Frontman Austin Williams talks new beginnings, their forthcoming album, and what comes next.
They’re back, baby. And we’re not crying, you’re crying. After four long years of waiting for new Swim Deep songs, the Birmingham boys have blessed us this evening with their beautiful brand new track “To Feel Good”, which just premiered as Annie Mac’s Hottest Record. No big deal.
Their 2013 debut record, Where The Heaven Are We cemented their indie dreamboat status. Psychedelic acid-influenced 2015 sophomore album Mothers proved that Swim Deep are anything but predictable. And their upcoming third album Emerald Classics sees the band doing something different once again, giving us their most pop-fuelled offering yet, perfectly fitting in with all the best jukebox classics.
Leading with “To Feel Good” (riffing on Rozalia’s 1991 hit “Everybody’s Free”), it’s a bold and beautiful return that dictates a day in the life of frontman Austin Williams back when he was 18 in Birmingham. Now 27 and in London, Austin, and OG SD members Cav MacCarthy and James Balmont, have gone through some difficult times and emerged triumphantly on the other side, and with some new faces following the departure of long-time members Zack Robinson and Tom “Higgy” Higgins leading to Swim Deep having, somewhat, of a rebirth.
They’re now ready to make a stunning return that is set to see them right back on top where they belong, and we caught up with Austin in between rehearsals to find out just what we can expect. Or not…
Hey Austin. How are you?
Great, it’s sunny isn’t it? But we’ve been in a dark rehearsal room, today and yesterday, just tying up loose ends, stressing about everything. It’s really exciting though! It feels like you’ve got a job again! Like, the actual job that you want again, not anything else. I’ve been doing a bit of gardening this week too. I fully landscaped someone’s garden accidentally. I didn’t realise how much of a job it was, I just kind of did it. I was really proud of it! Gardening is a bit like making music except you get paid for it. So yeah, I quite like it. But anyway, I divulge…
That’s okay! The new song and video are beautiful by the way. We had a group cry watching it in the office. How are you feeling about putting them out into the big wild world?
Yeah, I’m made up! Like I said, it feels like having your job back. It feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing again, which is nice. The thing is, with the video and the song, I feel like they’re both really good and I’m really proud of them, but I’m kind of numb to them both now so when I hear that you say that you really liked them, that kind of reinforces my confidence. I’m quite scared to release the song, but in a good way. I’m excited but I’m scared. It’s scary when you know people might be waiting to hear it. You don’t want anyone to be disappointed!
I didn’t know what coming back with a new band was going to feel like. I was super, super anxious. I knew that I loved the band that I was in and it felt really good. It felt like a really great new crew to lift off with. It just felt like a “back to normal” kind of thing.
What made you want to lead with “To Feel Good” as the first thing to come back with?
I think it was the first song that I wrote for this album that, when I showed everyone, everyone was like, “That’s the one!” I think it’s a good mixture of giving people something that they’re not going to expect but also giving them something that sounds familiar. I wanted it to be a wholesome kind of start.
The whole story of the song is one I’ve always wanted to write and narrate a kind of mundane day in the life of me when I was 18 in Birmingham, and I had that feeling that I knew exactly what I wanted to do and exactly what I was going to be, but I didn’t quite know how to get there. I was a bit lost. You know that line about the job centre guys saying “Don’t forget me when you’re famous”? That really happened. Well, it’s not that crazy of a thing to happen, but I remember it and it’s kind of ironic that I remember it and I think I will remember it if I am ever famous. Now it’s in a song, so I’ll have to remember it if I ever become famous.
How did you film getting punched in the face so many times?
I actually did get punched! One of the extras was a bit too happy to be punching someone I think. I had lots of training, there was this guy there who had done like Jackie Chan films I think, I hope I haven’t made that up but I did hear that somewhere. He was teaching people how to fake punch, and he taught me how to take a punch. We were practising with this one guy who was a really good actor to be fair, I really liked him, he just got a bit too into it and chinned me and I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve just been punched!” Annoyingly they didn’t actually film that bit, we were just rehearsing. It was fine, I kind of enjoyed it a bit… That’s a bit sadistic innit?
You’re obviously back with a different Swim Deep line-up now. How was that readjustment?
It was a huge impact on me mentally, and I think on all of us. It took us down loads of notches. It was a shock but also a kind of departure that needed to happen in so many ways that we didn’t realise until after. It’s definitely not as extreme but kind of like a relationship ending when you knew it kind of wasn’t working. You don’t feel the relief until a few weeks after and you’re like, “Actually that was probably the best thing to happen.” It was kind of that that put the rocket fuel up our arse to make an album and do it properly.
And how have Robbie and Tom settled in?
