Remembering Richard Swift

Hamilton Leithauser (and his friends) remember the legendary musician and producer.

Richard Swift was a singer-songwriter as well as a collaborator with an endless number of artists, including the Shins, the Black Keys, Damien Jurado, Sharon Van Etten, and many more. He died on July 3 at 41 years old. We asked his friend Hamilton Leithauser (formerly of the Walkmen) to write a remembrance, and he did one better—penning his own thoughts and gathering thoughts from other musicians whose lives Swift touched.
—Josh Modell, Executive Editor, Talkhouse

It was just too easy to make friends with Richard “Dickie” Swift. You couldn’t not, and you did it fast. He was an encyclopedia of records, guitars, drums, mics… Anything a musician could throw at him. He was masterful with new weird slang and he was so interested in what you were doing. He could join in any song on any instrument with the kind of feel you just can’t teach. Dickie was a wonderfully talented and gregarious character who will be missed by many, including me.

I first met Richard Swift somewhere around Cincinnati, Ohio sometime around 2003. He was opening for the Walkmen, and we were friends instantly. In fact, he was friends with our entire touring gang instantly (and this was not a gang that tended to make friends instantly). In the next years, we traveled across the country together, and he became an essential piece of our tight-knit musical circle. In time it was clear that the unusually close kinship we felt for Richard was not unusual for him at all. In city after city, Dickie would introduce me to yet another friend or group who held their own intimate bond with him. I once introduced myself to a well-known producer as “Richard Swift’s friend,” and his response was “Who isn’t?”

In 2013, Dickie joined my band in LA to record Black Hours. He was a breath of fresh (el Jimador-y) air all day long, and the days were very long. He could pry a laugh out of anyone at any moment, and his consistent good nature and enthusiasm kept everything moving forward. I picture him there pounding away at those white Gretsch drums, yanking the headphones off as he stood to announce “That was too easy,” before heading out to the liquor store. Or, him telling me about how to keep black jeans black: “See…You use Woolite Dark. It’s actually just too easy;” or, him dozing off to sleep on the outdoor sofa around six or seven as Morgan Henderson woke and went for his morning jog (ships passing in the morning).  I naively always assumed I would get to spend more time with Dickie in the recording studio, and now I wish I’d done it more.

Because Dickie was so close with so many folks, I reached out to a bunch to ask if they would share their thoughts. Here are their responses:

Nathaniel Rateliff

“Oh shit, what am I doing in this guy’s garage?” That was my first impression of Richard’s studio. There were drawings, art supplies, records, a punching bag, tools, noise making gadgets and various piles of you-name-it all over the place. All of this in what looked to be a two-car garage in the back of his house that had been converted to a studio. Two of his kids lived upstairs, above the studio. Later, I would find out that you could hear them walking around in my headphone mix. I asked, “Is that okay? Can you hear that?” Richard would just say “Ya,” and we keep working and record with the footsteps in the track. Even though the studio was a bit lackluster, it had everything we needed to make a record—two mics and some gear.

Richard and I quickly became brothers, not just friends. We also were able to work with ease doing at least a song a day recorded and mixed. After each take I would hear Richard say “too easy” through the talk-back and we would start the next track. Richard’s ability to see past the little things—or not give a shit—made it easy to work and also left room for all my favorite mistakes in the work we did together. It’s all those little imperfections that allow the songs to have a sense of humanity and keep them honest. Richard was one of the funniest, most lovable people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around.

Alaina Moore (of Tennis)

Swift’s talent was so immense that making music with him was intimidating, but he always did what he could to dispel tension and fill a room with laughter and ease. He strove for ultimate realness. The most punk producer I have ever known, he once told me that managers only exist to apologize for you, because artists should be free, anarchic, and joyous in their work. While recording with him, we watched him turn down a lucrative production gig because he would have had to change the way he mic’ed the drums, which was, for him, an unacceptable compromise. He didn’t care about the money even though he could have used it; he cared about making music he could stand behind. His art always came first. Recording in his backyard studio and sharing meals with his family will forever be among our most cherished memories.

Paul Maroon (of The Walkmen)

Last time I was in Cottage Grove, he was showing me around and he had maybe every cassette 4-track ever made. Fifteen perhaps? You don’t end up with all those without adoring music… And his records really did sound amazing. A little while later, I heard somebody talking glowingly about him on NPR because he had produced a record by, I think, the Mynabirds. So I wrote him to congratulate and he sent back an emoji of a pair of thonged buns, with a little sparkle on them. I honestly thought he had somehow commissioned the emoji, it was so perfect for him.

