Saturday 15 August 2015

'The Sharpening of The Sword' - A Conversation with J.D. Cronise

By: Phil Weller

‘They may have built their reputation on crushing riffs and unquenchable grooves, but 2015 sees a The Sword a different, but altogether more deadly weapon’


“The human heart is the lousiest there is in all of nature,” – Michael Bulgakov

Upon the release of an established band’s latest album, the fickleness of human nature so often bellows – or as is the case these days, is typed upon a keyboard onto Facebook and forums from vexed fingers. Said band has made their name by making music of a particular countenance, a countenance which has consequently allowed them to do what is, for so many of us, a past time and a far off dream, as a breadwinning day job. But with every release comes the severing of opinion and taste in which the artist – most likely a restless soul who yearns for renewed landscapes in which to live out their creative impulses – can simply never win. If they rehash and regurgitate the same ideology and blueprint that put them where they are today then, as much as many a diehard will dance joyously around their living rooms to the pleasing tones of familiarity, the other half of their fan base are left craving – and complaining about – a lack of growth and evolution. And then of course, the situation is very much the same in reverse, as is with the case with The Sword’s fifth and most ‘against the grain’ album they’ve penned to date, ‘High Country.’

As a record that marks the spot of 2015 in the band’s timeline, ‘High Country’ may only show vestiges of the gruff aural assault of those first two status-cementing albums, but its genetic make-up is still very much The Sword, contrary to those anger-riddled keyboard warriors. This is just a band that wants to “age gracefully,” as guitarist and frontman John ‘J.D’ Cronise jestingly puts it. Yet, there are those who demand a cyclical repetition of the heavy riffs and the wham-bam-thank-you-mam mentality they were founded upon.  Facebook comments have included such wonderfully narrow minded phrases as “you’re sucking corporate dicks” and the unforgettable go-to: “Sell outs.”

“It’s not that we tried to make an album that people wouldn’t like but when we were recording, we were very aware that there would be fans who like our older material who would maybe not quite get this new one,” states a very honest and open J.D. Cronise. “But that’s okay, that’s gonna happen, you can’t please everyone. But I think a lot of those people who like our older material and might not dig this album in particular are listening to it looking for a certain sound. But there are many other bands out there who are doing exactly what they’re looking for, so I think they’ll be okay.”

The founding member, who tells me he could easily write what the long-standing, heaviness devouring fans want but simply isn’t inspired to, formed this band “from a fan’s perspective. Time, the wisdom that accompanies it and the changing of circumstances too however, has sought a remoulding of that mind set:

J.D. ’High Country’ is the sound of The Sword in 2015, you know? We’re trying to age gracefully. For us we have to keep it interesting. Continuing along the exact same path gets boring after a while. I’m not inspired to write material that sounds like our older albums, when I’m playing and I come up with a riff that sounds too much like ‘Apocryphon’ or ‘Age of Winters’ then I move on. We’ve already done that. I want to explore new things in everything that we do and also to kind of reflect on what we’re listening to and liking at that moment in time which, at the moment, is a lot of and old country, traditional southern music. And of course some 70s pop and rock and psychedelic stuff, so as a band we don’t really listen to really heavy, super aggressive music anymore, so why write it? We felt that, or at least I felt like this album needs to be a part of what we’re into right now. When I started the band I started it from a fan’s perspective but now I don’t want it to get to the point where it’s not artistry anymore and it’s just pleasing fans. So I kinda had to reset that perspective and think, now in 2015, this is what is true to me.” 

The record itself is one that has already polarised fans, despite those opinions being based off the few singles and teasers to be released thus far. But the bigger picture is one that deserves an open mind, a fresh viewpoint, just as the band gave these songs when setting upon the task of following up 2012’s ‘Apocryphon.’ It’s an evolved band; yes some of their brutality has eroded and some of their gruffness too, but they’ve been replaced, equalled even, by brains and graciousness. ‘Silver Petals,’ a beautiful and serene acoustic instrumental is far removed from the band that wrote ‘Freya’ sonically, but mentally and physically, it’s a song born from the same hands. The title track, the first taster of the new record for the fans, isn’t an attack on the ear drums – it’s more a caressing thanks to its mellow delivery and subtle harmonies – but there is more to it than just aggression. It’s the most intelligent and well-rounded release by far. They continue to push themselves farther and farther into new trajectories, not minding if they leave a few fans coughing, confused and bemused, in the dust clouds behind them.  

