Have Mercy recently shifted themselves. Last year, they released the well received The Earth Pushed Back on Topshelf Records. It is a melodramatic drone through a crumbling relationship, interspersing self-loathing between throaty vocals over distorted chords and entrancing troubles coupled with clean-toned guitars. Earth is a great example of how to make emotional music powerful rather than pathetic.
This past February they followed up Earth on a split EP with Daisyhead. Rather than following the same minimal format Earthexemplified, this time around they pushed themselves to create two songs that gave proof to how talented they are. The overwhelmingly monumental songs, "Pete Rose and Babe Ruth" and "Pawn Takes Rook," are the band's masterpieces. Sonically, they are fuller, with more attention put on tonal aspects, as well as penetrative, with Brain Swindles vastly improved vocal performance complimented by lyrics written much more poetically. It's difficult to think that Have Mercy only has a small fan base currently, but it shouldn't be too long until that changes.
When they came through Chicago, Punknews interviewer Xan Mandell sat down vocalist/guitarist Brian Swindle and guitarist Andrew Johnson to learn as much as he could about them. They traveled through various topics including recent van troubles, how changing producers changed their sound, living with their parents, and how gnarly it is to take a shot of whiskey through your nose. Apparently, after the show they went to a karaoke bar and Johnson blew everyone out of the water with his skills on the mic…
Let's talk about that van trouble for a second if you don't mind…
Brian Swindle: It's a tough subject… I don't really want to talk about it (laughs).
Andrew Johnson: (To Swindle) You can probably explain it.
Swindle: So basically there was a line going through our van… We just bought the van, maybe about right before we left for this tour, and there was a line going to the transmission that kind of came off, so we just had transmission fluid going everywhere. We had it temporarily fixed in Salt Lake City, and tried to make it as far as we could.
Johnson: And then we went to the van's sliding door, it only opens from the outside, not from the inside, and we went to open it yesterday it was so cold that the handle just snapped off, so now we have to climb out in the front door. It's like a big hatchback.
And you just got it too? Swindle: It was a used van. It happens.
How's being in a van for you guys? Johnson: I was talking about this during the first week of tour. Itā??s more normal for me than "real life" is. What I actually said is, "If you think about touring musicians, it's a very nomadic lifestyle. It takes someone who is really sure they're going to do good or a fucking insane person like me… us. It's not for the normal 9-5er, because I don't even know what day of the week of it, I don't know the date, I don't even know what city we're in half the time."
Swindle: That's why we have our tour manager. He tells us what day it is.
Johnson: Now I think we're eight or nine days from home, and it feels like we just left yesterday. Even on the month-long tour we did last time, you leave, and once you hit that halfway point, you get a bit homesick, but once you pass it, it's the best time of your life. This tour has been a lot of fun. Look over there (points to the rest of the green room where all the bands are), everyone is just hanging out.
So there is a big camaraderie between the bands? Swindle: We all hang out, every morning, every night.
Have you been jumping in the other bands vans to hang out for drives? Swindle: Um, no. We had Matt from Major League come out with us one day. He stayed and hung out with us in Arizona, and drove the entire way from Arizona to California in one day.
Johnson: We've hung out with the other bands in their vans, drinking outside of shows and stuff. It's kind of illegal… (laughs)
How long have you been a band together at this point? Swindle: I guess the band was an "actual band" in 2001 and we jammed with a whole different line up before that, but we actually started taking ourselves seriously in 2011, which is when we considered we started.
And there were some member changes after 2011, right? Johnson: There was one or two
Swindle: We had a third guitarist, but he ended up quitting, and then a different bassist, who ended up quitting as well, but when we recorded our first EP, My Oldest Friend, Nick Woolford, our bassist now was actually there more than our old bassist, so he kind of took over the old bassist's parts.
Johnson: Then I joined the band literally 10 days before we went into record the EP, so I was writing everything in there. We would show up, Me, Nick, Swindle, Aaron [Alt, drummer], would all show up at 10 a.m. It was kind of like, "Strict, 10 o'clock, we gotta be here," but then we wouldn't start recording until 6 p.m.
Because a lot of writing was going on? Johnson: No, haha, because Periphery was in there at the same time. So those fuckers…
Swindle: At the time, they were supposed to do a double LP, and they had the time whenever they wanted it, because they were paying big money, and we were paying nothing, so we were put on the back burner.
