VENTS Magazine Interview with Swallows

Swallows standing in alley

Originally published in VENTS Magazine
February 19, 2021

Hi guys, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Hi, VENTS! Thanks for asking. Like everyone else, we’ve been dealing with the isolating effects of the pandemic, which has been difficult. For musicians, this has meant few live performances and setting up alternative ways of performing our music online. As a result of all of this, the band hasn’t had many practices or performances over the past year, but we are looking forward to playing live shows again in 2021 and showcasing the new album in our sets once it’s safe to get out and play.

Oxford Street in Walworth London the late 1800s.
Oxford Street in Walworth, London Borough of Southwark, in the late 1800s. The song “Ultraviolet” is set in the character Albert Charles Beardsley’s home in Walworth shortly after Frances Coles’ murder in February 1891.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Ultraviolet”?

“Ultraviolet” is a part of a larger ghost story that is set in Victorian England and America. The scene depicted in the song takes place in the bedroom of a man who has recently witnessed a murder in Whitechapel, London. Since the night of the murder, he has been having visions of the ghost of the deceased woman as he goes about his business in London. He begins to believe that the ghost is trying to communicate with him, but he is afraid to consider what she might ask of him. In the song, the ghost appears in his room in the dead of night and compels him to avenge her murder. He reluctantly agrees, finding it very difficult to resist her in this state. He both fears the ghost and is also strangely attracted to her. On top of this, he is racked with guilt for not intervening in her murder when he was in position to save her life. Like many others, the man suspects that the woman’s killer is Jack the Ripper and that he may be signing his own death certificate by pursuing the serial killer.

The music for the song is rhythmic but also frenzied. We played through the unconventional song structure a couple of times in the studio before getting the initial band tracks down. The final lyrics, vocal parts and additional musical arrangements were written to complement the energy of the improvised musical interludes and dynamic shifts in the song. It took a bit of work for us to figure out where the song was going, but once the vocals were down, the organization of the song became much clearer. Once it was finished, we thought the song’s strong rhythmic pulse, melodic hooks and compelling shifts in dynamics would make it a solid candidate for a single.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

“Ultraviolet” is part of a larger fictional story created by the band that is loosely based on historical events. We decided early on that we wanted to write a ghost story set in the Victorian era. We thought it would be a good idea to do some research to create a plausible backstory. During our research, we came across a full list of the murders that could be attributed to Jack the Ripper, and we eventually found one that could serve as a historical basis for our story. We really didn’t intend for our ghost story to have a Jack the Ripper association at first, but when we discovered that Frances Coles had been murdered in a place called Swallow Gardens, we took the location’s closeness to our band name as a sign that we should use her murder as the historical backdrop for the rest of our story.

“Ultraviolet” is a pivotal point in our storyline because it is the first time that one gets a sense of the ghost’s real agenda. The pact that the witness makes with the ghost helps to explain the bizarre series of events that follow. “Ultraviolet” is the moment when an average middle-class man from London decides to go on an epic quest, crossing oceans and continents to hunt down a notorious villain to restore his worth in the eyes of a ghost he find himself falling in love with.

Official Music Video for the song “Ultraviolet” from Swallows 2021 album In the Shadow of the Seven Stars.

 

How was the filming process and experience behind the video?

Since we were telling a story with the album, we decided to create a series of conceptual videos to follow the storyline of the album. The problem was coming up with visuals that would tell the story without having much of a budget. We didn’t have the means to put together the types of videos we had in mind from scratch, so we decided to research what was available through creative commons licenses by independent directors. We also researched old movie footage in the public domain to see if any of it would work well with our music.

For each video, we found some anchor footage to tell the story and some additional footage to complement it. Since we were telling a ghost story, we definitely needed a ghost. For the “Ultraviolet” video, the ghost is Leonora, Countess Almora from the 1923 silent film “The Man Without Desire.” The countess really has a ghostly feel and the close up scenes of her worked perfectly for the video. The scenes with the countess are cut into an animated short film called “The Chase in the Ghost Train,” which was directed by Hugo R. Ramirez. The animated sequences depict a man being chased by demonic creatures through the London Underground. This works great for the song “Ultraviolet” since the song is set in London. The silent movie footage helps to make the connection between the Victorian era and the modern era depicted in the animated sections.

The single comes off your new album In The Shadow Of The Seven Stars – what’s the story behind the title?

The Crown and Seven Stars Pub
Photo of The Crown and Seven Stars public house from the 1970s. The pub is located on Royal Mint Street (formerly Rosemary Lane), which is located in The Tower Hamlets near the Tower of London. This pub is close to the murder scene under the nearby railway arches in Swallow Gardens.

