Jimmy Swift Band ~ A New Sound, A New Era
Fighting for the Dream
“Ten years ago I had hoped to be driving expensive cars and living in LA with Pamela Anderson at this point in my career but it is funny how things change now I would not trade the way we have progressed for anything it keeps us real and honest and true to what we believe in. And I now think Pamela is heinous”
Craig Mercer describes his initial hopes for The Jimmy Swift Band with the dry humour that only a touring Canadian musician would truly understand. But we catch the drift. It may have been fun but it hasn’t been easy.
The Jimmy Swift Band is one of Canada’s hardest working, hardest rocking bands. They’ve been touring steadily since 2001, recording and releasing three studio albums along the way. Their latest album, Weight of the World, released October, 2006 earned JSB a nomination for an East Coast Music Award, the category Best Rock Album.
“But,” says Mercer, “We don’t put any weight at all on awards or nominations, which is a good thing, since we lost to Sloan!”
Without question such recognition is a nice pat on the back, but it isn’t enough. It doesn’t put food on the table. And while being in a touring band is commonly known as a struggle anywhere, it is arguably a lot more challenging in Canada than the USA. Being an exceptionally large country with a low population, cities are many hours, sometimes days apart. This is especially severe if you’re from the east coast. A cross country tour is less efficient and more expensive than touring elsewhere. Still most bands feel it’s necessary to build a fan-base at home before moving on.
As such, JSB has become a touring phenomenon, busting their asses playing hundreds of shows a year and gathering a loyal fan base along the way. Explains Craig, “I’m not sure exactly how many shows we played last year but a lot I think we did over 200 shows in 2004 but we haven’t quite kept up that insane pace. We do lose our minds regularly”
It’s quite obvious though that their hard work has paid off. Where there is JSB, there is a buzz. Those States-side may remember 2003, moe.down 4. The beer tent was overflowing with dancers raging to this band they’d never heard of – the dark heavy beats and spinning, flowing keys were unforgettable. North of the border, JSB plays shows like that regularly – which is why it’s hard to understand why they still have an underground status, flying for a long time, just below the radar.
It’s not just the inescapable driving songs and the powerful jams that get to people. Visually, the band is riveting. A naturally charismatic frontman, Mercer storms across the stage, fixing the audience with a moody glare as he spits out lyrics. Between songs, he toasts the audience with a charming smile, sometimes an entire bottle of Jagermeister held high. Supporting Mercer and sharing the lead instrumentally is Aaron Collier, an incredible keyboardist and effects wizard, whose leaning towards electronic music has featured strongly in the signature JSB rocktronica mix. Providing a foundation for the energetic melodies with deep grooves are bassist Mike MacDougall and the unstoppable Nick Wombolt on drums.
What may change the band’s festival slots and touring has been the recent evolution of their sound. Five years ago JSB could have been described as a jamband but JSB’s newer material is pure, testosterone-charged rock. There are some that might cry selling-out as JSB takes a more mainstream hard rock path. But Mercer feels the evolution has been entirely organic.
“I think our sound has just naturally evolved as any band’s sound tends to do over time. This is the first album with our newest member [drummer Nick Wombolt] and that certainly helped to change the sound a bit. His style is a bit more driving and rocking than our former drummer Paul Christian. I think that the addition of Nick changed the songs quite a bit and I feel that our sound has finally evolved into what it was attempting to be for the past few years.”
Weight of the World
JSB’s newest album, Weight of the World, is the evidence of this evolution. Mercer is happy with the response to the album.
“Response from the fans has been awesome so far I think that most of them feel as we do that it is our best album to datefrom critics it has been quite varied they seem to either love it or absolutely despise it but I think it is great that we are able to evoke such powerful responses from critics with it.”
Weight of the World is not a jamband record, nor the rock-electronica which some critics may have come to expect. The album is darker, heavier and more polished that JSB’s previous work. The album still falls along the rock spectrum, from arena rock Evacuation,’ to the aggressive guitar-driven Road Rage’ to the synth-heavy, 2012.’
What’s interesting about the album is also the striking cover-art. The bright red cover is eye-catching and the graphic is intriguing and vaguely disturbing a large black crow wearing a gas mask. Disconcertingly, it appears suspended in mid-air. Like the edge to JSB’s sound, there is a sense of foreboding. Craig acknowledges the connection.
“When we were putting the songs together for the record there seemed to be a common thread between them that was pretty apocalyptic in nature. This wasn’t something I had set out to do when writing the lyrics or anything, but something that just happened once we looked at all the songs that were going to be on the record. The bird was drawn by Four Serious Creations after they had listened to our music and we felt it was a good image that encompassed a lot of what some of the songs on the album are about.”
Turnaround on Video
But Mercer’s never been content with things as they are. Perhaps one of JSB’s strongest attributes has been their driving ambition. JSB was approached by a fan, the director of Halifax’s Copernicus Studios and they leapt at the opportunity to create a music video for the song Turnaround.’ The band describes the video, “The video chronicles the journey of the band, portrayed as puppets, from simple minstrels to revolutionaries, as they try to survive in the newly industrialized world of the execubots, giant corporate machines who've taken control of the land.”
Mercer is upfront about the video’s significance to the band. “The idea is pretty much an extension of our lives and the way we fit (or don’t fit) in the music industry. We have never really been a part of the industry as it is in its’ established form we have instead set out to create a new industry almost. In the video, the robots run a record company called “execubot records,” who have us under their control until we break free. It is a statement about how record companies have for years jammed crappy music down everybody’s throats and forced them to believe it is good.”
If there’s a touch of bitterness in Mercer’s words it’s because he’s worked so hard within a system that doesn’t necessarily reward talent or originality. There isn’t anything like JSB and instead of that working for them, it works against them. But the scenario is not new, nor unique to JSB. A similar chip on the shoulder can be found in many original independent touring acts. The challenge is not allowing it to bring you down.
Serve JSB lemons and they’ll make lemonade. Early in his career Mercer created Below Me Music to release his music in an industry that wasn’t working for him. Through this label Mercer also took several other talented East Coast acts under his wing. Since then, Below Me Music has become a successful label in its own right.
What lies in the future for JSB is a mystery. What’s for sure is that it’s not the beaten path they’ve followed so far. An evolved sound means new possibilities. Mercer knows this, and looks forward to their US tour this coming June.
“I know we are going to go down and blow some shit up. For a band like us, who have built our reputation on live shows and are not really involved in the industry end of things, the States offers great opportunity and we look forward to sharing our music with as many people as possible there.”