afropunk exclusive: the heavy frontman kelvin swaby talks love, life. death, and b-movies #soundcheck

April 11, 2016

Given their propensity for mixing love and death, hope and nostalgia, and plumbing raw emotion from the macabre, catching up with The Heavy singer Kelvin Swaby en route to a funeral parlor may have been the most Swabian possible conversation. The intersection of the past and present and art and death are a constant theme in The Heavy’s music, and their latest is no exception. The retro-futurist B-movie soul quartet just released their latest LP, the masterful The Hurt & The Merciless, out now on Counter Records.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK contributor

Let’s talk about this new record. What happened in the last 4 years that’s inspired it? What are the changes that have happened in your lives?
Well I’ve kind of been married, divorced, re-married, and had more children. So stuff with the family is what’s happened. In terms of musically, we wanted to go into the studio with this next record and give more of our live vibe. Because generally the way we’d write is we’d have an idea, we’d have a demo, and we’d keep certain elements from the demo. So we’d work around the demo, and with this vibe we’d just start rehearsing and seeing how we could make the songs play as best they could. We’re like roadhogs, you know, we go out and we tour all the time. So it’s kind of nice to go back when we’re ready as if we’re rehearsing for shows. And when they sound right we’ll go. And we also have a great studio to work in, so if we’re thinking like 60’s style drums, we can go and do that.

I’ve always loved the feel of authenticity when you guys are referencing music from the 60’s or horror movie soundtracks from the 50’s. Are you going back and finding the right vintage gear? Are you finding a real theramin when you record a song?
We’re using completely vintage gear. We worked out of a place called the Distillery for this record and it’s phenomenal. There’s a desk in there that was once owned by Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, and it’s truly incredible. So from the mixing desk down to amps, compressors, EQs, there’s nothing in there that anything was run through that’s from anywhere near the 80’s.

What’s the oldest piece of gear you worked with?
Well you’ve got a couple of guitars, but I’m pretty sure the desk was early 60’s. And I’m pretty sure that T has a guitar that’s late 50’s We really go to town. We’re so inspired by 50s, 60s, early 70s. And if you’re going to do that, we don’t want to sound like a parody of that time.

You don’t want to be like The Darkness.
No! We don’t want to be The Darkness, for fuck’s sake! But what we do want to do is—I’ve always said our sound is vintage ideology with contemporary resources. So it’s like we think back in the 50’s 60’s 70’s, but we now have the capability to fuck with shit and use CLASP which is like Pro Tools working with tape. Which means it runs at exactly the same time as Pro Tools, so we can bounce off tape and chop it around but still have that tape resonance. It’s shit like that that makes a huge difference in recording the way that we do.

What is it about the 50’s 60’s 70’s that inspires you?
For me, my father passed away mid-January this year.

I’m sorry to hear that.
No it’s OK. The funeral’s tomorrow. But like, the music he showed me while I was growing up was just incredible. I’ve likened our house to a Japanese fight club a lot of the time, because I was like one of 11, and there was always different music being played in each room. But when I actually found my calling about what I wanted to collect, that was the hip-hop era. But then I found that I’d be going back and looking for breaks and looking for samples just to have that vibe. I was a crate-digger. I loved those 4 second snippets that just make your fucking neck just go back and forth. I love that. It’s the rawness. The core. the beats, the drums, the guitar, If you can just make people just rock with that and it be that raw and have that rhythm just take you and hit you, then I’m in. You can listen to Ike and Tina, “River Deep Mountain High,” but equally you could listen to The Wailers’ “The Hang Up Pt. 2” which is fucking insane. It’s just a distorted guitar, drums, and a ridiculous vocal. It’s just like “ah fuck!” you know? I feel like right now, especially these days, if you’ve got Pro Tools rig in front of you it’s so very easy to slip into that digital world, you know?

Oh totally. I can’t tell you how often I hear bands quoting that Motown-era soul but with clearly digital instruments that put like a plastic veneer over the whole thing. And it makes it hard to feel it in the same way. You talk about crate-digging, and your music has such amazing breaks and horn lines, would you want to be sampled? Would you want to be he basis for another song?
Well the thing is I always look at our stuff and want people to think “did they sample that?” We have this wicked break on “Since You Been Gone” and it’s like “dun-dun-dudun-da-dun-dun-du-dun-da-dun-dun” and it’s fucking dope. It’s so dope. But it needs an intro. It can’t just start like that. So you listen to some Clarence Reid or listen to Johnny Thomas or something and you’re like “ah! This is the shit. This is what we need to do.” But then you have to sync the fucking melody around the sound. The horn section has to scream. It has to have rage. I want to hear the notes almost splitting because it’s that ridiculous. Just like the way they would have done. Don’t just come in and play the notes. It’s easy to play the notes. Like you said, there’s so much stuff that’s Motown-era-esque but it’s just people playing the notes. We kind of throw ourselves into the room.