You guys only had four days for the EP, right? Swindle: The EP it was four days, and for the LP, The Earth Pushed Back, it was five.
Do you think that transfers on to the record? Maybe a sense of urgency? Swindle: I guess not when I listen to it. To me, I wish I would've done some parts differently and if I had another day I probably would've thought of that idea, but it's not really urgency.
Johnson: Itā??s kind of like you look back and think, "Damn I wish I couldā??ve done this, or this," but it's not like we're not proud of the product or the record. I've been playing music for 16 years, my whole goal was one day I wanted to hold a vinyl record with my music on it, and if I got kicked out of the band tomorrow or somebody killed me, that would be the proudest moment.
And now you're on the second pressing of the record! Johnson: Third!
That must be insane to you guys. Johnson: And I don't even have a copy of it. I just have the test pressing.
How does it feel to put out a record like that as a small band, and then all of a sudden just keep having to pressing the records over and over again? Swindle: It's pretty overwhelming, we got an e-mail the other day that said, "The third pressing is coming out, what colors do you want?" We didn't know that we had just sold out of 500 in a month. It was fucking awesome. It's overwhelming that kids actually like it and are telling their friends about it.
Johnson: And there are kids who come to our shows and they've already done the three-color pre-order of the first pressing and they're coming to buy the clear one for us to sign, and I'm like, "I'm just this guy who manages a guitar store back home. I'm using my vacation time right now, and I'm signing an autograph in North Dakota." It's like, "What the fuck did I do right?"
Swindle: I love vinyl, but this color, and this color, or this color; kids are just bringing them all to shows and are like, "Can you sign this one, and this one, and this one?" It's so awesome.
Does it help financially? Swindle: For us? Not yet. That's a whole different subject, but hopefully one day it will. I'd like to make a career out of it. Right now we're having fun.
Speaking of fans, I was looking at your Tumblr, and there is a lot of back and forth between you and the fans. You answer all their questions. Is that an important aspect of the band, to be involved with the fans? Swindle: Yes. We love meeting people. At our shows we'll shoot the shit with people. We're not going to play a show and dip off like assholes. Kids came to see us and sing back our songs to us, so you know, I want to know everything about them, why they started listening to us, etc.
Johnson: This is probably the only time you'll see me in the green room tonight. Maybe I'll run up here to grab a beer, but then Iā??ll run right back downstairs. Tumblr and Twitter are the two we're big on. For me, I grew up in the hardcore community where it's about sharing the mic and all that. There were those couple of bands, like 18 Visions, I went to see them and they were total dickheads. They didn't want to talk to anybody, as if they were superior and that kind of thing. I remember being at that show at 18-years-old and thinking, "I never want to be this person." After that, I made it a point not to be. I'll be in a hurry to get off stage, but if someone wants to come up and take a picture, I'll drop everything and do it and talk to them. The sound guys will be yelling at me and I'm telling them to fuck off.
Swindle: They're the reason we're here.
And as music fans yourself, I'm sure you know what that means to people. Do you think that creates a following as well? Even if you put out something that wasn't good, do you think they'd still follow you because they have that connection? Swindle: Oh definitely. There are bands on this tour whose music I really didn't like when I first listened to it, but then you get to know the people and you're like, "I get it, they're not fake, they're not assholes, they're just writing music that they love."
Johnson: Even my cousins, they'll hear the album and be like, "Your singer is a real tortured soul. You're really depressed dudes," but then we'll be cracking up in the van. I made a party anthem in the van and we're all cracking up. When you come and see us live weā??ll crack jokes in between songs. It's about tearing down that wall. It's being like, "Yeah, we're musicians and we're playing on this stage for you guys, but we're human beings too." We like to crack jokes and make fart jokes.
It seems like the overriding themes of all the songs are relationship issues. Is this coming from a place of fact, is it fiction, or maybe even other parts of your life that are easily written as relationship issues? Swindle: Damn, thatā??s a tough one. Yeah, I'd say The Earth Pushed Back album is about one relationship that I had, but then there are also multiple subjects in there. But, it's all truth. It's nothing I'm just making up off the top of my head. I'm writing about things that happened in my life.
