INTERVIEW: The Swellers

The money, the girls, the fame. It’s three components that make up the rock star dream, but with the reality being how you get there is entirely dependent on the choices you make. Michigan pop punk four-piece THE SWELLERS have spent the past ten years trying to piece together their golden ticket but on the contrary it’s not a concern. While on tour in support of their 2011 release Good For Me, the group touched on their DIY ethic, how working with bands like A Wilhelm Scream and Paramore have opened doors for them and how learning from the past is critical.

They say you should never trust someone with something you should do yourself; do you agree?

JONATHAN DIENER: Yes, 100%. Pretty much the last few years, I’ve been learning personally that if you kind of just give some important things to some people – not necessarily trust but other important things – and you stay completely out of it, it’s not going to go the way you vision it. The thing ur band takes in pride is in our DIY ethic; we always try to do everything ourselves. Our last video – we all directed together, and for our merch designs, we send it to everyone and make sure to pick what we like. We don’t have someone do it for us so literally everything we do, we make sure we’re apart of it and that people will like our product. A lot of bands kind of just leave that up to everyone else and you can tell they don’t care, and that’s what sucks. People respect when you actually care and they can smell the B.S. too. We have no B.S., we smell great (laughs).

RYAN COLLINS: You can’t bullshit a bullshitter (laughs).
 
I’ve even noticed that as a listener, the industry has drastically changed in the past few years, and you can see more o the DIY attitude in bands like yourself. Do you think this perspective epitomizes the punk genre?

JON: Definitely. That’s how that type of music started. You look at bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag and they had an attitude of “Let’s put our stuff in a van and go tour”. It wasn’t based on having a guy book these shows just so they can tour. They would go and get these zines’ that people would put out, get calling cards, call every single venue themselves and pay all the money. There were all these things they had to do and now it’s obviously easier because people think they don’t have to work and that actually pisses me off personally. We’ve been working our asses off for ten years – like this summer is our ten year anniversary as a band – and the way we do things just feels right. With all these major labels and CD sales plummeting, it’s the bands that do these things themselves that are the ones carrying on and having long careers and not the ones who are playing the game.

ANTO BOROS: And that’s kind of what we talked about yesterday. We played a “hometown” show in Pontiac, Michigan, and all the kids that came out were amazing. We were just like “Fuck man, all this hard work that we do is always worth it”. We had the whole crowd singing back to us and it makes you feel so good that your work is paying off, even on a smaller scale.

JON: It doesn’t matter about how many or how few, it matters if anyone even cares. And when you start realizing that, the bigger picture is much more clear as you can change someone’s life at some point.
 
As you said, the band has been a part of this DIY ethic but do you think your experience as a group would have been different if you had received a big break years ago?

RYAN: I think it does change you in a way because people who get success right off the bat, don’t know how to handle it. I think if we ever get to a really big spot in our career, we would just be so grateful and thankful for it that it wouldn’t change us.

ANTO: From my point of view, I don’t think that it would change me.

JON: When Nick and I started the band, I was 14-years-old and my Dad’s best friend from his childhood wrote songs for artists like Hank Williams Jr. and stuff like that and use to say, “I really believe in your kids, this band is cool, this band is hip. We’re going to have them go to Nashville and we’re going to pay for them to record”. So for our first album, we recorded with these guys. No offense to them, but they were in the country music world and we are not. They kept saying they know people at Sony Records and things like that and in our heads, we started to think, “Oh my God, we’re going to be like Hanson, but like a punk Hanson”. We put all this stuff out but it was just disappointment after disappointment. Then when I was 17, we almost signed to Nitro Records which was AFI, Vandals and a lot of big bands and we thought again that it would change our lives but the exact same thing happened. So now, I think I’m equally as jaded as I am smart about these things. There are some bands that get huge when they’re 15-years-old and either they end because they’re complete assholes or they’ve broken up.

Was it a conscious decision for you guys to pave your own way, or is that just how it had to work out?

RYAN: We never really had the help. We just had to make it on our own.

