Swayzak are tworegular guys with ordinary names who make extraordinary music. Ever since their 1997 debut, Snowboarding in Argentina, David Brown and James Taylor have been one of the bright spots in dance music's increasingly dull landscape. With their fourth and most ambitious album, Loops From the Bergerie (!K7), the duo has expanded to a quartet that includes a singer, Richard Davis, and another producer, Kenny Paterson, who's worked on all prior Swayzak releases.
Snowboarding in Argentina came to define "tech house," a sub-subgenre of house music that delved in deeper and dubbier terrain than most four-to-the-floor top-of-the-hour house. It didn't rely on squelchy filters to drum up excitement, playing it so cool that it resembled ice on vinyl. The album's unique sound garnered the duo raves from the British and American dance-music press, used to the overt dynamics and voluptuous house of Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx.
"With Snowboarding, I think we caught some people's imagination," says Brown from his London flat. "We caught it at a time when I think there was a lot of really boring electronic music out there." Brown shuns the "tech house" label Swayzak became known for, though: "I don't really know what that is. Tech house, for me, is pretty much bad techno."
This musical antsiness has moved Brown and Taylor away from the sleek instrumental style of their early 12-inches to more fully fleshed-out songs; vocalists and choruses now regularly interrupt the duo's once untouched, glossy surfaces. The shift began with Swayzak's second album, 2000's Himawari, which featured the electro-pop ditty "State of Grace." They went even further with 2002's Dirty Dancing, whose radio-ready tunes made some techno diehards uncomfortable.
Brown and Taylor's brief fling with post–new wave—the dreaded "electroclash" movement—resulted in a more commercial record that smelled of riding the coattails of a trendy sound. Dirty Dancing never did crack that market, probably because it was tailor-made for a trendy crowd that doesn't like being openly courted. "I guess we'd been hearing a lot of stuff in that style and we wanted to do it our own way. We didn't want to be part of the electroclash thing. We didn't have the haircuts, we didn't have the eye makeup, we didn't have the clothes," says Brown.
"Some of stuff on Dirty Dancing I feel was a little foolish. But when we made it at the time, I quite enjoyed making it, but now when I look back, I don't like those songs. But then, I don't like all the songs on Snowboarding, I don't like all the songs on Himawari, either. I don't like all the songs on this album. There's always gonna be something that bugs you."
Recorded at Taylor's new home in the south of France, Loops From the Bergerie takes Swayzak full circle, reconciling the streamlined purist sound of their first two records with the poppier notions of Dirty Dancing. It's eclectic enough to please both the diehards who bow to their earlier works' stripped-down simplicity and those who prefer structured songs in their dance music, thank you. Loops alternates between moody and ethereal ("Bergerie," "Jeune Loop") and supremely catchy and ass- moving ("Keep It Moving," "My House"), and is streaked throughout with themes of romance, sex, bittersweet love affairs, and obsession. The best of the bunch is "Another Day," which exudes a sultry heat, thanks to Davis' low-key pleading and a bass-heavy, sexed-up beat—film noir in a techno track. While the instrumental of "Then There's Her" wouldn't be out of place on Himawari, Claire Dietrich's lyrics about polyamory would have seemed more at home on Dirty.
Not surprisingly, the ambitious Loops was more demanding to make than the first three Swayzak releases. "Snowboarding was the easiest one to do, 'cause it was our first album," says Brown. "Up until that point, you sit at home making music, wondering whether you'd ever get the music out. It wasn't really an album, it was more a collection of 12-inch singles we'd done already. I think making the last album was the most difficult thing we attempted. I don't know whether we succeeded or not. We've now got a situation where we're gonna play as a four-piece band. That's the biggest challenge."
They first played Seattle five years ago, when, after an encounter with the duo in a London cafe, this reporter brought them to Brian Lyons' Sunday house night at the Re-bar, Flammable—for a crowd that favored the more mainstream house of DJ Sneak and Doc Martin. They played an entirely improvised one-and-a-half-hour live PA set, made even more impressive by the unfortunate fact that their untrustworthy AKAI S950 sampler broke hours before the show. (They were saved by a loan from Matt Corwine, who's opening Thursday's show along with Matthew Dear.) Back then, Brown and Taylor relied solely on analog equipment to perform live, and the Re-bar regulars, accustomed to barnstorming big guns like Armand Van Helden's remix of Tori Amos' "Professional Widow," were initially resistant to the duo's more mellow, even-keeled deep house. Some of the crowd left, but others stuck around for the smooth, long ride.
This time out, it's unlikely that a broken sampler will hold the band by the balls. Their new configuration finds Swayzak reborn as a real, live, honest-to-goodness band, with singer Davis, Brown and Paterson controlling the knobs, and a drummer, Francesco Brini, banging away on an electronic drum kit. "It's more like a drum machine—which is what I like. But you've got a human being instead of a drum machine." He laughs. "It's more expensive, mind you." (A father of two, Taylor doesn't perform live these days, preferring the sanctuary of the studio.)
Techno purists might snicker about the band's straying from its original "tech house" sound, but Swayzak seem to be getting the last laugh. Their critically acclaimed first record sold only 5,000 copies. After six weeks, Loops has done four times as much—a kind of "techno gold," considering that dance albums rarely sell well. "It may not always be to people's musical tastes, but at the end of the day, we can't continue living on peanuts. Some people think if you make music, you should be impoverished," says Brown. This time out, by combining the sound that initially brought them acclaim with songs catchy enough to stick, Swayzak may have found their groove. Maybe Brown is right when he says, "We're obviously already doing something correct."
Swayzak play Chop Suey with Matthew Dear and Matt Corwine at 9 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 9. $10 adv.