Arriving at the Avalon Theater, I’m not quite sure what to expect; from the venue or She Wants Revenge’s Justin Warfield or Adam Bravin (aka Adam 12). I hadn’t been to the Avalon for years and SWR had been a passing crush of mine that came on strong after seeing them open for Bloc Party but had faded as I found this or that new band to flirt with.
I’m somewhat nervous. I’ve recommended to attend the show to a few discerning friends and my initial impressions haven’t always panned out. I liked the album, but it didn’t blow me away. Public reaction has been mixed. It would seem that some have decided that regardless of talent or quality anyone new on the post-punk revival were mercenaries cashing in while they could. Then again some of them seemed to think that Interpol had invented the wheel. Walking through a handful of people franticly wielding mops, paintbrushes and brooms I look for the closest exits just in case of disaster.
I find the tour manager helping set up the bands equipment and he instantly turns to introduce me to one of the roadies who is preoccupied with a guitar amp. He turns around and I realize my mistake as I shake Justin Warfield’s hand. There will be no hipsters to duel with today, at least not in the band.
We track down Adam and escape to the back of their tour bus (the backstage area at the Avalon is little more than a closet). For the next hour or so I find myself chatting, not interviewing, with two of the friendliest people I’ve met in quite some time. They burn through cigarettes, I forget to take notes and the topic runs the gamut.
They passionately and effectively defend Los Angeles as a thriving music scene that isn’t as Hollywood as the stereotype would suggest. New York might be stealing the headlines but L.A. has more than its share of bands making exciting music in Autolux, BRMC, BJM, The Warlocks etc.
In the ’80s hip-hop seemed more inventive to both Adam and Justin. It was something new and hadn’t really been defined. As the ’90s came closer and the genre started to parody itself, Adam’s interest shifted to trip-hop and the music he grew up listening to. Justin was revitalized by Britpop (while working with the big names of trip-hop in London).
Claims that they were trying to be post-punk’s answer to Spinal Tap couldn’t be further from the truth. They insist that the album wasn’t intended to sound like anything in particular. They simply wanted to make a dance record with guitars. If the results are gothic, punk, post-punk it wasn’t ever an issue. Adam had simply played a few tracks that made Justin want to play guitar and sing to. It was that simple. They didn’t do it for money. They didn’t have any idea that there would be any money in it. They thought there might be people out there that shared their same musical interests and background but didn’t expect mass appeal.
While some might suggest that signing to the largest record label in the world, Geffen, might suggest otherwise. They point out that they asked to tour for an extended period of time before Geffen released the album. They purposely held back any pre-hype. They signed with Geffen because of the support and freedom they were willing to offer them. The offer was there so they went with it.
An odd pattern of taking things as they come that also led them to a practice studio where Bauhaus were rehearsing in the room next to theirs. Bauhaus were gearing up for the Coachella resurrection and SWR were putting a set together for their opening act to the opening act on Bloc Party’s tour which just happened to be their first shows ever. Adam and Daniel Ash had dated the same woman and Adam knew that the experience was enough for the two of them to have sympathy for each other. It proved to be the beginning of a friendship between the two bands and it was this twist of fate that eventually landed SWR’s “Tear You Apart” on satellite radio. We reflect on the devastating power of the performance that Bauhaus gave weeks later at Coachella. Adam gleefully pulls out his phone, apologizes for the quality and shows me a jerky video of Peter Murphy dangling from a rope while the deep drone of David J’s bass distorts through the phone’s speaker.
Justin says discovered Bauhaus one day while looking for something dark with a deep bass line to sample from. He laments the loss of days spent digging through hundreds of records looking for something that had a promising cover design, interesting track listing or the employee’s recommendation. I’m reminded of an article I read where Public Enemyspoke on the subject, suggesting that if they were to try and make Fear of a Black Planet now they’d never get all the samples cleared. Maybe in this case anarchy was better.
SWR were one of the first bands to really use Myspace to promote themselves. They didn’t simply type in a band name and randomly try to add a thousand people as quickly as possible. Adam spent many nights going through people’s pages looking at the combinations of musicians; hand picking those he thought would be interested in the music he and Justin were creating (a practice that many other bands might wish to consider).
“Tear You Apart” wasn’t ever really intended on being a single but it was the overwhelming choice of their fans they went with it. The choice of “These Things” as the follow up single was also the fan’s choice.
Up to this point, they’ve been reluctant to let their tracks be remixed. I point out that this is a hypocritical ideology coming from a couple of DJs. They agree and suggest that their next single, “These Things,” will have some mixes from some of their friends. Mostly big name artists you wouldn’t imagine remixing post-punk anything.
