Playing Catchall

Power-pop supergroup Swag makes its pitch

Apr 4, 2001 at 4:00 am
Robert Reynolds and his friend and songwriting partner Scotty Huff are sitting in a Nashville park, writing songs and taking some phone calls on an unseasonably warm day in late March, when a pair of police cars go screaming by at high speed, temporarily drowning out the conversation. When the noise subsides, Reynolds is back on the phone.

"There must be a sale at the doughnut shop," he says with a laugh. "Or maybe they just turned the 'hot' light on."

Reynolds can afford to be glib right now. His high-profile day job as bass player for country music's Mavericks may be on hold -- the group is taking an extended break so band members, especially vocalist Raul Malo, can release solo albums -- but his side project, the low-key power-pop supergroup Swag (to which Huff has also contributed), is creating considerable buzz in the music business and starting to take on a life of its own.

"That's my feeling about it, anyway," says Reynolds. "It's being allowed to do that, and, with one exception, everybody had the time to go, 'Well, wow, let's rise to the occasion.'"

For several years now, Swag has been a loose affiliation of Nashville musicians that has released one single and an EP. For debut album Catchall, recently released on the North Carolina indie label Yep Roc, the band has solidified the lineup (more or less) to include Reynolds, Jerry Dale McFadden (Mavericks, Sixpence None the Richer), Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), Ken Coomer (formerly of Wilco) and solo artist Doug Powell.

In terms of touring, however, Petersson is bowing out -- he's the exception noted above by Reynolds -- because of Cheap Trick commitments in Japan. Bassist Warren Pash (notable for, among other things, writing Hall and Oates' "Private Eyes") is taking his place.

"The idea of this band, still to this day, is, 'Look, if you can do it, great; if you can't, no offense taken,'" Reynolds says. "We're really good pals about it."

The idea for Swag came from back-of-the-bus writing sessions between Reynolds and keyboardist McFadden during the Mavericks' most successful years. "We were trying to be somewhat escapist," Reynolds says, "not trying to get away from the Mavericks, I mean, but, rather, to explore a different kind of music. The Mavericks weren't really dabbling in '60s-reference power pop. We maybe dabbled in '60s lounge stuff at times, but we didn't have that other thing going on, that kind of jangle that Jerry Dale and I were aspiring to.

"When you're operating in a group like the Mavericks, you look for little projects that don't have any extra stress. It was a kind of rallying together and inspiring one another to go out and actually write a song and then maybe find a place to go and play it or record it. From that point, it didn't take long before we opened it up to be a kind of utopian-band idea."

The band members came together one by one. Petersson joined after he moved to Nashville and was encouraged by Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Neilsen (who had played in the studio with an early version of Swag) to look up McFadden. As it turned out, they were living in the same apartment complex.

Powell, who has worked with Todd Rundgren on some multimedia and online projects and has been a solo artist in his own right, was also a friend of McFadden's. He stopped by the studio one day, was wrangled into singing some harmonies and suddenly found himself in the group.

Coomer, who has played with Clockhammer, Uncle Tupelo and, most recently, Wilco, became the group's official drummer after the Mavericks' Paul Deakin had already played several sessions with the group. "It was the first time we had to make one of those 'band decisions,'" says Reynolds. "Paul is a lifelong friend but was busy with some other stuff. Ken was saying, 'I'd like to be the dedicated drummer, if it's OK to say that.' It seemed to make sense, so we went that way."

"The thing about this band, there was not any huge plan," says Coomer in a separate interview. "In fact, there was no plan. It was just doing something we love. There was no plan of putting it out, no plan of touring, no plan of making it a band. It was just fun. I think you get to a certain age where you don't do that. That was for when you were 15 and in the basement of your mother's house. To be able to capture that again after doing this for as long as we've been doing it -- it's great."

Coomer can say that with some certainty. His last band experience didn't end quite so pleasantly -- he was dismissed by Wilco without so much as a word from frontman Jeff Tweedy.

"Half the band didn't know it went down," Coomer says. "It was pretty conniving. I think the worst part was that no one had the balls to call me themselves. Actually, let me rephrase that: No one who made the decision had the balls to call me. I didn't hear from anybody for two weeks, except my friends in the band who had nothing to do with it. So, you know, even if they did want me to leave, that's fine. We had a good run. I don't have any ill feelings about that. It's the way it was handled that was bush league."

Of his current situation, however, Coomer says Swag "is the most fun I've had being in a band since I was playing bar mitzvahs. It's a real band, and it's here to stay."

That's something Reynolds would agree with: "There's not any business agenda here, and I think that's what it's all about," he says. "We have a musical agenda. We didn't bother ourselves with, 'Oh, will we be able to sell any records?' or 'Will we make our investment back?' It just wasn't an issue."

Listening to Catchall, you can't help but believe the band's attitude of art over commerce is sincere. The record offers plenty of pure pop pleasure, but of a sort that is more the preference of the discerning few rather than the masses.

"Everybody is allowed to show whatever influence they personally have," Reynolds says. "I think my contribution would kind of come from a Hollies/Zombies/Kinks/Beatles place, without ever feeling like I could rise to that. You don't try to compare yourself -- you just try to, with the best intentions, link yourself to things that inspired you so much. A few years ago, I bought that nice four-CD Zombies set, and it's just great, probably the definitive boxed collection. So, for me, it comes more from a place like that. In fact, as a huge Beatles fan, I almost prefer looking to the Hollies and Zombies for influence, because I feel like that kind of stuff is kind of lesser known. You can grab B-sides on the Hollies or the Zombies and hear things that are just remarkable. I did so much Beatle time as a young kid, I don't think there's anything I haven't heard."

You can hear those influences playing out on such songs as the opening cut, "Lone," and "Different Girl," which Reynolds wrote with McFadden and Huff, and "Please Don't Tell," penned by those three plus Powell and Coomer.

Other influences drawn on by the group include Rundgren (check out Powell's "I'll Get By," written with popmeister Bill Lloyd, who also plays on the track). Another consideration, of course, is drummer Coomer's pop leanings and his alt-country past.

"People hear the record, and they don't really hear any country elements, and they're like, 'What?'" Coomer says. "But I didn't grow up listening to country. I love pop music. We all like different types of music. The record I'm really excited about is our next record, because who knows what that's gonna be? I think it'll definitely be pop, but I think there'll be a deeper place to go with it.

"The great thing about playing it live is that it goes one step further. It becomes more the band and less of a tribute or whatever. I think as we go out and play more and record more, it's gonna find its own voice."