The International Swingers: "The First Punk Bands . . . Were Just Bands"

Four punk legends walked into a bar. That's not the setup to some lame knee-slapper, but rather a precise description of what transpired Tuesday night in downtown Phoenix. The bar in question is renowned English pub the George and Dragon, and the aforementioned punk icons are exponentially more famous, having been a part of some of the more influential bands in rock 'n' roll history, like the Sex Pistols, Blondie, The Eurythmics, and Generation X.

They're Glen Matlock, Clem Burke, James Stevenson, and Gary Twinn, and right now they're more interested in talking about their current band, The International Swingers, that's brought them to Phoenix (in a van) for a show tonight at 910 Live in Tempe. "We're not on a big tour," one of them says. "We're on a little big tour." Up on the Sun was granted an audience with these members of rock royalty last night at the G&D. In the first of a two-part interview, they spoke about what it is they have left to prove, what punk means to them, and Matlock's previous gig as a guest DJ at a William Fucking Reed dance night.

Why just a little tour?

James Stevenson: To be honest, we're just kind of building the profile of the band, you know -- we're out playing for fun, and we just want to stay in the local California area, where we play. KROQ just started playing some of our records, and we're just kind of testing the water, going out here and there, and seeing how it goes.

Are all of you based out of California?

James: Glen and I both live in London.

Clem Burke: We're International Swingers.

Of course. What's the signifigance behind the name?

Gary Twinn: There isn't any. The story is we first came together because I had a career as a pop star in Australia, years ago, and I used to go there to play once in a while. Not wanting to do it any more, I was hanging out with my friends, and we decided to start a band and go to Australia on holiday and play some shows.

We had to come up with a name, and James told me that years ago, he and Glen had talked about having a band called The English Swingers.

James: It was just The Swingers.

Gary: But you said the English Swingers. And I said, Clem's American, so we have to be the International Swingers. [Laughs] Probably I'm lying, and everyone's got a different version.

Clem: We actually all travel around the world quite a bit, you know; Glen's been off doing a bunch of solo gigs, and I'm about to go to Moscow next week, and Gary goes back and forth to Australia. James lives in the UK and the US.

The band's kind of like a satellite we revolve around. We're all good friends, so it's really the camaraderie -- it really has the essence of what it's like to be in a band.

How far back does that camaraderie date?

Clem: We met in the late '70s. I've known Gary for 30 years . . . Nobody answered an ad to be in this band, it just kind of evolved -- we're all good friends.

Glen Matlock: When Gary was putting this thing together to go to Australia he just asked the three of us, and said we were the obvious choice, because we were all good friends anyway. We'd never played together, and it was kind of overdue. And it's worked out, the chemistry . . .

Clem: And being that we're all independently wealthy we don't care about the money, so we can do whatever we want. So we choose to do this; we like to play music.

[Laughs] So punk rock really paid off?

Clem: Relatively speaking, I suppose, yes.

After the jump: What punk means, and whether they're going to bed at a more reasonable hour.

There's a meme that's been around the internet for a couple of years--a picture of Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, and it says, "Punk isn't dead, it just goes to bed at a more reasonable hour."

Glen: That depends who you're talking to. I don't go to bed at a more reasonable hour.

Clem: Punk is really a do-it-yourself attitude; it's not about a mohawk or a leather jacket, it's do-it-yourself. That's it.

Glen: You're absolutely right, Clem. There's no reason why you should have gotten in that van with us, or why any of us should get in a van and drive out here to Arizona. It's only because we want to -- because we want to play.

Clem: And it's cool that we can actually get gigs, you know. It's great.

I'm just going to do the fanboy moment -- not only do you guys comprise, you know, several hundred-thousand frequent-flier miles with all the travel you've done, but you guys combined comprise more than a century of rock and roll and punk rock history.

Glen: Two centuries.

Gary: Since you were born -- not since you started playing.

Clem: It's really interesting, because the things that Glen was doing back with the genesis of the Sex Pistols . . . for some reason or another it's relevant still. The popular culture kind of reflects what went on back then. And I think collectively, we've all had something to do with having some impact on popular culture. There is a lot of history there.

Do you consider the International Swingers a side project or a main project, or...?

Clem: It's a fun project . . .

Glen: Yeah.

Clem: With potential. We started out, basically, as Glen has said, as a cover band, but we'd play our own songs. So that's how it started. But obviously we're all creative people, and these three guys are great songwriters. And obviously the creative spark hit, and we're writing original songs.

So it's a combination of both things. If it was to evolve into where someone had a real interest in our original material, we would probably go forward. I always say, we try to have fun in the gigs. We're hoping we play weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and we're also open to a multi-million-dollar record deal. All of the above. We're happy to be musicians and playing, as commonplace as that sounds. We're all journeyman musicians, and here we are today.

Glen: And it is moving forward. Nearly half of our set is original songs now.

Clem: We're going back to the studio when we go back to LA.

Glen: All the covers, pretty much, are from bands we've had a hand in doing something with.

After the jump: "We're in this kind of rock and roll movie now."

Clem: We're in this rock and roll movie, now -- between all the history and all the connections, so to speak, and the friendships that developed over the years. It's kind of uncanny that we're here in this time in place -- the dots are all kind of connected, nowadays. We're just trying to have fun, you know?

Glen: It's fun, for me, just traveling around, going to different places... instead of sitting in the George and Dragon pub in London, I'm sitting in one in Arizona.

Glen, Five or six years ago you came here and did a DJ set at a club here. Was that your first DJ set?

Glen: No! [laughs] Why, did it sound like it? You know, when you're a musician these days . . . you have to have a few strings to your bow. Sitting at home doing nothing begets sitting at home doing nothing. It's like Newton's laws of motion, you know -- a body at rest stays at rest and a body in motion stays in motion.

Clem: The music industry is in a major transition, and it's all about niche markets... It's about doing what you do and rolling with it. It's not what it once was. I think we're actually doing the right thing that we need to be doing as musicians now, and just playing, and kind of enjoying it, and whatever may come, it's fine.

It's what we do. We're not out to prove anything. So it's kind of -- just very easy.

Easy in the sense that --

Clem: We're not desperate people. We're happy people. We're glad to be here.

Glen: Exactly.

You guys collectively comprise so many different styles of music over the years. Does that make jamming more fun?

Gary: I think -- really, we all came out of the punk thing. We've all done other things -- Clem's played with the Eurhythmics, I played with Jean Loves Jezebel -- but I feel like my roots are in punk rock. Not that we're a punk rock group, but --

Glen: We might not all be on the same page, but we're in the same chapter. You know, and through all the different things that we've done, we bring something else to the table, somehow... not necessarily in an obvious way, but there's a breadth to it.

When we formed the Sex Pistols originally, we all had different influences and it kind of ended up as punk. Soon as we got famous, all these punk bands formed. We did this very famous TV show in England, the Bill Grundy show, where Steve Jones swore on the TV.

The thing that happened the next day was bands were formed the length and breadth of England, and they were all putting up posters saying, "We're forming a punk band, we're punks, come and join our punk band. Oh, by the way, you must be a punk." And it became very narrow, and it kind of lost its interest to me.

You know, all the first punk bands, the early ones in England, they weren't really punk bands. They were just bands in their own right. But we've all got a bit of that going on somehow. We've got a wealth of experience.

The International Swingers are scheduled to perform at 7 p.m. tonight at 910 Live in Tempe. Admission is $10.

Check out Up on the Sun on Thursday for part two of our interview with the International Swingers, which covers whether or not Green Day and Barack Obama are the greatest band and president of all time and (for good measure) what it's like being a punk now that Margaret Thatcher is dead.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.