Is there ever any censoring when you're writing, where you think, "I might not want to say this out loud?" Swindle: Ummm… No. I like to take those things and write them a different way where the person I'm writing about can't tell I'm talking directly about them, so I could say something very pissed off in a song, but the person I'm writing about doesn't have a clue, but the fans still get pumped about it.
Does that person ever talk to you and get a little pissed off? Swindle: I had somebody get mad at me, because they found out a song was about them. It was right before we left for tour. It was interesting.
Does that change the way you want to write, or do you say, "Fuck this, this is what I want to write about?" Swindle: Not to sound like a cocky asshole, but it's my music. I write the lyrics and I'm going to write about what I want to.
Like, this is my cathartic experience? Swindle: Exactly, but at the same time if someone came up to me and asked me if a song was about them, I'm not going to lie to them. I'm going to be like, "Yeah."
How did the Daisyhead split come together? Johnson: Whew, it's a long/short story. When we were on tour with Koji, Turnover and Ivy League, we hung out with our boys at Daisyhead's apartment on the 4th of July, and we got, um, well, obliterated. I blacked out. Nick, Swindle and I are huge wrestling fans, and we'll do wrestling moves on each other and I kept powerbombing Nick into their couch and then it broke. And that was the point where I was like, "Uh, we should probably go…" And we left, then Swindle, you got an e-mail?
Swindle: I got a text from their lead singer who was like, "Hey, you remember the 4th of July party at my house?" and I said, "Yeah dude, craziest party of my entire life!" And he goes, "Yeah… You broke my couch. Do you guys wanna do a split?" (All laugh)
At that point you kind of owe them one. Swindle: The guys are really cool. Daisyhead fucking rules and the guys are awesome.
I think your side of the split is one of the most solid releases of the year thus far, and I think it may stay that way. Johnson: Really? Holy smokes.
There's so much going on in it, it's so thick and powerful. Earth is pretty minimal. What changed for you guys as a band and as writers? Swindle: Changing producers for sure. We got along with Paul Levitt, and he understood what we wanted to do with those songs, so there was a little bit more production to it, but at the same time, we wanted to write songs that we hadn't written before. We wanted to get better as musicians with harmonies, melodies and guitar playing. We just thought, "Let's do this, let's fucking step our game up."
Johnson: When I did my guitar parts for that, it took me longer to get a tone than it did to record the parts, because Levitt has this block logo Peavey 5150, and if you know anything about those amps, they are the most metal of metal amps. I kept joking around saying, "Yo! Lets play the 5150!" I went through three different Marshalls, a Jet City, a Fender, a Mesa Boogie and finally we went with the 5150. It's the way he's willing to try anything, even if we do it as a joke.
Swindle: Thatā??s the thing, Levitt had a piano sitting in his room next door and he said, "The people left it here when they moved out of the studio," and I asked if I could put it on the song Pawn Takes Rook. He said no, but I went, "Well, I think I'm going to try it." And it sounds cool. It sounds eerie as fuck. He lets you run with your ideas, but if one is completely fucking stupid, he'll tell you.
Are you going to tap him as your producer from now on? Swindle: Yeah, he is our producer now. The next record we're doing with Paul.
What is the story on the next record? Johnson: Eight songs.
Swindle: We have eight songs written right now, we're going in hopefully May or June.
Is the new record going to sound along the lines of the split? Swindle: I think sonically it will sound like it.
Johnson: The songs are really weird… There are a couple that are super heavy and drone-y, but then there are some that are pretty, twinkly and acoustic.
You guys did the acoustic electric blend on Earth. Why is that something you like to do? Johnson: Layers. Layers.
Swindle: Any excuse to make something a big production is something I'm really into. I just think, like Disney soundtracks back in the day, like Hercules and Aladdin, those huge productions are so rad. Any time we have instruments at our disposal, where we can be like, "Lets add some violin, cello, piano," we try it.
Johnson: "Let's get this girl that we know in to sing a song." For example Living Dead, Swindle had these chords that he wrote and I did this violin thing over it and it turned into this huge production. I sometimes forget that that song exists until I'm driving and Iā??ll put our album on for shits and gigs, and that song will come on and I'll think, "Holy shit, we wrote this? This is one of our songs?"
Swindle: I think there is going to be a lot more of that on the new record. We have a quartet at our disposal right now, so I think we're going to use them a lot.
