I thought I had more time. As it turned out, I didn’t. I needed to be at soundcheck nowish. “Yo, come thru now,” Heather Prunty of Synapse Presents texts me. “I can be there in 20,” I tell her. “Fuck,” she responds. Now, on the other side of town packing a few fillets of salmon and halibut to give to Prevail, Rob the Viking, and Madchild, I flip a shitty and gun it.
The first time I heard Swollen Members was in Marc Frank Montoya and Kurt Wastell’s parts in the Mack Dawg movie Amp. I was 12 and it didn’t take long for the group’s debut album, Balance, to be the soundtrack to my mall rat life. The first time I met Swollen was at a dusty, hole-in-the-wall venue in Sparks, Nevada when I was in college. It was the first time I’d seen them perform. Their energy onstage was crazy. After the show Prevail let me and my girlfriend hang out while they freestyled with the dudes from Sweatshop Union. So, that was my frame of reference for these guys.
7 years later we meet again, this time at a corner booth in the Bear Tooth Theater in Anchorage, Alaska, two hours before the show starts.
If it wasn’t evident through their discography as well as their longevity in a fickle industry, then it was now: a studied mind characterizes Swollen in part and in whole. Almost as if to reinforce that ethos, Rob refers to his production method as Yacoubian, a reference to architectural heritage.
“Did you just drop the word ‘Yacoubian,’” Prevail asks. “Fuck, he’s back. Guest verse on the next album, ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in 16 years.”
? / Cody Liska
A / Prevail & Rob the Viking
With this new album there are a few guest DJs, as far as MCs go though, it’s just you and Madchild. Why is that?
Prevail / We’ve gone through our trials and tribulations as a group and we’ve come out on the other side and we’ve realized that we have something to talk about. For the first time in awhile, we’re able to talk about the overall mantra of Swollen Members and what it means to us to have the Battleaxe Warriors and Battleaxe Dimes by our side. [This album] was a great point for us to just speak from the heart.
I would think that Swollen, if you look through the lineage, was one of the first groups that started cross-collaborations with other rap artists, as far as outside of our immediate posse – of course we, "we" as in hip-hop, always had those posse cuts. We've always loved reaching out and jamming with other artists that we appreciate, and respect, and are influenced by. But on [Brand New Day] we just felt that it was a great time for us to celebrate our own voices, with Rob [the Viking] of course on the production tip.
From a homie perspective, how did you guys stick with Madchild throughout his struggle with addiction?
Prevail / For one portion of it we were living in the same house together – all three of us and quite a few more people that we were making music with. Needless to say we had a pretty full household. Quite truthfully, and on a retrospective look, you always ask yourself, "was there more that I could've done at the time?" And in asking that question you come to realize that, and every particular situation is different, when you're dealing with something like pills, it's not like cocaine or heroin or any of those other highly dismantling, addictive drugs. It's something that is easily ingestible and social. Whereas people who are doing coke have the credit card out and the lines and they're rolling up a bill, so you know what's going on. [Pills] are a private drug.
Like I said, I do ask myself, "is there more we could have done?" And thankfully I'm not asking that looking at an epitaph.
When [Madchild] said to Rob and I, "I'm going for it. This is bullshit. I'm done with it," It was never a question of "if," it was always a question of "when." And when he flipped that switch, there was no going back. We've fought through some tough stuff, that probably being the toughest of them. We came out on the other side better brothers, better friends, better musicians, and better entrepreneurs because of it. It really solidified the independent mindset that you don't let things beat you down. Especially in this industry you've got to have foresight and vision. So, yes, was it tough? Hell yea, toughest thing we've been through. But are we still here? We are.
Rob / It was a tough time, but we're brothers. We've been like a family for so long, so it didn't seem like something we could just throw away because [Madchild] was going through a tough time. Like Prev said, there was a light at the end of that tunnel, how clear we could see that light or not we still believed that it was there. I think us being there for him was necessary. The end result was, ultimately, him making that decision for himself. When you're the one going through that, there's only so much somebody can say. I think it really has to be your own decision.
