Joe “Swiggy” Swigunski is the multi-talented artist behind New Mayans and an artist on the verge of exploiting his new genre of music that will surely conquer the world. Originally from St. Louis, Swiggy is now based in Chicago and recently released his first single “Universe” with a full length album on its way. We caught up with Swiggy at a coffee shop in Culver City to discuss his love of history, Radiohead and what the future holds for New Mayans.
Can you tell us about the origins of the New Mayans? Where did this musical adventure begin?
The band came out of another band called The Makeshift Gentlemen. We were doing some recording in Omaha and were based out of St. Louis at the time. The drummer and I had some immediate deaths in the family and totally ruined the momentum of the band. After that, we were working on our EP for that band. After my mom passed away, I started writing songs to cope and out of it came New Mayans. I needed to change; I needed something different. Every song that I wrote was to deal with the grief. She was sick for two years and I was just trying to get through it. There’s some dark stuff on there because of that. The way I look at New Mayans is like the film, The Fountain. Its three separate stories about the old Mayan tale about the rebirth out of death. It’s universal to everybody that life begat death and death begat life. It’s a cyclical thing and that kind of gave me some comfort. When I tie it back to my mom’s passing she bore me and the circle of life continues. When I thought ‘bigger picture’ about it, I got a little more comfort out of it. All those experience to this point in time have made me who I am. I think I’m a better person for being able to endure it. It’s just like that tree in that movie. That’s kind of how I look at it. That’s the origin story.
Was The Makeshift Gentlemen the first band?
I’ve been playing in bands since high school. I played in a joke band called Caveman and The Tastees and we wrote a song called “Swiggy’s Room” which was literally about the crap in my room. There was even a point where I did a Bill Cosby scat solo. It was totally ridiculous but for high school, people dug it. Everybody was doing pop-punk bullshit at the time and I’m not going to do that. We had a shitty drummer and a guy who was good at doing voices. We had a bassist who played the trombone. We had two bassist in the band and the other guy played mandolin. I wrote one song called “Dulcimer Song” about how I got my dulcimer. We had crazy stuff like “Anarchy Song” which was literally one chord, over and over. Everybody was having fun but I was like, ‘I could get us shows.’ There was one show that we got on and we got a write up and they talked more about us than the headliner. I wrote a lot of songs off the cuff and I think what that band taught me was that I have the potential to write material at least from just a pop sense and that I can direct a group musicians. If you can play with terrible musicians, you can play with great musicians. Great musicians are easy, they’re professional but terrible musicians, you have to hide the weaknesses of those players. That kind of conditioned me for the next group which was a band I played in called Bicycle House, which was terrible.
It wasn’t about bicycles, was it?
No, that was where I was trying to push my writing. Trying to do crazy structures, chord changes and different tempos really trying to push the envelope. What I came to realized is that I wrote some crazy stuff and it pushed my skill set but it was not good to listen to. I listened back to it and I was like ‘What the hell was I writing?’ That was the precursor to Makeshift Gentlemen. I would say we were doing Panic at the Disco before Panic at the Disco, and not on purpose. I’ve been into steampunk for a long time now, I think since the early 2000s. I really like the Victorian era. I’m a big history buff. There’s something about that time and the innovation it had going on. I thought, ‘What if we did a steampunk-electro rock band?’ That’s what Makeshift Gentlemen was. We built this who origin story behind it and how the name became. We took some elements of Phantom of The Opera and mixed in how there was a masked murderer that mixed up body parts and would kill people and we called it the Makeshift Gentlemen. That was the joke. Each song was about some crazy chapter in this Victorian cyberpunk reality.
Did you perform on with a band on stage?
Oh yeah, we performed that. We’re on Spotify, if you want to check that out. We put an album out on iTunes. That was just iteration. All three of those guys were pop-punk. You just couldn’t escape pop-punk. The drummer listened to Metro Station and Paramore but he eventually got good music taste. We always joked that he had the music taste of a 12 year old girl. The keyboardist was actually a guy who didn’t play keyboard. I bought a little two-octave synthesizer and he was so good stage-wise that it brought the energy we needed. The bassist, keyboardist and I all have theater backgrounds so we put on a great live show and we had some success. You learn what to do when you have enough success. After it’s over, you figure out what went wrong and how to avoid those steps in the future.
Who are some of the bands that have inspired the sounds of New Mayans?
