The Sword | Suffer No Fools

prof sword_300The 1990s were a great time to be that age. I think it’s the last gasp of brilliant musical explosion.




Don’t call them a metal band. The Sword’s latest album, High Country, sees Austin, Texas–based bass-driven sound shifting further from their metal roots and inching ever closer to a blues-rock sound. While their debut 2006 album, Age of Winters, was chock full of hairswinging, headbanging, hard-driving riffs, High Country is another step in the progression started with 2010’s Warp Riders. While the album still draws upon the Thin Lizzy and ZZ Top–influenced foundation upon which they built a house of metal, the latest effort, apparent in tracks like “Suffer No Fools,” takes more experimental turns with ’80s synth stunners like “Agartha” and “Seriously Mysterious.” While some fans stubbornly hold onto the memory of The Sword as a metal band, the evolution is apparent in tracks such as “Ghost Eye” and “Mist & Shadow,” on which the relentless bass of ZZ Top gives way to more a soulful swing like King’s X, or The Sword’s direct metal-turned-blues-rock predecessors, Clutch. As singer and guitarist J.D. Cronise explained, “For some reason, we get a lot of people wanting to open for us that are in death metal bands. Not to take anything away from what they do, it’s just it doesn’t really fit with what we do.” Anymore.

It’s been just over four years since The Sword stopped in St. Louis, often dancing around our fair city with stops in Columbia and Kansas City. They bring the licks and grooves to the Ready Room on Sunday, December 13, along with the spellbinding and churning roar of opener Royal Thunder. In anticipation of this dark and stormy night of music, I spoke with Cronise about the highs and lows of touring, the perfect kind of audience, and what we were listened to in high school.

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The city, what you might think of the audience that you’re playing for —does it have any influence on how you all do the show or what you choose to play?

That sort of thing is different every show; it kind of all depends on time of year and what other shows are happening around that same time. All sorts of factors go into who’s gonna show up at any given time to a show, so every time, every night, every audience is a little different. So we just do what we do, and hopefully they return the energy.

How about audiences overseas? You all have done a lot of touring in European routes.

We haven’t really done a ton compared to a lot of American bands, but yeah, we’ve been over there a few times now. But we really prefer the States, honestly. We do better in the States. Audiences tend to be a little more energetic and receptive to what we do over here. It’s kind of unfair to lump all of Europe together as if it’s one region—obviously, it’s many different countries, many different cultural flavors and things—and we definitely have spots where we feel like our music went over a little better than other spots. But all in all, the U.S. is really the ideal place for a rock ’n’ roll band to tour. I mean, anywhere on the earth, our country’s kind of set up for it, you know?

So what’s an ideal audience like for you all? An “energetic” and “receptive” audience? What’s a great audience response, and what do you hope that they take away from the show when they leave?

You know, I hope everybody is having a good time and that as few people have a bad night as possible. That’s basically it. You want everybody to make noise and have a good time and be rowdy, but not be so rowdy that people end up getting kicked out or getting in fights or anything like that. It’s kind of a fine line sometimes, and sometimes people don’t know when to not cross it, but when everything’s just right, they’re just rowdy enough but not too rowdy. You never have a perfect show.

Maybe you could talk a little bit more about musical influences on the band. I know you get asked this question pretty often, and usually talk about classic influences. I wondered if I could poke a little bit more and ask you: high school years, senior year in high school. What were you listening to?

I grew up in the early ’90s. When I was in high school, I was very into pretty much anything that came out of Seattle. I got into all that stuff: Mother Love Bone and Green River and all the bands that all the famous guys were in before they got famous. I was really into Jane’s Addiction and Helmet, all the alternative rock bands of that era. That was definitely a coming of age, discovering music and guitars and stuff like that. That was a great time to be that age. I think it’s the last gasp of brilliant musical explosion. I think it’s really the last one that’s happened that really was worth a damn. So, yeah, I’m glad that I got to see a lot of bands that now people look back as like legendary bands. There’s only a handful of stuff I listened to then, a handful of records, of bands, that are still what I would call influences on the music I make now, but I think there’s just this general attitude at that time that was a more DIY punk rock ethic. It definitely is where I came from, that whole era and that scene.