Johnson: I work with a musical genius who said once we get the songs done, send him over the rough mixes, and he'll write up charts. So just in case we want to quartet on this, or if we wanted a horn player on a part, weā??ll have that.
So you're really looking to make it bigger than just a rock record? Swindle: Yeah, if we have the time to do it, if we have a month, we're going to make it a big record.
Have you been looking into making it a month-long recording process? Swindle: That's what we're looking at right now. We'd probably do two weeks doing pre-production and then go another two weeks and re-record everything.
And is it going to be at the same studio you did the split at? Swindle: Yeah.
Will it be put out on Topshelf Records? Swindle: Umm… Don't know yet.
Well, going back to the experimenting idea, is that becoming a more important part of the band? Finding tones and where you stand sonically? Swindle: Yeah, we're a four-piece band, and I think the songs that we write need to sound huge, so our tone needs to reflect that. I don't want to show up to a show and sound dull and thin. We fuck with our shit and we're really into our gear.
Johnson: I have a lot of people always ask me, "Why aren't you using an Orange or a Marshall or something?" I have this Peavey Classic 50 Combo amp that I've had for 10 years. It's been through hell and back, but it sounds good.
Swindle: It sounds amazing.
Johnson: It's the bassiest, thickest tone I can find, and we need that as a four piece, because it would really suck if it were thin guitars, bass and drums. It'd just be like, "Oh hey, we're Have Mercy, welcome to the live experience!" We want the live experience to almost overpower the studio sound. Personally I feel like we're that strange blend where some people consider us a studio band because we like to fuck around and stuff, kind of like The Beach Boys (laughs), and get weird sounds and stuff, but then some people say we're a live band because of this powerful show we put on both sonically and visually. With me dancing around… This 290-pound man, two-stepping like a motherfucker.
I play guitar and am a bit of a gear nut, so we can talk gear for a second. So Andrew, you're playing through the Peavey Classic 50, what are you running in front of it? Johnson: I actually play knock-off guitars, but I always make sure to put Seymour Duncans in them and stuff like that. For example, the Telecaster I've been using this and the last tour is a Chinese Tele that I actually got for $80 at this guitar store. You can get them online for like $130. I put in these $300 Seymour Duncans in it. It's made out of Mahogany, so it has that Les Paul thump to it, but also the shimmery sound of a Telecaster. I run that through a T.C electronics tuner, I had a ChadderBox Old Ironsides distortion pedal, but that broke when we left for tour, so I have to send that to him to get fixed. I'm using a ChadderBox Loud/Louder right now, and I have a T.C Electronics Flashback X4 delay.
So you're not using your amps built-in distortion? Johnson: Nope. I just use the clean on it. .
Really? The Classic 50 has a pretty meaty distortion channel though. Johnson: It does, but it's a little more American sound-y whereas I, like, I'm not a distortion guy, I'm more of an overdrive guy. I don't want the sound of my "distortion" to fuck up the sound of my clean tone.
So you want it to be a more of a transparent distortion? Johnson: Yeah, exactly. Like a cascading distortion.
Swindle, what about you? Swindle: At the beginning of this tour, I was using a Peavey Delta Blues 30 head that I built, and then somebody poured water in it the first day of tour, soooo, I just got a new amp today. It's a New Vintage 40-watt single channel clean amp. I haven't played it yet, so I have no idea.
What do you mean, New Vintage? Swindle: New Vintage, it's a company. They make amps for Jimmy Eat World, Blink-182, everyone.
Johnson: They're hand-wired American-made amps. They're fucking awesome.
Swindle: I got lucky and had a tax return and went and spent the money on that.
Where'd you get it? Swindle: My buddy actually owns the company, and so he just pumped it out for me. I was like, "Hey, this is what I want. How fast can I get it?" and he goes, "I'll start it today!"
Did you have any customizations done to it? Swindle: Not really. It just sounds like an old Blackface Fender.
What tubes does it run? 6L6 tubes? Johnson: It's a weird hybrid. It only has three tubes in it or something.
Including the rectifier and pre-amp tube? Swindle: Yeah. You can check it out when we go downstairs. It's fucking weird. It's loud as shit though, and I have a 1x12 cab for it, so no band I know just uses a 1x12 and a guitar head, but that shit is so loud. It's 40-watts, but when it's dime'd, it's 75 watts. So it pumps.
