“Shall we go for it?” – Life as an unsigned metal band with Sworn to Oath

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By Will Harris

Things are looking good for Sworn to Oath. Kicking off a nine-show tour spread across this September, not only are the Stoke-based power trio getting back on the road, but they’re also working hard writing for their debut album, currently slated for a 2013 release. That’s not all, either; earlier this year their single, ‘Last Call’ was made available for download on Rock Band 3 and Rock Band Blitz on Xbox 360 and PS3, and it’s done so well that their latest track, ‘Stand Alone’, is also due to appear before the end of the year.

Their music, to the uninitiated, combines energetic, headbanging groove metal (taking cues from bands including Lamb of God, COC and Slayer) with melodic vocals — though never too scared to throw in a good fist raising scream when necessary (a lot). What comes out when it’s all put together is something remarkably different: rather than a clunky amalgamation of each member’s various influences, its the songs that really stand out. This is usually the evidence of a band who’ve spent plenty of time working on their material — coupled with plenty of touring.

And from what Dave Leese, 26-year-old guitarist of Sworn to Oath, says, they’ve done just that. The archetypal hard-working young metal band, in their three-and-a-half years, Dave estimates they’ve played 300-400 gigs — a solid sign that they’ve been serious from the outset, which starts much as any band does.

Starting out

“Me and [bassist] Tom were in the same band for a while, and we were put in touch with [drummer] Al through a mutual friend,” explains Dave. “Me and Tom had always known what we wanted to do, but we weren’t happy in the band that we were in, so just stepped aside and tried Al, just to jam and see what happened. The first time we jammed we wrote the first few tracks that ended up on our first EP, just ideas that we had.”

It wasn’t long before they all felt they were on to something: “When it started sounding good and we all realised that the three of us were on the same wavelength, we all just had a sit down and a chat and said ‘Shall we give it a push? Shall we go for it?’ and never looked back. From there, we wrote and rehearsed for six months, bought a crappy little van and just started booking some gigs. From March to the end of that year we did about 120 gigs, pretty much always on the road.”

That formative first year, packed with shows, is undeniably going to do a lot for any band’s ability, tightness and confidence, and a hard touring schedule is something that’s become a core part of Sworn to Oath.

Play time

Not that it’s all work and no play in an unsigned metal group (even if they are serious); partying on tour is all part and parcel of the fun in Dave’s band. “We do the band thing because we love it, because we love the music, but we do it ‘cause we wanna have fun as well. It just tends to happen as and when; they always say the best nights are when you don’t plan ‘em. It’s one of those things that just sort of happens: sometimes you get paid in beer anyway, or it’s on the rider, and it’s not gonna drink itself is it?”

Presumably, especially early on, there’s a balance that needs to be struck between getting wasted and being serious about your gigs, but Dave believes for some, at least, it’s just a matter of practice. “You just get used to it, you get a tolerance in you. When we’ve all had a skinful, if someone’s had more than the other two they usually get a bit of a rough time from the other guys and vice versa. And waking up hungover is just part of our life anyway, so it doesn’t matter where we are!”

Stories? “I don’t wanna say anything that’ll get anyone in trouble,” he laughs. “I’m pretty sure I’ve been sick on one of the guys once, but it all rolls into one big hazy memory. There was that time with the stripper in the van, but it depends what you call crazy; no one’s bitten the head off a bat or anything…”

The key to keeping up that stamina, it seems, is simply to enjoy what you’re doing. Dave relishes it. “I enjoy all of it, it’s better than a real job,” he chuckles. “I mean at the moment I’ve got a job mowing grass, and it’s better than that! Your daily routine gets fucked up, but touring becomes your routine then. Speaking for myself, I don’t get homesick and there’s no one for me to miss if I’m away for days, so I’ll never bore of it. I suppose it’s hard sometimes if you’ve gone three days without a shower and you stink, but we’re not about luxuries, we’ll sleep wherever and wash when we can!”

Money

Living a pretty ascetic lifestyle on tour is almost compulsory for a driven, unsigned UK metal band; for the simple reason is it’s the only way you can make the money work. In 2010, the music licensing agency PPL reported that nearly all musicians in the UK make less than £16k a year; that means financial commitment is as important as time. Sworn to Oath began running at a loss, spending their wages on putting petrol in the van to play gigs for no money, “just for the chance to play in front of some new people.” Fortunately, that commitment has now paid off.

“We’ve got to the stage where when we’re on tour, they cover themselves now. We normally get a food rider and a drinks rider or an amount of money, like sometimes we get five pounds each as well as beer if there’s no food. We’re always gonna eat at the show, and when you’re on the road you’re doing nothing other than playing. I need money for nothing else but clean strings on my guitar, a sandwich and some beers!”

Keeping it up

Nevertheless, it’s vital that the original financial commitment is there in the first place, while the ongoing commitment of time, money and effort will always be a problem. Probably the hardest thing for most unsigned bands to deal with is maintaining it for long enough to make something out of it, but Dave sees Sworn to Oath sticking at it.

“It’s very swings and roundabouts. Obviously you have to be as available as you can if the band’s busy, and jobs get in the way, but when we’re busy out on the road we can put that money back into the band and if that’s all we’re doing, that’s all we need money for. In the meantime we put money back so that the band’s still taking money off our wages. You just have to make it work.”

And how does the bearded guitarist see the band going into the future? “I think we’ll always be three best mates playing music together, in whatever capacity. In a year’s time, hopefully the album’s out, we’re promoting it properly, we’re doing tours and we’ll have possibly done a couple of slots at big festivals, and touch wood we get those kinds of things off the back of the album.”

And does he expect to still be rocking out like Slayer in 30 years’ time? “I hope so man, you don’t really get that anymore, do you? As long as I’m still in the band, and I’m playing guitar I’ll be happy,” he grins, “no matter what, if you love it, you love it, and so you’ll do it, won’t ya?”

Sworn to Oath are playing the following dates this September:

  • 13th – Edge of the Wedge – PORTSMOUTH
  • 14th – The Sugarmill – STOKE
  • 15th – The Vault – RUGBY
  • 20th – Dove & Rainbow – SHEFFIELD
  • 21st – Gasworks – BRADFORD – FREE SHOW
  • 27th – TP’s – BROMLEY – FREE SHOW
  • 28th – The George – ANDOVER
  • 29th – Melbourne Rock Club – CAMBRIDGE

www.sworntooath.com www.facebook.com/sworntooath

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