Switchblade

Command of the Blade

By Simon Milburn

28 March 2005

The last time we heard from Sydney metal quintet Switchblade was around the time of their first ever shows in the Sunshine State at Her Majesty's Bar and the 2003 Overcranked Benefit Show. Since then, they've played numerous shows in and around Sydney and landed an opening spot for the Sydney show of Machine Head's 2004 Australian tour and they are about to unleash their debut full length album. Simon Milburn caught up with drummer Mat Piccolotto once again to get a more in-depth history of the band, the changes that they've undergone since 2003, the recording of their debut long player The End Of All Once Known and just how they managed to get Machine Head's attention for that coveted support slot.

Whilst Switchblade might not be the most original name for a metal band, there's little doubt that what Switchblade do is fairly unique in the realm of Australian metal. Their tale is a classic story of high school buddies who form a band, and with an average age of 21, it's all fairly recent history. I asked drummer Mat Piccolotto to bring me up to speed with a brief history lesson on Switchblade. “We originally started as four dudes out of school at the end of 2000,” begins Piccolotto. “It was myself, Ben (Bessant, bass) and Andrew (Najdek, guitars) who are in the band now and Chris (Apps) our old singer. After a demo or two, we lost Chris and we were basically a three piece writing music. We looked around for a singer for a while and we ended up finding Sway who pretty much had the same kind of musical vision in mind,” Piccolotto continues. That musical vision was something that Sway described very bluntly in his ad on the internet that captured the bands attention. Sway's ad simply read “Vocalist looking for band. No nu metal shit. Will not sing to anything tuned above B.”

Sway“Sway wasn't in any kind of established band before, so for all of us it was like a first ever band type of thing. We just started writing songs and that became the Incoming demo. We basically pimped that around Sydney and got some gigs and stuff and even went up to Queensland as well as you know. After about a year and a bit, we found Scotty (Bernascone, guitarist) through mutual friends. He was looking for a band and we were toying with the idea for a second guitarist. We got him in for a jam to see what influences he could bring. Straight away, the whole second guitar thing just opened up a world of possibilities. You can probably hear on the demo that it's very one guitar based, like there's no real two guitar shit going on at the one time. That's what I think the album has had a big step up on - the fact there's two guitars doing a lot of stuff together. Scotty fit in like a glove. After about a year and a half of solid gigging in Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane and that, we ended up getting the Machine Head support which topped it off for us. That was one of the main things that made us step back and go 'OK, we have to hurry up and do this album,' because there was a bit of a demand for it. Every gig we played, people used to ask 'What have you got for sale? Where's your album?' So we took a bit of a break since October for the past 5 or 6 months. We went and recorded with Astennu (ex Dimmu Borgir) and it came out killer. The album launch gig last Saturday was awesome so it's off to a good start. It was at the Lansdowne Hotel in Sydney in the middle of the city with Vaticide, Blood Red, Kania and Inane Eminence (Newcastle). It was packed out. People were actually complaining that it was so hot and crowded inside. It was really well promoted. Utopia Records basically put the night on but it was our kinda official launch. We sold a shit load of CDs and merch. It was really cool to see it pay off. The past six months we've locked ourselves away to record and then we had all these people show up on the first night to buy a copy so it was really good. Everything seems to have paid off and this year should be off to a good start,” Piccolotto enthuses.

Most of the material that became their debut album was already written prior to Scott Bernascone joining the fold. “Basically, every song on the album was written except one. He joined and said 'Ok, we have to make room for a second guitar now.' So we re-worked a lot of the riffs, added layers, and a lot of the songs just completely changed because we said 'That riff's not going to work with two guitars so scrap it and change it to something else.',” Piccolotto explains. It was a case of give and take. Although the band found themselves reworking their own material to accommodate a second guitarist, it wasn't merely a case of Bernascone dictating to the band. “There's one track on there, the second track Wings Of Redemption, which Scotty actually wrote himself. That's his main contribution to the album. He added a whole song. The rest of the songs, he kinda sprinkled his own influence in there. He's had a lot of impact but 90% of it was written before he joined the band,” Piccolotto says.

