A good joke is made up of many facets; the timing in its delivery, the affect of the teller and the broader message behind the actual joke. For local band Swimwear Department, what started as a joke five years ago has now become one of Houston’s favorite bands.
Swimwear Department will perform at The Heights Theater on Friday, July 8 with openers Calliope Musicals and Blossom Aloe. The band will be celebrating the release of their latest single “Malled To Death.”
“Malled To Death” will be the first release in a string of upcoming singles from the band who on the surface focus their talents on writing about malls and swimming pools exclusively but in the process are actually delving into broader and deeper subjects.
“The kind of comedy we are, if we are comedy, is camp. It takes a silly thing really seriously and melodramatically and you’re not really sure if they’re joking or not,” describes lead singer Matt Graham.
It is fitting that a band who centers around clever puns and jokes began when bassist Ned Gayle, a multidisciplinary artist, started a project involving creating a record label that would make cassettes featuring album covers and a batch of songs for the made up bands with clever names.
Graham, who met Gayle as part of a comedy improv group, collaborated with Gayle on a fun, make believe project where Gayle would draw the artwork and Graham provide the songs using the band name Swimwear Department as a prompt.
“To have a band that started as a joke, that my friends volunteered to be in, and people show up, enjoy the performances and that has perpetuated for coming up on five years, it’s such a gift,” says Graham. “It’s such a weird, silly, strange project but it just means so much to me because it injected me with all this confidence that I can be an artist and a performer.”
“To have a band that started as a joke, that my friends volunteered to be in, and people show up, enjoy the performances and that has perpetuated for coming up on five years, it’s such a gift.”
When asked if they ever feel limited by their focus on malls and swimming pools Graham answers sincerely, “I have faith in the process and our willingness to reinvent the process when it isn’t working and the ability of the guys of the band to argue through what’s working and what isn’t and to come up with more punny song titles. I think there will be a point where it feels like we are scraping the bottom of the barrel but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Graham says the band is often approached by audience members full of comparisons to Houston ‘80s underground punk legends The Judy’s and the funky sounds of The B52’s as their songs are fun, warm and incredibly catchy blending the simple song writing sensibilities of the oldies with more electronic based instrumentation.
Swimwear Department is the kind of band that gains fans not only with each single, but by word of mouth followed by each energetic and crowd encompassing performance. Their songs and live shows revolve around humor and fun making it impossible not to join in on the party and take a trip back in time to youth when shopping malls and community pools were often the epicenters of one’s social life.
Though they base their entire premise on a joke, the talent, warmth and authenticity of the band is no laughing matter as all members are serious musicians who no doubt could write great songs in any genre.
“I realized that when I sat down to write songs about malls and pools, whatever I am dealing with or whatever I have to say just kind of comes out and sometimes I don’t discover what it is until I’m in the middle of it,” says Graham who describes thriving on “prompts and deadlines” as a writer.
With their latest single “Malled To Death,” recorded by Steve Christensen and mastered by Chris Longwood, the band pulled from their ongoing list of puns revolving around their central themes to create a ‘80s heavy, dark reflection on the death of retail of recent years combined with the fatigue that come from a busy trip to the mall.
“Malled To Death” starts out with an in your face, synth heavy riff by Grisbee which fitting for the bands history started as a joke. Grisbee’s solo morphs into the driving beat behind the song with lyrics invoking images of the grim reaper using his sickle to take the souls of stores that won’t make it and exhausted shoppers who no longer even know what they’re looking for after dulling their senses at the over stimulating mall.
The song is rooted in the decade where malls thrived and became the social hub for young Americans all over the country. “It’s kind of a cross section of hair metal and new wave sync stuff. It’s definitely reaching for the ‘80s but it’s not really clear which part of the ‘80s it’s reaching for, it’s just grabbing a handful of the ‘80s,” says Graham.
Graham created the video for the song using a compilation of snippets from music videos from ‘80s hair metal bands perfectly timed to the song and in yet another example of the celebrated absurdity of the band for copyright reasons the video is listed under “Most Epic Moments in ‘80s Hair Metal.”
For a band who always incorporates and encourages audience participation, The Heights Theater provides a welcomed challenge and Graham assures without giving away any surprises that the band has a plan as his performances are usually full body experiences for the athletic frontman.
“I can jump off the stage and scurry back on to it. I’m not going to give anything away but we are trying to employ some bigger gestures in our audience engagement. We are not going to have pyrotechnics but we’re ramping up the stage show. We are pulling out all the stops.”
Swimwear Department with perform with Calliope Musicals and Blossom Aloe on Friday, July 8 at The Heights Theater, 339 W 19th. 7 p.m. $16.