Jun 25, 2021
By Andy Von Pip
2020 was certainly one of the most challenging years the artistic community has ever faced. However Scottish quartet Swim School—comprising Alice Johnson (vocals/guitar), Lewis Bunting (guitar), Matt Mitchell (bass), and newest member Billy McMahon (drums)—managed to turn the restrictions imposed on society by a global pandemic into a genuinely positive and creative experience.
A combination of lockdown and the arrival of McMahon gave the Edinburgh based quartet the space and the impetus to really hone their sound and concentrate on their songwriting. “Billy’s such a heavy hitter that we had to play louder to be heard!” jokes Johnson. But there’s much more to Swim School’s evolution than simply “turning it up to eleven.” By taking a step back and focusing inwardly rather than randomly throwing out content on social media they have emerged from lockdown a different proposition, adding a real swagger and majestic swoop to their sound. For example “Let Me Inside Your Head,” released in March, is a majestic shoegazing juggernaut, in which Johnson gives a towering vocal performance whilst their second release of 2021, “Outside,” combines swirling distorted guitars with an emphatically melodic chorus beautifully realized by Johnson’s mellifluous vocals. Today they have released a new single, “Anyway,” and announced the release of their debut EP, Making Sense of It All, which will be out August 13.
Under the Radar chatted to Johnson and McMahon about how they have developed their dynamic new sound and how they’ve made the best use of their time during lockdown.
Andy Von Pip (Under the Radar): How did you all get together and form Swim School?
Alice Johnson: I met Lewis, our guitarist, at college, he was on the same music course as me. Then I was introduced to Matt who knew Lewis from school—they were in a band and I used to go to all their gigs in Edinburgh. One day Lewis sent me a text and asked me if a fancied being in a band—I was buzzing, it’s something I’d always wanted to do. So we started jamming and our first show was with Billy’s old band Indigo Velvet. Last summer we asked Billy to join us and it’s the best decision we ever made. We kind of started writing indie pop, but since Billy joined it’s gotten much louder, he’s a heavy player, which is great, and I really love our new material. I can’t believe we haven’t even played these songs to a live audience yet, but I can’t wait.
Billy McMahon: Yeah, I joined in about June last year, I was a fan of Swim School anyway, so I’ve been in a privileged position of seeing them play live in the past from a fan’s perspective. When the band asked to meet up I thought we were just going for a coffee and didn’t think anything of it. They were going through a transition, so initially, I came on board to help out with a few livestreams, which was, of course, a very 2020 thing to do. And then when the guys mentioned they were starting writing and doing prep for an EP I was keen to get on board. It’s been pretty full-on ever since and I’ve been loving it.
Alice: Yeah we asked Billy if he’d be willing to help out on sessions initially. We were fans of his old band and thought he might be too cool to join us or it might be a burden for him to be full time in Swim School. [Laughs] But when we wrote the last single “Outside” we thought we just have to ask him to join us properly
So let’s go back to the pre-pandemic. 2019 ends and you’ve been picking up plaudits and have featured on some notable tip lists, as 2020 rolls around you’ve got big plans and then BOOM—COVID hits and the world goes upside down. Was it frustrating—a feeling that you may have lost momentum or conversely did you feel the delay allowed you to refine your sound?
Alice: It was a bit of a mix of both. We started around 2019; we played some live shows and put our first single out. And then things started to happen so fast it was all a bit mental. We got offered so many great opportunities and at the end of the year, we wanted to keep the momentum going and make 2020 an even better year. But then we all know what happened next. To be honest, now I feel like we are one of the few bands who may have benefitted from the lockdown in the sense that our first year together was so hectic we didn’t have a chance to catch our breath. The pause gave us a chance to decide where we wanted to go with the band. The lockdown gave us some space and forced us to stop the gigging so we decided to focus on our writing. And then when Billy joined it was a breath of fresh air with all his experience and particular style of drumming. Initially, when we came back this year we wondered if everybody might have forgotten all about us but we’ve had a great response and now we feel we are in an even better position than before. We’ve worked hard on our songwriting and have a body of new work we are really proud of.
So initially did you have to do songwriting sessions remotely?
Alice: Yeah me Matt and Lewis had all been furloughed from our jobs, so during the first lockdown I set up a little home studio and we would do writing sessions over Zoom. And then when restrictions relaxed a little we were legally allowed to meet up in our studio. The hardest part for me was going back to my day job. I had been getting furlough money and could spend my time with the band, so it felt a bit like getting paid to spend my time in the studio. On the plus side, it gave me an insight into what it would be like to be a full-time musician without a day job.
Billy: Well I had to work right through the lockdowns! I mean, I feel blessed that I’m working but I when the guys were all off work and meeting up for coffee and writing sessions I was like “Arrgh!” But we’re coming out of lockdown with this body of work now, which will be the bulk of the sets we’ll be playing the rest of the year, I don’t think we would have been in this position without lockdown.
Alice: Yeah definitely, we have taken a positive from a negative. Instead of sulking about the lack of gigs, we thought we’ll never get this much free time again to write and develop our sound [unless we get signed] so we should try and make the most of it. We feel it’s paid off.
Glasgow seems to get a lot of attention musically but what’s the music scene like in Edinburgh at the moment?
