Swoop Swoop Slips into a deserted warehouse in the dead of night - pulls out his 4 track recorder from wheeli suitcase - sits in the dark and records this beautiful album
There’s a quote floating around the internet that paints Swoop Swoop (formerly known as Streaky Jake, actually Sean Gorman) as a bit of a ladies’ man. In it, he proclaims that he started playing guitar after his friend Lucas McCain strummed ‘Under the Bridge’ at their primary school assembly, causing the knees of many a girl to quiver. An impressionable young Gorman professed that he wanted to make said girls weak at the knees too.
Right now though, he’s laughing. “I was just joking. Lucas was always trying to get someone to play the 12 bar blues with him so then he could just do face melters over the top of it.” As for the girls? “He’s a very tall, handsome chap so I shouldn’t have hung around him. I was always in the shadows.”
Somewhere in the Shadows is the first album to be released under Gorman’s Swoop Swoop alias, on Sean Hocking’s now Hong Kong-based label Metal Postcard. Filled with delicious, subtle takes on acoustic guitar and minor forays into electronic elements, there’s no one phrase to pin down the aesthetic. Instead, there are influences, sounds, and fragments. “I love Bob Dylan,” Gorman says. “I remember listening to ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ once and that really affected me, the sound and everything about it. I was into the blues for a long time, not so much anymore.”
Harmonious Beach Boys pop also gets a look-in too, alongside a childhood fascination with punk. “When I was in high school I listened to Dead Kennedys, American punk bands, but then I kind of got over that. I used to play a lot of punk with Lucas but it wasn’t very good.”
The story behind Gorman’s evolution, as Streaky Jake at least, is just as intriguing as the tales of the young Lucas McCain. It all began in September 2005 when an unmarked demo arrived for review here at Cyclic Defrost. Alex Crowfoot (Ollo) reviewed the record What’s Wrong? Nothing, with its hand-etched sleeve, for issue 12. As there was no way for Crowfoot to contact its author, in the review he invited the musician to contact him to mix and master the record.
Gorman, based in Perth, got in touch via e-mail to thank him for the review and the wheels were set in motion. Crowfoot passed the demo onto Hocking, and the first Streaky Jake album got a proper release through Metal Postcard. Gorman and Crowfoot since collaborated on the Swoop Swoop record, and another release as Swoop Swoop appeared soon after that, a CD-R called Factory & Porch Songs featuring a few lo-fi versions of tracks that also appeared on Somewhere in the Shadows.
Shifting between Streaky Jake and Swoop Swoop seemed necessary given Gorman’s desire to change tact with subject matter. “The Swoop Swoop album was more a collection of songs about place,” he says, adding that the Streaky Jake alias was for his character-driven songs. “I just thought there’s no point in being Streaky Jake anymore, it was quite specific to that album. I was kind of over it as well.”
It’s this concept of place that proves most interesting in the new persona, particularly when listening to the breezy ambivalence with which he addresses the city across the album. Gorman admits he’s not exactly a part of the Perth’s music scene, hardly performs live (except for a minor detour which we’ll elaborate on later) and simply writes songs at home on a four or eight track, and will just “mess around with them”.
“People (who live in Perth) love to hate Perth, and I find these people are quite affected by it…people don’t tend to write that many songs about the place. The thing about people in Perth is that they whinge about how there’s no culture, so they all leave. If people stayed, and wrote about it, tried to create something…that was part of it.”
Gorman took the latter path, with many of the songs on Somewhere in the Shadows tracing the relationship between himself and the city. “More of it was just driven by the place itself. What I like about Perth is the coast and the horizon, and all those things.”
The gentle strum of ‘In The Indian Ocean’ is just one of these songs that deal with his affection for the landscape, the experience – the activity – of Perth. Between the gentle finger picked progression, he lists them all: snorkelling, diving, surfing, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, kissing, romancing. It’s interesting to review the list because it unveils this simultaneous discourse between universal and (what the listener assumes is) Gorman’s personal experience. This city has a particular dialogue that Gorman is able to tap into more so than you first think.
Indeed, you’ll probably be challenged on initial listens to decipher what is being sung, with the delivery being almost glossolalia-like. “I guess that’s not really intentional. I know what I’m singing, it’s just, I don’t know, singing is not just about the words; it’s about how it sounds. If you can get into it the emotion should come across anyway even if you can’t hear what’s being said.”
