SWEAR & SHAKE
- February 2016 -
HAVE A BEER WITH SWEAR & SHAKE
Swear and Shake is the rare kind of band that can take an audience from sole-stomping to a slow dance in the span of two songs. A recently turned trio, the band – consisting of Adam McHeffey (vocals/guitar/banjo), Kari Spieler (vocals/guitar) and Shaun Savage (electric bass) – is exploring their new sound sans rhythm section, with arrangements that are decidedly different from those found on their 2012 full-length, Maple Ridge. Swear and Shake are currently in the early stages of a new record, which you can learn more about in our interview below.
The band has directly supported acts like The Lumineers, Delta Rae, American Authors, G. Love and Special Sauce, ZZ Ward and Greensky Bluegrass, and they're wrapping up a February tour with Nashville-based singer-songwriter Andrew Ripp. We had some drinks with the band after their set at Evanston SPACE, where we covered snowball fights, Halloween costumes and why they want to go on the TV show "Pimp My Ride."
The Gig: Andrew Ripp with Swear and Shake // Evanston SPACE // Feb. 14, 2016
Drinks of Choice: Yazoo Brewery (Nashville), Bulleit whiskey
Kristen: Most important question first. What's your go-to drink choice?
Adam: We moved to Nashville just over a year ago, and my new favorite brewery there is Yazoo. Everybody in Nashville knows about it. They have a red ale called Gerst.
Kristen: That’s such an “oomph name.”
Adam: Yeah, it’s very German-sounding. I like red-ish, amber-ish beers like that. It’s my " go to." My favorite beer.
[Kari does a “wrap-it-up” signal with her hands. Laughter.]
Shaun: I like to bounce around and drink local beer. I’m partial to Bulleit if I’m drinking whiskey.
Kari: Tonight we’re drinking Maker’s, which is delicious as well. I feel bad that you saw me do the “wrap-it-up” thing with my hands.
Kristen: I loved it. What's your drink of choice, Kari?
Kari: Over the years it has become Tito’s on the rocks with a lime. It’s delicious. I’ll take a case of it, if you've got some.
Kristen: Shout out to Tito’s. Let’s get you some sponsorship.
Kari: We are doing a new record so that would be great…
Kristen: Yeah, tell me about that record.
Kari: Well, tonight we played 75 percent new songs. We’ve been a four piece for many years now and we’re now a trio, and we’re writing all sorts of new material, which is pretty exciting. It’s kind of like picking up a new instrument and seeing what works.
Kristen: How has that creative process changed – going from four members to three – or has it changed at all?
Kari: For me it has changed dramatically. For one thing, there’s a limitation now. Without a rhythm section you have to figure some new things out, but other parts also get to take the spotlight again. We’ve been focusing a lot on harmonies and arranging our songs, at least for the live versions, in such a way that we have these very dynamic moments. When you have a drummer, of course you do that as well, but you’re not as limited. You often move around whatever the rhythm section is doing.
Adam: The tight parameters are good for creativity. You get interesting stuff.
Kristen: It’s kind of ironic how that works, isn't it?
Adam: It is, and it's that way across all art forms. As soon as you limit your palette, you get good stuff. If you’re an artist sketching and you put a square on the paper and tell yourself you can only draw within that square, it’s so much easier to create.
Kristen: I once had a fiction professor whose workshop method was story constraints. He would tell the class, “Okay, write a story about a squirrel, it has to be based in Los Angeles and someone has to get hit by a car.” And strangely, those constraints got my story moving.
Adam: Exactly. Yeah, then you’re rolling. They say the worst thing for writing is a blinking cursor. If you’re looking at Microsoft Word – or whatever, I guess no one uses that any more – and see a blank page, it’s overwhelming. With musical projects, the hardest thing is when you say, “Let’s make a record that represents the band perfectly. And let’s record it. And spend thousands and thousands of dollars to make sure it’s perfect.” Then it’s like, “Jesus, we don’t have anything to say.” But if we get a little bit of a gig, it's helpful. For example, this real estate company wanted a song about their new property. We looked at the house and it was a done deal. We had our parameters – it needs to be family friendly, it needs to have this kind of energy and this is the property and we want the word canvas in there – and the song came out in moments. Having those restrictions made it really easy.
