The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach on losing Richard Swift at 41: ‘He was just fun! Then, when he wasn’t, it was very dark’

As indie supergroup the Arcs release the last album they recorded together, Auerbach and Leon Michels of the El Michels Affair recall their late bandmate’s verve, spirit – and troubled inner life

If you were ever lucky enough to visit Richard Swift’s recording studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon, you would have found a private kingdom hidden in the back yard behind his family home: keyboards triple-stacked among thrift-store finds, a sea of vintage guitars, a custom-made drum kit, plumes of palo santo half-covering the scent of weed.

“It was basically his art space,” says Dan Auerbach, usually of the Black Keys. “He modelled it after the videos of Lee Perry and his studio.” Here, Swift would spend his days honing the warm, soulful sound he brought to his own music and the records he produced. “He used to do all sorts of cool shit,” recalls Leon Michels of El Michels Affair. “One time he told me he recorded a song to cassette and then took the tape out, crumpled it up and put it back. I always thought that was the coolest thing. It sounded completely fucked up.”

Michels and Auerbach have just flown in from Nashville, and are sitting in a London hotel suite, propped up by strong coffee. Auerbach wears shades. Ostensibly they are promoting Electrophonic Chronic, the second album by the Arcs, the band they formed in 2015 with Swift, Nick Movshon and Homer Steinweiss. Really what they want to talk about is Swift himself.

Richard Swift died in July 2018, aged 41. Across his nearly 20-year career, he had gained a reputation as a musician’s musician: a touring member of bands such as the Black Keys, Wilco and the Shins; he contributed to records by Valerie June, Ray LaMontagne and Sharon Van Etten, and produced others by artists such as Kevin Morby, Nathaniel Rateliff, the Pretenders and Damien Jurado. He also released seven acclaimed solo albums.

Auerbach called Michels to tell him of Swift’s death. Both knew that Swift’s alcoholism had gathered pace, but they believed he would step back from the brink. “I just didn’t think it would happen,” Michels says quietly.

Auerbach nods. “I didn’t think it would, either.”

The Arcs began as a side project, a “bunch of studio rats hitting it off”, says Auerbach. He had recently finished touring the Black Keys’ 2014 album Turn Blue, and reached out to Michels, Movshon and Steinweiss, familiar with their work on various Daptone releases, in particular Lee Fields’ 2009 record My World. Auerbach had met Swift a few years earlier, recording Valerie June’s Pushin’ Against a Stone. Together they made a sound that drew on classic soul, old hip-hop and, improbably, mariachi. The five quickly amassed enough material to record 2015’s Yours, Dreamily, and then kept going, piling up hundreds of recordings with no particular intent beyond the joy of collaborating and crate-digging. “We all had our ‘day jobs’, so it was just pure fun,” says Auerbach.

Electrophonic Chronic grew out of the hundreds of recordings the Arcs had made before they lost Swift. “It really is a snapshot of when we cut this stuff in 2015 or 16,” says Auerbach. “The bones had been recorded, it was just a matter of finishing it and putting it together.” Like their debut, the album draws on the band’s crate-digging proclivities: scuffed soul meets 60s space pop and garage rock, but finds a new fluidity and confidence.

A few years before Swift died, Auerbach was aware that his friend’s drinking had taken a turn for the worse. “He couldn’t control it. I flew out to Seattle with my dad, and we picked up Rich and we took him to a rental house to sober him up.” There, the three hung out for a few days, and then drove Swift to a boat to reach a treatment centre. “It just didn’t stick,” says Auerbach. “And we all tried, but there was really nothing we could do. He had a sickness, and he knew it. We had plenty of conversations where he was well aware that he was essentially killing himself. It was hard to watch.”

Swift claimed to be sober on the band’s final tour, but it was clear that he was simply hiding his drinking. The problem was that even when inebriated, Swift remained an excellent musician and excellent company. “Rich was so fucking funny all the time, and the worst part about it is he was funnier when he was drunk,” says Michels. “That was unfortunate, because he was just fun to be around. And then when he wasn’t, when he was sober, it was very dark.”

Sometimes Swift would talk about his difficult childhood, Auerbach says, an upbringing that was itinerant, deeply Christian and lived under the shadow of an abusive stepfather. Anxiety and depression set in early. He talked, too, about the sudden loss of his mother in 2014, and his sister’s death from cancer the following year.

Press shot of the Arcs, with Swift.
The Arcs, with Swift (far right). Photograph: Alysse Gafkjen

Still, they would look over at him on stage in his long black trenchcoat, eyes closed, lost in the music, and think how lucky they were to have him. “He has the most amazing feel,” says Auerbach. “He could play so simple and make it groove in a way that very few people I’ve ever worked with can. He knew exactly what he was doing. And he gave you all the confidence in the world.”

“His approach to recording was revelatory for me,” adds Michels. “‘You don’t really need anything except taste and a little bit of ability.’ A lot of the time you can get hung up on gear, how good you are – he was always like: none of that matters.” (It was a matter of pride for Swift that he bought all of his guitars on Amazon.)

Here’s how they want to remember Swift. “It’s hard to explain how funny he was,” says Auerbach. “He had that combination of being physically so huge and so whip-smart funny. His calves were like gigantic! The palest legs! Never saw the sunlight! Even in the sun, he dressed very goth. Always wearing that trenchcoat.

“He was so strong, and so smart,” he continues. “I truly thought he would be the guy who gets really into being healthy and ripped, annoyingly so – all his addiction going into exercise.”

Swift’s death prompted a flurry of written tributes, but also songs: Kevin Morby’s track Campfire; Fleet Foxes’ Sunblind. “His influence, specifically on his friends and the people who made music with him, was huge,” says Michels. “That’s why he keeps coming up with whoever worked with him.” The Arcs’ decision to release Electrophonic Chronic is a tribute, too. “It was far too complete to just trash it,” says Auerbach. “We’d all put so much work into it and it represented really good times with Richard. It definitely helped for us to complete it.”

Shortly before his death, Swift had released his final album, The Hex, a record he had hoped might mend the bridge between himself and his family that alcohol had torn apart. “When I first heard The Hex, it was too much, I couldn’t take it,” says Michels.

It would have been understandable for them to hesitate to listen back to Electrophonic Chronic – to hear Swift’s voice again in the doo-wopped contours of Backstage Mess, to hear him playing so slow and Swiftian on River. But it felt different for Auerbach. “It was a different version of Swift that I was hearing, the one we were lucky enough to know,” he says gently. “The one who was not totally sober, but sober enough, and funny and alive and creative and electric. Who was incredible.”

• Electrophonic Chronic is released on 27 January via Easy Eye Sound


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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