Jerry Williams Jr. was a conventional soul artist frustrated by the exploitative processes of the music industry, so renewed himself as the maverick Swamp Dogg in 1970, and in the fifty years since he hasn’t looked back. Decades of idiosyncratic, vitalic, utterly odd funk and R&B which tackled structural racism, protested the Vietnam War, and celebrated 60s psychedelic drug culture; in turn alienated the commercial mainstream, earned him a cult following, and contrived his entry onto Richard Nixon’s notorious “enemies” list. Working as a marginalised experimenter is a framework in which he flourishes, and, at 75, his latest album Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is an investigation into applying autotune and modern electronic designs to classic southern soul sounds. We spoke to him on Skype. From his toilet.


Hello! It’s been four years since your last album-

Oh I didn’t realise it’d been that long.

Yeah 2014! What you been up to since then?

Since the last album I've been doing some personal appearances and a couple of concerts and I've been busy – nowhere near busy as I used to be – but I was in Spain, Italy, travelling round the country but not a lot, not as much as I’d like to.

You been playing shows with a band or yourself?

Oh I always have a band. I’m afraid to go on stage, people don’t know me and I don’t know them, and they’ll always tell you “don’t worry man we know it” and then you start singing and they’re playing something else, but I hooked up with Bon Iver – I don’t know how to pronounce that right – yeah I hooked up with Justin Vernon, we did two nights together at The Old Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, that was good, really great, we got a standing ovation for just about every song, sometimes in just one song. His audience are Swamp Dogg fans but most of them don’t know it – until they get there. They liked it!

Are you still really enjoying touring?

Yeah man I love it, I don’t know what people would have anything to do, don’t know how they’d make it, you got to have something to look forward to, even if it falls through.

As you make clear in the album’s title, autotune takes centre stage here, what provoked your interest in it?

The fact that it made everybody sound alike, and you could easily cut your music budget because you could buy just one record and it would sound like everybody who has a hit – okay, maybe that’s a little far-fetched but anyway – I like the sound of what was being done and I wanted to do an album that people would be familiar with but wouldn’t expect, and I couldn’t do it with my writing, because my writing remains the same and - I get a little big-headed when I say most of my songs are impeccable whether they sell or not – so good songs people know I’m coming with, but I needed something to put me in the competition. I was doing my thing but my thing, there’s not enough of it out there these days to put me in competition with what’s going on, so that’s where that came from.

My partner, who is Moogstar, he could just about duplicate anything and I ask him for that autotune, and he said we can do even more we just don’t have the equipment here, and my distributor put me in touch with Ryan Olson, and Ryan fell in love with the record, with the way we had it cut, but it was like Swamp Dogg, I needed more tweaking of the Dogg, he wondered if he could do another mix, and I thought “okay,” so he did a remix and that’s what we have now, what we have now is what came out of it.

There’s some good songs on there, but the arrangements are so freaky that people just can’t believe it. People are writing it up in Mojo and other types of zines, saying things like “Swamp Dogg should be the only person that can use autotune,” well I think more people should be using it. It was a shock to me the album Love, Loss And Autotune; I put the “autotune” on there so there wasn’t any doubt of what I was doing, or attempting to do. If I hadn’t put it on there, they would have said things like “well Swamp Dogg go retire, go on vacation, his tired old ass has come and gone,” I just don’t believe that my time will be gone unless I decided to stop on my own, and also the autotune put me right in the same space where I sound like Rihanna and anybody else; and I do sound like Rihanna.

Listening to the record, it does sound like 60s soul teleported, or vocoded into the modern age through electronic production, do you think the spirit of the era of soul is alive today?

Yeah! You got Charlie Wilson, he’s using autotune, nowhere near as much as I did, but yeah for sure it’s modern. Being responsible for a resurgence of old school soul, yeah, it could happen, but you got to have a major would have to do it, but right now independent ruling the roosts with record sales; look at Drake with twenty singles in the Top 100, that’s an ass-kicking for you; twenty! But it’s being done the way it should have been done a long time ago. I used to say that if a record was good enough it should be on every type of radio.

Right in the middle of the disco, Aretha Franklin tried something – called ‘Freeway Of Love,’ but they didn’t stick with it, that particular recording, it threw her right in the middle of disco and dance but they didn’t follow up with it, they went back to the old Aretha, what I like. But I don’t buy the current product, and neither do the people in my age product. Aretha proved it could be done, electronic and soul, but I don’t think they even understood what they were doing. You got to take some chances, you can’t be afraid. It’s like football, if you see the ball and you’re free you got to catch it because there’s eighteen sons of bitches coming right for you.

Who are your favourite young soul artists just now?

Are there any more soul singers left?

I guess you could say the definition of soul has evolved, maybe an artist like Bruno Mars or Solange?

