Day 8: Drowning nightmare 1

Drowning Nightmare 1 was the opening song of Swimmer One’s first album, The Regional Variations. (There’s also a Drowning Nightmare 2, but we’ll come to that later). Conventional wisdom says you should put your strongest, most immediately arresting song up front so you reel in your listeners straight away, which is why so many pop albums open with a hit single. I tend to prefer opening songs that act as a prologue, beckoning you in and setting the scene rather than hitting you over the head with a big hook: whether they be understated prologues like September from David Sylvian’s Secrets of the Beehive or Festive Road from the Divine Comedy’s first album Liberation, or knowingly OTT prologues like the Orchestral Intro from Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, or Suite II Overture from Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid. It suggests confidence, I think. And it’s always better to come across as confident than to come across as needy.

Drowning nightmare 1 is neither an obviously understated prologue nor an overstated one. I was probably thinking of album openers like Skin & Bones by the Sundays and Is This It by the Strokes (albums that could have opened with Here’s Where The Story Ends and The Modern Age but chose to put those songs second – now that’s confidence). But the song does have an unusual structure that feels more like an intro than a complete piece – there’s a verse, another verse, then something that sounds like it’s going to be the chorus but turns not to be, then something else that sounds like it might be the chorus but turns out to be the ending. And then it’s over, prompting the question ‘ok, now what?’ (Largs Hum is what.)

It’s one of my favourite Swimmer One songs, and also one of our darkest – the nightmare it describes is about being on a TV chat show which for some reason is being filmed on a sinking ship, with a host who continues to ask his guests banal, intrusive and increasingly explicit questions about their sex lives even as the whole room fills up with water. The audience, meanwhile, is so absorbed in the spectacle that nobody seems to have noticed that they’re all about to die. Over a decade on, I think it’s still a pretty good metaphor for the times we live in, in which we obsess over celebrities and pop culture while stumbling towards a global environmental catastrophe in which sea levels are likely to rise to a point where they engulf thousands of us. * As I write this, Venice is in the midst of its own drowning nightmare.

* Yes, I’m aware of the irony of making this point in a self-indulgent song blog.

A wee footnote. Like various other Swimmer One and Seafieldroad songs, Drowning nightmare 1 has had a second life in recent years as trailer music for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival; every SMHAF trailer since 2015 has featured one of our songs, which pleases me a lot. In fact it’s now my ambition to get every single song Swimmer One ever released into a trailer. Between SMHAF and a couple of other festivals/arts events we’re already about a quarter of the way there. If you’ve got a festival you need trailer music for, do get in touch.

Day 7: Cloudbusting

Cloudbusting, released in 2006 as a double A side with Largs Hum, was Swimmer One‘s only cover version, unless you count Heroes, which we performed for the first dance at our friends Kirstin and Alan’s ‘not wedding’ (a big party celebrating the fact that they weren’t getting married) but never quite got round to recording properly.

Although… technically Cloudbusting is two cover versions, since we threw in a bit of Lovesong by the Cure at the end. Or, depending on how you look at it, it’s three cover versions, since the arrangement Hamish came up with was a bit of a nod to Something Good by Utah Saints.

In hindsight it might have been sensible to include Cloudbusting on our first album, given that it was one of our most popular songs (even acknowledged on the original song’s Wikipedia page, which makes me happy). The recorded version is notable for a lead vocal by our friend Cora Bissett, who I first met at an album launch by her band Swelling Meg; I thought they were brilliant, told her as much, and we kept in touch. Later I heard that Cora had mostly given up on music and was focusing on theatre. What a shame, I thought, she’s such a good singer, we should make a single for her given that we’re an up and coming band who are probably going to be famous soon. And so we did.

