by Michael Buffalo Smith
One of the absolute hottest and fastest rising Southern Rock bands of today hails from Charlotte, NC and go by the name Swampdawamp. The band are true pros, and have built a huge grass roots following. So huge, as a matter of fact, that their fans managed to vote them into the People’s Choice slot on the Lynyrd Skynyrd Simple Man Cruise, beating out the likes of Shooter Jennings and Little Feat. The band will hit the open sea January 21st.
Their sophomore album Rock This Country is doing quite well, and was named one of the Top Ten albums of 2009 by GRITZ.
We spoke with lead singer, front man and co-founder Gig Michaels just prior to boarding the ship for the Simple Man Cruise.
Tell me where you were born and raised?
I was actually born to Yankee devils in Hartford, Connecticut. It wasn’t until I pushed my mother off the second floor balcony and became known as "the Omen" that they returned me to the south. (Laughs) No, seriously, I was born in Connecticut and the family moved to North Carolina when I was like seven years old.
I was raised in Pine Level, NC. A small one horse town about 35 miles east of Raleigh. I was working in the tobacco fields by the age of 10 and continued to work every summer in the fields until I was 16 and I could drive the hell out of them there fields! So anyway, I grew up with strong southern family traditions thanks to my best friends and their families that took me in. My parents were raising 6 kids, so it was hard for them to focus on any one child in the family. They were always busy trying to make ends meet to cherish any kind of tradition, or maybe I was just the black sheep! (Laughs)That I was…….
Is Gig your real name?
Well, yes, here’s how that works; my birth name is Michael Giggey. The nickname Gig -half my last name - started with my oldest brother and he possessed a ring which had the letters Gig engraved on it. I held the deepest respect for my brother Lenny and once he graduated High School he passed the ring down to me. So as a freshman in High School I became rapidly known as another Gig. I was dreaded by the teachers from the hell of the two previous Gigs! (Laughs) So I have been known as Gig my entire adult life and being in the entertainment business it worked nicely, however, I didn’t want to cheat my parents out of my name that they gave me, so I added my first name as my last, Michaels. So I basically have the same name, just a little jumbled… fits my life/ This is your exclusive by the way. I am simply Gig. The cool thing is that if music doesn’t pan out for me, my name will get me right into porn!
Wow. Like George from Seinfeld. (Laughs) When and how did Swampdawamp get together?
The actual vision began in 2000 when I moved from Nashville to Charlotte. I had moved to Nashville in 1995 to pursue a position as lead guitar for Vince Neil on his second album after leaving Motley Crue. Well that’s about the same time that Vince’s little girl Skylar, around 3 years old, died from cancer and sent Vince into hiding for a while, which left me hanging in Nash without a gig. Of course my heart went out to him and her and the family and still does as you never get over something like that.
So I spent a few years in Nashville doing the thing. I had left behind my son, Gig Jr at age 5 to do the Nashville thing. Well shit was hitting the fan in 1999 with Junior’s mother and his well being so I moved back to take him away from his mother, and did in 2001 and have been a single dad ever since. But, while doing all that, I built a studio in my house and began recording what I didn’t know at the time would end up being SwampdaWamp.
I cut Birthday, Little Pill, Sometimes, Blind Crippled n Crazy and Six Tons on a demo to try and recruit the caliber of band that I would need to make this happen. Believe it or not I posted an ad on a local musician website and eventually I got a call from David Lee, our now drummer. Well David really dug my songs and I dug his style. David was a staple in Charlotte having played with a ton of great players in various cover bands and original bands and he was really the guy that brought all the rest of the players to the table, just by relationship and the power of the songs, they all wanted to be a part pretty much. So that’s how it came together.
Tell me about your fellow band members.
Ha Ha! So I shall! This is really one incredible bunch of guys. Remember there are six of us in this band. I don’t think a better scientific six could ever be put together to co-exist as one. The balance of the band as a whole, made up of these individuals is simply incredible. On lead guitar and Slide is the man I refer to as my Slash (Laughs) Keith Inman, aka: The Wizard. He was the last guy to be recruited into the Swamp and has proven to be the missing link. He and I connect in ways that we aren’t even sure of yet, we’ll talk more about that on the fifth record! But he has the same spirit and background as I do personally, not necessarily musically, but being different musically and somewhat identical spiritually lends to the writing of the songs that we are all about. He has yet to really be noticed for who he is, but its coming. He’s the most laid back take it as it comes kinda guy in the band.
Then there’s the Devil’s Advocate, Michael Hough. Michael is the bad ass guitar player that won’t admit it. He strives for perfection and yet will not accept it. His parts on the songs have gravity. You may not hear him in the mix now, but if you took him out of the mix there would be many holes… Michael is the “pay attention to detail” guy that fills the void of my reckless ways. Our writing together is coming into fruition.
