My Afternoon With The Mysterious SWAAI BOYS
story + pics / Adeline Tan
Last Saturday I met with the Swaai Boys (Andrew McInerney, Caleb Townsend, Andrew Roth and Jose Ginarte). The day started off with gloomy unfortunately rainy weather, as we were suppose to have the interview perhaps on an East River Ferry by Brooklyn Bridge Park. However, we found shelter under a lime green umbrella at Garden Bar, strategically located within the park’s vicinity. Andrew McInerney (lead singer, guitarist and founder of the band) and Caleb Townsend (guitarist) commented on how the weather seemed apropos as it reminded them of the rainforest and the dripping water and greenery surrounding the bar definitely brought some character into the meet up.
If you haven’t heard of the Swaai Boys, you are missing out on some rad tropical vibes dipped in surf rock and what the boys like to call “turf rock”. Their EP “Meet the Mysterious Swaai Boys” transports you into an oasis of sun, sand and adventure. Be prepared to be swept away into a world filled with princes, voyages, islands and mystery. This NYC based tropical surf-pop band Swaai Boys created the perfect soundtrack for a summer’s day and the set of 4 songs released in their EP will have you grabbing a pair of Havaianas, some beach shorts and bask under the sun in a hammock holding a frozen mojito at hand. Some of the oddest and loveliest pop exotica I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.
The band has been compared to Beach Boys, Paul Simon and even Vampire Weekend, but they have created a whole new sound and vibe that doesn’t fit into a single box or genre I’ve heard of. Think of all the cultures of the world thrown into this enchanted pot and brewed into a mash-up of all their favorite styles and worldly muses. After hanging out with the Swaai Boys, we talked about Tintin, capturing sounds on mountains, Indiana Jones and how they could maybe bring a whole new world of nature and life into every performance and song they produce. Adventurism and exploration has clearly lent itself to establishing Swaai Boys’ identity and this creative concept brings about endless musical possibilities.
I sat down with McInerney and Townsend while we waited for the other two band members, Andrew Roth (bassist) and José Ginarte (drummer) to arrive at our movielike location with a misty view of the New York City skyline clouded by rain shower and the sound of horns blasting from nearby ferries on the dock.
McInerney had a margarita while the rest of us shared a pitcher of fruit sangria. How much more tropical and laid back could we get you ask? Well, lets throw in a plate of freshly cut mango into the picture and we have our little tropical hut by the river. So lets meet these mysterious Swaai Boys and let them take you away on their magical carpet ride across deserts, oceans and islands to their beautiful and fittingly frightening adventure. These NYC lads may have wild imaginations and picture themselves as 90s cartoon characters traveling the seven seas, but living in the concrete jungle lends to their fascination with the world and its undiscovered wonders.
The Swaai Boys: born and bred in New York, city boys with the passion for adventure outside the confines of the “concrete jungle”. Townsend (guitarist) grew up in the Eagle Warehouse in Dumbo that so happened to be the red brick building right by Brooklyn Bridge (where our interview took place) for the first 10 years of his life and then moved to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn where he currently resides.
McInerney (lead vocalist/guitarist and founder of Swaai Boys) is from Manhattan, José is from New Jersey and McInerney went to school with Roth (bassist) since the 3rd grade. Needless to say, these guys were friends before they were band mates.
McInerney, the most articulately loquacious speaker of the bunch talked about Wade Davis, anthropologist and ethno botanist and perchance taking road trips up rivers and mountains with the band. All very “Into The Wild”-esque and like a modern day Robinson Crusoe seeking a quest. Their curiosity and interest in world cultures permeates into their music, and to me at least, it brings back childhood novelty and excitement. The Swaai Boys would be “the Goonies” if they were 10 years older, fostered a tropical pop exotica band and washed up on the shores of Brooklyn, NY.
McInerney called by the nickname Shadow by his band mates mentioned about how after graduating college he started getting into South African music, specifically Paul Simon and ethic music that is less pertinent to New York City. “I started getting into a style of guitar called soukous guitar and experimented with that and got into action adventure B list movies,” McInerney said. “Indiana Jones is a huge inspiration for the band, it was the starting out point.” Townsend enthusiastically mentioned his full set of Tintin books and joked about maybe after the interview just talking about Tintin for an hour! Which personally I didn’t mind doing being a huge Tintin enthusiast myself.