For anyone who's seen Metallica's A Year And A Half In The Life Of Metallica Part 1, ex bassist Jason Newsted makes a comment about producer Bob Rock's comments regarding altering vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield's writing. Newsted comments that “The music is his [Hetfield's] heart. You don't fuck with it.” Given the similarities, how did the addition of a new member with his own ideas and suggestions impact on the band? “It made things fresh and exciting again if anything. Having played some of those songs, like Incineration we've been playing since... that was one of the first songs we've ever written, and having played those songs for two years or whatever, and getting someone to come in and say 'I'm going to do this over the top,' and to completely change the whole feel of a riff or verse, it was really exciting to get someone in to change stuff. A lot of ideas didn't get used I'll admit, but a lot of the times it was actually pretty cool and lot of the time we were very open to it. Just having not only two guitars, but having two guitarists that were capable of being lead players and stuff is something that we've always wanted to do. That was really good. To get a good guitarist in that could solo as well as Andrew was really cool. We were really open to ideas, and just making things fresh again, and it definitely did. Every song benefited from bringing in a second guitar, so there are no qualms about that at all,” comments Piccolotto.

Switchblade

The addition of a second guitarist is something that had obviously had an affect on the final product, but the desire to find someone suitable was not something that had suddenly appeared overnight. “It was always in the back of our minds. Even when we first had the band with Chris, our old singer when we were at school because Chris used to play guitar a bit as well, we always said 'When you get the confidence up, you can sing and play guitar at the same time.' So we've always had it in mind. I guess we just settled with having one guitarist like 'Yeah, that's cool. Let's go gig.' People liked us and said we sounded fine live and that was good enough for us. It has always been there but we didn't want to rush it. We didn't want to rush it and get someone for the sake of having a second guitar. It was more about finding someone that actually fit in and contributed something and was like a mate as well,” says Piccolotto.

When it came time to knowing and learning about each other, Piccolotto explains that both the band and their then potentially additional guitarist were both checking each other out. “It kinda happened a bit both ways. When we met and threw the idea around of him kind of auditioning and coming to have a jam, it was nothing more than that. He used to write a lot of stuff on his own and he gave us a copy of that and it's just full on Strapping Young Lad style industrial death metal. It was crazy shit. We heard that and were like 'Damn, this dude is capable of doing this on his own!' He basically had whole songs written - drums, bass, guitars, keys, everything. We were impressed by that but at the same time I think he was kinda looking to get into a band that was a bit more like, not just recording but a live band and stuff. It was a bit of both. He would come to a few of our gigs and hung out and obviously the interest was there for him to join the band. But we were interested at the same time to see what he could add to the band as well.”

When Bernascone joined, he became one of the two elder statesmen of the band along with Sway at the age of 24 whilst the rest of the band were just young 'uns at the age of around 20-21. “We've got a bit of a head start on a lot of the bands that we play with which is pretty cool actually,” laughs Piccolotto.

The biggest gig for this young band has by far been the opening spot that they landed for the Sydney stop of 2004's Australian tour by legendary metallers Machine Head along side Melbourne's Contrive. Whilst bands have to struggle and go through the political channels of the music business to land that kind of support gig, the tables were turned around by Machine Head's main man Robert Flynn when he posted on the Machine Head message board requesting information and suggestions on local bands for the support slots for each stop on the Australian tour. “That was what really surprised me. I've never seen a band do that before. I've never seen a big name band like that just ask fans 'Hey, what bands do you know in your area that can support us?'” Piccolotto says still sounding somewhat dumbfounded by Flynn's request. It's possibly the coolest thing any band could ever do. “You'd think that big name bands like that who are just touring, not that they're above organising the supports but they kind of have a bit more to worry about, would just have the label sort it out. It's just kinda the general feeling you get.” But Piccolotto learnt something from his Machine Head experience during the course of that evening. “They just do whatever and go out of their way to help you out. That's one thing I realised when we met the Machine Head dudes. That was really awesome! Just hanging out with them for the night, they were asking us 'Hey, where do you want to go? Where's a good pub? Let's go. Let's go drinking!' It was like 'What is going on? First they ask the locals who can support and now they're asking us where the good places are to go and drink are? This is crazy!' They totally did not come off as a big name band,” explains the drummer. So how did Piccolotto and Switchblade get the attention of the San Francisco metal quartet? It was Piccolotto's well established presence and shameless promotion of his band on the Machine Head forums that lead to Switchblade being chosen to open the Sydney show and it was that opportunity that ultimately made the group realise that their debut album was something that had to come sooner rather than later.

