10th October | Exchange
Photos: Naomi Williams
I have a friend who refers, somewhat sneeringly, to indie bands popular in the early-to-mid-2010s as ‘happy-clappy indie bands’.
Now, here’s a confession: a few years ago, I would have put Swim Deep in this category, sceptical of the more pop-sounding bands my contemporaries listened to as I basked in the ‘punk-and-grunge-only!’ phase.
Well. Swim Deep turns out to be a band that transcends the ‘happy clappy’ club, both in the quality of their records and live shows. There is still a handful of throwaway tracks in their back catalogue, but so many of Swim Deep’s songs have an extra layer that the music of a lot of their peers lacks. There’s a sense of uncertainty and melancholy that bubbles beneath the joy on the surface, especially in older songs like ‘Honey’ and ‘To My Brother’, and the new ‘Bruised’ on Emerald Classics.
The sold-out show started with Swim Deep twisting through the packed floor to the stage. Austin Williams had ditched his dark mop of old for an of-the-moment bleached buzzcut. It’s remarkable how much some clippers and bleach can change the look of a whole band. His choice of a vintage Lion King tee, emblazoned with the words, “I just can’t wait to be king!” may have been meaningless to him, but nonetheless projected a little sense of the ambitions of which he has spoken.
Much of the set was tinged with a funky, 80s-style catchiness, especially on songs from Swim Deep’s second album, Mothers, and some from Emerald Classics. At other times, the influence of the early 90s came through in subtle incarnations of early Blur (Williams’ voice is not dissimilar from Damon Albarn’s), and Primal Scream. All the while, there was still a fresh feeling to the music. There were infectious rhythm section grooves to dance to, guitar parts that switched up between chorus-laden jangle and fat fuzziness. I can’t remember the last time I saw a keys player having as much fun as James Balmont bashing a tambourine against his chest as he played the lush synths integral to so many songs.
Williams charmed that evening in a way that only someone who is shy but doesn’t want to look shy can. He threw in the odd witty quip between songs, but bashfulness lingered behind the grins. He successfully ended up with the crowd in the palm of his hand early on. At one point, during ‘0121 Desire’, he unassumingly put his hands in the air without a word and the whole room followed suit – a real ‘Simon Says’ moment.
The evening was a whirlpool of emotion from start to finish, playing heavily on the feelings that come with being young and confused. ‘Sail Away, Say Goodbye’ conjured up the familiar image of being lost in a club: you can’t find your mates, and don’t know whether to laugh or cry, too numb to do either. ‘Fueho Boogie’ was more manic and unsettling live than on record, building up to a point where there was a nightmarish atmosphere of things spiralling out of control.
But there were so many instances of great joy too. During ‘Honey’, Williams’ command for us to “say it like a prayer” before the hook lyrics “Don’t just dream in your sleep, it’s just lazy” was genuinely uplifting. Then there was the crowd-pleasing old hit ‘She Changes the Weather’, a song fit for a lovestruck teenage boy to blast from his boombox outside a pretty girl’s window in true ‘Say Anything’ style.
Swim Deep may be emerging on the other side of a difficult few years, but you wouldn’t know looking at the band now. With three great albums under their belt and a reputation for putting on a killer show, Swim Deep probably won’t have to wait that long to be kings.
See the video for ‘To Feel Good’ here: