[Interview] The Sword: Southern-Fried Twist To Their Old Formula
It's been an interesting journey for The Sword since their early days in 2003. After roaring out of the gates with a solid debut, Age Of Winters, The Sword seemed to almost establish themselves almost overnight as the go to "it" band of stoner/doom metal, set in that groove for years to come. Not a terrible label or fate to have, mind you, but at the end of the day The Sword, for all the undeniable badassness that was Winters (and their follow-up, Gods Of The Earth) are still artists first. And if there's one thing artists loathe more than lazy labeling, it's becoming predictable. Coming off their latest release, High Country (not counting their more recent live album, Greetings From and their acoustic album Low Country). The Sword are getting it across on this leg of their 2017 tour that the new sounds on said latest release aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
During their show at Masquerade's Heaven stage, the band was confidently dialed into a set consisting predominantly of their newer material. From the opening psychedelic chords of “The Dreamthieves," the Sword rolled effortlessly from song to song, with few words or pauses in between. "Less talk, all rock" was the rule of the night, and on the rock end, they delivered mightily. The overall sound could be accurately described as southern rock by way of prog rock influences, and it's a hat The Sword wear well. That’s not to say The classic Sword formula of ear-pleasing riff-on-riff action wasn't present, they just swapped their stoner doom trappings for swagger-filled bluesy, rock n’ roll chords. The show was great and perfectly enjoyable if you were willing to let go of expectations and just go along for the ride.
Only twice did The Sword ever delve into their older material; “The Horned Goddess” from Winters and “The Maiden, Mother and Crone” from Gods And perhaps it’s telling as to where they are as a band now compared to their earlier days, that these moments felt like them going through the motions for old time sake. As they wrapped up their 70-minute set with a three-song encore the thought hit me that there was nary a mention of “Freya” or “How Heavy Is Tha Ax?" two of their older, popular songs that seemed all but perfect for the obligatory encore spot, cliche as it might have been. Instead, they opted to play cuts from their more recent albums; two from Apocryphon (“Cloak of Feathers" and the lead-off single, “The Hidden Masters”) and one from their stoner-prog record Warp Riders (“Night City”). It was an interesting choice and perhaps one that suggests The Sword aren’t likely to be a band content with doing anything but be cliche.
I managed to catch up with the band bassist (and as I was to learn, the band "everything else" man), Bryan Richie, to talk about the band's new, slightly more southern rock-flavored, material and their past tour.
You guys have seemingly been on tour, non-stop since the release of High Country followed by Low Country. How would you say your new material has been received?
I think if anyone had any sort of, like, trepidation about how the songs we're going to be pulled off in a live setting, I’d say that we’ve put any of those problems to bed. It sounds still like The Sword and whenever we play a song from Gods Of The Earth, or we play a song from High Country, you know it’s still us. We’re dudes rocking out.
It’s hard not to notice that High Country, at times, has almost a distinctively different sound and overall feel when compared to your past albums. Was there anything in particular that inspired this change in direction?
Well, you know, it’s never fun to do the same thing twice, and we very much subscribe to that. We’re not going to try to make Age Of Winters 2 or anything. It wouldn't be organic in a sense that it would be something [that] there’d be a lot of thought involved in trying. Like “Oh, let's go back and let's do THIS thing.” We just kinda do what we do and not really think about it so much. We all evolve, our music tastes evolve. [our] songwriting. Everyone moves in a forward trajectory.
Was it a conscience decision to go for a lighter sound?
I think we were kinda sick of... Well, not necessarily sick of but you know we just wanted to explore some new things, You can’t always go (miming bass playing) “Du Du Du Du” (laughs).
But it’s so fun!
Oh, it is! But I remember Dave Witte (Municipal Waste) one time talking about how there was really like only two beats in thrash and just how it gets kinda boring.
How would compare say the overall sound of High Country to the sound of your past albums?
Very different sonically. We sought out working with a guy named Adrian Quesada out in Austin who had done a record by a band called Golden Dawn Arkestra that we thought had really cool sounds. Just everything that he had done kinda had this sonic thread that you could run through it.
We were like “Oh, okay. That’s what Adrian's doing to this record.”
So just like you do as a band working with any producer, you wanna squeeze the juice a little bit. You wanna get what they can bring to the table and how they can infect you and inspire you in ways that you didn't know where possible.
And he brought that all out of you?
Yeah. Just working with him, having a person to bounce things off of. Like “Hey why don’t you try to do this? Why don't you try doing that?”
I mean things can bounce forever in the practice room. Sometimes it takes another guy to be like “You know, why don't you do it this way?" and think about things differently.
On High Country, I found myself just loving the harmonization of the country-tinged guitars with these incredible synth fills. What was it like putting together these arrangements? And was there a concept in mind or were the songs written individually?
The songs got written individually, and then we labored over track order and things like that. You know it’s not like they were one fluid piece the whole way through or anything. The heavy synth stuff is definitely something I’ll credit to Adrian.
I had a few parts here and there that I wanted to have on the record as far as the synth thing. He, every day was like “All right, all right, so we're gonna do a little synth time right now. I was thinking right here, right here, and right here on this song.”
The recording process sounds like it was a lot of fun.
