Swim Deep on finding focus after their wilderness years: “We needed a kick up the arse”

The Birmingham band returned earlier this month with their third – and best – album 'Emerald Classics'

Back in 2015, Swim Deep were on an upwards trajectory that should have taken them from buzzy debutantes to the next level. The sunkissed indie-pop of their first album ‘Where The Heaven Are We’ had set expectations reasonably high. Now all they had to do was match them.

The Birmingham group’s second album ‘Mothers’ did more than that, but it also confounded and confused. It sounded nothing like the fresh-faced band that had emerged years before, now warped and weird, swirling in a vortex of mind-spangling, acid-drenched psych-pop. It was a leap too far for many to get to grips with.

In the months that followed the end of the ‘Mothers’ tour and with an urge to begin their next chapter, the band began to struggle. “We had to go back to the drawing board and try and write a record,” explains bassist Cav McCarthy. “We worked together for three months and we just knew something was wrong.” Soon, they parted ways with their former label Chess Club/RCA and entered a period of feeling lost and uncertain about their future.

The split from their label wasn’t entirely a surprise to the band. “We expected it,” admits singer and guitarist Austin Williams. “We were really happy that they took the second record, to be honest. But the staleness came a good six months after falling out with the label – they weren’t connected.”

A crisis meeting in a pub shortly after saw yet more issues arise for the band. Drummer Zack Robinson didn’t show up, a sign that the band was no longer his top priority. Later, he issued a statement to fans confirming his departure, explaining he had to leave for the sake of his mental and physical health. By the end of the crisis meeting, Higgy was no longer involved in the band either.

“I was showing everyone a big list of shit demos I had,” recalls Williams. “And he just quit as well. We all hugged and cried and then me, Mike [Watson, manager], James [Balmont, keys], and Cav sat down and were just like, ‘What now?’”

With emotions high, there was talk of final albums and EPs but none of those plans sat right with the remaining members, still determined they could make this work. They decided to give it one last shot, put their all into it and see what happened. “After that, we started to feel quite motivated,” Williams explains. “We needed that kick up the arse to do something.”

Newly fired up, they recruited two new additions to their gang in Thomas Fiquet (drums) and Robbie Wood (guitar). They knew Fiquet from his time gigging in London bands such as Childhood and Fake Laugh, while McCarthy met Wood in his other life as a fashion model. “This is quite embarrassing,” he groans as he explains how they met, Williams ribbing him as he does so. “We’d done a few [fashion] shows together in Paris and then we spent two weeks together in LA. I always knew I wanted him for something. One night we were at a house party and he was just playing Bowie songs for about two hours while we were doing what the Americans call molly [MDMA]. I was quite nervous to ask him [to join Swim Deep] cos he’s got such good taste.”

“We thought he was too cool for us – and he is,” agrees Williams. “And Tom has such good energy on stage. He’s exactly what we needed – someone that was going to come and be our own little star. It felt like we were in The Warriors when they joined. It’s exciting. We feel like a new gang again.”

“Our new member Tom has such good energy on stage. He’s our own little star”
– Austin Williams

And so, the new line-up hunkered down to work on what would become Swim Deep’s third album, ‘Emerald Classics’, named after a pub in Birmingham that McCarthy “grew up in as a kid” and the idea of the record being like its jukebox, full of singalong moments. The first song to emerge for the album was also its lead single, ‘To Feel Good’, which incorporates Rozalla’s ‘90s rave track ‘Everybody’s Free’, but sung in gospel tones by the Margate Social Singing Choir. The song sees Williams taking a trip back to his past as an 18-year-old on the dole in Birmingham, dreaming of making a living from his music. Now, he says he needed to go back to that time in his head to unleash the rest of the album.

“The more people talk about ‘To Feel Good’, the more it clicks that it was me subconsciously trying to find that person who really wanted to be a musician and be in a band,” he says. Once he’d done that, the inspiration for the rest of the record began to flow, including some of Williams’ most mature and beautiful songwriting to date.

On ‘Sail Away, Say Goodbye’, the frontman details his grandma’s battle with dementia over glittering synth swirls. “You see life much differently/And you see things people don’t see/I won’t tell you what is right or wrong,” he sings at one point, putting a different spin on how people usually talk about the disease. “It was definitely a coping mechanism and trying to make it into a positive thing,” he explains. “My dad was always telling me, ‘She’s doing her own thing now, she’s going her own way.’ It’s really important to think about it like that.”

Elsewhere, ‘Emerald Classics’ finds Swim Deep in the inventive form that they dove into on ‘Mothers’. ‘Happy As Larrie’ – written for one of the band’s best mates Mikey Dee, who’d recently become a father – mixes dreamy melodies with a big jungle breakbeat. “I remember clear as day when we were making that song and James said he wanted it to sound like ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ meets N-Trance,” laughs McCarthy. That might sound ridiculous, but somehow it works.

Initially, though, Williams “parred that song off as a bit of a laugh” because he was nervous about how the rest of the band would feel about its clashing sounds. “I was very surprised when they said it was actually good,” he recalls. “That’s always surprising to me. I was thinking recently about another time when I was in my bedroom with Cav writing [2013 single] ‘Honey’. I sung, ‘Don’t just dream in your sleep, it’s just lazy’ and turned to Cav like, ‘That’s so cheesy, I won’t put that in.’ It always scares me how different our lives could be if I did leave that out.” He pauses and adds dryly: “We’d probably be so much richer.”

No matter how much money is in their bank accounts, Swim Deep can be secure in knowing that, even with the odds were stacked against them, they’ve made the best album of their careers. “Hard work pays off,” Williams notes sagely. “It’s really easy to doubt yourself, especially in any kind of creative job, but we should be proud of ourselves and what we’ve already done.”

“We know that we could headline Madison Square Garden if work towards it”
– Austin Williams

Now, the band are focusing on the future and taking everything one step at a time. “It feels like we’re back at square one and we have to grow the band again,” says McCarthy, sounding like he’s relishing the challenge. “We have to be realistic and get our heads down.”

“We know that we can do something like headline Madison Square Garden if we release really good music and work towards it,” Williams adds, contradicting his bandmate’s point. When McCarthy calls him out on it, he replies: “That’s my idea of realistic!”

Whether topping the bill in that iconic venue ever happens for Swim Deep remains to be seen, but, at the end of the day, they’re aware success shouldn’t only be judged by venue size but by the quality of music. “We’ve always aspired to be a band like Caribou or Metronomy or MGMT,” Williams says. “They’re not about getting bigger, they’re just constantly evolving and getting better.” On that front, Swim Deep are definitely back on track.