Either I didn’t know the whole rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Cora’s former band Darlingheart at that point, or I just hadn’t been listening properly because I was so caught up in my own ambitions (and specifically my vainglorious idea that we could somehow be the Pet Shop Boys to Cora’s Dusty Springfield, or the Massive Attack to her Tracey Thorn, forgetting that you need to be an actual pop success yourself before you can help relaunch someone else’s pop career). Anyway, given that Cora is now a multi-award-winning theatre director, I’m very glad she stuck to the path she’d chosen, but recently it made me happy to see Cora revisiting her musical roots – and singing on stage again – in her show What Girls Are Made Of. (An aside: we still have some rough recordings of three or four songs by Cora, made a few years later, which we’d hoped might become an album produced by us, a project that stalled mainly because we were all too busy with other things; one day maybe…).

I had various other daft ideas around that time, including an EP that I thought it would be funny to call Swimmer One Meet Girls. This would have consisted of Cloudbusting, a remix we’d done of Never Enough by Astrid Williamson, and a couple of other tracks we never got round to recording. In the end we came up with a better plan, which was to ask our friend Laura to join the band. We first met Laura when we performed at a brilliant cabaret/live art night she ran in Edinburgh called Silencio, one of our first ever gigs. Later we made a theatre show at the Arches in Glasgow with her company Highway Diner, which was a lot of fun and ended up taking us to Italy. Later still, Laura and I got married, had three children, and moved to the Outer Hebrides, but that’s another story.

Laura singing Cloudbusting would later become a highlight of our live shows. We didn’t do many of these so there’s not much footage around, but our friend Susie did once film us doing Cloudbusting on her phone, at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh. We’re at a funny angle for the first few seconds before she remembers to turn her phone sideways.

Our version of Cloudbusting has been put on YouTube a few times by various people. My favourite is the one that describes it as ‘Cloudbusting – remix’, as if we had somehow found a plug-in that makes Kate Bush sound Scottish.

 

 

Day 6: Largs Hum

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Largs Hum was the song that always opened Swimmer One‘s live shows, on the grounds that a recorded voice suddenly saying ‘Tobermory!’ quite loudly in a Scottish accent is a very effective way of grabbing an audience’s attention (as well as testing whether the sound levels are right before the song actually starts). The voice belongs to Rodney Relax, an Edinburgh poet (and, at the time, Hamish’s postman) whose claims to fame include the fact that there is a statue of him – as a young punk with a mohican – in Edinburgh’s People’s Story Museum.

It’s probably Swimmer One’s signature song. It is, as far as I know, the only one of our songs to have its own spoof (Scotland the Brave by London novelty punk band The New Royal Family). It also led to my one and only appearance on the Fred Macaulay show on Radio Scotland; they were doing a feature on the actual Largs hum – a constant, oppressive noise whose cause has eluded experts for years – and, inevitably, their producer ended up Googling our song.

Disappointingly for Fred, the song doesn’t have much to say about the real Largs hum. More significant sources of inspiration were The X-Files and It’s Grim Up North by the KLF, as well as my love of various Pet Shop Boys songs in which Chris Lowe reads out lists of things. The idea, loosely, is that the person singing the song is convinced that the Largs hum is evidence of some sort of dastardly conspiracy (‘does the government know? do the churches know?’), and that the fact that he can hear it makes him a target, so he is travelling around the coastline of Scotland to find out the truth before it’s too late. In the middle eight he has a moment of clarity/psychosis, where he ends up in something resembling Brigadoon (‘a village appears as the mist clears’) before he sets off on his way again, eventually ending up back where he started. The lyric grew out of Hamish’s original rough recording – the rhythmic pulse that opens the song, plus a bit of guitar – which I loved from the first moment I heard it. It felt oppressive, a bit overwhelming at times, and yet you could dance to it. It was also oddly Scottish, as if Massive Attack were trying to make ceilidh music (now there’s a review quote I wish someone had written). If hearing it for the first time hadn’t coincided with me reading a newspaper article about the Largs hum, the song might well have ended up being about a rave in an abandoned tea cake factory / cargo ship on the Firth of Forth.

