Up a Creek

Hard Swimmin’ Fish Delivers Authentic Passion, Fun and Talent

By David Morreale | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 09.21.15 – In the Studio, Lifestyles, Music

His subterranean drawl slides easily across the table as Demian Lewis explains how his band, Hard Swimmin’ Fish, got its name. “I have this stepfather, and he is kind of a one-of-a-kind individual. He and I did home improvement work together. If you put in a good day’s work, he’d look around, and say, ‘Man, you are one hard-swimmin’ fish!’ We liked the sound of that. It has a blue-collar feel to it. We go out there and we work hard every time.”

As a testament to hard work and sweat, the band’s harmonica player and vocalist, Waverly Milor, returning from an annual pilgrimage to Mississippi, reported jamming with other musicians, and handing out fliers advertising the band. “Look at Facebook, man! I’m never on vacation,” Milor enthuses. “Look how many followers we have from Mississippi now.”

Milor is the man that every band needs. He’s the singer, the promoter, the enthusiast, the heart and soul. “The only ego problem in this band is me,” he says, laughing, “but these guys are all badasses on their instruments.” Pointing an index finger at Lewis’ chest, he makes it clear there are contributions to go around. “This is The Man right here. Seven of the songs on our last CD were written by him, and they’re amazing.”

One Step Forward, released in 2013, sidles out of the package like a cool Memphis lounge singer in 1965, squinting his flinty eyes through the blue haze of nightclub cigarette smoke. Hitting “Play” on the CD player is like being handed a spoonful of raw cane sugar; the sweetness burns all the way down.  These songs are full of hard-hitting women, hard-drinking men and girls who are gonna regret cheatin’ on their men before the day is done … all delivered with honesty and the power of Lewis’ low-and-slow voice belting out the stories of these lives and their tribulations.

“If you put in a good day’s work, he’d look around, and say, ‘Man, you are one hard-swimmin’ fish!’ We liked the sound of that.”

Jimi Hendrix once said, “Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.” One listen to Hard Swimmin’ Fish play their song Blind Love and it becomes obvious that Lewis plays so well because he feels it all the way down. Guitar tones that scream and shout, snort, and warble run through the music. Milor’s lonely harmonica wails through a deep veil of blue, and their anguished vocals are the shouts of men either at the end of their ropes, or celebrating their availability to the ladies.

Yet, this is more Americana than blues, and the roots of these chords and melodies grow down deep into the soil. Music historians would do well to spend an evening with Hard Swimmin’ Fish. They cover tunes written in nearly every period of American popular music, dating back to the mid-1800s.

Their version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave is Kept Clean drives with the rhythmic intensity of a heart on wheels, the relentless locomotive beat and tempo defying the ear to keep up. St. James Infirmary, a tune made famous by Louis Armstrong, is ground down into the finest dust with Lewis’ baritone wail running roughshod over a lazy tango groove as sultry as a siren hell-bent on the seduction and destruction of every heart within reach. The song tells the tale of a woman afflicted by some undetermined, yet fatal disease; the melody is served, like the best revenge, cold and slow.

Finding passionate musicians is hardly difficult. Committed musicians are everywhere. But Hard Swimmin’ Fish swim in rare and beautiful waters. These southern gentlemen inhabit the songs they play, holding their reverence for the songs and the forms of the music deep in their hearts.

Listening to the band live is not merely entertainment, but a benediction, in large part because these guys, Lewis, Milor, bassist Randall Ball and drummer Jason Walker so clearly believe in the power of what they are doing when they play. “There isn’t a member of this group that couldn’t be running their own band,” says Lewis. “These guys are unique and among the best around.” Milor agrees: “This rhythm section is so amazing. They could go out and play music with anybody. They’re … killer!”

Walker plays a cajón-based drum kit—a six-sided, box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru, played with hands or brushes. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the traditions of African and Caribbean music, and their connection to American blues. “Walker is mostly responsible for making it sound different,” says Ball, the bassist. “I kinda go off of him and that helps mold the sound.”

Ball is, without doubt, the renaissance man of the band. A recording engineer and inventor, his quiet genius runs through Hard Swimmin’ Fish like Einstein at an atom bomb design session. “The bass is the glue, you know?” he says. “I keep everything together between Jason and these guys.” His “other” gig is designing and building small guitar amplifiers out of old suitcases, radios, TVs or “any other cool stuff that looks like it could house an amplifier.”

Hard Swimmin’ Fish have seven CDs, including a Christmas and a live recording. The most recent CD was recorded with REM producer Mitch Easter. Known for his “jangle-pop” guitar sounds, it was Easter’s laid-back style that impressed the band members the most when they recorded One Step Forward with him in 2013.

“Man, we all set up in one room and recorded the songs,” Lewis shakes his head. “If we’d played more than four versions of one song, we’d have moved on, because it would’ve meant we weren’t getting it. We just set up and played our music.”

The method worked. One Step Forward is exactly that for this group of old friends; a swagger forward into a bright blue future.