Interview: Baltimore’s Have Mercy Rises From the Ashes

With “emo revival” becoming a household name in the larger alternative scene, bands like 
Have Mercy find themselves breaking out of that circle to find their own style. This is exactly what the band has done since moving from Topshelf Records to Hopeless Records several years ago, and with today’s release of Make The Best of It, the band has solidified their already powerful strand of creative vision. Although still firmly rooted in vulnerable emotion and raw aggression, the LP ups the band’s creativity while tastefully dialing arrangements back. Frontman Brian Swindle now provides insight on the record, his worldview, and his plans for the band.

Culture Collide: Have Mercy has been going for six years. What have you been most grateful for looking back on your time in the band?
Brian Swindle: I mean really I’m grateful for being able to do this. It’s been four years now that I have not had a day job and have been able to sustain myself, which is really sick. Getting to travel and see the world and see fans react in different countries and stuff like that is amazing.

We might as well address the elephant in the room. If Obi-wan Kenobi from the Star Wars prequels were to play in a rock band, I have a feeling he’d look a lot like you. Has anyone ever compared the two of you?
No, do you really think that?

I really do! Ewan McGregor from the third Star Wars prequel… I was watching your music videos and thinking, “Wow, there’s some kind of resemblance here.” I couldn’t put my finger on it, and then I was like “OH! That’s totally who he looks like!”
That’s sick! I’ve also never seen a Star Wars movie ever.

I grew up with Star Wars, so that was first thing my 10-year-old brain thought of. We should also address the other elephant in the room. You’re the only official member of the band now.
Oh yeah… that happened.

Are there plans to get a full band back?
I think I’m just going to go forward with touring members. It was a real amicable split between all the members. Everything’s cool. We still talk. I just feel like going forward it’s best if it’s just me. I do have a lineup, and these guys invest in Have Mercy, so maybe it’ll become a thing. Right now it’s not the plan, but we’ll see.

So right now you’re writing all the music and you have session musicians playing the stuff, and you have a band you tour with?
I do have a writing buddy who is full time in Have Mercy now, but he’s technically not in the band. He wrote the newest record with me, and our producers Paul Leavitt (All Time Low) and Brian McTernan. The other guys are from random bands who I’ve tour with, and I was like, “Hey, do you guys want to hit the road?” and they were down.

Are the session musicians you use also the ones you currently play with live?
Our old drummer played drums on the new record… it was three of us playing on the record. We’ve been keeping that quiet a little bit. I don’t like to think of us as a band where you look at us as being all about the guys who are in it and not about liking the music.

The name “Make The Best Of It” rings a lot clearer with that context in mind. How has making lemonade from lemons affected your response to these changes, whether it be your relation to ex-members, your added obligations in the band, or life in general?
When we were doing the record, I was at a really low point in my life. So I didn’t think it would be that, but even at a low point I still looked at my life and thought I had it pretty well. I’m sustaining myself. I have a beautiful girlfriend, an apartment and a good career going forward. Even as things were going down the drain, I did have to make the best of it.

I’ve definitely noticed genuine maturation with regard to lyrics and arrangements on Make The Best Of It. Was that a subconscious process?
It came out organically. It wasn’t really thought of. When we were in the studio, we wanted a ballad, we wanted a hard-hitting rock song… we wanted to the record to be very diverse. We wanted each song to have a purpose, not to be filler. 

To my ears, this album sounds the most succinct out of all of your releases. How much of the process entailed making sure the songs flowed together and served their purpose tastefully?
We went in with 10 songs and then scrapped them all. They were garbage, but luckily I had four guys in the studio and we all worked really hard writing it.

Your singing has also become cleaner, and you seem to use more of your melodic range. What drove your decision to take a less gravely approach?
When we first started the band, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had just started singing and writing songs when we started the band. Over these six years, I can confidently say that I’ve gotten better at controlling my voice and using it as a tool, so it was definitely natural. I wanted to see what I could actually do with my voice instead of just thinking, “I’m gonna yell some shit and hopefully people will think it’s cool.” Looking back and seeing videos of me just sounding like garbage, and now I hear myself and think, “I’m a little better!”

Do you think the two styles convey different emotional vibes?
I can hear contrast of the new stuff and the older stuff, but I feel like it’s the same. People keep saying that it’s a lot cleaner, but to me it’s just hearing myself. I’m like really bad at music, so I don’t know what I’m saying.

Other than the change in personnel, what do you think is the biggest difference between your upcoming release Make The Best of It, and your previous material?
I think the songwriting is a lot smarter. That’s why I love this record so much. As I get older, I really like more popular music, and I try to put that into this record. “Let’s make the chorus catchier… there needs to be a good bridge.” When we were in the studio, Brian McTernan taught me a lot about songwriting. When we were writing these songs, I noticed that, at least to me, these are way better than songs we wrote form the past. There’s songs that struck a chord with people, but these are better-written songs.

