JD Cronise’s scene is tranquil -when he’s at home. The founder of American heavy metal group, The Sword, states: “My scene is probably my house. That would probably be my scene; my house with my two dogs. This is where I spend most of my time when I am not on tour.”
For Cronise, The Sword started “as just a project. I was playing in another band, that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with. I just had the idea that, wouldn’t it be cool to have this crazy heavy metal band. I just wrote some songs, and made a demo CD that I kind of just made a bunch of copies of and passed around town. It kind of went from there eventually. I actually played one show that was just me, by myself. A solo performance. It was me and a drone machine, and an actual, literal sword stuck in a big piece of wood. After a while, one by one, I started a band. The rest is history. We don’t really do props anymore. We usually have a backdrop of some sort and we’ll bring some lighting apparatus and things like that. We did use some props in our early days honestly. I think that first big, me performance was the only time that I used the actual sword. After that, I think there was a period we had these banners on each side of the stage. They’re like standard, you know, like you would see a Roman legion have, or something out of medieval times. They had these big ravens on them, and we had kind of deer antlers mounted on the tops of our amps, and things like that. But yeah, those were the good old days.”
Growing up, Cronise was “really into comic books and science fiction and fantasy.” He states: “I played Dungeons and Dragons with my nerdy friends. That was definitely an influence also, but also very into Led Zeppelin. I think the eventual marriage of the two became the Sword. In that it’s just sort of a classic rock sound. It was very 70’s influenced. There’s only one Led Zeppelin. They had that weird led Zeppelin magic. I don’t really think anyone can rekindle, and we don’t really try to. But yeah, it is definitely influenced by that era for sure. Like I said, that’s what I grew up on.”
Cronise’s musical tastes are diverse. He states: I listen to all kinds of stuff now. I’m kind of a cherry picker when it comes to the music I listen to and like. I just hear random songs and then kind of delve into an artist or something like that. I tend to like stuff that has a certain amount of grit and funk to it, no matter what genre it happens to be. I tend to like stuff from the 60’s and the 70’s more so, for some reason. Anything that has a good groove and a good hook, I’m into it.”
The recording process differed with this, their sixth album. Cronise states: “Every one is a little different. We try never to really repeat ourselves too much, even in the way that we do things, when it comes to making records. We recorded this up in Portland, Oregon with a gentleman by the name of Tucker Martine, who is quite an accomplished producer. There was less pre-planning. We rehearsed and written material, but some of the songs were sort of half-and-half songs, or skeletons of songs. Some didn’t have lyrics and things like that. Normally, when we would go into the studio, everything would be pretty much ninety percent or more planned out and written out and rehearsed ahead of time. I think we finally felt we were at the point where we were confident enough that us being in a room together, with the help of Tucker, we could put it all together. We did, and it was fun. That was kind of different. Like I said, usually we’ve played the songs live and all that sort of thing. This time, we kind of used the studio more as a creative space.”
Still, Used Future had both rewards and challenges. “’Don’t get too comfortable’ and ‘Come and Gone’ were two that didn’t have lyrics at all when we went into the studio. Especially ‘Come and Gone’ because the music for that was composed by our bassist Brian, and I usually don’t write to other people’s parts. Maybe Kyles, but as far as lyrically, I usually write the lyrics to parts I’ve written. Occasionally to a part that Kyle’s written, but they’re usually rhythmical guitar riffing kind of parts. That song, being very different, being this kind of dreamy, acoustically, synthesizory kind of thing … That was a bit of a challenge. I was the kind of kid in school, when I had a book report to write, I wouldn’t do it until the night before. I only work well with stuff like that when it has to be done. So I just kind of used that this time around with this recording. I was just kind of like, ‘Well, I have to have these lyrics done, so, they’ll get done’.”
The loosely planned nature of this album meant more trialling could be done in the studio. Cronise states: “There was a lot of experimentation. Like I said, some songs weren’t fully arranged or completed yet, so yeah. There was a lot of playing around with different toys and instruments and all that stuff.”
