Swag: Side Project Gets Serious

The members of Swag never intended their nifty little side project — a series of low-key sessions in which friends would drop by to write and record music with little or no consideration for releasing or selling the resulting tunes — to turn into a "real" band.

But as an album began to take shape and schedules cleared, the group — whose members include Robert Reynolds (the Mavericks), Jerry Dale McFadden (sideman to the Mavericks and Sixpence None the Richer), Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick), solo artist Doug Powell, and Ken Coomer (ex-Wilco) — began to take on a life of its own.

"I'm not saying we didn't try to make a groovy little record or have groovy little songs for the record," Reynolds says, sitting in a Nashville park on an unseasonably warm March afternoon. "Sometimes I think when we're talking to different press people, we downplay that to accentuate how much of a lark the whole thing was. It wasn't as though we weren't trying. But this was mainly about escaping our musical day jobs. There wasn't any kind of business agenda. It was a musical agenda."

Swag's beginnings can be traced to the years of the Mavericks' greatest popularity, from 1993-98, during which time Reynolds and McFadden would write songs together in the back of their bus — songs that didn't fit the format of even an adventurous group like the Mavericks.

"We weren't trying to get away from the Mavericks," Reynolds stresses. "The Mavericks have been my baby with my partners since 1989. I'm very, very pleased and proud of what we've done. But the Mavericks weren't dabbling in '60s-reference power pop. We maybe dabbled in some '60s lounge stuff at times, but we didn't have that other thing going on, that kind of jangle that Jerry Dale and I were aspiring to."

Gradually, other members of the group came on board. Petersson moved to Nashville and discovered he and McFadden lived in the same apartment complex. Powell dropped by the studio, was roped into singing some harmonies, and suddenly found himself in the band. And Coomer, recently and abruptly dismissed from Wilco, was tapped to be the group's permanent drummer.

The album Catch-All is garnering some rave reviews, and the band recently played to a capacity crowd at the Austin's Continental Club during the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. The group is currently on the road, albeit without Petersson, who had prior touring commitments with Cheap Trick. Warren Pash (known for writing the Hall and Oates hit "Private Eyes") is taking his place.

"Austin was amazing," Coomer says in a separate interview. "[Kinks frontman] Ray Davies was there for [our] whole [performance]. That made our day. Of course, you never know that stuff until it's over, so you can't enjoy it while you're up there.

"But the thing I want everyone to know is that this is not a side project. It started off as that, but now it's not. I'm excited about the next record, the tour, the television stuff we're going to do. It's the most fun I've had being in a band since I was playing bar mitzvahs. It's a real band, and it's here to stay."

One Swagster who isn't viewing it in the same way, however, is Petersson. The Cheap Trick bassist is devoting his time to that band, and despite his presence on the album, he makes clear that, for him, Swag was a dalliance rather than a going concern. "It's just some friends who got together in Nashville, and we just recorded for fun," notes Petersson. "I lived there for a couple of years and left about three years ago. They just kind of continued and got a record together. I didn't have anything to do with it; I never heard any of the other songs until it was put out. It was just doing something for fun, really, kind of like it should be."