As far as sounds go, the tag line I use to describe it is a ‘what if’ scenario. The sound is like if David Bowie and Radiohead wrote the soundtrack to Blade Runner. You’ve got Vangelis, David Bowie and Radiohead. If they were colors and you were to mix those three and whatever you got, that’s what New Mayans would be. A lot of bands cross breed all the time. Cross pollination is how music evolves and changes. A lot of people think that somebody just created punk music out of thin air. It started from bands like The Kinks doing it and it evolved to bands like Death in the early 70s. Then it evolved to The Clash and Sex Pistols. I also wanted to take a cross section of time. If somebody were to cut musical history like you do a tree ring and were to look at the past decades and look at 1977 to 1982 or a cross section of music, movies and technology at that time, I’ve tried to recreate that for my own purposes. I wanted to pay tribute to that time because it’s very different than any other time. When people think of the 70s, they’re really saying ’72 to ’77. When people think of the 60s, they’re thinking of ’63 to after JKF was killed. Those four years when the Beatles were actually experimental. We think about decades in ten year periods but really its five years of actual activity. I would say from the moments that we’re living in now, it’s not until we actually get further away from them that we can tell what this is.
I was watching SNL and Beavis and Butthead Do America and this all came out in ’98 or ’99 and if you look at the humor and the ideas that were coming out then—not saying that we got complacent, but it was okay to say certain things. It’s almost like this big giant corset was wrapped around the culture. You have a lot of monotony and it’s homogenized a lot of stuff. So you have a lot of music that sounds similar and isn’t as daring. You see it in the jokes because humor says what we’re okay with. To quote Milo and The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s a mixture of live action and cartoon, he meets a guy who knows numbers and you can divide it and divide it and with music, it’s the same thing. You can divide it and it just becomes smaller niches. Music is like water now. It’s a utility. We consume it. If I drink water from the tap or Brita or Fiji, it’s all water. It’s all sustainable. But what’s the preference? I still prefer the nicer water but it’s still all water. I think that’s where music is heading. Consumption based content isn’t really good for music. You have an abundance supply of something and the average quality goes down. But the plus side is the quality content. It’s great for owning Fiji.
If there were a film soundtrack you wish you had done, what film would that be?
John Carpenter’s The Thing. I wish I was in that room being able to collaborate on it. It doesn’t get any better than that. Blade Runner, you have Vangelis. 2001 A Space Odyssey, Kubrick has Ligeti. You pretty much have every classical artist with the waltz. Interstellar came out a year ago and that’s Hans Zimmer and he’s still borrowing from something from 40 years ago with big epic long suites. To me, sci-fi is the influence. People like new genres and like to talk about it. Everyone was making a big deal out of ‘chill-wave,’ remember that? People like to compartmentalize and like to put in a little box so that way they can judge it. What is the biggest universal fear? The unknown. In order alleviate that anxiety I put a label on it right away. People have to label it so we know what it is. That alleviates some of that anxiety. For people that need that comfort, I would say the genre I’m trying to do is called ‘future-wave.’ That’s the closest thing I can think of. If you look at the many sci-fi films that are coming out in the next year, Force Awakens, the sequel to Blade Runner, The Martian, you’re starting to see a pattern that sci-fi is back and it’s going to be darker than ever. It takes musicians two or three years to write something and so you’ve got to be that far ahead. The reason I respect David Bowie is because he’s been doing it for 50 years and he’s always ahead of the game because he know fashion and music cycles because people like what’s familiar and they also like enough change to where it’s different.
The song “Universe” is a deep and very emotional track. What is that song about?
I tried to be pretty broad and it’s also one of the oldest tracks that I have. That song is about eight or nine years old. I wrote it back when I was in Makeshift Gentlemen and it didn’t really fit with the things we were doing so I saved it. I was in this relationship where you go in with 100 percent pure vulnerability and when it doesn’t work it, it makes you kind of callus. You kind of become like a cat where you hear a nose and it gets kind of jittery. You go in way more cautious because you’ve learned. I guess that song is a little bit of nostalgia. I wish that things could have been different. Now we’re in the age of Tinder and who gives a shit anymore.
What was the first album you ever bought with your own money? How do you feel about that album all these years later?