“It’s all about adventure!” according to Townsend. The Lion King and Aladdin, sort of these bizarre more exotic movies that had made its way into popular culture is what McInerney sees as inspiration that found its way into their music.
It became apparent to me that these boys knew their action adventure pictures and was gripped by exploration documentaries and books.
“Movies that inspired these (Disney) films are from the 1950s like Secret of the Incas (1954 movie directed by Jerry Hopper) and before that it was just straight up real explorers!” said McInerney.
For Townsend, who also had fascinating nuggets of knowledge about exploration, he said, “What started it all for me was this guy called, Joseph Banks (English naturalist and botanist) who was one of the first ethnographers who in the turn of the 18th century was the first one to get on a military exploration ship to Tahiti and saw it with an anthropological perspective!” “He came back and started the whole idea of exploration and adventures not just for military conquests but to find out about the world.”
The group looks for inspiration in films, books, museums and places. Townsend talks about a book called the “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes, which is about a journey to Tahiti and back. “He is the first person to write things down, draw stuff and starts sending other people out for expeditions. This is our foundation for these adventures, it creates the idea of anthropology and exploration,” said Townsend.
Just like how anthropologists discover new geographic elements and hidden secret islands off the coast, the Swaai Boys dive into music like an exploration of sound.
McInerney said, “When you start off with popular culture, it’s super shallow in a great way. In a way our music is kind of shallow. It’s like story telling and fantastical.”
The real foundation of the band was that McInerney was percolating all these ideas and wrote a handful of songs. Swaai Boys’ songs mash their way into each other naturally and what they kind of ended up making is an EP that if you look closely at it, each song is very specific to a certain geographic section and covers a lot of things they would like to unearth as a band.
McInerney describes the EP as one song being about the desert (In the Sahara) and one about a province in Africa. Another is about explorers in a jungle and another about a hidden temple. He wrote all the songs from the EP by himself, made and recorded right in his own bedroom. “Shadow (McInerney) used these songs to almost become the pilot to get the band together to play and that is when he found Roth and José, which he had played with before and a couple of months later dragged me in.” said Townsend.
McInerney tells me that to be interested in exploration is to be interested in a lot of aspects of the world: history, geography, anthropology and its fascinating array of people, places and cultures.
“Why it resonates so much and why we feel comfortable about making this EP in New York City is because we talk to so many people that are looking for ways to break out of the box and discover stuff and the best thing to do is to go on a trip,” said Townsend. “It’s really about capturing the wonder and newness of being on a trip, anything being possible and magical. That youthful feeling is what we would like to capture in our songs.”
Swaai Boys believe that when you start with exploration, the music conforms to that, which then allows so many different genres, styles and for musical expansion.
They endeavor to make musical movies particularly when they are on stage, they want the songs to be a story and take you to a specific place, almost like a soundtrack to a movie. Cinematic sounds that carry you to another place. “Music paints a story if you use the right musical colors!” said McInerney.
I proceeded to ask if they write the lyrics first or the melodies to their songs. McInerney replied, “It’s more about the feeling, if we want to write a song about Polar exploration, we are not going to write something that sounds tropical. What can we do with the same instruments and how can we manipulate that to transport the listener to that location?”
For those who are wondering what exactly does Swaai mean. Well, I asked and McInerney told me that it is a South African word for “dance” or “to swing”.
“When I made the EP I was looking for a word to capture the band, just the way it (swaai) sounds and looks. The root of the word, and for whatever reason it just came out.” I can see this soon becoming a regular adjective used to describe something related to the Swaai Boys’ vibe and attitude.
They bring up surf rock influences, Dick Dale and how they listen to West African music and eventually integrates it into their music. “We find kernels of music and combine it with stories!” said Townsend.
What are the Swaai Boys inspired by at the moment? Townsend explains the book, “The Age of Wonder” and how it is about early flight. “The real pioneer of flight was a hot air balloon which you cannot control. Everybody was ecstatic about the idea of getting off the ground, it’s the first time someone has seen a bird’s eye view of the world and how cities are laid out. People freaked out for 3 years, there was a thing called Balloonomania that captured Europe. There would be crowds of 50,000 people just coming together to see these pioneers of flight go up in the air!” according to Townsend, who eagerly spoke about these exploits like they were his own. He is also reading a book about Roald Amundsen (Norwegian explorer) and discovering the South Pole.
