Back in 2005, guitarist Eric Olsen termed Swale “Vermont’s premiere slo-core band.” Twelve years later, this label has proven ludicrously inadequate. But it’s hard to come up with an equally pithy tagline to replace it. The quartet’s journey has taken them from their origins as a burlesque show house band recording EPs of ambient slow-burns to the sort of rock-soul-funk-pop-country hydra that can credibly cover both Sonic Youth and Tom Jones.
Not only will Swale’s third full-length record There’s No One Here easily be one of the best Vermont-made albums of the year; it’s sure to be one of the best albums period. A sprawling double-LP calls for an equally in-depth look behind the scenes, so we reached out to the band members to talk about every track.
Amanda Gustafson and Eric Olsen front the band and write most of the songs. Like the Beyoncé and Jay-Z of Vermont, the couple’s relationship informs much of Swale’s material. On There’s No One Here, songs cover a full range of life experiences, from early days of hard drugs and moshpits to more current challenges of aging and parenting (the subject of laundry crops up in two separate songs). They say nothing in the world is certain except death and taxes; Swale sings about both on this album.
To get the full story behind these songs, we spoke to Gustafson and Olsen along with Swale drummer Jeremy Frederick about every track. Read their descriptions below, then buy the album digitally – or on red vinyl! – at Bandcamp.
“Release Your Records”
Eric: I was thinking about a lot of things at once here and trying to touch on all of them. A big one is an admonishment to myself to be truthful, telling myself to release the records of my own story. It started as that, using the metaphor of vinyl records. Then there’s an age thing, using the numbers 33 and 45, like the speeds on a record, to look at where I was at those ages. I wanted to touch on regret, missed opportunity, hubris, addiction.
Some people have focused on Trump releasing his tax returns in this too. I wrote it during the primaries, so that was in there, with some lines nodding towards him being the 45th president [“Now look at you / You’re 45”]. I like that the lyrics can be taken a number of ways, but without being so abstract it turns into a random string of words.
Amanda: “Loser” reflects a process I think everyone goes through growing up. As you try to figure out what you want to do and how you want to spend your time, inevitably you feel you’re going nowhere. That was something I felt as I was trying to pursue music. It’s not always clear what the end is going to be and sometimes the work is hard.
I find new meaning in the lyrics constantly, even though I certainly don’t feel like a loser all the time. It just started to be funny to me how stupid it was to return to the same feeling. That thought you might have of, “That boy I like doesn’t like me, so I want to die.” How intense those feelings can be started to be funny to me.
From a musical standpoint, it’s like a musical theater song, something that might be in a Cary Grant film where people start singing and dancing. So I’m always a little embarrassed when we’re about to play it. I think, this is not cool. But then once we’re playing it, I’m totally joyful. Because I love that kind of music!
“Bird in a Cage”
Amanda: I wrote this years ago about me and Eric and about a specific time really early in our relationship. But songs we wrote fifteen years ago still mean something to me because we’re different people. I think about who we’ve become and how much I wanted something early on, which I think when you’re in a relationship for a long time is a good thing to remember.
Musicians are always saying they try to write songs that are universal. I don’t! I try to write songs that are helping me scratch an itch. You either decide to put that into songs and play them for people or you write your feelings in a journal and keep it in your room.
Eric: To me, that’s a really special song Amanda wrote. It speaks to something that doesn’t get talked about enough, especially in the framework of pop-rock. That first line is terrifying [“You terrified me in an elevator / You kiss me now, but will you strangle me later?”]. But it’s also a sweet eighties pop jam, and the contrast of that with the lyrics is powerful. There’s a world somewhere where this is a pop hit.
Amanda: I’m trying to explore some of the experiences a lot of women have had. There’s almost no woman I know who hasn’t had some experience where she felt unsafe or taken advantage of or hurt or abused. Literally 100% of the women in my life. And it’s not like I’m seeking out some special group – this is the case everywhere.
I’ve written songs in the past about women’s issues and they’ve always felt really heavy because that was how I was feeling. I had some experiences in my own life that I felt like I was supposed to be ashamed of. If I was going to express this feeling, I felt I had to show all this anger.
But my anger eventually turned. Like, I don’t have to even give you my anger any more. And because I feel less angry, I think it makes the music come out less angry.
Eric: At one point I was listening to this with our producer and he assumed it must be about me. He made a comment to the effect of like, “Wow, I’m glad you guys are in a better place now.” Then I was like, “Good lord, is this about me??” Luckily it wasn’t.
Eric: I don’t think I initially started writing like a laundry list of my personal drug incidents. 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, someone pleading to prove they were cool: “Did I mention that I did time??” It seems absurdist to me, someone wanting people to see them through that lens. 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.
I did buy dope in Mexico and now I am buying bulk in Costco. Both sides of that lyric are truthful. But I don’t think for a second I would actually ask a question like “I don’t know which one is worse, shop in a box or drop in a hearse.” I don’t feel that way! Of course I know which is worse! I can confidently say, no, it’s not worse pushing a shopping cart around. But the debacles of another time can be more interesting to talk about.
Amanda: When I sing that song, I think about a woman who’s in a difficult situation and is struggling to get by and hold the pieces together. I think about why it’s worth getting up every day for a person that maybe other people wouldn’t get up for.