Largs Hum might be our best song actually, and has given me lots of fond memories. There was the single review that weirdly but flatteringly praised my ‘Scots Bowie’ accent (probably the only time anyone has decided my singing sounds Scottish – maybe my voice’s proximity to Rodney’s created some sort of magical audio illusion). And I always loved the audience’s reaction when ‘TOBERMORY’ suddenly boomed out of the speakers without warning. Sometimes they would nearly spill their drinks. Sometimes they’d laugh (nervously or derisively – either was fine with me). But they certainly never ignored us. I think my favourite memory though is of  the gig we played in Islington when someone shouted ‘Stoneybridge!’ along to the music – a brilliant heckle.

 

 

 

Day 5: How could something like that be love

I wonder how many people have actually heard How Could Something Like That Be Love, the second B-side of Swimmer One’s second single? One or two people still like it, evidently, since somebody has gone to the trouble of putting the demo version on YouTube.

I actually prefer the demo version, even though the single version had some lovely backing vocals by Cora Bissett (now an award-winning theatre director, back then the former lead singer in Darlingheart); I would embed that version here too but I can’t actually find it online, although if you’re curious you can still download it from Amazon. The version on this page is from an unreleased (at the time) EP called No Running, No Smoking, No Bombing: an Introduction to Swimmer One.

I really dislike the phrase ‘demo version’, and am only using it here because it’s a convenient, widely understood shorthand for a rough, unfinished recording. I dislike it because it implies an auditioning process, suggesting that you need to demonstrate your talent to somebody with power over you, someone from a record company probably. Hamish and I never had much patience with that – we just make music for ourselves, after all – and I often wish there was a better shorthand for a rough, unpolished recording, since I often prefer these to things that sound more ‘finished’. I’m a big fan of Babybird’s five home-recorded albums (especially I Was Born A Man), the incredibily prolific Momus, and Red House Painters’ rough early recordings.

When I first heard I Was Born A Man, around 1995, I was at university in Stirling, and decided I should found a new record label called Bedroom Records, which would release compilation albums featuring eccentric, maverick songwriters who made quirky, inspired music in their bedrooms, according to their own rules (people like me, as I saw it). I recruited a couple of friends to the cause and we put an advert in the NME calling for submissions. Hundreds of cassettes arrived in the post. Most of them were absolutely terrible, with only three or four, to my great disappointment, being interesting enough for the album we’d hoped to release. So we abandoned the idea – a blessing, I suspect, since the internet would probably have made Bedroom Records redundant within three or four years anyway. We threw all the cassettes in the bin or taped over them. If you’re one of the people who sent us one, I’m really sorry.

I’ve gone off on a tangent here. How Could Something Like That Be Love is a song about an ex pop star who has retreated into the countryside after some sort of a scandal, written from the perspective of their loyal partner, who has had to nurse them through some sort of unspecified illness. In this version the pop star seems to have since died, in the final version the lyric is slightly different and they seem to be still alive. It’s strange listening to this song now. I’m not sure why I wanted to tell this particular story, although it’s perhaps quite telling that we’re only on our second single and I’m already writing about a failed pop star fading from view. I quite like the lyric though, especially the bit about the nosy neighbour who “thought he recognised you from some cheesy one off pop hit, ironically the wrong one”. Ah yes, the fleeting nature of fame.

Day 4: Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe was one of two B-sides on Swimmer One’s second single, Come On, Let’s Go!. By this time we’d learned not to spend a ridiculous amount of time making B-sides and this one was recorded very quickly. Ironically, it perhaps had a bigger impact on my life than anything else Swimmer One ever recorded. I quite often find myself telling people what has now become known as ‘the Dave and Kay story’.

