The return of Swirlies

By RICHARD BECK  |  February 27, 2009

In the studio, Swirlies use whatever musical toys they can find. "Damon gets pretty particular about how things sound," says Pierce, who will be playing drums for the mini-tour. Tutunjian is a fetishist for texture — "It's kind of hard for me to articulate it" — and he takes a snarky glee in turning instruments on their heads. "There's nothing more boring than when a drum kit sounds like a drum kit." This mindset can lead to an interest in sound weirdness for its own sake — which is what happens on Swirlies' worst material — but Tutunjian is usually just addressing the studio situation on its own already artificial terms. That "drum kit sound," he notes, "is not even what a drum kit sounds like when it's a live drum kit."

Swirlies started out as a Go-Go's cover band called Raspberry Bang, with filmmaker and former Creeps frontman Rusty Nails at the mic. Tutunjian: "We did, like, two Go-Go's songs and then started writing our own songs. Then we kicked Rusty out. It was a friendly kick-out." Swirlies played their first proper show at the Allston Mall in 1991, with Seana Carmody on guitar and vocals and Ben Drucker on drums. (Drucker was the one who came up with the name Swirlies.) They became a regular act at the Middle East upstairs, and before the year was out they were attracting attention around the region. "I was a fan before I was a member," says Pierce. "I interviewed Damon and Andy for my fanzine, Stump, back in '91. We only made two issues."

Pretty soon Swirlies would be opening for Nick Cave at the Somerville Theatre. Then in 1993, Taang! Records released Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, the one Swirlies record casual fans will have listened to. It sounds almost like shoegaze — the melodies are always gently sung, the lyrics vaguely intelligible — except that everyone is too stuffed with ideas to be dreaming. Oceanic washes of fuzzed-out guitar get punked by stutter starts, high-end skronks, and snatches of homemade tape loops. Bernick points out that he and Tutunjian have been making recordings since they were kids, "just things off the radio that are absurd or kind of funny." At the end of Blonder Tongue Audio Baton's final track, "Wait Forever," a young male voice — probably Tutunjian's — speculates on the medicinal properties of mud: "What if we took mud, wiped it on, uh, a maple branch, left it there out in the sun, stuck it in our noses, drank Mountain Dew, and then snorted the mud? Who knows! That could do something!"

Still, Swirlies usually stay anchored to pop, even if you can't hear it. Tutunjian: "It's hard arranging noise while still keeping a pop song in there." Pierce: "It's like trying to peel back layers of mud to actually hear the song." This combination of noisy pranksterism, dreamlike guitars, and pop song structures makes it impossible for Swirlies to settle down in a genre (which is part of why they've been somewhat forgotten over the years). "Of course we always get the My Bloody Valentine tag," says Bernick, "but we definitely didn't fit into the straight Anglophile æsthetic."

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