Billy: If you are outside looking at the Scottish music scene then Glasgow is certainly at the forefront and rightly so. They do have about five times more venues than Edinburgh and these are venues to accommodate every stage of your career. They’ve got grassroots venues for when you’re just starting out, they’ve got the two Academy venues for mid to larger size gigs and then there’s the SSE Hydro for your stadium gigs. If you a touring band or you want to see a big band then you’re probably going to go to Glasgow. The Edinburgh scene seems to come in waves. Before COVID, it was really strong obviously there was Swim School breaking out and Young Fathers who won a Mercury Prize and we have great independent venues like Sneaky Pete’s who do their very best to support new artists. Like many cities, we have lost some venues sadly, due to COVID.
So “Outside” was actually recorded last summer and I guess the titles a bit ironic given we haven’t been allowed “outside” of late, however, it’s about toxic relationships and how that affects your mental health and well being? Without prying too much, was this from an observational standpoint or experiences?
Alice: Well, it’s not just based on one person, so without digging a hole for myself it’s more about those certain types of people, we’ve met a lot of them especially during our growth as a band working in this industry. But I always say, “if the shoe fits.” [Laughs] But ultimately I do like to leave songs open to interpretation rather than say it’s about this particular thing or you must think of this one person. I had the idea for “Outside” a while back, but it’s a song that’s had quite a journey and initially it sounded completely different to the finished version. The original demo was a lot slower and its transformation has been very interesting. It was great to finally get it out this year!
You gave a fantastic performance at The Great Escape showcase, which was streamed online this year. You really seemed to go for it! Is it difficult to summon up that energy without a live audience or was it kind of a release performing again after the year we’ve had?
Alice: Funny thing is when we were soundchecking and running through it, the organizers were saying things like “you’re a bit static” and “we need more energy.” And we were like “yeah that’s because this is the soundcheck.” I mean you don’t want to waste your energy when soundchecking and running through it and, besides, you’re preoccupied with stuff like getting your levels right. And as soon as they said “action” we took off and they did kind of have to eat their words. [Laughs] But going from not playing live for ages to going to play a place that looked like a TV studio can be quite daunting and obviously very different without a crowd, I just tried to visualize a crowd in my mind. We do thrive off the live performance and as a band, I’d say we are pretty good at it. I just can’t wait to get back to playing to a live audience again.
And you’ve got some decent looking festivals lined up for later in the year and a headline show in Glasgow if things go according to plan?
Alice: Yeah, actually when we were travelling to do a BBC live session recently we found out that we were doing the Latitude festival and Wolf Alice are also on the bill which is unreal. We are so excited about that, Wolf Alice are a huge inspiration, we are massive fans and have so much admiration for that band. They aren’t scared to bend the rules or dip into different genres and are so good at what they do. As a band, we don’t want to be the next Wolf Alice we want to be the first Swim School, but we did discuss at the outset that we don’t want to restrict ourselves to writing the same type of songs over and over again. Hopefully, the forthcoming EP will demonstrate that. So “Let Me Inside Your Head” is our heaviest, “Outside” has a grungy ’90s vibe, “Anyway,” well, I don’t even know what genre that is [laughs], and “Everything” is a big sad one. At the moment we are still deciding on the final track.
You also did an amazing cover of “Love Story” by Taylor Swift on that BBC session and turned a sweet, romantic optimistic pop song into a heavy dystopian doom rocker.
Billy: We fancied doing a cover for the BBC session. Lewis and I were in the studio and we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do. And Alice was adamant that whatever track we did we had to give it the Swim School treatment and make it our own. So we were going through some Spotify playlists and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” came up and we started singing it and I was like, “what if we did something like that?” Alice wasn’t sure at first but we gave it a go. Now I’m not a guitarist but it must have been dropped to a D or G. It’s heavy and we made it sound like it could be one of our songs if you ignored the lyrics. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback about it.
Alice: If we were going to do it then I really wanted it to be a grungy, kind of twisted version of “Love Story.” I remember watching Triple J and saw a rock band do a grungy cover of Bon Iver and it was amazing. I thought then that if we ever do a cover I want us to make the song our own. So yeah we dropped it down to a D and made up our own chord progression and just jammed and we loved it, we had so much fun covering it. The first session jamming Matt wasn’t there but when we played it to him as soon as I started singing he said, “I know this song” and he isn’t your average Taylor Swift fan! So who knows we might even play it as part of our live set.
And finally what are your aspirations for the rest of 2021 and going into 2022?
Alice: Well, before the Latitude Festival was confirmed I’d have said supporting Wolf Alice would have been on my bucket list. Okay, so we aren’t actually the support but we’ll be on the same stage so I’m taking that. [Laughs] Hopefully, we’ll get on a support tour again as they are a brilliant way of spreading the word. Oh and get a great record deal, give up our day jobs, and tour the UK and Europe. We’d love to go to America too as I’ve never been.
Billy: Yeah if we can get rid of COVID and then we’ll try to gig as much as we can. It would be amazing to go to SXSW next year, we’d love to play that as a band. So hopefully we’ll keep building momentum go to SXSW and then became the biggest band in America! I think that would be a pretty good year, I think we’d all take that. [Laughs]