So it’s not just my imagination, being crotchety like, “Back in my day when music was different… Back in the glory days of ’90s alternative/grunge/metal… “

It’s not that there’s not plenty of good bands out now. It’s just that was the last time there was this perfect storm of mainstream media attention and it was just such a part of the culture. Everybody knew who Nirvana was in the early ’90s. Nowadays, I feel like there’s these artists that I’ve heard of but I’ve never heard. I hear a name, but actually hearing the music, you actually have to tune in to that Pandora station or whatever. I have to make an effort to hear it, when back then it was just ubiquitous. It was everywhere. It’s being a little more mainstream cultural than now. Where there’s this huge artist, I just read the names of their song titles on Twitter or the internet; it’s all there at your fingertips on the internet, but you have to actually push the button, whereas back in the day it’s on the radio, it’s on the TV, just in the air. In the early ’90s, I was getting all my music from MTV. There are a lot of forgotten gems and great stuff from Virginia and from North Carolina, bands that are still stuff that I listen to constantly. There was a great scene. I moved to Richmond after high school, and I lived there at the time when Gwar existed, Lamb of God were still Burn the Priest; there were all kinds of punk rock bands in Richmond doing crazy stuff. All kinds of different, weird stuff. Those bands were definitely something that shaped how I look at playing in a band today.

Do you have any favorite venues that you really look forward to playing when you’re on tour?

Yeah, there are a few. Playing as long as we have, we’ve seen a lot of them come and go and change over the years, so there’s a lot of stuff that just is not around anymore. But last night, we were at this pub called the Orange Peel [in Asheville, NC], which is a pretty well-known club. It’s known for being one of the more badass places around. People come from all over that part of the country—East Tennessee and South Carolina and Virginia—just to go to shows there because it’s a really cool place. And then we played in this place called the Saturn in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s like a coffee-shop-slash-music-venue and they have an entire apartment above it for the bands to hang out at and stay in if they want.

Oh, wow.

And it’s so nice and comfortable. There’s a pool table and giant TVs and DVDs and video games and kitchen; it’s all decorated real cool, and it’s almost so nice that it’s too nice. Like, wow, we’re only gonna be here for a few hours. Can the rest of the shit holes that we spend time in be—can we take a little bit of the niceness of this place and just spread it around a little bit? You know? It’s probably one of the tops in the nation, if not the world for backstages.

With the new sound on the new album, do you have any new thoughts about the artwork? I’ve seen a couple of posters that look reminiscent of stuff that you guys have done in the past, but then the album art looks a little bit different, as well. How you do engage artists?

We reach out to people whose work we like. We like to work directly with artists. These days, with Instagram and things like that, you come across a lot of really good stuff, in all fields of art. I mean, hell, there’s a billion amazing poster artists in the world. There are a million amazing tattoo artists in the world. They’re all out there on the internet. You gotta find them.

Do you approach them with an idea of what images you would like, or do they give it a listen and tell you, “This is what I’m thinking when I hear your music.”

We usually leave it up to them unless we happen to have some kind of specific idea. We’ll give them a vague idea or turn up a song title and say, “Illustrate this song title.” But we just kind of let them do what they do. We pick people based on watching the art that they do, so we don’t then go in and tell them how to do their art.

Right. I imagine everybody has some designs. You probably have something in mind that you envision—“this is what I think this song would look like”—but trying to translate that into an image is probably a very different process.

Yeah. I mean, I kind of dabble in artwork, as well. I’ve thought about, If I was doing this, I would have made it like this, but then again, we like to leave it. I don’t want to give an artist an assignment or something; I’d rather just let them have fun with it.

I’m sure that’s the way you want to be treated as an artist, as well.

Absolutely. | Courtney Dowdall

The Sword play St. Louis on Sunday, December 13, at the Ready Room; also on the bill are Karma to Burn and Mount Carmel. Doors at 7, show 8; all ages. Tickets are $15 and available online.

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