I love Bruno Mars. I was playing one of his records just last night. I think he’s great, I like most people in the charts just now, where they’re trying to write great, catchy, fun, chart music. They’re actually doing how they did it in the Otis Redding days, where they’re going into the studio and they do what they feel. That’s what they’re putting out on the street. That’s why they get such a big audience, they’re recording songs for the people. Hey, the money that’s being made on personal appearances and all that kind of shit is unbelievable. You take an artist; you’re broke on Thursday, on Friday you’re buying two Teslas. This is the way the business is now, with motherfuckers walking around with a million dollars in their back pocket. You can’t buy anything else legal that brings in that kind of money.

Bringing in the music industry; obviously Swamp Dogg came about because the music industry in the 60s was so exploitative and corrupt, has the industry changed for the better or worse since you began?

I think it’s changed for the better because the people who were running it are no longer ruining it, they stole all the money they could and they’ve stepped out of the picture. They were basically business men anyway. I think it's better now than it's ever been. I always thought, I just didn't know how to put out a single, but when you put out a single, they would work it like six to eight weeks to see what it had, and if it didn't have nothing they can drop you from the label or do something else, but now you’re giving the public the chance to have a quick romance with the artist and the artist's new single, it’s more direct relationship to the music.

Back in the day you put out one record, it didn't sell. And wouldn’t get an album. But I always believed in albums. You know, as soon as I was able to do them I made them right away because I thought you needed another; you know, no one, I don't care how much they love the business or know the business, no one has the kind of knowledge that they know what is going to be a hit, and if you out there and pay to workshop an audience that don’t work enough. Only the audience knows about it when it’s out but that's when the economics rolls in. You are actually losing money. You’re spending money that you’re not going to get back.

The new album, you tackle some serious topics; loss, love, loneliness, as in the title, but there’s a dark sense of humour, a real comedy too. Why is it important for you to have those funny moments?

I guess the same reason why I’m joking in this interview this morning. It’s just that I find it difficult to be serious all the time, and most things that are serious can make me laugh, dependent on what it is. If some guy walked in the house and pours gasoline on his entire family at Thanksgiving, sets them on fire and leaves, well that's not funny. But see you laughed?

Yeah I see what you mean, because you have to laugh, it’s so starkly cruel to confront otherwise.

Yeah, but I don't know about cell phones. But ever since I've been talking to you I've been sitting on the toilet.

I can see why you didn't want to do video call now!

I'm getting the room sound, it's got a nice little echo to it.

What attracted you to tackling loneliness, loss and love. What interested you about making these different stories come together?

I must have at least two thousand songs that have never seen the light of day as far as being recorded. And every now and then, which is about every 4 months or so, I'll go through my old lyrics, maybe sit down at the piano and change some and see what it sounds like, see which way it goes. But usually I'm prompted to do that by something someone has said. But like now, you and I are having a conversation and you might say something and it doesn't really mean anything to you and I'll say to myself "shit that's a hit".

I hope I get royalties from it.

Oh most definitely, if you can find me. That's why my producers live out, they all live out in the country and shit… with your money.

Where are you, in the UK?

I am. I'm originally from Scotland but I work in London.

Yeah yeah. Who you working for?

The 405.

When I saw that the first thing I thought about was the 405 freeway.

Might be what it’s named after! I don’t actually know its origin… Bad company man.

I'm gonna pull that record out - the Aretha Franklin one - and listen to it and see what it says about the 405.

Last question I want to ask you if that's okay.

Yeah take your time cause I'm not finished here on the toilet.

Ha, okay two more then. You mentioned that with Ryan Olson and Bon Iver, how they introduced you to autotune. What do you think they learned from you?

I don't know! I don't think they learned anything from me. They just liked me. I'll give you a good example. I was craaaaaazy about Pavarotti, but I didn't learn anything from him. But listening to him, he was just a motherfucker. That's the only way I can answer that.

Your music has always been very political. What do you think about the state of political music?

We don't have any folk heroes out there right now. And they were doing it, you know, politics music, and other artists such as Swamp Dogg doing it. But we're not dong it that much now. It seems to be about costumes, dance, and then some music. That's what people are buying. People are buying The Beat, and they were buying more than that. It's all about how absurd you can be in your dress. Like Lady GaGa in the hamburger suit. You got a few like Bruno Mars, who has taken James Brown and caused a resurgence in that type of music and not that he sounds like James. You got some of James’ horn licks and so forth. Bruno Mars makes it real palatable. Hell, I heard him on a plane, and I hadn't heard of him and I listened to his album on a plane and when I got off the plane I wasn't satisfied until I could get to a record store and get the CD. Very seldom have I done that. He killed me. He's my favourite artist right now.

Love, Loss And Autotune is out September 7th and you can find out more here.