A few months back, when we ran a list of 10 Essential Venice Beach Songs, former Evol and Beowülf bassist Doug Mug Swanson got in touch to say it was cool to see some of his former bands included. After going back and forth via email, upon learning that Doug has since resurfaced as an award-winning bassist performing in Nashville, TN's rock/blues/country circuit—not to mention working on a forthcoming 25th anniversary vinyl reissue of Evol's Experiment in Fear album—it was clear that there were interesting tales to be shared. So, I hit Doug up regarding his early involvement with hardcore/punk and metal in Venice, the transition to Nashville, and various other tidbits around and in between...
Going way back, what got you into hardcore and metal music, and how did you get involved with the early Venice scene?
Growing up, we had a really strong crew that all ran together. Backyard parties, beach cruisers, and skateboards are just what we all did. When I was really young, at first I liked the early rock stuff like Ted Nugent, Deep Purple... then I heard Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin... then somebody turned me on to Motörhead and GBH, and that music completely took my head off. This was also right when we started playing guitars in our parents' garages.
What are some of your fondest memories from that era of Venice music history?
Fondest memories have got to be the notorious Welcome to Venice tours. The debut Suicidal Tendencies album was already out in '83, so they had a huge buzz. When the Welcome to Venice compilation came out in '85, we were teenagers and drove up to the Bay Area for 8 - 10 shows. Palo Alto, Berkeley, Guerneville, and Oakland had no idea what to expect when No Mercy, Beowülf, and Excel rolled into their town. The stories that unfolded on those tours would take up four more pages, and are now legendary.
Speaking of Venice music history, you were in Suicidal Tendencies' incredibly iconic "Possessed to Skate" video. What was it like being a part of that shoot? Do you have any good stories from the experience?
The "Possessed to Skate" video was shot in our friend Nilo Arrabal's backyard that had a swimming pool. I think it came out before the second Suicidal Tendencies album, Join the Army. It featured some legendary Dogtown skaters. It was really cool being invited by my friend, Louiche Mayorga [bassist, Suicidal Tendencies, Los Cycos, Uncle Slam, etc.], to come and be one of the kids hanging out by the pool while the band rocked out as skaters dropped in.
Similarly, you had mentioned to me that you contributed some background vocals to the first two Beowülf records in '86 and '88. Were those your first experiences in a recording studio? How does it feel to have had even a small part in what are now considered to be fairly classic albums like that?
In 1986, Beowülf recorded their debut album for Suicidal Records. It was the first time for me being in a recording studio. It's out of print now and had some amazing songwriting and guitar work by Dale [Henderson, guitar and vocals] and Mike ["Milk Bone" Jensen, guitar]. Like I said, we were like a crew, so when it came time for backup vocals, we all jumped in. I think "Belligerence" and "Drink, Fight, Fuck" were the ones we sang group background vocals on. In 1988, Beowülf recorded Lost My Head... But I'm Back on the Right Track for Caroline Records. It's regarded as the best Beowülf album, and a classic from the golden age of the California scene.
At what point did you start playing bass? Were you involved in any projects before Evol formed in the late-'80s?
I started playing bass in Sedona, AZ when I was 19. The local bar band needed a bass player, so I joined and they had to lie about my age. I had already played guitar, so it came naturally to me. I absolutely fell in love with the rhythm section role, and the idea of being an ensemble player. When I moved back to LA two years later, I was a bass player and started my first band, Evol.
Evol tends to be viewed as one of the more underrated bands linked to that whole scene, so what's the "CliffsNotes version" of the Evol story, from your perspective?
I was jamming with Mike Clark [guitarist, No Mercy, Suicidal Tendencies, Waking the Dead] and Sal Troy [drummer, No Mercy, Los Cycos, Creeper] at Streets of Venice, the old surf/skate/record shop. We were working on the next No Mercy album. Someone called the shop and said they were looking for the bass player from No Mercy, because they had heard that No Mercy broke up. Dan Clements (Excel), my childhood friend who was working in the skate shop, gave them my phone number. It turned out to be guitarist Rob Sodin, who was looking to start a band. I drove out to Glendale, CA and met with him. I immediately loved his guitar playing and energy. Rob also needed a singer, so my friend Jimmie Brown suggested his younger brother, Jason, who sings for Cycotic Youth, saying he'd be perfect. So, Jason and I drove out to Glendale to meet with Rob and the drummer, Tim Lancaster. Then, Evol was born.
Already being friendly with Beowülf, how did you come to join the band towards the mid-'90s?
I ran into Dale and Gina Henderson at a friend's wedding. They said they had a record deal on Restless Records and were going to Seattle to record their next record, and needed a new bass player. I really liked Un-Sentimental, and then I heard they were going to be recording it at Bad Animals in Seattle—where Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Heart had all recorded. So, I was on board.
