SWARVY: SCENES IN A COMIC BOOK
photography by theo jemison
Swarvy: Which happens all the time. There are certain records that feel like they don’t work well to me as single tracks, and they work way better hearing it all the way through. Other times it’s the other way around. I want to be somewhere in the middle, where it can work both ways. There are certain records to me where I don’t want to hear the tracks outside the album. To Pimp a Butterfly sounded way better as a record than the singles. It’s just the way that record moves. Everything makes sense when it comes in at that moment.
That’s obviously by design, too. The version of ‘i’ on the record was made to exist within the album—it’s a recontextualized version of that single.
Swarvy: That was dope. I love how he has different versions of his tracks. And when he does a live version, he’ll take verses from other songs and make new parts. I love the arrangements he does. I thought To Pimp a Butterfly worked like that. When I would try to take tracks out, it didn’t feel the same to me as if I had heard it all the way through.
Who are your guiding lights as far as musicians who inspire you?
Swarvy: The biggest influences are the ones I’ve really gotten to connect with. Like Ringgo. He’s from the east coast too, he’s from New Jersey, and he’s always been a huge inspiration. We’ve always been super supportive of each other. And that whole crew—like Devonwho as well. We have a kinship. But in terms of people that I don’t actually know … Quincy Jones. Dave Grusin is another great producer. Sun Ra. I like Jeff Lorber a lot. I respect how they put things together, and arrange things. And they’re very musical.
They’re people who shape sounds. Even Sun Ra—people with an idea of the sounds they want to achieve, and who bring people together to chase that.
Swarvy: They direct the energy. And they make all different kinds of music. I like that, too. I don’t like following an artist and then getting disappointed by some of the shit they end up doing. You’re rooting for somebody, and then you’re let down, and you can’t even listen to the old shit anymore.
It’s hard to put musicians on a pedestal, because they will very rarely live up to your expectations. Kendrick is a perfect example. It would be very upsetting if he put out a mediocre record.
Swarvy: Even a mediocre record. And there’s no reason he would, with his circle and the type of talent he has. It’s like when people get into sports and they get emotionally devastated when a team loses. They take it personally. But I like the versatility, and I like the growth. I like subscribing to something where you’re going to see growth all the time.
What kind of artistic challenges are you putting in front of yourself now?
Swarvy: I’m trying to get better at the instruments I’m playing. I’m probably not trying has hard as I should be, because there are so many different things I’m doing.. But I want to keep getting better. Especially on keys. I’m relatively new to that. I took piano lessons when I was four or five, and then stopped and started to play other instruments. It was only like two years ago that I came back to piano. I have a book called The Jazz Piano Book, and there are parts where one page will take me a month or two—just to really understand it.
That’s naturally going to change the way the music you make sounds.
Swarvy: The more songs I learn—it’s like a big monster, really. It’s going to keep growing, and get crazier and crazier as these pieces get added to it. But that’s the main challenge. The rest of it is keeping it going and staying organized. There’s so much shit going on. I’ve been producing shit for a lot of people. I’ve been developing some really close relationships with these people, too. Do you know Versis? He’s dope, and I’m producing his whole next record. Since we started working together in November, we’ve made a whole lot of joints. He’s like my brother now. I try to keep people around where we can learn from each other. We push each other, and just get better faster.
What does all of that work actually entail on your end?
Swarvy: I’ll get together with that artist and we will make music together. Singers, rappers—any kind of musician. I’m doing a whole record with Kiefer, and that’s going to be an instrumental record, but I’m working with a few singers. Vida Jafari is one. I did some stuff with Arima Ederra, too. They’re both great singers. And Versis is a rapper, but he’s singing a lot now, too. And same thing with this dude lojii. I’m doing a whole rap record with him, but he’s singing on it also.
You work with them on creating the music, and you work on the mixing and engineering as well?
Swarvy: All of that. But we’re really making music together. A lot of times it’ll be my idea and they’ll write something on it, or it’ll be their idea and they’ll hum it to me, and I’ll figure it out, I’ll play it. I’ll make whatever idea we’re singing into a track. With Versis, he’ll make voice memos and send them to me, and we’ll make them together.
How deep does your experience with production go?
