Wayne Swinny of Saliva

by Greg Prato

It's always a tricky situation when an established rock band loses its original singer, which leads to an important "career crossroads decision": carry on with a new singer or simply call it a day. In the case of Saliva, the lads have decided to go on without frontman Josey Scott, who has been replaced by Bobby Amaru on their ninth studio album overall, Rise Up.

Perhaps more than any other rock band of the early 21st century, Saliva is responsible for several anthems that are regularly played at US sporting events to get crowds pumped up, specifically the stompers "Click Click Boom" and "Ladies and Gentlemen."

Always writing and looking for the germ of a new song idea, Saliva's lead guitarist Wayne Swinny called in 45 minutes past our scheduled appointment, but with good reason - he was busy writing new music. It was worth the wait: Wayne told the stories behind several Saliva hits, talked about the lead singer switch, and named the best producer he's ever worked with.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): When it comes to songwriting, as far as riffs and also pairing it with the lyrics, how does that process work?

Wayne Swinny: Man, wow. How much time have you got? Here's the catch. It used to be when I started out - and we'll leave dates out of this - but it used to be the lead guitar player would come in with a riff. You'd show it to the band and you'd arrange the song, and then the singer would write lyrics, and bam, you had a Van Halen record. And that's how. But nowadays, everybody is so good; it's kind of crazy.

Technology has forced people to get more involved, and it's a good thing - everybody knows how to write now, so you don't have guys who just show up and play. Everybody in the band writes riffs, everybody in the band writes lyrics. And unfortunately, sometimes it makes for a bad situation. You know, too many cooks in the kitchen.

In addition to working on several hit albums with Saliva (2001's Every Six Seconds, 2002's Back into Your System, 2007's Blood Stained Love Story, and 2008's Cinco Diablo), Bob Marlette - who started out as a session musician in 1980 - has worked with quite a few other renowned artists. On the harder rocking side of things, Marlette has produced albums for Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Filter, Tony Iommi, and two studio tracks for the original Black Sabbath lineup (on 1998's otherwise live, Reunion), among many others.
But for Saliva, it's actually worked out great, because over time we've evolved. And you do learn. You learn by experience through the process. Bob Marlette taught me a universe of knowledge about songwriting, about producing, about how to play in the studio, how to record, all that. But now the evolution of the band with Bobby Amaru now being the singer, he's actually spent the previous 8 to 10 years before he joined Saliva producing bands in the studio. He can do everything. He was a drummer, but he can play guitar, he can play bass, he's obviously a great singer. He writes lyrics, he writes music. He can arrange, produce.

At the end of the day, there's no real formula for how we do it. The beauty of it is we got back to the old way on this last record, on the record with Bobby. We went to the studio, we set up like a band, and we played. We went into the control room of the studio with our producer and we wrote songs as a band. It was the most enjoyable, fresh experience I've had in years.

And the funny part is, nobody ever wrote lyrics in the band before. We always left that to Josey, just because singers usually sing their own stuff better. That's always been my experience: if you bring in a song completely done and give it to a singer, it's like he's singing a cover song, so it usually doesn't get the same love.

But it's different with Bobby. He has really embraced contributions from the rest of us. Now, nobody brings in a whole song lyrically or musically, really, because everything gets changed up once it gets into the band. With lyrics on this album, everybody in the band at least threw in a line here, a line there. Even Dave [Novotny, bass player] and myself, who never tried to offer up lyric ideas, had one or two lines, sometimes more, in several songs.

And then there are songs that were written almost entirely with Bobby and a couple of outside writers with little tweaks from the band. So to answer your question and not answer it, there was absolutely no formula whatsoever [laughs], for the way we wrote songs for this record. I think that kind of keeps it fresh, because the way everybody does it now is so stale and corporate to me. Here's how you do it: You call a songwriter in Nashville and you set up a songwriting session for two weeks from Friday at 5:00. Hey, man, what if you're not inspired two weeks from Friday at 5:00? You just end up with a generic cookie-cutter song that sounds like something anybody else could have written. And to me, that's what's wrong with music right now.

Forgive me, I'll get off my soapbox here, but that's just me. I'm probably the only guy that feels that way in the world, but the way I write and the reason I was up till 8:00 this morning is that I write when I'm inspired. And when it hits me, even if I'm driving in my truck, the beauty of smartphones, oh my God, you never forget a song idea now.