Self-publishing has made the independent hustle more accessible than ever before. How do you think this has affected the independent artist?
Prevail / Whenever you can have ownership of your creative output, you're obviously in the best position that you can be. I know that the industry standard, many years ago, was that you would sell your publishing. There was a handful of smart artists that said, "we're never going to do that. What happens 50 years from now when the label's moved on from us and we're no longer collecting as many residuals as we could be?" I actually want to say that that was birthed in hip-hop. The first time I heard it, anyway.
You’ve sat down at the keyboard or the sampler and you’ve made those beats. Or you’ve sat down at your kitchen table with a pen and paper, or an iPad or an iPhone, and you’ve written those rhymes. You’re going into the studio, you’re doing a cross-collaborative effort to make a product. You should have ownership of that product.
I think a lot of artists, especially the underground hip-hop artist, has been cognizant of [the importance of owning your own publishing] for quite a few years. As far as the exposure that is instantly accessible now, I think it's fantastic. But this stage (motions toward the stage), this is the proving grounds.
We were talking earlier about the first time I met you guys in Nevada and how small that venue was. Rob was saying that those are some of the best times you guys have ever had. In those smaller, more personal settings.
Prevail / Sure. Well, you learn a lot. In my perspective, one of the keys to performing is being able to read body language, read energy, anticipate where it's going, and where you need to take it. Yes we have a set and we know we have a certain amount of songs in the cavalcade. Rob's really good at reading [the crowd] : "Okay, instead of this song, let's do this song now. We need to ramp up the energy." Or, "we just did 3 killer, hype, jump-on-people songs in a row, maybe it's time to dial it down a little bit." I think that's an art form. That's part of a skill set.
(Note: The homie Alkota submitted this question) Rob, you’re known for using vintage equipment when making beats. How and why do you incorporate these classic pieces in your music production instead of turning toward software production and more modern drum machines?
Rob / There's a sound and tangibility to working with a piece of hardware. It's like a living entity versus working on a computer. I've gone that way. When Reason first came out, I tried it. And we made [the album] Heavy, which I'm just not a big fan of, on my end. It's just too one-dimensional sounding in terms of [production].
The sound of the MPCs and things like that, they just have a feel and texture to them. It's also a workflow thing. When I sit in front of [an MPC] I'm right at home. I'm not looking from the other side of a window and trying to direct things, which is how I feel when I'm sitting in front of a computer.
Was there ever a point where you guys embraced an actual fan set as opposed to a perceived fan set? Maybe when you first started you thought, “these are the people we want to appeal to” – traditional hip-hop fans versus non-traditional hip-hop fans.
Prevail / We were quite fortunate when Swollen broke, in that merging of hip-hop and the skateboard world were starting to mesh. Mad[child] and Rob both have skating backgrounds. I rode a BMX. I wasn't like a BMX competitive guy or anything (laughs). But, just that understanding of that style of life. Enjoy it. You got an hour to kill, go rip around on your skateboard instead of sitting in front of a window, like Rob said.
We really came from that generation of exploration and it just naturally meshed. I think we were making music with that energy – not something that we sat down and said, "let's make something that can get on a skateboard or a snowboard or skis or base jumping." But that energy was just intrinsically in us. So, no, I don't think that we ever set out with a pretext to what the fan base should be. Of course it starts at the hip-hop level for us because we're underground rap cats. But those two cultures just naturally formed together and opened up each other's worlds. There was a great potential there and I think it just happened by natural osmosis.
One of the first times I heard Swollen Members was actually in a snowboard movie. Bjorn Leines' part in True Life.
Prevail / Word. Yea, the Forum videos.
Rob / Yea. That was one of the first big things to happen [for Swollen]. The awareness really spread from things like that.
