“When I’m working out a song with the band,” says Gig Michaels, singer-songwriter-guitarist and frontman of the Charlotte, N.C.-based band SwampdaWamp, “I don’t always have all the lyrics done up front, and I scat a little bit. I was doing that at the end of one of our songs and out came this phrase, ‘swampdawamp.’ We knew right then that we had our name.”
While the band declines to offer a definition for the phrase, it somehow captures their high-spirited rock energy, rootsy vibe and raunchy humor. “We’re hoping it becomes a catchphrase,” Michaels notes. “If I can be shizzlin’ my nizzle, I can certainly be swampin’ my wamp.”
The sextet’s self-titled debut album (on the Big Penny Entertainment label) is an infectious blend of power-chord crunch, tasty twinned leads, soulful keyboards and explosive rhythms, all in support of Michaels’ alternately party-hardy and reflective songs. “I call it a modern Southern groove infusion of rock,” he declares. “It’s got all the elements of classic rock, southern rock, alternative rock – even a little jazz. It’s a very rootsy rock band.”
The disc, produced by Joe Boyland (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bad Company, Nazareth), boasts its share of good-time anthems, like the boisterous leadoff track “I’m Feelin’ Saturday”; the bittersweet, bottle-swilling “Birthday”; the NASCAR celebration “Sunday Southern Tradition”; and the sweet-natured, slide-driven “Miss Becky.” But Michaels and the band delve into darker territory with the heartbroken elegy “The River”; the soul-baring “Sometimes”; the blue-collar “Backporch”; and the epic “Tastes Like Chicken to Me,” an angry indictment of American hypocrisy and waste. Yet the most despairing moments ultimately yield to the band’s indomitable spirit – as in “The River,” when a ballad mourning a friend’s suicide gives way to a rocking coda that burns like a Viking funeral.
What ties these very different songs together – apart from Michaels’ uncompromising point of view and expressive, rough-edged voice – is SwampdaWamp’s muscular musical chemistry. Lead guitarist Marty Hill’s solos and slide parts soar, swoop, sizzle and scream with classic power, recalling the very finest fretwork of the past four decades. He and fellow guitarist Michael Hough frequently play synchronized leads in the melodic vein of The Allman Brothers and other great Southern rockers (as exemplified by the gorgeous, climbing lines they share on “Backporch,” “Sunday Southern Tradition” and the lost-in-love workout “Blind, Crippled and Crazy”).
Keyboardist , Alan “Scooby” Huffman meanwhile, adds both grandeur and grease (not to mention some rambunctious, Nawlin’s-style ivory-tickling), while drummer David Lee give the sextet a bottom end potent enough to knock over a sports arena. Yet SwampdaWamp is equally adept at bringing the dynamics way down, pushing their shimmering acoustic textures to the forefront during the album’s quieter moments.
Michaels grew up hearing his folks’ classic country and religious records – and his father’s occasional guitar picking. “He raised six kids, so he never had much time to play,” the singer remembers, but he’s quick to add that this early exposure to traditional songwriting taught him a lot. “Those songs were stories; you could sit down in a room full of people and play them on an acoustic guitar and touch every person’s heart. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do with my music.”
Nonetheless, his own path would lead straight to the electric wonderland of rock ‘n’ roll. The first record he owned was The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (a gift from his older sister); an infatuation with Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones and other rock and pop icons would follow. “The fact is, growing up in such a big family, they were never really there for me,” he reflects. “So my outlet was music, which helped me get through so much and was my best friend. I could listen to a Phil Collins song and cry or get pissed off and just get it out of my system. Now I’m paying it back, hopefully.”
For years he sustained a career as a professional musician and briefly pursued a solo career, but the ups and downs of the music business – not to mention the egos of his former bandmates – wore him down. Besides, he realized, there were more pressing issues to consider. “I have a son, and he was reaching the age where he needed his dad around,” Michaels confesses. “He and his mom lived in Raleigh, so I moved as close as I could – Charlotte – and took a job in construction.” He’s never regretted the decision, which he explores in the lovely, evocative tune “Sometimes,” but when his son got a little older he realized he had to return to music. “Being a musician is a disease,” he insists. “You can’t kick it.”
