The swirlies relaxed approach to its sparkling musical experiments has often been misunderstood.The band emerged in Boston in 1990 during the zenith of shoegaze and embraced a dazzling mix of extreme yet melodic distortion entwined with sweet, glittering vocals and excursions in sampling. Wrapped in layers of effectsladen, heavily processed guitar fuzz, reverbsaturated voices bobbed just beneath the surface of the group’s dreamy noise. But unlike many of its musical counterparts, the group’s rough-hewn recordings often epitomized the lo-fi aesthetic. Despite this, some fans were caught by surprise when live shows weren’t terribly refined.
“Some people seem to have an idea that we’re some pristine shoegazing band that is going to put out polished music. And that’s just not what we do and that’s not what we’ve ever done,” says Damon Tutunjian, lead vocalist and guitarist in The Swirlies, sounding mystified that anyone would have this expectation.
“On our first tours, we used a drum kit that packed into itself and sounded like you were hitting cardboard boxes.” Unpredictable, unrestrained elements have always formed the core of The Swirlies’ magic and defined the half-dozen full-length albums and oodles of EPs and singles, from 1996’s Sneaky Flutes EP to 2003’s Cats of the Wild Volume 2 (the last proper Swirlies record) the ever-morphing band has released in its nearly 19 years of existence.
Now, after a long hiatus, the Swirlies will return to the stage for a few strictly East Coast, expectation-defying shows.
“It’ll be loud and noisy and funny.That’s what we strive for,”Tutunjian says via phone from Ann Arbor, Mich. “It might be sloppy, but that’s also part of it. It might accidentally be tight, in which case some people who don’t really understand what it’s all about will be very happy.”
After being tucked away in academia toiling away on a Ph.D. in linguistics for the past five years,Tutunjian’s finally going back to The Swirlies, if only temporarily, during his spring break.The Swirlies last appeared live during a 2003 tour touring with The Lilys, right before Tutunjian started graduate school in Michigan, but the extended break that followed wasn’t a conscious decision on anyone’s part,Tutunjian says. He simply became consumed by his scholarly pursuits, and with his band mates on the East Coast, performing together hasn’t been possible. Until now.
The current incarnation of the Swirlies includes Tutunjian, Andy Bernick (a founding member), Adam Pierce (Mice Parade) and Rob Laakso (Mice Parade and Diamond Nights). Deb Warfield, a sometime-Swirlie, will rejoin the fold for the New York show, along with possible other secret guests (secret because Tutunjian’s not exactly sure which other past Swirlies might jump on the stage and chime in when it comes down to it). Pierce, who signed up to be The Swirlies’ drummer in 1995, orchestrated the three upcoming shows when he managed to find time in his schedule between working for the FatCat label’s U.S. branch, producing records for other artists including Gregory and the Hawk and focusing on Mice Parade.
“I felt like playing because I just haven’t played music in too long,” Pierce says from his home in Highland Mills, N.Y. His last live performance was with Mice Parade in July 2008—”and I don’t really feel like a drummer in Mice Parade, and that causes an identity crisis within myself, because I feel like much more of a drummer in general than a guitarist.”
He has switched to guitar for the most part in Mice Parade, his intricately structured post-rock band that’s a far cry from The Swirlies. And this disparity between Mice Parade and The Swirlies, with its looser style and immense volume, is what Pierce finds appealing.
“Mice Parade never creates a loud wall of sound, which is meant to stop on a dime. That’s Swirlies being tight.You’ve got this huge steamroller and it can just stop,” Pierce says. “The Swirlies live can get very loud. Before ‘95, from ‘92 to ‘94, I watched Swirlies shows in the audience, and I’d never witnessed a more impressive wall of sound, just a massive psychedelic slosh machine.”
The Swirlies will have two days to practice before taking the stage. And whatever happens musically at the show, it won’t be anything that’s happened before—not in precisely the same way, at least. And for Tutunjian, that’s a point of pride.
“It’s never been a polished, standardized item,”Tutunjian says. “And it never will be.”
> The Swirlies
Feb. 27, Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston St. (at Essex St.), 212-260-4700; 8, $12