New and Improv-ed

The three musicians that compose the jazz-rock hybrid Swivel Stick face each other in a dark corner of South Miami's Space Cadette Studios. Behind them a wall lined with compact discs pasted onto multicolored squares reflects the faint light from an overhead lamp. Christopher Cline hunches over his simple drum kit, a pair of drumsticks hanging limply from his hands. Richard Rippe's towering, spindly body braces an upright bass, his spidery fingers spread over the instrument's thick strings. The smaller-framed and bespectacled Carl Ferrari stands straight and stiff with his blue Fender guitar tucked under his armpit, staring at the fret board. Everything's quiet for a long moment.

Then Ferrari starts plucking the first scattered, stuttering notes of "Liduam." Rippe strokes long, shivering notes out of his bass with a bow, and Cline erratically rolls his sticks from drum to drum. For six minutes the trio weaves harmonically, at varying tempos. Cymbals crash, guitar strings quaver, bass strings hum. The sound is dark and cavernous. Suddenly Cline taps the rim of his snare and the sonic intensity segues into a smooth bop, the group swinging as if accompanying Brazilian jazz master Antonio Carlos Jobim on some patio overlooking the beach.

Swivel Stick plays music that is constantly exploring itself. Recent performances included horns provided by Marcus Ware (saxophone) and Henry Rajan (clarinet). Ferrari has also begun experimenting with electronic backing tracks. The music sounds like a combination of early Seventies prog-rock courtesy of Pink Floyd or King Crimson, the wail of John Coltrane, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman.

Swivel Stick's set lists often include classic jazz pieces such as "Afro Blue," by 1950s Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaria, as well as traditional music like "Saltarello," an Italian Renaissance song once covered by goth darlings Dead Can Dance. Swivel Stick approaches these covers with its own distinct style. Melodies stay intact and they often swing like jazz pieces, but the musicians' approach is exploratory and foreboding, as if they were coaxing the sounds out of some dark recess.

In 1993, when Rippe and Cline founded Swivel Stick with two other high school friends (vocalist Mike Cavanaugh and guitarist Mike Bennet), they had a radically different sound: punk metal.

Cline was the death-metal freak, Rippe the die-hard indie punker. The two convinced Bennet and Cavanaugh to play guitar and sing, with Rippe writing the lyrics. During these high school years, the group brought their frenzied sound to parties and warehouses before graduating to local clubs and various bars in Tampa, Orlando, and Gainesville. After tuning their sound a bit, the group decided to add another layer of guitar for a more assaultive sound.

"We were going for a thicker rhythm section," Cline says, "just something more powerful than basic guitar, drums, bass, and vocals." They found Ferrari, who was playing bass in another local band (Ed Matus' Struggle) but wanted to explore his guitar-playing talent. "I wasn't cut out to play the bass," Ferrari explains. "You see how Rich has huge hands? Well, mine are small. It would hurt me sometimes to play that shit for a whole show."

Ferrari was only in the band a few months when Bennet left, soon followed by Cavanaugh, forcing Rippe to take over vocal duties and reducing the band to a trio. Joe Miranda joined the band in spring 1995 and took part in the recording of their fifteen-track debut CD that fall (he quit the band before the four-week national tour that followed). Recorded over a period of two months at Miami's Tapeworm Studios, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown was an eerie opus that combined abrasive guitars and emotional fervor with meditative passages and tranquilizing ambient effects.

The album opens with the fade-in of lightly tapped guitar strings. The noise meanders in search of a melody, then turns to some quiet electric guitar strumming. Rippe's words drip desire and self-loathing ("You're the angel burned by my foolishness"), a schism that's wonderfully -- albeit uncomfortably -- complemented by the division between the band's hardcore and embracing impulses throughout the record.

The grating, guitar-swirling, drum-pummeling finale of "You and Her" is followed by a hushed piece constructed from archival footage of the Apollo 11 launch. In turn "Mistaken Migration" is cut short by the layers of feedback that intro "Biggest Mess I've Been In," a catchy, superfast punk song that recalls Bad Religion.