The other thing I was remembering… When we asked him to come down to LA he agreed, even though he said it would be “too easy.” Then, when he came down, we found out that he said “too easy” pretty much constantly. Then when he described touring with the Black Keys he said it was “Too easy. Like, actually too easy.”

Rachel Demy (photographer)

As a young tour manager and photographer, Swift was the first person to take a chance on me by giving me the reins of his month-long tour of the States. Years later, I realize I was hardly the only one he gambled on. I can now think of dozens of artists who were given the spark or push they needed, based solely on Swift’s belief in them and his ability to evangelize about what (and who) he loved. He was the most magnetic person I have ever met. And it’s no secret that his humor left people aching with laughter. He made people laugh at everything: themselves, the absurdity of life and, especially, the darkness. Every time I get too uptight or worry needlessly, I see him, his curly hair and black sunglasses, giving zero fucks, and wanting all of us to be as fearless and unapologetic as he was. An impossibly high bar.

Eric Slick (Dr. Dog)

I won’t spare you the crass details. It’s important to me. I met Richard in the fall of 2014. He initially sent me a message of a nun drinking a mason jar of ejaculate. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I responded to him. He said he’d be playing near me in a few weeks, and that we should meet up. I drove a few hours to Greensboro. We ended up having a great night. He played records. He told jokes; they were tragicomic, gut-busting. We agreed to meet up often. I felt like I had met a long lost brother.

Fast forward to summer of 2016. His band the Arcs was playing a weekend of festivals with my band Dr. Dog. We were texting each other every day leading up to the festival like little schoolboys. In fact, I recently found out he called me his “special little boy.” It’s making me tear up.

The last day of the festival weekend, we both woke up at 7 AM. We were at Sloss festival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I wake up early on tour. Richard was going through a ketogenic diet and was regaling me with hilarious stories about how he couldn’t eat anything. We decided to take a walk around the premises. There was a weird industrial park behind the stage that almost looked like the set design for Eraserhead. Richard said, “This looks like the set of a Christian rock video. I used to do Christian rock, but don’t tell anybody that.” I said, “Whoa, really? We should make a fake Christian rock video out here.” Swift pulled out his phone and said, “I have a video editing app. Let’s do that.”

That’s how it was being around him. His creative energy was kinetic. You felt like you were a part of his process and in the flow. It was beautiful.

Anyway, we made complete fools of ourselves. Richard tried to teach me how to genuflect. He made kissing gestures towards the sky, for God. We kneeled and prayed. We made crosses with our fingers. The rest of the musicians at the festival looked at us like we were assholes, but we didn’t care.

About 30 minutes passed after we wrapped filming, I got a text from Richard with the movie. He said, “The only song with God in the title on my phone is ‘God Gave Rock And Roll To You,’ the KISS version. So our band is going to be called GODGAVE. You’re welcome.”

We only saw each other one time after that. I stayed at his place in Cottage Grove, Oregon at the end of last year. He was always so accommodating, maybe overly so. Sometimes I worried I took advantage of his generosity but he would always shoot back and insist that I wasn’t. He was a genuine human. Maybe he didn’t leave enough of that generosity to himself. The last message he sent me was heartbreaking but hopeful. I told him that I loved him, and that if he needed me I’d be there for him.

I miss Richard a lot. I watched our GODGAVE video on the day he passed. Cried for a half hour. He will always be one of my long lost brothers. The other night I walked through my house looking for him at 5 AM. I just hope that he is at peace, wherever he may be now.

Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats)

Richard Swift was a man from another age, with all the good stuff and maybe sometimes dark stuff that comes with that. He was the coolest guy in the room on a fairly consistent basis—and he’d been in some crazy rooms by the end. Even if you knew him pretty well, he cultivated mystery and was very much a creature of his own meticulous creation. And since he was quite possibly the most purely creative being I’ve ever known, it was a pretty marvelous creation.

Richard logged in a few hours as a keyboardist for my band Fruit Bats around 2012. He’d recorded a bit on the album that had come out the previous year, adding a bunch of his usual fast and effortless magic to a few songs. He was busy but almost always game, and I tried to bring him along to the shows that were really fun. We got an opportunity to play in Honolulu that year and he came out for that one. We of course planned for a few extra days there and it was very funny to see Richard on the sunny beach in his “Swift Outfit”—black sport coat, black pants, black button-up, black shoes, sunglasses. He was not going to lose his aesthetic for some frivolous wading in the water. And this is not to say he was some kind of slave to fashion, this was just his devotion to the feeling of who he was and who he wanted to be.

