The Sword Talks Musical Evolution, Tom Petty & the 'Star Wars'/Doom Metal Connection

Jack Thompson
The Sword

J.D. Cronise, lead singer and guitarist of Austin hard rockers The Sword, doesn’t ask for much, but he would like to make a suggestion to fans who buy tickets to their shows: Please chill out a little.

He’s talking about their disposition, mostly, but also their musical preferences. The Sword earned early praise for their 2006 debut album, Age of Winters, a thunderous cocktail of monolithic riffing and explosive hooks best heard on “Freya” and “Iron Swan,” while 2008’s Gods of the Earth earned them a support slot on Metallica’s 2008-2009 World Magnetic Tour. But over the past decade, The Sword have gradually evolved from their early doom/thrash hybrid into a meat-and-potatoes rock n’ roll band—a change some fans have been reluctant to accept.  

“At this point, I’ve had ‘Iron Swan’ yelled at me enough times that I’ll play the intro and not hit you with the riff,” jokes Cronise, who left Austin for Richmond, Virginia several years ago and now comes back to write and rehearse with his bandmates. “People take things a little too seriously sometimes, especially heavy metal.”

Cronise hopes fans will keep an open mind while listening to The Sword’s upcoming sixth record, Used Future, which features their most pristine production to date courtesy of Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie) and consummates their pivot away from doom metal. The former Black Sabbath acolytes now incorporate elements of Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy and Blackfoot into their sound, which Cronise hopes audiences recognize when they unveil the new songs on their upcoming tour. Then again, he’s been in this game long enough to anticipate some skepticism.

“I think what’s weird is people’s reactions of not really knowing what to make of [the new sound],” he says over the phone a week before heading to Austin for rehearsals. “Which, in a way, I get, because it’s just not a thing that’s done very commonly these days. But for me, I can’t imagine it having gone any other way.”

Ahead of Used Future's March 23 release, Cronise talks about the band's musical evolution and why he feels like Jethro Tull after winning best metal band at the Austin Music Awards

Does living in a different state put a wrench into your writing or rehearsal plans?

I don’t know if I would say it puts a wrench in things. It definitely makes things different. We don’t get together and rehearse regularly or jam regularly or anything like that. … In the early days of starting a band, you’re all like best buds and you hang out all the time, and you just can’t wait to go on tour and get it all going, and you hang out on your off-time and all that stuff. But after you’ve been in a band 10 years or so, and you see these dudes night and day, 24/7 for weeks at a time, you don’t necessarily—not that we’re not friends, but we don’t necessarily hang out a lot in our off-time.

Are you the primary songwriter on the new record?

I would characterize myself that way. I write the vocal tracks, the more traditional songs, if you will, but on this record especially—starting on the last record, High Country, but this one even more so—[bassist] Bryan [Richie] has contributed a lot of instrumental pieces, and sort of atmospheric things, using a lot of synthesizers and stuff like that. So I’m not the only composer, but I guess I am definitely the primary songwriter, if you want to be technical about it.

The most obvious talking point about Used Future is that it continues your progression away from doom metal toward old school rock n’ roll. Has that been a conscious evolution?

The way that The Sword’s sound evolved is a weird thing, because it’s really all a matter of what we want to play and what we want to hear. I feel like if we were a band from the ‘60s or the ‘70s, or even the ‘80s or the ‘90s, it wouldn’t be so strange for us to put out albums that sound very different from one another, or for us to go through this kind of evolution. But it’s just something that a lot of bands these days don’t really seem to do. They seem to find the thing that works a lot of times and sort of stick with that, or at least kind of remain in the same ballpark.

For us, it’s kind of always been a matter of getting comfortable enough to just be ourselves, and just realizing, yeah, this is our job, but it’s still art, and we’re not in the business of just making a consumer product. We have to do something that we find interesting and enjoyable. And for me, the same old thing all the time just gets boring after a while. Our tastes have changed and evolved and matured over the years, and to me, everything we’ve done feels totally natural.

Were you listening to or influenced by any particular music while you made this record?

