Alcoholics Anonymous meetings aren’t an obvious music-video setting; people talking in a circle hardly screams “dynamic visuals.” But most Alcoholics Anonymous meetings don’t feature an interpretive dancer.
In Vermont rock band Swale’s song “Drug Laws,” off their fantastic new album There’s No One Here, songwriter and singer Eric Olsen looks back on a darker chapter in his life: drugs, theft, jail time. But a whiff of nostalgia colors the regret. “I used to break drug laws, but now I make in-laws,” the song begins. “You wouldn’t know by looking at me that I did time for forgery and larceny. That was an awesome me.”
“I don’t think I initially started writing like a laundry list of my personal drug incidents,” Olsen says. “Where I started was talking about being older and being different. The joke of the song is that back when you were a mudslide of a shitshow, you might have been cooler. It’s nostalgia for a time that fucking sucked. Like the lyric ‘You should have seen me then / Don’t look at me now.’ Now I’m a good citizen. No one wants to write about that. They want to write about a hot mess.”
Translating that idea into a music video proved tricky. Rather than going full Trainspotting with a bunch of druggie-debauchery set pieces, director Nate Beaman conceived of a surreal AA meeting where an interpretive dancer leaps out of the circle.
“I was struck by the description in the lyrics of a sober life feeling empty and mundane,” says the video’s star, ballerina Megan Stearns. “That would make me feel angry, because here I was playing by the rules but still not feeling like I was getting anything out of life. I used turns/spinning in the choreography to convey a feeling of being disoriented, and not knowing which life path to take. I used sharp movements to convey anger, contracted shapes (curling my body) to convey helplessness, and backward bends to show that old wild side wanting to come out – the rebelliousness that led to non-sobriety.”
Soon that wild side breaks free of the confines of comfortable suburban life, seatbelted in the car and perusing grocery-store aisles. For the latter shoot, the crew filmed incognito. “We snuck the camera into the store in a shopping cart and scoped out an aisle that had no one shopping in it to poach the shots,” says director Beaman.
“The grocery store filming was a blast,” dancer Stearns says. “We had this giant, alien-looking camera in a shopping cart with a sweatshirt half-draped over it – I’m sure it looked more like a bomb than anything else. And I think we all got a little adrenaline rush wondering how we were going to pull this off – it reminded me of a high school prank! By the end of our time in the pet food aisle, people were starting to stop and watch; one man got on the phone to his wife to report what was happening.”
The surrealism culminates in the David Lynch-esque finale when an army of masked figures dancing in unison surrounds the protagonist.
“It was inspired by Eyes Wide Shut and the idea of AA being somewhat of a society of its own,” says Beaman. “The masked dancers circling the main dancer mimics the circle of the AA meeting. When you sit and listen, you fade off into your own space, but when you participate you are exposing yourself. To me it’s everyone else hiding behind their own masks while our dancer is there being true to herself, owning up to her past, and adjusting to the changes that have come.”
It all adds up to a strange and powerful music video. Watch the full thing below, then buy Swale’s new album at Bandcamp.