——— Was bass your first instrument? Years back my brother had a guitar laying around the house that I would pick up and mess around on. I’d actually watch RHCP’s “Live at Slane Castle” on my computer and try to learn certain licks by ear and play along. Later that year I asked my parents if I could rent a bass, to which they replied “they’d think about it”. At Christmas there was a bass starter kit under the tree, and my mind was blown.
What got you hooked on rock and roll?
Matt > I was a 3-year-old kid living on Long Island in 1977. One day, my 16 year old babysitter Donna (who I was utterly devoted to) shows up with a copy of Alive II by Kiss and has me sit down, listen to it, and puts that iconic gatefold picture in front of me. I had no chance! For the next ten years, there was no other band but Kiss for me. I wanted to be a rock and roll superhero.
Rachel > I think I was always destined to love rock & roll. My parents met each other in a band and music always filled my home. But, when I was probably 4, my dad showed me how to use the old record player. I listened to a lot of Rolling Stones and I remember the first time I ever watched Mick Jagger perform. I was hooked. I loved that it was dark and exuberant, free and alive. All my first crushes were rock stars, Mick, David Bowie, Jimmy Page. It was just part of who I was from a very early age so I grew up idolizing people who made music. I was performing from about 4 on and it was a drug. I always felt most alive when I was making or performing music and rock & roll was always my first love.
How close is Roxy Swain to the band you wanted to create and how have you guys evolved?
Rachel > I mean, this is a hard question to answer. I think in terms of the democracy and the co-authorship of the music, Roxy is really strong. We all bring something to every song and I love that sense of community. That is definitely a long process that we improve upon with every song and every release. However, I think there’s always room to grow. I would hate to think that we ever reached the point where we were done and we’d reached some kind of ideal band. To me evolution is all there is – when you stop evolving, you’ve peaked and I never want to peak.
Matt > Roxy Swain has changed so much since we first started. Rachel and I have been working together since 2006, but when we were looking to do a band, we didn’t quite know what we wanted to do. The initial version of Roxy Swain was an outgrowth of a Chicago power pop band named Loomis, and much of the band’s first wave of songwriting was based on the influences Tom Valenzano, our first lead guitarist) and I shared. Our first album The Spell of Youth was written as an extension of the style of Loomis: a lot of late 70s-inspired power pop and rock and roll. I believe through a series of lineup changes and examination of our strengths we are very close to what we want to be doing now.
Do you have a philosophy when it comes to the recording?
Matt > Our philosophy on recording is to capture the band organically. We prefer classic tones, simple (but purposeful), dynamic arrangement. We try to highlight the biggest strengths of the band – Rachels amazing voice and sense of melody, and the band’s overall performance and treatment. Generally speaking, we like to let the songs speak for themselves, as tracked. We shy away from a lot of digital processing and an abundance of compression. That being said, we aren’t necessarily wed to a particular process, nor do we think the band should sound exactly the same in the studio as it does live.
Rachel > I’m probably the least experienced with recording. I would say that I like to take a lot of time away from recordings to formulate opinions and I am very feel oriented. In other words, I will often fall in favor of a track that isn’t technically perfect but has a lot of spirit, character, and quirk. I also really refuse to listen seriously to anything I’ve recorded under bad conditions (crappy computer speakers or earbuds) because I know I will be frustrated and hyper critical. I like to walk away from a recording for a week, come back to it in the studio and make a judgment. I’m just a strong believer in the feel or the vibe of a performance over total proficiency. I don’t think I’m even capable of taking a track that feels totally perfect anyway. If recordings are too perfect, too massaged, they end up sounding robotic and they lose something intangible. I want to feel passion in a recording and I think sometimes passion and perfection go in opposition. Not always, but sometimes.
How does the songwriting process work for Roxy Swain?
Rachel > Typically, one of us will start with the skeleton of a song, bring it to the band, and we will build it as a group. I’ve become increasingly aware that each of us have a really important role in this band when it comes to songwriting. Chuck Harling is a master arranger, Jeff Altergott‘s bass lines are so crucial because they are so interesting and organic, Matt’s lyrics and sweeteners make our sound ours, and I think my melodies come together with the other parts to create what has become our cohesive band sound. I don’t want to elevate us to be something that we aren’t, but I’m really proud of the ways in which we’ve honed our craft as a group. We work together well and we each add something unique and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of about the band.