So I've got literally over 200 ideas right now on my phone that I need to transfer to my studio. And thank God, again, for Pro Tools, because with a laptop and a guitar processor, man, you could almost make a record sitting in your living room watching football, and it's great. That's why I was so late today, because that's what I was doing all night.

Songfacts: Looking back, what would you say is the most challenging Saliva song that you've written from a songwriting perspective, and why?

Swinny: Wow. You mean as far as the writing process or as far as me being able to play it?

Songfacts: I'd be curious to hear actually both.

Swinny: Okay. That's a great question. Let me put my brain to that. If I was a computer, it would say "searching for file" right now on the screen. Most challenging...

Songfacts: What about the song that took the longest to finish?

Swinny: Wow. Actually, you know, the one that comes to mind to me goes way back to the Survival of the Sickest record. It's called "No Hard Feelings."

I love the song, but it never really saw the light of day. But, man, we worked on it forever in the studio, rearranging it, rewriting it, re-recording it. We worked on it so long that we put it on the record twice, because there was two complete versions of the song! We couldn't decide, and we loved them both, and, dude, it was like twins. We couldn't get rid of one of them. So we just put them both on there.

Let's see, "No Hard Feelings," and what was the other name of it? ["No Regrets (Volume 2)"] It's basically the same song, but different. It was so difficult we couldn't decide, and we did it twice and put it on the same record.

And then you've got songs that literally just appear. This is what Josey told us: He said he went to sleep one night listening to "Back in Black," wanting to write a song like that. Because when we were kids, that was one of the songs you heard every time you went to a concert before the band actually played - they'd be playing all the big, cool rock songs, and that's one you always heard. It's just a huge classic rock epic, and he wanted to write a song like that. So he listened to it, went to sleep, and apparently dreamed it or just woke up with it in his head and that was where "Click Click Boom" came from.

And I kind of thought, "Wow, I do not hear that." But when I broke down the chord progression in my head, there were similarities to the basic structure. I thought, "Well, that's kind of crazy." I've tried to do that myself and it never did really work out.

Songfacts: Have you ever written a song on another instrument besides guitar?

Swinny: I actually have, but no one's heard it. I've got a keyboard down here in my studio and I kind of noodle around with it sometimes. I don't play piano.

Just a small side story: I've got a sister who is four years older, and when I was seven years old, she was taking piano lessons, and I threw a fit so I got to take them too. But we found out very quickly I play by ear. So the teacher, when you play piano, you're supposed to look at the sheet music in front of you, not the keyboard. Well, I would just watch her play, and then play, and she would keep trying to tell me to look up. I was like, "Well, if I look up, I can't play."

But I was playing everything right, that was the catch. But she wasn't having it. So I got literally kicked out of piano lessons when I was seven years old. Not from not being able to play, but from playing too good without reading the music! So there. But I lost all of that over the years, so now I just kind of noodle around. But I have written two or three songs on the piano, bits and pieces of other stuff. But that's really it. No woodwind or brass experience in my past or anything like that.

Songfacts: What do you remember about the writing of the song "Rise Up," and what is that song about?

Swinny: Bobby came up with it and introduced it to the band. Very little of it changed in the recording process. That right there shows you how good Bobby is. When he joined the band, he researched it - listened to every song we ever did from the start up till the point he joined the band.

He wrote the song to tie in old Saliva with new Saliva, and you can tell, musically it does that. Lyrically, it tells the story of where we are right now. You can apply it to all sorts of other things, and that's the beauty of Bobby being a really good songwriter, because even though the song came from the story of Saliva, it can also apply to world events just as easily, or someone's personal struggles, as well.

But it's basically about picking yourself up by your bootstraps and making things better. Making things right again. And it's kind of where we are right now and it's kind of anthemic as far as our goals and what we see for the future, too. We're really looking to rise up and stake our claim and take our place back in the midst of the rock world, and the world in general.

Like many modern-day rock acts, Saliva has sought the aid from songwriters outside the band from time to time. Case in point, Dave Bassett co-penning "Better Days" and "Turn the Lights On" on Under Your Skin, while producer Bob Marlette was listed as a co-writer on all the tunes on Cinco Diablo, Blood Stained Love Story, and various other tunes, including "Click Click Boom." Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx co-penned "Rest in Pieces" on Back into Your System.

Indiana native Bobby Huff produced Saliva's Rise Up album and co-wrote six of the tracks. He has offered his production and songwriting talents to several artists over the years, including 3 Doors Down, Halestorm, Crowded House's Tim Finn, and Mindy McCready.
Songfacts: Going back a few albums, what about the song "Badass"?