They’re both really great. Robbie, he makes music anyway, and Tom, the drummer, has been in tons of bands and that’s kind of how we poached him. He was in Childhood, and in a few other bands playing all different instruments, and whenever I watched those bands play I could never take my eyes off of him. They’ve both been really great for the songwriting process, I can just kind of shout “Go to the verse!” or “Go to bridge!” at them and I’ve never really been able to do that in the band. I feel like James Brown now.
Does it feel like a different band?
Yeah definitely. At first, I didn’t want it to feel like a different band. But the core is still there and the values and everything about it is still very much Swim Deep. It definitely feels like a fresh lease of life, and it feels really exciting again! It feels the most exciting it has done almost ever to be honest because it’s almost like we’re starting again from the bottom. It feels good!
So, when did you start working on Emerald Classics?
I guess I’ve always been writing and we’ve always had songs and stuff and we went and tried to write these songs when Zack and Higgy were still in the band and it sort of felt a bit stale and it was a shame because I think that’s when people started to get not interested and it ended up just me going to the studio on my own and I ended up looking around like, “Oh, where is everyone?”
Cav and James definitely were very active as well, but it took this guy called Dave McCracken, who produced our album. He’s kind of like the hero of the story I think, he’s definitely like a mentor to me in many ways. He’s just, like, the most enthusiastic person, and super down to earth. I’ve never really been able to work with a producer that I relate to. You just get that bond immediately with those types of people and you just kind of know that they’re similar. He just really, really helped us and just helped us through everything and did a lot of work for us and yeah, ended up producing the album! It kind of all came so quickly as soon as they left the band, like “We need to make this album.” We haven’t released an album since 2015 and it took us that long to do it and then two weeks to record it in Ramsgate!
Obviously, it’s your third album. How are things different this time?
I definitely think that we’ve got a lot more respect for ourselves. We want our band to be really, really good live and really put a mark and change little things in the world whilst we’re here. I think we’re more confident in that aspect. It feels like we should have more albums, but I am still 27, so three albums is fine. We’ve got no pressure, no one knows what to expect from us, we sorted that with Mothers, I guess. No one can expect anything from us after that, everyone’s just not sure what we’re gonna do so that’s kind of exciting I guess.
What can you tell me about it?
I guess I can tell you about the title? There’s this pub in Birmingham called The Emerald, and a lot of people that we know, they pretty much grew up in there. It’s a classic pub, you know? Everyone knows each other by their first name and there’s a lyric in the song about it that goes “You wouldn’t want to leave here / You wouldn’t want to stay” and it’s that “it’s shit but it’s home” kind of thing. There’s an old jukebox in the corner and they’re constantly playing all the classics, like all the 80s classics, and I showed some demos to my friend Ryan and he was like “Oh, sounds like an Emerald classic!” So I was like “Great, I’ll take that!”
It’s clearly quite tied to Birmingham, and as a band, your identity and sound has very much been based around being from there. Has living in London for a time now altered that?
I don’t know about that. There’s definitely more of a radar, but I moved here when I was 21 so I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be in Birmingham in your 20s. My mum still lives there so I go back quite a lot. I think the first album was about getting out of Birmingham, and the second was about us getting space and then the third is about going back home and kind of taking stock of your values and reminding yourself of who you are and what music you want to make. I want to make music that I can show my friends’ parents and they’ll like it, do you know what I mean? I really feel like those people’s opinions matter most when I’m showing songs to people. I don’t really care about the musos and the fucking pop purists and stuff. Actually no, I care about the pop purists, I think I am a bit of one, but I want people to just hear and be like “Great, it’s a banger, I love it!” I want that. I want it to be played on a jukebox and stuff. That’s the kind of aim of this album.
Influences and inspiration-wise, did you draw on anything in particular for this album?
Pretty boring stuff I guess, just like films that I’ve watched! I remember I went through a real purple patch after I just rewatched Forrest Gump. I just got so inspired by everything that he did. It made me cry so much. I know about that film so much and I’ve seen it so many times, but this time I watched it and it really had a massive impact on me. I just thought that’s incredible that he’s easily done so much, in a way it really makes you feel like it’s easy to do anything, and I think that’s what I feel like great music is good for as well.
You’re obviously going back up to Birmingham for your Sunflower Lounge residency which has already sold out. How are you feeling about that?
Good! We haven’t done a show in Birmingham in so long. We didn’t play there loads which is weird because I guess we were always just on tour and people would say don’t play there because you don’t need to play there all the time, so it’s good to go back and show them that we’re playing there first. It’s a good place to start since it all started there and then we can kind of get back out into the world again, I feel like we need to do that first..
Swim Deep have been on such a journey up until now. What’s next for you?
I really want to crack America. I really badly want to do that, I think we all do. I just believe in us out there, a lot I think. I guess I’ve just always loved that American dream. I think we’ve just got to get to work and work really hard. I know that whatever happens if we work really hard as a band then we can do it. Also I want to do Madison Square Garden, you know? We’ve just gotta work hard.