One of the most frustrating experiences a music fan can have is watching their favorite band's success be stymied by inertia. Whatever the excuse, be it "we just play music for fun" or "audiences don't get us," the sad fact is that many bands simply aren't willing to put in the time, effort, and energy to become truly successful. Swords, however, is not one of those bands. In fact, the Portland six some might be some of the hardest-working band members around.
The first incarnation of Swords arrived in 1998 at an impromptu jam session after a show some of their previous bands played in Portland. In 2000, founding members Corey Ficken and Ryan Stowe found themselves "bandless," as Ficken puts it, and by 2001, Swords had become more than a side project. They recruited drummer and programmer Evan Railton, violinist Lisa Reitz, guitarist Jeff Gardner, and Ficken's younger brother Joey, who also drums. With the lineup solidified, the band started touring quickly. "In 2001, Portland didn't have too much local color," explains Ficken. "We realized that in order to build any sort of base, we had to start touring the East Coast."
Their big break came when former Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus tapped them to open his solo tour. "It was a great tour to be on, because everyone was very serious about what they were doing," Ficken says. "We were treated well, and we got a lot out of the experience." The band's first EP, recorded as Swords Project, was released while they were on tour, and they released their debut LP, "Entertainment Is Over If You Want It," shortly thereafter. Throughout the process, Swords stayed on the road and followed a rigorous touring schedule. The only time they took breaks was to record and master their new record, the brilliant Metropolis. Only a few weeks after the record's release, they're hitting the road yet again for a month-long tour opening for Dios Malos.
Metropolis represents a departure for the band, although not the departure many critics have pointed to. "Writers say this record sounds different than our earlier records, which is somewhat untrue," says Ficken. "The big difference with Metropolis is the production. We put a lot of work in to making this record sound good, as opposed to our first record, which was mixed in two days." Ficken continues: "If you listen to the last track of the first EP and then listen to the new record, they sound very similar, only the sound quality on the new record is much better. The vocals were always up front, only on the new record, the sound is cleaner and you can hear them."
Ficken is equally opinionated about the inevitable comparisons. "People are comparing us to Death Cab for Cutie, which is interesting. Ben Gibbard [Death Cab's frontman] and I have been friends for a long time and have similar influences, which I think is where most of that comes from. We're less poppy and genre-specific, to be sure, but I think we share a similar work ethic." Ficken is not shy about expressing his desire for success, and is quick to point out that many indie "slacker" icons were actually workhorses. "Malkmus made it look effortless, but he was extremely talented and disciplined," he says. "I'm from Chico, Calif., the home of several great bands that never bothered to tour or do any work. None of them ever made it out of Chico."
Making it out Chico was only the first step in Ficken's plan. "Ideally, I'd like to live off my music," he says. "I'd like to not have to worry about money and just write all day long. Our peers are starting to do well, and that gives me hope. At the same time, I don't want to seem entitled and say we deserve more. Still, I would like to be able to play music full time." Ficken may not have to wait too long for this goal to be realized. Metropolis is a tremendously self-assured record, executed with grace and never overbearing. Songs move along quickly, despite the dreamy style of composition, and the band manages to strike the rare balance of creating an ambient sound that never drags.
Live, Swords appear confident and fully immersed in the show. "We put a lot of work into our live shows -- we're not just messing around on stage," Ficken explains. "Bands can be made or broken by their live show. At a really good show, it's about more than just seeing music or seeing your friends and drinking beer. Most people like to see live music because it moves in a different way. Otherwise, you can just stay at home and listen to the record."