A binary tale: revisiting Swervedriver’s Raise and Mezcal Head

When Swervedriver’s debut and sophomore albums Raise and Mezcal Head were remastered and expanded in 2008, fans and critics alike were given a timely reminder of their hard-driving qualities. ‘Radiohead weren’t the first great band to come out of Oxford’ PopMatters proclaimed in their review of ‘two of the best rock albums of the ’90s.’ But there was more to it than a pair of re-issues, as having been inactive for ten years, the band were putting themselves back out there as well.

A decade on and Swervedriver are preparing to tour a ‘show in two parts’, performing the material of each early-career record. Revisiting those albums reveals both their intriguing contrasts and surprising similarities.

Raise was self-produced, constructed around popular singles and released ‘the year Creation broke’ (a reference to the label’s widespread success in 1991, behind Primal Scream, Teenage Fan Club and My Bloody Valentine as opposed to looming bankruptcy.)

In stark contrast, Mezcal Head placed Alan Moulder (Jesus & The Mary Chain, MBV) in the producer’s chair and after the departure of Adi Vines and Graham Bonnar, was built around new songs for a new, temporary rhythm section: Guitarist/Vocalist Adam Franklin picking up the bass and Jez Hindmarsh getting comfy in the drum stool.

These differences, coupled with Franklin’s desire to ‘reinvent’ the group in ‘93, might’ve resulted in records barely resembling each other. Instead, as Pitchfork put it, ‘on Mezcal Head, the songs caught up to the guitars’. The sound matured without compromising the band’s identity – thanks in no small part to Franklin’s determination to make good of their circumstances. The guitars were still a prominent force and the masters were still an ideal soundtrack for your freewheeling road trip through the desert landscapes of America.

What’s true of the records combined is their distinctive alt-rock character. Being with Alan McGee’s Creation label had allowed Swervedriver to slip into the shoegaze bracket, but their sound was more direct, their riffs more defined and arrangements less daze-inducing. They fell somewhere between the loose and gritty space rock sound of British groups like LoopDr Phibes & The House of Wax Equations and Catherine Wheel and the grungier alternative rock sound of U.S. groups like Red House Painters. Both Raise and Mezcal Head are great representations of that, containing some of their most fondly remembered cuts: Son of Mustang Ford, Rave Down, Blowin’ Cool and Last Train to Satansville.

Adam Franklin himself best surmises the duality of their first two records. Reflecting upon Mezcal Head in an interview with Louder Sound, he states: ‘All those changes made everything feel quite fresh. In hindsight I realised that with all of the Swervedriver albums, there’s always been some sort of shift; whether it’s been the line up of the band, or the label we were with, it feels like there’s always been something that’s changed. There’s never been two albums where we’ve actually had that steady situation. In some ways that’s good, because it keeps you hot to trot. That was definitely the case here – we were, ‘Okay, those guys have just left the band, they’re obviously mad – we’re going to do the most awesome record we can do and prove something here.’

Listen to Raise below and pick up tickets for Swervedriver’s show at Band on the Wall on 17th May.

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Thursday | 17.05.18

Swervedriver plays Raise and Mezcal Head

Band on the Wall, Manchester