Swamp Dogg on the making of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune

I recently had the great pleasure of writing album notes for Swamp Dogg’s Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, out now through Joyful Noise Recordings. Swamp Dogg is a giant figure in American music. In addition to his impressive catalog of left field soul recordings, Swamp has had a substantial career behind the scenes, from releasing ’90s hip-hop classics like MC Breed’s “Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin” on his S.D.E.G. Records label, to penning hit country songs like Johnny Paycheck’s “She’s All I Got”.

Check out my album notes for Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune below, and scroll down further for my full talk with Swamp Dogg.

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“Swamp Dogg is a national treasure.” – Swamp Dogg

In 1970 the Southern soul music maverick Jerry Williams, Jr. made the most radical move of his career. Frustrated with music business politics Williams reinvented himself as Swamp Dogg, an irreverent anti-hero smashing the conventions of commercial R&B music. Swamp Dogg’s debut release Total Destruction to Your Mind featured a post-apocalyptic take on the Muscle Shoals’ sound, with lyrics inspired by the revolutionary politics and psychedelic drugs of the late ‘60s. The music on Total Destruction to Your Mind stood worlds apart from the formulaic pop tunes Williams started cutting in 1954 under the name Little Jerry, and Swamp Dogg hasn’t looked back since.

But the music business wasn’t ready for Swamp Dogg, nor was the rest of America. His bizarre album titles and wild cover art turned the average consumer off, while his subversive lyrics earned him a spot on Richard Nixon’s infamous enemies list. Swamp Dogg was not deterred. He seemed to relish operating from the margins of the music business, consequently becoming one of the quintessential outsider figures in American music.

Now, nearly fifty years after his debut release, Swamp Dogg stands on the precipice of another radical reinvention. His latest creation is titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune a nine song collection featuring production by Poliça’s Ryan Olson with contributions from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune finds Swamp Dogg’s bluesy southern soul colliding head-on with 21st Century electronic music production techniques.

The reference to Auto-Tune in the title is not incidental, the album’s sound is built around Swamp Dogg’s experimentation with the ubiquitous vocal processor. While Auto-Tune has become a fixture of the modern pop music landscape, this is Swamp Dogg’s first major exploration of the device. “Every time I listen to some new music that everybody thinks is the greatest thing since hot biscuits, it’s full of Auto-Tune,” Swamp Dogg says. His use of Auto-Tune technology is not gratuitous. Like Kanye West on 808s & Heartbreak, Swamp Dogg utilizes the cold digital tone of Auto-Tune to convey a sense of emotional detachment during the album’s most anguished moments.

According to Ryan Olson, Swamp Dogg’s initial attempts at using Auto-Tune were a bit rough around the edges. So Olson called up Auto-Tune auteur Justin Vernon to rework the digital effects on Swamp Dogg’s vocal tracks. That process reflects Olson’s own role as producer on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. “I went into the studio and laid down the vocals and the rhythms, then I sent those tracks off to Ryan to let him do whatever he wanted,” Swamp Dogg says of the remote collaboration.

Giving up creative control isn’t the norm for Swamp Dogg. A fiercely independent artist, Swamp Dogg is frequently the producer, writer, arranger, and label owner for most of the projects he touches. But Olson’s approach impressed him. “The first thing I thought was this white boy must be crazier than a motherfucker. But I listened to how deep he’d go experimenting with the music and I liked what he was doing,” Swamp Dogg says. Olson adds a range of inventive synth sounds and drum machines to Swamp Dogg’s sonic palette, as well as an impressively artful approach to arranging Swamp’s compositions. The result is a wildly fresh take on the classic Swamp Dogg sound. Swamp Dogg agrees, “I was knocked out by what I heard. I couldn’t believe it was me. It’s some of the greatest and outrageous music I’ve ever heard come out of the Swamp Dogg.”

Swamp Dogg has frequently trafficked in the outrageous to attract audience attention, but it’s the quality of his songwriting that has kept fans returning to his work. Swamp Dogg has a gift for writing about heartache. Many fans consider the 1970 collection of breakup songs he wrote and produced for Doris Duke under the title I’m A Loser one of his finest moments as a writer. The songs on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune rival the tunes presented on Duke’s classic disc.

“The songs are about being lonely,” Swamp Dogg says of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. The feeling of loneliness is particularly palpable on the hauntingly beautiful “I’ll Pretend”, which features vocals from Justin Vernon. Swamp Dogg describes the song as a character study about “a guy sitting in a restaurant by himself losing his fucking mind because he’s hoping his woman is gonna walk by, but she’s at a Ramada Inn somewhere fucking somebody else to death.”

