Interview with Bill Swortwood of Surf Guitar Villains
Setup: This has to be one of the strangest interviews I’ve ever done. I was picked up and shuttled by driver to a very dark, very refined restaurant from the late 30’s. A place with no name out front, matter of fact, the entrance was out back, the kind of place famous people would take other famous people to when they just wanted to be left alone from prying eyes. Each table was lit with several candles, deeply carpeted, one entire wall had actually been painted by Miro, and once served, the waiters leave you alone until you call for them. A trio was playing smooth jazz from somewhere, and Billiam was sitting there like a cat in quiet repose, two cigars and a box of matches on the table … they obviously didn’t mind patrons smoking.
Jenell: [sitting down, taking it all in] Wow, this is amazing. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me. How’d you ever find this place?
Billiam: [with a wry ‘doggie smile’] It’s an amazing establishment, Peter Sellers used to come here all the time. Kind of place you have to check your ego at the door, cause the chef knows more than anyone anyway.
Jenell: First [laughing], why isn’t there a ‘The’ in front of the name Surf Guitar Villains? And since you’re in Arizona, where do you find the waves?
Billiam: [shaking out a linen napkin] To answer your question, three less characters to type. Three less characters to fit on a graphic. Also part of geek culture, less to type means less keystrokes to get things done. Besides, iTunes sorts and ignores the ‘the’. Prince Charles would certainly not be happy with me. As to ‘waves’ … you either drive to San Diego or Mexico, or just dream of waves. The Villains just want to add to the backdrop of that dream.
Jenell: [soup instantly appears, and Billiam leans forward visually taking it all in] Your musical tastes and recordings are all over the boards, but what drew me to SGV were your sonically charged washes. Many of them are almost cinematic in nature, and I’m speaking of tunes like “Sea, Surf, Evening,” “2000 Miles From Nowhere,” and even “Captain Of The Desert Sea,” which has that tongue in cheek Syd Barrett acid drenched lyrical vision. Would you agree that psychedelic inspired inclinations ride as an undercurrent?
Billiam: [pauses sipping his glass of red] That’s certainly one of them. To me the perfect album is The Beatles’ “White Album,” which is also all over the map. It takes you places and plays with you. A friend of mine in high school had his house burn down, and bequeathed to me his pile of smoke damaged albums, which included Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly, and Woodstock with some Beatles. My sister was a big Jefferson Airplane buff, and my dad was a James Brown junkie. San Jose AM radio in the late 60’s and early 70’s had a mass of psychedelic garage band one hit wonders playing in constant rotation for a while. Hell, Ron Bushy [of Iron Butterfly] was giving drum lessons down the block, and members of the Count Five were trying to reboot their band with a friend of mine two blocks north of my parents. So I was inadvertently immersed in psychedelic garage music at a tender and impressionable age, which no doubt modified my DNA.
Jenell: I’m thinking of starting a new genre with SGV, let’s call it Psychedelic Surf.
Billiam: [laughing to himself, then pauses] The only problem with that is that I always try to break the mold. There are times I want to change the name to just “The Villains,” so folks don’t just assume its just surf music. It’s really retro garage music, in the best sense. But people already make assumptions with any name, so I am keeping SGV for the time being. Maybe we are closer to the Beach Boys, but less pretty vocals. [He gazes at me while rubbing the corners of his mouth with his thumb and forefinger like he’s checking the ether for something he forgot to say, realizes he hasn’t and returns to reality.]
Jenell: There are songs such as “Lap Of Luxury” from your Desert Sea [Demos], which almost sounds like early Marc Bolan, but with that 60’s hippy vibe going on. Do you draw much from your musical heros?
Billiam: Lap of Luxury seems a bit more Bowie, but that I get where you are coming from. Lap of Luxury is more early King Crimson, or Fripp, even Bowie inspired. But, yeah. Bolan was a master of simple but effective power pop in the early 70’s. I do love the “Slider” album … very primal. [Distracted by the waitress] Telegram Sam … now there’s some boogie there. I want to try a cover of “Hot Love” one of these days. Basic and to the point. Yeah, there is some Bolan in my DNA as well.
Jenell: I’ve always hesitated asking others, as it seems prying, but you’re very open … when you play a gig, a club or a bar, how do you get paid? A flat fee, all or part of the door?
