Black Linen/InCrowd

The InCrowd Sound:
How Black Linen Gave Legs to a Rock ‘n’ Soul Revival

They grew up no less than an hour from each other in the separate but similarly generic metro Atlanta suburbs of Gwinnett and DeKalb County, but Randy Michael and Jonah Swilley didn’t meet until about a year ago. It didn’t take long for the two to bond over back-in-the-day rock and soul – within months, they became a formidable songwriting team making incredible music, and showing incredible promise.

InCrowd is what they’ve dubbed their studio, which is located in Michael’s house and mainly comprised of vintage gear, like ribbon mics and a ’70s Altec 1220 mixing console. The setup, an ever-growing potluck of both their finds, is only part of why they’ve already carved out a signature sound. Michael and Swilley are offering more than just their own tunes. They’re actually writing material for other people, oftentimes solo singers; they’ve got session players at the ready to round out a band or completely support a vocalist.

Basically, their approach is the old way of doing things – almost entirely. While it’s authentically retro, though, it’s also unique to now. The tracks are expertly done, and the session musicians are masterful players, but this is everybody’s first go ’round with a project like this. Everyone’s still in their 20s, affording a certain youthful excitement, a near palpable verve, in everything InCrowd does.

“They’re probably cooking something like [our studio] up in Nashville, probably,” says Michael. “Dap-Kings, they have a similar thing. They do a similar thing, but I feel like that’s really old, everybody’s really old. There’s no young people.”

Not often does inexperience work in favor of an effort to create a viable, professional recording studio. The players aren’t novices, of course, but you can feel the InCrowd crew’s collective gusto on the album they delivered with their first client, a local singer named Mattiel. Her rich, hearty belting certainly elevates what Michael and Swilley originally drafted for the self-titled LP, but they’ve got an undeniable knack for folding vocals just the right way over memorable lyrics. If “Send It On Over” doesn’t give you goosebumps, you must hate all soulful ’60s pop. Because it’s a pristine take on it, and the delivery is, undeniably, emotionally potent. There’s even a live take of the tune online – and it’ll stop you in your tracks, honestly.

Michael and Swilley linked up through Curtis Harding; both were doing stints in the garage-soul singer’s touring band, and Michael had written a few songs, including “Keep on Shining,” for the soul-pop singer’s debut record, Soul Power. The idea of Black Linen had already been shaped – sorta ’60s Brit-pop, not unlike his former, somewhat well-known band The Booze – before Swilley joined to complete a lineup of four. Together they recorded a debut album, the forthcoming White Noise, and the process ended up serving as a training ground for future InCrowd work.

“I joined Black Linen like probably a quarter of the way of that record being done,” Swilley says. “Randy…he’d just moved back to Atlanta, and was getting solidified.”

Michael spent the last few years in Los Angeles, and he was definitely a go as a hired musician based there: He toured with Pyyramids, a side-project of OK Go’s Tim Norwind, as well as Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong. He was even cast in two David Bowie videos, among other one-off gigs. He moved back to Atlanta, though, to be closer to his young daughter. Unlike his own upbringing, she’ll grow up with plenty of music.

“Nobody played [in my family],” Michael says. “In fact, when I first wanted to get a guitar, my dad told me I couldn’t get it because it would just end up in the closet with the rest of my toys. My mom wouldn’t get me one. So I had to go ask my classmates if any of them had a guitar that they would sell me.”

Disclaimer: I knew Randy back in high school, and he was in a punk band called Viagra Falls. I just couldn’t write this story and not mention that, you know? He took music pretty seriously then; I even reviewed a CD they made for the school newspaper. Little did I know, he’d long been steeped in music-making.

“I took it to the extreme,” he recalls. “I was listening to a lot of Ritchie Valens and Elvis, so I went and got a pompadour and a leather jacket. I’m going to ask my mom for my class picture from fourth grade.”

(He’s yet to deliver on that, but I believe him.)

Swilley, on the other hand, was raised on gospel – just like Jared Swilley of the Black Lips who, as you may have guessed, is his older brother.

“I’ve been playing music my whole life; I grew up in church and my whole family’s in the ministry and stuff,” Swilley says. “I grew up playing in the church…that’s kinda how I started getting into – I was playing gospel music growing up. Obviously, I got into other stuff getting older. I was doing music before I graduated high school and then I just kinda let it ride, then I went to college for a year and ended up dropping out and moving to Atlanta. After that, I kinda just started to get my feet wet as far as the Atlanta music scene.”

