Addiction is a complex trope in rock n’ roll; it can make albums but destroy lives. Unfortunately for musician/producer Richard Swift, he ended up embodying this tragic trope. He died of alcohol-induced hepatitis, liver and kidney disease and passed away earlier this year at the age of 41.
Swift began his music career in Southern California; he recorded his first record in The Green Room, in Huntington Beach, California and briefly played keys for the Riverside-based Starflyer 59. Swift’s career really began to take off during the late aughts as a producer and became an underrated figure in the early to mid-2010’s rock n’ roll scene, playing with the Black Keys and the Arcs, and The Shins.
There is a warm vibe and texture in all the records Swift is a part of, produced or his own, through his own lo-fi methodology, using his four-track recorder. You can hear his essence on the seminal Foxygen album We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic and on all those he has produced: Damien Jurado, David Bazan, Jessie Baylin, Nathaniel Rateliff, Lucius, Lonnie Holley, The Mynabirds, Sharon Van Etten, Tennis, Wake Owl, Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab, Gardens & Villa, Cayucas, Guster, Ray LaMontagne, The Pretenders, and Pure Bathing Culture.
Although now “in his leather jacket and in his casket”–a line off Julian Casablanca’s solo record–his musical memory will live on. Swift worked with many bands and artists that want to a give him a proper musical send-off. The original idea came from Swift who wanted to throw a show to play his solo record, The Hex, in its entirety while wearing a white suit. This idea never came into fruition for Swift, but Jonathan Rado (Foxygen) decided to try to recreate Swift’s vision like a symbolic ofrenda used for the Mexican day of the dead. The show, which is on Dec. 13 at the Masonic Lounge, will include a full performance of Swift’s latest release The Hex with different singers taking turns singing Swift’s vocals, as well as original songs from all the bands Swift produced which include Cold War Kids, Foxygen, James Mercer, Lucius and more.
“I just think of his fat joints he would roll. He smoked a lot of weed and he would roll very, very big joints. I will always associate big joints with Swift,” says Jonathan Rado (Foxygen), over-the-phone who is the musical director of the tribute show. “Someone made me musical director of this and I really don’t think I should be organizing or directing anything, but it will come together and it will be great.”
Rado met Swift in New York at the Mercury Lounge. Rado gave him a demo of Foxygen’s music. “I was a huge fan before I met him. We were working on an album and there was a song on there called “Song For Richard Swift” kinda aping his style a little bit and we called it that to acknowledge that we were kinda ripping him off,” says Rado. “We went to a show and handed him a CD.” Swift sent their record to his label which basically kick-started Foxygen’s career.
The idea for playing live was a bittersweet moment for Rado. “I talked to him on the phone a few months ago, sort of catching up. And, that’s when he told me about the show and some other shit that was a little dark…” Rado trails off, obviously hinting at Swifts health woes.
“We met Rich in 2009. We were in a different band then and Swift was opening for us on that tour and we kinda became friends on that tour,” says Daniel Hindman of Pure Bathing Culture, who is also playing Richard Swift’s tribute show. Although not the biggest band in the mix, they have a long history with Swift, playing as his live band and helping on albums he’s produced — Sarah Versprille from Pure Bathing Culture even sang on Foxygens debut. “He has a way of making you feel like the idea that you have is totally genius,” says Sarah Versprille. He just had this incredible ability to make you feel good about the music that you were making.”
“We pretty much played in his live band,” says Versprille. He hadn’t really played live shows in the last 5 years. “We played in every show he played in from 2009 until he stopped playing in 2012,” says Versprille. According to Versprille, he broke his finger in a freak gardening accident which caused him to cease playing until he joined the Shins and then The Black Keys. Also from that time on, he focused his energy more on producing.
Their fondest memory of Swift was when they were on the east coast opening up for The Fray, who was a very huge pop band. “Richard was always a creative and strange guy and when he got fixated on something, anything can happen,” says Hindman. “He got fixated on the toll both workers and why they wouldn’t talk to him. He started wearing his Bob Dylan harmonica harness and when we would roll into the toll booth he would start ripping on his harmonica. This is nothing to these east coast guys so they wouldn’t even bat an eye,” laughs Daniel as he reminisces.
“I just think of him in his studio, in his environment, with a bowl of frozen strawberries. He would be sitting with his shades just eating strawberries,” Versprille says.
Both Rado and Versprille and Hindman of Pure Bathing Culture have music they worked on around the time of Swift’s passing. “Sarah and I went back to his studio after he passed away and worked on music,” Hindman says. “It was really special, it felt very circular. It was almost like working with Richard, like if his spirit was there.” The studio Hindman is talking about was Swift’s home base studio, National Freedom, in Cottage Grove, Oregon which is still open.
“They are keeping it open. There’s a great engineer there named Chris Colbert and he’s helping to keep the studio running along with Richard’s wife,” says Daniel.
“I made a solo album with him that hasn’t come out,” Rado says. We worked on a lot. We always kind of working on stuff.” The solo record might never come out according to Rado. “It’s unfinished on my end. I think I need to sing over the songs correctly,” chuckles Rado. “I don’t know, it may never come out. But it is pretty good.”
The Hex and a tribute record series called The Fug Yep Soundation created to raise awareness about addiction — which involve Dan Auerbach, David Bazan, Jessie Baylin, Fruit Bats, Gardens and Villa, Damien Jurado, Lucius, James Mercer, Pure Bathing Culture, Jonathan Rado, Nathaniel Rateliff, and more — are out now.
I like to stare at my computer. Occasionally I type words to pass the time. Those words are usually about music.