On bass guitar there is Cody Bennett. Cody has a great story to tell about how he got into the band. You see Cody was a friend of mine that actually played bass on the demo I had put together for shopping for this band. At the time things really started to come together, Cody was a good player but just not seasoned enough to play with the caliber of guys that we were hooking up with, so he volunteered to be a roadie. He has been with us since day one.
As time went on our management fired our bass player midway thru our first album and Mike Brignardello ended up playing all the tracks on it. That was a shocker to everybody, but not to some. Long story but the management wanted to build a great band that could actually play their instruments, it was the task of telling the guy that he was out while in Nashville for weeks cutting that record.. Anyway, Cody after trying out several times and covering the position during auditions eventually got inducted into the Swamp. I will leave the meat of that story for him to tell.
Then we have Scooby on the B-3 and piano. Scooby has a real name too, it’s Michael Huffman, well that was just too many Michaels to try to communicate with. (Laughs) He came down from Toledo and simply blew away the entire band. He is the youngest most talented player I have ever met and it doesn’t stop with just has instruments - he also kicks ass on drums and adapts quickly to any instrument he picks up. He is just amazing. He got his nickname from us on the day he auditioned due to his eerily similar rendition of the Scooby Doo laugh, It stuck!
Lastly we have David Lee on the drums. Dave is a tech head from way back and gets into the production side of things as well as chopping some serious wood on the grooves for the band. Again it was him that was a co-founder with me so his merit goes without saying. All in all man, this is best and most humble bunch of guys I have ever had the privilege to work with. It’s the sum of the parts the make the whole thing happen.
Have you always had the same members?
Almost always. We had the first album in the can when we finally had recruited the band and it was shortly after that we started performing the material live and began to realize the weak spots, playing ability as well as personality and attitude. It was early 2007 when this band became solid as it is now.
Who do you cite as your biggest musical influences?
Well, it was my sister that turned me on to the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album when I was like seven years old and that’s when it began for me. I wanted to be a rock star! (Laughs) And of course later when I really understood music, Lynyrd Skynyrd was huge for me. I was still a young un when I first heard Second Helping and I nearly lost my soul. I then discovered their previous, Pronounced album and have followed them ever since. It was the sincerity of their music, both lyrically and musically that took me in and I knew right then and there that I was going to be in a band like that with a weird name like that. (Laughs) Of course that discovery brought on Led Zeppelin, Marshall Tucker, The Outlaws - I had a pretty screwed up childhood and music was always my best friend to turn to, so I was really close to these bands in particular. They all had it all and got me through some tough times in my early years. As I grew up I started appreciating bands like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Van Halen and took from them the same values. I will say though, that it was Phil Collins that became one of my biggest influences for song writing as a whole. His solo stuff post Genesis was brilliant, for a spell anyway. He touched the lives of millions all over the demographic charts. These days I find myself reverting back to those very same bands for my listening pleasure. Wrapping it up man, I take in a little from everything I hear nowadays, ‘cause that’s all there is- a little. What happened to the attention span of the people?
Tell me all about recording Rock This Country. It is one of our GRITZ Top Ten of the year!
First of all, we are all floored to be in your top ten, and thank you very much for including us in such a prestigious compilation of artists. WOW! Recording this album, man if walls could talk baby! (Laughs) The whole experience was awesome. We approached it differently with a new producer, Ken Coomer, on a tighter budget and less prepared than the first. I purposely waited to finish a lot of the lyrics in the studio this time around, of course the groundwork was laid while we were on the road and the writing has more to do with the road on this one, but all in all we made it a fun experience.
We were staying just outside of downtown Nashville in the country at a Chateau that was immaculate. Hard wood floors, two levels, sun deck and lots of Crown Royal, Jack Daniels, Miller Lite and a mass of unmentionables. We spent about a total of six weeks on this record from there. Having the comfortable surroundings and being as good of friends that we are it was like a vacation. I think that comes across in the record as a fun factor. We stayed away from overdubbing layers and layers of guitars and vocals on this one too. We wanted this record to sound raw and simple, with the song left to do the speaking. There’s a lot of one takes on this record as well. Ken got what he wanted from a producer’s standpoint and then left things up to us, so we did play around a bit but always pretty much ended up with the obvious result.
