Hailing from Edinburgh, with blind faith and a dream, are Swim School – a three-piece band, with Alice Johnson as lead singer, Billy McMahon on drums, and Lewis Bunting on guitar, who have opened for the likes of The Pixies and Inhaler, and played various festivals like TRNSMT and Kendal Calling.
Stream: “BORED” – swim school
The thing about Swim School is that at the heart of it all, it is truly the music and a collective dream to “make it” that makes them such a genuine band.
In just a 35-minute conversation with Alice Johnson and Billy McMahon, it was made clear that they are doing precisely what they are meant to be doing. To put it simply, their mindset about the music industry and fan culture, alongside their approach to music is nothing but inspiring, especially when it comes to the future of it all.
The interview begins with the setting of the scene for what is the band’s origin story. Here we have, as Johnson explains, in 2015 or 2016 in a music class surrounded by boys with big metal guitars she sat with a small acoustic, intimidated but overall, happy to be playing music. She soon would become best mates with a guy named Lewis Bunting, who would, after about a year or so, text her and ask if she’d like to start a band with him. The way Johnson tells the story, makes it sound like fate had a hand in it all because from there it all seemed to snowball into action. After going through a couple of other band members, until they found McMahon, it was by 2019 when the band truly took shape, and last November, as Johnson explains, they became what they are now, a three-piece. What is made clear from the moment that Johnson began to speak, is that at the center of the band is friendship, Johnson says, “It was all just us being best mates and then we were like, let’s do something together.”
Now that being said, it is no secret that working with friends, especially in a band setting, can be severely taxing and a threat to the future of a group’s music. Numerous bands have broken up due to this, consider The Beatles, One Direction, and Fleetwood Mac, however, when asked about how they manage to balance all the stresses and everyone’s opinions and desires and keep the band running, Johnson simply says, “We’re all in it 100%”
“This is a hard industry, and as everyone says you have to have a tough skin for the music industry, and they’re not wrong. But see when it’s just you and your best mates, it’s just so much fun, and we’re at a point where we work so hard for the band, it feels like it’s now paying off after all those years,” Johnson states, with pride in what the band that was started on a whim has accomplished beaming from her face. Even through a Zoom call, the excitement and passion feel tangible.
“We like to all be together,” she smiles. “I think it’s just about having a good vibe and positive attitudes and knowing that we’re all aiming towards the same thing. I feel like when you have people on your team that aren’t as switched on or committed, you can sense that and it can start a rift. But we’re at the point now where Swim artists are 100% and we know we’re going to make it together. Which feels amazing and fuels the happiness and excitement around it all.”
Drummer Billy McMahon continues this train of thought by adding in the detail that they all know how to work around one another, meaning if one of them is not having the greatest of days, they know how to approach it. It seems like such a simple element to their relationship, but as an outside observer of bands, this detail of just paying attention to one another and adapting on the fly to one another’s moods is something that seems like an essential practice to maintaining a healthy band relationship.
Continuing on in the conversation, McMahon steps in and adds, “We’ve been really fortunate this year to play these bigger shows, which means bringing a team with us as well,” to which he reflects on the importance of having a team that they as a band get along with. “This is like the first year that we’ve had our team on the road with us,” he says, “We’re quite cautious about bringing people into the team that we get on with, who we can spend numerous days in a van with because it can get quite tedious at times. So every single person on Team Swim School has either been a friend for a very, very long time or someone that we have a lot of respect for, and it works both ways.”
Despite Swim School being a fairly young band, they exude a level of humility and knowledge about the whole industry, alongside that childlike vision that encourages one to even entertain the idea of starting a band, in a way that makes it seem like they’ve been doing this for decades. Even though they are still at the start of what should be a very long run in the industry, I believe they have discovered a balance that many other bands only hope to achieve.
Not to reach too far into the legends-only zone, but there is something about Swim School that calls back to The Beatles when discussing the elements that keep a band relationship healthy. Both groups placed relationships with the members of the bands and the goal of creating the best music they can at the center of everything, so, just speaking directly to Swim, for a second, I’d say you have nothing to worry about.
