Sometimes the best things you could do are what you could do yourself. These are some of the lessons The Swellers have learned over the past several years. They have learned that some things aren't what they are always cracked up to be, and their newest release The Light Under Closed Doors reflects that. The Swellers sat down with Punknews interviewer Christopher Barrett to talk about the highs and lows of band life, and transitioning from being on a major label to finding their way to good friends including No Sleep Records.
When you guys recorded you new album The Light Behind Closed Doors were you working with No Sleep Records yet? Nick Diener: Not yet. We pretty much went into it like we did when we recorded Ups and Downsizing back in 2009 without things set in stone or a label in mind. We just wanted to make a record the way we wanted and with whatever money, for the budget we had laying around. That felt great because the label (at the time Fueled By Ramen Records) said, "Yeah weâll take that," as opposed to having someone trying to give us pointers of what we should do and when we should release it. Weâre just focused on making a record. So this time around, when we were halfway through we contacted No Sleep and we said, "So should we do this?" It just kind of happened.
Jonathan Diener: The initial thing is that it started with a text too. We were originally sending some stuff out to some labels, so it was just one of those things. Weâve been doing this for a long time so we know if someone just doesnât give a shit you can tell. Itâs not even saying anything against the band so much as if someone from a business sense like our band but if they personally donât care, I donât want to work with them. In regards to No Sleep, I just texted Chris and said, "Hey could we do this? We want to work with you and not another label." He said it was cool and we had a contract an hour later. So I talked to Chris out on the deck for a little while and when I came in I found that everything I asked for bullet-point-wise that we wanted in the contract he said ok to. It was one of the easiest things we had ever done.
Nick: Weâve been friends with Chris for a few years but were always tied up with another label. Now that we were free agents we just said let's make it happen. So this time around it was less business oriented and a little bit more fun because we were willing to take the risk. Turns out it wasnât really risky at all, so it was the safest and most comfortable decision we made in a long time.
So how did the transition go from Fueled By Ramen up to No Sleep? Jonathan: The transition was pretty strange because we were out on a tour when we decided we 100% didnât want to do this anymore. This was only five or six months left with the Fueled By Ramen deal. There were so many changes going on at the label and there was so much that it was difficult to deal with. There were two rungs above Fueled By Ramen, which were Atlantic and Warner, which when we wanted anything we had to wait for approval from everybody for even the simplest things. Then we went from having a manager to starting our own label for our own release. We had some friends help with that kind of stuff, and that made us realize that we could do this ourselves, and very literally mean that. So we started taking on more roles, and we let our manager go and began managing ourselves since the beginning of this year. We have so many friends in awesome places now, and we could just text them and ask if they could help us get something done and they say sure. Again it was like that with No Sleep where I could just hit Chris up on my phone and get on a label. We even got onto a Japanese label as well as a UK booking agent and at this point I would like to think its because we're ok dudes.
Nick: With the big label and management it made it seem like the music industry is tough and you have to wait a lot, and then you realize that all it takes is something like a single e-mail to be sent and replied to. It felt like we were wasting all this time and money and now that we're in control we could actually see our money moving in and out and we're doing better than we ever have because we're in charge of all that. Makes us think about what giant bands have to deal with and how much money is going right down the drain. So a reason we're able to be a band and be able to live is because weâre smart about that kind of stuff. I would recommend to anyone who is a band right now to be skeptical of a professional and see it for yourself. Thatâs super important.
So you say whatever you could have control of overall makes things easier? Jonathan: Definitely. Years ago we had Nick in charge of everything and it was difficult because he was swamped with everything so things might not get done. Little things. It got to the point where I said that I could handle the merch. Then we got to the point where we had unspoken duties for the band. So I took over merch design and the "image" of the band and Nick started handling finances and business.
