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Have Mercy, Will Travel

Don’t call ‘em pop-punk: Have Mercy just want to be a rock band

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    Have Mercy, Will Travel
    Photo by Megan Thompson
    Have Mercy (Brian Swindle pictured) play SOMA on May 13. (Photo by Megan Thompson)

    “I’m fine with people categorizing things because I think there needs to be something so you can explain it to other people…but I just want to be a 'rock' band.”

    To hear Brian Swindle -- the mastermind behind Baltimore outfit Have Mercy (who play SOMA on Saturday, May 13) -- tell it, there seems to be a near-conspiracy when it comes to a band’s inability to ascend past the ever-nagging emo/pop-punk label.

    The widespread scene that overran the music industry in the early aughts has experienced a serious revival over the last few years, with a multitude of bands getting sucked into the category simply because there just doesn’t seem to be a better way to describe them.

    “We are a 'rock' band,” Swindle continued over the phone, while the band finished packing up after a recent St. Louis show. “To me, if you go and listen to the Foo Fighters, their lyrical content is ‘emotional’ -- it’s the same f---ing thing. It’s the same content, it’s just they do it a little better…OK, a lot better.”

    Self-deprecation aside, he has a point: There’s not a whole lot that separates Have Mercy from mainstream rock behemoths like Dave Grohl and Co. or their indie-rock brethren like Japandroids or Beach Slang. While you’d be hard-pressed to specify a particular element that placed them in the emo/pop-punk band category (The vocal inflection? The confessional lyricism? The soft/loud dynamic?), for better or for worse, it’s where they’ve ended up. And you know what? Swindle isn’t having it anymore.

    “It’s hard for us,” he said, “especially because we came up in the pop-punk scene. That’s how we were always booked because no one knew what to do with us. I’ve talked to a lot of bands that I know, that aren’t pop-punk, that are coming up now and people don’t know what to do with them ‘cause they don’t know how to bill them or put ‘em out in the world. To me, that’s a good thing because there’s a lot of ‘em coming out. So eventually there’s gonna be another scene away from this pop-punk thing. I love pop-punk music but we can’t be there forever. I think Have Mercy have to be the front-runners to make a big rock scene out of what we have going on. We’re trying to make something else happen.”

    The frontman knows nothing changes simply by hoping it happens, so he’s done the only thing he has ultimate control over: He’s done his best to write Have Mercy out of the genre. “Make the Best of It,” the band’s just-released third studio album (out via Hopeless Records), challenges fans and critics alike to reimagine the group on an even bigger level. The new record’s huge all the way around with memorable riffs, powerful songwriting, and massive hooks galore — you know, the kind you’d find on the biggest rock records. And while Have Mercy’s never shied away from a catchy melody and have always been a dynamo machine, the entire feel of the album is a bit heftier than their prior releases -- relying less on wide-eyed romanticism and more on the strength of calculated maturation (“Smarter songwriting,” Swindle calls it). It may not propel them entirely out of pop-punk but it's a step in the right direction. Perhaps the strangest thing about it all though? It took the band’s near-dissolution for him to put it together.

    Before recording sessions for “Make the Best of It,” three-fourths of the band decided to walk away from the group -- effectively leaving Swindle as the last man standing, quite literally.

    “Everybody split in different ways,” he explained. “Some people wanted to leave the band and I still wanted to have them in, and some people wanted to leave and it kinda ended weird but now everything’s fine and we’re friends. It just came to a point where we weren’t all happy being in the band together; we weren’t enjoying it.”

    Undeterred, Swindle embarked on the challenge of writing Have Mercy’s entire next record solo. He ended up with 10 or 11 songs that he thought would make up the album but when he got to the studio, abandoned them all (“They all sounded like garbage,” he said laughing). Instead, the singer/guitarist teamed up with three friends -- Nathan Gleason (who now plays guitar in the band), Paul Leavitt (from All Time Low), and Brian McTernan (Thrice) -- in the studio and worked on the 11 songs that’d end up comprising “Make the Best of It.” As it turns out, the other guys afforded Swindle a prime opportunity to meddle in the songwriting dark arts.

    “When we were in the studio, [McTernan] taught me a lot about writing a song and why one part is important and how it affects the entire song or how a certain note change can affect the entire tone of each part. Before I did any co-writes or anything else, it was just me writing songs and hopefully it turned out to be a banger [laughs] but now I actually know what makes a song pop and stand out. It was a lot of fun to learn that.”

    After he got a couple friends to make up the current touring iteration of the band, it’s even more fun playing the new songs live than he thought -- an energy he hopes translates to fans.

    “Every time we play the songs live, it feels better and better. It doesn’t feel like it’s gonna get old. We put so much time into each and every song and so much thinking went into every single song. I guarantee any of those other guys that were in the studio would say the exact same thing. Those are our songs. I love that record so much.”

    For a band that has a habit of connecting in a very visceral way with their fans (a river of tears basically accompanies every Have Mercy show), Swindle’s aware that there’s a bit of a difference in the new album vs. their older material, and he’s prepared for the pushback -- and alternately hoping folks that wrote them off in the beginning give them another chance. In a rather prescient move, that sentiment’s reflected in the album title.

    “I feel like a lot of people who heard our older music and maybe didn’t enjoy it, won’t go back to it again,” Swindle said. “But you may attach to this [music] at a different part of your life. Go listen to the record, give it a chance, make the best of it, see how you feel now.”

    Have Mercy play SOMA on Saturday, May 13, with Real Friends; Tiny Moving Parts; Broadside; and Nothing, Nowhere. Tickets are $22 and are available here

    Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow, plays in Diamond Lakes, and runs the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.