Swarvy: I just started working with a lot more singers in the past two years—especially the last year. But I went to school for audio engineering in Pennsylvania, at a place called Lebanon Valley. It used to be a music conservatory. So I went there for audio recording, and studied bass and jazz performance. I grew up in Philly, and as I got older, my family slowly moved farther outside of Philly. My dad used to play in bands—used to play a lot of guitar. He still fucks around with music, actually. I never got to hear the old bands he was playing in. It was mostly stuff like the Yardbirds. They just did covers. I don’t think they wrote too many songs or anything. He has a really dope record collection. And my brother is really dope at classical piano. And my sister used to play, too. So growing up, there was a lot of music. [My family] wanted me to take piano lessons, it was my idea originally because I saw my brother and sister taking it. I was always super interested in playing music. I was always fascinated with the guitar, and my dad was really supportive. I stopped playing piano and got a bass, and that became my thing for awhile. I was obsessed with low frequencies. I taught myself guitar, and then I taught myself drums, and then I learned piano.
Did you play in bands in high school? Battle of the bands type stuff?
Swarvy: I was never into the battle of the bands thing. I thought it was weird. A lot of times you had to, like, pay to get in. I was like, ‘Why am I going to pay you to play my shit?’ Or you have to sell a certain amount of tickets to the show. That’s still a format that people use. I can’t do it. My brother was in college when I started playing bass a lot, and when I was 13 we started playing in bands together. I was playing so much, and learning a lot of shit. I was playing with these college kids, and it was heavier stuff. Always instrumental. And it was really technical, wildly-arranged rock shit. I was making heavy-ass … basically fight music. Do you ever listen to Fantômas, or Mr. Bungle? Fantômas was another one of Mike Patton’s bands, that had the drummer from Slayer [Dave Lombardo], the guitarist from Melvins [Buzz Osborne], and the bassist from Mr. Bungle [Trevor Dunn]. That was my shit for a minute. But I don’t want anyone to fight. I didn’t like how people were acting a fool at the shows. Beating each other up. I hated making people get angry, and then they were acting like an asshole to me, and I’m playing for them. So I stopped. I was playing jazz the whole time because I was in the big band and the orchestra at school, and I was also playing in little jazz combos. I also loved reggae, and I was listening to jazz and hip hop, and I was making little beats on my own. I was always into making stuff on my computer, for years. Ever since we got a desktop computer—just making mixes and edits of stuff. After the first band I was in with my brother broke up when I was 15 or 16, I took all the members and started writing music myself. That’s when I realized I could lead a band. And once I started leading that band, MegaMega, I started realizing that I could direct everyone’s energy in different ways. If the musicians were fluid, if they were good, they would follow me, even if I didn’t say anything. I also started making my own psychedelic music. McKenzie was just a two-piece, drums and guitar, and we did a bunch of tours. People would be smiling more, and I was happier. I was happier with people vibing out and dancing than punching each other in the face. It made sense when I was in high school because I was more angsty and shit, but it just got so old, and I was too tired to do it.
Do you still get to work with your interest in being a bandleader?
Swarvy: I wasn’t playing in bands for a minute. I kind of missed it, even though it’s hard to keep everybody together. But now that I’m doing my own music, I can just put together groups for shows. So I had to find people who could learn music really fast. Kiefer is one of those dudes, and I found this other dude Efa [Etoroma, Jr.], who is an amazing drummer, and this other dude Mike McTaggart, who is an amazing guitarist. The last show we played, I couldn’t get them to rehearse with me until the day of the show, and we rehearsed for like a hour, and they nailed it. They fuckin’ killed it. So I needed cats who could do that. I had wanted to get a band together for awhile, just to play my own stuff. I was making music in a quartet format, and I wanted a band to play it with me. To play tracks like ‘By the Pool,’ and a bunch of other songs that I have. Songs that I don’t really want to play unless I have a band with bigger arrangements, stuff that feels bigger than a DJ set. I originally put them together because [L.A. producer] House Shoes wanted me to play a Dilla Day show on Valentine’s Day for J. Dilla’s birthday, and learn a bunch of Dilla songs and play them. I found these dudes and we did that, and I’ve been having them play my original shit, too. We’ve been playing shit from Stunts, playing shit from Elderberry, and it’s been dope.
What other directions do you want to go with your music?
