Artist Feature Friday: Nick Diener from The Swellers
All of my life, I have been a fan of music. Whether it was discovering music on my own, or a friend that was blaring a new album, it was just something I always gravitated towards.
Let me paint a picture for you. It’s cool November night at roughly 8:00 p.m. I’m at a house in downtown Mankato, MN that’s been turned into a venue called, The Cherry Pit. It’s the kind of venue that screams “music scene.” From the creaking wood floor and paint chipped walls, to the loud music and hand drawn signs that read “venue downstairs.” I walked down the un-even staircase only to find a sea of bodies packed shoulder to shoulder. The reflection of a red light illuminated the graffiti painted walls and the faces of devoted fans alike. All of which shared the common ground and passion of pop-punk music. After overlooking the room and scanning the crowd, I found my way back up the creaky stairs. I entered the living room where I saw Nick Diener, the lead singer and guitar player for The Swellers, who was sitting on the couch prepping his Ernie Ball Music Man Armada for the show.
The Swellers have already had a career that most bands dream of. From touring the world and opening for some of the biggest acts in the music business, to working with renowned producer Bill Stevenson (Descendents, Black Flag, Rise Against). They recently released their newest album, “The Light Under Closed Doors” which is filled with catchy hooks, memorable melodies, and raw emotion. The Swellers are certainly no strangers to the road. They have played anything from living rooms and basements, to some of the biggest venues that bands only dream of. They have also found their spot on the highly regarded Warped Tour.
We sat down with Nick Diener and discussed songwriting, life on the road, gear, and of course, TONE.
You started The Swellers with your brother. What was it that initially got you guys into playing and making music?
All of my life, I have been a fan of music. Whether it was discovering music on my own, or a friend that was blaring a new album, it was just something I always gravitated towards. I actually was a big fan of wrestling. However, the part I liked the most was the entrance music!
I got a keyboard when I was 6 or 7. I started taking lessons around the same time. One of the first things I figured out was that I really didn’t like reading music [laughs]. I really just wanted to figure out things on my own. One day, I told my dad that I wanted a bass guitar. He said I should get a guitar instead. He said they were a little more versatile and they were prettier sounding. So that was it. We just went to the store and picked out a guitar. My dad then turned to my brother and asked him if he wanted a drum set. Of course, what kid is going to turn down drum set [laughs]. That was it. That was around 1996.
I loved to play guitar. I actually ended up getting really good at playing within the first year. It was something that I devoted a lot of my time to. My brother, on the other hand, didn’t really enjoy playing drums or practicing. However, once we discovered punk rock, he became really excited about playing and devoted a lot more of his time to practicing drums. We began jamming more, and by the time we were 14 and 15, we decided we needed to create an actual band and write all of our own material. That was when the Swellers started. We haven’t looked back since. We’re going on a little more than 11 years now, and every year has been a blessing.
You got started with music at a really young age. Who or what would you consider to be your biggest inspirations?
Well, it was weird. Like I mentioned, wrestling music was kind of my start. The Star Wars music was a big source of inspiration for me. I then started listening to even more random stuff. I remember our mom bought us MC Hammer and Michael Jackson. Of course, I gravitated more towards Michael Jackson [laughs]. I was really grabbing onto the song construction, melodies, vocals, and harmonies. One of my friends from school had Nirvana, Meatloaf, and all of these other kinds of bands that were a lot heavier. I remember listening to them and thinking, “Wow, this is so cool!”. I remember buying “Bat out of Hell 2” at a record store when I was 6. That was the first thing I bought with my own money! Of course, by the early and mid nineties I got into all of the MTV stuff. My dad was listening to a lot of southern rock kind of stuff like Lynyrd Skynyrd. He basically said, “if you like guitar, then you got to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd”. I was learning Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nirvana riffs at the same time. I think that actually really helped to shape how I play today. That was probably why our band sounded so weird in the beginning; we didn’t know what to sound like! [Laughs].
Can you tell me a little about the song writing process within the band?
Basically, it’s just my brother and I. Our whole lives we’ve been able to write with each other in the same room, however, as of recently, we have moved away from each other. So this is the first time we have had to write without being in the same room. We always wrote 50/50. In the beginning, I was the one that wrote a majority of the parts, but, as time went on, my brother really started to pick up on guitar and how to play chords. This, of course, lead to him being able to finally create the melodies that he was hearing in his head. We’re the same when it comes to the creative process. We have the chords and the melodies in our heads. It’s just a matter of getting them out. We’re one of those bands that will write the whole arrangement first and then add lyrics later. I like to look at myself as more of a composer instead of a singer songwriter. I will then figure out how the song feels and sounds and put the rest of the puzzle together. Lately it’s been 50/50 when it comes to the writing process. We really work well together and pick and choose what we like from what we each bring to the table. Even though we didn’t live together through the process of writing this last record, I’m still happy we were able to create what we did, even though the collaboration was a little different this time around.
You and Ryan seem to complement each others playing very well. Can you tell us a little about the collaboration process between you guys when it comes to writing and recording guitar parts?
I write both guitar parts. I’ll actually write both parts at the same time while I’m writing the song. After you demo it, you begin to hear all of the empty space. I’ll then go back and listen to the tracks and try to think about what Ryan would play and how he would play it. I’ll usually run something by him, which usually he will alter it or change it to fit his style a little more. He holds down the big heavy power chords and I’ll usually play an alternate version of the chord. That way, when you listen to the recording, you tend to get a wall of sound.