Well yeah, it’s not called Soul Music for nothing.
Exactly. You have to do that. So I always want people to think we have sampled something. When we were doing the break for “Since You Been Gone” and also “What Happened To The Love” those choruses are big. And we’re the kind of band that’s never done solos. We’ve never been about solos. But Chris is such a ridiculous drummer that when I was writing those songs I was making sure I could showcase his badness in those songs. Because I love that. Like when you hear that “Amen Brother” break and it just smashes into a ridiculous beat and you get back to the song. And so the way I wanted to go about “Since You Been Gone” had to be like Spanky Wilson in “Sunshine Of Your Love” because the fills in that are so simple and they’re so effective, and I just wanted Chris to be more over the top. And I think we got there in the end.

It’s like you can listen to a 20 minute Neil Peart drum solo and that’s cool and impressive, but you can listen to Clyde Stubblefield, and he can say more in 5 hits than Neil Peart can in 20 minutes.
Well this is the thing. When we started the band and it was just myself and Daniel in the beginning, and I was chopping up Bo Diddley breaks because we couldn’t find the drummer. We couldn’t find the drummer who could just sample it. Just hold that rhythm. You don’t need to fill. Just play like Al Jackson who used to play for Hi [Records]. Just play like that. And they’d be like “oh yeah shit! I love Hi!” and then they’d throw all these fills in. It’s almost how much you don’t play that makes you an even better drummer. Chris for me is insane. And on those two tracks in particular, I really wanted to showcase what he does do. And I remember when Andrew Scheps came into the studio and we were working on “What Happened To The Love” and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing because a lot of bands don’t want to put that in to what they’re doing. It’s not necessary. You’ve got Pro Tools and you just want to do the song. And we’ve still got Pro Tools, but you still need to play. There are so many bands that just don’t want to play.

I think it’s less that they don’t want to. And more that I think there’s an obsession with perfection right now, and I’ve seen with bands I’ve worked with and bands I’ve followed that once you get so obsessed with perfection and not obsessed with feel you get afraid to go to far. Because that line where your voice might crack or the drums might get a little off, that’s the magic spot where great music happens, but it’s not a reliable spot. It’s not a perfect spot.
You’re exactly correct, and I think that what makes us work is we keep the mistakes. We love the mistakes. And you will compromise something if you clean it up to much. You don’t need to clean it up too much. Even when we’re sampling ourselves I still love those little mistakes. You know it’s not right, but it’s got a groove it’s got a feel when it happens 4 times in a row. It works. It doesn’t have to be on the 1.

Check out The Heavy on AFROPUNK Mixtape #015: Where’s My Nina Simones? Where’s My James Baldins At?

I want to talk about your cinematic influences. Your music, especially these last two albums, have such a cinematic feel. They’re so visual in a way. I’m interested in your top 5 B movies.
Top 5 B movies? Oh fuck. Well you know The Evil Dead is up there.

One or two?
It’s got to be the original. And there were a ton of wicked horror movies from the 80’s and late 70s. I was born in 73 but I remember my brother bringing movies in. Aside from The Shining. It’s not a B-rate movie, but it’s fucking brilliant.

Definitely it’s one of the best of all time.
But then you have incredible movies like The Fog, and The Rabid, and The Brood, and The Maniac. Which they just remade with Elijah Wood, but it’s not half as good. And the soundtracks were fucking crazy. And what else. You’ve really got me thinking now. And I love all the Bruce Lee movies, but as much as I love Bruce Movies, I love the original Drunken Master with the American dub. It was the original Jackie Chan Drunken Master. It was fucking insane.

Oh! I’ve never seen it but everyone talks about it rapturously.
But you don’t want to get it on DVD. If you get it on DVD it’s a different dub than the one they had on VHS. When they had it on VHS the dub was just crazy; the music was incredible. All of the sound effects were great. And the story as well. And I kind of like those Rob Zombie movies just for how rough they look. And you have Pulp Fiction but that’s referencing the B movies. But the thing about Pulp Fiction is that it does what we try to do with our music. All our records are like mixtapes for our girlfriend or your partner or that person you’re trying to woo. That’s how we write our record. It’s like a mixtape.

I’m just gonna say that the number of breakup songs you guys write, if that’s what you’re giving to someone you’re trying to woo, you might be doing it wrong.
[laughs] Well exactly. It’s like “well we’re breaking up so I’m available!” We do write a lot of breakup songs. We put ourselves in the fire. In the fire and in the line of fire. Sometimes we come out unscathed, but generally we don’t. But what doesn’t kill you, right?

So if you could make The Heavy movie, like they used to do The Beatles movies, what would that movie be?
It’d be a very dark gangster Western love story. It’d be a dark dark dark love story. And there’d have to be horror in it as well. I can’t tell you what that movie would be. [laughs] But we’ll just write the music for it and let someone else figure out the story.

Who’s the director?
It’d have to be Tarantino. We fucking love him. It was such a joy for him to use “Same Ol” for trailer number one for Hateful Eight. I love the way that he tells a story and the dialogue, as much as the movie. He doesn’t compromise. Or the Coen Brothers. It’d have to be one of those two. Oh! Blood Simple is a fucking brilliant movie. I don’t know what kind of movie it would be, but I know it would be gangsters, horror, Western, and misplaced love.