As for the song writing of this record we also decided to experiment. Now I’m sure you know how song writers are Michael. Songs are our children that we birth and nothing is as sacred as any piece of any part of any song. Sounds silly but is very true and it takes a lot to co-write, at least for me anyway. So on this record we opened the doors to outside writers as well as more writing internally from other band members. Okay, side track for a moment; Another Gritz exclusive for ya. The main reason we started thinking like that as far as outside writers is because in early 2008 our manager brought us a track written by Bridgette Tatum and Danny Myrick called “She’s Country”. Yes the same song which broke Jason Aldean at the CMA awards in 2008 and went on to just a couple weeks ago be the most played single of the year, not to mention hitting #1 on the charts. Anyway, when our manager brought it to us he said it was hot and it fits the Swamp. We really dug the track and began learning it and soon were playing it at our shows and it was a show stopper. Well all the while, our manager took ill and eventually passed away, God rest his soul. In the meantime however, the hold on that song fell thru the cracks. Before we could get a hold of things on the business side it was too late for that song anyhow, but we had now seen a light as to working with outside writers. So there is some good in the story! (Laughs)
So moving on here, the track “Lady” on the record which we are releasing in the States this month as our first single was written by Bridgette Tatum again and Kirsti Manna from Nashville. The track “Stoned” we also took from outside writers Daryl Burgess and Daniel Demay. What a trip, how we got this track. We were opening for 38 Special in front of 18,000 people in Fayetteville NC, what an awesome show, and afterwards the host DJ of the event lured me to his car with a bottle of whiskey and played some tracks for me. He said “man your voice and your band would be perfect for this song”. He played a track that didn’t catch me at all. But I told him to keep playing. “Stoned” came on and I said whoa! Wait a minute, that’s it!! I told him we were cutting the record and all and I don’t know if he really thought I was serious or not but when I got hold of him like the next week he was like. cool! (Laughs) But when I heard it, dude, Yea…..
Keith Inman, aka The “Wizard” wrote “Helluva Night” music and lyrics. Michael Hough had the biggest hand in the title track “Rock This Country” as did Scooby. Scooby also worked with me on “Double or Nuthin” and perhaps played his best piano piece on “Daddy Said.”
"Daddy Said" really speaks to me in much the same way that Ronnie Van Zant's "Simple Man" did. Did you write that one and is it a true story?
Yes it’s a true story. I wrote it and had it pretty well laid out and then had a session with Kirsti Manna on the Bridge parts in which she helped to structure with me.
At the time I wrote this one my best friend’s Dad, a girl friends Dad and our manager who we thought of as a Dad all passed away within a month of each other. My heart bled as if it were my own Dad, for me and mainly for them. I felt compelled to write that song for many reasons. I took my Dad’s advice and actually talked to the other grievers about the advice from their Dads that they remembered and combined them for the song lyrics, making them make sense. I just hope that it helps the healing of others when they go through it. We all will sooner or later, I mean that’s life. My Dad said all those things at one time or another and I’m sure yours did as well!
Do you have any favorite tracks on the record, and if so which ones and why?
Well that’s a tough one to answer, but if you insist! I think “Double or Nuthin” is a favorite; it deals with gambling addiction and is relative to a true story of an acquaintance of mine. I dig true stories and when it comes together in a song it’s very cool. In the song it covers her need to bet more and more until she’s on the skids again and all the while wanting to commit suicide because of all the hurt she leaves in her wake, but still goes back all in, double or nuthin…
Also, another favorite would be “Daddy Said” for similar reasons, being true story and offering some grief relief if you will. But then I really dig all the tracks, you know I think the whole album really flows well with the lineup of tunes and stories and fun time party stuff. It’s all good.
You guys have opened for some great bands. Any great stories you want to share?
Man oh Man! Far too many to expose! I may end up in jail in some cases! Speaking of jail..heres a good one. We had just played the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, SC and were heading to an outdoor show in Charlotte that required us on stage at 2 pm the next day. Well the road crew was in the equipment truck on their own schedule and sure enough got pulled over in some really backwoods town along the back roads in between here and there. Our Production manager shot off his mouth and the search began. Needless to say our crew was locked up all but the driver so the equipment showed up on time with no Sound engineer or monitor engineer or stage tech.(Laughs) Yes, our crew is as bad as the band! (Laughs) We pulled it off never the less.
As for the band stories, man all the way from having Pat Travers on our bus hanging out telling stories to meeting Johnny Van Zant and Ricky Medlock, Donnie Van Zant, Marshall Tucker, Craig Morgan, Shooter Jennings and the list goes on and on… It’s like a dream happening in real life for us. One of my favorite stories is when we were in Nashville recording this record we realized that Skynyrd was literally 15 feet across the alley recording God and Guns. We ran into Johnny and Ricky at some point and they ended up in our control room listening to some tracks of ours! That was an incredible experience. I mean to have your all time idols hanging out in the studio, listening to your tracks, and also giving the big thumbs up was as big a deal as anything else that could ever happen. That moment tops any groupie stories, naked adventures in Sturgis, and the list goes on. The road is a blast, I will say that.