McInerney jumped in talking about “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (1988 horror film) directed by Wes Craven based off a book by Wade Davis about an anthropologist who goes down to Haiti and infiltrates voodoo secret societies because they were making a potent powder that would lower a human’s heart rate so low that doctors would think they were dead. It was a form of zombification.
Another movie Townsend appeared excited about was called Kon-Tiki. A movie based on a documentary about Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian who wanted to establish that people in Polynesia actually migrated from South America and not from East Asia. Apparently the charm was in his long blonde hair and became a perfect poster boy for exploration.
Musical inspirations for the Swaai Boys may come from multiple standpoints. If they are focusing on surf rock, they will listen to Duane Eddy. They don’t like to cite the Beach Boys too much, as to not always equate them with their music. But the Swaai Boys appreciate the Beach Boys and The Kings style of songwriting and describes Swaai Boys as kind of strange, bumpy thumpy pop music. “It’s a jeep on dirt! A bumpy ride!” said Townsend.
“Some of our songs sound like Chris Isaak, a more slow wavy feel and that is seen in a song we wrote called “Pirates of Dark Water” which is inspired by a 90s cartoon” said McInerney. “Ships have such heavy movement, but when you are on a ship you are cutting water and the waves,” said Townsend. “We use sound effects to communicate a place because the world is so cool and if you have the chance to stop and listen you can hear trees move, ships creak, bugs and raindrops.”
“Poison Berry” is a song they wrote that they just threw over a bunch of sounds and created layers. Townsend is familiar with sound and film, and had experience mixing sound together. So the Swaai Boys made this combination of jungle sounds, complete with hippos by a pond and unusual sounds that sits underneath the whole track. They want to put natural sounds into a song, like how a ship creaks into “Pirates of Dark Water” and the sound of crashing waves.
“We want to take the listener into a different world, and whatever we can do, we will bring them into that world!” said McInerney. It’s not just with their music, but also with their stage design. They try to make it as much as a forest on stage: globes, vines and miniature animals scattered around. “We try to make it theatrical and give the audience a show!” said Townsend.
An 8-foot plant sits in their studio (King Killer studios) that appears to be changing the game for them. “When I stand in front of this tall plant while I’m playing it just gives a really fresh feeling” Townsend admitted. They want to make their studio located amongst art studios and fabrication shops in Gowanus Canal an oasis.
When people walk into their venue and see animals, globes and vines, it facilitates bringing the audience into another domain. Their stage usually adorned by Incan ceremonial masks and adventure books. A concept in development: More books on stage, possibly Tintin comic books.
McInerney said it best, “a hybrid of a performance and a classroom.” I joked about having a biology teacher as the opening act and they heartily answered, “that’s a good idea actually” sheepishly laughing.
To them, it’s about creating a lot of different elements for people to have fun at! Giving them a trip and the experience of being on vacation or to infuse some fear into the mix. “Yeah, put a little more fear into everybody, that would be great!” said a keen Roth.
There is also a “Dark Swaai” because according to the group; Swaai has dark energy too, which hasn’t made it into tape yet. There are always creepy places when exploring the world. “On the surface these places are extremely beautiful, but the things people have to go through to get there is not beautiful,” said McInerney.
“A gigantic ice wall is the most beautiful thing in the world but also the scariest thing. It brings beautiful raw emotion. To inspire that in just one person would be great!” said Townsend.
Plans are already in motion for the next Swaai Boys trip to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The boys are arranging to strap guitars on their backs and take a tape player along to record songs on the mountain. “We just want to be explorers!” said Roth. “Yes, we can get field recordings, take sound out of the world and suck it into a small recording device,” added Townsend. McInerney thinks that writing songs on site and absorbing sounds would create much more depth and if released online they could give people context on how they recorded it.
“We identify with explorers and the similarities are apparent with how we make music and the experiences. It’s like you had to use the tools around you and it’s based on the insanity over obsessing about creating these musical pieces of the world. Same insanity as getting to those mysterious places,” said Townsend.