Experimentation didn’t stray away from the album’s approach to the comprehensive themes. Cronise explains: “‘Twilight Sunrise’, the second song that we put out the video for, that song, it could have applied to a lot of things, but in general, it’s about people not wanting to see reality as it is, and wanting to live in their own world and not accept what is in front of them. ‘Don’t get too comfortable’ was kind of self-explanatory. When you listen to the lyrics and the title. The title, ‘Used Future’, kind of loosely referring to the present day. The term itself is a science fiction film and television production term that refers to Star Wars types of production, where everything is the future, and there’s spaceships and robots but everything looks sturdy and dingy and rusty and like it has been used and is old even though it is futuristic. In a way, I’m kind of comparing that sort of aesthetic to our present day. We live in an age of a lot of technology but we’ve had a lot of it for a long time and it hasn’t necessarily given us the futuristic wonder world that we all expected to have by the year 2018. Even though we have some things that we never expected, there are a lot of things that we still do not have. We still have enormous pollution problems that we thought we would have solved by now and nobody has a flying car or a jet pack yet. But there is still artificial intelligence and all this crazy scary stuff.”
Yet through the idea of the dystopian society of the used future, Cronise and The Sword offer listeners hope. Cronise expands: “Everything is always going to be relative. To a large degree, people learn to adapt to whatever situation is at their hand. I don’t think reality is ever going to exactly line up in anybody’s predictions or any kind of science fiction or anything like that, even thought it might seem like we’re living in a science fiction age. Nobody predicted the internet. There were no major science fiction authors that predicted the way that the internet would change our lives. They predicted a lot of other stuff, but that was kind of the big one that kind of slipped by everybody, that there would be this insane information network that everybody would be obsessed with. People foresaw something like that, on a level of it being used for practical purposes, but I don’t think anybody foresaw the social impact that it has had.”
The public and private impact of social media and the need to record and post later or live, was not expected. Cronise states: “It is what it is … it happens quite a bit, you know. I think it kind of depends on the type of music, it seems like. You’ll see different amounts of phones out at different shows. But, it can be annoying. To me, it’s just like so many things. It’s just a matter of common sense. If you’re standing somewhere in the crowd and you want to snap a couple of pictures of the band you’re seeing, sure, go for it. If you want to record half the show on your phone, that just makes no sense because it’s going to sound terrible and you’re never going to watch that. That’s the thing too that I don’t think people realize. Just because there’s a device in your pocket that can record video, doesn’t mean that you need to just because you can, because you’re never going to actually watch it. But it only bothers me when people … It bums me out when you look out and see the glow on somebody’s face, that they’re looking down at their phone while you’re playing. But, there’s only so much you can do about that. The direct things that bum me out are the flashing in my face, which is the really bright flashing. It’s like people don’t realize that there’s a front light on the other side of the phone. You realize that you’re looking through the little screen but you’re blinding me at the same time. That is a big pet peeve of mine, I can’t stand that. Generally, just people in the front row with their phones out. If you’re going to have your phone out, have the decency to stand where I can’t see, you know? If you’re going to be right in the front, come on, be in the moment. I thought that’s why you sit in the front row in the first place. There was a show last year on the tour. We played at a very small place. I want to say it was Salt Lake City maybe, I’m not sure, somewhere near. There was this big guy right in the front, not very far from me. There was no barricade or anything. His phone out the whole time, in my face, trying to film me right as I’m singing in the mic. I kept trying to kind of get away from him, and turn my back to him, tying to give him the hint that ‘Hey, I don’t really enjoy what you’re doing.’ He never got it the whole time. At the end of the show, I went backstage for a minute but I just couldn’t let it go because I was like, I’m going to be fuming about this all night if I don’t go and say something to that guy. I just went out and in his ear was like, ‘Hey man, I know you didn’t mean to be a jerk but, you made that show awful for me by having that phone out the whole time. Please don’t do that anymore.’ He was very apologetic, but, it’s like, come on man, have some common sense. Would you want somebody coming down to your office, where you work, and stick a phone in your face, while you’re trying to fill out your report? Come on, give me a break.”
That doesn’t discourage him from touring and an Australian tour may just happen at the end of this year. Cronise declares that “We love Australia, it’s fabulous”.