Billiam: [Billiam steps up to the bar leaving me at the table, gets the house red, purses his lips to the side, then responds while walking back] Assuming you get paid, it is dependent on the venue and their revenue model. Corporate venues like the Fiesta Bowl block party or the Mesa Art center for small crowds tend to be OK, about $500 or so for a gig. Biker bars are about $100 per hour for the band. Other venues in the area that cater to the college kids have a cut of the sale of tickets, and yes, some bars give a cut of the bar. But the big bucks are in big venues, or venues that you promote yourself. Right now my free time outweighs the desire to be my own promoter. For that matter, my current occupation [Billiam’s very circumspect about his work, though I’ve learned from side sources that he’s some sort of computer wizard. I can imagine him working for the CIA, NSA, or shadowy Banking Industries, after-all, the guy from Iron Maiden is a commercial airline pilot] pays too well to get too serious about the money aspect for the moment. But the guys in the band want to see something for the effort … so some money is a good thing.
Jenell: Much of SGVs material is dynamically laced with reverb and echo, over which you’ve laid what I can only describe as spoken word … an aspect you carried even further when you worked with the performance artist James Luna.
Billiam: [with a laugh that reminds me of the uncola-nut guy] The classic example of that was Return of Revenge. Sometime you don’t know why you do something, you just do it. The original title of that was “The Return of the Revenge of the Surf Guitar Villains,” which is a nod to cheesy 50’s horror movies. The vocals were one of the last things created for that. I wanted a doomy monster movie vibe, and just came up with the surf gods weirdness on the spot. The vocal thing was a combination of finding an odd but cool setting on an Alesis digital reverb that had ridiculously long sustain and dragged out the hard consonants; as well as finding the lowest possible register I could manage to have the “football voice of doom.” A lot of the spoken word thing is not really having an idea of my vocal range or ability at that time, so I worked within perceived limitations.
With James [James Luna: http://www.jamesluna.com/] the effects were applied to the instruments as I saw fit, mostly the fiddle and mandolin, with a bit on the guitars. Reverb on James’ voice was actually the bounce in the studio itself, where the voice leaked to the drum mikes, or the drums leaked to the vocal mikes. I actually used that leakage to make the drums ‘bloom’ and fade on “Tap It Down.” That work was done in Logic 8. The real trick is having the sense of when an effect is enough or too much, I think I am getting better at this.
Jenell: A good number of your songs sound restrained, they sit there building like they’re going to break right out of the box, then you manage to reach in and calm things down, holding it all in check.
Billiam: [orders us buffalo burgers with jalapenos and blue cheese, which I’m told are to die for, and here are filet mignon on a fresh baked rolls with organic peppers stuffed with imported cheeses at almost $60 a piece] I’m not rightly sure why that is, except that I do try to keep within my limits … as in “a man has got to know his limits”. I have a voice that does certain things well, and other things not at all. I have no voice for contemporary pop. My guitar playing is simple and spare, and sometimes even a bit clumsy, so I keep to what I can do. Some songs, like “Life on a Napkin,” are intended to keep under a boil … have a long simmer. I have been told by younger folks that we have a ‘chill sound.’
Billiam: [To the Waiter] Yeah, that will work! [burgers, peppers, and fries are set down on an actual silver tray. Billiam takes a bite …]
Jenell: What frustrates [fanning my mouth after a bit of pepper] you most, recording or performing?
Billiam: Those are wonderfully hot aren’t they, not overwhelming, but just a spark? What frustrates me the most is me! Recording is actually pretty straight forward, and you can do over things that did not come off right, and the engineering part is somewhat tedious, but you get results that you want. Playing live, on the other hand, is a one shot deal. When you are schlepping the gear, doing set up, having failed sound checks, and amps going south, guitar strings popping, that all does get annoying. But getting things out of myself when I want is the main frustration.
Jenell: These fries are obscenely good, how’d they do that?
Billiam: I love this place, I try not to come here too often, I’d hate to become accustomed to the fare. See the guy over there by the kitchen, that’s Anthony Bourdain.
[We go on about food for the next 15 minutes, and I’m thinking I may never be able to eat a burger from anywhere else again.]
Jenell: You’ve covered other people’s material, but your take on “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground [And did you notice they have the word ‘The’ in their name?] simply knocked my socks off. How did you decide to cover this, and are their other songs you’d like to leave your mark on?
Billiam: [list one eyebrow and spurts malt vinegar on his fries] We’ve that much time? [laughs] There are a number of Neanderthal pieces I wanted to do just because … Dire Straits “If I Had You,” The Troggs “Wild Thing,” Lou Reed “White Light/White Heat,” The Stones “Jumpin Jack Flash,” Reed’s ” Waiting for the Man,” Bowie’s “Jean Genie,” even T-Rex “Jeepster” or “Hot Love.” I’d love to do a Bruce Cockburn, like “Child of the Wind,” or “Tokyo,” or T Bone Burnette’s “Baby Fall Down” or “The 60’s.” And that’s just at the moment. We’re trying to get a version of “Little Wing” and “Sunshine of Your Love” … going for a show tune, not sure we will record them. And yes, I have noticed that “the” in THE Velvet Underground, but don’tcha’ think it sounds better as just Velvet Underground, it’s so much more open ended.
