All loud on the Western front
West By Swan puts its experimental noise to disc
There’s a part of every West By Swan song that hurts. It happens at a different juncture in each song, but when each of the four members returns from an individual sonic mission to rejoin the ranks, the collective all-for-one charge sends a pulse that can knock you out of your shoes. It’s not a physical hurt (well, that depends on how close you’re standing to the speakers); it’s more of a blow to musical sensibilities that can make you say, “That’s too loud.”
WBS has been wheeling its gigantic amps into local bars, cafés and art galleries for the past two and a half years, setting the pace for Chico’s underground music community along the way. With the release of the band’s self-titled debut CD at Off Limits tonight (April 27), it’s time to tell the story of the four musicians who have made this all happen.
To their credit, what they’ve put to this self-produced disc is very faithful to the live experience. Doors are blown off with volume when necessary, but more often things come unhinged in other ways. On “Swarm,” for one of many examples, dual guitars buzz and dart in a swarm-like fashion, chasing a giddy-up drum track while a runaway bass train threatens to derail it all at any moment.
The music is noisy, complicated, chaotic and even dangerous sounding, but it’s also precise, delicate, direct and packed with emotion. Powered by four individual souls who refuse to keep quiet, WBS is an impressive source of energy. Plug in, and you’re in for an experience that is equal parts comforting and unsettling.
Here’s a brief look, mostly from their points of view, into the people behind the sound.
Dan Greenfield, guitar/vocals
“When I was in sixth grade, my friend got a dubbed copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black. We listened to that all the time. … Going to art school flung me more into the ‘punk’ or ‘indie’ aesthetic, and I would say that Fugazi consistently had an effect on me throughout. At first I think I identified with what I thought was a kind of moral outrage that often built up in Fugazi’s songs, but I soon came to love the more complex aspects, especially the rhythm section. Lately, I’ve gone back to listening to the old AC/DC records again.”
Dan is the older half of WBS’s Greenfield brother guitar tandem that has been creating telepathic guitar compositions together since the two of them started Chico’s original math-rockers, Uncle Rosco. At 37, Dan is the painter brother, the one who likes to color the noise with wild brushstrokes from his maroon hollow-body guitar, not always knowing what the final picture will be ahead of time.
“We don’t have to say anything to each other,” Dan explained about the brothers’ musical relationship. “We can plug the guitars in, start making noise and compose a complete song from scratch without saying a word.”
Bassist Conrad Nystrom provides a great description of Dan, as a musician, default bandleader, and as a vigilant supporter of local bands:
"[Dan’s] the brains. And because of this, one might mistake him as not being the heart. So not true. I would argue Dan is the brains and heart behind the band. Definitely devil’s advocate. [He] loves to problem-solve and think his way around every angle, turn and possibility, but he also plays from the gut—all flesh, bone and blood.”
Dave Greenfield, guitar/vocals
“My uncle played guitar, so that influence was always there. I think that he taught [Dan and me] our first chords. I’ve always enjoyed picking up different instruments and seeing what kind of sounds I can make. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the cello. … I will admit, though, that I was really into George Lynch [of Dokken] as I was learning guitar. I would say that a pivotal band was Fugazi—helped me deconstruct my hair-metal tendencies.”
If older brother Dan is a “mad scientist,” throwing random ingredients together to see what combinations will create sparks, Dave might be the scientist who waits till the experiment is over before sharing his findings.
“Anything goes,” said Dave, succinctly explaining the band’s different approaches. “Someone brings in an idea; we all make it into a song. Someone brings in a song; we all make it into an idea. Or, we improvise, and it turns into a song.”
The 34-year-old married father of two is also the band’s stabilizer, or “Zen master,” as Nystrom calls him. His calm ability to plainly decipher whatever musical or interpersonal chaos might go down is also part of what makes him such a cool dad and husband.
“Dave makes sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously or get wrapped up in things other than just playing music for the sake of itself,” said drummer Daniel Taylor, adding, “He writes most of the weird-sounding shit and wears shorts in the winter.”
Daniel Taylor, drums
“I started playing piano when I was 6, which more or less indoctrinated me into the musical cult. As far as listening to music, metal and other heavy shit (Sepultura, Pantera, Helmet, Metallica, etc.) cured me of an adolescent affinity for crummy gangsta rap and turned me into a respectable young man. … But as soon as I was old enough to try to impress girls, I took up the guitar and started learning every song I could off the radio. Drums are probably my ‘last’ instrument, which makes them kind of fun.”
Taylor made the short move from his hometown of Willows to Chico on what he calls “a drinking scholarship.” He quickly jumped into the local music scene, playing in a succession of local bands—Paint, Inverted Nines, Damelo and Bleed Rock Trio—and even occasionally filling in on drums for the Abominable Iron Sloth.
The 25-year-old Synthesis editor is a decade removed from his next-closest band mate, and when it comes to drumming, Taylor’s youth obviously is a valuable resource. But as an experienced multi-instrumentalist, being young is not the only strength he brings to the band. As Dan Greenfield explained it: “I will be playing a weird chord, [and] someone will ask what it is, and Daniel, from behind the kit, will say something like, ‘Sounds like an A minor 13th,’ something like that.
“He doesn’t let the drums get in the way of anything,” Dan added, “but he also knows when to hit hard and loud. I think it helps that he is an all around good musician.”
Conrad Nystrom, bass/vocals
“The first band that really threw me was REM. I loved the mystery, the adventure of hearing things that were perhaps not there—meaning the songs could not be taken literally by words or sounds, just beauty. I felt it, rather than intellectualized it. To me, that felt like the greatest gift to get that from any art form, to be transported like that. Other people did acid; I did sound.”
There’s a popular quotation about the Velvet Underground that goes something like, “They only sold a few thousand albums, but everyone who bought one started a band.” As far as local music lovers go, there’s probably no one who comes closer to having that kind of effect on people he’s come in contact with than Nystrom.
The lanky, music-obsessed 41-year-old elementary-school teacher has been sharing his passion for performing and consuming new music with Chico music lovers for roughly 20 years, including as a frequent CN&R music critic.
There were very few customers of the old Sundance Records in downtown Chico who didn’t receive a cherished Nystrom recommendation at least once during his former life as “Conrad at Sundance.” In fact, Dave Greenfield admits to receiving advice on his first Sonic Youth purchase from Nystrom, an event that added that band’s noisy experimentation to his influences and pointed him on a course that led to the two of them playing music together.
"[He’s] still introducing me to cool bands,” Dave said. “He has a genuine love for seeking out new (or old) great music, and that influences our [band’s] creative choices.”
Nystrom has a long history of providing the low end for several of Chico’s favorite underground bands, from the loose jangle and noise of The Vertels in the ‘80s to the more exploratory sound of North Magnetic and eventually WBS.
But perhaps his most lasting contribution to the community has been his promotion and support of other young bands. Whether it’s adding a band of local high-schoolers to a bill or helping a touring band get a gig (and letting them crash on his floor), Nystrom weaves a thread of unselfishness through all his bands, and that’s one of the enduring traits of WBS, as well: More often than not, its members are the ones giving up the spotlight and playing at 1 a.m. in order to give others a chance to shine.
But those who know about WBS stick around for the long haul, and no matter if it’s eight or 80 left in the room, the guys will always bring the noise.
Online bonus: Click here for full transcripts of interviews with each member of West By Swan.