After a three year absence, The Bads (songwriters, singers and multi-instrumentalists Dianne Swann and Brett Adams) have returned to the airwaves with a new album. ‘Losing Heroes’ is a record chock-full of hooks, inventive structures and thoughtful, considered lyrics.
‘Losing Heroes’ has struck a chord with their fanbase, the album receiving a positive response.
“I think in some ways we had a real feeling of… this could be the last one,” Swann reveals. “Every time you record, you want it to be the best work… you just kind of get a little more focused. It’s funny how you release something to a bit of a flurry, and they say now that the shelf life of an album is two weeks! It’s just nice to know that people really like it!”
“And get something out of it,” Adams interjects. “Because there’s a lot of emotional input into the record, it’s good that… it connects.”
The duo’s musical connection dates back to the 1980s, and they started writing together in the 1990s.
“It kind of worked so easily, and we felt like we both had the same ideas of what we wanted to do,” Swann explains. “Brett loved the rawer stuff that I loved as well as the poppier stuff. I think it was just a natural thing for us to start writing.”
Living in London they formed The Julie Dolphin and enjoyed a stellar reaction from the UK indie music press for their single, Birthday. The subsequent 1993 album, ‘Lit’ was also well-received, and the pair is looking at reissuing it digitally.
“We’re working on getting it put up on Spotify, and all that kind of thing… we don’t have the masters, we’ll probably just do a round of CDs,” Swann explains.
Returning home in 2003 they formed The Bads, and have released three albums; ‘Earth from Space’ (2005), ‘So Alive’ (2009), and ‘Travel Light’ (2014) – prior to creating ‘Losing Heroes.’
In the three years since ‘Travel Light’, they have been busy, among other gigs performing with Tim Finn and collaborating with Cold Chisel songwriter Don Walker. They went to Nashville, playing at the Ryman auditorium with Jimmy Webb sharing the stage.
Swann and Adams’ trip to Nashville was rewarding and also a moment of truth. Swann returned wondering if they should continue. Crash and Burn was the outcome of those thoughts.
“That song in particular was expressing the fact that it did make me feel like we can do it just as well as anyone else,” she says. “The feeling of playing there amongst the people on that stage, and being greeted by the audience like we belonged there was… really empowering. At the same time, coming back to New Zealand, and realising that we’re older… maybe we’ve had our turn, but all the while feeling like you are so capable as well, you know?”
In 2016 the duo decided to do a new album, and together took their own world-class band – Dave Khan (guitars), Wayne Bell (drums), and Mike Hall (bass) – to Lyttelton to record at The Sitting Room, with Ben Edwards producing. His album results with several other artists was a factor in their choice to work with Edwards.
“I liked the sound of Tami’s [Neilson] record in a way, and I thought it would fit, even though we sound very different to Tami! I liked the sound of the studio I was hearing, and the sound of the desk,” Adams explains.
Swann agrees, citing Nadia Reid as her primary reason.
“The sound of her voice, and her guitar – just the quality of that made me want to work with Ben. [Plus] the experience of taking the band away from everyday life, to me, is a positive way to record an album… I think that’s what makes for the most focused record.”
The Bads have always worked with genres of alt-rock and alt-country, but on ‘Losing Heroes’ they think they have struck a balance between the two styles.
“I hope so, because I know we confuse people sometimes,” Swann laughs.
“We’ve probably done the best so far on this one,” Adams considers. “But I always like music that is a little unpredictable… just the fact that it has a lot of room to manoeuver, it can go anywhere.”
The duo write separately and together, bouncing ideas off each other and finding ways to add to each other’s songs. While they work in more than one specific genre, as a rule, they write the songs before they decide the style.
“One of the things I like about The Bads is that it opens it up to a diverse, broader sounding record,” Swann thinks.
Adams agrees “it just sort of happens, and then you piece together, you get a lyric idea, and then you are on your way.” There are some exceptions, and Swann cites the country-tinged Spinning Wheels Turning Tides as one that was what she calls “more finely crafted.”
Losing Heroes is loosely inspired by the deaths of musical heroes – David Bowie, Prince, Glen Frey, Leonard Cohen (to name a few), and also departed friends Graham Brazier and Dave McArtney.
The duo approached their tribute in a different, and very personal, way within the lyrics in the title track. “The main part of verse two is… woven from titles and songs by Dave McCartney and Graham Brazier,” Swann explains. “They were sort of like these musical giants, and we got to know them when we were young in our first bands… when we came back to New Zealand, I played in bands with him. We actually really miss them a lot… we really wanted to pen something to Dave and Graham.”
The two have put out a new video for the track, animated by John Payne. “It references to all those people,” Adams adds. “Even very subtlety, T-Rex, with this one line in the song.” “Basically, if you look at the lyrics and the verse, you might be able to crack the code,” Swann explains. “We’re really quite proud of how we did that, we just didn’t want to get all soppy about it, just wanted to pay tribute… using song lyrics, [and] winding it into the stories.”
The first taster to ‘Losing Heroes’, Shelter Love, was different for the duo in terms of structure and arrangement. The song, written together at the same time is what Swann considers “a bit of patchwork.”
It was created from two older pieces of music. “One piece of music, the chorus, which I had the guitar line and the chords to, I think I had that when I was 18,” Adams adds.
Swann started to sing the melody over it, progressing the track. “You can have one person listening, and one person playing, and the person listening can often catch something and tell you to do that again, and that’s the way it happened,” Adams laughs. “I’m really, really am happy with that one. But, it is good to have a starting point, like there was that old piece of music there we used.”
Swann is more philosophical. “Sometimes, I think those little bits of music keep circulating until they are ready, hovering around and coming back until they find somewhere to go!”
Planets is another standout track, with some comparison to David Bowie.
Not the case, they say. “I was thinking more like Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips,” Swann laughs. However, Bowie does play a part. “David Bowie used to say something about getting out of your comfort zone when recording… that’s when you’re singing in a different way, when you’re doing that thing you don’t usually do… I remember thinking about that a lot in the studio,” Adams admits.
Universal themes around the state of the world appear too, and Swann the album is written for these times. “There’s so many incredibly sad things going on in the world, it’s almost like you have to harden yourself to it, otherwise you’d never get through… People are just getting bombarded with all this bad news, and kind of becoming a little bit oblivious to it, I think.”
To promote ‘Losing Heroes’, The Bads played a series of shows around New Zealand, including one featuring Tim Finn.
“We didn’t advertise it heavily, just dropped a few hints, and thought it would be fun.” Adams enthuses. There are potentially more shows in the future to promote ’Losing Heroes’, though busy schedules mean it isn’t so simple. “It’s just a matter of looking at everybody’s calendars… for this particular show, we do stuff as a duo, and it does sound really, really good, it translates well, but for this particular record it is great to do it with a full band,” Swann expands.
Future plans aren’t set in stone yet, although Adams is considering an EP release. Beyond that, their future is wide open.
Both Swann and Adams think that ‘Losing Heroes’ is their best album. “I would say I’m pretty happy with it,” Adams enthuses. “I think I like it as much as, we did a record years ago when we were called The Julie Dolphin …[that’s] not easy listening, it’s pretty, angry sounding some of it! But, I’m as happy with it as that.”
“It’s almost like making sense out of the stuff that we did in England, and the stuff that we’ve done since we’ve been back in NZ,” Swan adds. “I think this one’s cracked that code a little bit.”