Eric’s been pretty open about his past, with drugs and alcohol and addiction. When we got together, my friends weren’t exactly high-fiving me. But my love for him went really deep, even in the midst of a difficult time, and that’s what I wanted to write about.
“Safe to Say”
Jeremy: I wrote “Safe to Say” after the loss of a family member to suicide. Broadly speaking, the song is about the daily battles that we all carry in our lives, particularly those battles that came from our childhood and determine our day to day decisions. Even though I wrote it back in 2009, I do think that it aligns with one of the underlying threads of this record, which is maintaining grace amidst life’s ups and downs.
The band all took what I showed them and made it their own, which is 100 times better than what I came up with. Eric put acoustic guitar right at the top of the song where I originally went heavier with electric guitar. It makes the whole thing a bit more reserved. Tyler [Bolles, bass] somehow gets these great licks in without straying too far up the neck. Amanda’s Wurlitzer part all throughout the versus of the song has a tremolo that I love, plus her harmony is all her own.
Drumming has been a part of my life since I was very young, but I actually write most of my music on the acoustic guitar or piano. My drum parts often come later. I have a lot of respect for drummers who can just play to the song. What the world needs now is fewer drum solos!
“All Down Tonight”
Eric: This is about me and Amanda, sort of. It’s a reminder to myself. In any relationship, you gotta work to make it work. If one isn’t careful, relationships can slide into things where you’re just going through the motions. You don’t fall in love with someone just to go through the motions.
We both work, we have other projects, we have kids, we have this band we play in together. So sometimes we’re fucking flying all the time. You wake up and it’s like go-go-go and then you go to bed. And you realize you haven’t talked or done anything for each other all day. You gotta fertilize the thing in order to make it stay healthy.
I often think about the line about drowning in clothes. Because once you have kids, there is endless laundry. You don’t even know where it’s all coming from. There is constant folding and sorting and piles on the couch. I guess that makes this literal dad-rock.
Eric: This song, sans lyrics, Jeremy and I have been playing for a long time in practice. It’s like a riff-athon, finding the joy of inverting classic rock tropes. I love that kind of music, but I also like to dissect it, kick it around a bit. The group-scream of “And I know!” is our Gene Simmons moment.
The title is what our oldest daughter used to call moshing, being in the pit. For a long time we toyed with releasing a record that was just dance music. Not R&B pop, but like danceable music in all genres. The whole thing was going to be called Rough Dancing. So we’ve had that name for a long time.
Eric: This is first Swale song we ever wrote, 15 years ago. We tried to record it a few times, it just didn’t work before. Then on this new record it went from, “Why bother this never works” to “Okay, I think it’s maybe working” to “Oh damn look at this!”
One night I was in the studio with Ryan [Power, producer] and Kal from Rubblebucket. We were just talking that it might be fun to put sax on here. And she was like, yeah let me play some slapback sax. She did it in one take. We all loved it so much that we made a different version of her sax solo the opening instrumental track.
Amanda: We’d stopped playing this for years then revived it recently. Eric and I sing the opposite phrase to each other so it harmonizes each time. My first line I’m a third above him and he’s a third below, and then on the next we swap. That was something that happened really naturally and it’s always been special to me about our musical relationship. We’re a partnership and listening to each other.
When we first got together, we used to go up into his attic where he had recording stuff. He was so prolific and writing so much that things weren’t getting finished. I remember one day we were rehearsing and I just said, “I’m going to go write the words now.” At the time we were playing some songs that were his plus some older songs of mine. I wanted to help him finish it so we had a song that was ours.
“Learn By Going”
Eric: This instrumental comes from the same 30-minute improvisation as the final track [instrumental “Here’s Where You Were”]. Editing it down was like killing your darlings. There are giant chunks of that long improvisation that I love, but might not have been appropriate for the record. It took a lot for me to let go of the other passages, but one reason we have a producer is to help us dial things back. If left to our own devices, this might be a long album of ambient jams.
“Every Last One of Us”
Eric: I like that the line [“We could all be that way,” the only lyric in the nine-minute song] is a pretty simple statement, but it could mean something either good and bad. There’s either an aspirational way we could all be or a universal empathy of “Oh man, you really did that? Well, we can all be that way.”
The mantra-like repetition of the line becomes meditative. There’s a reverse bell curve I think in terms of audience enjoyment. The listener starts off like “Oh cool,” then they get to this point where it’s like “Oh my god, really, still?” And then you push past that. That’s the key. You remain firm, and then it becomes something ecstatic. Once you push past that, miracles happen.
Eric: Bernt Anker Olsen was my grandfather, a Norwegian sailor. The song is sung from his point of view. I wrote it after he passed away in 2002. I think he had had enough and just called it quits in a nursing home in his mid-90s.
I didn’t introduce it to the band until we were already recording this album. At the time, I didn’t see some of the themes I now see in the album. This song plays a big part in that. It’s the natural end of the arc of the album. It’s no coincidence that this song blends into an instrumental meditation about remembering that which is no longer.
Watch Swale’s “Drug Laws” video here, then buy the complete ‘There’s No One Here’ on Bandcamp. Then click here to discover more of the best new rock music in Vermont.