Nick: Booking too. I havenât booked a tour since 2008 because after that we had a booking agent. Then for this tour I took on four-plus weeks of booking myself. It felt good but then it also sucked because I have to answer something like 500 e-mails. Usually I had to send e-mails asking people if we could play but this time around I received a bunch of e-mails asking us to play their basement and their venue. Itâs a lot of work but luckily Jonathan is doing a lot of the other stuff I wouldnât have thought of. We worked it out and before I knew it we were done. Weâre like we have the merch and we have the tour dates so letâs go. Then we have to face the fact also that we donât have a lot of money so we have to spend wisely. We just trying to get back to a place where we could be comfortable.
Jonathan: Another cool thing is that itâs so cool we could be playing house shows, and not tooting our own horn, but financially itâs been crazy. Itâs the same as managing ourselves. If you see exactly whatâs going on with money, and something such as asking for the money from the door at the show, it so much easier. Thereâs no need for all these extra variables and unnecessary middlemen. Itâs the same thing with our music. Nick and I write the music, we produce our own music, and then we go somewhere and record it. Thatâs the nice thing about our band is that its 100% us. I feel like a lot of bands donât have that anymore and thatâs sad. They think you're supposed to play this game and put stuff in other peopleâs hands when itâs pointless.
I bet cutting out such middlemen feels more free and meaningful. Nick: Its more direct and definitely more meaningful and rewarding when everything works out. Something as simple as having your merchandise showing up to the right venue on the right day its like "YES!" It's a victory you know?
Jonathan: Thatâs the funny thing because somewhere like Warped Tour was hell in terms of dealing with so much stuff. But then we also have a situation where we now use Cold Cuts Merch, which is based out of Pennsylvania. We started working with them because they we recommended by The Wonder Years guys and some other people told us about them. Its great because Iâm dealing with them directly as opposed to someone who calls them for me. I call them on a normal basis. In one week we had three shirts designed, mocked up, printed and sent to us. In the same week, which was within four to five days. All of it showed up on time and there was no problems with anything. I have to say it was one of the weirdest moments of my life.
Nick: In the past, which was three years before that when we had the middle man, something would always be screwed up. Every single order. Even if it was on time there would be some ridiculous overnight shipping charge we had to pay. There was just all this stuff we had to deal with because people didnât care and we werenât dealing with people directly. So its been so much better, the DIY tactics weâve learned over the past 11 years and weâve applied it even with our relationship with No Sleep. The teamwork there has been really awesome. I canât say for sure if we are doing better but it sure feels way better. With the tour so far it seems evident that we are doing better. To be honest for a while I felt like we weâre on the decline. It's not the case so far because weâve been playing shows and seeing that there are new fans coming out and the old ones keep coming too. People have also been saying the new record is the best one yet. That feels good and I guess that means weâre not doing something wrong.
When I was listening to the new record, two songs that stuck out at me were "Becoming Self Aware" and "Favorite Tune." You guys want to elaborate about those songs? Nick: Jonathan wrote "Becoming Self Aware."
Jonathan: With that song I had kind of been messing around with the chorus on guitar a few years ago. I dabble, and emphasis on dabble at guitar, and Nick and I still do about 50/50 in terms of songwriting. I felt it was the first time I could do something semi-intricate, and while Nick showed me what I was doing was all off, I kind of put it on the back burner. I went through this pretty nasty break-up and we weâre in Europe so we were gone for a month. Then I came home and while she was packing up to move out, I spent a week couch surfing at all my friends places. Every night it with a different person. So one night it was with Nick and his fiancÃ©e, and so on, so it was with a bunch of different people.
Congrats on your engagement by the way! Nick: Thanks man. Iâm pretty pumped.
Jonathan: Heâs really happy about the song. [Laughs] But about the song I was going through a weird time, and I felt I was learning a different lesson every single day. The overall concept was that you might feel like an outsider and things just suck, but you learn that there are other people who went through what youâre going through and it's just a temporary thing. So one day I went to the park by myself to play guitar because I had to wait a few hours for one of my friends to get home. I just played there and started writing lyrics and it was the first time I had done that in years. That song finally structured itself and came together and I told Nick he had to hear this.