Swinny: That is a song that me and Bobby Huff wrote together. We were at Ardent Studios in Memphis. It was the first time we met Bobby Huff, actually, for a songwriting thing. And that's back when Jonny Montoya was in the band. He was actually there hanging out, too. But it was three of us in the studio, and Bobby Huff had an idea for where he wanted the song to go, and he had a rough idea for the chorus. We sat down in the studio; I had a guitar, and he had his phone with his little ideas that he hummed into it, and we put together a song really quick and easy.

It was meant to be one of those "sports anthem kind of songs." Bobby Huff, just like Bobby Amaru, did the research on the band and saw where we had had success before doing the WWE stuff. And a lot of our songs, whether they were intended that way or not - most of them weren't - they just lend themselves to sporting events. You can't watch a football game or go to a football game and not hear "Click Click Boom," "Ladies and Gentlemen." You almost always hear them every Sunday on TV, if you're listening close enough. They're at the stadium in the background.

Huff was trying to tap into that and use the rap influence from the early days of Saliva. I was glad to actually be a part of that - I wrote most of the guitar riffs. Bobby had the chorus pretty much written and I added a little bit to that.

But, yeah, that was a fun process. And that's why we ended up choosing Bobby Huff to produce the last record, because he's a really good songwriter and he's really easy to write with. Songwriting-wise, I could probably be classified as a socialphobe. I get along great with people, I love everybody, everybody's best friend kind of guy, like the stray mutt that likes everybody. But as far as songwriting, if I'm not clicking with somebody, nothing happens. But with Bobby Huff, bam! It was right from the start. And it's just easy for me to write with him.

I think that really helped on the record, too. That's how Dave and myself were able to throw in ideas where we never would have even tried before to throw in lyric ideas. When we were stuck for a line here and there, both of us were able to come up with some pretty cool stuff because of how comfortable Bobby Huff made the writing situation. Much credit to him.

Songfacts: You just mentioned how songs like "Ladies and Gentlemen" and also "Click Click Boom" are played at a lot of sporting events. Did you have any idea when you were writing those song with the band that those songs could have been played in stadiums and that they would fit well with sporting events?

Swinny: Actually, I personally had no idea. And I think if I sat down on purpose to write a song like that, I would screw it up. It would be so wrong. It would be way off target. The beauty of why they work is because both of those songs just kind of came out. They were pulled out of the musical universe. There wasn't any forethought of, "Hey, man, let's write a song like this so we can use it for this" and blah blah blah. It just kind of happened. Those are always the best songs.

The ones that literally you write in five minutes because you can't write them faster, the idea is just coming through you like a gamma ray from across the solar system, those are always the best songs. To me, if you have to work on a song for a couple of weeks, or if you write a verse and a half a chorus and put it away and have to come back to it later, a lot of times you never do, so those are the songs to me that always connect. If it comes out Bam!, just quick, fast, and wow, and you're amazed, usually those end up being the ones that connect with the audience.

Songfacts: And what about "Survival of the Sickest"? What do you remember about the writing of that and what does the song mean lyrically?

Swinny: [Laughing] The title came first. I've got to credit Josey with that, man. I remember the first time he threw that out as an idea, my hands went up in the air and I was like, "Oh, my God, that is awesome, that's the name of the record. I don't care what anybody says. We've got to write a song."

The title was just so cool. I love it. Anybody that knows us real well knows we're actually just a bunch of jokesters all the time. It's hard to get us to be serious for more than five minutes, because everybody's kind of a frustrated comedian in the band. So that part of the title I love, because it takes a terminology that is very serious, and twists it to the exact opposite meaning.

It does apply to the rock world, too. I mean, "Survival of the Sickest," man, look at Keith Richards - how is that guy still going? After nuclear war there's going to be cockroaches and Keith Richards. That's kind of where the song came from: in our business, sometimes what is right for the rest of the world is completely wrong.

It's dumb with a sense of humor. It's not really making fun, not trying to promote all the bad things - all the pitfalls of the business that have taken away a lot of our friends. A lot of my close friends have overdosed, died of illnesses that were from drug and alcohol abuse. So you never want to promote that. But it is true and it's part of the business, and if you let yourself be pulled in by it, it's hard to break yourself free from it sometimes. So "Survival of the Sickest" just kind of is about that. You have to learn how to survive in a crazy world where nothing makes sense. And if you can get through it and embrace it and learn how to make it work for you, Bam! You, too, can be in a rock band.