Despite the record’s overriding theme of loss, Swamp Dogg’s warped sense of humor is still intact. Let’s remember that we’re talking about an artist who released a “greatest hits” album in 1976 filled entirely with new songs! Swamp’s comic side is evident on “$$$ Hunting’”, which rolls out with a funky Zapp-like bounce. There’s also “Sex With Your Ex”, where Swamp Dogg extolls the benefits of the song’s title theme over random bursts of feedback and noise.

Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is a gem, a unique and unpredictable moment in the life of a unique and unpredictable artist that some consider a national treasure. “I might be the only one,” Swamp Dogg says. “But I think Swamp Dogg is a national treasure.”

###

 

My interview with Swamp Dogg happened on April 27, 2018. Many final details surrounding the release of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune were still being figured out, so keep that in mind if Swamp and I seem to wander off course. 

Kyle Long: Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune presents a very different sound for Swamp Dogg. I’m curious how you felt about the electronic elements utilized on this record?

Swamp Dogg: Well, I produce a lot of electronic stuff on other people. I had to grow to it. I wasn’t crazy about it at first. But all of a sudden it became a must. It was something you had to do, or your records weren’t considered up to par. So I kind of got into the swing of things, and I like it. There are so many things you can do with it. 

Kyle Long: This isn’t the first time you’ve taken a sharp turn with your music. In 1970 you created the Swamp Dogg identity and released Total Destruction to Your Mind on Canyon Records. Do you feel like this new album is a similar turn in your career toward a new style and sound?

Swamp Dogg: Yeah, as I told you yesterday I’m reinventing the wheel. Although I know deep down I can’t do it, I’m gonna try to do it, just in case there’s a one-percent chance I’m wrong. I want to try new stuff. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I love the business. But there’s not a lot of new things to do. 

Rappers are putting out messages and love songs, lots of love songs. Which rappers weren’t doing at one time, they were doing gangsta rap and all that kind of stuff. I hung right in there with them. I had a group called Bottom Posse and I had Silky Slim. They were all out of Louisiana. We were doing what they were calling bounce music. Again, I was looking for a new way to improve upon the wheel.

Kyle Long: So you’ve been working with electronic music for years in your productions for other artists, but this is the first time you’ve fully exploited these sounds in your work as Swamp Dogg?

Swamp Dogg: Right, I tried to make electronic music in the past. I’ve got an album by an artist named Wolfmoon. If you ever run across it, take a listen to “People Get Ready”. We were trying to come up with new sounds and new ideas. But I was limited. I didn’t have enough to work with, and I just couldn’t get out what was in my head. I’d like for you to hear that. 

Kyle Long: I know the track. I have the original 1973 Wolfmoon LP on Fungus Records. I have a big collection of all the different records you’ve produced and recorded from artists like Raw Spitt and Wolfmoon.

Swamp Dogg: Well, that entire Wolfmoon album was basically R&B gospel. The people in the church weren’t ready for that. I was trying to get them ready for it, but they weren’t ready. But all of sudden Walter Hawkins and his group came along and they were able to lay it down. I was just a little bit too far ahead of what was being done. That’s another example of me trying to jump to the front. I wasn’t really trying to get in front, I was just trying to get in line.

Kyle Long: A major stylistic element on this new album is the use of auto-tune. Had you experimented with auto-tune prior to recording Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune?

Swamp Dogg: We were playing around with it in the studio. Every time I hear some music that everybody thinks is the greatest thing since hot biscuits, it’s full of auto-tune. For awhile I was thinking, “Why is it that all these singers sound alike? There’s got to be something going on.” I got schooled by Norman Whitfield, Jr. who is an A-1 engineer and mixer. He came to my studio and showed me what was happening. 

To me auto-tune was bastardizing the song. But then I got to thinking, “No, the artist is not putting a gun up to the consumer’s head to make them purchase this shit. They’re buying it on their own.” So I started liking it. There were so many things I could do electronically, and the people started demanding it.

Kyle Long: Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune features a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and production form Poliça’s Ryan Olson. How did those partnerships come about?

Swamp Dogg: How did it come about? I have answers for all the questions, but I don’t have an answer for that.

Kyle Long: Were they fans of your music?

Swamp Dogg: Yes, they were fans. There’s a lot of people familiar with Swamp Dogg that the Swamp Dogg is not even aware of. Just like you said you had X amount of product by Swamp Dogg. I’m knocked out of my seat when somebody tells me that, and starts naming my shit. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who even wants to hear it.

