Swing Out Sister catapults to success. From diverse styles a British band shapes a distinctive sound
New York — What do you get when you put a keyboard player who loves Miles Davis and video arcades together with a drummer who digs bookshops and film scores - and then teams them up with a singer and former fashion designer who's into garage sales, musicals, and Dionne Warwick? Sounds like you'd get a mess, but instead you get Swing Out Sister, a bright new English pop band that's climbing the charts with their debut album, ``It's Better to Travel.'' They've got a hit video, too: ``Breakout'' - a stylishly droll spoof on the fashion business.
The single, ``Breakout,'' with its danceable rhythm, smoothly melodic vocal line, and multilayered orchestral background, was a surprise hit in England. It catapulted the band into almost instant fame, leaving them happy but dumfounded. On the strength of that one hit single, their first album entered the British charts at No. 1.
Swing Out Sister recently traveled around the United States on their first promotional tour. While here, they stopped at Polygram Records offices long enough to talk with me about their sudden fame and how they got together in the first place.
``I couldn't imagine three other people who are as different as we are, actually working together,'' said Martin Jackson, the band's drummer. ``I think you'd have a hard job finding anything we've got in common.''
Mr. Jackson and keyboardist Andy Connell had a band together in England that played what is termed ``electro'' in England - a kind of hip hop (break dance) instrumental music overlaid with electronically produced vocal samples. But they reached a point where they wanted a real singer. Enter Corinne Drewery, who was a fashion designer with her own business but was hoping to get out of the fashion world and become a full-time singer. It just happened that Mr. Connell's and Jackson's manager lived in her building, so ...
``He gave me a tape and said, What do you think of this?'' said Miss Drewery. ``It was an instrumental. He said, could you come along and sing something on it? I was taken totally by surprise, because I didn't even know they were looking for a singer. I had heard they just did all this instrumental UK electro stuff, which I didn't really like.''
But Drewery did like that particular tape, so she recorded a demo with Jackson and Connell, and Swing Out Sister (the name was made up by a friend) was born.
Perhaps it was because they were so different from each other, musically and otherwise, that the three came up with a really distinctive sound that crosses the limitations of today's pop music: Drewery's deep, soulfully sophisticated voice (``I used to try to be Diana Ross or Smokey Robinson, and then I realized that I'm English, I'm not a black American soul singer''); Connell's multilayered jazzy arrangements (influenced by ``Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Weather Report, McCoy Tyner - Steve Reich at the moment''); and Jackson's rock-oriented drumming (``I was really into this German group called Can - a jazz drummer playing with an avant-garde keyboard player and a rock guitarist'').
Connell said about their album, ``We were a bit concerned that it wouldn't really have any continuity - that it would be a sort of mishmash of strange, different styles. But when we listened to it as a whole, somehow there was a theme running through it that we hadn't noticed before.''
``When people ask any one of us to describe our music,'' added Drewery, ``we couldn't really say, because it's a kind of fusion of our separate influences and tastes.
But Swing Out Sister didn't catch on right away. They had to scuffle to arouse any interest in their new project.
``We took tapes around for quite a while, to general apathy, really,'' said Jackson. ``Polygram finally signed us for two singles - the first one came out, `Blue Mood,' and sort of swan-dived, straight down without a trace. I think it sold a staggering 800 copies in total.''
But they still haven't recovered from the unexpected success of the second single, ``Breakout,'' and they're guarding a healthy skepticism.
``It's ridiculous that so much can hang on one little piece of plastic,'' said Connell. ``If you had built up - had a single and then an album and it gradually got to the point where you'd earned that sort of thing - then you'd be able to accept it.'' Said Drewery, ``I think it's a bit too much to take in when you think how many people must have bought your record.''
``It just goes to show how ridiculous it all is,'' added Jackson. ``A year ago we couldn't have gotten arrested, and now all of a sudden here we are in New York!''
Back in England, Swing Out Sister plan to work on a new album and put together a tour for '88.