Unfinished Business: Swearin' on Fall Into the Sun
Back from the dead and stronger for it, Allison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride talk the unlikely resurrection of Philadelphia's premier purveyors of lo-fi, Swearin'
Eighteen months is a long time in indie rock.
At the start of last year Allison Crutchfield released her first solo record Tourist in This Town which marked a series of departures for her. Geographically, she was about to leave the Philadelphia scene that nurtured her as a DIY artist for a new life in Los Angeles. Musically, she swapped the rough and ready guitar that had been her calling card for so long and jumped feet-first into electronic experimentation. Thematically, she was writing less about the universality of her experiences, instead tapping into a deeply personal lyrical well.
Tourist in This Town was a break-up record; in 2015 she split from her Swearin’ bandmate Kyle Gilbride. In interviews last January around the time of the album’s release she confirmed the grimly inevitable – that the pair’s creative relationship had collapsed under the weight of the failure of its romantic counterpart. Swearin’ had been sworn off. "I felt like we had unfinished business," says Gildbride of the prospect of a third album, one that appeared dashed when he reluctantly agreed to call time on the group nearly three years ago. "I always thought that the third one was going to be the moment when we truly represented ourselves. That was going to be when we got it together, where our musical personalities felt fully formed, where we’d get to make a bit of a statement. I already had some songs for it. And then the opportunity was gone."
The band had continued to play shows for six months after Crutchfield and Gilbride broke up; by that point they had been touring and recording pretty relentlessly for four years. Both were beginning to sense that an amicable relationship was not going to be sustainable amid the rigours and claustrophobia of the road, and also that whatever music was to spill out of them next was likely to be sharply informed by mutual heartbreak. The decision to park Swearin’, we suspect, was made out of self-preservation, out of an instinctive need to avoid environments in which these fresh emotional wounds would be unable to heal. "We had to give it a rest," recalls Gilbride. "I think that if we'd carried on we wouldn't have been too far away from the point where we’d be totally zapped, where we’d end up hating each other. It wasn’t going to be a good vessel to be expressing things through at that moment in time."
And yet, less than two years since Crutchfield had apparently consigned the band to the painful pantheon of groups that stand as a testament to the wisdom of keeping personal and professional lives separate, Swearin’ are back, and Gilbride’s hopes for a third LP weren’t forlorn after all. Not only that, but Fall Into the Sun genuinely does feel like precisely the kind of record he’d been envisioning before the band hit the buffers first time around; if 2012’s Swearin’ was the sound of them finding their feet and its 2013 follow-up Surfing Strange had them giddily throwing noisy ideas at the wall and seeing which of them stuck, then Fall Into the Sun is their grown-up album, scored through with assurance and the deft touch of lo-fi indie rock old hands. It’s still irresistibly hooky and consistently fun, but the boisterousness of old is now presented coolly with a new-found poise and aplomb.
"I definitely jumped the gun on saying so adamantly that the band couldn't exist any more," says Crutchfield, reflecting on the press cycle for Tourist in This Town. "In the end all it really took was for us to re-examine the policies we had set in place to begin with and look at the band through a different lens. We had a series of jokey conversations and then one serious one, and now here we are with a new record."
Crutchfield has spent much of the last year-and-a-half on the road with her twin sister Katie as a member of her touring band for Waxahatchee – often opening the shows with her own solo sets. It seems improbable, everything else aside, that she would have found the time to work on a new Swearin’ record, but her position as a "hired gun," as she puts it, in Katie’s outfit was what led to her being back in the same room with Gilbride and drummer Jeff Bolt. "We were backstage at the release party for Out in the Storm," Crutchfield explains, referring to last year’s fourth full-length from Waxahatchee. "We were in the dressing room after the show, the three of us, and we managed to get together in the corner of the room and talk – albeit drunkenly – about whether it would feel good to start working together again. It was a really funny, really nice conversation. We all agreed that we missed it, and the plan was hatched there, I guess."
Gilbride remembers the episode slightly differently. "Allison twisted my arm a little bit," he laughs. "She suggested that maybe we should play some shows and I wasn’t sure about that. But then she said, 'Maybe we should try to make that third album,' and that’s how she got me – she knew I’d been wanting to do that. It got me excited about our dynamic again."
Resurrecting the band involved some fairly meticulous planning and an openness of communication about what each of the three players wanted out of its future; as Crutchfield and Gilbride readily admit, this is not something that would have come naturally to them last time out, with their younger selves both predisposed not to look too far beyond the next tour. With the departure of bassist Keith Spencer, who contributed vocals to Surfing Strange, the remaining trio struck a deal; they would aim for a dozen songs, with Crutchfield and Gilbride writing and singing on six each. That’s how it turned out too, although Gilbride made the late decision to cut one of his that dated back to 2015.
"Kyle and I had a few conversations on the phone about the themes and the lyrics," says Crutchfield, who worked on her tracks remotely in Los Angeles before sending them over. "We wanted to make sure that the songs intertwined, that they sat comfortably next to each other." Crucially she’d already worked through their break-up on Tourist in This Town, freeing her up to return to the universality of her past work with Swearin’.
"The solo album felt like I was ripping off the Band-Aid," she says. "It was super cathartic and it helped me deal with a lot of very personal stuff. Not just the break-up with Kyle, but the break-up of the band too, which affected me very deeply – almost as much, to be honest. There was a lot of sadness and anger and resentment about having to press pause on Swearin’, and now that it’s out of my system it opened me up to writing again about things that are sort of personally political instead. You know, growing up, getting older, being this punk ageing within a scene, and falling in love again."
It’s an incredible turnaround, but speaking to both Crutchfield and Gilbride, there’s a strong sense that they feel as if Swearin’ is better for the break they had, and better for the circumstances of it. The youthful abandon of their first iteration was probably never going to be viable in the long-term, but the difficult emotional truths that the break-up forced them to tell each other has allowed them to carve a new path for the group with their eyes wide open. As they head out on an extensive tour behind Fall Into the Sun, it’s as if Swearin’ are only now, for the first time, really getting going.
"When we first started touring we were so DIY and so frugal, and so 'We Jam Econo,' you know?" laughs Crutchfield. "We never got hotels, we’d cram ourselves into the smallest cars, we’d find the cheapest possible gas. We partied a lot; we loved to drink and stay up late. We've had to reckon with the fact that we're all a bit older and that we don’t necessarily want that all the time any more. I think we’re stronger for that compromise. There’s still a little bit of the old feral energy – we’ll always be kind of rough around the edges – but we’re more mindful of the future now, too. We’ve turned a positive corner."