But Justin wanted me to sing on his show with Paul Simon, Chance the Rapper, and everything. I might have this chronologically wrong, but I think he heard this new album, and quote “went crazy”. He wanted to do some things to it. When people want to do things with my product, I usually grab my little product and run like a thief in the night. 

Kyle Long: What was your first impression after hearing the tracks Ryan and Justin worked on?

Swamp Dogg: I was knocked out by what I heard. I couldn’t believe it was me. I loved it.

Kyle Long: Can you give me a sense of how you and Ryan worked together to create this music?

Swamp Dogg: Ryan called me one day and he said, “Hey, I just listened to the record and I think it’s a smash.” I said, “Damn, I haven’t heard that in a long time.” Let me tell you, over the years I’ve turned down people who wanted to work with me, and turned down the people that record companies wanted me to work with. I wouldn’t do it. 

There was Gamble and Huff, Thom Bell, and Bobby Martin. There’s been a bunch of people that wanted to sign Swamp Dogg to major labels, in those days you had to be with a major label. I walked away from it. I didn’t feel they knew where I was coming from. That was based on the fact that I didn’t totally know where I was coming from. 

I’ve passed up a lot of things by not giving people a chance. Swamp Dogg is my wife, and you don’t want nobody else fucking your wife. Whether you are the greatest in the world when it comes to laying down sex, or if you’re so bad you can’t even be rated, you don’t want nobody fucking your wife. You want to satisfy her yourself. That’s the way I feel about Swamp Dogg.

Kyle Long: You mentioned your skepticism in the past about potential collaborators and their understanding of your work. Did you have a sense that Ryan understood the Swamp Dogg identity and sound?

Swamp Dogg: Yeah, the first thing I thought was this white boy is crazier than a motherfucker. [laughs] But I said, “If you want to give it a shot, I’m in the mood to give it a shot.” It’s like being at a party and somebody says, “Have a drink!” You think, “I don’t drink.” But you say, “Ok, fuck it,” and you end up getting drunk.

I listened to how deep he went, and how deep he’d go experimenting with the music. I liked it. I liked what he was doing. 

So I produced all the original tracks, then Ryan took them over and did anything he wanted to do with them. He had my permission. I said, “Man, do what you feel.” I wanted to find out what someone else felt about my music. To me it is some of the greatest, most outrageous music I’ve ever heard come out of the Swamp Dogg. To me, and maybe only me, Swamp Dogg is a national treasure.

Kyle Long: I would agree with that. [laughs]

Swamp Dogg: I’m hoping that the album sells enough that everybody will be happy and we can do another. When I cut this thing, I cut about twenty tracks. I went to the studio and laid down all the rhythm and vocals, and I sent it off to Ryan.

Kyle Long: The album title references loss, and there’s a general mood of heartbreak throughout the album. Do these themes reflect things that are going on in your life? If that’s too personal just tell me to move on.

Swamp Dogg: Hmm. [pauses] The main thing was the word auto-tune. I’ve yet to see anybody from Jay-Z on down admit to auto-tune. But they’re using the shit out of it. That’s the reason for putting auto-tune in the title.

But the songs are about being lonely. It’s about a guy sitting in a restaurant by himself losing his fucking mind because he’s hoping his woman is gonna walk by. But she’s at a Ramada Inn somewhere fucking somebody to death. But nevertheless he hopes. 

What’s the album called? Love, Lust, and Auto-Tune?

Kyle Long: It’s Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune.

Swamp Dogg: They wanted to call it Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. I had originally called it Love, Lust, and Auto-Tune. That’s the only change they came to me for. I figured as hard as they worked, and I can hear the work, if they wanted to change one word in the title, it didn’t hurt anything. But I like it.

They would’ve gone with my title though. That’s one of the things I liked about working with them. 

Kyle Long: If it was important to you they would’ve stuck with it?

Swamp Dogg: Right. Exactly. But I would’ve felt like an asshole trying to stand up for some shit like that. 

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Swamp Dogg’s 1971 Elektra Records release Rat On!

 

Kyle Long: A lot of the Swamp Dogg identity is built around outrageous songs, expressions, and images. But you have a gift for writing powerful songs about heartbreak and loss. The songs on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune certainly reflect that. There’s some haunting music on this album. 

I know you get tired of talking about this, but in 1969 you wrote and recorded a very popular album for Doris Duke called I’m A Loser which dealt with similar themes of loss. 

