Rock & Roll is a cliché. The radio is filled with countless songs about love and loss, sin and redemption and sex and drugs, most written by one-hit wonders.
But what if the songs were actually memorable? What if the music put vice clamps on your grey matter and didn’t let go? What if the lyrics stuck with you well after last call? Then maybe, just maybe, all the normal Rock & Roll trappings could be accepted. Because, be honest, who doesn’t like a little love, sin, sex and drugs in their music?
It’s those kinds of songs, the dirty, sexual and infectious anthems of old, that have made Switchblade Syndicate one of Cincinnati’s brightest young acts.
The Northern Kentucky-based quartet has been playing together since May, having risen from the ashes of vocalist Veronica Grim and guitarist Jimmy “El Rey” Nielsen’s former group, De Los Muertos. Their previous group had an uncharacteristically quick rise to prominence within Cincinnati’s small but mighty Rockabilly scene. Fueled by Grim’s intense lyricism and the band’s tight musicianship, De Los Muertos had a devoted fan base.
When word was spread that a new project was being formed, expectations were understandably high. The transition from De Los Muertos to Switchblade Syndicate “was very gradual, but abrupt at the same time,” Grim says.
The shift brought along a new band name, new band members and a broader sound. Donny Dirtball was recruited on drums and, after the initial bassist quit, “Switchblade” John Campbell rounded out the current lineup. Both Grim and Nielsen decided to expand Switchblade Syndicate beyond the pigeonholed trappings of the traditional Rockabilly genre.
With the lineup finalized and the goal solidified, the band members got to work creating their own sound.
Switchblade Syndicate often talk about the band using simple, overarching descriptors. Nielsen and Campbell say they play straight-up Rock & Roll. Grim claims it is “Sleaze.” Dirtball describes it as “dirty, sped-up Country.”
They’re all correct, but none quite hit the nail on the head. They are undoubtedly a Rock & Roll band, but one with flourishes of Country, Punk, Rockabilly, Honky Tonk, Surf, Psychobilly, Sleaze and seemingly every other major genre you can think of. Perhaps this is why the bandmates use simple descriptors — it simply takes too much time to describe their complete sound.
The band’s diversity can be directly traced back to the members’ experience. Each is a seasoned musician in their own right, with backgrounds ranging from Grim’s solo, acoustic performances to Dirtball’s Death Metal bands to Campbell and Nielsen’s early days in Punk and Grunge acts. For all of their diverse beginnings, the four members also share several influences, and it’s during the writing process that these similarities are illuminated.
Each member is often left to their own devices when a new song is being constructed. Nielsen, Campbell and Dirtball generally coordinate their thoughts and present a package to Grim who can, with “ungodly speed,” according to Nielsen, add lyrics to the mix. Nielsen and Campbell explained that the early Switchblade Syndicate songs were ripped directly from Grim’s solo set. However, newer songs resulted from a more collaborative process, and the songs benefit greatly from the new method.
Of course, all the technical wizardry and insightful lyrics in the world mean nothing if no one hears it. The band is determined to put on one hell of a live show.
“It’s giving the concert-goer their money’s worth,” Campbell says.
If Switchblade is looking to do that, feel free to tack on a few High Lifes to the cover charge; the band’s show is one of the most high-energy sets in town. Nielsen and Campbell provide a dual guitar attack and Dirtball’s drumming is equal parts technical proficiency and caveman-esque aggression. He beats the crap out of his kit, but does so with an inordinate amount of fills and flourishes.
Even with a madman behind the skins, Switchblade Syndicate’s biggest draw is Grim’s stage presence. A self-proclaimed cartoon character onstage, Grim bounces, jumps, screams, wails, dances and dives while the boys try to keep up. It’s this excitement that permeates the crowd and makes every Switchblade Syndicate show one to be remembered (even with the extra High Life in the equation).
Switchblade Syndicate performs music that might never be played on the radio. But as long as they continue to walk the switchblade-edge of Rock & Roll, it really doesn’t matter. They’re doing just fine without it.
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