Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine
Album Release Party
10/26, 8 p.m.; show, 9 p.m.
Soapbox Laundro Lounge
255 N. Front St. • $5/adv or $8/door
Wilmington’s music scene is lush with original talent—from excellent songwriters to breakneck musicians, creative risktakers to intensely driven artists. Justin Lacy and his amazing Swimming Machine ensemble embrace it all across tiers of layered musicality. Under a blanket of sprawling instrumentation on their debut album, “Overgrown,” energetically gripping sounds of Americana, as if led by a Spanish Armada, rouse jazzy-blues tonalities in a maniacal rock-carnival showdown unlike any heard yet in Wilmington—maybe even NC.
Lacy is quite ambitious. His debut work isn’t just audibly epic (most songs tap in at 5 minutes with an army of players), its liner notes have more of a word count than this article would allow. It did take a village to birth and raise this baby.
“Everybody’s crucial in the group,” says Lacy, who started playing trumpet while in middle school. “Each core member brings so much creativity and personality to the table. We were Facebook-messaging each other the other day, and AJ Reynolds [who plays tenor sax, baritone sax and clarinet] said, ‘Every one of us is vital to the fabric of this band, and it’s a truly wonderful dynamic this group has.’”
The core of Swimming Machine consists of Reyonolds, Sophie Amelkin (vocals), Keith Butler Jr. (drums, percussion), David Easton (electric guitars, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, lap steel), Jacob Hurley (upright bass, electric bass), Aaron Lane (trumpet), Hank Blanton (mandolin, violin, bass, percussion) and Adam Powell (whistling, vocals, glockenspiel). A music major from UNCW, Lacy leads the team. “AJ, Aaron, David, Jacob, and Sophie were all music students, too,” he explains. “We’re a music-major band.”
Lacy enlisted the help of Ryan Spooner, Aaron Lane, AJ Reynolds and a gentleman simply known as “Miles” to contribute on songs like “Lie Down,” “In Cold Blood” and “Jug Odyssey.” More than a baker’s dozen of other talented players lent their work on vocals, violins and cello. With help from veteran musician Brian Weeks and Winoca Records’ Lincoln Morris, along with Track and Field Recording’s Nick Peterson and Lacy’s own trustworthy friend and music pal Andrew Zucchino, “Overgrown” was made after a Kickstarter campaign allotted its funding.
“It held us to the project,” Lacy says of the crowd-sourcing program, which awarded him $5,000 to complete the album. “It’s easy to say you want to make an album; it’s a whole other thing to actually make it happen, especially a project of this scale. It’s like we gained a committee of investors to see us through to the final product.”
With sounds paralleling Tom Waits, especially in scope, scale and pitch, “Overgrown” frolics and bows, flits and exaggerates, whispers and screams. It’s attention-grabbing, haunting, beautiful, frightening and fully encompassing in poetic rise and fall. It comes with sweat, blood and tears pored over every note, every break, every chord, every intro, every outro and everything between. In fact, the in-between space of the songs are as enticing as full-throttle arrangements.
“We’d set up an instrument in its own space and then we’d record every one of that instrument’s parts for the entire album,” Lacy explains. “The goal was for the album to have its own soundscape rather than a compilation of songs that sound alien compared to each other.”
The outcome flows in unabashed passion—it’s impossible not to be moved 30 seconds in as its push and pull thrusts listeners to hear lyrical movement and musicianship in a different way. There is a tangible give and take between every player, building upon a new climax at every turn. Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine sound like a band of gypsies in the Wild, Wild West ready to raid a town before hopping a train to spread their wonderment.
“There is always some sort of conflict,” Lacy says of “Overgrown”’s construction. “All the songs and tropes are strung together seamlessly in a way that implies an overall concept, so listeners will likely look for one. That’s really all I could ask for—that this entire large-format work will cohere for a listener in a way that means something to them.”
Though choosing a favorite may seem the burdensome question for musicians to answer, Lacy does so without indifference. Yet, he suggests his choice is only because the song is the newest.
“‘Weeds’ is nothing but an acoustic guitar and vocalist,” Lacy compares to the album’s oversized orchestration. “Maybe it’s just that taking a break from all the flashy aural stimuli makes ‘Weeds’ feel vulnerable. I guess those are the songs I’ve always thought were great: simple songs that have an inherent vulnerability while conveying emotion. Those are the songs I always hear and wish I had written. It’s always the singer-songwriter stuff I’m most enamored by.”
Lacy plays the role of soloist as well as bandleader. He can be heard playing acoustic guitars, percussion and synths on the album, as well as producing guttural roars which can easily cut the inside upon first listen. Live, Lacy and his band have that indelible impact of making everyone feel a part of a free-for-all creative escape.
“The Swimming Machine always felt like a side project,” he admits, “with every member involved in school and work and playing in other bands. We built up a repertoire of original songs, but we were pretty much existing just to have fun playing shows every once in a while.”
After doing NoFo Loco last year, a showcase of local bands which played all day at Brooklyn Arts Center, Lacy says being a part of organizer Zach Hanner’s event inspired him to mold the Swimming Machine into a fully operational mechanism. “There was something about being there, playing in a giant church and sharing this ridiculous music project with our peers,” he remembers. “That made me want to push The Swimming Machine forward.”
While playing shows and touring up and down the coast, across the region and nationwide could expose the group, he weighed the reality of it. With a small army needed to hit the road, scheduling conflicts inevitably would arise. “We have a hard enough time agreeing on local show dates,” he quips. “The only thing that made sense was to create an album, to try to capture our live energy and get this project down in stone.”
In its final release, with art design on matte four-panel digipacks by Kate Winchell and Brittny Roller, “Overgrown” will be put out into the ether during Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine’s CD release party on Friday, October 26th at Soapbox. Opening will be Onward, Soldiers and Trevor Old Brown.
“The next step is to share the album and hope it takes us somewhere,” Lacy says. “I’m gearing up to start traveling out more, making an effort to get shows in the triangle and other regional venues. There are a lot of different directions I could go, but for now, I’m going to try this original music thing.”