The first album I ever bought was Weird Al Yankovic. It was the album that had “Stop Draggin’ My Car Around”. It was one of his first albums. I remember the sound quality was terrible because I heard an interview about its production and he recorded that song in a bathroom. I started with Disney sing-a-longs then went to billboard’s top ten of the 60s and 70s. Then my dad turned me onto Queen in the 4th grade and was blown away. We went on a family road trip and I had my walkman and listened to the greatest hits over and over and over again. Then I’d throw in some Weird Al. There were three major moments that have happened like that. The next one was Pink Floyd’s The Wall. My dad said ‘If you like Queen, you’re going to like this.’ He played it for me and it was epic. I like the theatricality of it. I think softens the message and makes it more palatable. The next was Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief. That’s the one I got into. Somebody showed me some tracks on Amnesiac and I was like ‘Okay, it’s good.’ But for me, that was the entry point. I listened to Hail To The Thief and listened to it over and over again. That’s where I learned about the appreciation of good music and the depreciation of shitty music. Like Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi”. You hear it the first time and its okay. But it’s like eating cotton candy: it tastes good then you start feel sick afterwards, then you start to hate it and then you start to throw up. But that’s the beauty of complex music. I try to find that balance where music has replay-ability. The next one was Bowie for me. In high school, I listened to the greatest hits compilation. The compilation is a great way to get a taste of the artist without that huge commitment. I think those are great entry ways. I wouldn’t recommend it. I would much rather listen to Wish You Were Here or Animals or Kid A in its entirety because it’s a period of time that captured life in a bottle.
What has been your biggest rock star moment so far?
A lot of people do art or music because it’s about self expression. The successful people are those who can communicate it. For me, New Mayans is about being able to communicate what I’m feeling to you. The better I am at that and the deeper the cut, the bigger the impact that you’ll connect to it and relate to it. Then one becomes two, and two becomes four. It becomes exponential. I played a show down in Florida and I played one of the songs on the album and the song is called “Glass Ceilings” and I wrote that during my mom’s decline. That song is about purgatory and somebody else existing kind of like that blue world in Mario Brothers. That world that you can go in and it makes no sense. Have you ever been to Santa Cruz?
Yes, I was there last year.
You know how the trees meet the beach? Imagine a cloudy day in Santa Cruz. That to me is purgatory. Being on the beach and there’s a forest there with all this dead driftwood. I guess it was the comfort of somebody looking up from underneath the water, like you’re drowning. You’ve got this glass ceiling that forms with the water. I used that as a comfort knowing that my mom is still there. Not watching over me but that everything is going to be okay. It was this weird coping song. It was like Linus having his blanket. Something like that is a comfort thing. So if I ever needed something that was for me, I had it with that song. I played that song live for the first time in a three piece group and after the show, this guy came up to me and shook my hand and he said to me ‘Thank you, I needed to hear that song.’ It’s a ‘kick you on your ass’ type of song. It was impactful enough that somebody that had never heard a recorded version and just saw me play it live was still able to get the gist of it, meant a lot. I don’t know if that’s a rock star moment.
No, it is for sure. You moved someone that would have never happened if you didn’t take that step to make music.
And it was a small show and it was one person made a point. And I’ve had other shows with Makeshift Gentlemen where 50 people come up to me and say ‘Good job’ and that’s great and all but the songs didn’t have that meaning to me. Because that song means something to me and it means something to somebody else, there’s no other feeling like that. I don’t get that heart form the music today. I realize that songs can serve multiple purposes but the better songs try to do one thing well.
Have you toured extensively with any of the bands you’ve been with?
I’ve toured with Makeshift Gentlemen and we went to Austin, which is different from Texas. Austin is like a diet coke San Francisco in the middle of Donald Trump. It’d be like as if Bernie Sanders has lived inside Donald Trump like from Total Recall. That’s like Texas to me.
What do you want future musicians to take away from your music?
Stop writing stuff that everybody else is doing. Stop using visual tools to create something that audile. Find one piece of equipment that can do one thing right. Stop trying to find things that can do a bunch of things mediocre. Don’t record at the beginning when you write it. Odds are, it’s not that good. If you remembered it and retain it, it’s good enough that you remembered it. That’s a tactic I’ve use. Every song I’ve ever written I’ve contributed to memory. When I’m writing, I have a grace period where I remember the riffs and don’t record it until its 50-60 percent there. I think it makes the music more potent. You can jot anything down but if it sticks with you, it’s stronger.
What’s next for New Mayans?
Live shows and more music coming out. It’s establishing a way of thinking and a way of life. I think as millennials grow and become the work force, we’re not as hard tied to our parents as much because we still live with them. Life is what you make it. I don’t know many people that would put off time, relationships and finances into doing a band. New Mayans, for me, is a way of life for me. If you ask someone what’s more important, time or money, the successful people will tell you time. Unsuccessful people will tell you money. Because you can’t buy time. There’s no exchange rate. It doesn’t happen like that. To me, that’s what it’s about. You don’t have unlimited time so use it to best and fullest, whatever it means to you. That’s what I’m doing. Focusing on the brand and the music.