Swamp Dogg: I’ve said that the next time somebody asked me about Doris Duke I was gonna hit them in the head, and with a brick! [laughs] 

But I’m really very happy inside that people want to make reference to something I did and remember it. So it really doesn’t bother me. I wish I could cut another record like that!

Kyle Long: This is it! Don’t you think there’s a similarity between the music on I’m A Loser and Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune?

Swamp Dogg: I never thought of it that way. I don’t know.

Kyle Long: That’s how Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune struck me on first listen. But you haven’t thought about that?

Swamp Dogg: No, I very seldom think of Doris Duke. [laughs] I had more problems with that girl than any artist I ever had in my life. But she has stuck around longer than any other artist that has been in my life. So she’s great. She’s fucking great. She’s a crazy motherfucker, but she’s great.

 

Kyle Long: You mentioned that Ryan Olson told you he thought this record was a smash. You’ve been cutting records since you were twelve-years-old. You’ve written smash hits for artists all over the musical map, from Johnny Paycheck to Gene Pitney. How are you feeling about putting this new record out? Do you think Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune could be a smash? 

Swamp Dogg: I can’t wait. I think Ryan is right. I hope he’s right. I feel that he knows what he’s doing. He’s a full-fledged musician. I love his ideas and the freedom he gives himself. That’s something I didn’t do on a couple albums. I didn’t give myself the freedom that I knew I should’ve. But I did them anyway.

I liked working with him. I liked what he did, even though I didn’t understand a goddamn thing he was doing. When he asked me to go in the studio and do some shit, I did it without reservation. Nevertheless, I didn’t hear it. It’s like somebody trying to entice you to eat something. They say, “Try this cake.” “I don’t want no motherfucking cake.” They keep fucking with you until after awhile you try the cake, and you say, “Goddamn! Is all this motherfucking cake gone?” Because now you love it. That’s my cake story for the day. [laughs]

Kyle Long: One of the things that first attracted me to your music was your irreverent social commentary. I was surprised that there were no political songs on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. We’re now living in the era of Donald Trump, what are your thoughts on the current political climate and how is it influencing your art?

Swamp Dogg: When I go back to Swamp Dogg and Raw Spitt, I was very political. I was on top of everything Nixon was doing. I was calling him names and saying all kinds of shit. I thought I was right, and I still feel I was right. 

But when it comes to Trump, I have to say I’m scared shitless of that son of a bitch. I wasn’t afraid of Nixon, but I am deathly afraid of Trump. There’s no telling what he’ll do. This motherfucker might blow my house up. He is crazy. This son of a bitch is certifiable. He is really, totally fucked up.

I don’t mind talking about him now, and I would if I was doing another album at this time. I did a thing on Nixon called “They Crowned an Idiot King”. Did you ever hear that?

Kyle Long: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite Swamp Dogg songs. 

Swamp Dogg: [laughs] That fits Trump to a T. That son of a bitch, once he gets angry at you, he’ll lie on you, he’ll have you killed, he’ll do all kinds of shit. Please don’t work for Trump, because he just hires you so he can buy you. That’s why I didn’t fuck with Trump.

Kyle Long: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the closing song on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. You end the album with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”. I’m from Indiana, and Hoagy is one of our greatest musical exports. Tell me why you decided to record  “Stardust”.

Swamp Dogg: I thought I wrote it! [laughs] I thought it came to me in a dream. I gave Hoagy credit for “Ole Buttermilk Sky”.

To me, Hoagy Carmichael is one of the greatest songwriters to ever come along. I always wanted to record one of his songs. But you know how my Swamp Dogg albums are, that shit ain’t gonna fit. All I would do is fuck it up with a lot of horns and shit.

So I’d been wanting to do it. There’s a lot of songs I’d like to sing where I’m not screaming and hollering like Swamp Dogg usually does. I’ll get around to them. On just about every album I’ve recorded I have a song that I’ve always wanted to record and sing.

I have a Hoagy Carmichael songbook that goes way back to my childhood. I think that’s where the idea to record “Stardust” kicked in. I said, “Motherfuckers are gonna think I’m crazier than hell!” But when I listen to Hoagy, he couldn’t sing worth a fuck. But he wrote some of the prettiest fucking songs you’ve ever heard in your life. He had an ugly voice, but it didn’t hinder what he was doing.

I want people to know that I can carry a note. I can’t carry it far, but I can at least lift the motherfucker.

Kyle Long: I think you proved that. [laughs] Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me Mr. Williams.

Swamp Dogg: Call me Swamp!

Kyle Long: Alright Swamp, thank you for taking time to speak with me.

Swamp Dogg: Anytime. 

 

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