The Swan Thief is a post-rock group that originally hailed from San Luis Obispo, California. Their newest release, II, is their aptly named second full-length coming in at seven tracks. As the name of the band suggests, they can tell sonic, otherworldly stories through both musical prowess and lyrical content. Members Chase Hall and Gabriel Ulibarri (guitar, vocals) were kind enough to answer my questions about the band and their music. They answered questions about their own musical origins, the band’s founding, equipment, and much much more.
Hello Gabe and Chase of The Swan Thief. Can you all please start by introducing yourselves and telling what you do in the band?
-My name is Gabe Ulibarri. I play guitar, sing and other various instruments (piano, bass, cornet)
-My name is Chase. I play drums.
How did you individually get started in music and have you been in any other bands in the past?
Gabe: Music for me started when my brother and I started a band when we were small humans, probably 4 or 5 years old. We had one song, and I played the teddy bear. From there my Dad taught me some chords on a real guitar and off I went. I’ve been in many bands before TST. My previous was at the tail end of high school, it was metal-ish and called Sleep is a Curse. We had fun.
Chase: When I was around 11 years old, my brother’s friend left a few pieces of his drum kit at our house (I think it was just two rack toms and a snare, with no stands). My brother played guitar since I can remember, and one day before school, I set the drums up on books and played random strange patterns to what he was doing on guitar. I found it somewhat natural and couldn’t wait to play at an actual drum kit after that. I joined marching band and jazz band in middle school and joined a cover band shortly thereafter. I started picking up guitar in high school and then joined a few hardcore bands and punk bands.
How did The Swan Thief form?
G: TST officially formed when I graduated college back in 2008-2009 ish. It was the result of a mutual musical void that existed between a group of friends.
C: In 2008 or so my friend John, who I formed a band with in high school, went on to eventually form The Swan Thief with Gabe and our former bass player Evan. Eventually, they were in need of a second guitar player and asked me to come play music with them after one of my solo shows. I’ve been playing music with Gabe ever since.
How does your band go about the writing process? Is this a democracy or is there a principle songwriter among you?
G: I think it is definitely a democracy. So many interesting musical ideas can happen when you put a group of people together and explore. Our process usually begins when someone brings a part or idea they’ve been working on to the table. Everyone then just builds on it. Each song comes about from exploring and building. The initial idea can be anything from a guitar part, vocal melody or drum beat. That being said, some songs came about from us just improvising and some are presented as a whole song. Either way, they always end up being morphed into something.
C: The writing process is more or less democratic. Most of the time Gabe will have some amazing riff and play it for one of us or the whole band. Then we’ll kinda figure out the structure and other textures as well. We also come up with things on the spot from time to time; this can occur with a spontaneous guitar riff, bass riff, or even a drum pattern. We’ve started writing some of our best songs this way. This is how Gabe and I tend to work with each other now.
How do you all think about music and what it does for yourselves and for others? Do you have a philosophy behind how you understand and see art and what happens to it once it is let out into the world for others to digest?
G: For me, it has to be honest and it has to make me feel something. Everyone interprets music differently and uses it for different reasons, so I just try to create something that I love. All I hope is that when people listen to our music it makes them feel and it makes them think…or not think?
C: Besides a few key people and my cats, music is the only thing that really matters to me. It can make you feel some intense stuff and it’s one of the most human and complex ways to express feelings and emotions. For me, art can’t be too heavily structured and contrived, especially in the early stages of inspiration. If you want to communicate the truthful essence of something you’re feeling, it has to flow out of you without hesitation. When let out into the world, you absolutely have no control over how others will perceive it, and that’s the best part about it.
Before we get to album specifics, can you talk a bit about the band name (which I love) and the artist behind your album covers?
G: The band name is actually the title of one of my older brothers paintings. I thought that the painting visually represented the music I wanted to make very well. His name is Shelby Ulibarri and has created all of the artwork the band has used. You can check out the painting with the link below and all of his other work at shelbyulibarri.com
Link: The Swan Thief Painting
Over the course of your recordings, has your approach to your music changed any? Can you talk about any changes in your process between I and II and what that might mean for next steps in what could possibly be III?
G: I think the approach has always been the same: Make honest music that makes you feel something. If anything, I think I’ve tried to introduce brevity. Sometimes that means 4 minutes and sometimes 14. The biggest process change between “I” and “II” was the recording process. We recorded and mixed “I” ourselves, which was great in many ways, but also punishing. It was a lot of technical trial and error because we didn’t have a huge engineering knowledge. Since we were recording it ourselves, it was difficult to know when to stop and call it “done”. “II”, on the other hand, allowed us to step back and focus on the creative. We had a good friend and professional engineer (Tyler Tedeschi) who was willing to work with us and explore our ideas. The result was an album that sounded more like what was in our heads. I think we will approach “III” in a very similar way
C: I feel like early incarnations of the band relied heavily on riffs made by members beforehand, but now we’re more likely to write on the fly as I described earlier. With both albums, we had about half of the material laid out and done. The rest of the album followed from those key songs that we wanted to feature on the album. I’m not sure what will happen with our third effort. We’re all in different locations, so maybe some long distance writing will occur with polishing and magic really happening once we’re all in the same room.
I like to ask bands about the writing and recording of tracks off their most recent releases. Could you please talk a bit about the beautifully pensive “Aureate” and finale to II “Edax Mare”?
G: Aureate is a favorite of mine. This is a song that was mostly complete when I brought it to the band. I spent many many hours working on the vocal melodies, and because of that, it became very personal. When it got to the band, it was mostly just trying to get the vibe right and figuring out how much to add/take away. The atmosphere is a huge aspect and was a focus when recording. Subtleties like horns, sparse drums and drones ended up getting us in the right place.
Edax Mare is a huge battle. It’s difficult mentally and physically. I think the struggle comes through on the recording. We kind of just let it go where it wanted. I think that’s why it ended up with so many elements. Again we approached the recording in the same way; keep a big open live sound. There are a lot of peaks, valleys and builds in this one so getting the dynamics right was challenging. I think this track could only be the closer.
We have a lot of gearheads that read our page. What gear do you use both live and in the studio?
G: Currently I’m using as follows:
Dan Armstrong ampeg-ADA6
Verellen custom head and Fender dual showman reverb head
Emperor 4 x 10” and Janice 2 x 15”
And a shit ton of pedals (loopers, distortioners, fuzzers, delayers, octavers, reverberaters, freezers)
A good portion of the distortion on this album was from just cranking the Verellen. The cleans were just straight guitar and amp.
C: Kit one: 70’s Ludwig Vistalite in red and smoke (24×14, 18×16, 14×12)
Kit 2: 2012 Ludwig Classic Maple (26×16, 18×16, 14×12)
Ludwig supraphonic snare (14×6.5)
As individual artists, do you have any other artists that you see as influences upon your own art? These artists can be musicians, visual artists, or writers.
G: Off the top of my head: Shelby Ulibarri, Chris Crisci, Jeremy Enigk, Algernon Blackwood, Jonsi, Anyone who makes honest anything.
C: Jaki Liebezeit of Can, John Bonham, Bill Ward, Dave Turncrantz of Russian Circles. In terms of writing: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Swans, Sunn o))), Unwound…. too many more to list.
So what’s next for The Swan Thief? Any tours or new recordings in the near future?
G: Hopefully all of the above!
C: Next: somehow getting us back in the same city. We always have something to record and we always want to play shows.