“It’s just about being mates,” Johnson decides. “We’re all doing this because we love it, and it’s just like any friendship, you need to be there. Like what Bills said about the down days because we know each other so well we can sense when one of us isn’t 100%, and we all talk about it and are very much like a family. We’re open about it and it’s amazing.” As the two continue to discuss band relationships, they delve into how officially becoming a three-piece was a turning point for them as it allowed them to take to their positions and discover the balance and the keys to their work style with one another. “We look out for each other,” Johnson says warmly, “we know that we have each other’s backs.”
You might say that 3 really is a magic number when it comes to Swim School.
Shifting the conversation now to discuss, when questioned about how their relationships with one another impact their music, it is suggested by Johnson that their differing opinions at times aid in making their music more diverse. On this, she emphatically says, “Our range of music that we love is so massive that when it comes to writing, we have so many different ideas and we’re all very respectful of each other’s creative process.”
She continues to say how when in the studio they always try out one another’s ideas, and even if the ideas never go anywhere or don’t work, the effort to experiment is really what matters most. As we get into the nitty-gritty of what their creative process is, it is made clear instantly that ensuring that it is fun and natural while also getting the job done is essential.
Johnson laughs, “It usually starts with an idea from one of us, and then halfway through writing it we get a bit loopy and Billy will pick up a bass, come up with a funny baseline or something, eh Billy?” McMahon laughs in agreement while Johnson continues to discuss how not one member dictates the decisions made in their music, instead, they are all involved which in Johnson’s words, “keeps it exciting.”
As our interview continues we begin talking about the music. Specifically, the band’s most recent releases, an EP titled duality and a single called “BORED.” Both projects are incredible works, with quick-witted lyrics, energizing instrumentals, and vocals that resonate in a similar sphere as Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice and Hope Sandoval.
In discussing these projects Johnson divulges a bit of her experience as a woman in the music industry, her voice softening a bit as she tells Atwood Magazine, “I love it. I honestly do. I wouldn’t change my gender for anything. It is hard, but I’ve noticed this year I’ve definitely been a bit more respected than I was last year, I think that’s because I’ve gotten a bit more confidence now and more of a presence about me.”
As she continues to share her perspective, with a small chuckle, Johnson recalls a moment when she recognized her own experience and feelings in a fellow female musician.
She says, “I was listening to Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice on a podcast, and she mentioned how at the start of Wolf Alice when they’d turn up at venues, she’d always make the boys go in first because they’d be more respected and say hello and whatnot and shake hands with whoever works there. And then she’d go in there afterward because she never wanted to walk in there first.”
“It honestly wasn’t until I heard her say that, I was like, I do that – I make the boys walk in first and say, ‘You go speak to them first, I don’t want to.’ But this year, since the band has leveled up I’ve just become so much more confident, not in a diva or egotistical way, just in the way of I deserve to be here just as much as the two boys in my band. So I’m not scared about walking into a venue first or of talking to the promoter or speaking to anyone, because I know I deserve a place there.”
“I don’t really see myself as like a ‘I’m a woman in music kind of thing,’ I’m just a musician who loves doing what they do. One thing I absolutely love is the other people it inspires, like not just women, but those who are nonbinary or transgender.” As she says this she reflects on memories of fans and shares an anecdote about them coming up to her and telling her how much of an inspiration she is as she unabashedly is a powerful force pursuing her dreams.
She also makes a point of recognizing McMahon and Bunting, and how they are “two of the most supportive and protective guys” who “know I can stand my ground.”
I don’t really see myself as like a ‘I’m a woman in music kind of thing,’ I’m just a musician who loves doing what they do.
Wrapping up our time together, we close off by talking about the Swim fans who are absolutely adored by the band – and are a major part of why this band feels so accessible and authentic.
On this, Johnson says, “I think you can agree, Billy. We’ve got like a really cool fanbase at the moment. They are very heavy on Twitter, they love tweeting us and they are not scared to put us in our place. And I think honestly as we get bigger I think our fans will support us but also kind of if we start getting egotistical or cocky they’ll be like ‘Nope, sit your ass down’ kind of thing.”
At the end of the day, Swim School are very clearly just in the business out of a pure love and admiration for music, and every part of it. From the actual song-making process and writing of lyrics to the performances and fan interactions, and the homey sense of camaraderie that they have discovered, everything about Swim School is natural. And in today’s industry that’s all anyone could ask for from a young group of mates making music.
DUALITY and “BORED” are available for streaming on all platforms!
Stream: “BORED” – swim school
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© Rory Barnes
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