Nick: I said letâs make that song fast. Thatâs never the case anymore and usually we say lets make that song slower so that way it's a jam. But with this one we felt we needed to pick it up. Its pretty much the only faster song on the new record. We went through a point where we felt like writing whatever and would worry what the punk kids were gonna think. Then we thought they really donât come to shows anymore because theyâre older with other priorities. They may complain on the Internet that weâre not faster anymore but theyâre not around. So we stopped caring about that in terms of writing songs, but with this weâre looking for more like a Millencolin or an Osker feel and I thought the chorus was great and fits the record. It makes for a cool bump in the middle of the album.
Jonathan: The cool thing we have going on right now is an underlying melancholy theme with our music. It hits a certain heart string depending on what kind of stuff youâre doing sonically. Itâs not just your cheesy three chord songs. We have lyrics that are really personal, and we have songs that match that too. "Becoming Self Aware" is not a song where you hear it you call bullshit. People texted about that song telling me they could relate.
Nick: People have been telling us this time around the lyrics have been the most relatable. Thatâs because for the most part we didnât try to dumb them down, but at the same time we werenât trying to be poets. We werenât searching for certain words other than how we felt. We were much more straightforward this time in terms of writing material that a lot of people in their 20s could relate to. As for "Favorite Tune," it came together really quickly. I sent it to Jonathan and the lyrics rolled off really quickly, and we both put together the structure in one day. He recorded the drum demo; I recorded the rest including the vocals and sent it back to him. It was the fastest we had recorded, wrote and demoed an entire song. It was one of the catchiest ones we put on the album. Normally towards the end of our albums we tend to slow it down and we get the songs longer and more depressing. Like our records tend to start fast and then by the end youâre bummed and you go to sleep. With this record I felt like you could nod your head the whole way through. So we decided with "Favorite Tune" to throw an upbeat number toward the end.
Jonathan: We started throwing more of the energetic songs towards the end for the first timeâ¦
Nick: I think by definition this one would qualify as a ditty. A toe-tapping ditty.
Worthy of a little dancing and movement? Jonathan: When Nick first wrote it the song was like a slow "That Thing You Do" kind of thing. One of those songs where you say, "I have this chorus but I donât know what to do with it." At that point we were listening to a lot of Saves The Day and we thought yeah we should speed it up.
Nick: We had a proximity effect from Saves The Day because we were hanging out with them. They were at the same studio we recorded because they were finishing their record right before us. So we had a whole bunch of Chris Conley in our blood including a bunch of advice about the music industry and stories and such. He has a great way of making you feel like an equal in the sense that weâre in this too. It was awesome and comforting in the sense, without him explaining, giving some advice and reassuring me about things I would have probably had a completely different outlook going into the record. After they recorded and we got some insight it really shaped the last 18% of the record. It gave us that extra edge that some other bands have who smoke weed. Our was talking to people who smoke weed. [Laughs] You guys donât dabble with that stuff? Nick: Thatâs not something we do.
Jonathan: None of us do.
Nick: Weâre wholesome men.
Jonathan: But our merch guy loves pot…
Nick: Heâll put pot on pizza and eat that too. Iâve had a few people recommend that I should do it. Iâve been told it will totally expand your mind a little bit. I like writing my songs late at night alone when Iâm feeling a little loopy. Iâll stick to that. Jonathan and I have written records at 4 a.m.
Jonathan: With our first record Nick and I would meet in the basement with acoustic guitars at 4 a.m. and say let's go. I have this thing where I have a golden hour, and its usually late and there's just a creative burst. Its only for an hour and I feel like if you utilize it its phenomenal. Then you get past it and feel like the biggest pile of shit. Everything you do after feels so dumb. Iâm guessing drugs have a similar effect. Some people probably feel like they are ready to go and then they go back and listen to it and regret it, hoping that no one ever hears it.
Nick: Jonathan has sent me songs a few times where Iâm like, "Ok buddy" and then they just kind of faded into the mist. Never to be heard again.
Jonathan: I wrote a song about my dog once.
Nick: That was at least a cute jam.
So there are some lost demos somewhere? Nick: Jonathan and I found some lost demos recently where we thought whoa these are pretty good jams.
Jonathan: They donât sound like us. Theyâre awesome though.