Songfacts: You've worked with a variety of really great producers over the years. Which producer would you say that you learned the most from and which one had the most say in the band's songwriting on that particular album?

Swinny: Absolutely Bob Marlette, hands down. Learned more in my time working with Bob Marlette than I learned the entire rest of my musical career. And we'll leave the amount of years up to conjecture. But honestly, Bob, he's just a mad scientist and he's one of those special musicians; the universe touched him and said, "Okay, you're going to be great and you're going to know everything."

And he realized that at a young age and went from playing to producing. His songwriting and producing and array of his skills, there's not very many people that are on that level. There are some. Some people get in tune with the universe for a few years and then lose it, but Bob is such an even-keeled guy. It's just amazing to work with him.

Even when I disagree with Bob on a musical level, something in the studio like if I've got a solo worked up and he's like, "No, that's too much. We need simpler." I'm like, "Oh, man, come on." But you know what, at the end of the day, it usually turns out Bob's right. You can't argue with that or be mad at it as a musician. You have to know your place in the musical world. It's one thing standing your ground, saying, "No, no, I'm the writer, and I wrote it this way, and that's how it's going to stay." You know what, if you're good enough and you've got the history that you can demand that, great. I'm glad for you. I personally don't.

So it's great working with somebody like Bob. Because he's there. He's the Coach Ditka, he's the Bobby Knight that I need to tell me when I'm doing something wrong and correct it. Because he can look right at it and see it, where it's hard to step outside yourself and correct things sometimes. Just amazing.

And there's no disrespect to Paul Ebersold, Howard Benson, Bobby Huff, at all, because they all are successful and extremely talented in their own right. Howard Benson's record [2011's Under Your Skin - the last Saliva album with Josey Scott] stands on its own, and that's why we wanted him to do a record with us. Unfortunately, we were just at a point where it didn't matter really what we did on that record, it just wasn't going to work. I think at that point Josey already wanted out of the business and stayed around because he didn't want to leave us in a lurch. Having a family and stuff, he had to support them. I love him for that, and I appreciate it, but that might have been a much better situation earlier in our career. So I can't blame Howard Benson for the lack of success on the record he did.

But honestly, Howard is a vocal guy. We had dinner one night at the studio with the whole band and Mike Plotnikoff, who was the engineer. And Mike Plotnikoff basically did all the band tracks: guitar, bass, drums were Plotnikoff at the studio. And then Howard Benson would come in at 5:00, go upstairs with Josey and do vocals. I saw him for maybe 30 minutes of the whole process.

I'm not trying to tell tales out of school or make Howard look bad. Actually, he's a genius. He's a mad scientist. I don't know what he does once he gets vocal tracks and takes them to his house - he's got an alien spaceship there that knows how to fix stuff and make it perfect. I don't know, even the guys that work on his team don't know what he does at his house. But he's a genius. I was really hopeful that that record was going to do a lot better, but for me personally, I wasn't working with Howard. I worked with Mike Plotnikoff. He was great in his own right, too, by the way.

And Paul Ebersold, great producer. He's had great success. He did the first 3 Doors Down record, worked with Skrillex early on. He's a great producer, and I've known him since my early days as a musician in Memphis. Great friend, great guy. Love him to death. But Saliva on Survival of the Sickest, we were just in a weird spot. We did that record in Memphis, so everybody was just kind of hanging out, partying, going out. It was hard to even get us all in the studio at the same time. So Paul had his hands full putting things together for that thing.

Actually, the most cohesive record we've done is this last one with Bobby Huff, because we were in Nashville, and after we got done in the studio at night, everybody would go their separate directions. Dave and me would go back to the band house - we would eat there, watch a little TV, then go crash watching TV. That's just how we are. We're kind of homebodies. Paul and Bobby, they stayed on the other half of the duplex. There was no telling when they would be in. They would go down to the hot spots in Nashville and close down all the bars. And that's great, because I bet you need all types in the band. But there were a couple of days in the studio where Paul was pretty much getting home right about the time it was time to go to the studio. And you know what, credit to him, drums were usually first, and he could get right on the drums and play the hell out of them. So God love him, man, whatever works, works.

I know we just went all the way around the block. In other words, every producer we've had I think is great in their own right. I personally learned so much more from Bob, and we did more records with Bob, so he had a better chance. But Bob Marlette, hands down. Short answer.

June 12, 2014
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