(extended version of an article published in Star News, with more Q&A below)
By Brian Tucker
Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine has been MIA. Their last show was almost a year ago – a benefit, not exactly a public showing of the multi-member band’s prowess. They released a Christmas EP in 2013 and 2012’s Overgrown. The band never broke up, just went on hiatus.
“We’ve been very infrequent with performances,” Lacy said. “Scheduling can be hard – the band has multiple personalities and breaks into different factions. I focused more on writing music than putting energy into shows.”
Its members are always game. Interviewing Temple5 last summer, the local live hip-hop band has three Swimming Machine members – Keith Butler Jr. (drums), Aaron Lane (trumpet), AJ Reynolds (saxophone), Reynolds said he joined to have fun and Butler echoed the band’s “temporary hiatus.”
“It’s harder for Justin because he’s the leader,” Butler said. “I can’t imagine. It was different for me. (In the beginning) I showed up and played my drum parts. He said, there’s this show at The Whiskey, wanna play? Then it turned into a band.”
“I think we all needed a musical outlet then,” Lane added. “We were in school. We just wanted to have fun and do something that wasn’t work. Open mic nights at The Soapbox, we’d play a forty-five minute set. After a couple months it pulled itself together and had an interesting sound. We could never forget those songs. They’re in the bag.”
“We’ll play if he books a show,” Reynolds said.
Lacy recalls beginning as a really informal project. He described it as simply being nothing but a fun time every now and then. But things got serious and the band still want to treat it as an ongoing project. But they got serious, recording the full length Overgrown. It was a long process, one Lacy plans to bridge with a faster experience recording the Christmas EP.
“Its how I’d always (recorded), slowly multi-tracking things together,” Lacy said. “(The EP) opened my eyes that it needs to be simpler.”
Saturday’s show isn’t just a reunion. Last fall Lacy received a regional artist grant from the local Arts Council to put out a new album. The band has been working on new songs (they’ll play two at the show).
“We’ve got some stuff cooking and will give us a stepping stone to put together more this fall to record.”
The music has evolved too. Years ago, they needed to change up material for the Beaufort Music Festival. “Weeds” from Overgrown took on a different personality. On the album it’s intimate – acoustic guitar and vocals. In a live performance video for “Weeds” at School Kids Music in Chapel Hill it pairs the song’s intimate qualities with Butler’s low lying hip hop beat.
“(I asked) how can we play it in a festival setting and not bore the crowd?” Lacy said. “We took it, and with all those players, it’s not hard to go off in the realm of hip hop.”
“In re-shaping “Weeds” I played a groove that laid really well over Justin’s guitar part,” Butler remembers. “A nice fat backbeat that basically turned it into an R&B tune. My thought process is the same with new material – what can I play that best compliments what Justin is doing?”
The re-shaped sound of “Weeds” illustrates the new direction of material.
“We’re using acoustic instruments with a hip hop vibe in some regards,” Lacy said. “Mostly it was (Butler’s) drumbeat that brought the vibe. I think AJ, Aaron and Keith really love the full band version. I’m kind of partial, I like both. It’s more fun to play the full band version.”
Do you see the show having a theatrical feel?
Lacy: Definitely. Our shows definitely have or had a very theatrical feel to it. That’s one of the elements we tried to place on the album. As we strung all the songs together as one cohesive project, hopefully it tells a story beginning to end. (Like going inside someone’s head)
Why a show now? Did something prompt playing again?
Lacy: Last fall, I received a grant from the Arts Council here to put out a new album. So we’ve been working on new songs for that. This show is a chance for us to let people know we still exist. We’ve got some stuff cooking and it will give us a stepping stone to put together more as we go into the studio this fall to work on that.
It’s a regional artist grant that can be for any kind of performance or visual artist. They assist local artists on a specific project that you apply for. Mine was to write and record and album. It won’t be released in the fall. I’ll probably sit on it for a while and build up some good marketing for it. It has to be written and recorded by fall.
Will the new material have a shift in sound?
Lacy: If you’ve seen this video for “Weeds” in a record store…it’s a one-off video of us playing the acoustic version of “Weeds” and I like to use that as the overall direction were trying for this (new album). We’re using all our acoustic instruments for it and with a hip hop vibe to it in some regards. The other example is that song from the Christmas EP, some of that vibe.
Reynolds: We were getting ready to play the Beaufort Music Festival and we had this song, its still one of my favorites. On the album its just acoustic guitar and vocals. (I asked) how can we take this thing and play it in a festival setting and not bore the crowd? We took it, and with all those players, it’s not hard for us to go off in the realm of hip hop given who’s in the band.
Lacy: Mostly it was (Butler’s) drumbeat that brought the vibe and we all really dug it I think AJ, Aaron and Keith really loves the full band version. I’m kind of partial, I like both. It’s more fun top play the full band version.
Were you surprised by the process recording Overgrown a few years ago?
Lacy: I wasn’t surprised by the process. It was a long process. It’s how I’d always done recording, slowly multi-tracking things together. When we recorded the Christmas EP, that was way more of a surprise. We went in Hourglass Studios and recorded as session recording and came back for some overdubbing minor instruments. That was way more of a surprise. It opened my eyes that it needs to be simpler in terms of the process.
I enjoyed multi-tracking, but now I’m trying to figure out how to wed those two, a high production sound quality but not be totally canned, which is always the goal. But in terms of time we put into it, that you actually put into it, you walk away with something that feels more organic and you’re happier with if you can get in there and play it down.
I’m aiming for tracking live and then overdub other sounds so we get a little of both worlds. With Overgrown we could go in and rerecord or find something that works better. With live tracking you have to kind of accept it. You end up accepting it unless there’s something totally wrong and you do a new session on it.
We started as just a live band and some people think of us as a jam band, we are in some ways because we combine so much improvisation in what we do. I don’t like the jam band label thrown at us but we do have a lot of organic stuff going on and instrumental stuff going on and trying to get that to come across in multi-track recording is difficult.
How do you look back on Overgrown now?
Lacy: I very occasionally listen to it, parts of it. I’m really pleased with a lot of the recordings. I feel like the last time I put it on I was far enough away from it to feel like I was hearing it for the first time. I was really happy with it. When you’re in it it’s hard to have a good objective on it. I think I’m more capable to listening to the sound as a whole (now).
What are you looking forward to about the show?
Lacy: I haven’t played personally with this band in a while, that’s what I’m looking forward to most, a laid back show. I’ve been working more on playing solo gigs. This one’s just going to be fun, going through all our old material. I play restaurants and wedding gigs, playing ceremonies and cocktail hours, original and cover material, jazz and classical music. We’re definitely doing two new ones.
You’ll record in the fall?
Lacy: A 2016 release. I’m going to take time releasing this one, take the slow route, and shoot a video before releasing it. Just gets ducks in a row before we actually go public with it. It takes so much energy to write and record. Trying to promote and publicize right after is a lot of work.