Two of the Roanoke Valley’s most popular bands of a few years back are reuniting this winter at Martin’s Downtown. It starts with improvisational groove-jammers Rhesus on Nov. 24. Indie genre-busters Swank hit it once again on Dec. 29.
Rhesus, which lasted from
1999 1998 to 2001, featured Phil Wade and Mike Slusher on guitars and vocals, with Jake Dempsey on bass and Adam Clark on drums. Dempsey, who still plays with several local acts, is chief sound engineer at the Music Lab at Jefferson Center. The multi-instrumentalist Clark is based in Roxbury, Mass., and plays drums for Ethiopian funksters Debo Band — and bass with his own act, Full Tang.
As for Swank, this punk-spirited band played all over the country, including CBGB’s, and rocked up the valleys plenty (see embedded video below from a show at the old Secret Garden). In a 1995 story, then-Roanoke Times writer Chris Henson described it this way: “And on stage Swank is leading the big-pants parade. They sound like Shaft’s back-up band. They’re white punks on funk.” The band had two eras — 1992-1996 and 1998-2000 — before splitting for good. Swank’s trumpeter, John Stump, can still be seen around town with a large variety of acts including Estrella AllStars, Tobacco Apache and Lazy Man Dub Band. Bassist Jason Garnett runs The Shadowbox, at 22 Kirk Avenue.
Click the jump link to read Roanoke Times archive stories about Swank.
SWANK HAS NO STYLE AND IS PROUD OF IT
314 / 368 – Thursday, March 23, 1995
Source: CHRIS HENSON
On this evening there seems to be green beer in almost every glass in almost every bar in town. After all, St. Patrick’s Day is when we celebrate green food dye and get pinched a lot.
But at the Iroquois, they are celebrating pants. Big ol’ pants with low-slung crotches and wide fraying hems. Pants that defy gravity. Pants hanging off of butts, showing off boxer shorts.
Outside there’s a bumper sticker on a parked minivan that says “Big Pants is My Co-Pilot!”
And on stage Swank is leading the big-pants parade. They sound like Shaft’s back-up band. They’re white punks on funk.
They open with the J Geils number “Centerfold,” only they play it fast and furious.
Drummer Bryan Stiglich leads the band through constant tempo changes. Guitarist/vocalist Chad Smith turns the song on a dime – now funk, now ska (a quick-beat offshoot of reggae), now hard-core thrash. Tony Weinbender, sax and vocals, and John Stump, pocket trumpet, punch and blat the main riff, which gets a crowd of more than 200 singing along. You’ve got Tim Gordon and Jason Garnett, Swank’s two bass players, giving the music depth without being bottom-heavy.
There’s a polite but earnest mosh going on in the pit. Kids pushing and jumping up and down in sweaty unison. A young woman stands next to the stage, nodding her head and blowing big pink bubbles with her gum. Girls love ‘em. Guys respect ‘em. Swank is in the house.
“The whole point is we’re not a style of music,” says Chad. “Our style is like no style.” True enough. Mention just about any kind of music you can dream of. It’s in there.
The rest of the night they play all original songs – 15 or so tunes the whole crowd has memorized already. But there’s something missing, something not wrong, but not right. Then it hits you.
Almost nobody is drinking and there’s not much cigarette smoke, either.
“A lot of people look at us, the way we look with our colored hair and our big pants, and say, ‘they must be doing drugs,’” says Tony. “Somebody told me he thinks the reason we’ve stayed together this long is because we don’t do drugs, you know. We don’t preach, but …”
“We try to say, ‘Wake up,’ you know, like racism, sexism, pro-life, pro-choice, political stuff going on,” says Chad. “We’re all involved, you know.” The Swank point of view is to educate yourself, form your own opinion and stick to it.
“You can’t listen if your mouth won’t close,” goes their song “Ben Rossi.” And in the anthematic “Latin American Negro,” a tune about hatred and stereotypes, they shout, “When it comes, just push it away. Our lives are just labels, labels we can live without.”
They started the band when they were all about 15, going to Lord Botetourt High School. “Chad and I were sitting in gym class and wanted to do something different and get all our friends involved,” says Tony.
Now it’s three years later, and Swank has a pretty big following in places like Biloxi, Miss.; Gainesville, Fla.; Huntsville, Ala.; Richmond and Lynchburg. They’ve produced a 20-song CD and are preparing to drive to California, where they’ve booked some shows this summer.
They also have a large following here at home. “Like, there’s this crowd waiting outside the Iroquois,” says Chad. “I can’t believe it.”
“And they’re not just teen-agers,” says Tony. “Some older folks like it, too. My mom likes us.”
A lot of clubs don’t have “all-ages” shows, where kids under the drinking age are allowed in with a special stamp, because they don’t sell as much alcohol. “The fact is,” says Tony, “the kids are the ones who are the most supportive of you. They never complain. They come to listen.”
Swank is definitely worth listening to. They work hard, they’ve got a CD under their belts, and they’re spreading a message of drug-free peace, love and funk. They just want everybody to get along.
These kids today …
And the pants?
“It used to be the thing,” says Tony, “and it’s not the thing anymore, but we can’t afford new clothes.”