Kristen: So, then with your songwriting process do you set those parameters? How do you make that happen?
Kari: That’s a great question. I’ve tried doing this recently to spice things up and put myself in a new position. I knew that wanted to write a song about a particular situation I was going through, and I was totally stuck. It was like staring at a blank canvas and saying, “I don’t know what to put on this.” So I went onto Spotify and typed in the word “regret” and listened to all the songs that popped up. I took a bunch of lyrics I liked and wrote them down, and I was able to reconfigure what I wanted to say. I didn’t actually use any of the lyrics from the songs I listened to – meaning I didn’t snip them up and put them back together. For example, St. Vincent has a great song about regrets and it really pertained to what I was talking about. I rearranged the lines in it as a starting point. I gave myself a challenge and it got me going on the song. But the best songs just happen.
Adam: Yeah, I think there are two types of songwriting and all songwriters do both – but some do one more than the other. The two circles you can dabble in are: first, that burst of energy and inspiration where it pours out of you. There’s something spiritual about it and it just flows. That’s an amazing thing, but it doesn’t happen often, and when you’re doing this occupationally, that becomes a problem. And the second one is the craftsmanship – learning how to build a song and build a lyric when you can’t turn on creativity like a faucet. To become a songwriter who wants to last more than a couple years, you need to be able to know both and drift between the two. And when one candle starts to flicker out a little, you need to be able to go to the other one. That’s the balance you have to strike between writing a real estate commercial and your own songs.
Kristen: So what you just mentioned, Kari, about going to Spotify and searching for songs with the word “regret,” that would be an example of a time when one candle flickered out?
Kari: Yeah, and I had to figure out a way of saying what I needed to say without that initial burst of inspiration.
Kristen: Is there a place you guys go when you’re having that block?
Kari: I wish there were one thing that worked for me. There isn’t. But I do I have to force myself when I’m not feeling inspired to sit down and write. And it sucks when that happens. But you go for walks, you have a beer, you go and do something else other than focusing on trying to finish that song. But no, there’s no one answer for me.
Adam: There are tricks, but that’s all that they are. Maybe you play through a song you wrote five years ago. That’s one tool in the toolbox – it doesn’t always work – but something that will bring you back and link you to something new. The other one is playing someone else's song. With Kari and I, sometimes we'll play a Graham Parsons song, something that you don't need to play perfectly, but it just helps to get you writing. It's like you're doing it with a very clear purpose...
Kari: You need to keep yourself open so that when inspiration strikes you're ready to go.
Adam: The other way to look at it is that you have to keep your tools sharp so that when inspiration strikes, you don't have to go and sharpen the chisel, so to speak.
Kristen: That's a good way to put it. Let's talk about Nashville. You guys moved there last year, November 2015.
Adam: Yeah, it was Thanksgiving time.
Kari: It was the first time my mom realized that I wasn't living in New York anymore. She asked me, "So when are you coming home for Thanksgiving?" And I had to say that I wasn't.
Kristen: That's the worst, having to let mom down! What makes Nashville special for you guys?
Adam: For me, if you're going to Nashville and the weather is nice, it's all about the natural world. That's a very non-Music City answer, but it's why I love calling Nashville home. It's got the mountains and the rivers and parks. What being outside does for the body...If you want to talk about getting creativity flowing...
Kristen: That's kind of why I'm going. I'm staying in East Nashville.
Kari: That's where we live.
Adam: When you get there, give us a call. We'll go to Dino's Diner. It's a late-night burgers and beer bar. Dingy but charming.
Kari: But so many people have caught on now...
Kristen: Do you feel that happening at a lot of places in Nashville? You hear about the city's growth – and people from out of state moving there – all the time.
Adam: That's us, though. We caught onto it sort of. We are those people.
Shaun: Dino's doesn't mind though. They love it.
Kari: That's the double-edged sword really. For small businesses it's great, but you're waiting an hour for a shitty cheeseburger.
Adam: There's also a place called The 5 Spot in East Nashville with two dollar Tuesdays and live music. There are lots of things you can do.
Kari: But let me say also that throwing yourself in an uncomfortable situation is a really great way to find inspiration, if you're going there to write.
Kristen: That's kind of what I'm hoping for.
Kari: The cool thing about Nashville is that you can walk into any bar and have a good experience. Those things are happening everywhere. You can walk into any venue and see a good band.
