I'm on the phone with Damon Tutunjian, one founder of the Boston indie-rock band Swirlies, and he's helping me to understand the Sneaky Flute Empire. "Nobody cares except us! At one point I was trying to persuade all of my friends who were in bands to assign a Sneaky Flute Empire number to their releases, just because we were all working together and trading members." He says he took inspiration from a better-known '90s indie-rock collective, Elephant 6. "I always liked that there were a million people coming through our band. It would be cool if we had our own stamp."
DIRTY ON PURPOSE: "I'd rather become shittier-sounding than become slicker," says Damon Tutunjian. "It hurts my ears listening to the stuff on the radio."
Swirlies have been in continuous existence since 1991, and their enormous roster — their Web site lists more than 25 members past and present — reads like a bizarro-world narrative of the last two decades of American indie rock. Claudia Gonson, now a lead singer with the Magnetic Fields, once auditioned for Swirlies as a drummer. Adam Pierce, otherwise known as Mice Parade, has played drums both live and in the studio. Up-and-coming Philadelphia psych-rocker Kurt Vile has been involved now and again. Sneaky Flutes are currently scattered all over the country, but this Saturday everything will come together as Swirlies wrap up a three-show mini-reunion tour at the Middle East upstairs. "Andy and I have been interested in doing it for a few years," says Tutunjian. "Usually we just talk about doing it."
Tutunjian and Andy Bernick met in a sophomore English class at Boston College High School, and both of them remember Mr. Shea. "He was brutal," says Bernick, "really the taskmaster-yeller type," and also given to idiosyncratic turns of phrase. Students who answered a question incorrectly would get, as Bernick remembers, "You've broken the skein!" (Tutunjian recalls it as "You've snipped the schema!") "It was totally strange," Bernick continues. "I have no idea what was going on in this person's mind."
The two wouldn't start making music together for a while. Tutunjian, an almost pathological record collector, came to music earlier than Bernick, and he spent time in a hardcore band called the Stigmatics. They were becoming friends, however, and trading cassettes. "Just about how anybody makes friends in high school," says Tutunjian. "Andy used to drive me to practice. I didn't have a car."
At Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Tutunjian played in a band with cartoonist Ron Rege, and his interests in recording equipment and sonic textures began to emerge. "That's where I first learned about four-tracks, and there was an ARP 2600 that would just sit out in the hallway." With an empty theater for studio space, he inhabited what sounds like an exploring musician's paradise. "You could sign out Synsonics drum kits. We had access to lots of musical toys."
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."