Why are they doing this you ask? It’s a FEVER! They have that same approach to capturing sound sonically, like a burning desire. Roth chimes in asserting that “Robinson Crusoe inherited all this money from his family’s business, but instead he chose to explore. And we are doing that right now!” Part of the reason they started this band, is about playing music about getting outdoors. It’s about going to places and not just sitting inside. Hence highlighting what seems to be the recurrent band statement of exploration.
One of my favorite songs off “Meet the Mysterious Swaai Boys” EP is Watumbatu/Under the Moonlight. Ironically the song is about a group of tourists who get to Zanzibar and the island of Tumbatu where the people are called Watumbatu. The tourists get their heads cut off and put on sticks! However, the second part of the song is about people dancing on beach lit by beams of moonlight next to a jungle forest. Talk about disparity.
“I actually listened to the words and I was like, this is like a nasty movie on the surface but there is an under layer,” said Ginarte. “A lot of the songs are really happy, but the lyrics are dark.”
McInerney has a knack for taking sixties love songs and putting it in the context of a particular environment. In The Sahara is about a guy trying to get a girl except he is a prince and goes across the desert to find her but doesn’t actually find anyone. It’s more classical melancholy according to Townsend. “But that is what is mysterious. The way it sounds and the words involved are radically different. If you listen to this EP once it sounds delightful but listen closely and it’s about a man getting his legs amputated,” said McInerney. “Strangely pleasant and mashing weird Haitian voodoo with surf rock!”
Swaai Boys mentioned in a previous interview that they fashioned a genre called “turf rock” however they think they sound more “jeep rock”. “Camilla is more pop exotica. Those compositions are perfectly inclined to what we are going after. It’s weird and mystical. Martin Denny is someone we are into,” said Townsend. McInerney added “There aren’t any lyrics, but it puts you into a mood. It has sounds in the background, and random chants. We take those sounds and add sound effects and guitars.”
If you were to Google or look up descriptions of the Swaai Boys, what would appear would be a short narrative of McInerney being “The Archaeologist”, Townsend “The Magician”, Roth “The Warrior” and Ginarte “The Scholar”. Townsend said, “We sit around writing copy a lot, our manager wants us to write copies to send to people. I had this idea that the Swaai Boys are these cartoon characters, Tintin-like characters that exist in a comic book somewhere or an animated movie that go around having adventures and playing music. I took these ideas and came up with humorous identities.”
“Shadow (McInerney) is the leader and “Archeologist” cause he digs music! Because he rocks!” Townsend continued jestingly. “Roth became the “Warrior” because he is the most energetic one on stage but he transformed into the nomad.” The group mentioned that Roth plays with a fierce energy and that he could rock some war paint on stage. Ginarte, who is in the law profession is “The Scholar” but is slowly shedding his identity by becoming a wilderness photographer.
“These ideas evolve, we are all adventurers and we play different roles. And I bestowed upon myself the title of “The Magician” because I took into account our stage presence and when I’m on stage I’m very still and bond with my instrument. I think of myself as conjuring up potions of sound. Magical and sparkling! Glimmer!” said Townsend. “I’m stealing that from the Rolling Stones but I want to have glimmer!”
Those identities became the main description of the band. Not quite signed off, but it works to portray the eccentricity and vigorous spirit of the band.
Swaai Boys has a cinematic feel to their music and if they could score the soundtrack of any movie they would ideally love to write music for Tintin. “It would be great if we were in a Tintin comic book and they passed through a bar and we are on stage playing!” said Roth. They knew they were reaching far but you could tell that they were zealous about possibly scoring the soundtrack for a future Tintin fillm. “We could write a letter to Steven Spielberg and ask to score the movie soundtrack!” said Roth, in a candid demeanor.
I continued chatting with the Swaai Boys about how the pyramids of Giza and the Mayan pyramids are the exact same height and number of steps and no one knows exactly how that happened. Roth mentioned his trip to Machu Picchu and how the stones were perfectly lined up against one another. Townsend talked about how pyramids were made with no slave labor. Basically more fun facts about the wonders of the world.
Another film the boys seem enthused about was Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Movies are definitely a huge inspiration for the Swaai Boys. I was looking over at guys geeking out over Stargates, monkeys using tools and space travel and I loved it.