Adam: I've had friends and sisters and cousins come visit me, and I show them the sites and they have a good time, but for me that's not what Nashville is about. That's not where my happiness in Nashville comes from. My happiness in Nashville comes from the tight-knit community that we have. A producer that we work with lives down the block. That wasn't the case when we were living in Brooklyn.
Kari: It's the best.
Adam: That's real. We got into a snowball fight with him one night.
Adam: Yes, that really happened. I freaked out.
Shaun: Yeah, we don't get snow very often.
Adam: It was recently, when we got a bunch of snow. I heard this "pop, pop, pop" and I didn't know what it was. I saw this dark figure cross my lawn. I had no idea what was going on. I thought we were being shot or there was a dog. It ended up just being a neighbor [a producer] throwing snowballs at our house. We challenged them to a fight, and we were out there for for an hour or so.
Kristen: You should come up to Chicago and have a snowball fight and then get rid of all of our snow. Where are you originally from then?
Adam: Shaun and I have known each other since kindergarten, that's why we look so similar.
Kristen: That's a thing. I think about it all the time. It's the same with people and their dogs.
Kari: Yeah, I totally agree with you.
Adam: Yeah, that's in "The Stranger." Albert Camus talks about that – how Old Man Salamano looks like his dog.
Kari: That poor dog though. Am I right? He has no hair and he's got scabs and stuff.
Adam: Yeah...Anyways, Shaun and I have played music together since middle school, and you know, parted ways here and there.
Kristen: What was your first band name?
Kari: They just went over this earlier today!
Shaun: Psycho Vision. It was a bit of a different sound...
Adam: It was around the time when Blink182 got big, but we didn't like them that much.
Shaun: Yeah, it was about as defined as a 7th grader could feel.
Kristen: I would love to hear some Psycho Vision on the new record.
Adam: I still know the songs...So, I went off to SUNY Purchase college in New York and Shaun toured the country at 18 years old. At Purchase, I met Kari, who was also a student there. Right around graduation I had written a song called "Johnnie." And it was written from a female perspective, so I had Kari demo it. The day she did that, we decided to start the band. We played some festivals that summer. I remember being at the Mountain Jam Festival in New York and we were on the small stage, and The Wailers were playing right next to us and it was so loud. In that moment I thought, "We need a drummer and a bassist. You can't even hear anything." So we called up Shaun, who I had known all my life. And that was the start of the band.
Kristen: And Kari where are you from originally?
Kari: I'm from Poughkeepsie, New York. Skeet skeet.
Kristen: I don't know how we're going to capture that voice in the transcription, but we'll find a way.
Shaun: Just put that one little bit up on Soundcloud.
Kari: I meant to say "Pough skeet skeet," but the "Pough" kind of dropped off there.
Kristen: What are you not asked in interviews that you wish you could talk about?
Kari: You asked about our writing. People don't usually ask about that part of the process.
Kristen: But that's one of the most important parts...
Kari: Yeah, and that's the thing we like talking the most about, too. We feel like you wouldn't even want to be talking to us if we weren't writing music.
Kristen: For sure. So let's talk about that more. On the forthcoming record, what is one song that was particularly challenging to write?
Adam: All of the ones you haven't heard yet.
Kari: That same one that I was talking about before, where I was using Spotify to listen to other people's songs and looking up their lyrics. That's a song we're calling "Friendly Fire." Is that official?
Adam: It's official now!
Kari: That was really challenging because I was trying to capture an emotion and tell a story without it being too preachy and too sad. You know what I mean? That was really hard for me: trying to figure out how to relay a particular message. I'm not even necessarily sure that I did. I just know it feels good to sing.
Kristen: I'm sure once you go into the studio, things will change and feel different, too.
Kari: If you've got a great producer, hopefully one who asks you to change things up, then for sure.
Adam: I think perspective is a real challenge. The songs that we played tonight all felt great, but with every song – even the ones that end up being no brainers down the road that people request to hear – there's always a little bit of insecurity. You're not sure if it's ready to go. You're not sure why you wrote it or if it's any good or if it's cool. It's something that a lot of people feel and that can be crippling. Sometimes you just have to go for it and hope for the best – play it and listen back, and if you have fun singing it and want to hear it again, then it's a go.
