Artist Interview: Have Mercy

Posted: by The Editor

photograph by Rick Barnwell

With the exception of The Smiths, when rock bands break up–even when they do a final tour–it’s rarely forever. From My Chemical Romance to Blur, we’ve seen multiple reunion tours in recent years.

But when Baltimore, Maryland’s Have Mercy went on hiatus in early 2020, there was a strong sense that it was for good. The band, which formed in 2009 and was an important pillar of the emo revival, had simply dealt with too much misfortune and heartache, from struggles with substance abuse to painful breakups to the death of founding member and former drummer Aaron Alt.

There were also difficulties inside the band, from lineup changes to dissatisfaction with some of the music being put out. Lead singer Brian Swindle said that for two of the records in the band’s catalog–2014’s A Place of Our Own and 2019’s The Love Life–he wasn’t really happy with the process or the product. 

“We were rushed into making A Place of Our Own to capitalize on the success of [2013’s] The Earth Pushed Back,” Swindle told me by phone. “The same thing happened with The Love Life; it was our fourth release, and we were rushed into making that record. We weren’t ready; I was very in the depths of drugs and alcohol at the time, and I should not have been around really anyone. On those two records we kind of learned the band performs our best and makes our best art when we have the time and clear heads to do so.”

Circumstances came together in 2022 that allowed Swindle, guitarist Andrew Johnson and bassist Nick Woolford to reconnect as musicians–they had remained friends–and explore a reunion. Have Mercy put out a self-titled EP in August 2022 that was well-received and reviewed. Sonically, the band hadn’t strayed far from its roots, but you could hear the growth–including for Swindle personally–in songs such as “Fast Car”: “Got breath in my body / And somebody wants me, I’m not alone / The warmth when you hold me / Regrets from the old me, when I was just stoned.”

The EP was something of a test run for the trio to explore not only whether they were ready to make music again, but if they could do it the way they wanted, with minimal outside intervention. 

“A lot of the pressure that we put on ourselves when we were doing this band prior to the hiatus was we were trying to ‘make it.’ It was a terrible way to live,” Swindle said. “Right now we’re making art just because we want to, not because we have to pay the bills with it.”

Swindle and Johnson used to live in the same apartment building. Though they always remained friends, during the hiatus they kept band talk out of their conversations. “We’d had a big falling out on that end of our lives,” Swindle said. “We started writing songs again and asking, ‘Can we do this on our own?’”

Have Mercy tracked the EP in a “tiny apartment in Baltimore,” and the band thought it sounded good enough and enjoyed the process of recording it enough that they felt ready to tackle a full LP. They waited until the record was completely finished before looking for a label, and Rude Records turned out to be the perfect partner. This past Friday, the label released Have Mercy’s fifth studio album, Numb

“It was really about freedom,” Swindle told me. “At the time we were like, ‘Hey, we can’t do a lot of touring; we’re not going to be the band that sells a million dollars in merch. We’re gonna want to do this album cycle on our terms and take our time with it and keep it organic.’ Rude Records was cool with that and continued supporting us, and we have nothing but great things to say about that label.”

When Swindle and I spoke by phone, it was the Friday evening of Numb’s release. Swindle was surprised by and grateful for the positive reaction to the album; he also said it’s the proudest he’s ever been of a Have Mercy record. 

“It was a huge undertaking for us,” Swindle said. “We decided to record the whole record ourselves, we went into it with no budget. As an audio engineer, it was a huge feat for me personally, and I’m super proud of what we created with the little means we had.”

Swindle credits producers the band has worked with in the past, including Brian McTernan, Matt Squire, and Paul Leavitt, for giving them “a crash course in songwriting over and over again.” But “we’ve done this so many times, we’re seasoned when it comes to writing music,” he said. The band puts a lot more thought into songwriting and building an album now than it did on past records. “We’ve gotten good at realizing, ‘We need a ballad in this place, we need a more drivey song in this place,” Swindle said. “But sonically, we’re still the same.”

The opening track to Numb, “Alive,” feels like a thesis statement for what has changed with Have Mercy and what will be different moving forward. “I can’t make the same mistake,” Swindle sings over and over in his characteristic gravelly voice. 

“Things have to be different now,” Swindle said. “Which isn’t a bad thing. The way we operate this band now is different than we did 10 years ago. The way we talk amongst ourselves, the way we live our daily lives is different, so the music is changing with that.”

Many of Have Mercy’s most beloved songs, especially those from The Earth Pushed Back, are, well…“Sad,” Swindle offers. After getting sober in 2020 and getting married in 2022, Swindle’s life looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago. The lyrics of his songs and the contents of his social media, featuring photos snuggling his Blue Heeler mix, Luna, and his wife, Camille (“I try to keep it from getting to be too much,” Swindle said with a laugh), have changed as well. (As we speak on the phone, he’s baking blueberry-glazed monkey bread.)

Perhaps mining emotional suffering isn’t a prerequisite to producing art? 

“I always thought that too,” Swindle said. “Some of my favorite artists growing up, they’re brooding, they smoke cigarettes, they drink tons of whiskey; they must be so cool. There’s this idea that when artists get sober, their lyrical content and music isn’t as good. I think it still can be.” 

“It’s gonna be different,” Swindle added. “The way I speak now, the things I talk about now are different than when I was messed up all the time. I think it’s a good thing as I grow that our fans are growing at the same pace. We’re around the same age. I think they’re gonna notice that the themes are carrying along with their lives.”

This fall, Have Mercy did a limited run of shows. “It was absolutely terrifying getting back out on the road,” Swindle said. But the fans’ warm reception and seeing familiar faces in the crowd helped him reignite his passion for performing. The band hasn’t planned a full tour for Numb, but they will be playing shows in 2024. 

“I’m very stoked; I like getting out there,” Swindle said. “We keep doing four-day runs, which is really nice, because I just get to take a little break from work and then come back and I’m sitting right at a desk again, living dual lives.”

Given that Numb is such a personal record and emblematic of the changes Swindle has made in his life, if there’s one thing he hopes listeners take away from it, it’s that things get better. 

“I would hope that they hear it and believe that the hardships in their life, most times they’re all temporary and that people can grow,” Swindle said. “You have to take life by the horns and make it what you want.”

Numb is out everywhere now with vinyl available through Rude Records.

Michelle Bruton | @MichelleBruton

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