Interview with Jim from Swervedriver

Following the recent reissues of the Creation albums by Swervedriver, I took the opportunity to ask a few questions to Jim Hartridge of the band about starting off in Oxford right up until their recent tour in 2008.

You originally started Swervedriver (as Shake Appeal) in 1984, what were your original influences?

All kinds of rock and roll with a good dose of UK punk rock! I would say the most popular bands with us were the MC5 and the Stooges without a doubt.

Coming from Oxford how was the music scene like there in the 1980’s?

Dreadful. There were no bands from there who had ever made it at the time – apart from Fairport Convention! (who weren’t from Oxford itself but Oxfordshire..) A few pub bands that we used to go and see were OK bit far from challenging or contemporary. But at the time, Goth was king and glamour pop like Duran Duran etc was in the charts. To truly “believe” in rock and roll in Oxford at that time, you were pretty much on your own. The 80’s were a culturally vacuous time all over the UK anyway. It was all about earning loads of money, wearing “power” clothes and voting Tory…good riddance…

When did you become Swervedriver?

We broke up our original line up and reformed with a (slightly) new one as Swervedriver in 1990 I think, although it may have been 1989 when we got the new name. It seemed like other bands were cropping up who were after the same kind of thing as us, such as Dinosaur Jr. and MBV so we didn’t feel so alone anymore. We found inspiration in Sonic Youth who were like a contemporary Stooges in some ways and we updated what we were doing..

You were signed to Creation as Mark Gardener recommended you to Alan McGee, were you fans of Creation before you joined the label?

We knew and liked the MBV album and had known the band since about 1986 when we played with them at a squat gig in Hackney. We liked Ride, especially as a live band. I can’t think of anyone else on the label at the time that we had particular respect for but really it was only when we joined that they started to sign all the really happening bands.

You joined Creation at the height of the hedonistic period when there were parties in the office regularly, were you around for much of the events?

Not really. Well, maybe a couple of times we walked into the “morning after”. I know a girl now who worked there at the time who said that nothing ever got done in the office due to the drugs and hangovers.. She had to do all the work for everyone else in the office. It was chaos.

You also joined the label just as the hits started with ‘Loaded’ and Ride making the top 40. What impact do you think Ride’s success had not just on Swervedriver, but also the Oxford scene?

Ride definitely helped to raise the profile away from it being only a college town in the eyes of the music press. The band had so much coverage back then. It seemed almost impossible that an indie band could make even the top 40, so when they did everyone took notice. We played with them a couple of times and I used to bump into Andy Bell in Tesco’s all the time. Maybe the A&R man who signed Radiohead wouldn’t have bothered even coming to see the band in Oxford if it wasn’t for Ride’s success. That seems highly plausible.

Alan McGee claimed he listened to your demo with Guy Chadwick whilst driving across America and that’s when he decided to sign you; I know he’s a big fan of creating a myth. How true is the story do you know?

I’m pretty sure that’s factual. He does love a good myth it’s true but I reckon he would have told us if he had made that one up so… yep. I don’t know about driving “across” America though…simply along Sunset Boulevard, I think it was.

You were initially pigeon-holed by the press as a shoegazer band, although I always thought you had a much harder edge to your sound. Did you feel comfortable being placed alongside such bands?

No! We thought it was ridiculous. What is even more absurd is that fact that even today – especially in the USA – we are still referred to as “shoegazer”. What started off as a very British Music Press in-joke got turned into a serious phrase to describe a particular genre. There’s not a lot of similarity between what we were aiming for and a lot of the other bands at the time, although everyone knew each other, which didn’t help, as a social scene was created and was then attacked by the press for being self congratulatory! Everyone was using Alan Moulder to produce their albums as well, but to be fair he was working with U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins at the same time, so that’s no reason to generalise either. We had far more time for Black Sabbath’s music than that of The Jesus and Mary Chain that’s for sure.

After the UK shoegaze scene died down, you toured the states with Smashing Pumpkins. Was it a conscious attempt to move closer to the US scene?

Well, we enjoyed playing the States more that the UK. I think most touring bands do; for all kinds of reasons. But we were more respected there. The American audiences were not nearly so influenced by the press as the UK’s was at the time. People in the UK were still actively reading the music papers back then, so it was quite different from today; the NME only sells about 55 thousand copies a week, so its influence is pretty negligible now. The US music fans would take more time to listen to the music, check out the shows, make their own minds up – and take it pretty seriously. Radio play and live shows were far more effective in gaining an audience for bands and musicians over there. So it was more rewarding for a band in many ways.

It’s still the same in the States now. Put it this way, hardly anyone in America has even heard of the weaker UK bands such as Razorlight, although I’m sure they’ve tried pretty hard to get noticed! Hype alone can break a band in the UK but it really isn’t enough in the States; the band has to prove itself. But we weren’t trying to move closer to a US scene. We were simply offered more opportunities to work out there, which of course we took.

What impact do you think the success of Oasis had on the Creation’s attitude to Ejector Seat Reservation as I don’t remember seeing hardly any promotion for album?

A bad one! The label was not strong enough to deal with Oasis as well as all the other bands, unfortunately. Also, Alan McGee was having his own personal troubles at that time so without his support or leadership, the rest of the label was unable to make decisions or properly follow through on anything. He was also seemingly obsessed with working with Scottish bands, so us coming from the South didn‘t help much. So our album sank. On top of that, we had just lost our American A&M record deal, so Creation lost a lot of our income due to that, which would have given them a good financial reason to not back us anymore.

I also think in hindsight that EJR is one of those albums that you need time to really appreciate and, during those Britpop years, no one had time for that. Everyone wanted chart hits and cocaine.

Of the three albums that are being re-released by Sony, do you have any particular memories that stand-out attached to each album?

They were all a lot of fun to record. One particularly good memory was of demoing the first album. I had a squat in St. Augustine’s Road in Camden. One time it snowed very heavily in London and it was like we had the whole area to ourselves. Our rehearsal place was just over the road – two minutes away – from the squat so the whole band was stuck at the flat and the rehearsal rooms. No-one could get home. There was nothing we could do but play music. The snow must have been a foot deep and we were stranded. You never get weather like that these days!

You all have various projects on the go these days, what have you been up to in the last decade?

I did a degree in Brighton and worked for a record company for a few years. After that, I set up another record company with some friends, which wasn’t a great success as no-one really buys CDs anymore. Then I started working in music promotion. The US tour was a very welcome break this year.

These days you seem to be more popular in the US than the UK, why do you think that is?

That was always the way with us really. As described above, the US fans seem to appreciate our kind of music more than the British. I suppose they invented rock and roll there…In a way that makes British Swervy fans all the more exceptional. It can be pretty empowering to be really into a band that no-one else gets. It makes one feel superior and unique!

What made you decide to reunite for the current tour?

I don’t think any of us over the intervening years thought it would ever happen so it wasn’t even discussed, although we had all been in touch to a certain extent over the years for various social reasons such as gigs, funerals and parties etc. Then last year, we got a gig offer out of the blue. We all got the email forwarded to us individually and, one by one, it appeared that we all wanted to do it. So we all met up and decided…not to do that particular gig but to arrange a US tour instead and take it a bit further.

Will there be some new recordings and are there any plans for any more touring?

No plans as yet. These things are always hard to arrange and especially without a record deal. I wouldn’t rule anything out though!

Interview: November 2008

Many thanks to Dorothy for her help.