Matt > We currently have four accomplished songwriters and arrangers in the band, so everyone has ideas. In the initial phase of the band, Tom Valenzano and I came in with complete ideas, and we dictated those ideas to the band, which was all we could do at the time, but that approach didn’t optimize the band’s talents sonically. Now that all of us are involved in the writing process, our songwriting is rarely one person with a finished idea, and more often two, three or four people collaborating on a piece. On our forthcoming album there are instances of Rachel writing with Chuck, of Rachel writing with me, of Chuck and I doing a song together, and of all four of us collaborating. It’s really exciting to be in a band with a bunch of songwriters collaborating, because many of my favorite bands feature that. As we transitioned into the lineup we have today, the style of the band has really changed into an amalgam of Chuck, Rachel and I’s separate influences, which include my power pop, but also Rachel’s soul and blues, and Chuck’s rock, roots, swing and modern indie. As we have progressed, I believe that our songwriting blend has emerged as a distinctive hybrid sound that now fits all of us like a glove. There’s an aspect of all of us in there. Even though Jeff does not typically have the initial ideas, he puts his writing stamp on the songs with the incredible bass lines he comes up with. The most fascinating thing about it is that it’s continuing to evolve and push us in unique directions we never expected, which is evidenced by the sound of our third album. We are definitely getting weirder, and I like it.
What was the first real concert you ever attended and what impression did it have on you?
Rachel > It’s really sad, but I grew up watching so much live music that I can’t remember my first real concert. My dad’s band played constantly and growing up in Texas, we attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo every year where I saw a ton of live music. I guess it’s kind of tragic that I can’t remember, but I think it was so present that I can’t pin point the first ever. I do remember seeing some big bands at a really young age and looking around at everyone singing along and thinking, that’s what I want. I want people to sing along and dance to my music. I was probably seven when that translated into writing my own songs (terrible, terrible songs) and performing them on my front lawn with my sister and neighbor for the other kids on the block.
Matt > I actually didn’t attend a concert until Junior High School, and that was an odd bill. My parents took me to see 80s Chicago radio personality Jonathan Brandmeier and the Leisure Suits at the Rosemont Horizon. A strange entry into concert experience, to be sure. My ears really just hurt the whole time! I had never seen anything that loud. By the end I was enjoying it, despite feeling rather deaf. I followed that up with seeing Rush at Alpine valley a couple years later. That was really cool.
What is your approach to playing live and what is your mind-set pre-show?
Matt > My approach to playing live is to try to stay in the moment. My mind set pre show is often meditative as I try to pull myself into the present tense.
Rachel > Playing live is my favorite thing in the whole world. Honestly, I’m excited and often I just want to get up on stage. I don’t get nervous because I’ve been doing it for so long. I just want to get up there and I get really bummed when we get to our last song. I want every show to be memorable and I want to see people having a good time. I mean, half of playing music for me is sharing my art but the other half is sharing a moment with people, whether they are friends or strangers. When I see people dancing, singing along, smiling, it makes me feel honored and privileged and happy. Being on stage is a privilege and I just feel like every show is a blessing and an honor and I want to share a good time with the audience ….my approach to playing is live is to make try and give every performance and every audience all I have.
If you could tour with any artist as support who would it be and why?
Rachel > I don’t know, I have so many friends that I would be honored to share a tour with, I can’t really see myself picking a big band. I guess if I’m being honest, I admire my father’s musicianship so much that I would probably want him along on the tour. Also, other projects of my band-mates’, both Roxy and other projects I’ve been involved in, like The Ye-Ye’s. I think I would surround myself with local bands because I think support of your fellow local musicians is really important.
Matt > In terms of currently touring indie bands, I would love a shot at opening for The National. Their songwriting has been a big influence on both Rachel and I. In terms of all time faves, this an odd answer, but probably Yes, if they ever went out with their 1973 lineup again. I love those guys. It would be a terrible fit stylistically but I would have fun just watching those guys play every night.
What are your favorite 3 albums of all-time?
Matt > King Crimson – Red, Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans and The Wrens – The Meadowlands
Rachel > David Bowie – Station to Station, The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers, The Replacements – Let it Be
Whats the best live performance you have seen by a local Chicago band?
Rachel > My friend Heather Perry was in a band called Bring Your Ray Gun that absolutely killed every time I saw them play. I’ve always felt honored to be associated with her because she was one of the first women I saw leading a band as a songwriter and musician. She was the first person to make me think, I can do this. I didn’t have many female role models in the local scene before her. Anyway, seeing her play live has always inspired me. Plus she looks so cool on stage playing insane bass lines without breaking a sweat. They were a really tight band and I loved seeing them live.
Matt > Sludgeworth, final show of the original run, January 11th, 1993, McGregors in Elmhurst. The single best concert I have ever seen.
You two are separated in a horrible ship wreck, stranded on adjacent island and forced to leave messages in a bottle for one another: what does your message say?
Rachel: “At least we will have a lot of good experience to write from if we ever get off this island”
Matt: “I love you. Here’s the lyrics to our next song, “Stranded”” ~ ROXY SWAIN