"We’d lost a lot of direction and faith in ourselves..." - Swim Deep talk finding themselves again on new album Emerald Classics
A lot has changed in the world of Birmingham indie types Swim Deep since the release of their 2015 second record Mothers.
Firstly their line-up has altered significantly, guitarist Tom Higgins and drummer Zachary Robinson have departed, replaced now by new axeman Robbie Wood and new sticksman Thomas "Tomaski" Fiquet.
Secondly, they've departed major label RCA and are now looking after themselves on their own Pop Collective label.
Thirdly, and, perhaps, most crucially, they've radically shifted their sound for new album Emerland Classics. The dense psychedelia is gone and in comes a lighter, poppier sound, with blissed-out grooves and enormous melodies, helped by The Stone Roses/Scissor Sisters Dave McCracken knob-twiddler Dave McCracken.
We spoke to keyboardist James Balmont about the departure of Higgins and Robinson, their new home and why this is an album that sees the band embracing pop wholeheartedly...
When did you start work on the songs for Emerald Classics?
"I think the earliest writing sessions that contributed to anything that it made it onto the album were in Autumn 2016, shortly after our last American tour. This was while Higgy and Zack were still about - we spent a week in a cottage in the mountains in Wales and that’s where we wrote ‘Happy as Larrie’."
"That song actually change too much structurally since those sessions - it kind of bridges the gap from Mothers, which was very much influenced by acid house and dance music. But sonically, we changed it a bit, to move it forward. We dropped a lot of the headier synth sounds and programmed drum and bass beats in exchange for something a bit more organic in the end."
Did you have a goal of how you wanted this album to move on from Mothers?
"We’re quite steadfast about every album being different - because it’s a completely new chapter. There’s no point making the same record twice. Ozzy (frontman Austin Williams) and Cav (bassist Cavan McCarthy) and I DJ’d a lot at pubs and bars in the years between Mothers and Emerald Classics we got really into dancefloor-filling pop music. Our influences had moved on from acid house to stuff like Abba, Prince and Madonna."
"We wanted to make pop music that had an uplifting quality to it. And we also wanted to bring back some of the sounds of the first album in doing that, so we used a lot of this massive, ancient Casio which was used on songs like 'King City' and 'Honey'."
You did the album with Dave McCracken, what did he give you as a producer?
"He brought us out of a really tricky spot where we’d lost a lot of direction and also a lot of faith in ourselves. It was a difficult time around Spring 2017. We had spent weeks in rehearsal spaces writing songs and playing them and they just didn’t sound good enough."
"We were frustrated, and I think that’s why Higgy and Zack left, ultimately - they couldn’t see the light. But Dave McCracken turned up at the end of that time and showed the rest of us what we had, and gave us the motivation and energy to keep going. He’s an absolute saint. What he did for us, the way he made us believe again. That’s what you need from a producer."
What kind of album is this lyrically? Is there a theme to it?
"That's Ozzy's department, but, to me, his best lyrics are the ones that are deeply personal to him, and there’s a lot of that on this record. 'To Feel Good' stands out for me because it was the reminder to ourselves that through all the hardship the three of us had remained in the band because it was something we loved. I think that’s a pretty strong theme of the album."
Which song on the album took the longest to get right?
"'0121-Desire' underwent so many transformations that it almost ended up being about four or five different songs. Originally it was like an acoustic band jam in those gloomy sessions in 2017. We didn’t know what was the verse, the chorus. I remember I was in the cinema on my own at one point and I’d had an idea halfway through the film. It was so distracting that I left the film halfway through and called Ozzy to tell him. It’s that Prince ‘Raspberry Beret’ 12” version percussive beat that sort of set the song on its path to how it ended up."
You've roped in Margate’s Social Singing Choir for the album, what was it like working with a choir?
"Emotional. It was a sound we all knew we wanted to have on the album, being huge fans of bands like Spiritualized. But having 40-odd people sing your lyrics and melodies back to you in beautiful harmony was actually quite overwhelming. I was nearly in tears! I think we all were. It's quite a powerful thing."
When did you decide on Emerald Classics for the album title? Were any other titles in contention?
"There was a lot of chat about calling it S.D.M., which would have been an acronym for a few different things. Sad Dance Music was a mantra that guided the direction of the music. It was like we'd given it our own genre - a variation on E.D.M. It obviously also works as Swim Deep Music. I thought it would be fun to have it represent Sir Dave McCracken as well - as thanks for his amazing work."
"Ultimately we settled for Emerald Classics - a reference to the jukebox classics at the Emerald pub in Birmingham. The album is very closely linked to the idea of home for Ozzy I think, and it explicitly references Birmingham throughout... and it was based on the music we were DJing in pubs… so thematically it works perfectly."
What are your plans to take the album out live?
"All our shows on the campaign so far have been all about small, energetic and lively spaces where we can really engage with the crowd and make everything feel special, so we'd really like to continue with that. We're having more fun than ever before. And we've got plans in place for Europe, Asia and the USA as well as all the normal stops around the UK."
You’re doing the album on your own Pop Committee label, how is the new set-up going so far? Are you enjoying having more control over the process?
"It's a breath of fresh air to have greater control over the running of things, as we're a very independent band at heart and we always have been. There's nobody telling us to think twice about our ridiculous, bank-breaking ideas so whatever happens next it's bound to be exciting at the very least."
Swim Deep's Emerald Classics is out now in hmv stores. It's available here in hmv's online store.