What was it like to work with Bill Stevenson?
It was pretty incredible, man. Ya know, he’s one of our favorite drummers of all time. He’s also produced some of our favorite records of all time. It was just a great experience. I want to do another record with him down the road under a different mind set. At the time, we were on a major label. They didn’t necessarily tell us what to do, but we ended up making a couple sacrifices that we wouldn’t have had we not been on the label. I really want to go do a record with our newfound freedom. He taught me a ton about pre-production and many other aspects to producing and being in the studio. Now, I’m a producer and I find myself using a lot of his tricks [laughs]. I have a rather natural tendency to be a producer. I love cutting the fat on our own songs. Basically, I acted as the producer on our records.
From my understanding, you did the entire recording for “Running Out of Places.” Can you tell us a little about that recording process? What DAW do you prefer to use?
For “Running out of places to go,” we did the drums in a studio in Rochester, Michigan. We used Pro Tools and did all of the music at my own personal studio. We pretty much just mic’d up our live rigs and used them for the recordings. We made a couple tweaks to it, but for the most part, it was exactly like our live sound. For vocals, I recorded with a friend that did a lot of our older records. We did all of the vocals with him in 2 days! It was really fun doing it on our own. We were able to learn a lot, and save a lot, all in the same process. We put the record out on our own and we were very happy with how it turned out.
Do you have a specific microphone you like to use to capture your vocals?
I figured out that I work well with the SM7. I just sound better through a condenser. I sometimes have to put the pad on the condenser because I’m so loud [laughs]. In order for the notes to happen, you need to have volume and support. I’ve used a lot of other kinds of mics, but my voice just works best with a SM7.
You guys spend a fair amount of time on the road. Do you find time to write on the road? If so, do you use any specific tools or gear to capture your ideas?
We used to write a lot on the road. We were touring so much that we had to write on the road; otherwise we wouldn’t have had time to get the songs done for the next recording. For this record, we actually took off 5 months. We just sat down and worked on music. I really think that is how we are going to do future records. I don’t really like being rushed.
About a month ago you guys released “The Light Under Closed Doors”. How was the process of recording this album different from other albums?
Every record that we have done in the past has been trying to make our sound be the best that it can be. There was certain level of production that went into them that we always tried to achieve. For the new stuff, our goal was to simply sound like we do live. We recorded the guitars with ribbon mics. We didn’t replace drum sounds. I just made sure I sang my ass off and got it right without having to go in and fix the pitch. Basically, what you hear is what we did in the studio. We are very happy with that sound. We’re a pretty raw band when we play live, so we thought it would be good to capture that. That’s the biggest difference.
What kind of guitars are you using?
I’m currently playing an Ernie Ball Music Man Armada. It’s a brand new guitar for Ernie Ball. It’s their first venture into the neck through style guitars. It has a beautiful maple cap V on top of the body that is set underneath the pickups to brighten it up. The body is mahogany. This is basically a completely different instrument for them. I was so excited when they came out with it that I just had to have one. They were nice enough to send me one for the warped tour. It’s become my main guitar. I am also playing the Ernie Ball Albert Lee model. For the longest time, the Albert Lee signature model was only offered with P90 single coil pickups and a maple fret board. I told Ernie Ball I needed one with two humbuckers and a rosewood fret board, so they built me one.
What kind of amps are you using?
I have a Mesa Boogie Mark V head. It does so much. I needed an amp that could do everything and offered a shapeable tone. I’ve played it for roughly two and a half years now with absolutely no plans to change it. I play that through a cab that I’ve been using for 11 years which is a vintage Marshall cab loaded with Greenbacks.
Is your recording rig the same as your live rig?
When we record, we like to use whatever is available. I did use the Mark V on about half of the record. I changed a few things here and there to fit the studio more, but for the most part, the settings and sound is pretty similar. I believe I used a Bad Cat head for a few parts as well. We recorded at Rancho record in Michigan has some really cool gear laying around, so naturally, we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity.
Do you like to use any specific effects?
I use different kinds of distortion and overdrive. I’ll use the Full Tone GT-500 to help cream up the solos a little. I really like to get the distortion as nasty as possible [laughs]. The only thing that I’m using on this tour is a little delay. I like things pretty straightforward. Whatever my amp has to offer is usually good enough for me.
You guys have had the pleasure of touring and supporting so many incredible acts. Are there any tour memories that stand out as some of your favorite moments? Would you share one or two with us?
It was pretty incredible to get the opportunity to go over seas. Paramore has taken us out a couple times and they always treat us so well. A lot of the bands we have toured with have become close friends of ours, so it’s always nice to just be around your closest friends and just have fun. It’s hard to pinpoint any specific memories.
If you could have dinner with one musician, DOA, who would it be?
Meatloaf! I just really want to meet that dude! Of course, I would also love to chat with Kurt Cobain. Actually, recently passed Tony Sly from No Use for a Name would be great also. I would love to just tell him what his music meant to me.
We can’t thank Nick for FREQ’n out with us. We welcome him to the Tone Freq family with open arms. We wish him and the rest of The Swellers nothing but the best on their future and can’t wait to see what’s next!
Check out their newest video for “Got Social”
Make sure to stay up to date with all things The Swellers with the links below!