had to go. “That was five months down the tube, basically.”

It was Forrest Bartosh who turned out to be the missing link, and still sits behind The Swayback kit today. As the former punk rock drummer from The Gamits, Pinhead Circus and the Ladonnas, Forrest knew Eric and Bill through Virgil Dickerson, owner of Suburban Home Records, The Gamits label. Forrest had been interested in going in a different direction from the punk he’d been playing for years, and he had his sights on The Swayback’s raw rock and roll. “He was in a genre of music that’s very stagnant for a drummer,” Eric comments. The band went about tapping into his creative talent, encouraging him explore ideas he’s had turning around in his head.

“When I write, it could be a bit of a Wire song or a Smiths song, or whatever I happened to be obsessed with that week,” Eric explains. “Then, it’s just however it goes. I’ll be thinking Joy Division and it’ll turn into something like the Melvins. But I’ve been making art long enough to know that if you’re going to be in a collaborative project, you’re one third or one twelfth of however many people happen to be in the scenario.”

Swayback currently has a five-song demo they pass out to anyone who wants it, and offer those songs on their web site, as MP3 downloads. The first track off the demo, “All Bad News”, kicks it into high gear and provides a good indication of Swayback’s raucous antics. Assembled with a heavy duty, fuel injected tank of rock and roll, Eric’s shaky vocals take center stage, spilling over the edge.

Although some have compared Eric’s vocal style to a young Jello Biafra, he has looked more to his brother-in-law, Peter Bowers, as a vocal mentor. As the lead singer for a band Zero Balance back in Chicago, “He was the singer in the vein of crooning, like Echo and the Bunnymen. He was very into vocal maintenance and strengthening.” Eric learned to, ”work out a muscle, like anything else. I always viewed it as something you could build and develop as opposed to thinking, ‘I have it or I don’t.”

“All Bad News” has become a favorite of fans and those in the industry, having been picked for inclusion on the Asian Man Records punk rock compilation, Underground Screams. Since this worldwide release came out earlier this year, Swayback has been emailed by fans in far off countries and is even receiving airplay on Serbia radio.

“Distinguished Guest at the Downtrodden Ball” winds up sleek and black, as slick as a ‘60s hot rod convertible barreling down PCH, with echoing surf guitar in the back seat, headed for the Whiskey. In subsequent tracks, you can pick up on their amalgamation of influences.

Growing up with two older siblings was Eric’s path into the wonderful world of music, receiving tapes of Led Zepplin Four and Frank Zappa’s Shake Your Booty from his sister when he was just five years old. “When I was younger, all I knew was that like, rock and roll…and from my brother’s side, that indie rock and new wave. Bill, now he brings in a heavier side to it. His tastes are totally eclectic – from Kraftwerk to old Metallica.” Eric points out that Bill also DJs, spinning his eclectic mix of rock and roll every Thursday at night called “Evil Heat” at Illegal Pete’s, where 150 to 200 people roll up to hang out in the summer air and take in fiery tunes.

People have often referred to their band as having punk style, which is okay, as long as people don’t hear the term punk and immediately think Sum41. “I’m thinking early punk, where anything went.” He refers to the time in the late 70’s and ‘80s when bands like Jodie Foster’s Army and New York Dolls were changing the scene. “The best thing about those bands is that you couldn’t classify them. It wasn’t like they sounded like anyone in particular. Just like Black Flag. They didn’t sound like what they consider to be punk now. They had those D.I.Y. ethics.”

Eric believes one of the greatest D.I.Y skills any band can have is educating themselves in the business and legal areas, and getting advice from people in the know. He often looks to his art school buddy Ryder Robison, who’s spent years as the bassist for Denver based Vaux, who is signed to Volcom Records. “He’s further along in the business side of things. He does everything for band, except for the booking. The two of us together try to edify ourselves on what’s going on.”

The band is also able to take advantage of some major connections through Eric’s brother-in-law, Peter, who once ran one of the biggest indie rock clubs in Chicago, the Double Door, and was the owner of GX1 Records. Peter led them to Doug McBride from Gravity Studios in Chicago (Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Cheap Trick), who invited Swayback out to produce and record two of their demo tracks, “Distinguished Guest At The Downtrodden Ball” and “Jon Merrick Blues” in April of this year. Jim Powers with Minty Fresh Records and Doug McBride have wanted to co-produce a project for some time, and that project could turn out to be “All Bad News”.

Word on The Swayback continues to spread, and they’re getting more and more people approaching them to do development deals, be their manager, or just record more music. Record labels have also come a callin’, including Lookout! Records, V2 Records, and the A&R guy who signed the White Stripes and Burning Brides, John Seidel. But Swayback is in no hurry to get hooked up with anyone. “To be honest with you, I think that the more time we have to keep doing this, the stronger we’ll be.”

For now, they’ll also hold off on even putting out their own full-length, because they don’t believe they have the amount of money to do it right. That may have to wait until they actually do get a record deal, complete with a solid recording and production budget. Eric leans in and whispers as if someone might be listening in, “I love the songs we have right now. I don’t want to waste them. Some of the songs we have…if someone could do it right, they could be killer.”

The Swayback has been busy playing in and around Denver, and has plans to eventually take the Swayback circus on the road, but not until it makes sense. “At this point, we’re totally poor. Taking time off and doing that would be tough. I wouldn’t might living in a van for a year if I knew that point A would get me to point B, to point C and so on.”

When the time is right, they would prefer to jump onto a national tour with friends they’ve made from their opening gigs, including Burning Brides, Ravonettes, and Pretty Girls Make Graves, or their buddies in Vaux. “We’re just waiting for someone who has a little bit of clout to take us out with them. I’m not too concerned with making money. I know that doesn’t happen for years and years. At the same time, I’m not interested in blowing money either.”

Right now, The Swayback is in no rush to grow up fast. They’ll keep learning the ropes while writing and sculpting their art form. “The way I feel about it is, you can’t arm yourself with too many songs. But at this point, we don’t have anything. I see the pitfalls people take, and I’m way to conscious of that. But once I’m in it, I’m in it forever.”

When they’re ready to run with the big boys, they’ll get on the road and spread their Swayback charm for the rest of the masses. But they’ll always call Denver home, “It’s a wonderful place to incubate the chaos.”

The Swayback will be playing this Monday, September 22 at the Fox Theatre in Boulder with High On Fire and Core of the Earth.


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