The song – for want of a better word – consists of a beautiful piece of ambient music by Hamish (here indulging his life-long love of Brian Eno) accompanied by three slightly different recordings of the same monologue, about a couple called Dave and Kay, ‘upwardly mobile professional types’ from an unnamed big city who go on a weekend snowboarding trip and consider never coming back. The recordings were three alternative takes recorded for an advert, and the script was full of the kind of hilariously bland aspirational language you only ever hear in cheesy commercials, but for some reason we became hypnotised by them. The more versions we listened to, the more it seemed as if something genuinely profound had happened to Dave and Kay, and Daniel Warren’s dream-like film – made up of time lapse footage from three different locations – captured that feeling very well.

I liked that the ‘Lake Tahoe’ in Dan’s film was clearly not the real Lake Tahoe, or even in America, or even a lake. Instead, a beach somewhere in Britain – filmed over a whole day as the tide falls, rises and falls again – seemed to represent a fantasy wilderness, awe-inspiring and empty, romanticised by two city dwellers as ‘the kind of place I could spend the rest of my life’. Significantly, I think, the film ends not on that beach but back in the city – a different city, in fact. Did Dave and Kay ever start that new life in Lake Tahoe? Not likely. It was, clearly, just a fantasy. And so I never asked Dan where the beach was. I felt the film would be more poignant if I didn’t know. It was what it represented that was important.

The year Dan made Lake Tahoe, 2004, was also the year I met Laura, who later joined Swimmer One and is now my wife. We must have watched the film quite a few times back then, but saw nothing of ourselves in it (we didn’t have our own parking spots, for a start, or even our own car). It was only years later, after we had children, that we began to plot our own more modest escape from our more modest city existence. We looked at houses and little patches of land in Bute, Skye, Arran and near Aberfoyle, before finally settling on Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. We’d never been there before but fell in love with it pretty much immediately.

After we bought our croft, Laura and I began telling friends on Facebook how we’d found the kind of place we could spend the rest of our lives. In response, Daniel posted a link to that film from 2004. For a moment I was puzzled. Why was he sending me something I’d watched dozens of times before? And then, for the first time, I realised. Uig beach – two minutes’ walk from the croft we had just bought – was Lake Tahoe.

Did we move to Uig because a film subliminally planted the idea in my mind over the course of 12 years? Was I, on some level, hypnotised into wanting to move there by the constant repetition of the Lake Tahoe story, as I recorded that piece of music and listened back to it? I honestly don’t know. Something had clearly sunk in though. Two years before I visited Lewis for the first time, I wrote and recorded Isle of Lewis, a love song based around a description of an imaginary road trip to the island. Eventually I changed the title to Islands of the North Atlantic but the song is about exactly what my family and I went on to do, driving a camper van to an island in the north of Scotland, laying the foundations of a new life.

That, however, is not the spookiest part. A few months after we properly moved to Lewis we bought a house. We discovered that our neighbours were another couple from the mainland who had moved to Uig looking for a different kind of life. They were, of course, called Dave and Kay.

Day 3: Come on, let’s go!

Come On, Let’s Go! was Swimmer One’s second single. It was originally called The Unnamable Disco – hence the title of Daniel Warren’s accompanying film, shot at Dance Base in Edinburgh – until we decided that was a preposterous thing to call a pop single. A good decision, I reckon, since we would otherwise have had to spend a lot of time explaining why we’d written a pop song based on The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett.

The title we did use was a bit of a nod to the famous ‘let’s go’ line in Waiting for Godot, but luckily nobody noticed, because I wouldn’t have been able to explain that one very well either. In short, I was trying to write a lyric about somebody having an existential crisis while dancing, but mainly I just thought ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ was a good line for a chorus. At the time I hadn’t even read The Unnamable (yes, I know, but it’s not just me who does this sort of thing, ok?), I’d just seen a short film adaptation that Daniel had made. It still tickles me that Daniel has made two films based on The Unnamable, and that one of them is ours.