Swarvy: I want to put out a different type of record. I don’t want to put out the same record twice. Elderberry is a beat tape. Stunts was like a huge beat tape. But I also put out a jazz record called Scotch. I want to do a proper jazz record, and I want to delve into other weird shit after that. I have a bunch of ambient shit.
You should make a new age tape.
That would be dope. Just make a new age record with Matthewdavid? He might be down. I want to get back into rock music, too. I’m really into the integration of rock music into other things. I’ve been finding a lot more rock records that I like. For awhile, I wasn’t fucking with rock records, but now I’m liking it again. I found this thing called Ultimate Spinach that’s dope.
Ultimate Spinach are amazing.
Swarvy: This one is great, too. [holds up a vinyl copy of The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles, and Fripp] It’s so dope.
Are you supporting yourself the same way you were in Philly?
Swarvy: Yeah—the best thing is that after a few months the same school hired me to work with kids out here. We just did a little recital out here for the kids. I started offering my own private lessons, and I have a lot of kids doing that now, too. I do Skype lessons with people all over the world. I just tweeted it and posted it on my website! Between that and making music and doing shows, it’s all music. When I was on the east coast, I was teaching five days a week. Now, I teach two days a week and work for myself the rest of the time.
Does production work feel similar to teaching work?
Swarvy: Yeah. A lot of the time I’m helping people finish their ideas, and in some cases making them more confident. It’s a lot of love. It feels like a big community.
Where were you living right before you moved to L.A.?
Swarvy: I was living at my parents’ after I graduated, which is in Media, Pennsylvania. I was going into Philly and New York to play. It’s tough trying to stay motivated out there. Because there aren’t as many like-minded people, and there aren’t as many events that stick to it. There aren’t any long running events like Low End Theory there. The Roots are an exception because they really came up and played dope shit, and killed it for everybody. But they don’t have the events out there. [Producer/former Digable Planets DJ] King Britt did Saturn Never Sleeps but he doesn’t do that anymore. The only person there who I thought was trying to push people was King Britt, and that’s just one person. It was crazy. All these events would just die. It wasn’t pushing me forward. The second time I visited L.A., I loved it. Ringgo said his roommate was moving out and asked me to move in. And my brother was pushing me: ‘You should quit your job and move out there.’
Where were you working in Philly?
Swarvy: I was teaching. I quit and moved out here in December . I just packed up the car with everything and drove. Just my clothes and my instruments and that was it.
Is L.A. holding up to your expectations?
Swarvy: Yeah. I totally knew it would, ever since I visited that second time. There is just so much support and love for this type of shit. People out here want to hear different stuff. They want new shit. I felt like in New York when I would do that, people would get angry. They’d ask me to play Future or Gucci Mane or some shit. I don’t know what they want to hear. The best thing is when people try to request songs when I’m on an SP [sampler]. ‘I can’t pull up songs on this thing.’ [laughs] I remember getting backlash against the stuff I was playing in New York and Philly, and it took forever for people to not be like that. I was playing weirder beats at the time. It wasn’t as jazz and R&B oriented then as it is now. It was a bit more dissonant. Noiser. Kinda hardcore. I switched around styles a lot. I probably did make some people upset. [laughs]
What kind of backlash?
Swarvy: They would actually freak out. Frat boy type shit. People would come up after a set and say, ‘That was awful.’ Or they would be mad. Crazy shit like that. I’ve had people tell me my shit was awful. People happened to wander into the venue during my set and told me my music was awful.
That stuff helped drive you to L.A.?
Swarvy: It wasn’t always like that. People started to catch on. I started to get a little more support. But it wasn’t enough support that I felt like I could go anywhere. When I’m here, I feel like there are more forward thinking people who are into hearing different things. And I get more of a sense of community out here, compared to Philly or New York. At least one that sticks and grows.
SWARVY WITH JIMETTA ROSE AND APOLLO BEBOP AT THE EAGLE ROCK MUSIC FESTIVAL KICK-OFF PARTY ON FRI., OCT. 6, AT THE HI HAT, 5043 YORK BLVD., HIGHLAND PARK. 8 PM / $8 / 21+. GET TICKETS HERE! SWARVY’S BLENDS VOL. 3 AND THE “HALOS” / “BILLS” SINGLE WITH PINK SIIFU AND MORE ARE AVAILABLE NOW. VISIT SWARVY AT SWARVY.BANDCAMP.COM.