Interview: Lil Charlie – The Swamp Born Assassins

Glasgow rockers The Swamp Born Assassins put the time in lockdown to good use by reimaging four of their tracks in an acoustic style. Having road-tested the approach, first with an instore appearance at a local HMV, then as part of Guy Bellamy’s ‘Spirit of Wildfire’ festival-on-the-radio, The Swamps knew that they were on to something special. Head Swamp Lil Charlie, first of his name, singer of songs, writer of poems, blower of harmonica, talks us through the thought-process behind the EP as well as divulging his earliest musical memories.

The acoustic show at HMV, was that honestly the first time, excluding rehearsals, that the band had played acoustically?

That was the very first time, yes, and we hadn’t really rehearsed it, to be honest. I think that we might have had one rehearsal up at my house beforehand, I’ve got a studio in my attic so we got the boys up there and I think we rehearsed it only one time?

Watching the set at HMV, you would never have guessed!

It was just one of those things that came naturally, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a great incentive to get on and record the EP. When we normally play live, we play loud, and this was one of those rare times where I could hear myself for a change! I thought…” Is that what I sound like?!…that’s not too bad!”. I didn’t have to push my voice too hard to get some feeling into it. It took me back to the Black Crowes doing their MTV Unplugged gig, I thought that we sounded really good. The guys are great musicians and they know what they are doing. It was just off-the-cuff and very natural.

And then you reprised the acoustic set as part of Guy Bellamy’s ‘Spirit of Wildfire’ Festival-on-the-Radio?

Yes, you know what Guy’s like, he likes to put things on that are a little bit different. He’s also very enthusiastic about Wildfire Festival, and we had done the ‘Run to The Wildfire’ song a few years before to boost funds for the festival. So Guy asked us to do a few songs for the lockdown sessions for his Wildfire weekender, and although lockdown was still on we were able to record remotely, the guys all bought the equipment that they needed to record their bits. Everything was sent to Craig as he’s the brains of the outfit, and he was able to mix it for Guy. It went down really well, and Guy was pleased with it, and that also gave us the incentive to do the EP.

The Swamp Born AssassinsIt just shows the importance of someone like Guy, and how vital the support of grassroots radio and media is today. He puts in an incredible amount of work to get smaller bands noticed…

He does, especially considering that he is set up in a little caravan in his garden! He’s putting his show out from this caravan, and it’s phenomenal. The number of bands that he’s kept going is amazing, bands worship Guy, and as you said; it keeps the grassroots things going. We appreciate everything that Guy has done for us.

Can’t be comfortable doing a show in a caravan in this weather!

Exactly! He’s quite funny, got great patter, and now he’s brought Dave Ritchie from Wildfire on board for his own show, so more power to Guy!

Here, here! Now, reimagining the songs for an acoustic version adds new flavours to the song, for instance on the new single ‘Rise Up’, Craig plays a gorgeous resonator guitar, and Todd has the bodhrán. They both add so much to the track…

Yes, ‘Rise Up’ was just crying out for Todd to play the bodhrán on it, like you said, it gives you the chance to add things, to try different things. That’s what music is all about, about trying new things.

I’m seriously thinking about trying ‘Land of the Six Gun’ from the first album acoustically. That’s quite an epic song, so that might transfer into an acoustic song quite well.

It was bassist Allen Bell that put the video together for ‘Rise Up’?

Allen did the video yes, we all filmed little clips of ourselves on our phones, sent them to Allan, and he did a fantastic job. And Craig remixed the track, both of them did really well.

Prior to the acoustic EP, the band released new music in the form of the single ‘Gates Of Hades’, which featured quite a fatter, bigger sound. Do you put part of that down to the new guys that joined the band?

I think so yes. I had always wanted a big sound, I was always a fan of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd where they had like 9 members, female backing singers, that kind of thing. Same with the Black Crowes when they added some female backing singers. It was never going to happen to that extent though, so we got Kirsty onboard. Then the new guys came in and they tended to be a bit heavier, Allen obviously comes from Maiden Scotland, and Craig’s got a Black Sabbath tribute band, so that added a bit of heaviness. Then Davie Cowan joined and having the keyboards added something different.

Davie sent us the song and I put the lyrics to it, the guys added their own pieces, again remotely, and when we played back the demo, it sounded really good. I had always wanted The Swamps to be that bit heavier, a grungier sound to it, and also more progressive as well.

It was a total surprise how beefier the band sounded on the track, not what was expected…

I think that you’ve got to progress, and when the band progresses it keeps things fresh. Not so much progressive as in Prog, but more of adding some oomph, for want of a better word!

