SWARVY: SCENES IN A COMIC BOOK
photography by theo jemison
L.A. is proving to be a comfortable home for Swarvy, a recently arrived beatsmith and musical polymath. The Philly-area native spent years traversing prog-metal, psychedelic rock, and jazz; most recently he’s made his name with the warm and funky style of hip-hop beats most closely associated with Dilla and Madlib. But even there, he makes the style his own—while many of the labrynthine pieces on his tape Elderberry sound as if they were chopped out of old jazz records, they were actually jammed out live by Swarvy and a couple of collaborators. It wasn’t long ago that he gigged in a Philly-New York circuit where audience members frequently gave him the cold shoulder or worse. Now transplanted to L.A., his curiosity hasn’t calmed down—his interests swerve from Quincy Jones to Kendrick Lamar to obscure 60s garage rock and luxurious 80s mullet-jazz—but he’s found a sense of community and an audience eager to vibe with his advanced sensibility. The producer, bandleader, and beatmaker sat down with us in his apartment in Leimert Park. He’s constantly putting out new music, but his most recent efforts include a Feeniks single on Akashik Records and Tapes, a single with Pink Siifu and his own Blends Vol. 3. He performs this Friday with L.A. RECORD cover featuree Jimetta Rose and Apollo Bebop at the Eagle Rock Music Festival Kick-Off Party at the Hi-Hat. This interview by Chris Kissel.
‘Headgames’ is one of my favorite tracks on Elderberry, and it’s driven by a great guitar lick. Is that something you found?
Swarvy: No—on that one I consciously thought it would be funny if I tried to make it sound like it was a sample. To flip myself playing that line so that people would be confused. People said they couldn’t tell the difference, and I was trying to do that. I could have done more shit, too—I could have added vinyl crackle or something to really confuse people. I was jamming with my homie Matt [Houston], who was playing drums on that, like a swing rhythm. I wrote the guitar lick on piano and then recorded it on guitar.
That’s not at all what I was expecting. It sounds like a Wes Montgomery sample.
Swarvy: That’s what I was thinking! I love Wes Montgomery.
How much did you jam until you came up with that snippet?
Swarvy: We didn’t do more than that loop.
You wrote that on its own? Like a melody?
Swarvy: Yeah—I wrote the chords and then I wrote that part over it.
It sounds like the middle of a solo.
Swarvy: Exactly. I wanted it to sound like we chopped it out of a solo.
I’ve never heard of anyone doing that.
Swarvy: I’ve never heard of anyone doing it specifically as a joke. I thought it was really funny. Have you ever heard of DJ Harrison? He’s amazing. He’s a crazy multi-instrumentalist from Richmond, Virginia. He flips himself playing a lot. He’s a crazy player—he’s a master of keys, drums, guitar, bass. He’ll record himself playing like a quartet, just doing the whole thing. Then he’ll chop it up. But he’s the only person I can actively think of who flips himself playing stuff.
It’s interesting to think that a beat is typically the result of going through old records and reconfiguring those sounds via technology, which results in this technology-driven meta-format. And now you’re using the instruments and the language of the original format to recreate that meta-format.
Swarvy: Totally. There’s always that hip-hop spirit in the way I make everything. The way I end up wanting it to sound is the way hip-hop records sound. Even if I’m making a jazz song, I’ll try to tone it back. But a lot of the time the drums are hard because I want them to be like that, even if it’s a softer song. Listening to records all the time to flip them, you find a lot of great music. You’ll find a song and you don’t even want to chop it up, you just want to listen to the full song. You learn those songs and study them a little bit, and they become part of the same vocabulary. It’s a never-ending cycle—the more I dig for records, the more fuel I have for everything else.
Are you a big collector?
Swarvy: Not a huge collector. I know people who know a lot about certain artists and go digging for that stuff. I just go through dollar bins. I’m a dollar bin digger. I go in there looking for samples. I mean, if there’s a bigger artist I know I want, I’ll go looking for it, too. But usually I just go in there without knowing what I’m going to get. Even if it’s just a snare, it’s a dollar snare. It’s worth it. Every time I go into a record store I don’t know what they’re going to have. Sometimes I’ll know what I want to listen to at the time—jazz records or soul or whatever. But generally I’ll just go find anything that looks interesting.
What jumps out to you?
Swarvy: Which musicians played on it, what record label released it. The year. If there’s a listening station I’ll check it out, or look it up on my phone and listen to it. Sometimes I’ll just grab a bunch. I just got these at Amoeba where my homegirl was playing. [Motions to a stack of records leaning against the wall.] I know Ronnie Laws, I know Patrice Rushen, I know Michael Franks. I just grabbed them. The more you dig the more you understand. There are records you see at every record store. You’ll see it and say, ‘This is always here.’ Shit like Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass or however many Barbra Streisand records you can find. But I didn’t know what this was. [picks up one of the records] It looks like a crazy psychedelic rock thing, but it’s not. It’s the L.A. Jazz Choir. It was made in Glendale. And I was like … whatever. I’ll try it out.
Is it an actual choir?
Swarvy: Yeah, it sounds like a bunch of white people singing. With maybe a Black band. Because the band sounds really good. They’re crazy. Not that the singers sound bad. They just sound really white. [laughs] I knew a lot of the songs on here, so I thought it would be cool. And it’s actually pretty dope. One record I found that I didn’t know much about was from the Brothers Johnson. Do you know about them? They made a record called Light Up the Night. The cover is a picture of a guy holding a flashlight up to his dick. It’s hilarious. But Quincy Jones produced it, and that record is amazing. A lot of the sounds there I was really getting into. I’ve been getting into 80s records. I was sampling 60s and 70s records for a long time, and I wasn’t really down with a lot of the textures of 80s records. When I was younger, I didn’t fuck with the way those drums sounded. I hated that sound. But I love it now. My brother is older, and he was really into that shit. He loved the way 80s songs sounded. I liked the songs, but I never liked the production. But in the last year or two, I’ve been realizing the power of those textures, and the way they can be used. I’ve been hearing a lot of early 80s, like 81 and 82. So many good records from that time. Funk records, good pop songs with really wild textures and arrangements.
