Instruments of Science & Technology
Richard Swift teaches the kids how it's done
By Darcie Stevens,
11:45PM, Thu. Jan. 24, 2008
“Fuck you, I’m eating.” If you haven’t seen the hilarity that is Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, I suggest you immediately run to your favorite big-box and slap down some dough for a glimpse of the future. The aforementioned slogan is hamburger giant Carl’s Jr.’s tagline in the year 2506. No further explanation necessary. It is, however, also the genesis of the verbose title of this blog. Unfortunately, food is not the subject, nor is this (supposed to be) an outlet for angry, cynical diatribes directed toward any number of things that I might find depressing, embarrassing, excruciating, or all of the above in this Austin music scene that we all know and love.
Several incarnations followed, and the axiom was eventually whittled down to “Shut up; I’m listening.” But the simpler the better, right? And sometimes – I’ll admit it – I get tired of listening and just want everyone and every machine to be quiet for one minute, just to reflect on whatever might have aurally (or mentally) transpired, be it sound, scream, whisper, or riff. Don’t take it the wrong way. Shut Up is not meant in malice. Its intention is not to instigate or shred. Its meanings are myriad, and its implication is complicated.
I’m told that you think I’m a hardass, that I pull no punches, and that I drive straight to the point. This, I believe, is pretty damn complimentary, but those who know me understand that I want nothing more than the best out of you. I know what you’re capable of, and I want you to meet your full potential. You are all incredibly talented beings. For real. Shut up!
Lest I beat that bruised and bloodied horse to a pulp, we’ll go ahead and start off on a sore note. Because if you stand in my shoes for a moment, you’ll realize coolness does not outweigh passion, and there are no rules for this thing called music, so don’t look for them. Richard Swift doesn’t. Pass the dutchie, old man.
I recently reviewed a heartache of an album by local threepiece AM Syndicate. I won’t relive it here, but let’s just say that it opened the floodgates of all that is wrong with music in the Digital Age. The blogosphere has fostered an air of perpetual hipness, and image has replaced any hint of emotional complexity. I’m sure some will argue that this started with the advent of MTV, and I wouldn’t argue against that. However, indie rock and those loosely affiliated with the supergenre were supposed to be void of that bullshit. Hair and make-up were for the major label sluts and A&R guys that turned up their noses at cardigans and Converse. As the major labels began to crumble and all suits began searching for the next Interpol, this new phenomenon was born: the image-conscious indie rocker.
Always attempting to best his or her contemporaries, the ICIR (see above) is only trying to get attention from the humble bloggers and kid demographics, because that’s all that matters anymore. No one is “discovered,” at least not like they used to be, but especially in a town like ours – rife with every type of subgenre, seemingly millions of bands, and a very fickle fan base – sometimes the music just doesn’t cut it. You need that extra something. I move that we say fuck that. Because what it comes down to is that the music is the only thing that matters. Unfortunately, so many get sucked down into that dark pit of despair where fame beats passion like a rock beats scissors. AM Syndicate just fell into that trap. They can still escape.
So where do you look for guidance? Where are the role models of the new generation? We’ve seen so many hipsters crash and burn under the weight of their hi-hats and tight pants. We’ve heard every decade rehashed and spat back out to us. Where are the new purveyors of musical freedom?
I give to you Richard Swift. If the name seems unfamiliar, do a little homework. He’s not for everyone. Swift’s voice warbles, and he sings through his nose, but he’s one thing that so many aren’t: honest. He wears so many shoes that it’s no surprise the prolific songwriter had to release a collection of Krautrock instrumentals under a different name, Instruments of Science & Technology, Secretly Canadian’s newest addition.
We first met Swift with his 2005 twofer, The Novelist/Walking Without Effort, in late 2005. He matched Tin Pan Alley orchestrations with piano-man swagger, a Cole Porter for the 21st century. The Novelist rang ancient, while Walking Without Effort was full and melancholy, introducing a new American singer-songwriter to match the maturity of Ron Sexsmith and the imagery of Rufus Wainwright. He nearly replaced Elliott Smith as my favorite songwriter. Nearly.
But when he bested that effort with last year’s Top 10 Dressed Up for the Letdown, a beautiful rumination on being an outsider in that indie rock world we were just talking about, I was dumbstruck. His South by Southwest showcase intensified that feeling, as he banded about with vocoder, keys, and his Sons of National Freedom. He really is as apple-pie as they come.
Swift lives in a small Oregon town, population 9,010. He’s 30 years old, a husband, and a father of three (!). He’s anything but typical. He’s a homebody with big hair, a slight pudge, and a dark sense of humor. When I interviewed him after SXSW last year, he talked about the reality in his music: “Everyone’s naive at some point,” he said. “You just get seasoned as the years get by, and you learn that you’re only going to have a couple of true friends in life. You learn that family and friends are the most important thing. Rock & roll and all this other kind of stuff don’t seem as important.”
Enter the Instruments of Science & Technology’s debut, Music From the Films of R/Swift. While Swift cites short-film-making as a hobby, I can’t swear these tracks of lulling, electronic discomfort ever graced a soundtrack. What I can promise is that if you know Swift’s songwriting, this will surprise you.
“The best way to relax is to lie down upon your bed and stretch out,” the band’s titular song advises. “INST” is the only vocal song on the disc, the remaining 30 minutes meeting somewhere between Tangerine Dream and A Clockwork Orange, simultaneously eerie and woozy. From that beat-driven track to the transcending – in the most literal sense of the word – “Shooting a Rhino Between the Shoulders,” with little but a synthetic bassline and programmed drums, Swift manipulates physical space. I was driving home from the Chronicle Thursday evening, and suddenly the metal surrounding me melted, and all I could hear were the reverberations and subtle clicks of the machinery. He had taken me to another world in the middle of 5 o'clock traffic. It was a little bit frightening. But in a good way. I made it home safely, by the way.
That pattern continues through lasers (“Theme 4”) and flying, metallic insects (“Clay Young Battles the Man”). Or at least that’s what I imagine. Closing with the cool curtain of “They Provide Lights,” Swift has succeeded in proving that one thing that is so important in music: You can do what you want and still make people listen. Sometimes the most jarring of decisions echoes the loudest. And that, my friends, is the point. There are no rules, and those that the suits (and bloggers) try to impose are begging to be shattered.
Richard Swift frankly doesn’t give a damn what you think about his new collection of bleeps and baubles. He’s not arrogant about it, but he’s perfectly pleased in knowing that he did it. He recorded these songs, he was happy with them, and he will now move on to the next musical project, whatever it may be. He didn’t tell me this, but I believe it to be true.
So next time you’re wondering if the hip kids will like your songs more if you tie a bandana around your head and grow a beard (is that over yet?), remind yourself that a tree is only as strong as its roots are deep. But if you get stuck in that metal trap set by indie stardom and one-hitters, just open the gate. Make something new. Don’t listen to the critics (okay, sometimes you can). Create. Create. Create. And look to Richard Swift for inspiration, whether you’re a fan of his music or not. Because this man is a role model for the ages.
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