Yeah! High Country for me was a lot of fun. it was very relaxing. We did it [in Austin] so I went home every night, and it was almost like an 8 to 6 job or something like that. We would go in early and work for awhile, take lunch, come back work for till early evening about, adjourn, and then sometimes go to a bar afterward.
Concerning the touring, you’ve been together and band since 2003-
'04. J.D played a single show in 03’ and then there was another show that happened. Then I saw a show with them as a three-piece. And then next show, I was in the band.
That is a long time to be in a band.
I just played my 1000th show.
What's the secret to maintaining that band chemistry?
I don’t know. I mean I guess we got lucky in that we all are of a temperament that flows really well together. No one’s trying to be a nut or no one’s trying to get wild and crazy, really. I think our definition of wild and crazy is very tame by a lot of bands' standards. We get plenty rowdy, too, but we also take shit really seriously and enjoy what we do.
We know that we’re not owed this by any stretch of the imagination. We’re amazingly lucky to be here, [to] still here to be doing this. I mean, 13 years later I'm talking about playing my 1000th show.
As a band, do you have a preference for being on the road or being in the studio working on new music?
You know, I think I’d rather be on the road. Being in the studio is fun, don’t get me wrong, but I like the dynamic of changing locations every night, and you’re doing shit 20 hours a day. In the studio, sometimes you get in that hump of “well, we’re not recording as a band right now, just doing tracks. Guess I’ll just fuck off for a few hours.” I mean I don’t wanna be in there just throwing carbon dioxide in the air.
Awesome, awesome, awesome. I was actually admittedly not familiar with any of Opeth’s catalog prior to going on tour with them. I found out watching them the first night being like “Oh shit! Oooooh shit!” You know I had checked out a couple of videos but I didn’t feel like I got a good sense of the band. I was like “Okay, they’re technical, melodic. All right, all right.” But didn't really get it. I got it. I got it now. (laughs) So it’s been fun to kinda go back and listen to some of their older stuff. Because they too, like us have kinda, not been afraid to do some different sort of sounding shit. I mean they stripped it way down coming from where they started.
For the live album. Did you pick one particular show or venue to record in?
Well, everything’s kinda bounced around, from different shows, different places. There ended up being a couple.
What goes into selecting the right show and venue to record in?
Oh, it’s hard. That was really hard. Because we had something like 28 shows. So you have to go through all that. And a lot of the shows we played with Opeth were really big places. So every microphone gets a sense of that. Just in the way that it captures the reverberations of the room, so even the room mics are catching these giant holes. Even the snare drum mic has tons of echo in it.
So I just ended up going through it and thinking about it in a different way. Like what was the smallest venue? What were these really tight, “sound like we’re basically playing in your living room” type of venues? And which crowds where the rowdiest? You just end up breaking it down. Shows that were played in really big places were very much out of the question. And most of the Opeth shows, obviously the crowds aren’t really like smiling because they’re not our crowd.
Fuck, man, I mean the Opeth tour we probably played like to an audience that I’d say like 85% did not know who we were. And that’s fine. That’s what you want honestly. Because you’re gonna try to put your best foot forward and make a dent.
Is there a band out there that you’d love to tour with but haven’t yet?
It would be great to tour with your hometown boys, Mastodon. We played a single, maybe a couple of shows. There was this great poster for a show that we did together. It was, I wanna say December '06? It was right after they had done the Slayer tour.
I think they were on tour with Slayer for 3 months or some shit like that. And it ended somewhere on the west coast and they had to drive all the way east to get back home. So they make a stop in Austin to play the Emo’s. Hooooly shit man. That was one of the fucking tightest shows that I have ever seen. It was craaazy.
I mean it’d be great to tour with them. Honestly, I take them as they come. I’m open to anything. I love weird packages. Things that aren’t necessarily the same two type of bands. I mean if St. Vincent came calling I think it'd be awesome to open up for St. Vincent.
Can you say anything about the future of what The Sword have in store for the future sound wise?
The stuff we’ve been working in for the next record is equal parts heavier and equal parts softer. So you know, we’re just doing us. Continue on that trajectory of just being The Sword and taking everything and throwing it all in a blender. We're gonna start recording our next album in September
What is your favorite song you guys have ever written?
I really like “Chromancer: Part II” off of the Warp Riders album. I think pound for pound that's a pretty dope song. “Mist and Shadows” [from High Country] is pretty good in that it has good flow. A lot of stuff off the new record I feel really flex the songwriting aspect rather than pure riffery.
What is a song that you wish you would have written? Doesn’t have to be one of your own. Any song ever.
Shit, man, that's a good question! There’s obviously a lot I mean there's like plenty of things I wish I had authored. I mean do you want a list? (laughs) There’s too many to name honestly.
Recently there's this great new Breakbot song that’s out called “Mystery”.There are some chord changes in there I wish I had come up with. Maybe not the entire song. But there’s definitely bass parts I wish I had lifted. When you write music you're so keen to put all the notes in there and shit like that. And you learn as you progress that it’s not about how many notes there are.
Last question. Kind of trivial but I'm really glad I remembered it. Where did the name The Sword come from?
J.D. I just came to him in a vision. And that was it really.
Bryce, can not thank you enough for your time.
Photos by Sarah Htun for Bullet Music