The Crown and Seven Stars was a pub located near the scene of a murder that took place in 1891. The murder of Frances Coles is real but it was never solved, so we decided to conjure up a witness who never came forward to the police. The witness had an opportunity to rush to the woman’s aid but instead he faded into the shadow of the nearby pub hoping that the killer would not see him. When the police arrive, the witness escapes from the scene through the dark alleys behind the pub. So, Seven Stars is a reference to the pub itself, which really did exist at the time of the murder.

How was the recording and writing process?

The writing process was quick and enjoyable. We had a theme from the outset and the research for the album was fun and interesting. The band wrote the album and recorded the initial demos back in 2013-14. We started recording the first songs over the winter of 2014; however, the process was slow and there were many interruptions, including band members writing, recording and releasing other albums before this one was finished. It turned out to be a big project, and we recorded several songs more than once. In the end, we wound up recording and mixing the album in a couple of different studios over the course of several years. Then the pandemic hit and delayed the album release for another year. Now that we’ve all heard the final product, we are glad we took the time to get things right, but the process was overly long and fairly difficult compared to our other records.

What led you to base the entire album on the story of Frances Coles?

Once we started digging into the history of Victorian London and specifically the circumstances of Londoners living in the East End during that time, it was too compelling of a subject not to write about. A lot of people were living in very desperate circumstances and, yet, it was still a very colorful era that was filled with colorful characters. Frances Coles’ story really has all of those elements packed into it. She symbolizes not only the social shortcomings of the time but also the huge gap between the haves and have nots in that period. Her story is a sad one and, in many ways, we know very little about her. Ironically, though, we know more about her than we might have if she had not been murdered.

Profile portrait of Frances Coles
Artist sketch of Frances Coles, who was murdered by an unknown assailant on Friday, February 13, 1891. Frances was a laborer working for a wholesale chemist in the Minories prior to leaving her position and eventually turning to a life of prostitution in Spitalfields and Whitechapel, London.

It was very interesting to research the bits and pieces of her life that can be known, so that we had a sense of the life she had lived while we were writing the songs. Her story is a tragic one, not only because of the way she died but also because of the way she had to live to survive. Like many other women of that era who lived in the East End, she turned to prostitution to meet her basic needs for survival. She lived a hard life and became hardened herself through the living of it. Her life was filled with rough characters who had no qualms taking advantage of her situation and, by the end, she had become much the same as those who would use and abuse her. That is where our main character comes into the picture. He is from a different social strata than Frances and, in some ways, from another world altogether. And, yet, he fails her, too. It is that failure he wishes to correct, and his failure to save her is the impetus for the rest of our story.

What led you to tackle this subject?

We sort of backed our way into the whole thing. Once we had finished our last album, Witching & Divining, we had to decide what we wanted to do for a follow-up. We typically write albums with themes to help with the songwriting process. The theme for Witching & Divining was songs about the four elements – earth, air, fire and water. At some point in 2013, we met to discuss next steps. I think it was Mike Nordby (mandolin, percussion) who pitched the idea of a ghost story. We all thought it could work, so we started brainstorming immediately. Three of us – Mike, Jeff and Aaron – wound up writing songs for the album. We all did our research independently, but we kept touching base with each other about the overall storyline. It took a bit for it all to come into focus, but once we agreed on the premise that the main character was haunted and on the hunt for Jack the Ripper, things began to fall into place.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Leonora Piper Profile
Trance medium Leonora Piper, a prominent psychic who worked out of her Boston home during the late 1800s.

Once we knew we were writing about the Victorian era, we started to include other historical events from that era in the songs as well. The first part of the album deals with events in London and the details of the murder. The second half of the album is about the main character’s descent into madness as he follows the trail of Jack the Ripper to America. There is a song on the album called “Bring Your Dead Back Home” that depicts a séance. We placed the scene for that song at the famous medium Leonora Piper’s home in Boston. We had to make sure that all of the events could have occurred in 1891, the year of the murder. All of the songs are set in a particular place on a particular date, and most are tied in one way or another to historical events. For instance, “Grace” takes place in New York City on April 24, 1891, the night of the murder of Carrie Brown. The Carrie Brown murder was another murder that the media tied to Jack the Ripper. The song “Watertight” is tied to a real ocean liner that some believed Ripper suspect Seweryn Klosowski may have crossed the Atlantic on during his voyage to America in 1891, and the song “Gravediggers” references the London Necropolis Railway, which was a real funeral train in the 1800s that would carry dead bodies from London to a suburban graveyard in Brookwood, Surrey.

What else is happening next in Swallows’ world?

Most of the band also performs in a group called Aaron Kerr’s Dissonant Creatures (AKDC). AKDC has been more active during the past couple of years than Swallows because Aaron (Swallows’ bassist and cellist) has been organizing live stream performances and has put out a couple of albums in 2019 and 2020. Over the next year, Swallows will be setting up shows as we can to perform material from the Seven Stars album, but we will also be doing some light touring and likely more live stream events with AKDC. At some point in the near future, we’d also like to put together a more theatrical performance of the Seven Stars album in a theater space.

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