Swords cut deep
You don't have to be a genius to be in a rock band. Just learn a few chords and find some like-minded comrades, and you have as good a chance as any at being successful on a local level Ñ especially if you have plenty of friends who have nothing better to do than show up at all of your gigs.
The Swords Project, a Portland ensemble that values precision over pomp, has been there and done that. Now it's trying to move rock music up the evolutionary ladder while attempting to build a following and justify a record label's faith in the members' collective abilities.
'The notion when we started was that it could be sort of a revolving door of musicians,' says guitarist Jeff Gardner. 'At times we could have 15 members, and at other times we could be a three-piece. But right away we decided on a six-member core. We've had eight, but we're happy with six.
'Definitely when we started out, it was to be something different. That idea was to be something grand and not pigeonhole ourselves. Experiment with different genres but stick pretty close to what we do.'
Normally, one doesn't hear aspiring rockers tossing around terms like 'grand.' But the Swords Project is more like a musical think tank than a band.
The group came together three years ago, the various members all being veterans of assorted rock bands. It was artistic restlessness rather than career goals that inspired them to assemble.
'We didn't want to limit ourselves, and we wanted a band that was capable of anything over the long run,' says Evan Railton, who is credited with 'electronics/drums' on the latest record. 'We want to constantly be developing a new sound for each record.'
Gardner says: 'No one steps on each other's toes, and we leave a lot of space.'
The Swords Project recorded an impressive four-song EP, consisting of leftover music from old bands, about a month after getting together. The songs are precisely textured with parallel and interlocking guitar figures, violin, electric piano and percussion all ebbing and flowing. Bassist Corey Ficken adds his pleasant, flexible vocals into the mix as simply another part to be arranged. Like the best post-rock, it's arranged like classical music, with a sneaky rock sensibility hidden somewhere inside.
The sound is solidly progressive without being obtuse; here and there on tunes such as 'Shannon's Wedding Song,' a shard of familiar melody, or a particularly juicy rock riff, surfaces and then gives way to something even more intriguing.
'We try to not play one thing too long and keep the pop structures mostly hidden,' Gardner explains.
'I think we have a pretty good feel for when things get boring,' says drummer Joey Ficken. 'With six people around, someone is going to say something if it isn't working.'
Based on a strong first record and subsequent work the group did on its behalf, the Swords Project was signed to Arena Rock, a promising indie label based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
'They saw how much work we put into the first record,' Gardner says. 'We had our own van, booked our own tour and even screened our own T-shirts. The label guys were like, 'Wow, if you work that hard for us É' '
After much recording, rehearsing and tinkering, the Swords Project has a new record, 'Entertainment Is Over if You Want It.' It's another leap forward for the band, with Corey Ficken's voice stronger and more prominently mixed. The music is both more austere and imaginative, with Railton stirring in a confounding array of electronic sounds and effects.
The length of the songs has gotten a bit shorter as well; one senses that the Swords are inching ever closer to an actual pop song.
'We'll probably have a three-minute song on the next record,' Railton confides.
As for the album title, it goes hand-in-hand with the band's cerebral ambitions.
'We lifted the album title from John Lennon and Yoko Ono: 'War is over if you want it,' ' Gardner says.
'We felt like nobody was taking any risks artistically. The ones at the forefront, anyway, aren't taking any risks. It's not all about being hot and sexy and having a killer video.'
'Brain music can be entertaining, too,' Railton insists.