You hooked up with Beowülf at somewhat of an odd time, when the band's sound had started to introduce more of a hard-edged melodic punk rock style (on the 2¢ album, especially). Was there any backlash at all, or were fans fairly open-minded about it?
Dale and Gina had the entire 2¢ album composed when I joined. I thought it was very current-sounding for the early-'90s, with the entire grunge thing going on. To me, it showed Dale's songwriting going in a very pop-punk-rock style. I loved it, and thought it was some of his best songwriting. The fans loved it, too.
During that era, Beowülf filmed a couple of music videos, had a song in the Tank Girl movie, and did some international touring. Given the rise of punk and alternative music at that time, did it ever feel like wider success might have been a possibility for the group?
When the 2¢ album came out, it had a lot of momentum—some radio, MTV, and label support. We toured the heck out of that album. They always paired us with an East Coast band. In Europe, we toured with Sheer Terror, in Japan we toured with Biohazard. Then, we did a legendary US tour with Lee Ving and Fear. The Tank Girl movie was great for us, and the director, Rachel Talalay, was a big Beowülf fan. We actually played at the movie premier in Hollywood when it came out. Punk and alternative music were rising at that time, I'm really bummed it didn't work out.
Okay, so... these days you're in Nashville, TN playing more of a rock/blues/country style of music. What a change! How the hell did that come about!?
In 1997 I stumbled into a blues club in South Central LA and the club owner, Mama Laura, took a liking to me. She invited me to come back and play in the house band. So, for the next three to five years, that's where I learned how to play blues, gospel, and all the standards. It was the priceless education of a lifetime. Then in 2004, 2005, and 2006 I won three awards for my bass playing in Memphis, TN. Because of those accolades, the itinerary really took off, and it put me on the map as a bassist.
Were you always into these types of music, too? If not, at what point did you start exploring genres that were so distant from the hardcore and metal worlds?
I had always admired blues music from afar, but I truly believed it was extremely difficult to play. I loved how emotional it made me feel, and how it really moves people to feel good or sad. My parents always played all sorts of musical styles when I was growing up. Venice is a very creative, open-minded place, and is very supportive of the arts. Music, photography, acting, and writing are everywhere. So, multi-musical genres make sense to me.
Since you do touring and session work as well, who are some of the artists you've had the opportunity to perform with?
Living in Nashville, TN I do a lot of touring and recording as well. When I visit LA every three to four months, I do a big Doug Mug show, which is really fun because all my friends come out and jam with me. I'm a very lucky guy!
In another interesting twist, you've had a small recurring role as Monty Handsome on the TV show Nashville. How'd you land that?
When I moved to Nashville in 2012, I signed up with a casting agency. They cast me in the pilot episode of this new TV show called Nashville. The director, R.J. Cutler, pointed at me and said, "You're Monty Handsome, get up here." I've appeared in all three seasons as a member of Deacon's posse, a.k.a. Monty Handsome. If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I would be living in Nashville, TN as a touring bassist, making records, and on a hit TV show, I'd have thought you were fucking crazy. Sometimes you've gotta jump out of your comfort zone and go for it.
Approaching its 25th anniversary, Evol's Experiment in Fear album is about to be reissued on green vinyl. What record label is handling that, and how did the re-release come about all these years later?
Earlier this year, I was approached by a guy in the Netherlands who wanted to print up a bunch of vinyl copies of the Experiment in Fear album for a 25th anniversary. I sent him all the photos and artwork I had stashed, and we worked out a deal. It's going to be on Moshover Records.
The prior pressings of Experiment in Fear were all self-released by the band, right? It must be cool to see that there's still interest decades later—perhaps a sense of justice for the band not getting enough attention back in the day.
Yes, in 2001 I gathered all the demo recordings we did and pressed the Experiment in Fear CD with my producer buddy, Terry Flannery. It's self-released and I sell it online all over the world. It's pretty cool that there's still an interest after all these years. It was a powerful band, and that CD really rocks!
Are you still in touch with any of your old friends from the Venice days?
Yeah, I'm still in touch with Mike Clark, R.J. Herrera [drummer, Suicidal Tendencies, Uncle Slam, etc.], Louiche Mayorga, Rob Trujillo [bassist, Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves, Ozzy, Metallica, etc.], Dan Clements, Ric Clayton [artist and bassist, No Mercy, Suicidal Tendencies], Rob Sodin, Jason Brown, and Mike Jensen. They're all doing their thing, but we catch up now and then.
What's next for Doug Mug?
Right now, I'm touring with a Nashville guitarist named Scott Holt. Also been working with a Nashville hit songwriter, Jesse Wray, that I knew from LA. So, more touring, more songwriting, the TV show is currently filming season four, and I'm getting married next month. This is a good year for Doug. Thanks for reaching out to me, Andrew!
Check out Doug Mug Swanson's more recent musical output on ReverbNation, where several tracks are available for free download or purchase. Doug's latest single, "Sinner," is available via CD Baby. You can also follow his activities on Facebook.