Being with Swift in the studio was all about an idea that was just around the corner, and chasing that idea at sometimes breakneck speed. Lots of speeding around corners. Always capturing a moment in some way. While recording bands, he was known to sometimes yank a guitar out of someone’s hands or knock drummers off their stools to play a take. But it was only because he could see it and was determined to grab it right then and there.

But, ultimately, Swift was a radiant man who lived in a small town with his family and gave deep, powerful, and meaningful hugs and glowing supportive compliments. I’ll of course remember all the cool, crazy stuff about how he was a magic genius space alien but, in the end, I’ll probably keep going back how incredibly funny he was, and as much as he made you laugh he gave you laughter back just as easily, and how that laugh lit up and shook the room.

Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit)

Since I was 19, Swift was the arbiter of cool. His music had a huge influence on my circle of friends. His live performances at Detroit Bar, Costa Mesa are legendary. He’s such a captivating performer, always original, and always ahead of the curve. He was a big brother to us Delta Spirit guys, and it’s been a devastating blow to lose him.

Sarah Versprille & Daniel Hindman (Pure Bathing Culture)

It hurts so badly to lose Rich. We met him in 2009 on tour with Vetiver; he was opening the shows with his band at the time. We became friends on that tour and we would both go on to play in his live band up until he stopped playing shows and started focusing more on making records. On one of the early tours we were on, we played him some of our first demos for what would become Pure Bathing Culture. He was excited and very encouraging and said we should come record with him in Cottage Grove once we had more songs. We ended up moving from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon in 2011 for a few reasons, but mostly because of the encouragement from Richard and the idea that we could have a band and that he would record us. We made our first EP with him and then went on to make a full length in 2013. We also worked on other records he made with Damien Jurado, Foxygen, and Jessie Baylin. The last time we were with him until we saw him in hospice was just last summer when we spent 10 days in Cottage Grove working on the newest Jessie Baylin record.

We’ll never forget the times we spent making music with him. When we started making our first full length with him back in 2013 the band at that time was still very much mostly a songwriting project between us. We hadn’t played live much at all at this point and listening back to that album you can really hear how fragile a state things were in at that time. All the guitars on that record were recorded direct which was something that Richard and I settled on and just seemed to work. He used to refer to my guitar style affectionately as “blowing glass” which is something I’ll never forget and has continued to influence us on future records. Throughout many of the songs we recorded during that time you can often hear Richard sneak in at the very end of a track to play a simple but very appropriate keyboard melody. He had such a knack for adding a final embellishing ornament to an arrangement.

He was also totally hilarious. On one tour while we were playing in his band, we were out opening for The Fray on the East Coast. Rich was super antagonized by how many toll booths there were and at some point he started trying to mess with the toll booth workers every time we had to stop at one. It culminated with him rolling up to one of the booths with a harmonica around his neck as he proceeded to play it insanely loud while interacting with the toll booth worker. On that same tour we also decided that Dan would eat a sandwich on stage during our first song as part of the performance and on the last show Richard took a white table cloth from backstage, put it on and ran out onto the stage during The Fray’s set and “ghosted” the lead singer while dancing around him menacingly.

The thought that he is not just in his studio right now is some of the worst pain we’ve felt in recent years. His energy and presence in our lives has been something we have relied on for support and inspiration countless times. He gave us courage so many times and he saw something in us that we had yet to see in ourselves during a time when we really needed it. He made us feel like we were part of his gang of talented freaks. We are so grateful for all the joy, magic, acceptance, encouragement, and amazing music he brought into our lives.

Quentin Stoltzfus (of Mazarin and Light Heat)

Anyone who ever met Swifty knows he was a magical force. When we met some 15 years ago, we already had a mutual admiration, were already both aware of what the other was up to musically. We weren’t close in the sense that most people think of “close friends.” He lived in Cottage Grove, me in Philadelphia. We emailed, texted, kept in touch through social media, shared music with each other, and would visit each other when we were on tour once or twice a year, sometimes less. Yet with all that distance and time apart we maintained a closeness that is hard to describe. I continued to develop a respect for his skill as a musician as the years passed: seeing him adeptly switching from keys, to bass, to drums, to singing freakishly high backup vocals in various bands, excelling at all of it.