The SWORD Used Future is out March 23rd through Razor and Tie.
You can pre-order here.
With a name as absurdly iconic as The Sword, it’s easy to see why this band might be held up to some subjective and unrealistic ideals. Icons are fixed representations after all. Eternal and unchanging. And in this case, the intended symbolism at one time seemed obvious. How could any band with such a name, who storms onto the scene with a debut like 2006’s instant classic Age of Winters and its 2008 follow-up Gods of the Earth, not be ready-made champions of all things heavy metal? Yet it is important to remember that a sword can take many forms and symbolize many things. Used throughout human history by civilizations all over the world as a weapon and a symbol, it has no singular archetypal aspect, but is rather a continuum of evolving incarnations.
After the astonishing success of their first two self-produced albums, their ambitious 2010 sci-fi rock opera Warp Riders, produced by Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Minus the Bear), saw the band exploring new conceptual territory and injecting their relentless riffing with growing doses of hard rock swagger. These trends continued on 2012’s Apocryphon, produced by J. Robbins (Clutch, Texas Is The Reason). Their first release on Razor & Tie, as well as the first with drummer Santiago Vela III, Apocryphon debuted at #17 on Billboard’s Top 200 to critical acclaim. However, after years of maintaining a rigorous touring schedule and strict two-year album cycles, the band’s creative fires were burning dangerously low.
Feeling the need to explore new territory both figuratively and literally, The Sword’s founder and primary songwriter, John Cronise, relocated from the band’s home base of Austin, Texas to Western North Carolina in early 2012. Somewhere deep in the mountains he managed to find the inspiration he sought, which ultimately led to the creation of the band’s fifth album, High Country, produced by Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma, Golden Dawn Arkestra) and released by Razor & Tie in 2015. An obvious departure from its predecessors, High Country, as well as its 2016 “acoustic” companion album, Low Country, heralded a new era for The Sword. The low-tuned guitars and aggressive bombast of the early albums were gone, tempered by focused, compelling songwriting and tasteful, expert musicianship. As Rolling Stone said at the time, “The group has moved in a classic-rock direction closer to Thin Lizzy and ZZ Top than anything wearing a bullet belt.” Or to put it more poetically, The Sword had been forged anew.
Fast forward to 2018 as vocalist/guitarist Cronise, drummer Vela, guitarist Kyle Shutt, and bassist/keyboardist Bryan Richie prepare for the release of Used Future, scheduled for March 23rd on Razor & Tie. The Sword’s sixth album shows them pushing further in direction set forth on High Country, digging even deeper into an anthemic, grooving, classic rock style. With tight rhythms, big riffs, and crooning hooks, musically and lyrically Used Future is their most mature and masterful effort to date.
More than a collection of songs, it is an album in the style of the great rock albums of the ‘70s – a musical ride, intended to be experienced from start to finish. To this end, producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, First Aid Kit) strategically wove some of the band’s more experimental instrumental pieces throughout. Often fueled by Richie’s adventurous synthesizers, these songs and interludes invoke a wide array of moods and colors, providing a vibrant, cinematic experience.
Used Future hearkens to the classic works of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Tom Petty, among others, yet is as relevant to our current era as those artists were to theirs. The recording boasts a powerful, raw, yet refined sound, thanks to Martine and mastering engineer Brian Lucey (The Black Keys, Ghost). This sonic aesthetic can be heard on the album’s lead single, “Deadly Nightshade”, described by Revolver as “an infectious, scuzz-rock stomper à la T. Rex.”
Even at this point in their career, there can often be difficulty when it comes to describing The Sword, with woefully inadequate terms like “retro” and “stoner” appearing all too frequently. Like all of the band’s work before it, Used Future transcends such diminishing labels. This is 21st century rock n’ roll in the tradition of the 20th century masters, imbued with a unique sound and vision – a bright spot in the modern musical landscape. Put simply, it’s the sound of a seasoned band at the top of their game, the most recent incarnation of the ever-evolving musical entity known as The Sword.
The SWORD Used Future is out March 23rd through Razor and Tie.
You can pre-order here.