JON: Like these guys have been touring in bands for forever, you know? A lot of people don’t understand we’re not just some weird put-together band. We’re just dudes that met each other because we all do the exact same thing. Our band has been through five members and the reason is because these people were brand new to it every single time and got scared. And then when we got to do something as “The Road Warriors”, we thought this is our lives and this is what we’re going to do forever and that’s what’s so cool about it. It is a bizarre thing to think about.

ANTO: We’re road warriors. Ultimate road warriors (laughs).
 
A lot of times you see bands with people going in and out, in and out, it’s sad to see because it lacks cohesion. Would you say it was just a matter of finding people who fit?

JON: Yeah, it’s like going on E-Harmony.com (laughs). I need some babes over here! We’re like the perfect match! It’s funny because at first a lot of people said it would change things but when people left, it made things better for us. It’s not like we dislike them, it’s just for the greater good of the band. We have guys who are like the best players around and guys who know touring. It’s not like a guy who’ll say they’ll try it out and then get afraid a few weeks later and say they have to go to college.

ANTO: For me – even though Ryan and I weren’t around for a few releases – the older songs feel like they belong to me too. They just mean as much to me.

JON: It’s cool because we have people who care. Some would ask when practice is but we’re not even used to that so we’d tell them, “Yeah, that’s awesome! You’re learning the songs and we don’t even have to teach you!”.
 
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome as group?

RYAN: Having a Canadian in the band.

JON: Having to deal with a Canadian in the band (laughs).

RYAN: They make the border crossings so much easier.

ANTO: Me plus six.

JON: Like Kate plus eight. Wait, no… Anto plus six (laughs). I think the biggest thing for us is we’ve always been a band’s band. This isn’t a bragging thing as it’s a double-edged sword but we’ve been a band making music we love because it’s the music we grew up with and there’s a lot of bands that love the music we do, but don’t play it. But they have humongous fan bases because of what they play and at the same time say they wish they could do what we do and play the music we play. We tell them to do it, but they won’t because of the fan base. A lot of bands really love us but we’re not a fan’s band yet and that’s the second edge of the sword. It’s not that they don’t get it, it’s just they don’t know we exist and that’s what so bizarre about it because we’ve had so many outlets.

We played with Propagandhi and Strike Anywhere and then we went on a Paramore tour; we’re literally covering every base as we even went from Paramore to Less Than Jake and Motion City Soundtrack. You think this would catch on super fast but people would always say we’re really underrated. We know (laughs). We’re not trying to do this, we just never had a real push in our lives. People say we’re so lucky but we’re not lucky. We work for everything we have and we’ve never had luck. In fact, we have terrible luck. When we were finally old enough to do something cool and write good enough music, CD sales started dropping. When we had so many new outlets and even got booked for a tour in Australia, the tour turned into something smaller. There’s so many roadblocks all the time, but we don’t stop. That’s why I’m hoping our break comes pretty soon because I think we deserve it finally (laughs).

RYAN: Think positive!

JON: That’s what my mom says (laughs).
 
Was there anything you would have done differently or do you think you’re on the right path?

RYAN: I think we’ve all done everything we needed to do. Going from the first show in front of two people and not letting that discourage you and then seeing two people turn into four people and that turn into six people…

ANTO: And now we’re at 12.

RYAN: Yeah (laughs). For me personally, I think I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do and I’m very happy and I’ve learned so much along the way that now, I feel… great (laughs).

JON: The main thing is you learn from the past. Because if you didn’t learn or make mistakes, you don’t learn what not to do in the future. When we were little kids, we weren’t thinking to ourselves we should get on a big label so they can make us into Hanson and they’ll be in charge of us; we have to be in control of our own destiny. We know the types of labels and the different aspects of how things are supposed to be and without mistakes, we wouldn’t be where we are. We would have broken up years ago.

ANTO: I was just telling them I found a VHS tape of my first or second show ever and we were totally that band that was playing for forty minutes and were terrible, and people we’re just thinking, “Get off the fucking stage!” (laughs). We’d just be like, “How about one more song?”. Watching it now, it’s just so embarrassing.