Nick: So expect a side project probably neverâ¦
A side project or maybe a compilation? Nick: I donât ever have any time to do any side projects ever. I just keep taking songs I really like and making them into songs for Swellers records. Thatâs how a lot of this new record came to be. They started off as something else and I kept saying they wonât be on the next record. Then Jonathan would say that song is really good and Iâd agree. I said let's not waste it we should put it on the new record.
Jonathan: "Should," "High/Low," and "Got Social" were all our side project songs and then we had them demoed with super heavy guitars and then we wondered why donât we play them normally for a minute. We did and though they sounded sweet, and that's how we started writing the new record. It became an accidental intro to the record.
You guys are playing Fest again this year. This isnât your first time so you want to share some experiences? Jonathan: This is our sixth year playing fest. Weâve been playing every Fest since Fest 7. There was one Fest we didnât play and that was the dumbest decision ever.
Nick: For some reason I totally forgot we played last year.
I went to Fest 8 and I remember you guys played the gym that year. Jonathan: That weird college campus show?
With Teen Wolf on bass. Anto Boros: I was indeed Teen Wolf.
I thought he was gonna die in that costume. Jonathan: We thought so too. I also remembered driving back and forth picking up random people and bringing them over.
Nick: Iâm gonna split. I feel splitty.
You have a blessed workout. Nick: Yeah man.
Jonathan: Its ok we have Anto in the back. Back on Fest weâre totally pumped to play and Tony always takes care of us. Weâre playing 8 Seconds for the first time this year which is cool. This year Iâm pretty sure weâre playing with Teenage Bottlerocket and Masked Intruder which is great. I saw them at Riot Fest this year and theyâre phenomenal.
Theyâre great for sure! Jonathan: When we started our band the name The Swellers was what we considered an old pop punk name. Then we got Weezer, Saves The Day, Get Up Kids, as well as a mix of Fat Wreck Chords bands all kind of mixed in there. That's what became us. That's where our roots are.
Was there one experience at Fest you wonât forget? Anto: It was my first Fest ever, and I go really far back with a band called Living With Lions. So we had a drink-a-thon that started at 11 in the morning and we didnât stop till 12:30 or 1 oâclock the next day. So our tour manager at the time was a guy named Dave and we stayed at Will Smithâs houseâ¦
Jonathan: Not to be confused with Will Smith.
Anto: Yeah the other Will Smith. I was told after that I wasnât really able to speak and was only really able to slur a few things. So I just kind of keeled over and passed out. I was sleeping on my back and I started to snore but drinking too much had only intensified it. So I remember not being able to form a sentence and then Dave came over and said I was snoring really loud and maybe I should turn onto my stomach. Out of nowhere I was magically able to say, "Yeah I think I could do that for you buddy!" It was hilarious because no one knew how I snapped out of that.
Jonathan: I got one as well. We werenât even playing but were hanging at what was then The Venue with A Wilhelm Scream and Ryan was dressed like Michael Jackson with the stuffed animal monkey. He was the only one dressed up out of our whole band. Right outside that venue there is an alley or a little parking lot, and Ryan, Trevor and a few other guys from A Wilhelm Scream and there were drinking some beers. So these guys come up in cop costumes and tell them to put their hands behind their backs. They all laughed but then they repeated, "Put your hands behind your back!" A collective, "Oh shit" came over them. They werenât cop costumes and an actual quote was "Put the monkey down and put your hands behind your back!" Ryan got handcuffed a brought into the cop car. He got a ticket though.
So plans for tour the rest of this year and next? Jonathan: We have 46 shows on this tour in 44 days.
Anto: It seemed like we have one or two shows every day.
Jonathan: That's the cool thing. This whole tour weâre trying to spark that feeling like when we were on our first tour where we felt that it was crazy, cool and fun because our parents arenât here. Thatâs what this tour feels like. Everyone is in good spirits and just having fun. There isnât a worry that there is a 500-capacity venue and only 300 people came, it's just so relaxed and fun. As for next year we donât have any plans really, so if a bigger band is reading this, take us out! So if you came out for the tour or plan to see us, come out because its gonna be fucking dope.