Though they never found the same kind of commercial success as Bay Area punk peers like Green Day or Rancid, Swingin' Utters have been at it just as long, cranking out critically-acclaimed stylistically-diverse records for 25 years now, racking up a legion of loyal followers in the process, even getting a 2010 tribute record in their honor featuring covers of their tunes from punk heavyweights like Dropkick Murphys and Fucked Up. Their latest LP is Poorly Formed, and for this edition of Tell Me About That Album, we chatted with singer Johnny Bonnell about the record, the band's longevity and how Project Runway influenced the album. Swingin' Utters play The Highline on March 2.
What made you more prepared than usual this time? We were more rehearsed. And we'd practiced the songs and played them live, which, on the last record we didn't do. As you play them live, you get more comfortable with them and you make little changes here and there so the songs got better as we were able to practice them.
It's a pretty diverse record stylistically. How do you guys know if a song will work for the Utters? Are there some that get rejected because they don't fit the mold? I tend to write purposely for each band that I'm in. It's usually not a problem for me. [Guitarist and vocalist Darius Koski] can flip-flop his songs in between bands because they have a similar quality. It's pretty easy for us to figure out which one should become a Swingin' Utters song as opposed to a side project. We don't care if they are really different too. It's always good to be open to trying new things with a band like the Swingin' Utters.
"Military Barbara Billingsley" includes lots of TV name dropping and the line "I think I'm gay for Louis CK." Can you talk about the origins of the song? Me and [guitarist Jack Dalrymple] wrote that one. The way that we write is that he usually sends me music and I'll just write a melody and lyrics over it. The way [this song] came about is that I noticed there were no songs about the comedians I like and the people in pop culture that I like. I just wanted to name off a few that influenced us over the years. The "Military Barbara Billingsley," I got that from watching Project Runway. One of the designers on Project Runway dressed and looked like Barbara Billingsley and he dressed in these little military outfits so I kept calling him Military Barbara Billingsley.
What about "The Fake Rat of Dave Navarro," is there a story behind that title? I didn't come up with that title until Jack sent me the music, which was titled something really weird in a different language. But if you sounded it out it sounded like "The Fake Rat of Dave Navarro." It really doesn't have anything to do with being against Dave Navarro. I don't even know the guy. He could be a perfectly fine human so I'm not railing on him or anything like that it's just a title I came up with in my weird, insane brain.
Can you talk a bit about the origin of the title, Poorly Formed? Which came first, the song or the album title, and what inspired it? The song came first. Jack sent this crazy music to me and I thought it sounded really science-fiction. I think he was watching science-fiction movies when he came up with the riff. And I loved the titled. It seemed so big. It just sort of sums up the world for me. Then we all went over lyrics and titles for songs when we were trying to figure out the name of the record and we figured that one was best one.
How about the cover art and its various images - where did that idea come from? That's all my stuff. I've been doing these drawings over the past year or so. I rounded up the ones that had that "poorly formed" quality. The whole idea was Darius', who suggested we have a little picture that goes along with each song. And I didn't draw the pictures for the song but I found pictures I'd drawn in the past and put them together with some of the quotes from the songs and that's how all those came about.
Do you remember the first time you played Seattle? I think it was with Chaos U.K. at El Corazon. We met a lot of really cool people. We met the guy who did IFA Records and he had us pop into his studio there and we recorded overnight and it was the The Sounds Wrong EP that was done in Seattle.
So he saw you play one night then asked you to come back to the studio to record in the middle of the night after you'd played? Yeah, it was a really quick thing. It was awesome. He put us up for the night and it was cool just to hang out in a studio all night, sleeping in the control room.
There was a long break between Dead Flowers and Here Under Protest but only two years between that one and this one. Do you anticipate you'll keep releasing records with more frequency now? We really want to keep going. I'm really enjoying the process right now and I get along really well with the band and it's a lot of fun. Right now is the most fun I've ever being in the Swingin' Utters or any band. I really want to strike right now and just keep going and going and not worry about time per se, but just enjoy it and really just create as much as we can right now while the going is good.
What's making it so good right now? I don't know. Maybe it's just everyone is in a good frame of mind in their lives. For me, I'm super happy. I have a great family and great friends and all the fans that come out to the shows are awesome so I couldn't be happier right now with my life, so that could be part of it.
How are you guys able to balance jobs and families at this point in your lives? I'm sure it was easier 20 years ago when you all had fewer responsibilities? Life to me is just scrambling. I'm constantly scrambling and just getting by. I never was able to make this my job. This was never enough money to do that. There's a nervous part of it for me about because I don't know what's going to happen the next week or month in terms of money coming in, so I'm constantly drawing, creating anything I can, printing shirts for friends and bands.
Do you make some of your living through being an artist? I do, but that's a super tough one to make a living off of. I get some commissions every once in a while and I put myself out there a little bit but I'm not really into promoting myself as like this great artist. People come to me if they like my stuff rather than me stuffing things down their throats.
25 years as a band is pretty impressive. Can you offer and wisdom on how to keep things together for so long? I think the best thing to do is just understand each band member and their quirks and personalities. I think being together with these guys for so long I've just learned what makes each of them mad and happy and I know how to talk to them. I think it's a really easy thing to do once you figure everyone out. It's just become second nature to be generous and kind to everyone and make sure everyone is happy.