The title track, “Used Future,” when I wrote that song, when I made the demo of it, I was kind of like, “Oh, this is a little Tom Petty-ish,” at least from my perspective. I don’t think my voice sounds like Tom Petty, but to me, that’s what it sounded like. Like, “This is a little Heartbreakers nod right here.” And what was weird, was the day we recorded it was the day he died. So it was a little strange, a little heavy.

How did working with Tucker Martine, who’s better known for his work with indie rock artists, influence the sound of this record?

He is very smart and very practical, but also very traditional or classic, maybe, in his approach. He knows how to make records sound good and how to record bands like they’re supposed to be recorded, and not to over-compress them and how to make it sound real and natural. Especially with heavier stuff in rock music these days, it’s weird, because it seems like everything is either super raw and noisy sounding and low production, or it’s the opposite end of the spectrum, and every note is placed precisely with ProTools and everything is pitch-corrected just right, to where it sounds fake. It seems like there’s very few people occupying that middle ground of sounding good but not fake.

The Sword just won “Best Metal Band” at the Austin Music Awards. That’s not your first time winning in that category, right?

That is right. That would be our number five.

You sound amused.

Yeah, you know, it was really cool the first few times. At this point, quite honestly, it’s like, take us off the list, man. Put us in a different category. Have you actually listened to our last couple records? Let one of the bands in Austin that are actually playing heavy metal right now win. I felt a little bit like Jethro Tull taking the [1989 Best Hard Rock/Metal Grammy] award from Metallica. There are friends of ours that are in real metal bands that still play metal, and I feel like maybe some of them might have been a little more deserving at this point of that particular award than us. But what are you gonna do? Still an honor.

Does it feel weird for you to say that, having been at the forefront of the doom metal resurgence in the early 21st century?

I wouldn’t even call it a resurgence. It’s just a surgence! It’s a thing that now exists that did not used to exist. It’s kind of like how there are hot girls that are nerds and are into Star Wars now, and when I was growing up, there was no such thing. When The Sword was coming up, when I was a younger man, there was no doom metal scene. That was absurd! So for me, in a way, it’s cool, but it’s weird. It is, to me, very akin to the fact that I’m coming from being a young science fiction nerd, and that sort of thing being everywhere now and the biggest thing ever. Everyone is a nerd now, or whatever, and everyone’s into doom metal now. It’s really kind of bizarre for me. But yeah, that’s another reason that I think I naturally felt, creatively, that it was time to pursue or move on to other sorts of ideas. Those waters just got very crowded. There’s a lot of people plying them these days. So if you want some epic doom metal, there’s plenty out there for you.

Should fans expect a blend of old and new songs on this tour?

There’s always gonna be some older stuff in there, but it’s gonna be a lot of newer stuff, for sure. The thing that doesn’t get acknowledged a lot is we have a different drummer [Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III] now than we did for our first three records, and he plays drums totally differently. And I think even we, at the time when the transition happened—because our old drummer just sort of quit, it wasn’t anything that we knew was coming—it was just kind of like, “Oh, okay, now we have to find a new drummer,” we were sort of left in this situation. So the beginning, it was a matter of learning the old songs and getting up to speed and then moving forward. But I think it took a couple albums for me to realize how much musically that personnel change had changed us as a band. And when you think about it, the drummer is pretty important, especially in a rock band. Jimmy plays drums so differently than [former drummer] Trivett [Wingo] did, and that really is a huge factor in all this, too.

It’s nice that you’re at the point in your career where you can unleash some of your older, heavier songs if you want to, but you don’t necessarily have to.

A lot of the reason I don’t like playing a lot of that old stuff live anymore is just the vibe it creates is not the vibe I want to create. And it’s a weird thing to realize that the song that you wrote is causing people to react in a way that you never intended. I don’t like those sort of intense thrash metal shows where shit’s flying everywhere and everybody’s moshing and nobody knows what’s going on and it’s just chaos. I like to go to a show and watch a band play their instruments and watch the performance, and not worry about getting shoved or getting stomped on or whatever. So just changing the whole vibe is another sort of goal. Kind of realizing, after being in the heavy metal scene for a few years at the onset, like, wow, some of these cats are kind of aggressive. Maybe they need to chill out a little bit. Maybe we need to chill out a little bit, and maybe that’ll make them chill out a little bit!