The Interview: Kelvin Swaby: "Albums are like Tattoos"
Lead singer of The Heavy, Kelvin Swaby, talks to Lucy Holden this week about a new album inspired by 70s horror, old-school influences, and time spent too close to the fire.
When the FaceTime call Kelvin Swaby and I arranged for a morning interview rings out, I’m not surprised. Swaby’s in New York, kicking off The Heavy’s American tour and has spent the night before storming a gig at New York City’s Irving Plaza after encoring the David Letterman show. Bruce Willis tapped his foot on the side of the stage. Across the water it’s only ten o’clock and musicians all over the world are still asleep.
Nearly two hours later I get through and Swaby’s dragging his clothes on, leaving his new wife in bed beside him to talk to me. Black jeans, white vest, and a black trilby hat. Some people think rock and roll is dead. He sits down in the bar of the five-grand-a-night hotel that’s putting them up and orders a coffee. I ask if he’ll need two shots. “Yeah, probably.”
Those that don’t believe they’ve heard of The Heavy, might just be mistaken. The anthemic single that threw the band into the glare of the limelight, ‘How You Like Me Now?’, continues to make waves: the soulful sample of Dap-Kings horns used to advertise Hollywood movies and English cider alike. The new album, The Glorious Dead, promises much of the same.
The full-throttle reaction from the big apple Swaby believes primarily to be a result of the influence they’ve taken from classic American music; salvaging the best bits from an era they loved and repackaging it. “The Stones did it in the 60s with the blues and we’ve got even more to play with now. We’ve thrown it all back up.” It’s clear that Swaby’s own multifarious music taste is a driving force behind the breadth of The Heavy’s influence. “As I was growing up, I was part of a big family, and everyone listened to different music” Swaby explains. “There was a lot of rock and roll, blues and rocksteady playing in the house as my brothers and sisters were discovering New Romantics, White Snake, Rainbow, Simon and Garfunkel. I remember all of it; their eclectic music taste wore off on me”.
At the age of 13, Swaby was spending every dribble of money that passed him by on 45s, and now he’s listening back to those old records for a golden two-second break of stonking horns or electric drumming that could be revitalised. What shines on the result though is that contemporary edge, and Swaby’s turning up the volume; he wants to blow the roof off the 60s.
Uniquely, The Heavy approach song-writing with a scene that helps imagine the setting of an album. Perfectly in time for Halloween, the band decided The Glorious Dead would work best as a southern-gothic zombie horror-movie. Swaby was living in Barcelona at the time and started re-watching the old-school horror movies he loved from the 70s: The Omen, Rabid, The Brood, movies he describes as “a little twisted, a little unnecessary, but really cool”. Once idea for a horror-show formed, the songs tripped towards them like the living dead. But The Glorious Dead is slightly different.
Conceived whilst touring its musical predecessor, Swaby realises that there were “riffs and words underneath the sofa”, that they pulled to the fore. It is also a little nod to the fickle nature of the music industry. When ‘How You Like Me Now?’ achieved almost instant international success the band knew they were on to a sure thing – but the sentiment in first-track, ‘Can’t Play Dead’, is really that they refused, and still do refuse, to pander to the control of the music industry. Their music is evolving and they’re going with it.
In ink Swaby imagines their albums forming on their skin like tattoos; each a memory of times and troubles past. Essentially they are the stories of their lives. I wonder whether it is difficult not to use song-writing as an emotive release that becomes completely about the self, but Swaby doesn’t entirely agree. “It’s not all about me. I see the other guys going through things, and I might write about their situations, but you do have to write about what you know.” Swaby believes this is where a lot of musicians go wrong, and it’s an age old thing: “when people write about a type of life they don’t lead, it becomes fake and if it’s not believable it won’t resonate with an audience. Everything we do is believable because we’ve experienced every morsel of thought and subject that’s made this record first-hand.” Whilst so many tracks have that good beat, the cheeky little whistle, soft backing vocals and that smash of sunshine Swaby’s picked up from song-writing in the Med, he believes ‘What Make’s A Good Man?’ echoes the true sentiment behind the new album. “That’s me in Barcelona realising what’s important.” And what did he decide? Swaby pauses. “Family. It’s always family isn’t it? Whether it’s the family I travel with in the band day-to-day, or whether it’s Lindsey, Kye and Violetta (Swaby’s wife and children).That’s what’s important – that’s what you’ve got to treasure. ‘What Makes A Good Man?’ and ‘Blood Dirt Love Stop’, the last track on the album, are a tribute to both of my families.”
But Swaby’s got a trick up his sleeve. “I try and throw a little sunshine into it; try to imagine what people might be listening to in the sun. It’s about the beat, so however dark the lyrics get, our music always has a hell of a lot of sunshine in it.” Interestingly, much of The Heavy’s material is a little confessional and hints at a shadier past of love, lies and lines that it seems doubtful he’ll disclose. “You’re right, I probably won’t. But, you know, it happens. You conceal a lot of stuff within the self. Sometimes it’s just necessary. It’s not always about pride; we aim to write ambiguously. I want it to be three-dimensional, like the way Tom Waits writes – I absolutely love the way he tells a story; he’s emotive, but ambiguous, and I’ve always tried to be the same.” “The Glorious Dead is different because we’ve grown, and learnt, and we’ve been burnt; it’s a true representation of where we are. I’ve been near so many pans of fire, but I got married last week – I’ve had enough – I want to remain out of the frying pan from now on.”
I ask which frying pan he might be referring to, but he’s thrown it down and extinguished the flames; question dodged. I’m left spluttering into the smoke. “There have been way too many” he cuts. For now it’s the busy life of being on tour, but Swaby’s being a good man: he’s walking the line.
The Glorious Dead is out now, priced £8.00
The Heavy’s European Tour kicks off on Wednesday 31st October at Scala, London