I remember feeling particularly pleased with the middle eight of this song, and singing it with righteous gusto at live gigs (especially the line ‘I will still love you till one of us dies’), although looking back I’m not at all sure what point I was trying to make. I was clearly very angry about something to do with pop music, or DJs, but it probably wasn’t very important. This used to happen to me a lot, this rage at pop music’s inconsequential quirks – like terrible rhyming, obviously insincere declarations of love, or creative decisions that clearly hadn’t been thought through. I remember getting very worked up about Cher Lloyd’s 2011 single Swagger Jagger on the grounds that surely, at some point in the writing, recording, mastering or design process, somebody should have noticed that the phrase she was referencing was actually swagger jacker. I’d like to say I don’t do this anymore, but it wouldn’t be entirely true.

A footnote: Come On Let’s Go! received one of my favourite ever Swimmer One reviews, from an American website called Delusions of Adequacy. It was one of those reviews that’s quite mean to you but in a way that’s so funny and astute that actually you feel like applauding. “Swimmer One is a band that sees the world as, quite literally, a dance floor, half-full or half-empty. But despite certain tendencies, this is not really a dance band. Rather, Swimmer One is a pop band that writes about dance music. Only in Britain.” Ouch. But yes, fair enough. Another review around that time described us as “Erasure with the fun taken out”, which I loved so much I wanted to put it on our next press release.

 

Day 2: Talk me down from 20,000ft

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Swimmer One: look how young we are.

Talk Me Down From 20,000ft was Swimmer One’s first B-side – something that, in the age of downloads, has become a lost art form. I grew up buying vinyl singles, and was introduced to the art of the B-side by the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab Sprout. The Pet Shop Boys, in particular, took them very seriously – this was the place where they cut loose, indulged themselves, and sometimes ended up writing their best songs, like Jack the Lad or In the Night (and also a series of funny, strange songs in which Chris Lowe read out lists of things, like Paninaro and I Want a Dog). If I had to pick a favourite, it’d probably be Your Funny Uncle, a poignant song about the funeral of a gay man who died too young (one of the missing friends in Being Boring, I think), and the awkwardness that ensues when his social circle have to mingle with relatives who were in complete denial about the life he was living. But I loved all of the Pet Shop Boys’ B-sides, often more than their album tracks, and always got incredibly excited when a new single came out, often playing the B-side first. Unlike a lot of people’s B-sides they almost never felt like leftovers, songs not quite good enough to make it onto an album. In fact I think there’s a case to be made that Alternative, the B-sides collection they put out in 1995, is one of their best albums (disc one, anyway).

Prefab Sprout wrote brilliant B-sides too, particularly in their early days, although I discovered most of these after the fact, when I’d already played Swoon, Steve Mcqueen and Protest Songs to death and was looking for something new. In particular I remember the joy of discovering a 12 inch single of When Love Breaks Down which had four great B-sides – The Yearning Loins, Spinning Belinda, He’ll Have to Go and Donna Summer. After all this it made me quite cross when a musician I loved released a single whose B-side was just an instrumental or demo version of the A-side, or a song they’d already released years ago (I’m looking at you, Madonna). How dare they be so careless?

And so when it came to releasing our first single, in 2002, it was important to me that the B-side was just as good as the A-side. In the end we possibly took that a bit too far, in that Talk Me Down From 20,000ft actually took longer to record than We Just Make Music For Ourselves. This was probably my fault; after years of making music with an old reel to reel four track machine, I had suddenly been introduced (thanks to Hamish) to Cubase and the dizzying possibility of having as many tracks going on in a song as you wanted, and I got carried away. At the time I was a bit obsessed with Steve Reich, so wanted to find out what happened if you layered the same Reich-like piano phrase on top of itself multiple times. The answer is that you end up with an unholy mess and end up spending as much time editing parts out as you did inserting them in the first place.

I’m glad we took the time though, because it’s a song I’m still very proud of. The lyric is about having a panic attack, something that used to happen to me a lot. The main reason I used a plane journey as a metaphor was that I’d recently been to Mexico, had recorded the sound of a flight attendant in Mexico City, and wanted to use it on something. Which we did.