Jenell: “Surfin’ The Cane” from Return Of Revenge, hypnotically blisters with musical visions, and at 8 minutes and 10 seconds it delivers exactly what I want when I’m looking to kick back in an altered state. From what hat did you manage to draw this?
Billiam: Oh yeah. There is a project that metastasized and morphed to something not originally intended. Originally I wanted to do a straight Neil Young cover. At the time my vocal chops were not even close to doing anything passable. I did an acoustic intro and an electric version off of a drum loop, which I hand-added drums to. Tried some lead. Not happy with the results. Asked Ken Drottar to see what he thought. Now Ken is a guitar chameleon. You want surf, SRV, Hendrix, Tool, industrial metal, cool jazz riffs, Reggae … name it, Ken can pull it out his backside. Anyway, Ken came over with his ’56 Strat … the real deal, and his favored pedals … a chained Expandora set and a few other items, and just went to town laying track after track down. I had a very ham-fisted set of assault leads, Ken buzzed between surf and Hendrix. What you here largely there is the greatness of Mr Drottar. He’s just screaming awesome. I added in a final lead guitar part, then ping-ponged between the various lead parts, spliced the acoustic and electric parts together, and let Ken shine. I mixed between my assault grade guitar work and Ken’s stellar out of his mind guitar riffing. So it was a failed experiment that went terribly right! Some things happen because you see something emerging, and just let the moment give birth to something new. A lot of times I don’t intend to come up with something in particular, I just start playing and hear something in my head I want to get out.
Jenell: While “Surfin’ The Cane” takes one for the ride, you have other songs like “Eclipse” that are so delicate and airy they almost seem to shimmer and vanish right before my ears.
Billiam: “Eclipse” was another Bill and Drottar collaboration. The base of “Eclipse” is a riff taken from the three and a half hour jam with my drum machine that also produced “Return of Revenge.” It is an alternate tuning piece played on, you guessed it, a Hamer Eclipse. Ken actually took that recording home, had Jake add drums her recorded in his washroom, and added his lead guitar parts. That original recording session produced three tunes for SGV. I was just in a zone that day. The shimmer was my drift off and brilliant understated work by Ken.
Jenell: Would you mind taking a few minutes to give us some SGV history, and your current gunslingers?
Billiam: Oh, a David Copperfield moment [Billiam stretches out his arm dancing his fingers on the edges of the table, then toys with a cigar] In 1999 I looked at my wall of guitars and recording equipment, and thought, “Either I am going to do something with all this stuff or I need to get rid of it”. With a Tascam 4 channel Porta-Studio a cassette project called Maladjusted Universe was crafted in the home studio. Surf Guitar Villains came into existence. With some positive feedback on the EP/cassette, I snagged an 8 channel digital recorder, a mini-disk unit, and a Crown 10 inch reel to reel tape recorder. “Return Of Revenge” was tracked from the Porta-Studio and the Crown Reel to Reel. The concept then was to track a Surf/Hendrix styled lo-fi garage project. Ken Drottar, fellow engineer and pub band veteran, tracked lead guitar parts, with Jake and late but great Larry Huntley throwing in to fill out the base tracks. The collaboration advanced the project to a viable lo-fi release.
I started about 6 months later on “Cadillac Smile.” In the midst of the project I found himself out of work, and ended up moving to Austin Texas to remain employed. I spent my spare time not working to flesh out the tracks while in Austin. Ken Drottar again threw in to fill out some of the classic tracks such as “Life On A Napkin.” About 18 months later I settled down in Arizona, and found the sandy and waterless universe of the Phoenix Valley. Bored again, new experiments with keyboards, and collaboration with Steve Carver on guitar created the “Desert Surf” album … “Arizona Indigenous Surf Shop.” Largely this was recorded in the new garage-office, with Radio Wasteland capturing the musical dissatisfaction of the format driven radio and super-commercialization destroying the content.
A three year sojourn in Arizona was interrupted by a unique job offer back in Portland. The job turned out to be less than what met the eye, but with little else to do outside of work, I tracked most of “Retro Americana” again on the Tascam Porta-One 4 channel cassette, recording most in a rented bedroom in Hillsboro Oregon. Meeting up with Ken Drottar and Larry Huntley, a plan to go live with Surf Guitar Villains was proposed, and I was excited to get that off the ground. Then Billiam’s employer collapsed. Back in Queen Creek Arizona, Glenn Ducusin added the guitar spark needed to give “Retro American” focus, and Glenn created “Geronimo’s Last Wipeout” at Spudley sound with myself at the recording controls in an afternoon.
