Over the course of the 28 years Swirlies has been active, the shoegaze band hasn’t slowed its roll. Not only is the band still releasing new music, like this year’s new 12” EP Magic Strop: Tonight, and still going on tour—including the tour it’s on right now with Nothing, which stops at the Sinclair this week—but the band is still giving everything else its all on top of it. That ethos is what’s to pinpoint for Swirlies’ massive influence—an impact that continues to grow as time goes on.
The Boston shoegaze band got its start back in 1990 when founding members Damon Tutunjian and Seana Carmody quickly realized the Go-Go’s cover band they intended to start couldn’t contain the original music they were drumming up in the process. As students and residents of the area, all the members of Swirlies were embedded in the local music scene. A few years later, they had albums like What To Do About Them and Blonder Tongue Audio Baton under their belt, as well as various record label deals and a steady cult following.
These days, the official Swirlies lineup consists of Tutunjian on vocals and guitar, Deborah Warfield on vocals and guitar, Adam Pierce on drums, Andy Bernick (who can’t head out on tour with them), and Elliott Malvas on guitar. Together, they’re bringing their famed shoegaze sound around for generations old and new to fall in love with it. But their most recent tours have been the result of younger artists reaching out and asking them to go on tour with them. That’s what happened with this current tour, where Philly’s blisteringly loud shoegaze band Nothing reached out to Swirlies to see if they would join them on tour.
As the veteran act has seen a lot in their time on the road, we asked them for advice for younger bands. The result was a slew of answers that are as much an insightful peek into the early ’90s struggle as they are advice worth framing on your wall to reflect on whenever you hit a musical roadblock of your own.
DON’T LET OTHERS STOP YOUR CREATIVITY
“When we were starting out, people were always telling us we were taking the wrong approach,” says Tutunjian. “We stuck to what we wanted to do and never released material we weren’t completely happy with or wasn’t like what we imagined it would sound like. Bands should strive to always release work they’re happy with themselves. Pay attention to the details. Do it the way you want. You don’t have to cave to the suggestions of bigger people, like a studio engineer or a label.”
CHANGING YOUR INSTRUMENT IS OKAY
“Back in the day, I had one guitar. Seriously. I played one guitar from the band’s inception on through to the early 2000s,” says Tutunjian. “It was one guitar I played with on the records and one guitar I brought with me on tour. The same guitar. I never really appreciated how much switching around instruments can be nice, especially in the studio. I was always experimenting with different outboards in the studio, but at home it was just me and one guitar. I think I got a little boxed in with that. I just never thought to get a new one. That’s great because you learn to get a lot out of it though, you know? I had to get creative. But once I tried using a new one way later, I realized how much I had been missing, how many different sounds you can get just from a slightly different guitar.”
LEARN TO FIX BROKEN GEAR
“If you can’t afford stuff, find the broken versions and teach yourself how to fix it,” says Tutunjian. “When I was in grad school in Michigan, I found a lot of cheap, broken gear out there. That’s why I started buying gear, because it was the first time in my life where I had a little bit of money. I’m by no means a great tech, but a lot of repairs are very simple stuff. You can get pretty far with a little bit of knowledge. It’s fun to know exactly what’s wrong. But if you don’t want to put that much time in it, you can figure out which section isn’t working and tweak it. I used to buy boxes of Harmonix pedals and toy around with them until they worked. Then you have a cool pedal that you got for $25! Actually, both of my Memory Mans were broken ones that I got for $50 or so.”
SHAPE YOUR LIVE SOUND TO A T
“I’ve known [sound engineer] Dan Gonzales from playing shows at Great Scott [where he runs the soundboard], so it’s cool getting to bring him on tour,” says Warfield. “He’s so great at what he does. One day we decided to ask him to go on tour with us, to make sure we could sound like that every night.”
EMBRACE ONLINE NETWORKING
“We used to demo everything on a four-track. Trying to facilitate songwriting over long distance was so hard because of it,” says Tutunjian. “Andy lived far away, so it was tricky to make better use of time to get songwriting done than we do now. It was really important to play shows that had some sort of stature so you could eventually play to a label and maybe get a single out on that label. It was a different type of social networking. Today, that takes a different shape. The actual shows felt even more important than they do now.”
SHARE YOUR RESOURCES
“The manuals [section on our website] there are for an instrument I brought and tried to fix, but I couldn’t find the manual anywhere online,” says Tutunjian. “I did it when I was a grad student at the University of Michigan. They had a huge scanner. The Yahama CS series servicing manual wasn’t anywhere. I was on some forums and nobody would ever share that book. So when I finally got a copy, the first thing I did was scan it and put it up. It’s such valuable information for a great series of synths. Some of the scans are because the one available online wasn’t a good quality scan, others just weren’t available. The things I was putting up were things that weren’t really around and that I thought it would be fun to share.”
READ THE LABEL’S FINE PRINT
“Be careful signing your rights to a label,” says Tutunjian. “We signed everything away forever to Taang! They own it all and all of my publishing. I gave it away for maybe $1,000 back then. To be fair, I was 19 and the rest of the band thought it was the best decision. And the label was very supportive at the beginning, too, including certain staffers who put their heart into doing PR, but eventually things change. It’s tricky because the label is taking a chance on you and they want to make a profit off you, so you don’t want to let them down. But you need to set up boundaries. Don’t sign everything away. But at some point you want to retain ownership of your masters and recordings. Maybe 10 years is fair? You have to think about how long is long enough for a label to pursue what they want with your music. What’s a fair timeframe for them to make a profit? But never give away your publishing rights, because publishing, together with master rights, is a solid source of income. I tell my friends to avoid 360 deals if they can. There are lots of blogs on this that will be way more informative than what I’ve said, but this is my two cents. Just don’t give anything away forever. Try to limit your giveaway periods to a reasonable timeframe.”
IF YOU KEEP PASSING THE TORCH, EVENTUALLY IT RETURNS
“The guys in Nothing said that they were really big fans,” says Warfield. “Just being a little bit older and feeling like there’s a gap between generations, sometimes you can feel unseen in a way. But then things like this happen, where they invited us on tour, which is really cool. You have to remember to let things cycle as they do.”
“It’s the first tour in a long time where we’ve gotten to play with bands where every single one wowed us,” adds Tutunjian. “Everyone is incredibly nice and supportive of one another. It reminds me of the early ’90s when we used to play with Velocity Girl and Lilys, or with Boston bands like Madbox and Kudgel. We love being asked to go on tour, because it means we get to play to people who don’t often know our music, and that’s eventually what you need to do. Our audiences tend to be older most times. So this is exciting and flattering, and we’re very thankful.”
NOTHING, SWIRLIES, BIG BITE, SMUT. SUN 10.7. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 6:30PM/18+/$16. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM