Do you suffer from anxiety, insomnia, agoraphobia, fear of death, social awkwardness and nightmares? Throw in a slightly warped sense of humor, a taste for rock riffage and a weird thing for horse jokes, and you might be a prime candidate for listening to Swartzwelder, a Greensboro-based trio that mines angst in their songs. They play the Monstercade in Winston-Salem on Dec. 9.
Swartzwelder will probably make you laugh, chuckle, snort, or smirk — or whatever your preferred mode of registering humor may be. But knee-slapping isn’t their main focus. They’re into comedy, but they’re not a comedy-rock band in the style of Tenacious D or Steel Panther. I spoke with two members of the band by phone last week in advance of their forthcoming show. The band takes their name from John Swartzwelder, a legend among comedy fans, who has written the most number of episodes of The Simpsons and worked on other highly regarded shows as well.
“We like to add a little humor to our existential dread,” drummer Alex Milstein said.
That might explain it.
The band plays heavy-leaning rock, with lumbering bass lines, muscular drumming, intricate little moments of Thin Lizzy-ish harmonized guitar solos, southern-rock-worthy riffs, and odd, math-rocky ornamental tidbits. Swartzwelder is not big on repeated choruses or standard song form, preferring instead to wedge in lopsided flourishes, unexpected accents or counter-intuitive chord changes to keep things interesting. They do that all without ever sounding jarringly disjointed or stitched together for whiplash effect. The songs are cemented by singer and guitarist Max Miller’s wry, deadpan style, which sometimes brings to mind bands like Cake, where a minimally emoted vocal clarity adds weight to the delivery. Some of the lyrics split the difference between therapy session and stand-up routine.
“I want to be semi-serious,” Miller said.
Miller, who grew up in Winston-Salem, said that some of his formative musical experiences involved playing highly patterned doom-metal in his friend’s basement in high school, and that might be why he often avoids repetition now.
One of the songs on their 2016 release Hobby Horse is called “All Brown Rainbow” (song titles are one of their strong suits). After a multi-part instrumental opening section, Miller kicks in with the line: “I only started feeling depressed when I started taking myself seriously, but the things in life that matter are so small, it’s easy to forget they’re there at all.”
That mix of slightly pathological, self-deprecation coupled with giddy nihilism is pure Swartzwelder. There’s the suggestion that life’s meaning is so small that one could easily fail to see it. That may not be everyone’s idea of a good laugh, but it’s funny. The line won’t be everybody’s idea of an obvious song lyric, either, sprawling out as it does. But that, too, is one of Swartzwelder’s tricks, piling on a tumble of words where others might opt for minimalist brevity.
Both Miller and Milstein studied journalism in school. The whole business of cutting words to fit a limited space, tinkering with verbs or rearranging sections to speed them along, those are skills they’re familiar with.
But Miller and Milstein started playing music together when they were both students at University of North Carolina Asheville and graduated in 2014. The two then moved to Philadelphia for a time, played and recorded as a duo there, and then came back to North Carolina, moving to Greensboro, where Milstein grew up, in 2015. The two added their bassist and friend Jesse Akman to the lineup. The trio, all in their mid-20s, has recently finished recording a new EP, their second, in Charlotte, hoping to release it in early 2018.
If you pay attention to Swartzwelder’s titles, you’ll notice that there are many horse references that pop up. They have some kind of equine obsession. There’s “Horse Nap” and the related “Do You Believe Horses Can Have Nightmares?” and then there’s the epically named “You Can Lead A Horse To Water (But You Can Go Fuck Yourself).” (That song — a sarcastic rage-rant about entitled jerks who lack compassion and self-awareness — isn’t, in fact, about horses.) Milstein said the sub-theme arose from their fascination with a vaguely absurd T.V. commercial for a peanut butter snack that involved a horse.
The horse in that advertisement doesn’t make complete sense, just like some of the horse references in Swartzwelder tunes. But then, if you sit with them for a bit, they start to add up. There’s a stoic cowboy veneer to some of this music. The tone has more in common with the rider trying to keep his cool and not get thrown from bucking and kicking animal than with the frantic gestures of the rodeo clowns.
Still, if clowns and distractions are sometimes the only way to prevent a fallen rider from getting trampled in the chaos, maybe Swartzwelder can relate, metaphorically.
Milstein said the band’s aesthetic and humor is basically a coping mechanism for garden-variety anxiety and mortal fears.
“It’s almost like [life is] too scary, so we need to make fun of it so that we don’t think about how scary it is,” he said.
Swartzwelder’s record ends with a peculiar expression of endurance. On “Afraid of the Dark” Miller sings, “I no longer fear that which seeks to harm me from the shadows.” (It doesn’t sound at all as self-pitying as it looks on paper.) Like many of their songs, it has a possible double meaning. It’s nice that the singer isn’t plagued by fear anymore, but the lyric also seems to suggest that, yes, there are things trying to damage us in the dark. Maybe it’s better to laugh it off.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.