When I was growing up, that’s how snowboard movies used to be. Not only did you get to watch your favorite riders, but you’d find out about new music also.
Prevail / Movies like Whiskey... (laughs).
Exactly. And Boozy the Clown doing backflips off buildings, riding motorcycles through grocery stores.
Prevail / I used to live with the girl who did all the accounting for [the Whiskey films] and we know the producer and all those guys really well. Back then it was a small, growing community. Quite insular, in a positive way. It gave us a great platform to be able to get on some stuff like [True Life]. It also didn't hurt. At the time [Swollen] was sponsored by Circa and Forum and Foursquare. So we had tons of gear all the time. Brand new Peter Line board every year and then Devun Walsh put out his first [pro model] and I had to have it because Devun's my boy.
Rob / We went over to Peter [Line's] house a few times when we were in California.
Prevail / Yea, it was dope. Just a community of like minded people who realize they're lucky enough to be in the position they're in and they celebrate it everyday. It was a really influential time to be around.
How important do you think Swollen’s success was due to snow and skate culture?
Rob / It's hard to say. Our success has really spawned from [our first album], Balance. This raw, pure art form that really resonated with the skateboard and snowboard culture. From that, I think it just kind of bubbled. Then we won a JUNO in Canada and it really started bubbling.
Prevail / For sure. And RDS (Red Dragon Apparel) was integral in Swollen Members.
Rob / Yea, I think that culture was a big part of it.
Prevail / And, shit, we must have been one of the first, certainly the first Canadian rap group, to have professional skaters in our videos. In politics they call it "reaching across the aisle."
I just recently became aware of prevailprevail.com and, in addition to the literary component, I’m a big fan of your philanthropic work. That’s something I’d like to get into, helping my community, but I basically blew my whole wad on magazines.
Prevail / I always say, "not all of us can champion the same things because certain things affect us differently." We may have different family members afflicted by different things or what have you. It's always good to be able to do something and kick back to the community. I feel very privileged because I've been able to start celebrating the platform that we have enabled ourselves to have, as far as Swollen Members goes. I've realized that this has given me a voice, it gives me a place to speak from. So why not use that and help the community?
In the case of Music Heals, which I'm the lead ambassador for, it's something that registers closely to my heart. Being able to give back and knowing that you're helping people is great. Even if it's at the Mission Gospel or the Mustard Seed or the Salvation Army and you're putting gravy on the potatoes and turkey. That's what makes cities thrive and gives us a sense of community.
Okay, last question. Julian, Bubbles, or Ricky?
Prevail / Shout out to Trailer Park Boys. Those are our homies. We toured with them and legendary Canadian rock band named Helix. What a great performance [Helix] gave.
Rob / Yea. The guy runs on stage and does a flip on their first song. How old is he?
Prevail / He's gotta be like 55 or something like that. But on the Trailer Park Boys tip, clearly those are characters being portrayed. Away from the cameras and the paparazzi and the prying eyes, when you're able to sit down in an environment like this and actually get to know them, what geniuses, man. Comical geniuses, yes. Professional, business geniuses, absolutely. We had a great time touring with those guys.
But back to your question. You gotta love Lahey.
Rob / Yea, he's always stirring up shit (laughs).
Prevail / And you gotta love Ricky's go-get-em attitude. Nothing can beat him down. He's always got a hairbrained scheme for something. It's almost like watching Curb Your Enthusiasm. You know in every episode he's going to get himself into some kind of shit. Julian's the voice of reason that dials him back and Bubbles can go either way – he's the instigator or he's the guy saying "I don't know, you guys." It's genius.
Interview and photos by Cody Liska. Additional question(s) courtesy of the homie Alkota. Thanks to Jason Borgstede for unearthing a copy of Amp so I could re-watch Marc Frank Montoya and Kurt Wastell's parts. S/O to Kris Swanson for planting the seed and Heather Prunty at Synapse Presents for hosting the event, making the interview happen, and consistently pushing the indie scene in Alaska.