JON: Everything from playing on stage to how we load into venues is based on how we do it. We load on stage and then we load off stage quickly to respect the other bands and everything from that to business decisions has changed our lives. I assume we’re doing the right thing; we are really smart about it so that’s why.

Our generation has been accused of “having it easy”. Do bands still have to work hard to gain recognition?

RYAN: The genuine bands have to work hard. The fake, they don’t have to work hard and they just get it right away.

JON: If you find your gimmick and you enhance that, it works. Like I’m not putting anyone down at all, but let’s say you’re a Christian band – on paper, those bands have a better success rate. Our band doesn’t have anything like that, we just play music and we like it. People think rock music is accessible – and I’ve had talks with a bunch of people on this tour about this – but the music industry hates rock music because right now it’s only Top 40, which is Katy Perry and dance club music or rap. Like look at R. Kelly. Back in the day, it was “I Believe I Can Fly” and then it was “Ignition” and then all of a sudden he’s not singing anymore at all, but those people are smart and they’re chameleons. With rock music, you can’t be a chameleon. We’re not just going to say Skrillex should remix one of our songs because we don’t want to do that and because we’re choosing to not do that, it makes it harder for us as a band. In the long run we hope people will respect that.

ANTO: Like Bret Hart says, “I’m not greedy for money. I’m greedy for respect”.

RYAN: Okay… (laughs).

JON: We’re shaking hands but you can’t really tell right now (laughs).
 
Where do you guys think you would be without the help of other bands?

JON: Dead.

RYAN: Still playing basements and houses in front of ten people.

JON: Before we started doing any touring, our singer Nick went on tour with A Wilhelm Scream and they pretty much took us under their wing and that’s the band that showed us the ropes. He was a sponge as he absorbed every single thing they did, like this is how to load in, this how you play, this is how long you play and these are the people to talk to. So on our first tour, we already had a jump start and knew all that stuff and most bands never have that opportunity. That kind of thing plus bands taking you on tour or even talking about you in magazines helps a ton. Like Paramore would be the biggest for us.

RYAN: Less Than Jake too. They took us on a big packaged tour.

JON: I forgot about those shows. They were one of the first bands that cared about us and Vinnie Fiorello showed us what to do as a band and how the world works. No one gets that and we did early on which was totally awesome.
 
It’s interesting because a lot of bands say they get that help and then there are some that say they don’t feel obliged or responsible to help others.

RYAN: Those are the bands that make it right off the bat.

JON: A lot of people talk about paying their dues so much but you don’t choose to pay your dues, you just do it. There isn’t a right or wrong way but if you get fucking signed when you’re 15 and you get millions of dollars and you’re set for the rest of your life – cool, that’s one way of doing it. But for bands like us, the venues we went to as a kid and the bands we saw and played with as kids are what shaped us to who we are. Like I owe a debt to Flint, Michigan, because that’s where I started and our first show was and I hope to help the town itself one day. I wish more people would be like that and respect their hometown and their music scene. You could make a kid – who wants to go to college but can’t afford it – want to start a band and through us, learns different things and become an entrepreneur as a musician, even though there’s not a lot of money it, and do something different and see the world. That’s better than saying you don’t want to help out other bands because it makes it harder for you.
 
What do you think the key piece is to keeping The Swellers together?

RYAN: Money. And Pizza (laughs).

ANTO: I think it just the love of playing as a band.

JON: In the earlier years, it helped a lot that Nick and I are brothers because if we weren’t related, we would have broke up forever ago. The fact all of us know the real side of stuff, there’s no bullshit anymore. We work hard and we’re realistic about it. If stuff sucks, keep going. Right now we’re traveling across the U.S. and here in Canada and then we’re off to the U.K., but last year we were only home for three months and we saw the world. We went to Asia, Australia, Europe and the U.K. and it was amazing and that’s what keeps us going. Even if there was five people at one of those shows, we were able to go there. That’s why we do it. I would love money though (laughs).

ANTO: What keeps us together is the glue of love. It’s the glue of punk rock.
 

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