Congratulations on winning the peoples choice position on the Skynyrd cruise. What does going on this cruise mean to you? Thank you my brother. Well I think it’s a good indicator of the band finally making enough headway in the business to be recognized on a national level. We’ve been busting up the roads in the States for three years on a grass roots movement and it is very rewarding to actually see results like this. This is pivotal time in our career to be included on the cruise. I’m sure we will come away from it with more opportunity than when we leave on it. We graciously thank all who voted for us to win, I never thought we’d beat out Shooter or Little Feat for that matter, who knew? We have since gotten lots of emails from our fans that they will be on the cruise with us, because of us. Now that is a compliment. We look forward to meeting each and every one.
Are there any other big things happening for the band at present?
Well we are in talks with a couple of National firms in regards to a new deal for the new year. We have a deal in Europe that launched the campaign in November and that is very exciting. It is doing so well over there with great press and radio air play that we’re being approached for a summer tour over there. We have a distribution deal with Best Buy that launches in February in the Southeast market, in which we’ll be doing in stores along the tour path as far west as Texas and back. We’re preparing to film our first video for this record, our first single is going to be “Lady.” That is going to be a fun video to make! Lots of good things happening.
What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
Being able to survive on music for the last four years is a highlight indeed! It gets rough my friend. But the travel I guess and the people we meet has been huge. We went to Mt Rushmore when we played out in Sturgis. We’ve played many Harley events that included meeting a lot of cool people and getting swag from dealers all over the country. Of course meeting the Skynyrd boys was as big as anything. Another would be getting on stage with Doug Gray and Marshall Tucker jamming to some of their greatest work ever. Doug is a true good spirit that I will always admire.
Give me your thoughts on the state of Southern Rock today?
I think it is finally coming back into the spotlight after years and years of being taboo. You are hearing more and more southern flavors coming out in the form of country these days and that’s a good thing. You can call peanut butter mayonnaise if you want to but it is still peanut butter if you know what I mean. All other brands of music seem to be convoluted these days, here today gone tomorrow, cookie cutter songs looking for that hit all using the same formula. There is no formula to Southern rock. It is down home family values and traditions that make it what it is, and it’s all from the heart. I think there is a misconception among some people that Southern rock is a geographical term. It’s not. It’s a culture.
What about the state of the music industry?
It ain’t what it used to be for sure/ You pretty much are on your own these days to succeed. You have to be proven before anybody will even take your calls. Sure there are some exceptions for any number of reasons but if you don’t have a relative or a buddy in the industry, it’s a battle to get anywhere. There are only a handful of agents anymore that have the power to break you and they all have tons of bands already. Big corporations have made a lasting negative impact on the music business, however with the internet and some smarts it is now possible to get momentum if you have a great product. Radio people are robots that play what they are told now days, when DJ’s used to look for bands to turn on to the public and were proud to be a part of discovering a new act they now are scared they will lose their job if they did something like that, and they would. Right now the state of the business is pretty murky but I believe the bands that can actually play their instruments and relate to the people will survive.
And while we're picking your brain, your thoughts on the state of the nation and the world? Do you think we'll all be destroyed in 2012?
I am a student of Rosetta Stones’ learn to speak Chinese. (Laughs) That’s right, they’re a coming. Seriously, who knows man, with Iran and north Korea playing with nukes there is simply no telling. I will say to all the people who think we need to mind our own business this- What if there were no police in the U.S., would things be groovy? I think not. Look at the overwhelming criminal statistics in our country alone. Leave the pot smokers alone. But if we had no police the U.S would be a place of destitution. So when you break it down globally, there needs to be a police force to oversee the world. Well they call us the world police and rightfully so. If it weren’t for us getting involved in WWI and II what do you think the world would be like today? And now with terrorists running amuck wanting to kill ALL Americans I think it’s more important than ever that we poke our nose in everybody else’s business to protect against potential threats. I mean come on, who are you going to trust? I could rant for days on this subject but will spare you…
What's the most important thing you ever learned from a Southern Rocker?
To be true to yourself, and loyal to your family and friends.
Name your ten favorite Southern Rock Albums of all time...
Skynyrd Second Helping
38 Special Special Forces
Marshall Tucker The Capricorn years
Creedence Clearwater Bayou Country
Allman Brothers All of ‘em
ZZ Top Tres Hombres
Black Foot Strikes
Charlie Daniels Band Fire on the Mountain
Molly Hatchet Self titled debut
Outlaws Hurry Sundown
What's next for Swampdawamp?
The Simple Man cruise baby! Getting the hell out of this 20 degree weather for a few days is going to be climactic! Other than that…. World domination!
Well thanks for your time Gig. Hope to see y’all soon.
Thank you Buffalo!
Following the Simple Man Cruise, Swampdawamp will showcase in Nashville at 12th & Porter on February 2nd at 6 PM.