Rig and Roll

Flathead turns upside-down technique into a winning hybrid of raw country and roadhouse

A native of Chandler, Greg Swanholm's zeal for music didn't develop until an unusually late age. "My dad had a really great eight-track collection when I was a kid," he recalls. "Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle [Haggard], Ray Price, and I always grew up with that stuff in the background and always liked it. But there was quite a long period where I never bought any records. I mean, I can't really remember buying my first record until I was 22--and that was a result of seeing the Varmits and the Geezers."

Witnessing the passion and energy of local roots rockers firsthand had a profound effect on the would-be guitarist. "Those guys made it real to me," he says. "I would go to clubs and I'd see Kevin [Daly] playing and guys like Bruce Hamblin and Mario Moreno playing. And when you see guys doing it up-close, all of a sudden it becomes real, and that's when I started buying records."

Setting off on what would become a crash course in American roots music, Swanholm began to familiarize himself with the acknowledged masters of the form. "I got my Gene Vincent, I got my Farmer Boys, Eddie Cochran, the Burnette Brothers, Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef--all of them. But I still had no intention of playing at all. My only intention was to get deeper and deeper into this music and learn as much about it as I could and see the local guys as much as I could."

Unfortunately, Swanholm's informal musical education was interrupted by the demands of real life as he left Phoenix, heading south to Tucson to study computer science at the University of Arizona. By the time he returned to the Valley in the late '80s, the thriving cow-punk and retro-billy scene that he'd left behind had all but disappeared. "I came back and Hellfire was gone, and the Varmits had fractured into three different bands, all of which I liked, but still, it just wasn't the same. Nobody was doing anything like what had been going on before," he says.

The quaint dives that had once made up the loose-knit local scene were being replaced by new venues located around the ASU campus. Tempe was quickly emerging as the new focal point for original live music where a new scene, spearheaded by the jangle-pop sound of bands like the Gin Blossoms and the Feedbags, was developing.

This turn of events led Swanholm to one inevitable conclusion. "With all that was going on, I thought, 'Shit, something's gotta happen here,' and when it didn't, that's when I decided that I was going to have to make my own fun."

"I decided I wanted to learn how to play and start a band," Swanholm says. "So to get my chops, I started out with [Johnny Cash guitarist] Luther Perkins, who I remembered from my youth, and who to me is still the premier guitar player. There are a lot of guys out there that I love, but Luther is still the foundation of it all."

Perkins' deceptively simple picking patterns are clearly the basis for Swanholm's guitar style--although it's also clear that the legendary Cash sideman wasn't the inspiration for the guitarist's highly unorthodox technique. Unlike most natural left-handed players who restring the guitar so that the thicker strings are on top, Swanholm--who says he didn't know any better--left the strings the way they were (upside down) and began his informal training from there. Swanholm proved a quick study, advancing rapidly from early honky-tonk to the more fully realized West Coast picking of Roy Nichols and Jimmy Bryant.

Swanholm's unorthodox playing style and natural musical ability are the subject of some good-natured ribbing from his bandmates. "It occurred to me a couple of years ago that it's a sign of mental illness if you can teach yourself how to play an instrument," says Daly, laughing. "It really is. If you can do that, it's a sign that you're deranged, and doing it backwards, no less, that's just ridiculous."

For Swanholm, the experience of learning how to play so late in life wasn't the result of any savant-like ability but rather a desire to emulate the sounds he had heard since his youth. "It was just the most basic thing, really--'find the big string and hit it as often as possible.' Just like a lab rat pulling the lever. Just thump it and try and make it work. And then things kind of progressed from there--or digressed, whichever way you want to put it."

Recording sessions for Play the Good One, which took place in Rigsby's state-of-the-art Tempest studio, were a far cry from the crude conditions that resulted in Flathead's 1996 self-titled debut. The quaint, almost nostalgic sound of the record was an effect that Swanholm admits was far from intentional. "We recorded all the instruments together in the living room, but the singing was recorded in the kitchen," he says, "and we had mike cords running to an amp that was in the bathroom in the bathtub to get that extra tile reverb."

As Ramirez notes, "It ended up having so much reverb in it we had to use pillows just to try and deaden the space, 'cause it sounded so weird."

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