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Drinking heavily, sorely missing his wife, the words that saved Richard Swift's sanity suddenly spilled from his mouth: "The paycheck just isn't worth it."
Thus ended his well-compensated career as a session player for the contemporary-Christian-music industry, on a night following a concert in Jacksonville, Florida, where Swift had been performing with his friend Frank Lenz. The utterance was a trenchant confirmation of everything that had been bugging Lenz, too.
"If Jesus Christ were to come back and play violin like Paganini, the church wouldn't dig it," says Lenz of the modern Christian-music world. "Christian music isn't just an industry; it's a sound. You can rock, but you have to rock the right way. You can't rock like the Velvet Underground, but you can rock like Blink-182."
With wives and kids to support and carrying few expectations of what unrestricted musical freedom would bring, the pair returned to Lenz's grimy Huntington Beach studio and began tinkering with the mutant pop sounds that had been thrashing and humming in Swift's head. More than two years after cutting their ties to the contemporary-Christian-music crowd (though not Christianity itself, it should be pointed out), their plunge into career uncertainty now seems to be paying off—at least with some decent label contacts.
The stint of record-company shopping took Swift abroad to London, where he played showcase concerts for various labels. A good omen arrived when he released a single, "Buildings In America," to London record stores. The initial run of 500 copies sold out without the benefit of any radio play or press.
While he waits for a deal to come through, Swift still pays bills with session work, except now he's able to flex more of his boundless—sometimes warped—creativity. A recent jam session found him and Lenz working on a children's music project. But the unfinished, untitled kiddie shindig sounds more appropriate for martinis at a downbeat Silver Lake hipster bar than recess at Romper Room, which goes to the heart of why a guy like Swift can't be happy at a lucrative but dull job: he can't keep anything simple. The song starts with gorgeous Beach Boys-esque piano chords, and just as it's about to crest into something sunnier, it suddenly swerves into a storm of Sun Ra space noise—think Mommy and Daddy are gonna like that? My neighborhood PTA wasn't anything close to this cool.
Another cut is more typical of their work, a new version of one of Swift's older songs, "Half Lit"—again, a clash of perfect pop and noise. Swift's baritone voice often relates malady-of-love tales, in this case, a nasty/sweet bit about co-dependence. While many of his lyrics are clever and pointed, the music's more intriguing on this one, surrounded as it is by beguiling piano chords, sleigh bells and a jazzy trumpet that gives the tune a bittersweet, romantic ending. Then something freaky happens: the romance is hijacked by a riptide of ominous electronic dissonance, quietly dragging all that perfect pop into a dense, clattering underworld. It's like Burt Bacharach playing at his most soulful, and then he downs a shot of hemlock and finds the poison tastes scandalously good.
Their sonic mesh of the gorgeous and the unhinged could take cues from their private lives. Swift, 26, has been married for six years to wife Shealynn, whom he met in his tiny hometown of Cottage Grove, Oregon, 20 miles south of Eugene. They're raising three daughters: Madison, Auna and Kennedy. Lenz, 35, has also been married to wife Lori for six years. While their prosaic home lives give them a sheen of respectability, everything else about them seems to point to a wonderful eccentricity, something like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson on their best non-gun-wielding, non-medicated days.
Swift looks like David Lynch's Eraserhead with a good hygiene regimen. His uniform of black suit jackets is punctuated by a messy pile of hair aching to grow into a refuge for errant birds. Lenz, meanwhile, looks like the perfect '90s slacker, with his green cardigan and jeans marked by a novel rejection of hygiene. His unkempt blond hair is weighted down with an unsightly greasiness. "I haven't showered since last Sunday," he admits. "I don't like the way it makes my skin feel." Not surprisingly, he burns a lot of incense in his studio.
While their lack of interest in conventional fashion may not get them noticed in looks-obsessed Huntington Beach, it's also a sign of their lack of interest in musical trends. Swift's debut EP, The Novelist, is, of all things, a concept album, about a wannabe author searching for love in Depression-era New York City. The music is a mix between experimental electronic grumblings, catchy pop and 1930s-era swing, with banjos, vaudeville trumpets and snappy percussion. If, like most of Swift's music, it sounds outlandish, it also masterfully cuts to the EP's thematic core of wistful yearning and loneliness.
Says Lenz, "It's amazing to have this kid write everything you'd want to say and say it perfectly." That's what Lenz felt when he first met Swift in 1999 at the now-defunct Green Room studios in Huntington Beach. Swift had been visiting some friends of a Christian-music performer from his hometown. Lenz, who had grown up in family of musicians, immediately felt an aural connection with Swift, a self-taught instrumentalist. They started hanging out and planned on collaborating, but different session gigs often interrupted those attempts.