Swank will perform at the Iroquois on April 7.
YESTERDAY DALEVILLE, TOMORROW THE WORLD
2 / 4 – Friday, November 26, 1999
Summary: Swank, once a Botetourt County basement band, has grown up and is spreading its influence.
MARY BISHOP THE ROANOKE TIMES
It still blows their minds, how their fans can go on Amazon.com and order their new CD, “The Think for Yourself Movement.” It doesn’t seem all that long ago that hardcore rock band Swank’s influence didn’t extend far beyond the basement dens of Daleville.
But that’s what happens when you start a band as sophomores at Lord Botetourt High School and you keep on playing: You grow up, and your music does too.
Chad Smith and Jason Garnett, two of the band’s original members, and their friends started writing songs about what was going on around them – like about putting road kill in lockers at Lord Botetourt and hanging out at their favorite convenience store, the Getty Mart on U.S. 220.
They began playing in 1992 at basement and garage parties in high school. Before long, they were booked at the Iroquois Club in Roanoke every Sunday night with Integration and Suppression, two other bands doing similar underground, socially conscious music.
Why did they call themselves Swank? It’s not because they were going for a swanky lounge image. They just thought “swank” was a funny word. “The word came to mean the people and the friends,” says guitarist and vocalist Smith, now 23.
Over the years, many friends have come and gone in the band – sax player Tony Weinbender, who members say was the “forefather” of the band, bass player Tim Gordon, and drummers Bryan Stiglich and Scott Garnett, among others. Some occasionally still play with Swank.
The last week of Smith and bass guitarist Garnett’s high school senior year was a life-changer. Not only were they cramming for exams – or were supposed to be – but they did their first recording at a Northern Virginia studio. Then they went on their first big tour.
Instead of going to the beach like their classmates, they loaded up their families’ Subaru and Ford Explorer and hit the Southern punk clubs for a week – Daytona Beach, Gainesville, Biloxi, Hattiesburg, Atlanta.
Early on, Swank had horns. They were influenced by Santana, funk, hardcore rock and jazz fusion. They liked the Beastie Boys’ “Check Your Head” album. “We were doing melodic funk – with horns,” says Chad Hardin, guitarist and vocalist since 1993.
At Roanoke clubs like the Secret Garden and the Melting Pot, Swank drew bands from out of town for nights of ska, punk, hardcore, Indie-rock – more of a mix of music than Roanoke Valley kids had heard so close to home. Swank was listening to the music right along with them, and being influenced by it.
And while the kids shoved and slammed to other bands, they tended to dance and bounce happily when Swank got up to play. Girls and younger kids liked Swank. The Swank sound – jazz, funk, underground punk with a touch of reggae and ska – became nostalgia music for a generation now in college or in their first jobs.
The band was heavily influenced by the DC hardcore band Fugazi. Swank’s been described as the love child of Fugazi and the Jackson Five.
Swank quickly became a hot ticket in Harrisonburg, where Swank members and Lord Botetourt grads, drummer Whitt Sellers and trumpet player John Stump, are now seniors at James Madison University.
Swank spread its collegiate following up and down the East Coast, playing college venues from Florida to Boston the past few years. They often tour for a solid month in the summer.
Band members agree that the best thing that ever happened to Swank was breaking up three years ago. They’d been together four years then – and been through the intense ups and downs of road tours. They’d had enough of each for a while. For a year, they went their separate ways and played with other musicians.
But, says Stump, they eventually missed each other and the music they had made. “We needed to go off and grow up,” says Sellers.
When they got back together two years ago, their sound was stronger. And they were choosing to be together. They weren’t just a bunch of Lord Botetourt kids playing together out of habit or obligation.
Their songs were used on videos for makers of skateboards, kayaks and snowboards. And Swank donated their music for fund-raisers for AIDS research, Total Action Against Poverty and the organization Food Not Bombs.
Their biggest break came after they played with better-known rock bands Less Than Jake, Hot Water Music and Avail. The drummer in Less Than Jake, a band that had signed with Capitol Records, started Fueled by Ramen Records in Gainesville. Swank signed with the new label, and “The Think for Yourself Movement” CD was released in August. The album is being distributed in Japan, Australia and around the world.
It is Swank’s seventh record.Swank members have started hearing from fans from other countries through the band’s Web site, www.swankrock.com.
What’s happening now is more democracy in the group and more songwriting by all the members. Dave Owens, a baritone saxophonist from Winston-Salem, has joined Swank, warming up its sound.
As the Swank members say in the notes with their new CD, “Our motive as a band is to depart from any sort of carbon-copy scene, both musically and politically. True inspiration comes from within all of us, and we in no way want to fit a mold or stereotype that stifles individuality.”
“Now, it’s like everybody’s coming to the table with stuff,” Smith says.
Recurring instrumentation is growing in the band.
“There’s less funk,” he says, “and more Swank.”
Swank and four other bands – Home Team from Harrisonburg, Code Seven from Winston-Salem, Destro from Florida and the Diplomats from Roanoke – will play in a Saturday show beginning at 6 p.m. at the Universal Cafe, Jefferson Street and Campbell Avenue in downtown Roanoke.