Alternative rock band Emmet Swimming combines the ease and skill of natural storytellers with compelling rhythms and hypnotic musical textures. The mixture creates a unique, offbeat musical offering. In the early 1990s the band generated an underground fan base in their hometown of Fairfax, Virginia; it then branched out performing in clubs in the Washington DC, North Carolina, and Maryland areas. Beginning in 1993, Emmet Swimming released a series of CDs, each surpassing its predecessor in sales and popularity. Their 1998 release, Big Night Without You, combines elements of gospel, alternative rock, dark humor, wailing, and churning rock guitars. Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post described their music as, “the drift of folk-rock toward a jazzier sound … a late-night cocktail ambiance that suggests American Music Club or Tin-dersticks more than Emmet influence (and producer Dixon client) R.E.M.”
The four band members—drummer Tamer Eid, bass player Luke Michel, vocalist and guitarist Todd Watts, and guitarist Erik Wenberg—met as students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Eid began playing drums at the age of four, and Wenberg studied piano as a child while growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Vocalist/guitarist Watts, originally from Kentucky, formed the band and remains the band’s leader. The early musical influences on the band’s members include the Clash and the Cars. Asked to explain the origin of the band’s name, Watts told the Washington Post’s Eric Brace that while growing up in Kentucky, he remembered stories of the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, an African-American youth who was shot and thrown in a river for whistling at a white woman. “It’s a horrible case of injustice,” Watts told Brace, “it resonated for me.”
The band’s success can be attributed in large part to its emphasis on live performance. Emmet Swimming concerts are designed to be memorable and satisfying, and the band is devoted to touring as much as they can. The Performing Arts section of the Washington Post, described an Emmet Swimming concert as “an espresso overdose.” Watts vocal style was called “distinctive, sometimes eerie.” Watts’ baritone dominates the band’s material and it fluctuates from low and ethereal to rousing. The band’s material is usually tinged with dark humor; it causes the listener to pause and reflect.
The band utilizes musical elements from a wide variety of styles: blues, jazz, gospel, rock, folk, surf, honky-tonk country, punk, mariachi, and even classical. Emmet Swimming is thoroughly original and thoughtful, and its mostly youthful, college-age fans are fanatically devoted. Many have created unofficial web pages for the band on the Internet, full of slogans like, “The best band in the world!” underneath photographs of the band.
Emmet Swimming released Dark When The Snow Falls in 1993 on their own Screaming Goddess Music label. A year later they released Wake on the Bloated Caribou Music/Screaming Goddess label as well as a Christmas single titled “Silver Star.” The single was included in a release of local Fairfax artists presenting Christmas songs titled Fa la la la la la la la la in 1994, released on Loud Mouth Sound, Inc. A year later in 1995, the band had its first major label CD when Sony/Epic released Wake.
The Arlington to Boston CD, which came out in 1996, was the release that first garnered national attention for Emmet Swimming. They followed up the album’s on-the-road themes by taking to the road themselves. Arlington to Boston received airplay on radio stations throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southern regions and the band spent the year touring tirelessly, playing festivals and clubs along the East Coast, from New England down to Georgia. In the process, they broadened their already loyal fan base. Arlington to Boston was produced by Don Dixon, who had also worked with R.E.M. and the Smithereens.
In the wake of their success, in 1996, the band won the Washington D.C. Music Association’s WAMMIE Award
Members include Tamer Eid , drums; Luke Mich el ,(born April 28, 1972), bass; Todd Watts ,(born in KY), guitar and vocals; Erik Wenberg ,(born July 22, 1968, Washington DC), guitar; members met while students at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.
Eid began playing drums at the age of four; guitarist Wenberg learned piano as a child; Watts formed the band and remains the band’s leader; released Dark When The Snow Falls in 1993 on band’s own label, Screaming Goddess Music; released Wake on the Bloated Caribou Music/Screaming Goddess label in 1994; released a Christmas single, entitled “Silver Star,” in 1994 and included in a Christmas compilation of Fairfax, VA artists, entitled Fa la la la la la la la la,(Loud Mouth Sound, Ine);Wake released on Sony/Epic in 1995;Arlington to Boston released in 1996;Big Night Without You, produced by Grammy-winner Peter Collins released in 1998, ; played on the Horde Tour in 1998, Washington D.C.
Awards: Music Association’s WAMMIE Award in 1996 for Top Alternative Band, Top Alternative Recording, Top Alternative Song, Top Alternative Instrumentalist (Tamer Eid), and Top Alternative Band Manager (Alan Stewart).
for Top Alternative Band, Top Alternative Recording, Top Alternative Song, Top Alternative Instrumentalist (Tanner Eid), and Top Alternative Band Manager (Alan Stewart). Emmet Swimming played on the Horde Tour during the summer of 1998 to rave reviews. Their fans eagerly awaited whatever they would release next.
It turned out to be 1998’s Big Night Without You, a record produced by Grammy-winner Peter Collins, who had also worked with Jewel, the Cardigans, Indigo Girls, Suicidal Tendencies, Rush, and Sneaker Pimps. This collaboration created a lush, urgent sound on the band’s fourth album, together with its trademark musical tapestry of styles. The songs on Big Night Without You tell clear, complete stories with a moral. “Sunblock” tells the story of a lovable lout who trades in his social-climbing girlfriend for a view of the ocean, a tale that is underscored by mariachi horns, surf music, hony-tonk music, and a touch of rebellious punk. Each of the band’s releases has sold three to four times as many copies as its predecessor, so the band and its label are looking forward to a prosperous future.
The members of Emmet Swimming create their distinctive brand of music by remaining true to their own vision and musical tastes, and more or less oblivious to musical trends. As a result, their lyrics, vocals, and their compositions are uncompromised and fresh. They found success by not seeking it, but by letting it find them. Their devotion to their personal perspectives is patently evident in their music. Their ability to tell a story enhances their music and keeps listeners waiting for the next tale. Some songs are like short musical films: the couple breaking up during a road trip to Reno, the man who leaves his empty-hearted lover for a trip to the ocean, and the man who confronts the passage of time and the unerring force of nature are all characters brought to life, however briefly, in song. It may be this combination of artful music and superb storytelling that fuels the success and ardent fan base of Emmet Swimming.
Dark When The Snow Falls, Screaming Goddess Music, 1993.
“Silver Star,” Bloated Caribou Music, 1994.
Wake, Bloated Caribou Music/Screaming Goddess Music, 1994; rereleased on Sony/Epic, 1995.
Arlington to Boston, Sony/Epic, 1996.
Big Night Without You, Sony/Epic, 1998.
Washington Post, 23, 1996; July 19, 1996; July 15, 1996.
Additional information was provided by the publicity department at Sony/Epic Records.
—B. Kimberly Taylor