Kristen: How do you know when it's done? How do you put your foot down and say, "This is it"?
Adam: Well, hopefully you have a good producer for that. A producer is the one that should do that, and a good artist should also know when to stop.
Kari: I feel differently. I feel like a good artist is going to go on for as long as possible and somebody needs to come in and tell them, "It's really good. Just call it quits."
Adam: I'm thinking about a particular part of that. In the studio, you have the opportunity to add whatever you want now. It's so easy to just keep throwing shit on a track, and it gets so easy to add more and more stuff until it gets less and less "hit-ish." That's what I mean when I say a good artist knows when to stop. The thing I think you're talking about, Kari, is when an artist keeps saying, "I just don't know if this is any good," and they keep going back and doing vocal takes. That's when you need to take time away, and when the producer says, "It's good. We're done," you need to be able to take that as truth.
Kristen: You've been so silent, Shaun. Do you have anything to add?
Shaun: That's kind of my thing: staying silent.
Kari: Ask him about bowing an electric bass.
Shaun: I just tried it for the first time, and it was...difficult...?
Shaun: I'm working on it. It has a really cool sound to it that I plan on pursuing. I'm not really sure when it's going to come in – maybe on this next record I'll be bowing an electric bass.
Kristen: You better.
Shaun: We'll see how it goes.
Kristen: I have some more questions for you that are not related to writing or creative process. Let's do some scenario questions, as in, "If the three of you are at a bar or a party, which one of you is the most likely to..." In this case I'll ask you to say who you think the most likely to play bartender or be pouring drinks would be.
Adam: I love this. One thing that just came to me is that we could count to three and all answer at the same time.
Kari: They're going to say the same thing and I'm going to say something else. I know it.
Kristen: Okay, let's do it. Most likely to play bartender. One, two, three, go...
Kari: I told you that would happen!
Shaun: I'll tell you why I said Adam. When we were in St. Augustine for Halloween one year...
Adam: I was thinking the same thing!
Kristen: Well, you guys have known each other since kindergarten.
Adam: Shaun and I have the same thoughts because we've known each other for so long.We were in St. Augustine for Halloween one year and I was a cowboy, Kari was Buzzlightyear dressed as Ms. Nesbit and Shaun was a Medieval knight. I was a western civilian. Not a cowboy, per say...
Shaun: You were saloon-ish. Maybe like a western banker...
Adam: I was western-ish.
Adam: I was like a middle-class western guy and maybe I had a good job at the bank or something like that. But the look was just right for sitting behind the bar and pretending to wash mugs all night, if you can imagine: holding a mug in one hand a rag in the other. It actually got to the point where people were coming up to me and asking for drinks.
Shaun: This is exactly why I said him.
Adam: Yeah, so that was this one time where one of us got behind the bar at a party and started pouring drinks, and it happened to be me.
Kari: I thought of Shaun because we were thinking of different jobs he could have, and I imagined him at a fancy cocktail bar.
Adam: Right, I do think Shaun could do that.
Kristen: Especially with your outfit tonight. Do you want to go behind the bar tonight and serve some drinks?
Adam: I want that for Shaun so bad.
Shaun: I only do Jameson on the rocks and whatever beer. I can't mix fancy drinks.
Adam: You can do Jack and Coke.
Kristen: Maybe that way you'll get your Valentine...Lots of ladies coming up and ordering drinks.
Kari: That would be so great.
Adam: We'd have to get him a drink he could light on fire or something.
Kristen: Unfortunately there aren't any of those on the menu. Ok, next question. Who would be most likely to be at the jukebox or controlling the music? On three: 1,2,3...go!
Kari: No one.
Adam: I know it wouldn't be me, because the last time I was at a jukebox I put on "Party in the U.S.A" and everyone pretty much left the bar.
Kristen: That's a great party song!
Adam: That's what I thought!
Shaun: I sort of thought about it in terms of us being in the van...If we're in the van, who's the most likely to put something on Spotify?
Kari: I'm definitely the least likely. First of all, especially if I'm driving, our front left speaker sounds SO BAD it makes me not like music.
Kari: And Shaun is the first person that would put something on that's awesome. He has really good taste and he always wants to have something playing that sounds great. But if I'm driving and Shaun's putting on music I'm like, "Can we just not listen to anything? I'm so sorry."