I had gone to see a producer, Gordon McNeil, and he’s got his own studio. I had spoken to him about the track, he heard the demo and ended up producing it, as well as mastering it. He came up with a few suggestions and really pushed us into another little tangent. When I listen to the track, even now, I can still hear things that I had forgotten about, like little voices in the background…

The Swamp Born Assassins The gate creaking was particularly freaky, listening to the song late at night, with headphones on…

The gate creaking is Andy putting some guitar feedback on and Gordon worked his magic and made it sound like a gate creaking! It’s definitely a headphones song, there are lots going on there! I’m really happy with that track.

Was ‘Gates Of Hades’ part of a session, or just a one-off?

It was just a one-off, but I have more songs along the same lines. I’m really into gothic poetry; Keats, Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, that kind of thing, creepy, quirky things. I’ve written poems, and songs along these lines, we’ll still keep doing bluesy songs because that’s the way the band is, but I like to throw something dark and sinister in there!

You mention your daughter Kirsty earlier, and your son Jamie also had a spell with the band: were they always destined to play music in some form or another?

They were yes, I brainwashed them when they were young! I would have mixtapes of all my favourite songs; Journey was on there, Metallica as well, a bit of Todd Rundgren’s ‘Utopia’, and it would be played in the car, so they were brainwashed from an early age! They grew up with the heavier stuff, and that’s what they are doing now; Kirsty likes Alice in Chains, and Jamie loves Prog, so yes, they were destined to play music!

Excellent education! Now what about yourself Charlie, you’ve been performing for some time now?

I go back, way back! Started off with a covers band, I’ve been in bands straight from school actually. I picked performing back up when the kids were older, and I was asked to join a band. So I got back into cover bands again, and lasted ten years with the same band; The Easy Riders. We played all over Glasgow, all the usual haunts, and for a time Chris Glen from SAHB played bass with us! This led on to playing some stuff with his band The Outfit, and some of the other Alex Harvey guys. I’m a veteran mate!

Personally, it must have been a buzz for you to be involved with anyone that has a connection to Alex Harvey since he is your idol?

Totally! I’m a huge Alex Harvey fan. I was at the legendary Christmas gig at the famous Glasgow Apollo, four rows from the front, telling Alex not to give Zal Cleminson his acoustic guitar because he was a bad boy! Great days! Alex Harvey was a storyteller.

The Swamp Born AssassinsThat he was! Such a sad loss. What are your earliest memories of music? For myself, it would be an aunt playing Jim Reeves records!

My mother’s favourite was Jim Reeves! She would play Jim Reeves all the time, my father was a Glen Miller fan, so I was always around music. When I was aged four or so, I can remember my uncle playing Fats Domino on an old gramophone, all the old blues guys, and I think that was when I first started playing singles over and over again. My brother played acoustic guitar and was more of a folk fan, but he got me into Free, and to me, Free was just something else. Paul Rodgers voice, Paul Kossof’s playing, I mean, Kossof could make that guitar cry. The feeling that he got from his guitar was incredible.

Free are perhaps often overlooked when it comes to “the greats”; Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, all are lauded from the rooftops, and rightly so, but sometimes Free doesn’t get enough credit…

I know what you are saying, yes, I love the band. They started out in pubs like everybody else, I’ve got a recording of them playing in a French cafe! And you can hear the jukebox playing in the background! They started out small and became a phenomenal band. We were brought up with Free, at that time they were on a par with Zeppelin, and Purple, but then I think Zeppelin just exploded and took it to another level. They just pushed the boundaries in new ways, capturing the American market for one, where perhaps to an extent Free and Deep Purple didn’t.

When did you realise that you wanted to be a musician?

Well, funny enough, a friend of mine gave me a tape of Led Zeppelin one day at school, like everyone did back then, swapped tapes. He gave me a C-90 tape and said “have a listen to this, it’s a little bit different”. It was Led Zeppelin IV, and as soon as I heard the guitar on ‘Black Dog’…Jimmy Page warming up on the intro then Plant coming in with “..Hey, hey mama said the way you move…” I was like; “…what the hell is this!”. And that just blew my mind! I was lost for words, it was one of those “WOW” moments, the hair stood on end, and that was me – hooked. I think I said…” I want to do this!” It was a moment of birth as far as a rock & roll life was concerned. It might sound like a cliche, but to me, it was a birthing moment.

 

Charlie’s most-recent birthing moment lands February 8th when The Swamps release ‘The Lockdown Sessions (Acoustic) EP’, buy it directly from the band, here.

Interview – Dave

Live images – Dave Jamieson

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