Depending on the time of day and one's mood, downtown Durham can display both Byzantine menace and the sorrow of a city ignored, helixed together with a growing sense of isolated pride. If such could be transformed into sound, Malt Swagger would be the band to do so. In fact, they've been steadily creating that sound for almost a decade.
Their progress has been marked by frequent lineup changes, small-town music scene incestuousness, and wine-fueled disagreements. Currently, the cast for this behemoth is six strong: Steve Carter (vibes--smokes frequently, analyzes one of my dreams during the interview); Mark Cunningham (drums--makes comic books featuring each member of Malt Swagger as superheroes); Dave Jernigan (guitar--formerly of Teasing the Korean, progenitors of local '90s glam stormtroopers What Peggy Wants; creates the most gorgeous guitar sound in town); Meredith Jones (violin--describes for me a breakfast item called "French Toast Orgy"); Andy Magowan (bass/keyboards--multi-talented, responsible for the band's lush recordings); and Roland Ottwell (bass/keyboards--absent from the interview, but by all accounts a prolific musical genius). They have released one album themselves, 2000's The Lost Pilot, and they'll freely admit to working on their as-yet-untitled sequel far too long.
The "Swag," as some of them refer to the band, sounds nothing less than thickly orchestrated and collaboratively plotted. There's no dominant instrument, though Cunningham's drums come close, alternating between DJ Shadow-esque beats and drum corps rolls. Vibes and violin harmonize while Jernigan's guitar emits huge, reverb-drenched moans and wails (created by slides, miniature electric fans, and cell phones), and the bass trades possession of the low end with the keys. At their best, the band creates dark, slowly unfolding tales of eastern European carnival freaks, candlelit opium dens, and the mating rituals of the undead. At least that's what I made of it; there are no vocals to explain otherwise.
"The strength of [having] no vocalist is that the instruments can take turns being in place of the vocals," says Cunningham, a founding member of the band along with Jernigan. The two crossed paths 9 or 10 years ago, playing music together occasionally and finally forming Malt Swagger with an eccentric bassist who had some strange habits, like driving coast to coast dressed as a clown and taking pictures of people reacting to his outfit.
"And I hate clowns," comments Jernigan.
This lineup played a few art galleries and parties; at this point they were creating "Birthday Party-style songs, really jagged", says Jernigan, who was making many extended trips to Germany at the time. There he was introduced to the dark, cacophonous sounds of Einsturzende Neubauten and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Upon returning, it was a Congo Norvell (featuring Kid Congo Powers, guitarist for gothabilly '80s outfit The Gun Club) show at the Local 506 that inspired his future direction.
"I had been messing around at home with a slide and some delay [pedals]," says Jernigan, "and I was mesmerized by this beautiful sound [Powers] had ... I was like, 'Gosh, I really wish we were playing things that required more listening.'"
Soon enough, Malt Swagger embraced this ideal. Their bass player moved, prompting Jernigan and Cunningham to add a vocalist, conveniently found in another band Cunningham was in at the time called Paxil Rose (in which he dressed as a clown as well). Jernigan knew Carter, who had just bought a vibraphone, from around Chapel Hill and asked him to join the ensemble.
"Fortunately the stuff that was happening with these guys was something I was able to get a grasp for," Carter says. "I remember all these moments when I would hit a note that was absolutely wrong... and Dave would be like, 'THAT'S GREAT!' I was encouraged to play some things incorrectly."
Unfortunately, Carter wasn't big on the singer they had, so he quit, temporarily dissolving the band. This didn't stop them from reforming without the singer, however, so they set their sights on finding a bass player. Jernigan saw an opportunity in his co-worker Magowan, whom he knew had played bass in June, a local band from the '90s that spawned the Two Dollar Pistols and The Sleepies, Magowan's other current band.
Initially, Magowan wasn't interested, feigning a full schedule. But when Jernigan called him back with a show booked, saying the relief bassist "crapped out on us", Magowan agreed to fill in. Practicing more with the band changed his mind: "I started to notice the subtleties in the music, and really enjoyed finding where the bass was supposed to go, because it was really unlike anything I'd ever played." He soon decided to join.
"Welcome to the band, here's a really small cord," Cunningham jests.
Shortly thereafter, Ottwell was brought in on keyboards, but didn't feel like he could find a place in the already dense arrangements. He briefly left the band, but when Magowan moved to Europe for half a year, Ottwell was called back to play bass. Upon returning, Magowan took the keyboard position, and the band began to think about expanding their sound yet again.
"Every time we've added somebody there was a really good synergy right away," says Cunningham. "Dave and I were thinking about vibes, I was out looking to buy vibes, then boom--we found a vibe player. We talked about a Wurlitzer organ in particular and then bang!--we got a guy playing a Wurlitzer. We were talking about violin..."
Malt Swagger had toyed with strings before--there's cello on The Lost Pilot, but it cut into everyone else's range, so it didn't stay in the lineup. Jones worked with Jernigan's wife, who introduced her to Magowan. He asked her to play violin on The Sleepies' album and later invited her to a Swagger practice, where she found a new musical challenge.
"I thought it was great. I just mostly listened at first," says Jones. "I grew up playing classical violin... reading music and playing concertos, so it's much harder to improvise."
Symbiosis eventually took place, and Jones' violin added more depth to the band's voluminous sound, palpable on the new record. Binger is a saturnine combination of Bela Bartok-esque strings, bassy keyboards and terrifying guitar swells, held together as much by the thunderous drums as by the exquisite recording sound. If Philip Glass and a Hungarian minstrel had aural sex, the offspring would be "Now They Have Ice Cream," a song as beautiful as it is nightmarish. Compared to The Lost Pilot, the new album displays a more realized band, each instrument adding just enough to the complex web of melody.
"I don't think there's any finite process of writing for us," Jernigan says, pointing out "Shut Up and Drive," a song from the new record. "I was noodlin' around with my cell phone and just held it over my guitar pickup... These guys came up with the parameters for [the song]." The result blends the chirp of Jernigan's cell phone with droning violin and wah-wah bass a la Shaft.
"I think a better example is 'Flaktower Atlas'," Magowan says, referring to another song from the forthcoming album, "Cause Dave came to practice and was like, 'I got this new song and it goes like this: (imitates sound of riff) JUNG-JUNG JUNG-JUNG JUNG. It was like one fucking note and we were all like, 'Dave, that's not a song.' And he was like, 'Yes, it is'. And we just kept fucking around til we got it."
From the costumed, fake-pus-tossing mongoloids in GWAR to the grandeur of film composer Bernard Herrmann to the theories of Jung, Malt Swagger cite and extract creative juices from multiple sources to create a narcotic bouillabaisse. This New Year's Eve, the band is serving it up at Ringside, a lavishly decorated bar in one of downtown Durham's more beautifully arcane buildings. It's worth noting that they've hinted at a possible added dimension to the band in the near future; your chance to see these six characters together might be waning, so take advantage of it while you can.