Kristen: You need to put this on Kickstarter and get some money for the replacement of the left speaker.
Kari: We're wondering where the fuck Xzibit is, dude. [from the TV show "Pimp My Ride"]
Shaun: That show is so on.
Adam: We would be the best episode because our van is in the funniest shape.
Shaun: "We heard all you guys wanted was one speaker, so we just put that one speaker in."
Kari: I was daydreaming about what kinds of things I would put in the van today. I had the best idea. We have this conversion van, right?
Adam: All day it was quiet in the van because Kari didn't want to listen to anything. Now we know what she was thinking about.
Kari: Imagine a captain's seat that swings sideways and turns into a bench. That's kind of my idea. Instead of your traditional captain's seat with the armrest, it's flat where it doesn't have a headrest, so when you want to sleep you can swing it around sideways and fold it down, and when you don't you can snap it forward and put it up.
[Adam does Kari's "wrap it up" hand signal. Laughter]
Kari: This is essentially all coming from me really wanting to have benches in the van. I prefer that.
Kristen: I can't sit sideways in car rides. I tend to get motion sickness that way or be uncomfortable. But I see where you're going with this.
Adam: I find that women look really comfortable when they pull their legs up [pretzels his legs on the couch]. I'm kind of a big dude, so I'll often just be uncomfortable anywhere. But if you're watching a romantic comedy, a lady always has her legs pulled up on the couch and looks so comfortable.
Kristen: I totally do that. You're so right.
Adam: They just make it work in a way that I can't.
Kristen: You're making it work right now.
Adam: You're right.
Shaun: This is an enormous couch we're sitting on, by the way.
Kari: I have a lot of ideas like that for the van. I kind of wish I drew a diagram for you.
Kristen: That's actually something I'm thinking about starting. Something called napkin notes, where I have bands draw on napkins at the bar – anything they want.
Kari: That's hilarious.
Adam: If it's a bunch of guys, you could ask them to draw what they think the size of the other's...
Kristen: That is not where I was expecting you to go with that one!
Kari: Fucking geniuses over there.
Kristen: Moving forward, you can be the creative director of A Beer with the Band, Adam.Who is the most likely to be on the dance floor after a few drinks? 1,2,3...go!
Adam: Shaun's a good dancer!
Shaun: Yeah, but Kari's the most likely to just be out there...
Adam: Kari has been solo dancing on this tour – ripping it up.
Kari: Yesterday Shaun was watching the show and I locked eyes on him and was like...[does dancing motion]. We were in Ames, Iowa, and we played a college show. With an Andrew Ripp show everyone's pretty much on their feet dancing. But this was a very tame audience. You could hear a pin drop. It was so quiet. It was seated and it was so tame. Andrew was playing one of his songs where he sings, "You make me feel like dancing," and Kari is just in the back busting a move.
Kari: I thought positive energy would inspire the youth of Iowa State and it just did not work out.
Kristen: There's always next year. If you have to hand a band philosophy or mission statement, what would it be?
Shaun: The first thing I thought of was, "You gotta, you gotta."
Adam: I thought of Mars.
Kristen: What is going on? Like the planet?
Shaun: We just watched The Martian in the van, I bet that's why he's saying that.
Adam: It is. "You gotta, you gotta" is from Kari's Papa Dave, her grandpa.
Kari: I don't know what exactly happened leading up to it, but his response to us was, "Hey...You gotta, you gotta, you gotta, you gotta..."
Kristen: As in, "You gotta keep going."
Kari: Oddly enough, my mom is exactly like my grandpa. I called her up the other day looking for some advice on a particular situation and she said, "You know, people feel the way they feel. And that's that." And that was the end of the conversation.
Adam: It's very similar to, "You gotta, you gotta, you gotta."
Kari: And someone once told us, "You all are a real mixed bag." Which is something we got a lot, but it doesn't make any sense.
Adam: I like "You gotta, you gotta" as our band philosophy for now. It's kind of like our version of Nike's "Just do it."
Kristen: Anything else you want to add?
Kari: No, I don't think so. I think we did a good job.
Kari: I'm really sorry. I got drunk tonight. It's been a slow burn, but I'm there now.
Shaun: "Alright, alright, alright...!"
Adam: "You gotta, you gotta..."