Says J.D: “These songs came about from taking some time off and just writing for fun and not really being bothered where they went. We were just allowing them to flow and being more experimental. It would probably have been more difficult in retrospect had we tried to create the sound we eventually found on this record.”

One such example of this renewed and more cultured The Sword is the classy, brass-tinged opus ‘Early Snow.’  

J.D. “The brass can be attributed to our producer Adrian [Quesada], it was an idea of his and that’s why he hired him; to come up with ideas like that. It’s funny though because with his background he’s more used to dealing with Latin sounds and grooves [production credits range from Grupo Fantasma and Brownout to Bobby Patterson] and he didn’t want to bring in any of that onto our record, I think he was trying to not inject his own sound into ours. But after a while he kinda reluctantly brought it up: ‘I don’t wanna say this but I think this one song would be really cool with some horns on it.’ And yeah, we were totally agreeable to that.  So he brought in the horn players and let them go. He told them his vague idea but he let them take the lead on that, so it was a collaborative effort.” 

The result is, upon first listen of the song, a major surprise. You don’t expect to hear the brass come marching in, all grandiose and emphatic. But alongside other inspired surprises, like the 70s pop skit of ‘Seriously Mysterious,’ the aforementioned ‘Silver Petals’ and, the 13th Floor Elevators channelling ‘Turned To Dust’ and the lulling closer ‘The Bees of Spring’ that later explodes into a southern blues rock stomp, it’s plain to see why the band didn’t want to simply become a formulaic entity.  Writing songs as unique as these and as un-intrinsic to what ‘The Sword’ is originally defined as is must be much, much more fun and rewarding.

Visually too, the record’s cover subtly and smartly reflect this evolution.

J.D. “The artwork is by a guy named Jetter Green who’s an artist from San Diego. I stumbled across his work in a shop near where I lived. With ‘High Country’ I kinda wanted a cover with a photo on it rather than a painting and that sort of artwork. All of our covers have been very different, they’ve all been very fantastical and this one is still cool and psychedelic but not with that same fantasy presentation. The songs aren’t about that sort of stuff, there’s still some of that imagery but the songs are a bit more personal, relatable and comprehensible on this record. You don’t need to be a fan of science fiction to know what I’m talking about.

“I mean, there are some songs like ‘Tears Like Diamonds’ and ‘The Dreamthieves’ which have touches of science fiction, they are titles lifted from Michael Moore comic books, but for the most part, the lyrics themselves are something else. They’re more metaphors for the true meanings of the songs; I just picked out these poetic phrases that stuck with me. But that’s about it. I tried, in a way, to not take that approach to write songs directly inspired by a book because I’ve done it before. It was cool to me at the time but I wanted these lyrics to be more self-generated than referential.”

And so their artwork has moved forward parallel with the music: “I’ve always tried to have colour schemes that I think are appropriate to the mood of each album,” J.D relates. “So with the first one it was very blue and hue because it was ‘Age of Winters’ it needed to be cold. The second one full of is greys and blacks, [which are] really powerful colours and the third one has a very cool black and red colour scheme.  ‘Apocryphon’ was very colourful and all over the place so with this one when we were getting it sorted out, one of the options we wanted to go for was a very light cover. We adapted the original few ideas; we wanted more of one thing and less of others. We were debating about a light cover or a dark cover but we went for light because we already have some very dark covers and feel it reflects the album better.”

For the third time in this piece, I’m going to use the word surprise, as it really is, as far as the band’s musical lineage is concerned, their most surprising record yet. It never sits still in terms of springing new dimensions and aesthetics upon the listener, but therein lays its magic. Fickle fans will be quick to judge the record from the dialled down distortion on the title track – something which continues throughout the record – but if you give this record a chance, I know pre-existing fans of the band will warm to, if not fall in love with this record. The human heart is lousy as it doesn’t make sense, emphasised through those polarised opinions plastered all over the internet like some political campaign, but J.D himself knows that. The band were aware of the impact it would have upon their fan base, he’s hardened to it.

All in all though, there seems to be a feeling amongst those who have embraced this change and evolution that those left behind in the dust trail are missing out – a crying shame. But more fool them; ‘High Country’ is one of this year’s stand out record’s.   To steal a phrase from one of the album’s song titles itself: ‘Suffer no fools’, just enjoy the improving genius that is this Texan four piece.  

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