I assume we can chalk up our distaste for some of that stuff to our cultural moment. We were born into a generation that valued crisp ‘authentic’ sounds.
Swarvy: I was born in ’90, and I grew up out of that. I wanted to hear a rawer dirty sound.
It seems like more synthetic sounds are having a renaissance with our generation.
Swarvy: And I’m finding so many records from that era, too. Artists that just created really dope shit. There aren’t a lot of textures I don’t see an application for. I fuck with any kinds of sounds, at this point. Have you heard of SOLAR? Sound of L.A. Records? They put out so many great records—a lot of stuff in the 70s and 80s. Records by acts like the Whispers. I see a lot of those now that I’m in L.A. Wherever you go, you see localized records. There are a ton of soul records.
It’s crazy how many private press soul records were made in the 70s and 80s.
Swarvy: Yeah, and shit like this. [points at the L.A. Jazz Choir record] They probably only made 300, 500 copies of this.
We’re back to that economy now. We’re making 300, 500-run tapes.
Swarvy: It’s like little snacks. [laughs]
How much of Elderberry was recorded live, and how much is made up of samples?
Swarvy: It’s half and half. I can’t get away from either one. I put out a record called twothousandnine with Pink Siifu [in February 2016] and it goes sample track, live track, sample track, live track. A lot of people told me they can’t tell where each begins or ends. I want that. It challenges people to wonder what’s what.
The Rhodes [organ] you play yourself is probably the exact instrument you’d be sampling from an old soul record.
Swarvy: I play the same instruments, so it ends up being the same textures. All I have right now is a Rhodes, a bass, a guitar, and a drum set. Sometimes synths, but mostly just that.
How did you get hooked up with Leaving Records, the label that put out the Elderberry tape?
Swarvy: Matthewdavid asked me to play a Leaving Records showcase at Los Globos, about a half a year ago. But the first time I met Matthew, he slept over at my parents’ house. He was playing a show in Philly. Ringgo [Ancheta, a.k.a L.A. producer MNDSGN] introduced us and told me Matthew needed a place to stay. I played him a bunch of music, and then he asked me to play the showcase. And he just wanted to do more stuff with me after that.
Is there a moment on Elderberry you’re particularly excited about? Something that drew you out of your depth?
Swarvy: I really liked working with Kiefer [Shackelford, L.A. producer/keyboardist]. He’s in my band now. I put a little quartet together. The way we vibe together is great. He’s a special, amazing keyboard player. The way we play together reminds me of when I used to play in bands a lot, when one of us would be on one instrument and the other would be on another and we would just write together at the same time. It’s super comfortable making music with him and having proper solos on the record and shit like that. He’s on Ringgo’s new record, and he’s all over Jonwayne’s record, too.
I wanted to ask you about ‘By the Pool,’ which is my favorite track off your record Stunts Vol. 1-3 from last year. Is that you playing that main organ melody?
Swarvy: I played all the instruments on that song. I wrote it in a pool. I was standing in a pool with my friend and I just thought of it. Then I went to the studio and I remembered it, and then wrote it out.
Is that how pieces come to you? You hear the melody in your head and then go turn it into something concrete?
Swarvy: No—that’s my favorite way, though. It’s the most satisfying, mostly because I’m just happy I remembered it. It used to be I would hear something in my head, and then when I would go to figure it out, it was such a jumble. I hear a note and it would make me forget what I’d heard. Now my musical memory is stronger. I started teaching myself the piano as well, and it’s a lot easier to figure out what’s in your head that way. So that’s my favorite way to write. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I have to sit myself down and force myself to make something, even when I’m tired or pissed off or I don’t feel like making anything. And sometimes it comes out dope.
Does beat making in particular lend itself to that sort of creative process?
Swarvy: I feel like beat makers and producers are the only type of musicians who are as prolific as they are. Can you think of anyone else who makes music like that?
It’s different. That’s part of what makes it so interesting as a form—each piece is brief and episodic.
Swarvy: Like little scenes in a comic book or a movie or something. The way they get strung together feels like a story. I guess beatmakers go from the beginning of the track to the end. They have an idea, they put the parts down, they record it, and then they’re done. And then they can put it out. Whereas a singer or an instrumentalist might be able to do only that one element of the song, and they need other people to help them finish. A lot of the time they’ll get stuck and things don’t get finished.
Or someone working within a different genre will think of a melody, and they’ll think, ‘That’s going to be the verse, or that’s going to be the chorus.’ They’re locking moments together in the framework of a song, rather than stringing them into something like a beat tape. Elderberry is a collection of melodies and moments. Do you think about an album like that in terms of each track being related, like a suite? Or is it more a spectrum?
Swarvy: When I put something together, I’m all about the way it comes together as a whole. It’s so much more powerful to me as a whole piece than each individual track. It’s all about the context it creates once they are all next to each other. I made Elderberry really fast, and it was kind of stripped down. I didn’t really add anything. I purposely left the tracks as they were. I didn’t try to do too much to connect them. But they do all fit into a certain mood, or a story. Every record is kind of like that.
With beats, there’s the added dimension that if someone wants to use it to rap over it, they’ll rip it out of that context, and it’ll become a piece of someone else’s puzzle.