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Published: 2018/07/10
by Mike Greenhaus

Reflections with Richard Swift

The cover of Swift’s 2005 release The Novelist

Richard Swift was never a household name, but the multi-instrumentalist/producer/songwriter left an indelible mark on the modern-rock space before his untimely passing on July 3 at age 41. As a producer, Swift worked with some of the biggest names in the indie and jamband worlds during the first part of the 21st century, helming Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ 2015 self-titled breakthrough and 2018’s Tearing At The Seams, Guster’s 2015 psych-rock LP Evermotion, lauded Damien Jurado LPs like 2010’s Saint Bartlett, 2012’s Maraqopa, 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son and 2016’s Visions of Us on the Land, and Marco Benevento’s 2014 album with his trio, which Benevento went so far as to name Swift. Perhaps most notably, he also produced and played drums on Foxygen’s 2013 crossover We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, helping the art-rock duo get signed and zooming in on a kaleidoscopic sound that has since become his signature style.

“I’ll always remember his genius, his ridiculous sense of humor and how much of a legend he was. He will be missed,” Benevento told Relix. “The times I’ve had with him will never be forgotten and will always be inspiring.”

In a separate but equal world, Swift was a noted singer-songwriter and solo artist, releasing a string of indie-pop and lo-fi recordings that influenced a generation of future tastemakers. (The members of Foxygen famously approached Swift and gave him their CD after one of his gigs at New York City’s Mercury Lounge.) He also had a parallel career as a side-man for headliner-size indie icons, playing bass with The Black Keys from 2014-15 and serving as The Shins’ keyboardist and percussionist from 2011-16. After bonding with Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and touring keyboardist Leon Michels, Swift also helped put together the psych-rock garage outfit The Arcs.

“Today the world lost one of the most talented musicians I know,” Dan Auerbach wrote on Instagram of his Arcs bandmate. “I will miss you my friend.”

Swift spoke with Relix and Jambands.com about his lightning-quick production approach and work with Auerbach back in 2015, shortly before the release of their LP Yours, Dreamily. During the conversation, Swift also touched on his work with Guster, his proudest Foxygen accomplishments and why, as a Deadhead, he decided to sit out Fare Thee Well.

“To the ether that now carries you, Richard: I’ve never met anyone like you and you changed the way i think about music forever and ever,” Ryan Miller of Guster said, reflecting on Swift’s passing. “What an immense loss, for all of us. I love you and I miss you and I wish you peace, old buddy. You were a singular burst. I’m heartbroken.”

Let’s start by going back to how you and Dan first met. Do you remember your initial encounter?

He was co-producing a record for Valerie June, and the guy he was producing it with hired me to play drums on the record. A lot of people don’t know I played drums. We just started recording it. We’ve been friends for years now.

I love [playing in The Arcs] because I’m playing drums. It’s just something that I don’t get to do. With The Shins, I’m playing keyboards and guitars and stuff. And even though I do play drums on some of those recordings, with this, I’m playing drums and singing lines. It’s a lot of fun. It’s rare, I feel, in life and in general or with whatever world you have, and especially in the musical world, to find your peers.

In addition to working with Dan and many different projects, you toured as the bassist for The Black Keys. How familiar were you with their music before you joined the touring lineup? And how did you feel your musical connection with Dan changed when you started touring the world together on stage at some of these big arenas and festivals?

I really loved playing with The Black Keys. I loved playing bass with Pat. In between these tours, we just kept going back to Nashville, going back to Dan’s place and recording as much as possible. On a friendship level, it’s been great being able to tour with those guys and hanging out having late nights together. For the most part, Dan and I go back to one of our hotel rooms and watch stupid TV shows. We have conversations and listen to music at night. It’s been good, actually. I’m very grateful to be able to tour and make a living as a musician, but touring can also be very exhausting after a point. It’s the same with The Shins. When we’re offstage we hang out, turning each other on to new music, to old music.

In terms of the sessions that led to the formation of The Arcs, Dan and Leon have both mentioned that the songs started out of some informal jam sessions, and once you realized that you stumbled into something special you started some more formal songwriting sessions. Do you remember a specific point when you realized you were on the verge of launching a new project?

At first we were jamming and I was like, “This is gonna be for Dan’s solo record or something” or “Maybe Leon, Dan and I will put out some weird Captain Beefheart cover 45.” We thought we were gonna make this weirder music, and then Dan would do his solo record. All of a sudden, we were writing all these songs together and it turned into this Arcs thing. It’s hard to explain; when we get together, it’s just so easy for us to write stuff. We’re at the point right now where we’ve got to stop writing songs, because we think, “How are we gonna finish all this.” Obviously, it’s a lot of fun being in the studio. Leon’s great in the studio, Dan’s great in the studio. It’s a very natural place for me to be. So, yeah, it started out really, really loose. We didn’t really intend to be a band, but we just kind of accidentally became one, which is awesome. It’s rare to do that. I’m in my mid-to-late thirties, I’ve made a lot of records, I’ve been in other bands. It was just a very happy accident.

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