Interview: The Heavy
We meet the genre-blending rock band’s main songwriters, singer Kelvin Swaby and guitarist Dan Taylor, from our neighbouring city, Bath
Perhaps best known for their global hit How You Like Me Now?, The Heavy are an indie rock band from Bath consisting of Kelvin Swaby on vocals, Dan Taylor on guitar, bass guitarist Spencer Page and drummer Chris Ellul. Their intoxicating blend of dirty soul, swamp rock and garage-punk has brought the band considerable international success, clocking up over 100 million online streams and song placements on some of the coolest films and TV series, including soundtracking trailers to The Hateful Eight and The Big Short.
With their new album, Hurt & The Merciless fresh off the production line, we met up with Kelvin and Dan – The Heavy’s founding members and principle songwriters – to talk about the band’s story: from Van Morrison-inspired studio project to Ninja Tune’s much-hyped next big things. It turns out their ‘overnight success’ took seven years and started in a high street clothes shop…
Tell us the story of how the band came about.
Kelvin: “We met at The Gap didn’t we, which is hilarious.”
Dan: “Yeah, we were working in Bath.”
K: “We became really good friends and realised we had so much in common. But even though we have a lot of music in common, there was tons of music that we didn’t know, so we’d ‘mixtape’ between each other. I was more into hip-hop and maybe bits of reggae and soul, possibly, and I remember Dan turned me on to Van Morrison and Astral Weeks, basically. I think he did a mixtape that had loads of songs from Moondance on there.”
D: “There was a lot of Neil Young on there and the drums on the Harvest record was a real reference point. Like with the song Out On The Weekend, we were talking about them being like hip-hop drums and it became a bit of a thing for us. I’d been playing guitars and in bands, so I had that background.”
Were you writing new music together then?
D: “No… Well, only bad attempts.”
K: “I was writing and had my own thing going on, signed to Naïve Records, which was Tricky’s label before he got picked up by Island. So I came from that background of sampling bits and pieces. I’ve always been interested in film soundtracks and to be able to throw that into music; to make it cinematic and give it width. So, with me coming from that side of the tracks and Dan coming from the live side, and listening to the drums on that Harvest record… Then you’ve got Al Green, circa ’69 to ’72, if you take any of those Willie Mitchell-produced records and turn the bass up, it’s the same thing. It’s hip-hop, essentially, and we thought, ‘Why don’t we just do that?’”
D: “I loved the convenience of having a band, but I was like, ‘Wow, we don’t have to have a band!’ We did try finding other people to share our quest, but it was really difficult from where we were in Bath. I don’t know, for whatever reason, they just didn’t… I also think it had a lot to do with our inexperience of not really knowing what we wanted to do. I described myself as having turnips for fingers! It comes with experience and you realise what you’re looking for – it’s about not over-playing.”
K: “And that’s what we wanted: to take the ‘faff’ out of our most incredible influences. We don’t need a 10-minute solo, because the groove is there. That’s how we thought originally.”
D: “But as soon as you get in a room with other people, they just start to ‘play’, and then we just lost what we were looking for.”
Did it have anything to do with the strong chemistry between the two of you, making it difficult for anyone else to come in?
D: “No I don’t think it was, because we’ve met people since that made sense. It was just the time we were at and also what’s predetermined, what was meant to be. The thing is, we got better at recording, just the two of us.”
What was the recording set-up that you had and when did you get together?
K: “It was literally a Yamaha SE10, a Fostex four-track, an acoustic guitar and a microphone. That was it.”
D: “I still used to live in Chippenham and would go to the studio afterwards and stay until three or four in the morning, and then go home.”
K: “We had a friend’s studio on the London Road and he helped us get some of these ideas down, from the four-track to the studio. It was a great process, when you think about it.”
D: “I’d come away with a cassette and, for the first time, I’d think it was really good. Then we had interest from people like EMI – they were intrigued by what we were doing.”
K: “I remember we went over and recorded Ain’t Working and [Portishead’s producer] Geoff Barrow said, ‘That track is incredible.’
D: “He let us use State Of Art Studio for a few weeks and we did some recording there. Back then we were really heavily sampling stuff – I fell in love with the convenience of it. And then, as things went on and we got better, we thought, ‘Actually, we don’t need to sample anymore, we can start recording ourselves and create the samples that we want to hear.’ That’s when we really started writing songs.”
K: “But I think that shaped what we wanted to do and it makes you hone your craft a lot more. Especially in terms of reverbs and tone.”