Determined to play by his own rules, Michaels used some of the contacts he’d developed as VP of his construction company to set up his own music enterprise. He built a home studio and recorded a handful of songs, which helped bring in musicians like drummer Lee, whom he describes as “a solid, seasoned drummer with the right attitude.”
Gig’s partner in crime, David Lee has been playing the drums professionally his entire adult life, and while never having resorted to taking up a day job make David SwampdaWamp's resident superhero. As he explains, “Sometimes you just know what you're supposed to do in life and I'm lucky enough to be doing it." Receptive to the idea of joining forces with a band that would offer the latitude to display his technical prowess and guitar playing skills, Hill, was won over immediately. “When Marty heard the demos he picked up an acoustic and started playing along,” Michaels reveals. “He just got it!” As for the band’s second guitarist, Michael Hough, there once again exists a rich history and lineage, as he explains, "I've done studio work with David Lee, spent years on the road with and have been performing with Marty for the past several years so SwampdaWamp is like a family reunion for me.” Huffman, a native of Toledo, Ohio had discovered the band through the social networking site MySpace and made his availability and skills known to the band. Some ensuing conversations took place and an audition was arranged for “Scooby” to travel to Charlotte to meet the guys. This B3 wizard’s skills complimented the band perfectly and he was offered and accepted the position as keyboardist for SwampdaWamp on the spot. This powerful and dynamic line-up is oozing with talent.
SwampdaWamp recorded an entire version of their album in North Carolina, and while Michaels wasn’t thrilled with the result, he knew it would be strong enough as a calling card to set the band up with management. It also attracted Boyland, who had almost signed one of Michaels’ earlier projects (“my old managers screwed that one up,” the frontman remembers with a laugh).
Boyland and the band returned to the studio to make the album – and this time the recordings fully captured the band’s huge, soulful sound. “Joe did a fabulous job producing this record,” Michaels marvels. SwampdaWamp and Boyland proceeded to assemble a team to handle all aspects of their career. “The support we’ve been getting,” says Michaels, “is just incredible.”
They played their first batch of gigs soon thereafter, and found that the vibe they’d cultivated in the rehearsal space and recording studio translated brilliantly to the stage. “Sometimes songs go off in different directions, and being able to anticipate that telepathically is a damn fine thing,” observes Michaels. “I look at the guys and make one motion, and they know what to do.”
Director Susan Welford, who filmed the band for the HD television series City Sessions, was similarly impressed. “These guys are professional, determined, tight and soulful,” she raves. “SwampdaWamp delivered a performance that blew the roof off The Sound Kitchen in Nashville. Have no doubt; SwampdaWamp is the new heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Audiences have reacted accordingly. “The response we’re getting from college fans just blows me away,” Michaels relates. “Young kids are buying into our thing – not only because it rocks and it’s melodic and it has a good feel, but because it means something.” Indeed, the feedback on SwampdaWamp’s MySpace page has at times been hugely emotional. “We’ll get e-mails from people talking about how ‘The River’ has touched their lives and helped them deal with losing loved ones,” he says, clearly humbled. “That’s the biggest reward, and as long as it goes on, I’m happy.”
SwampdaWamp has captivated its share of young listeners, but the band members don’t pretend to be spring chickens. “You can look at us and tell we’re not in our damn twenties,” Michaels says with a chuckle. “But we’ve got as much life and energy as any 20-year-old band on the circuit. Plus we’ve got the wisdom that comes with being our age and doing what we’ve done. I sing about the fun times, but I’m also appreciating the small things in life that people take for granted – acknowledging that it doesn’t last forever.”
Michaels adds that the shared humor and lack of ego among the band members contributes to SwampdaWamp’s esprit de corps – as does their fondness for the occasional libation. “We enjoy a drink every now and again,” the singer-songwriter clarifies. “As a band we’ll drink Crown, mostly, but we do like our shots of tequila.” No doubt such refreshments will help them further define the meaning of the band’s unique name.