Do you ever worry small clubs like this won't dig that much power? Swindle: No.
Johnson: That's why I use the 50-watt amp, because I can open it up and get that boom you get with an amp that's turned up more.
Swindle: Plus we're all deaf, so we like playing loud (laughs) .
Do you not use earplugs? Johnson: My hearing is so shot that if I use earplugs I can't hear anything. This is going to sound kind of gnarly, but what I do is I just don't clean my ears on tour and the ear wax kind of creates a sort of protection. Then when I get home I need a whole box of Q-Tips.
You should look into these wax candle things, you put them in your ear and they're really long and you light it and the air suction takes care of the earwax. Johnson: Oh yeah! It's like a cone.
Swindle: At first I thought you were thinking of a neti pot, the thing you put in your nose when you have a cold.
Johnson: I had one of those and I did a shot of whiskey through it and it was a bad idea.
Through the nose?!? Johnson: It's because this guy on YouTube did it, and I thought if he could do it, I can do it. Then I found out he just used iced tea.
I once smoked a Newport cigarette through my nose. I had just gotten my wisdom teeth out. That was real gnarly too. Johnson: Holy shit.
I read that you guys have moved back into your parentā??s houses and are just doing part-time jobs and stuff like that. Swindle: Did read this yesterday on our Tumblr?
Yeah. Swindle: Did you ask that question?
No. Johnson: I'm the only one who lives on my own. It's me and a roommate. My family… It's a big situation, but yeah, I had to move out. I work two part-time jobs. I manage a music store three days a week and then I work at a bar two nights a week, which kind of pays for everything. Luckily my mom gave me her old car and the place I got is just sick, so it's a sweet deal.
Does it make being in the band harder or does it give you more motivation to go farther? Swindle: What do you mean? Like moving back home or being on your own? .
Moving back with your parents. Swindle: It eases everything. I moved out when I was 18 until I was 23. I'm 23 now, and just moved back home. So now I'm saving money and when I'm on the road I have money to spend. Plus I'm not like at my house partying all the time. I'm at my parentā??s house, calm. When I get on the road, it's a lot more fun now.
But isn't doesn't affect the way you feel about the band? Johnson: It pushes us to "make it." I would like to keep my part-time job, but use it to pay off my credit cards. If could make this as a career, my life would be a lot cooler.
So what is your vision of the band? Do you want to be like a Wonder Years band, playing every festival, touring all the time, bringing in tons of money? Johnson: I could never really see us as a festival band.
Swindle: No, we couldn't be a festival band. Maybe like Kings of Leon, like how they play Madison Square Garden and then take two months off. That'd be dope.
Johnson: (Sarcastically) I feel like we're gonna be this generations Black Sabbath.
Hopefully you wont turn out like Ozzy though… Johnson: Yeah, all "bleuchhh."
Swindle: That'd definitely happen.
But do you have a vision or a plan, or are you taking it day by day? Johnson: Put out mad wicked records!
Swindle: Basically we just want to put out better and better records. If people give us the opportunity to make this a career than we'll go for it. If the band flatlines, they'll be a point where we all look at each other and say, "Yeah, we're done," but everything feels really good and we're still writing better songs.
I feel like you guys are on an upward trajectory. Swindle: Everybody says that. We just want to write better songs and advance as musicians.
Johnson: It's so weird, my roommate brought this up to me the other day. He was like, "Every time I'm at work and I mention you, they say, 'Oh, Andrew from Have Mercy?'" I don't think we're that popular at home!
Swindle: Oh, we're not that popular at home.
Johnson: We're just four dudes from Baltimore that just fucking like to go to the bar one too many nights a week. But um, it's so weird to hear things like that. Before I left for tour I went to the Vans store and this girl was just freaking out. And I'm thinking this "Where the fuck are all these people coming from!?!"
She recognized you? Johnson: Yeah! With the shaved beard and everything!
That's even more impressive. I almost didn't recognize you and I've been watching tons of your videos. Is that an extra motivation to keep doing this? that people are like, "You're in this band, you're this person and you've affected me." Swindle: Yeah, definitely. Kids come up to us every show and say, "This is really embarrassing, but your album means a lot to me" and that whole thing. It's such a motivator to think that the songs I wrote about my fucking problems are making a huge difference to peoples live. So yeah, we're going to keep doing it.