What really solidified my respect for him was when I got into a dispute with another band regarding our name. This was an especially difficult time for me, having spent eight years touring relentlessly, hustling to make records and struggling to get by, finally reaching a point where I had a sustainable career and a degree of success, only to have it taken away from me with little or no recourse. I was exhausted, depressed, and had lost my interest in playing music completely. He was one of a handful of friends that reached out to try to pull me out of it. He emailed me telling me how much he loved my songs and lobbied relentlessly for me to come to Cottage Grove and record FOR FREE at his studio. I couldn’t even afford the plane ticket, let alone the time away from work. Even though it never happened, I will never forget the encouragement and support that he gave me during a very dark period of my life.

Beyond his reliable support, friendship, and talent, he was fucking hilarious but also a very serious dude. One time that sticks out to me was after a Black Keys show in Philly a few years ago. He had been in touch with me for several days leading up to the show and we had planned to get dinner beforehand and then hang for a bit after the show before they had to hit the road. He texted me at around 11 a.m. telling me that he had been up all night in NYC and was in rough shape and was gonna have to skip dinner to give him time to rest up. Now, when I say he texted me I mean he sent me messages that were like his own language of photos, emojis, and of course relentless positivity and humor. In spite of the fact that he was functioning on little sleep with a brutal hangover, the dude was still on top of it, letting me know hours in advance of when we were supposed to meet. After the show, we met up and drank a bottle of Don Julio 1492 backstage. When the venue closed down we went back to the bus and continued the party. He was sharing a bus with Dan Auerbach and Dan was winding down in the back. We were there for a little while when a woman stormed onto the bus saying “Where’s Danny?!?!?”

Swifty—who was no doubt drunk, stoned, and exhausted—jumped up from a reclining position on the couch with the seriousness of a bouncer or security detail, his eyes wide and his perception of reality crystal clear. He puffed his chest and kindly but firmly said “Miss, you’re gonna have to get off the bus.” There was a brief moment of tension where none of us were sure where this was going, and again she said “I’m looking for Danny, my husband!” “I’m sorry miss, I need you to leave the bus,” he repeated firmly but calmly.

As it turns out, she was legitimately looking for her husband, who played in the opening band. Swifty immediately went from security guard to, “Oh, let us help you find him, this isn’t his bus.” It was this combination of protecting his friend from some potentially rabid fan and then turning around and immediately understanding the situation and being just as kind and protective to this woman that illustrates what a kind and gentle but serious soul he was. After the incident we hung for a little while longer until it was time for the caravan of buses and tractor trailers to make its way to the next destination. Before we left he gave me and all of the rest of us huge bearhugs and the last thing he said to me was “Love and respect, brother, love and respect.” Every time I saw him he would say that to me when we were parting ways, and he meant it. He lived his life by those words.

Jonathan Rado (Foxygen)

The first time I ever hung out with Swift I was completely starstruck. He set up a show for Foxygen at the Axe & Fiddle, the local Cottage Grove restaurant/bar, and he DJ’ed after us under his DJ name Donald Fivepennies. He DJ’d until three in the morning. I think he played “Purple Rain” at least three times. Then everybody at the bar (about 15 people, pretty much the whole town) went back to National Freedom and hung out until five. I was so obsessed with Swift and  had seen a million pictures of his studio, but being there was too surreal. He was a god to me. I remember trying to take in every small detail and commit it all to memory. Being in that studio was like being inside Swift’s mind. Everything seemed purposeful. The picture of Princess Diana on his tape machine remote. His “jazz cigarette” graveyard with RIP painted on it. The framed copy of Hot August Night that Swift had transformed into “Neil Diamond Sucks Himself Off For Money.” The thick clouds of Palo Santo. Every inch and every detail was distinctly Swift.

When I was there, I was always trying to figure out his sound. It seemed impossible. It still does. He just had a touch. His drums on his records sounded exactly like they did in the room (plus maybe a little reverb). He told me he stole his upright piano from a church back when he was living in LA. Sounded amazing, obviously. I found an old no-name hollowbody guitar in the corner and played it on every song on the Foxygen red triangle album (that’s what Swift always called it). At the end of the session, Swift just gave me the guitar. He was like, “You’re the only one who ever made it sound good.” He taught me so much about how things should sound and how little you had to do to get them to bring out the best of a room. He’d be like, “One mic, Rado. Tooooo easy,” and then take a huge rip out of an apple bong.

(Photo Credit: Rachel Demy)

Hamilton Leithauser lives with his wife and two baby girls in New York City. He was the singer for rock band the Walkmen from 2000-2014. He recently got social on the internet and now has Twitter, Facebook and a website.