You are right that a lot of the people who loved your older stuff, it struck a chord that was different than, “Wow, that chorus was really well-constructed! Wow, that harmony was really interesting!” It was more like, “Woah, this is super emotionally impactful for me.”
Yeah it’s wild. To think of “Let’s Talk About Your Hair,” a song has no structure at all, and how it’s our biggest hit. It is the most stupidly written song. I love that song with all my heart because I know what I wrote it about, but it’s funny to hear it now and be like, “Wow, I know a lot about songwriting, and that has nothing.”

Music is weird.
[Laughs] yeah. 

Both “Coexist” and “Good Christian Man” have incredible videos — with you getting getting shot and killed in the former and driving away your agitator in the latter. “Coexist” seems to emphasize the chaotic evil that hinders one’s pursuit of happiness, while “Good Christian Man” spotlights one’s ability to take ownership of his demons and “Make The Best of It.” What can you say about these songs and videos and how they play into the album’s concept.
It’s interesting, because I don’t do anything with the videos because I’m not very artistic when it comes to visual stuff. The people who we got to do the videos really understood the songs themselves, and they nailed it. The videos convey exactly what I was saying in the songs and how I felt when I was writing them. Having two different directors from across the United States — it felt cohesive, but it wasn’t planned that way.

That it all came together almost magically. Because even as two cuts that are kind of far apart on the album, they totally play off each other in a interesting way.
The second director really nailed it on the head, because he saw the first video and listened to a few songs off the record and kind of new which direction to take it. He wrote in five days, and we filmed it in a week’s time.I wish I could be more involved with the process, but whenever I write a video, someone’s like, “that’s not a good idea.” I’ll stick to what I’m good at, and leave the rest alone.

On a personal note, I really resonated with “Good Christian Man” as a youth group kid who came under fire from lots of people who felt I wasn’t fitting their mold of what a man of faith should look like. Given the biographical nature of your songs, did you go through the youth group circuit?
I grew up in an Irish catholic family. I don’t know what my own faith is, and I don’t think I’ll ever know. That’s kind of what the song is about: how to convey that to your family and talk about it. I haven’t died. I don’t know what happens afterwards. It’s all very frightening, and when it comes to dealing with anxiety and depression and finding faith, that’s the biggest part of my life. It’s kind of like a message to my parents and the rest of my family.

Was the church more of a cultural thing then, as opposed to something you believed?
I think it’s beautiful. I think if you can believe wholeheartedly in anything, I think it’s great and you should. I don’t know where it sits with me, because I have no proof either way of what happens. It’s also so dark. You are putting faith in something thinking, “oh, when I die a painful death, where I’m gonna go is beautiful.” It’s just a weird thing to me.

That’s kind of the faith complex, where it is weird that the definition of faith is believing in something you can’t see or perceive with your human senses.
Just your life and be a good person, and whatever happens happens. I would always ask my mom when I was a kid, “how do you know God’s real?” and she would say, “you just gotta have faith.” It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.

It’s kind of cool that even though the song partly is about people in the church who weren’t really stoked about directions you were taking in your life, you don’t necessarily have disrespect towards people as much as you want them to live their lives and be happy.
Yeah. Just enjoy it. Life’s so short, just live it up.

You guys are starting a tour with Real Friends next Thursday. How’s that looking?
I’ve been waiting. I haven’t been on tour in seven months, so I’m dying to get out there. We’ve been practicing relentlessly, and I think everyone will love the new stuff.

How’s the setlist looking? Is there a mixture of old and new?
It’s about 50/50. It’s such a weird thing to shove new songs into a setlist even though a lot of people haven’t heard them, but we have to do it, so we split it down the middle.

How do you see yourself in the current emo revival/pop punk trend? Do you feel like you’re a part of it?
I think we were part of the emo revival a little bit. There were bands that were kicking ass way better than we were, but we were definitely there at one point. Topshelf had all the good emo revival bands at one point, but I think now we’re fizzling out of that.

With this album, you would say it’s distinctly you guys as opposed to an “emo revival album.”
I was talking to a friend the other day about how I want there to be a rock scene. We’re rock’n’roll. We don’t conform to anything. It’s just rock.

It’s interesting that everything needs to be categorized in some weird way. You can’t just say you’re in a rock band. Now people will ask what kind of rock band are you.
If I say alternative, they’ll say, “Oh! NIRVANA!” and I can’t go any further.

Now that the album has dropped, can we expect more touring and promoting?
We’ll probably release some more music by 2018. We’re going into the studio soon to record some covers, but I’m sure we’re gonna start writing again and hopefully do an EP or release some singles. I love working in the studio, so we try to do that often… I do like not leaving a dimly light room for hours and getting sucked into it.

Well, that’s all I got for you. Thanks a lot for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
Thanks for having long conversations with me. I talk a lot sometimes. Nice talking to you, man!

Make The Best of It, is available worldwide for for streaming. Those who like what they hear can catch them on their upcoming tour. 

photo by: Megan Thompson; Christopher Sessums/CC_Flickr