It's no surprise that the four young guys who make up the London-based Switches listened to a lot of Britpop while growing up. After all, Blur, Suede, and lots of other bands with loud guitars and sharp hooks were all over the radio in the mid-'90s, when Switches singer Matt Bishop and guitarist Ollie Thomas were in their early teens.
But Switches' debut album, Lay Down the Law, really doesn't have much in common with those U.K. bands — most of which were super-huge in their homeland, but barely blipped over here. For one thing, Bishop doesn't sing in a kidney-pie-thick accent. For another, the songs don't bust into music-hall trots halfway through. Plus, Switches never flies the Union Jack, like so many of those veddy British groups did back in the day. In fact, Lay Down the Law can trace its inspiration to an era that ended long before anyone in the group was even born.
From the power-stomping "Drama Queen" to the glistening pop of "Stepkids in Love," Lay Down the Law cribs its shuffling riffs and big, fat hooks from '70s hitmakers like Electric Light Orchestra and 10cc. "We had a big grounding on classic rock," says Thomas. "Stuff like the Beatles and Kinks — things that everybody should be into." (Switches is part of the Nylon Summer Music Tour, featuring She Wants Revenge, Be Your Own Pet, and the Virgins.)
Bishop and Thomas found revelation in their parents' record collections. They constantly played and absorbed David Bowie and Kinks albums, as well as CDs by bands that kids their own age were listening to, like Elastica and Blur. "Music in the early '90s was very dance-y," recalls Thomas. "Then punk and indie became cool, and that's when we learned to play our instruments. Our music is classic rock with a Britpop flavor to it. There's nothing wrong with ripping off people, as long as you have great taste in music."
They listened to some American rock too, especially Nirvana. And all of that Seattle skuzz came in handy when Switches recorded its debut. "We didn't set out to make a U.K.-specific album," says Thomas. "The tunes are universally appealing. There's a trend in England to make very English-sounding indie-rock records, but we didn't want to do that. We had these big, catchy tunes that would work anywhere in the world."
Still, record execs sat on the album. Switches originally released Lay Down the Law in England last year, under the name Heart Tuned to D.E.A.D. and with a slightly different lineup of songs. It was a hit and was finally issued in the U.S. in March. "It just takes a while to get these things sorted out," says Thomas. "Business bullshit."
In addition to the different track listing, the CD features new artwork. Heart Tuned to D.E.A.D.'s cover showed band members playing cards; Lay Down the Law boasts comic-book-like illustrations, including one of some dude in a diver's helmet taking a pretty brutal punch to the head.
These cartoons tell the album's story, says Thomas. "We wanted them to all tie in with the songs' themes," he says. "We didn't spend as much time on the artwork in England, and it seemed kinda wasted."
Thomas says the new-and-improved CD and U.S. tour have given the guys a much-needed jolt. They've been playing most of Lay Down the Law's songs for more than three years. They're also testing some new material onstage these days. "We don't play the same set every night," says Thomas. "That keeps it interesting. The new stuff keeps it exciting for us too."
Switches hopes to return to the studio sometime later this year to work on their second album. "We've got a lot of new experiences to write about now," says Thomas. "It sounds like a cliché — 'We wrote this album about touring.' But it's nice to have a different backdrop." No matter how it turns out, you can bet there'll be plenty of ELO-size riffs and songs about drunk and horny British people — like Law's "Stepkids in Love," who act out their stickiest, sweatiest Brady Bunch fantasies.
"That's a slightly twisted scenario, isn't it?" laughs Thomas. "It sounds like a very sleazy soap opera. We went two ways on this album. One was with the stories and observations about characters. The others were the more direct love songs or the melancholy, slightly twisted love songs. They made for some nice dark narratives."
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