We talk about the band’s upcoming opportunity to open for Depeche Mode. Adam confesses that Some Great Reward was one of those life changing albums in his life and that the chance to play with them is thrilling. He admits to wanting to have Martin Gore remix “These Things.” I bring up the remix Gore did for Garbage’s “Queer” single. Adam sorts through a stack of CDs, says they just got their copy and MTV should be getting it that day as well. I’m given a sneak-peak at their new video for “These Things” which was directed by Sophie Muller and features Shirley Manson in a prominent role. Shot in New York on a rare day off, the whole shoot was improvisational. Going in Muller had suggested a kidnapping theme (initially the pitch included Debbie Harry rather than Manson) and the rest was whatever came to their minds. The use of red is intoxicating, yet another classic video from Muller (where’s her “The Work of” DVD?).
Unlike many of their American counterparts, SWR have yet to break in the UK, partly because they haven’t had the chance. At one point they were forced to turn down an opening slot for The Killers because the album wasn’t ready. There is a quiet confidence that it will eventually happen. The wheels are already turning and much like in the US they’ve pre-released the album to itunes UK and will follow up with a CD release a month or two later. They’ll also be recording a few new tracks for b-sides, the only recording planned for the next year or so.
Justin leaves to sort out the new guitar amp they’ve just added to their equipment, Adam and I chat awhile longer until sound check. During which Justin entertains with an impromptu version of Pulp’s “Common People.”
Following sound check the band looks to get something to eat. Fully aware that there is nothing anywhere close to The Avalon, I offer to drive them to wherever they like. Upon arriving at the chosen restaurant we’re quickly put off into a corner where no one will be able to see us. Not by choice mind you. We talk of Salt Lake City and Mormons; famous ones, not so famous. We are regretfully well behaved and avoid any rock star antics.
Throughout the night, Justin is texting back and forth with Brian Molko of Placebo trying to sort out a possible tour of the ‘States together if they can arrange their schedules (SWR will be opening a couple shows in Germany for Placebo in June). Brian is an old friend from Justin’s days in London and one of the handful of people to attend SWR’s ill fated London debut (the other half of the crowd were Molko’s band mates). I do my best to convince Justin that it should happen. I’ve never seen Placebo and would love to. He insists that they are a much better band than his.
Upon returning to the venue, I run inside to see opening act Astra Heights who both Justin and Adam speak highly of. Their performance is rather good, a strange mix of Bowie and Meat Loaf that somehow works.
The venue is quite crowded, a far cry from SWR’s last Salt Lake show (I didn’t even know about it) when they played for 10 people in a frozen caf� (oddly enough run by those who now own the Avalon).
After a rather lengthy and somewhat embarrassing announcement from the venue introducing the band and then going on about future concerts they are putting on (ever hear of a flyer?), the band take the stage. Instantly, I’m reminded of why I noticed them in the first place. The emotions are high, the intensity is there, the musicianship is great. There is a sense of the disco recklessness that New Order found in dance music has they came out of the shadow of their Joy Division days. The crowd reacts; cheers, sings-a-long, and whirls about (perhaps a bit too much).
The problem is they’ve played their whole album and a couple b-sides. There simply isn’t anything left to play. So we all join in on singing “Happy Birthday” to the lead singer of Astra Heights. Justin proclaims the crowd one of the best of the tour (not just hyperbole in this case as he would later mention it again saying that it was in the top 5) and exits. The crowd lingers, fully aware that the band won’t be playing any more songs. Nonetheless, many stay and are rewarded as the band come out to chat and sign autographs for everyone who linger close enough.
Adam is DJing at W Lounge and departs after a quick celebratory drink of champagne with Astra Heights and the whole crew. At night’s end, Astra Heights will drive home to Texas and SWR will head off to open for Depeche Mode. With some help, Astra Heights convince the rest of SWR and crew to come along to W to continue the celebration. Once again my car is packed. At W, Adam entertains the crowd with a great mix of post-punk, ’70s glam, ’80s new wave and whatever else he happens to feel like slipping in. Justin takes a turn, apparently the first time he’s DJed in six months. I tease him for wanting to sit on the bus and finish a book instead of coming. What was supposed to be an appearance turns into a couple hours, but none of us are complaining. The band mingles with the crowd, half of which probably don’t have any idea who they are and you sense the band members prefer it that way.
We’re pulled away as the night winds down by the owner of Captain’s Quarters who tempts the band, of which they’ve adopted me, to free food. We’re entertained by drunken women, ice cubes (even though I ended up drenched in water). Justin comments that they should have played there, pointing his comment half jokingly at the man who made the lengthy announcement preceding their performance (yes, somehow he’s ended up at the pub as well). Some time south of 2 a.m. enters the tour manager, calls off the evening and we’re smashing back into cars driving back to the tour bus where we all shake hands and thank each other for a brilliant night out.