Now I'm sure there are Phish fans whose refined sense of improvisational appreciation would dismiss the Swords' sonic tendrils of guitar work instead of recognizing the axis-turning ramifications of these three musicians collaborating together--that's an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of listening to bands who don't write choruses. Their loss--Dave Brylawski (guitarist/singer from Polvo, a band who created something that for me, at least, sounds like living in the Triangle in a decade defined by the commodification of apathy, i.e. "grunge"), Chuck Johnson (whose fretwork in the two-to-three piece outfit Spatula had my friends and me in high school tossing aside our copies of Nevermind), and Grant Tennille (if The Sword and the Stone were set in the Triangle but a guitar were stuck in that stone instead of a sword, Grant would be the one to pull it out after everyone else had tried and failed) don't have many choruses either, but they don't mess around when it comes to six strings. Or 11, or even 19, for that matter.
Combining acoustic guitars with foreign instruments like the rubab, the tambura and the cumbus (that's JOOM-bOOsh), the Swords weave a web of steel strings that ensnares traditional Eastern melodies and Appalachian porch tunes. Their first two albums, titled Idyll Swords and Idyll Swords II, are sprawling combinations of acoustic mayhem, field recordings and the droning undercurrent of these mysterious instruments. Late last year they released a self-titled (titles--what?) EP as part of a subscription-only series perpetrated by local label Three Lobed Records. The new EP consists of five short compositions that burrow into the subconscious and lurk there until you suddenly awake at 5:34 a.m., sparkling guitar lines ringing in your brain. (It's also in a very limited edition, so if you desire to obtain a copy you should head to the local record stores before there aren't any left.)
"I like it because it's short--the sun is relatively in the same position when it's over ... you don't notice it getting darker outside," says Tennille of the new EP, which is less than half as long as each of the first two releases. The band was able to cut some of the ideas they felt were not up to par rather than including them just to make the recording a certain length. The result is more direct, but it's still a pleasant challenge discovering all the sounds layered in the unpredictable mix.
"It's interesting discovering how these instruments fit together, instruments you might associate with some other traditions, like a Chinese lute [ruan] that sounds a lot like a banjo. Grant actually has a Turkish banjo [cumbus] that sounds really bizarre, like a double-stringed, chorusy kind of mandolin," says Johnson.
Around 1996, Johnson and Brylawski started getting together to play quieter permutations of the Middle Eastern sounds Polvo was exploring at the time. Tennille, a mutual friend of both, was inspired around the same time by the different instruments in Brylawski's house and began to discover what sounds he could make with them. All three joined forces soon after.
"I guess I was intrigued by [the instruments], because I love Indian music," Tennille says, "and Dave and Chuck had some of these instruments ... I'd go over to Dave's house to hang out and end up in his room, playing the stuff."
"It was a way to justify buying all this ..." says Johnson, indicating the arsenal of instruments in his tranquil home studio. "I mean, Dave obviously had been dabbling with all that stuff in Polvo, and I had been playing banjo and some other strings before we got together."
After Polvo broke up, Brylawski moved to New York City for graduate school. An internship at Alan Lomax's Association for Cultural Equity provided him access to the massive library of old 78 rpm records from around the world that Lomax had collected, and Brylawski immersed himself in hours of listening.
"Ash [Bowie, Polvo guitarist] and I used to listen to a lot of Indian and Turkish music in college," Brylawski says, "But listening to [Lomax's] collection was very influential to me. It was like listening to a mix tape from around the world, which I think is part of the reason those first two Idyll Swords records have certain aspects similar to a mix tape."
Journeys several years ago to Turkey by Brylawski and Tennille and to India by Johnson also proved fruitful in many ways. Seeing indigenous musicians living and breathing the music the Swords were inspired by was heartening, and some of the performances they witnessed ended up as the field recordings that fade in and out of songs like ghostly radio transmissions on the first two albums. Plus, being in countries where pushpa veenas (a 19-stringed, sitar-like axe with sympathetic, or drone, strings that resonate in the same key as the strings the melodies are played on) and sazes (I hope that's the correct pluralization--a small instrument similar to a mandolin with adjustable frets and three sets of chorused strings) are easily available for purchase didn't hurt, either.
The band has played a total of four shows in the time they've been together. Some of this is the result of Brylawski's residence in New York, but the nature of the music doesn't lend itself well to live performance.
"It takes a week just to get to the point where we can kind of get on stage, and then we get on stage, and the microphones are feeding back ... all these 'weird' instruments that you have to mic [unconventionally] to have it sound good, and you can't hear the other guys," says Tennille. "Having played more rock, it's an easier medium to deal with the problems that happen [live] than with super-quiet acoustic stuff."
"It doesn't translate well," says Johnson, pointing out their performance a couple years ago at the Transmissions festival in Carrboro. "A huge cavernous rock club is not the place to do really quiet acoustic music."
"I feel so much more naked and vulnerable with an acoustic instrument on stage," says Brylawski. "It's so much easier to just wail away on an electric guitar behind a wall of noise."
The band is limited in some ways due to the long-distance aspect of their relationship, but it is this very facet that provides some of the band's spontaneity. Had they more time to work on the songs, things would probably sound a lot different.
"It sounds good, but it makes me wonder what would happen if we had enough time to listen to the stuff and get comfortable with it," says Tennille. "I've talked to Dave, and he'll say, 'Yeah, I listened to that, and I could have done this and this and this,' and I know I feel like that about Chuck's things."
"It just goes with the territory of having a long-distance band," Johnson adds. "We only get together when we have a project to work on."
The members manage to stay busy when the Swords are sheathed, preserving their sharpness. Johnson plays guitar in Shark Quest, is scoring a documentary, and releases a wide variety of recordings (see his Web site, www.bullfigparty.org/cirox, for a rundown of the proliferation). Brylawski and Tennille have been working on a rock project called The Black Taj, which will debut next month in the Triangle. And on occasion, Tennille fronts an ensemble dubbed the Jimi Hendrix Inexperience, who deliver searing renditions of the legendary guitarist's songs that aren't beaten to death by WRDU's vomitous programming.
But when the moons align in accordance with the Oracle and the gypsy wind whistles to the East, these three modal shamans climb aboard their dusty magic carpet of tone and fly to a land where Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson (the dark-blue-blazer-over-white-turtleneck-wearing wanker Eric Johnson, not the sonic terrorist from the Archers of Loaf) have been imprisoned for eternity in a tower full of fire-breathing Ornette Colemans.