The greatest lesson to be learned from punk is that your band doesn’t need a major-label budget in order to thrive. All you need is some instruments, a van with gas in the tank and a willingness to put in a little elbow grease. Sure, a label advance, a licensing deal and a network of people to outsource the dirty work is a nice luxury, but it’s not necessary.
Since forming in 2011, Philadelphia indie-rock quartet Swearin’ have put this self-reliant work ethic into practice full-time. They design their own artwork, book their own shows and make their own merch. And going back to their debut EP, What a Dump, all of the band’s releases have been self-funded and self-recorded. Yet while there’s a certain raw, scruffy charm about their Pavement- and Pixies-inspired sound, there’s nothing undercooked or amateurish about their approach. They may be young, and they may work on a shoestring budget, but Swearin’ have their shit together.
Part of that work ethic is making the most of the resources available to them. With the band split up between Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Swearin’ recorded their selftitled debut piecemeal, each member individually taking advantage of studio time when they could. But for their new album, Surfing Strange, they made Philly their central hub, giving all four musicians the luxury of piling into Hazel House studio together this past July and August. The result, guitarist Kyle Gilbride tells CityBeat, was a much more positive and engaging process.
“On this one, the writing and the recording happened all simultaneously,” Gilbride says. “Innately, it becomes more of a collaborative effort. We’re not putting any decisions aside until the very end—the decisions are just being made when they’re being made, and when we’re done, we’re done.”
The music on Surfing Strange reveals Swearin’ as a tight unit, with Gilbride, guitarist Allison Crutchfield, bassist Keith Spencer and drummer Jeff Bolt showing off the kind of energetic, melodic fun that a guitar-based band can still create in the studio. There’s a hard-rocking urgency to a song like “Young,” while “Watered Down” has a lazier, yet warmly fuzzy feel about it, with Gilbride’s young, alone and stoned narration coming across like a more youthful Doug Martsch of Built to Spill.
Swearin’—who’ll play The Che Café on Saturday, Dec. 7—have a taut, streamlined dynamic. But they’re also not perfectionists. If a mistake or two happen to make their way into one of their songs, the band’s not likely to spend too much time on second or third takes.
“We’re not super-picky, and, with recording, it doesn’t take us very long,” Gilbride says. “We don’t do a lot of takes. There’s still a certain amount of DIY [attitude], like, ‘Yup, that’s good. Let’s do it.’ We don’t try to make horrendous errors and leave them there.” But, he adds, if there’s “a small technical error” or “someone played a G instead of a C” and it works well enough, why not just leave it in?
Though Swearin’ have a classic indie sound, there’s no Robert Pollard or Mark E. Smith that dominates the group. Three of the band’s members—Gilbride, Crutchfield and Spencer—trade off vocal duties, and their songwriting is fully collaborative. On Surfing Strange, each vocalist wrote his or her lyrics, but Gilbride says they’re comfortable enough with each other to let go of some of that control and trust each other to build or improve on an idea.
“It’s cool when you’re in a band situation where your ego is not running rampant for self-preservation,” Gilbride says. “I think we’d collapse inwardly if we didn’t share all the fun parts of being a band. We can trust each other with each other’s music and to do the best job with each other’s songs, and that’s just us getting to know each other better and better.”
After building up some momentum and garnering attention from blogs and zines for their debut, Swearin’ have gotten a little more comfortable with the idea of handing over the responsibility for a few duties they previously handled themselves. They have a publicist, for one. And they also now have a booking agent, though the band still books many of their own shows. “If it was 100 percent of us doing things on our own before,” Gilbride explains, “maybe now it’s, like, 80 percent.”
Even with a few extra hands to speed up the process, Swearin’ are still firmly committed to their DIY ethos. The band has never put too much stock in having to rely on others to make music or plan tours. And while it’s not hard to imagine a bigger label getting interested, it’s unlikely they’ll entertain offers anytime soon. For Swearin’, staying independent is part of the character of the band.
“You don’t need anybody to do it, if you want it,” Gilbride says. “I think there’s a lot of bands that get started and say, ‘We want to tour, but we don’t have a booking agent.’ Or, ‘We want to make records, but we don’t have a record deal.’ And that’s never been a problem for any of us.
“And it never will be.”