Four years ago, Swampmeat evolved. After two small-run records and tours that took them across Europe and as far afield as Brazil, the Birmingham garage favourites had been on the back burner for a while, with frontman Dan Finnemore having crossed the pond for a successful stint with Low Cut Connie. He and drummer T-Bird Jones kept Swampmeat alive with sporadic rehearsals whenever Finnemore was back in Britain, but it wasn’t until his time in the States came to an end in 2016 that he began to consider not just reviving the group, but changing the face of it entirely.
“I didn’t wanna stop making music, but Swampmeat had always been limiting in terms of my songwriting,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do when there’s just the two of you. I started to think about expanding the band.” With the addition of bassist Richard March (Bentley Rhythm Ace, Pop Will Eat Itself) and guitarist Tommy Hughes (Terror Watts), Swampmeat Family Band was born. This is not a wholesale reinvention – the raw, rock and roll essence of Swampmeat Mark 1 lives on – but it is a true progression, as evidenced by Too Many Things to Hide, their 2018 PNKSLM debut. The melodies were sharper than ever, but the arrangements were more expansive, and whilst a fizzing energy remained, there were moments of measured reflection, too.
“I was prouder of the sound of that album than any other I’d made to date,” says Finnemore. “It was the first time we’d used pedal steel, the first time we’d used piano, the first time we’d had people contributing guest vocals. We had a lot of great experiences, and that dictated the way we wrote for this album.” Muck was recorded in just a week at Priory studio in Sutton Coldfield, and it continues in the same rich vein as Too Many Things to Hide, whilst also finding room to add fresh flourishes to the ever-advancing Swampmeat sound. The result is their most cinematic record yet. “We wanted this one to be lusher; not necessarily more produced, but for it to have new layers to it. It’s more filmic than before. There’s more there to explore than there’s ever been.”
Amongst the additions are vocalist Joni Coyne as the group’s fifth member; she lends an extra dimension as she echoes Finnemore throughout throughout Muck – ‘Over Your Head’ and ‘Friends in the Floor’ are standout examples. On top of that, horns form part of the palette for the first time on a Swampmeat record, with Sam Wooster bringing bolshy brass to the likes of the handsome instrumental ‘The Ballarat Ghost’ as well as perhaps the album’s most crucial track, the gorgeous ‘Mother’s Lies’, which represents the Swampmeat evolution in four-minute microcosm.
“We recorded a faster version of that song for Too Many Things to Hide,” recalls Finnemore, “and it just didn’t work. I was gutted, because I knew how good it was. I rearranged it, and I could hear the horns, and I could sense it needed to be slower. We tried it that way, and now we’ve got one of the strongest songs we’ve ever written. That’s all down to having horns, pedal steel and Joni’s vocals available to us. A lot of these tracks have the Swampmeat vibe, but they’d be nothing if it wasn’t for the people guesting on them.”
Finnemore also credits much of the band’s new musical direction to the time he spent living in the U.S., where his horizons were broadened on a weekly basis. “I’ve always known that melody is key, and that didn’t change in the States, but I did meet a load of amazing musicians, and the music they introduced me to definitely influenced the way I envisage our sound. Our early touchpoints in Swampmeat were stripped-back country, stripped-back blues, stripped-back folk; I was listening to a lot of Johnny Cash. It wasn’t until much later in life I was turned onto Paul Simon, or The Flying Burrito Brothers. We’ve moved away from garage, and towards the seventies in terms of production. Just the music I was exposed to over there has been massively inspiring, and it feels like it’s progressed without me forcing the issue.
Change has been afoot on the thematic front as well; Muck represents the broadest range of lyrical topics that Finnemore has ever tackled with Swampmeat. “When the band started, it was all about heartbreak,” he confirms. “That came from Cash, and the country influences. I’ve always been a believer in John Lennon-style honesty and directness in my lyrics, and I think as Swampmeat has grown in terms of what we’ve been producing sonically, I’ve started thinking about what else I can write about! So, on this album, there’s some politics, especially on ‘Mother’s Lies’, ’Monkey See Monkey Do’ and ‘I Hope I’m Wrong’. There’s still some traditional Swampmeat love songs in there – ‘Baby’s Made Her Plans’, especially – but I think the fact that we’re living in such an unstable world made it easier for me to push the envelope in my writing. There’s a lot going on on this album.”
Which leads us to the key question – why, of all titles, was Muck the right one for a record that’s generally pretty upbeat? “It’s a common saying in Birmingham, for when you’re a little bit stuck and have things weighing you down,” Finnemore explains. “For me, it’s about making sense of all the crap that’s going on at the moment, and that includes the extra baggage of the world around us. This is a positive album in a lot of respects, in terms of both love and politics, but at the same time, it’s saying, “keep your eye on things. Pay attention. Don’t get stuck in the muck!”