Andrew Graham doesn’t know how long he’ll be a career musician, but aspires to play new material always. This future doesn’t seem unlikely for the composer and frontman of Swarming Branch, as he releases playful pop rock music with a unique flux of musicians that changes with each new project. On their latest album release, this year’s Surreal Number, we experience the imaginative synthesizer, groovy rhythm sections, and quirky lyrics that have shaped the music of band since it formed in 2009.
We chatted with Graham about learning to lead a band, his unique lyrical style, and finding a way to keep playing, no matter what.
Marmoset: Can you tell me how Swarming Branch came to be?
Andrew Graham: I was in another group in Columbus before that, which was regrettably called RTFO Bandwagon, which was an REO Speedwagon joke. When that group ended, I was trying to think of a group that I could have where I was the only permanent member and people could come and go, and it could have some longevity rather than forming and quitting bands over and over. The name originally referred to that revolving door aspect in terms of the swarming, with branch being more of a bank branch or a library branch -- a unit that is always changing.
That was in 2009 that I started the group. Now, the recordings are mostly the same three people -- that's myself and our drummer, Lon Leary, and a keyboard player, Dane Terry. So, it has become more of a traditional band.
You were saying that it's becoming more of a traditional band, but can you speak to when there was a flux of band members? It sounds like it was intentional to have band members coming in and out. How did that affect the music that you made?
I think that it's an exercise as the band leader both in having a lot of control but also sacrificing control. I don't like to demand that people try to imitate the style of other players really closely, so you have to let what's going to happen, happen. But then, you still get to exert a lot of control in terms of selecting the musicians in the first place.
In terms of recording, I arrange very little of the other musicians' parts. So, if you hear something on the record, it's usually the idea of whoever is playing the part, with rare exceptions. I'll write a theme for a chorus or something, but it's usually just a few bars at a time.
What would others be surprised to know about you?
In terms of a fun fact category, I've never been admitted to a hospital. I was born at home, and I've never been injured seriously enough to have to go to the hospital. I was born in my parent’s living room. I'm trying to think of something on a more serious note.
I don't know, that was pretty good.
All right, let's go with that.
Can you talk a bit about your creative process as a musician? Do you need to be in a certain space to come up with something, or does it just come to you at any time?
It's a year or two in between records, typically. I'll just make note of the songs that I've been enjoying during that period. Then, I often work with a metronome and check out how fast these songs are, figure out why the movement of these things speaks to me. Then I'll build drum tracks on a drum machine and start playing around with a similar rhythm and tempo but totally different chords ,melodies and subject matter. So, the the movement of the songs never end up sounding similar. But I compose before I start writing lyrics.
How do you add those lyrics with the other band members?
I usually send out demos of chords with basic melodies to preview some things that are going to be on our record. Some of them work out their parts in advance before the cold sessions, and others look at it a few times and then react to the other musicians live in the studio. Usually by that time it's gotten a couple lines to the chorus, maybe the first line of speech verse, and some kind of speaking in tongues or gibberish into the microphone while we're recording the lead vocal. Then I finalize the lyrics and sing the final lead vocal as the last element of the recording.
That's pretty much become a ratified process over the last couple of years. It used to happen with a lot more variety, but pretty much every song that we've recorded recently has used that process. A lot of times I'm referring back to the sound of the phrases of gibberish that I sang that I liked. I'll isolate the sound of certain phrases and seek words that sound as similar to them as possible, which is kind of funny because it ends up sacrificing the clear meaning sometimes.
What's the best piece of advice you have for a musician who's just starting out?
Two things I typically tell people are never go on tour without making a recording that you're totally happy with beforehand, both in terms of the sound of it and the presentation. The other thing is that they should expect to really invest themselves in it for about 15 years before they start thinking in terms of success and failure. I don't think it's reasonable to expect to know whether or not you're really suited for it without putting in a considerable amount of time. I've been playing guitar now for about 21 years, but I've only been pursuing music professionally for about eight years, so I'm about halfway through my trial period. But a lot of times, people will want advice for how they can make things happen right away, and I just don't really have anything to say.
What do you think success will be like for you? What does that mean to you?
At this point, it's really just about being able to perform in front of audiences and have people anticipating every show. There's a certain threshold of energy that needs to be crossed for a show to be successful, and even just having, say, 15 percent of the audience really anticipating the show and being there for you just changes everything. I’d say as long as I see everyone in my band just having fun and there's an audience, that's good enough.