Ginarte revealed how he used to study primates and that while he was studying an Orangutan, it saw him take notes and stopped eating grass, pointed towards his paper and tried to read it! “Like the Orangutan in Jungle Book!” said Roth. Jungle Book being another film that enthuses the band, not to my surprise.
Why did they call the EP “Meet The Mysterious Swaai Boys”? According to McInerney, “It is the classic way to introduce a band, like “Meet The Beatles” but we kind of wanted to make it our own.” It had to do with the sound being easy and fun, but the lyrics being fantastical, adventure-centric and gritty.
They are attracted to the idea of false identities, something underneath a visible layer that makes it mysterious. “Mystery is seductive, especially for people our age in New York City. Everyone is having a crisis because there is a lot more mystery in life but we are wondering, “where is it?” since you can find out everything you want,” said Townsend. “Lets go back to childhood, and dial down the exposure!” said Ginarte. We do need more mystery in our lives.
I asked the Swaai Boys if they had the chance to collaborate with any musician/band, what band would it be? They would love to work with Paul Simon, a South African band called John Wizards and the guitarist/composer, Seu Jorge.
People have brought up the fact that Swaai Boys sound a little like Vampire Weekend. Having comparable collegiate backgrounds with an afro-pop sound. “We would love to open for them someday! We are also influenced by African music and they have also cited Paul Simon as an inspiration,” said McInerney. Townsend praised Vampire Weekend for being great musicians with awesome arrangements.
So, when will we be expecting a full-length album from the Swaai Boys? They are just starting work on their first full length. They would like to initially take a trip to Mount Washington, maybe release a couple of singles that deal with field sounds and only after their mini adventure, they’ll proceed on making a full length album.
Townsend envisions a hybrid of a little more songs than an EP and less songs than a full album for their next record and combining that with field recordings as well as interview pieces. McInerney would like to have the band focus on specific adventures and the album would have an environmental theme. Like nautical, terrestrial or jungle.
For now, Swaai Boys are trying to focus on a desert sand, beach feel for the first album. “Trip down and maybe a few months making the album. We would like to emerge from the winter with a new album by spring of next year!” said Townsend.
“It’s all about Spotify!” said Townsend when asked about what he’s listening to on his ipod. McInerney listens to music depending on his mood. “I will listen to the Dire Straits and JJ Cale. Those sounds have a earthy feel,” said McInerney.
However, in the studio they listen to surf rock or world music to get the creative juices flowing.
Before we left the bar I asked the Swaai Boys one crucial last question: What is your spirit animal? And of course, they have given thought to this before.
McInerney: I’m an elephant!
Townsend: I have two for two different types of weather. A lion and a polar bear!
Ginarte: I took a survey online and according to the survey I’m a falcon, but I think I’m a cheetah.
Roth: Maybe a hippopotamus. They are fierce but I am mostly in the water just chilling and you spend your life in a bath!
After the interview, due to the glorious weather we walked into the park’s foliage covered path and onto a wooden hanging bridge. The view behind us was picturesque as we walked across the rickety bridge the boys were so eager to investigate. True to explorer fashion, The Swaai Boys later went into a store called Hatchet Outdoor Supply Co. after walking through the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood. The store was exactly what you would imagine the Swaai Boys being enthralled by. It was both a world of high-end menswear and an Eagle Scout’s paradise. Camping gear, tents, hiking boots and backpacks, the trendy utility store had all the goodies their explorer’s heart could desire. Stylish yet practical, I guess they really meant what they said about wanting to break out of their box and travel! The Swaai Boys associated themselves with the surfers in the movie “Endless Summer”, a group of surfers persistently chasing summer. In their case, a group of explorers chasing after the sun.
Two hours spent with the Swaai Boys felt like I just went through an adventure biopic or a lecture about expeditions. But taught by hip young New Yorkers who basically are walking encyclopedias of exhilarating world culture, music and historic escapades.
Their EP “Meet The Mysterious Swaai Boys” will have you wanting for more excitement and adventure in your life. These lads have crazy imaginations and wild lyrics, but fundamentally their music brings you to a far away place. So, grab on to your frozen margaritas, straw hats, boogie boards and jeeps! And go on a musical journey with the Swaai Boys.
To the Swaai Boys: Thanks for bringing me into your strange, beautiful world of adventure!
More pics click here!