What is charisma? Yes, it’s the thing you dump experience points into in Fallout 4 to get better prices from shop keepers. In the real world, it doesn’t quite work like that, but it does come close. We all have a friend who we could listen to for hours, hearing them tell story after story in a way that never gets old. Or we’ve all met someone at a bar or on the train that feels like an old acquaintance after just a few minutes. Charisma is the magnetism with which we can attract an audience, make new friends, and generally put good vibes out into the world. There’s no definitive ranking of charismatic people, but if there were, Swimming With Bears’ frontman Joe Perry (who also plays bass) would be high on the list. Alongside Alec Conte (lead guitar), Ryan Hannasch (drums), and Jonny Boy Kerr (rhythm guitar), Perry exudes charisma from his very being. The result? Swimming With Bears is one of–if not the most–charming, captivating, charismatic bands in the world right now.
It doesn’t take long in my phone call with Perry for his charm to win me over. After a brief conversation with his publicist to make sure we’re all connected on the call and everything is set, we begin. Before talking about anything music related, Perry jokes that the opening exchange between the three of us (not uncommon, for those interested in a peek behind the curtain) is like a parent sending their kid out on a playdate. “Have fun you guys!” he jokes as he pretends to be a doting parent, and it’s nearly impossible not to smile just listening to him. For many artists, it’s not unusual to get into a different mind frame for performing than the one they walk around with. This is understandable, as it’s hard to be “on” all the time. This is not the case for Joe Perry. The grinning, lively man you see in the music video for Swimming With Bears’ February release “French Girls” is the same man you might see walking around the streets of the band’s home of Austin, Texas.
When I talk to Perry, he’s excited to return to Nashville where “French Girls” was recorded to record new music at the end of April. “We work with a sound engineer named Conrad Schneider, and it’s at Conrad’s house so we call the place ‘Camp Conrad,’” Perry says, also revealing they want to make shirts with mock slogans like “I met my wife at Camp Conrad.” Perry also reveals how the band gets their energetic and cohesive sound. Instead of just one or two of them in the room at a time recording their tracks, they’re all in the room. “That’s how we write, we write with the whole band together,” Perry says, also adding in that was how “French Girls” was written, along with the other tracks Swimming With Bears is currently working on. The band began working on the current collection of songs shortly after the release of their 2016 EP. “It was because with ‘Shiver and Crawl,’… it’s a serious song, and I don’t want people to think ‘oh man, these guys are thinking about some bleak stuff,’” Perry says, so focusing on more lighthearted fare was the goal. The band all live together in one house, which allows for the closeness they share and (I would imagine) a non-stop great time.
Living together also means Swimming With Bears can write whenever the mood hits them. “Me and [Ryan] will lay out a cool bass groove, and then the guitars will come over it, and then I’ll call a melody,” Perry explains. From there, they work together to branch it out into a fully formed idea with lyrics. As an example, Perry says early in the writing process for their latest single they though the track had a distinctly European feel to it, which eventually coalesced into the cinematic French track that’s now out in the world. On writing lyrics, Perry says “it’s a group writing process, we actually just started recently. It works really well with us now, just throwing out ways you feel about something.” Perry also adds with a laugh that sometimes it’s as simple as the band thinking a word is cool, like the use of “boulevard” in “French Girls.”
Inspiration can come from a variety of places. Perry cites The Lord of The Rings series and novelizations of the original Star Wars movies as big parts of his childhood, and Tolkien’s ability to create languages and prose stand out to him. He also jokes about websites that will produce rhyming words for the user, and how much the internet has changed things in his 27 years on Earth. On a more serious note, Perry says “I’m really just about simplicity, and hearing the song simply.” He explains that while he does think that all of the amazing digital effects and tools are helpful, he doesn’t want them to be crutches for Swimming With Bears’ music. Perry subscribes to the campfire theory: “if you can’t sing the song around the campfire, you shouldn’t do it.” Perry also theorizes that he would not have gotten as much into music as he is if this technology was around in his youth. “ I was very fortunate with my parents,” Perry says of their support, “my dad paid $120 for a bass guitar when I was in sixth grade.” Perry does note with a boisterous chuckle that his dad vocally wondered why his son would want to play bass instead of lead guitar, but I’d say that the choice of instrument has worked out pretty well for Perry.
Another valuable lesson from releasing the EP in 2016 for Perry was about the importance of using studio time wisely and buckling down, as smaller bands like Swimming With Bears don’t have the unlimited resources to spend weeks and weeks in a studio. Talking about “French Girls,” Perry reveals the song was written in a day. “We only had enough money for 3 days of studio time,” he says, so time was of the essence. The camaraderie that the band members share from living and working with each other for so long is what enables them to work so well and so quickly together, by Perry’s estimation. While much of Perry’s charisma comes through in the light and jovial moments, talking to him about his music conveys it in a different way. For as lighthearted as he is, Perry takes his music very seriously, and it’s clear in talking to him that the rest of Swimming With Bears feel the same way.
As for the rest of 2018, Swimming With Bears will more than likely be preparing for those Nashville sessions to prepare the new songs when you read this. The band also has a series of shows coming up, an avenue for Joe Perry and his bandmates to share their joy with their audience. That joy is palpable when talking to Perry or in listening to Swimming With Bears’ music. There are a wide array of gifts and talents that can be developed or innately present in human beings, with charisma being a particularly spellbinding trait. When you combine charisma with music, magic usually happens. Swimming With Bears, led by Joe Perry, have all the magic that any music fan will ever need. When you put on their music, you won’t need me to convince you of their charm. Swimming With Bears can do that all on their own.