When the line-up was solidified and the material written to accommodate their extended roster, it was time to enter the studio for the all important first album. They did so under the guidance of Astennu formerly of Dimmu Borgir fame. “We've been working with Astennu for a while. We met him through the Sydney scene and he was one the most sought after producers and live sound guys in the scene. He was recording Infernal Method's album back in 2002 when he came back from Norway. He did our sound a few times when we played shows with a lot of the local death metal bands. We became good mates and he ended up playing guitar in Infernal Method. We're all pretty good mates with those guys as well, and we knew that he recorded bands all the time - that was his job basically.”

Mat PiccolottoPreviously, all Switchblade demos and EPs had been self-recorded on their own PCs but they wanted to change tack this time. “When the time came for us to record, Astennu was one of the names on the list. For the album, we were very keen to step away from it and just focus on playing and let someone else do the recording just so that we don't completely go out of our minds while we're doing it. We had a few people in mind to record. We actually went to 301 because Scotty's roommate Dan is the head engineer at Studio 301 in Sydney which is huge, like Silverchair and stuff record there. We went there and recorded a few demos because Dan was pretty keen on recording us and that came out pretty good but time and money for that place was pretty hard to organise. Astennu had two and a half weeks off from November to December last year and we just called him up and said 'What do you reckon about the chances of us slotting in there to record?' and he said 'Yeah, if you've got your shit ready to go then we'll do it.' It was recorded in two to three weeks and it was just like working with a mate really. We just had to practice our arses off before hand just so we weren't wasting too much time.”

The practice schedule became intense but Piccolotto had a little more pressure on him than his band mates when he discovered the amount of time he had to record his drum tracks. “Knowing that I had a day to record drums was a bit scary,” laughs Piccolotto. “The studio we did the drums at was Velvet Sound in the city which is basically $1000 a day and the budget allowed for two days if necessary. After about six or seven hours on the first day, we had everything down apart from one song. We were pretty cheerin', or at least I was pretty cheerin' anyway! So all the drum tracks were done in a day and then it was two weeks of guitars, bass and vocals. It came out awesome. Astennu did an awesome job on the mix. He knew exactly what kind of sound we were after. It just came out killer man!” The rest was recorded at Astennu's home studio known as Amethyst Studios which Piccolotto describes as “nothing spectacular, but it gets the job done”.

The two and a half week window previously mentioned was purely for recording. The day after Astennu had finished recording Switchblade, he began recording Taking Sides during the day, and mixing Switchblade at night. “It was a pretty hectic time for him,” says Piccolotto of Astennu. “I think he enjoyed it. Well, I hope he did,” laughs the drummer.

Switchblade's The End Of All Once KnownSwitchblade's debut will see the light of day via distribution from MGM Distribution on April 4. Once that milestone is achieved, it will be time for Switchblade to return to the live arena. “Yeah, just tour our arses off,” Piccolotto says. “Just play, and hopefully get back up to Queensland again, get down the Melbourne... we've never been to Melbourne before so that would be pretty cool... and the east coast really. Just play. That's all we've got in mind really - just play for this album and try and get it out there. Try and get a few more international supports if we can. That would be pretty cool. We've had a bit of time off so it might take a little while to get a bit of momentum happening again.”

With the debut album in the can and almost at the point of being available nationwide at the time of writing, it's almost hard to believe that Switchblade are already writing new material. “We're even writing stuff for the second album now. We're always writing - that's what we do. We just write songs, and if we don't like them after a few weeks, we scrap them and keep going,” laughs Piccolotto. He's not kidding either. When I mentioned their earlier works such as the first four track version of their Incoming EP, Piccolotto explains that they don't play anything from that anymore. “I'll probably be saying the same about the album in six months time. It'll be like 'Ahhh we don't play half of those songs anymore.' (Laughs) To be honest, that album which is our first album is probably our third batch of songs so we've scrapped probably an album or two's worth of material. We're just constantly writing and we chose the nine strongest songs that we thought we had for the album. We said we are going to start from here. Instead of being number 19 this song is going to be number one and go from there. Whether or not it's a good move or a bad move, I think it works for us. We get to cull the number of songs and choose the strongest and I think we came out with a pretty strong album because of it.”

The End Of All Once Known is out on April 4 through MGM Distribution.

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