King Hannah - Big Swimmer

King Hannah Big Swimmer

May 31, 2024


On their first tour of the United States, King Hannah could hardly believe where their debut record had taken them. The Liverpool indie rock duo, composed of Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle, were in the middle of the southwestern deserts of New Mexico, among other places they’d only seen portrayed in films and television. Their stubborn determination and sheer guts to swim hard towards their carefully planned vision, positively unquestionably, had landed them head-first into the landscape of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Badlands or one of the several true crime documentaries they’d enjoy when off the road. Being in a new place opened their eyes to common occurrences that they may have ignored had they happened in Liverpool, with a new perspective. Much of the band’s sophomore record, Big Swimmer, reflects on stories from their travels, as the duo shared the stage with Kurt Vile, Kevin Morby, Thurston Moore, and festivals throughout Europe and North America. Particularly in America, Merrick and Whittle found themselves looking through their tour van window as a sort of screen, allowing for inspiration for their storytelling to come pouring in.

“Because if you’re visiting a different country, it’s more like you’re witnessing someone’s life,” Merrick comments on the band’s experiences on the road in the States. Therein a balance of lightness and darkness melded together, as the band witnessed everyday delights, horrors and mundanities — this all against the backdrop of their dreams of performing their songs around the world coming true. That balance is essential to the band, especially as they approach each release as an individual project, writing songs together from scratch. This can be heard in equal parts on their first EP, Tell Me Your Mind And I’ll Tell You Mine, and debut album I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, out in 2020 and 2021 respectively. The band’s Stereogum Band To Watch feature makes note of this dichotomy, saying that I’m Not Sorry “provides levity from its darkness through the humor of Merrick, who adds funny twinges to dark subjects.” Scorching guitar billows heat over Merrick’s smokey and sinewy storytelling, underlining the yin and yang of their songwriting craftsmanship.

“I’ve noticed it in the way that we write differently. I’m triggered a lot by anger, and Craig is triggered by more romantic ideas,” remarks Merrick, then turning to Whittle. “Lyrically, you write really beautiful, lovely things, and they’re really captivating images. I write quite harsh stuff, that’s maybe more disturbing or difficult.”

“You write lovely things, too!” Whittle shoots back.

This delicious equation proved to be even more expansive and captivating when the band played their record live. From the journeys these previous releases sent them on, the band’s point of view evolved. You feel this particularly on “Milk Boy (I Love You),” which tells the story of the band witnessing an altercation between a young boy and a man near the titular Philadelphia venue they played on their first American tour. Alternatively, the romantic flourish of the record is felt deeply on the raucous day-in-the-life montage of “New York, Let’s Do Nothing,” an effortless snapshot montage that wouldn’t feel out of place on Tuesday Night Music Club or Television's Adventure. “Somewhere Near El Paso'' paints on faded billboards of desert memories a la Neil Young: an “insulting” tuna sandwich, blood stained motel sheets, two men who discuss taking their lottery winnings to a “whorehouse.” The track explodes after staring into these snapshots of reality, a thundering personification of the yellow stripes dotting themselves along a lost highway.

Coincidentally, the title track and album opener, “Big Swimmer,” was the final song written before heading from the road into the studio to record their follow up, standing as a physical testament to the album's ultimate metaphor like a punch to the gut; that you don’t achieve anything by throwing the towel in. Merrick’s voice stretches out, courageous as though she were channeling the same spirit that occupies “Free Man In Paris” or “Andromeda.” Whittle is exacting with his guitar as well, with melodies cutting through like oars along a blue current. “Big Swimmer” is one of two tracks on the album to feature vocals from indie stalwart Sharon Van Etten, who the band connected with when Van Etten posted about their debut single “Crème Brûlée.” Van Etten’s voice intertwines with Merrick’s so effortlessly, spinning like two tributaries weaving parallel to each other. Having a beloved hero offer her endorsement and co-sign to this rising band’s music truly moved the duo, especially to be featured on a song that embodies the balance struck when chasing creative visions.

“I think Sharon just remembers what it’s like to be a new artist,” Whittle remarks on Van Etten lending her talents to the young band. “She’s made us think about how we move through the world, how we treat people.” Van Etten’s generosity and support prove to emphasize “Big Swimmer”’s call to keep swimming towards the waters that call to you.

Big Swimmer is full of references to their musical heroes, who helped shape this record with their influence. They are artists who Merrick and Whittle share a love for, and specifically became the patron saints of the sound of the record. Bill Callahan is cherished on “Suddenly, Your Hand,” with an instrumental that nods back to “The Moods That I Get In” from the band’s debut as well as a cut from Gold Record. Slint is named on “Lily Pad,” the lulling bassline chugging along in a way that recalls the Spiderland album closer “Good Morning, Captain.” “John Prine On the Radio” offers a coda to the record, as well as paying homage to one of the band’s favorite songwriters, describing a scene in the kitchen making dinner after a long stretch of being on the road. The lyrical portrait transports you just beyond the swinging saloon-style door of their Liverpool kitchen, watching this everyday moment between two people; you're a guest in this memory.

The way Merrick and Whittle see the world from the minivan they rumbled along in is in no small part influenced by the band’s voracious appetite for film and television. An obvious title nod is found on “Scully,” as the band dedicates the instrumental track to hours of X-Files rewatches. “This Wasn’t Intentional,” again featuring background vocals by Van Etten, was inspired by Aftersun and considering the child’s perspective of the darkness in the film. The track closes with a sprawling instrumental breakdown, reflecting the profound ways the film affected Merrick on first watch. As opposed to the American West, the landscape here beckons like the rolling hills between Turin and Prato that the band would see on one of their many treks across Europe. “Davey Says” brings to mind the pounding coming-of-age bloom, something from the cutting room floor of My Own Private Idaho or Rushmore. It’s lighthearted air harkens back to the elemental “youcandoanything-ness” of the record.

Wanting to capture the energy from the live shows of their debut tours, Merrick and Whittle went to producer and engineer Ali Chant (Aldous Harding, PJ Harvey, Perfume Genius). The producer’s one-room studio, guitar amps stacked even in the bathroom, felt like home. Tracking the songs live at once was essential. Whittle dotes on the microphone bleed, saying the goal was to create that feeling of everyone playing in a room together. In this space decades seem to speak to each other as they blended the richness and heart of the 70’s with the simmering noise of the 90’s. Merrick and Whittle held the magic of those nights on tour close, having witnessed the instrumentality of their first songs take on new life under stage lights. They saw the raw response during the anthemic build of “It’s Me and You Kid,” the jazzy spontaneity of “Go-Kart Kid” igniting crowds from San Francisco to Nottingham to Berlin. Their hope was to inject Big Swimmer with those hypnotic movements from their live shows of crowds simultaneously transfixed and bursting.

Big Swimmer finds King Hannah on the other side of their first act with a newfound understanding of their sound, their strengths, their gratitude, and their vision for the future of the band’s music. This understanding has no doubt ushered the profound confidence heard in their new songs – Merrick’s voice soaring, Whittle’s guitar blazing – and the balance they have found while traversing the waters of the Atlantic, or the rock venues on either side of it anyhow. The album leaves your hairs standing on the back of your neck, between the at times prickly, and often heartening imagery of its storytelling. It’s very likely that when listening, you’ll find yourself daydreaming of a shimmering lake in summer and wanting to dive right in.