Recording on one’s own got to be ingrown. I asked Henry Wong, friend and general good guy, to work on a live collaboration. Henry and Bill did a one-off coffee shop open mike with Mark Lanus that was educational and entertaining, but was not sustainable. In the new collaboration Henry provided both talent and stability to the music set. Glenn Ducusin also signed on with the experiment. After trying several drummers out, Bobby Prechtl signed on to man the ‘skins.
After some false starts Bobby and I pulled in Paul Baker – Fiddle, Paul Aguilar – Bass and harmonica, David Van Druff on guitar, bass, vocals, mandolin. I learned a bit of mandolin himself at that time. The band started to jell towards the end of 2010 and had the opportunity to back James Luna at the Mesa Art Center that summer. The collaboration was so unique that the Villains recorded a repeat performance at SER Soundworks in Jan 2011, which is now released as Three Stories on CD Baby.
Don Martin join the SGV family towards the end of 2010 on vocals and lead guitar. The entire lineup played Woofstock 2010. We are right now working on two projects … “Desert Sea” and a more rock metal experiment that Don and David from I am referring to as “Armed Bears.”
[At this point Anthony Bourdain who’s been eyeing Billiam’s cigars just sitting there, wanders over and shakes hands with Billiam, introduces me as having done some cover art for their albums, and written some fine words. Anthony takes my card saying that if he ever decides to put out an album he’ll look me up … but I doubt either would ever happen. Billiam slides a cigar into Anthony’s pocket, and after a bit more banter, he wanders off.]
Jenell: Are you more conceptually minded, or structurally? And are you willing to let things wonder, almost jazzing it out live?
Billiam: I think a bit of both. Music is about form, improvisation is about freedom in the form, or bending the form. Once you have the form of a genre down and have have some ideas of what you want to add, then throwing on top what seems at the moment to make sense is incredibly fun. When you have a new song you are struggling with owning the form, you are unlikely to improve much with that, or will tend to morph to something else.
Jenell: There are songs like “Mr. Mystery Man” that you’ve recorded both rockin’ and psychedelically influenced. What was tugging at your sleeve to do that?
Billiam: The truth be told, an irresistible urge to make fun of spy movies. The sound I wanted was very 60’s, so I played the original piece on a Casio keyboard that went through a Sans-Amp that was jacked up to sound like Deep Purple organ. The guitar was a simple riff on my Telecaster, with the drum courtesy, in the original … of a DR-660. Later on Henry and Bobby re-envisioned it with the lounge lizard intro followed by the “kick to the head” break. Very satisfying to play it that way. As we now do “Secret Agent Man,” we try to butt these up together.
Jenell: Thanks for taking the time, by the way, what are you listening to right now?
Billiam: Well, what I am listening to these days. Right now Peter Adams, Jeff Buckley, the Polyphonic Spree … 60’s mass vocal sensibilities converted into 21st century sound cheese whiz … love it! Then there’s The Killers “Sam’s Town” on endless loop, and the Stone Coyotes which is a kick to the head followed by a second. Actually I was, my wife Laura has claimed community property rights on “My Turn,” and as it’s on my iPod already, I really can’t protest. Besides, she’ll have some good stuff to play when we are traveling together. Oh yeah, Mr. Luna turned me on to a new Arthur Lee CD that’s coming out end of this month. Awesome throwback music. Have some David Gilmour I need to give a listen to here. Not sure when we will play next, but want to get to playing again when things cool down some.
Jenell: Where can people find you on the net, and score your material?
Billiam: As far as finding us, iTunes and CDBaby are the main spots. We have an insider site at www.spudleysound.com, and we are on both Facebook, MySpace and ReverbNation. Yep, we can be found .
Jenell: Before I let you go, I have to thank you for “Human Torch,” I can’t seem to listen to it just once.
Billiam: Well, thank you! The late Larry Huntley did the organ for that … actually took the master home and returned it with the big organ outro. That one I am particularly proud of … the lyrics are a full circle of my days getting 12 cent Marvel comics at the 7-11 in San Jose when I was about 12 or 13, and how this evolved in my life to having my son Ian run around in his Spiderman UndreRoos. A silly thought for a light subject. The guitar and bass is all me, I love the bouncy rough lead I came up with on that. Yeah, that one is cool.
[At this point the waiter brings over some grapefruit sized lemons, they’re frozen, and filled with lemon sorbet … the perfect ending for a delightful meal.]
Billiam: If you don’t mind, I’m gonna head upstairs, I’m not big on Lemon Sorbet, and smoke this baby. I’m hoping Anthony’s still around. The driver will take you anywhere you want to go. [And just like that he disappeared up the stairs, then I was home, shaking my head in disbelief, hoping that my Zoom recorder had captured it all.]
Interview made by Jenell Kesler / 2011
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/ 2011