THE GREAT SWIM ACROSS THE CHANNEL
“Swimming” in Berlin, Privatclub, 27.03.12
John Sampson is a good guy. More than that, he’s a good singer, a very good one, and the young Englishmen surrounding him on stage are good too, at least from the sound of things. Surprisingly good, to be more precise. Swimming by name, they are playing to nodding heads and swaying bodies in Berlin’s Privatclub, not their first trip to this city. The music is a shifting mix of fibrous tonal guitar waves punctuated by John’s quavering vocal trail, itself a hybrid of conversational melodic statement and benevolent falsetto. Not bombast and not understatement, the music is also much more than simply a comfortable compromise in between. The band is loud, and guitar strings are occasionally attacked to within an inch of their existence. This goes over very well. Despite the low ceiling in the venue and its determination to throw the sound back at the audience in a distorted din, the band plays like there was a great blue sky over their heads. Drummer Peter Sampson is concentrated and of athletic aim, while guitarist Joff Spittlehouse, bassist Blake Pearson and keyboardist Sam Potter veer between solid stance and more fluid moves.
Among the throng is multi-award-winning filmmaker Simon Ellis, who has come down from Hamburg, where he is working on a trailer for the Hamburg Short Film Festival, to see his friends play, although they’ll be in the Hanseatic City the next day for the last stop of this tour. Theirs is a fruitful trade-off, with Ellis making most of the band’s videos, and Swimming providing inspiration for Ellis, as with the film “Binaural Swimming (Beach)”, which had its World Premiere during Ellis’s retrospective at [DL8] (the 8th Berlin International Directors Lounge) in February this year. He brought John along for the occasion.
The show increases in intensity before ending, with the guys on stage moving their well-meaning assault on their instruments up to a tornado-grade rush of layered melodic energy before bidding good night and disappearing into the relative sanctuary of backstage. The feeling on the ground is good, like seeing after-images of fireworks, but in your ears. Swimming has surely just added to their followers. Norwegian indie-stars Megaphonic Thrift, also playing here tonight, are luckily not in competition.
Outside after, I chat a bit with the singer. John gets my vote if anyone’s looking to cast St. Francis of Assisi. Already in Berlin in February, moving around the goings-on at [DL8], he displayed some of that hypnotizing inner peace that is a rarity in people who can belt their lungs out. Now, on the subject of the current state of things, he talks of “shedding old skin”and quickly correlates this to the name of the new single, “All Things Made New,” from the optimistically titled Ecstatics International. Sam, the keyboardist, is a new man on board, replacing Andy Wright. What else is changing? Before I can follow this line, a demure voice asks something. Two Russian girls have made their way to the show and speak in quite good English, but with enough accent to make them exotic. They seem shy. They talk to John but appear anxious to meet his brother, Peter. They first encountered him when he played in the far-flung Russian industrial city Perm, a million inhabitants sidled up near to the European side of the Urals. Peter, it should be noted, has a musical alter-ego: as THePETEBOX (the preferred configuration of capitals and lower-case), he has a fanbase all his own, and it is a widespread one. Blake joins us and he and John sign CDs for the girls. The latter win points with me by understanding my Russian.
Peter emerges from inside. He is somewhat harder-edged in appearance than his brother John, looking a bit like he’s seen some underbellies John might have been spared. They may yet come. It’s a good bet that Swimming won’t be submerging all too soon. When the girls address him, he seems polite enough but somewhat tired and not sure who they might be. They talk some more; he sifts through his memory and then places them. Peter is a busy man, with THePETEBOX doing his thing on various continents, and Swimming (and another project, We Show Up On Radar) filling in what time is left. THePETEBOX gets around to places Swimming has yet to hit.
Sometimes, it seems, it can go the other way around, with the audience coming to you. John tells me a girl once travelled from Marseille to London to see a Swimming gig, and ended up living with the (then) keyboardist. How far do you have to go to keep a fanbase? Or, the other way: does being a musician really have that many perks?
Another girl approaches. She is German, but first saw the band when living in Britain. She talks to Blake, who seems unassuming, not the one you’d pick to be the art-man of the outfit, but the covers and other paraphernalia are, I’m told, made up of images from his hand and mind. As far as I can make out, in hiding behind another moniker. Another alter-ego. When Joff (a.k.a. Jonathan) joins them, John and I get back to talking about what’s afoot these days. This brings us to Simon Ellis. They met back in Nottingham when Ellis came to a gig of theirs and said “a lot of nice things” about them afterward. Ellis has since dedicated a great deal of time to the boys from his home town, and it seems to be paying off. As well, they have begun to pay back in individual style – at least John. Presently, he is doing the music to Ellis’s trailer for the Hamburg Short Film Festival. Anything like Swimming?, I want to know. “Dance beats,” he answers. Not really what Swimming sounds like, even of their last album is pop-friendlier than the debut The Fireflow Trade. Talking of his efforts, he refreshingly uses pictures to describe sounds, rather than references to instruments and studio tricks. The music he is working to achieve here will feel like “flying at low level, low enough to see the whites of your eyes from the ground.” It is left to me to figure just how you put this into music, but I appreciate this visual-to-musical leap. He thinks the way I do.
It all sounds like a well-oiled machine. No catastrophes to speak of tonight either, save Blake’s hand catching fire backstage from a flaming Sambuca. All quiet on the continental front, eardrum-threatening volume aside. Did you make any mistakes tonight, I ask. “Nothing but mistakes, a united intent of mistakes,” he quips, his eyes gleaming. No, these guys haven’t made any major mistakes yet, from the looks of things.
And from here…? “I don’t know, world domination?” John laughs. Joff is now listening in, his demeanour loose and relaxed, although John says he is the one whose fingers can move in blur speed on the guitar. “The next album will be imbedded directly in your mind, like in that movie with the dreams….” He fights to come up with the name; Joff helps him recall it. “Yeah, like in Inception.” No question about their wanting to come in through the front door, maybe without knocking.
The world may belong to them yet. Right now, on a planet peopled by the bad and the good, Swimming still number among the good guys. And fairly high on the scale, too.