Which brings us neatly to Gorman’s playing style. The finger picked, resounding sounds that traipse across the album sprung from necessity as much as anything else. “It was quite funny”, he begins, describing the surfing accident which forced him to change his playing style. “The waves were tiny. My board flipped upside down and I put my hand down, it went right onto the fin and it severed a nerve in my hand. There’s a muscle between your thumb and your pointing finger, and I can’t send messages to that muscle anymore. I couldn’t play bar chords anymore so I had to play open chords. It was good in some respect because open chords ring out. I started doing more and more finger picking.”
Meticulous attention to structure and detail is a characteristic of Gorman’s songs, even if he’s adamant that most of his compositions are simple. He talks about the process of creating a song: the construction, deconstruction, and abandoning methodology that are part and parcel of a track’s evolution. Process, rather than result then?
“I don’t really sit down and write a song from start to finish in one go. Sometimes that happens. The idea of going ‘alright, it’s time to sit down and write a song’ doesn’t work for me. Sometimes it takes me ages to nut out a song. Sometimes I’ll just have the chord progression and the arrangement, musically, and slowly try and think of something. At some point you might think of lyrics, but lyrics are pretty hard for me. I guess you always think what you’ve written is crap.”
“Sometimes I’ll have a song and lyrics for it but it just won’t work and then I’ll abandon it. But then you might have another song you’ve got going and you might switch them over, take the lyrics and put them with that music, or vice versa. Sometimes you get so fixated on the one idea and it’s just not working, so you just need to throw it away.”
This reflective analysis permeated the recording process too, even though the end result is the gloriously hazy, woozy world of Swoop Swoop that evokes Saturday afternoons, sunlight and carefree memories. It’s a testament to the songs that this mood can be carried over, given that the recording experience was anything but relaxing. In March 2008, Crowfoot and Gorman recorded the album over a week in a home studio in Bundanoon, in the Southern Highlands. It was “cabin fever”, as Gorman puts it. “I was just stressed and scared. I wanted to do a good job. And at the end of it you don’t know, you get tired of the same song over and over again so it’s impossible to judge whether or not you like it or dislike it sometimes.”
Intriguingly, the Swoop Swoop methodology takes the listener on an excursion between recollection and lyrical fragments of memory in (using a deceptively simple term) the quiet moments, offset against grandiose sounds further down the track. Gorman is again reflective. “I guess it just happened that way. A part of that was having Alex there because he actually knows what he’s doing as opposed to me when I’m recording on four track, it’s very haphazard. We were actually able to do a lot more so I guess it just happened. In the week that we had to do it we just nutted it out. There wasn’t that much time to think too deeply at the time when we were recording the tracks. We did record lots of tracks and tried anything. As a result of that short period of time there were a lot of forced, quick decisions. Having said that, Alex took that and worked on it for a long time, and I think maybe that’s where a lot more of the grandiose, elaborate parts came into it.”
Crowfoot and Hocking had to convince Gorman (“cajole him”, even) to take the songs on the road. The tour, which began in July, will take in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. It’s a veritable one man band, with Gorman packing everything into a van, driving and sleeping in it along the way. Even though he’s played live before – there were instances in the US before this – there’s a definite sense of trepidation when we broach the subject of the upcoming dates.
“I’m a bit worried about it,” he begins. “I guess because Sean released the album, and I did nothing to promote it, so I feel a bit guilty because [Alex and Sean] put a lot of time and money into it, so I’m trying to do my end of the bargain.” He laughs slightly at this. “Part of it is just going to see what happens. I’ve already got my van so I’ll just chuck my surfboard in the back.”
There was even talk of getting Swoop Swoop performing in a backyard, though the idea that did come to fruition was a date in a Melbourne record store. “Alex had that idea, he thought that might be cool. Although not many of them actually want me to come. I’m not really known and I don’t really perform so quite possibly I would suck,” he laughs, “drive people out of the shop.”
There’s definitely no precedent, but there was one particular incident when Gorman went over to play a few gigs in Williamsburg and New York, in 2006, that he knows will provide the perfect fodder for a music journalist to end on.
“I played in a record shop in Williamsburg when I went to stay with Sean and across the road there was a construction site and they had this big industrial drill. And there was a horse outside, walking past. It was quite weird. I think it was a pony actually. I got distracted, but you don’t see a horse walk past your window every day.”