We never spent this long on a B-side again. In fact, by the time we released our first album in 2007, 1. downloading was already becoming the norm, and 2. we couldn’t afford to put out singles on CD or vinyl anyway so didn’t bother. I think my biggest regret about never having got to be a pop star is not that I never got to be on Top of the Pops or the cover of Smash Hits (the benchmarks of success when I was growing up) but that I wasn’t successsful enough to be able to spend huge amounts of time recording B-sides when I didn’t have to.

 

 

Day 1: We just make music for ourselves

We Just Make Music For Ourselves, the first single by Swimmer One and the first music I ever properly released, emerged with minimal fanfare in the summer of 2002, on our own label Biphonic Records. We had no PR, radio plugger or promotional budget whatsoever (Daniel Warren did the video and sleeve design for free), but we must have done something right because a few days later Mark Radcliffe played the song on his afternoon show on Radio One, enthusing about it at some length and comparing it to Pulp, the Pet Shop Boys and Baba O’Riley by The Who. The same month Steve Lamacq and Vic Galloway championed it on Radio One too. Crikey, I thought, maybe this is our moment.

A few days later, a woman from a London record label – whose boss apparently masterminded the success of Believe by Cher  – flew up to Edinburgh and we went for lunch in Leith. We got on very well and talked for ages about bands we loved – the Human League came up quite a lot, as I recall. And then, at some point, she asked us if we had any other songs. Only a couple, we replied, because we’d mostly just been working on this one. Do you have a live act, she asked, or ideas about what your image should be. Again the answer was no; we’d been so focused on making the single that we hadn’t had much of a chance to think about that. And so she went back to London and we never heard from her again. It then took us five more years to get round to releasing our debut album.

Would life have turned out very differently if we’d been a bit more ready at this moment? Possibly not. But I sometimes like to imagine a parallel universe in which this leftfield, very catchy, slightly arch yet ultimately sincere song was a big hit – if not a career-launching big hit like West End Girls, then perhaps one of those quirky, unexpected one-off hits, like Brilliant Mind or I Could Never Be Your Woman.

The title – in case it’s not obvious – was a joke, a reference to one  of those excruciating cliches bands always seemed to come out with in interviews. One of my favourite reviews of the single claimed we’d missed a trick by not including the line ‘and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus’ – failing to spot that we actually had (it’s right at the end). Musically it began – like most Swimmer One songs – with a rough instrumental recording by Hamish (just guitar and drum machine, I think) which we then fleshed out together.

When Hamish did a remix for the B-side I wanted to call it There’s Always Been A Dance Element To Our Music, which was another thing bands seemed to say a lot, in a desperate attempt to ingratiate themselves with clubbers. Hamish vetoed this idea, arguing that it was a joke too far (despite my protestations that it was exactly the kind of thing Sparks would do) and it ended up being called Music For Other People instead. Sadly I don’t think it was a club hit either (not that I would have noticed if it was, although I heard we got played a bit by DJs in Spain and Italy), but we did get two really good short films out of it – by Daniel Warren (who also did the video for the original song) and Paul Cameron.

I’m very fond of all three of the videos that accompanied this single, especially the one for the original song, for which we decided – for some reason – to play squash while wearing white boiler suits. My main memory of this is that before we went to Meadowbank sports centre Hamish made us garlic soup, and that by the time we’d spent an hour chasing a ball around for the camera we both absolutely stank of garlic. Good call. The video also features some chess playing (by us), lots of sex poses (not by us) which guaranteed that it would never be shown on television (oops), and a beautiful, poignant moment towards the end with a children’s shoe.

Update, 4 October: I heard just this morning that Mark Radcliffe has cancer and is taking time off work for treatment. I really hope he’s going to be ok. I’m sure this is true for many, many musicians, but he’s someone who has had a huge impact on my musical life. I’ve lost count of the number of bands that I love who I discovered via Mark’s various shows, so for us to be one of the bands he enthused about on air is a huge privilege, and I will always be grateful to him for that.