The band sold many of the discs at a CD release party at Space Cadette in July 1996, as well as on the subsequent tour, which took them to New York. "Now there are like 50 left," Ferrari says. "So we're just holding on to them. I'm not going to bust them out at local shows and try to sell them. Maybe if we go outside of Miami to play, then I would just have some to sell. It's not worth it here. We get letters from people. The last one we got was from this girl from Texas who had our CD and she wanted to buy one for her friend, and she made us this whole little package of artwork. We got letters from Russia, Italy. I think there was one from Spain."  

Ferrari believes the album received attention in those faraway countries thanks to several distribution deals. "Our distributors would buy like 50 or something, and who knows where they would send them," he says. "Caroline Records are international. They bought a lot of CDs from us."

Ferrari credits the interest in Notes to its original packaging concept, conceived by the folks at Space Cadette. The CD came sealed in a bubblewrap bag, with a sheet of corrugated cardboard decorated with stamps and laser-copied images folded over it three times. It closed with a Velcro patch and a line of twine. The artwork included a pressed flower, a swatch of blue burlap, four photocopied notes written by Rippe in the voice of a fictitious patient in different stages of mental breakdown, and eight cards illustrated with visual interpretations of each song, created by local artists.

"That CD would have never gotten to some of the places that it went without that packaging," Ferrari declares. "The distributors treated it like a novelty thing. It's not like they bought hundreds of them, and we wouldn't have been able to give them hundreds of them, anyway. But it worked out good for us."

The band is looking into re-releasing the album in a more standard package. For now the members are mostly concerned with fine-tuning this new sound they've discovered in order to do it justice on record.

Swivel Stick has already tried recording two follow-up albums. The most recent effort was scrapped because the current members, and sax player Marcus Ware, were unhappy with their performance. In addition parts of the sessions recorded onto a hard disk were lost.

The band had previously recorded a followup in 1996, laying down four tracks. Only one featured vocals and no track was less than ten minutes long. Although these songs were hastily recorded, and the band has no plans to release them, Ferrari says he considers the sessions a turning point in the band's sound, pointing to "Innocence Divine" as the key track. The song's soft, gradual intro forced the musicians to approach their instruments in a different way, one that relied more on jazz than hardcore. "After we wrote that song, everything that came after that was different," Ferrari recalls.

The sound was still abrasive, but the approach was far more diffuse. Rhythms were never fixed and the players allowed the songs to pour forth in an improvised style, borrowing heavily from bebop. The songwriting process is also collaborative. A tune might start with an idea from Ferrari, but all members of the band build on the idea and contribute to its final form.

Ferrari was so excited about the possibilities of this new sound that he convinced the group to forget about vocals. "I could give three fucks about having a singer," Ferrari asserts. "To me, you're holding back the music to have someone sing on top of it. You can't take it too 'out there' with someone singing. Once you take the singing out, we can fit anywhere."

Rippe's view on no longer providing vocals? "I guess the point was to do something different. We just decided to keep it instrumental. We might change our minds again, but for right now we're keeping it instrumental."

He and his bandmates do hope to use a set of lyrics written by Rippe, perhaps within the band's next CD booklet. "In the compromise we came up with I might reinterpret the songs into a story and release that with the disc. That way it's not all lost," Rippe explains.

Ferrari says he and his bandmates have plenty of material for a second record. "The name of it is going to be In Remembrance of Things Past," he notes. "It's probably going to be a double CD. We have like eight songs, and the shortest one is ten minutes long. And we have one that's like a half-hour long. We just keep perfecting it.

"I'm not in a hurry to put it out, though, because I think we've reached a point where we have our own sound, which is timeless. I know what we can sound like when we play that shit right. Why waste it now, when we've spent so much time perfecting these songs? I don't see it as music that in five years from now people will be saying, 'We're sick of this already.' Hopefully," he adds, with a laugh.  

Swivel Stick performs Friday, February 5, at Borders Book Shop & Cafe, 9205 S Dixie Hwy; 305-665-8800. The music begins at 8:00 p.m. Admission is free.

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