In Conversation With: swim school

The past year has seen a rapid rise for Edinburgh band Swim School. The four-piece haven’t been around for long, but they’ve been making rapid inroads into the public consciousness of the United Kingdom. Their first EP was released during a global pandemic that forced listeners to retreat from the electric immediacy of the gig and patiently consume their music within the confines of a bedroom and a pair of headphones. Volume 1 is collection of four songs that inhabits a tender world of youthful bucolia. Their second EP, making sense of it all, which exhibits a lyrical and sonic turn towards the darker and more introspective. After a solid summer of touring across the UK under their belts, the band has rediscovered its appetite for the live performance, and is ready for a headline slot at King Tut’s in Glasgow next week. Alice Johnson (vocals), Lewis Bunting (guitar), Matt Mitchell (bass) and Billy McMahon (drums) seem poised, confident and excited for what is to come. The following is a conversation with the four of them. 

Eitan Orenstein: What was the story behind the song ‘Anyway?’

Alice: ‘Anyway’ – the version we played live, we took to the studio to record, and it came out more polished, and pop-sounding. And recently, mid-festival season, we listened to the original demo and we thought, this was the way it was written, as opposed to the recorded version. It was a waste of five hundred quid, but we absolutely love the new version of the old one. 

EO: It’s definitely true that when it’s stripped back it can feel more honest. What did it feel like to uncover that?

Lewis: We had just played in Plymouth, at that time. We were opening with that song at the time, and we felt like something just wasn’t sitting right. We had a bit of writer’s block, looking back at old demos on our phones. We stumbled across this version of ‘Anyway,’ and listening to it gave us goose bumps. It sounded so much better. 

A: We were really worried what you guys [Matt and Billy] would think because the recorded one we were playing live had a backing track, we’d been getting good at playing it live. And here we were like “so, boys, lets try the old version.” But when we played it together, the original version, we just knew. And when we recorded it, it had changed key, and the one we play now suits my voice so much more. The guitar is just so heavy as well, and we love it. 

L: It’s also so simple. Just two chords. And I usually use a lot of pedals, but throughout this whole song I have three. It’s all feel and you can get so locked into it. 

Matt: It’s very us. Truer to ourselves. It feels like what we want to play deep down. 

EO:  Less of a filtered version? 

A: Exactly. More raw. 

M: But the reception’s been really good. We were worried that people might love the original recorded version and not come to like the demo. 

A: That’s what we were worried about on stage. I felt like I had to apologise to the fans that might’ve come to love the studio version. “I’m so sorry if you loved the original song – we’ve just gone and ruined it.” It’s always a risk when you change this like that. But I feel like as a band we do take risks and those risks are what has got us to where we are today, now. We were scared to do it. But it paid off. 

Billy: It’s gotten to the point where I can’t actually imagine playing the initial song.

M: It suits the emotional content of the song more as well. 

A: Yeah, it’s proper passionate. It’s so hard to tell a story when you’re on stage. And tell it clearly, especially. And since we’ve been doing a lot of festivals down south, they probably don’t understand a word I’m saying. But they cheer anyway, so it’s fine. 

EO: Does the initial meaning often get lost in the performance? The song ‘Making Sense of It All’ is so different, in the mood and the tone. How much of that is a natural response to how you guys were feeling at the time? Or was there a purposeful attempt to explore new sounds? 

L: I think he [Billy] had a lot to do with it. Obviously, we had another drummer when Volume 1 was written. And after that there was a desire to make our sound a bit heavier. Billy did that. It’s very loud but it’s the sound we needed. 

A: Volume 1 was very much a case of us trying to find our feet. ‘Sway’ was the first song we ever wrote. We still play that now, but a much heavier version. It’s not as happy and light. With Volume 1, we’d just gone into lockdown and got Billy in. When we were allowed to actually go and rehearse together, Lewis and I actually wrote the song ‘Outside’ over zoom. It was initially called ‘Grunge Song.’ And we just kept writing and writing. And it became a lot darker, because I think everyone was going through it, mentally. And hopefully it helped some other people through pandemic as well. I‘m excited to see where the next EP takes us. It’ll be three different chapters.  

M: And we want to mix it up as well. From the get-go we’ve always wanted to have a different sound all the time. I guess that proves that it does sound different. 

EO: Given that these songs were written during a pandemic, and there was no live audience interaction, were you writing these songs with fans and listeners in mind? 

A: It’s strange when you compare our live performances before to how they are now. We were a lot more reserved. It’s partly because the songs before were so much happier, and you couldn’t just rock out to them. Now they’re so much heavier; even more so live than they do on track. Which is the case for a lot for the bands we look up to. To be fair, we didn’t have that much of an audience to start with. We played a sold-out Sneaky Pete’s, but literally a month before lockdown. But it’s mad to compare the audience then to now. Before lockdown we luckily got our slot with Declan McKenna and his fans loved us. And now every time we play Edinburgh venues, it’s mosh pit central. But before, we struggled to get that side of it. 

B: I think the best comparison is that that gig before lockdown was sold out to friends and family. And now our first gig post-lockdown and EP, it was sold out and friends and family couldn’t get tickets. 

M: When we started getting heavier, we were worried that people wouldn’t be accustomed to the change in sound. But we thought it was about making music that we like. There were people who wanted us to be making the happy indie tunes as our next stuff, but we want to be heavy. Releasing the EP brought in this whole, new heavier fanbase, whilst retaining our initial fans. And in that sense, it’s a risk that’s paid off.

A: We love playing live. It’s a massive part of what we are as a band. It doesn’t how matter how full a venue is, we will always give it our all, because we love it. I think now, more than ever, when we write in the studio, together we can imagine what it would sound like to play live. But we also love putting live twists into our set. Like on ‘let me inside your head’ we have a big intro leading up to it, parts where I’ll scream for thirty seconds. We saw Sam fender do things like that at Glastonbury and it got the audience so worked up. 

EO: What bands have you seen since lockdown stopped that influenced you? And what about throughout the recording process? 

A: We really got into shoegaze bands, like my Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. And one thing that really stuck with me was seeing Shame at Latitude. I wasn’t a massive Shame fan before. But seeing them live at a packed-out tent was an amazing thing – the bass player was literally doing roly-polies on stage. Idles; I’d probably get trampled at one of their concerts.

L: Fontaines D.C as well. And Foals at Usher hall. 

B: Newdad, Crawlers, Courting. And you see these names and start to meet them. Basically us, Crawlers and Sam Rider from Univision have done every gig together for the last three months. 

EO: Is it refreshing to have such consistent contact with bands in a similar scene, to be part of that community? 

A: I think it might be something the Scottish scene lacks. There are so many great bands, but not enough of a community to keep them all together. Glasgow gets a lot of hype because it’s got a lot for venues, and its seen as ‘cooler,’ but there’s no real hub for Scottish musicians. And then you go down south and you meet all these creative people who are so up for it and chatty. 

B: Not having a go at anyone, but strange that whenever we play festivals down south, we’re always put on at the exact same time as any other Scottish band at the festival. It makes it like a rivalry – it happened at Latitude. 

A: We’ve met some amazing musicians this year. It’s a bit surreal, but we love it. We’re faking it ‘til we make it. 

Image ‘swim school‘ by Paul Hudson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.