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Interview: SWIMM frontman Chris Hess

10 October 2021

Photo by Alex Nelson

Since releasing their debut EP, Feel, in 2013, indie psychedelic dream pop band SWIMM have risen to become one of the more notable bands in that genre. With a string of atmospheric, melodic, and introspective singles and EPs – and a critically acclaimed full-length album, _Sentimental Porno, in 2018 – they’ve continued to raise their profile. This year finds them particularly busy, with new singles (“Spring Breaking Your Heart” and “You Never Fake It”) released earlier this year, a U.S. tour supporting fellow L.A. band DEADSARA, and another album on the way, the band seems poised to take their career to the next level. Calling from his L.A. home – a warehouse nicknamed “The Cube” – frontman Chris Hess* explains SWIMM’s origin story, how they weathered the pandemic, and why embracing nostalgia has been such an important element in his band’s music.

Your band is based in California now, but that’s not where you started out, right?

CHRIS HESS: I’m from Florida, but I’ve been living here [in L.A.] for seven years. I go back to Florida quite a bit. I grew up in Satellite Beach. When we started playing music, we definitely gravitated toward New York more than anywhere. We would stay at our friend’s place in Brooklyn for a month or more at a time. I loved it, and I still do love it so much. Then unexpectedly, we finished a tour in Los Angeles right when we put out our first EP as Swimm. A warehouse space opened up with the band that we were touring with and it just was a synchronistic line of events that led to feeling that instead of moving to New York and paying maybe twice as much, at the warehouse that we ended up moving into, we could practice and play shows. We threw these really crazy parties for the first few years that we lived there where we would transform the whole space by putting mylar all over the walls and ceiling and it would just become this giant space bubble. Ridiculous zone of debauchery and fun and lots of really amazing bands that we became close with. Once we settled into that, it just was like, “This feels right.” And probably being from Florida, being in Los Angeles and being able to surf still, I think it just all made a little more sense.

What was it like riding out the pandemic in that warehouse?

CHRIS HESS: It’s sandwiched between a cement factory and a UPS freight station in a really industrial zone of Lincoln Heights, which is just on the outskirts of downtown [Los Angeles]. The allure of living in a place like that was all about the community around it. People coming in – there was kind of an open door policy. There was always different bands staying there, different friends working on whatever they were working on. Then all the sudden, [when the pandemic came], it was just me and one other roommate who were there at the time. Very quiet. Very dystopian feeling in downtown Los Angeles. The beaches were closed for a bit. So I literally spent a few months feeling like I was just some social experiment, living in a cement box.

It must be a relief to be able to get back to playing shows again after that.

CHRIS HESS: We actually went back to Florida and played this thing called Boatstock. Basically, we played in the Tampa Bay and they have a barge set up with the stage connected to a pirate ship and thousands of people come on their boats and kayaks. It was incredible. It was a really fun way to re-enter the world of playing shows. I mean, it was absurd so it didn’t feel totally familiar. It was just so fun but very ridiculous. And then we played this show in Joshua Tree that was an outdoor thing. That felt like the musical reentry because it was a bunch of different bands playing that weekend, and it was outside. The weather was perfect and the crowd was a lot of Angelenos that had driven out to Joshua Tree for it. That felt just like the warm, gooey, “Oh my God, we’re playing music again to people we love!” That was wonderful.

Now your tour with DEADSARA means fans finally hear new music you’ve created during the pandemic…

CHRIS HESS: Yeah, so much of these new songs came from the first six months where I was kind of huddled up in solitary living in the pandemic – the weird malaise that was over all of LA and I was kind of in this purgatory zone. They’re just a little more insular. Suited to that, “Exhale, soothe yourself, calm down, don’t freak out too much about the world too much” kind of feeling, and I think that’s what we’ve been channeling for this. A little bit of escapism. I think we’re going to name the [upcoming] album Best Comedown Ever. We don’t have a release date yet but we’re definitely shooting for probably either end of the year or early 2022.

It seems like the dream rock genre has been known for being escapist even before this pandemic. There’s always been a nostalgic vibe to it. Would you agree with that?

CHRIS HESS: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I’m always curious of what people think about or how they feel about nostalgia. I love diving into nostalgia, but at the same time I can recognize when it can veer too severely and get caught in sort of a loop. We are going to indulge in this feeling and hopefully not get consumed by it. I’ve always been drawn to that in music and have probably chased that a little bit.

How did you know you should be a musician in the first place?

CHRIS HESS: It feels like a total fluke. I started pretty late with all of it. I went to college and I got a degree in Business Marketing because it was broad and I had no idea what I wanted to really do. At first, I was just an event coordinator and I was putting on art shows around Florida. I always loved music and I started playing guitar at sixteen [years old] and immediately started trying to write songs, but I honestly just was so petrified of my own voice that I didn’t sing or play any of the songs for anybody until the end of college, if not after college. The first band that Adam [Winn, SWIMM’s drummer] and I were in was actually just the two of us and it was called Bastard Love Child of Rock & Roll, and it was just a bit more rambunctious – we were trying to be [like] Queens of the Stone Age and White Stripes. We had wild stage antics and because I felt no competency as a musician, really. But we were having so much fun, and we weren’t taking ourselves seriously at all, and it was just a pure ecstatic expression, that it did pick up really quickly. We started getting on tours to Japan and Europe. I was like, “This is insane that I’m getting to do this.”

Then how did SWIMM come out of that?

CHRIS HESS: I just eventually started dating someone and she was in a really good band, and I was picking up on some of her musical tastes and seeing that their band was a six-person band with cello and violin. I was getting into different kinds of music. Because I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning, it was like, “Let’s just be really crazy and make super energetic music and party express it that way.” Then once I felt like I was getting a little confident with my playing or singing, I remember feeling like, “I want to write real songs like these bands that I’m listening to that are full bands.” I wanted to be in a full band where I could have a bass player and a lead guitarist. Then we had some management stuff fall through, and it just felt like a new page and completely new music. So that was kind of the transition of when we were like, “Let’s start a different band.” That was right around 2013, I think. So it’s funny because there’s certain things about SWIMM where it feels like we’ve only been a band for a couple of years, even though we’ve been doing the music thing for what seems like a pretty long time now. That’s kind of crazy.