Song Deconstructed: ‘Better As One’ by The Heavy
The West Country alternative punk band’s singer Kelvin Swaby reveals some surprising sociological and political observations behind their latest single
If you only know The Heavy for their soundtrack favourite, How You Like Me Now, then you’re missing out on a deep mine of soulful and funky pop-punk; one which stretches right back to their 2007 debut Great Vengeance And Furious Fire. Latest album, Sons, continues the West Country band’s adventures in infectious music-making and is an ideal entry point for anyone wishing to explore further.
But there’s much more to their music than just raucous fun, they’re a group who will happily address real issues within their songs. A perfect example is recent single Better As One, as the group’s vocalist Kelvin Swaby reveals here…
As much as this was born around the ugliness of August 11th and 12th 2017 in Charlottesville [in reference to the violence and fatalities at the Unite the Right rally and President Donald Trump’s subsequent controversial remarks], the inspiration for this song is really an observation of how we seemed to have reached this point, as nations, citizens, immigrants and communities, where there have been more and more efforts to create division, rather than to unify.
With the world becoming smaller by the day and facts and history being readily available, it’s a huge personal concern that people choose and cherry-pick alternative facts as a means to fuel ignorance. I remember waiting with anticipation for days after the horror that was Charlottesville… I was shocked but definitely not surprised at the response from the commander-in-chief. From one podium to millions of TV screens, such a job requires a leadership for the country to be proud of. That didn’t happen that day but Better As One did.
Days before I had been dancing in the kitchen to a beat I’d found behind the sofa, with my daughter Violeta, and freestyling lyrics around her name. As much as we were playing around the melody, the flow and energy felt really strong. So after the aforementioned events, Better As One became clear as a path as to how to approach the song.
The lines, “Say it once, I’mma say it twice. Somebody gonna pay the price. Somebody better lose their head. Somebody playing us for dead,” came pretty immediately and with an acknowledgement that what had been going on in my home country, parts of Europe and now my adopted country, was that we the people can never forget that it’s us who have the power and that the elected heads of state, work for us.
Sleep and you really have no grounds for complaint. Better days call for better ways. From those opening lines, the flow felt like I wanted to approach it like a gang in the room, something that James Brown and Muddy Waters would do with their respective crews. The chorus extends from, “I know that we can do better, I know We better as one,” into a call for, “Can we make it better? Can we make a difference?” to highlight this ganged vocal idea and drive the sentiment home.
As I mentioned, I’d found a beat behind the sofa. Something I’d made and cooked up many years before and had never had anything solid to pair with it. Funny how moments of inspiration stay dormant on a hard drive for years just waiting for something worthy.
As soon as I’d recorded the demo, I emailed it to the rest of the band and all agreed we needed to get it down ASAP. It felt like a lost funk 45, so needed to be approached as such.
In The Studio
Chris [Ellul] was thinking straight up solid Bernard Purdie, locked into the programmed drums with no crashes or cymbals. Straight. Solid. Crunchy breakbeats…recorded in his shed. Spence looked to Big Bad John Hamilton with a hollow-bodied bass, while Daniel [Taylor] worked the ramped-up, driven, psychedelic wah to elevate the choruses. Toby McLaren would sprinkle cheeky little B3 and piano phrases throughout the choruses and punctuate the brass. These sprinklings would later become the glue. Gavin Fitzjohn, an incredible multi-horn player, injected the urgency into the entire track and with the help of some ATR-102 saturation (amongst other toys), sounded like a Hi Records/Stax/JB’s section from the early 70s.
After everyone had laid their parts, it was the job of Paul Corkett, our co-producer to work his years of experience and to put it all into an era. Once it felt like it was a lost, dirty little funk 45, I took it all apart and sampled ourselves. Always got to be careful not to oversample and sound linear though. What needs to be tight, make tight and what needs to flow, generally leave alone. Them‘s the rules! For this reason, the demo vocal is the vocal that ended up on the final version.
The energy and sentiment of the song was channelled through and heightened by the chops of everyone involved and just being in the same room. There’s a lot that can be achieved by working remotely and sending ideas to each other but the magic that happens from being in the same place… Absolutely filthy and ultimately, priceless.
Throughout the making of Better As One and the rest of the songs on Sons, we became better at taking our own advice and I believe it paid off. Living by good preparation, commitment to our sounds and to work with every limitation that gets handed to us, we’ll always work for what’s best for the song. For this one and every other one beyond. Better together. Better As One.