The show hasn’t even started, and it’s already been a long night. Mayer Hawthorne stood me up, but the nice guy at the front of the venue says that I can still get my picture taken with the promotional Mazda. I politely decline. The only thing that might save the situation is that I also have interview with the opening act, The Heavy. You’ve heard them even if you don’t recognize the name. Remember the commercial with the sock monkey that made you momentarily consider buying a Kia? That’s The Heavy, a four-person (six with horns) soul collective straight out of Noid, England. Despite The Heavy’s immense success, or perhaps because of it, indie fans and journalists have been slow to embrace the band. It could turn out to be cool to like a one-hit wonder whose one hit was used to push a Korean car and made the positively ancient David Letterman beg giddily for an encore.
The band’s bus is parked around the side. I debate knocking, but then Joey “The Lips” Fagin sticks his head out of the bus and asks me what I want. I explain that I’m here for the interview. He says that I’ll be wanting Swaby, but that Swaby’s on the phone. He shuts the door to the bus and almost immediately opens it again, telling me to come inside at meet the rest of the band. Inside the bus, bassist Spencer Page is watching Champions League highlights on his computer. He asks whether this is a rough part of town. It isn’t. He says he’s worried about going to Birmingham and then goes back to soccer.
The horn section and sound guy are watching Canadian football on a spotty satellite feed. The discussion goes from the merits of the CFL to the XFL. The subject of Mayer Hawthorne comes up, and the band rolls their eyes. The sound guy tells a story about working a Sean Kingston concert, where “Kingston kept talking about going home to Jamaica and shit, when everybody knew he lived in Toronto.” That’s what it like being on tour with Mayer Hawthorne.
Swaby emerges from the back of the bus. Everyone on the bus shrinks back almost imperceptibly; the front man has entered the room. He apologizes for his lateness and asks if he can “put on some tunes.” Page suggests some Mayer Hawthorne. I make a lame comment about dry wit. Swaby disregards us both and cues up some Al Green, throwing in a little dance move and swirling a plastic cup of wine that smells suspiciously like a wine cooler.
Swaby settles in on the sofa and immediately addresses the issue of the band’s origin. American journalists have thus far been unable to locate Noid, and some have posited that the town is an invention of the band:
“Noid is definitely where we reside,” he says. “Everyone keeps saying this, but it’s between Bath and Bristol. Get off the A-46 by the picnic site at Tog Hill, and you’ll be right there. I don’t know why these rumors are there. So many interviewers have accused us of lying about where we come from; it’s Noid.”
Whether Noid exists or not, Swaby met Dan Taylor not quite 20 years ago. The two bonded over music, with Taylor preaching the Beatles gospel to Swaby, who reciprocated by bringing Al Green, Syl Johnson, and Ann Peebles into the conversation.
“Then we started finding stuff together as friends, and that was that,” he says. “We used to listen to a lot of music and smoke too much, and that was when we actually started playing music together. I was in a band and he was in a band, and we’d be sitting around and he’d start to make up shit. That’s how we got started.”
Swaby sits for a second and takes a drink of wine and pauses. Even though The Heavy has a single to push, this is something he wants to talk about a little more.
“Then we’d be like, We can do this. I’ve got this whole heap of records that I used to chop beats and stuff. I remember I used to go to New York like once a year just to go record shopping. There are so many amazing record shops there. I would go literally for a week to 10 days and just hunt beats. I would come back and just chop all these records for beats. I remember this one time I came back and had all these beats. I kept playing them for Dan, and he had something for all of them. Once we worked them up into full songs, we took them out with a little Yamaha sampler, Dan on guitar and me on vocal. We were playing these open-mic nights and just be killing it. We decided that we should actually be a band.”
This was 1994, but The Heavy didn’t release its first album, Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, until 2007. I ask Swaby whether there was a big line at the recording studio in Noid, but he says that the band took its time “working shit out.” And it’s not as if the band didn’t have plenty of suitors. As is often the case with in the music industry, however, the offers came with strings attached.
“There were always people willing to help us out and get us signed, but when you actually get it, everybody would want to change something about the band. It was just fucking ridiculous. We’d take a meeting and it would be, ‘We like this, but could you change this,’ and we just got to a point where it was all about the right ears. That was happened when Ninja came on board, and we had literally just finished compiling these tracks that we had recorded over the course of the last seven years and making them into a cohesive whole. Ninja loved it and didn’t want to change a thing. And there we are, and here we are.”
The Heavy’s first album created a little buzz and, the single “Colleen” landed in the Diane Keaton/Queen Latifah heist movie Mad Money. As close to the top of the world as that seems, The Heavy’s second album, The House That Dirt Built, would catapult the band to a much higher, if strangely anonymous, level of fame.
The Super Bowl ad led to the Letterman appearance, and before long “How You Like Me Now” was popping up everywhere, from Entourage to Hockey Night in Canada. The Heavy had the kind of hit that makes a career, but also sometimes stifles it. No matter how many great songs Modern English recorded, “I Melt With You” will, for good or ill, always define them. When presented this scenario, Swaby is initially evasive, saying that he “thinks the next record has bigger tunes on it, to be quite honest.” When confronted with the fact that a great majority of bands would give that exact party line, Swaby sticks to his guns.
“I’m deadly serious,” he says. “I’m not saying that as some kind of spiel for the next record. I believe that there is something in ‘How You Like Me Now’ that is very American, because that’s what we draw our influences from, but I truly think that the next record will have offerings that are just as strong. And as far the song being known more than the band, we’re fine with that. We don’t want to get caught up with the celebrity shit.”
Swaby maintains that if this is it for his band and the celebrity shit never actually arrives, it’s OK with him:
“I’m kind of happy where I am. I’m on a bus, we’re traveling across the States, and my music is being played everywhere. It’s pretty cool that I can play music every night, and I’m able to continue to make music. And like I said, the next record is going to be even more ridiculous, so who knows what might happen down the road.”
Later in the evening at the show, Swaby’s optimism is immediately called into question. The Heavy might have the opportunity to play all over the country, but it doesn’t really count if its audience is a bunch of uninterested frat boys and their dates. The band is hitting its marks exactly and sound amazingly tight, but none of them are busting out in the personality department. If the evening is to be saved, it’s up to Swaby. In the middle of the third song, he answers the call. He flips some sort of switch inside himself, and unleashes extinction-level sexual swagger. The bros there to see Mayer Hawthorne are suddenly looking for their dates. They’re upfront, trying to get inches closer to Swaby. When The Heavy finally does unleash “How You Like Me Now,” the room is eating out of the palm of his hand. Swaby played the card the card in the end, because it’s a good card. The important thing is that he might not have needed to.