D: “That’s right, you start to use your imagination on creating a soundtrack and really going in deep on instruments, amps, rooms and getting that same thing you loved that was captured in a break from 1969 – making your own samples.”
At that point, were they just instrumental grooves without vocals, or complete songs?
D: “There was a song called Doing Fine that was like a Neil Young track, on acoustic guitar, and that was a real breakthrough. There were no samples at all, it was all completely organic; a song that we’d just sat down and written. And it really worked and sounded amazing. I think it still is one of the favourites. That was a pivotal moment.”
Had you released any material before your debut album, Great Vengeance And Furious Fire?
D: “No, it took about seven years to do that album. We were working in Bath and just writing music and learning. It was just the two of us, and…”
K: “And then we had a bank of 10 songs. I remember when we put them together, it was always about making a mixtape. We just put all these different genres on to that record and played a gig at Big Chill House in King’s Cross and we were signed within two weeks! They were like, ‘We’ll put the album out, as it is.’ They didn’t want to change a thing.”
D: “But then they were really like, ‘You’ve got to sort your band out’. Spencer had been playing with us then, sporadically, and he introduced us to Chris. That was it then, it all fell into place.”
During those seven years of just writing, did you ever think it wasn’t going to happen or wondered why you were doing it?
K: “We wanted to put stuff out, but we needed the direction and it was Doing Fine and looking at the bank of music that we’d recorded, that made us think, ‘Wow, we have a record here.’ There were tracks that didn’t make that first record and just weren’t relevant, so those 10 tracks were the strongest of a great bunch. We even had How Do You Like Me Now? by then, but we hadn’t sat down and figured out how to approach it. But we had the idea and were playing it at shows when we were playing that first record.
D: “We worked really hard in that seven years. I’m naturally a bit of pessimistic person, so I’d feel it was a struggle but you’re just compelled to keep going and we kept doing it. We didn’t really play live – we didn’t really want to because I just didn’t fancy slogging it out.”
K: “Yeah we didn’t play live like a band, so we’d do one-offs, acoustic things.”
So you saw it more like a studio project?
D: “That’s exactly what it was.”
Tell us more about your songwriting process, in terms of lyrics, melody, etc and your roles in the band?
K: “For me, I place myself firmly in the fire. I’ll go until I’m pretty much done, step out of the fire and then extract what I’ve been feeling whilst going through the heat. I tend to get a lot of material from that. I put myself through some sort of emotional distress, for the art. So we don’t write the happiest of songs!”
D: “I have a bit of a routine. I decided to try to sit down and write songs from scratch on an acoustic guitar. If it worked at that level, I had the vision of our production and with Kelv singing, and how it could work. I could almost see the completed thing. But it’ll take me a while to get that finished song.”
Do you like to lock yourself away or do you feed off other people in the room?
D: “With this record it was different, because our circumstances have changed a lot with families and all of that sort of business, so we definitely worked more apart on this. I’d built a little studio at the end of my garden and went down there. I’d come up with about 10 or 12 songs with words and music, from the bottom to the top, and then we’d go in and give it to Kelv. If he was into it, he’d get his head around it and take it in with Chris and Spence and work out how we’d play it.”
How else is this new album different from your previous releases?
K: “I think we’ve become a really kick-ass band, so with this record we really wanted to capture that, and to take it back to that time. So the plan was to try to evoke the sound of 1968 and bring out influences in ESG, The Kinks and a ton of punk as well.”
D: “And also Quincy Jones. We worked on it for about three years, but there were a couple of false starts.”
What went wrong?
D: “Well the hardest thing initially is to find a space to do it, to leave our stuff and work. The songs were there, but we needed a proper studio.
K: “And you need a space where you can play the songs over and over and over…”
D: “But we couldn’t find that space, and then when we did, that’s when the penny dropped. We recorded it at The Distillery, just outside Bath, which is a friend’s private studio – it’s the most amazing space. We were fortunate enough to get an invite and it’s 10 minutes away from home. So it made the whole thing joyous and probably too easy, because we got too comfortable and it took too long.”
Was that because the pressure was off a bit?
D: “No, I think there was more pressure than ever before, because we want to carry on doing it. And we’ve also got families now and you’re a working musician and this is for real now. I’m not qualified to do anything else! So if this doesn’t work for us, are we going to go back to The Gap?”
K: “No we are not going back to The Gap! I’m going Old Navy!”
Interview: Aaron Slater
The Heavy’s new album Hurt & The Merciless is out now. For more about Kelvin, Dan and the band, visit: theheavy.co.uk