At only 22, Swilley may be the youngest of the InCrowd bunch. Michael is approaching 30, and has adopted a mentality that’s slightly older. He’s already over pounding the pavement as an independent band, and says Black Linen will only play outside Atlanta as requested.

“If we play a gig out of town it’s because someone requested us and they’re going to take care of us,” he says. “I’ll play a venue here too…I’ll play to 50 people at the Star Bar…or if it’s packed I’ll play the show still. In The Booze we would sorta be like, ‘Oh, 50 people, fuck me,’ but even if it’s 10 people we’ll just play it.”

Michael goes on to clarify that it’s not about wanting bigger shows and a payout to match, necessarily, but that he wants to stay rooted in Atlanta – as well as focus on InCrowd.

That stellar Mattiel album was released late October through the label side of InCrowd (again, this is the complete package), and while they’re still promoting it, they’ve already starting working with two other singers, Ruby Woo and Lola Cole.

“With InCrowd it’s basically taking the sound we do already and expanding that and implementing that with other artists as well,” Swilley explains. “With Mattiel, artists like Ruby Woo and Lola Cole, certain artists we’ve been working with, we’ve been using that format – how we write, the way we write and the sound of it – and using it with different personalities and seeing how that meshes.”

What results is easily the InCrowd sound – you can hear their hand, no doubt. Still, it’s slightly tinged with the personality of the vocalist, and there’s always a degree of variance based on whatever influence Swilley and Michael are using as a song’s cornerstone.

“For us, it might sound super lame, but it’s really about the vibe of it,” Swilley says. “If we’re listening to something in the week, we’ll send it to each other, like, ‘Yo, check this out, we should do a song that not necessarily sounds like a certain thing, but it will have that kind of mood,’ you know, how songs just have a tone of reference? For us, we know how we want it to make you feel, so that’s what we always shoot for. With certain singers, like Lola, it takes a little bit of explaining the idea that we’re going toward to her. Some people, like Mattiel, had never really written before working with us, like written out full songs – so there was definitely a meshing of two worlds. We definitely have a goal in intentions specific to whatever track.”

Another artist they’ve worked with is Marshall Ruffin. As an established singer-songwriter, though, Ruffin’s Americana easily overtakes the InCrowd sound. And that’s fine with Michael.

“You can get to a point where you won’t do anything else, or the players might get comfortable and they might get bored and they might not show up next time,” he says. “We try to switch it up every now and again, but keep that foundation. It always sounds the way it sounds because of the players, it’s just which direction you want to take the players in.”

And it’s a good thing they’re open to other sounds, because it’s Ruffin who’s primarily responsible for the formation of the session band. Jordan Manley, who in the clip for “Send It On Over” is the guy “playing drums with the bun on his head,” is a friend of Ruffin’s, and was introduced to Swilley earlier this year as a potential fill-in drummer for Black Linen. He says he was taken aback by the duo at first. He’d been living in Columbus, Ga., playing in a jazz and funk outfit, and apparently hadn’t met anyone living the old-school rock ‘n’ roll obsession quite like them.

“Initially I was a little weirded out, you know, because I just I’ve been through the band thing before, and I just know how things go, balancing personalities,” Manley says. “So initially I walked into [the studio] and I was a little skeptical, because you know, Randy and Jonah, if you’ve seen them in pictures, how they dress. That’s one thing – that’s not an act. They do that all the time. I’m sure his pajamas come with a fedora. (Laughs.) But initially it was a little weird just seeing their whole getup. Even in Randy’s house, where we record, his studio space is the same way: Everything is ’60s, early ’70s style, from the furniture to the recording equipment. Everything. The artwork on the wall. He has old Sears catalogs laying around the house, you know. So the whole thing kinda freaked me out at first, but they’re both really genuine guys and they’re really hard workers. But initially it was a little weird. Now, we’re cool.”

Manley brought in the rest of the players, all friends from Columbus, some from his own band.

“The guys, they’re professionals. I can’t say the same for myself, but especially the horn players, keyboard player and bassist. These guys are either church musicians or corporate musicians, so they pick up music really, really quick. It’s astonishing how quickly they learn these songs and retain them,” he says.

Both Michael and Swilley hope InCrowd will develop into a profitable, full-time career. Listen to what they’ve done so far, especially Mattiel and the Black Linen album. If InCrowd doesn’t take off, we’ll all know that the golden days of rock ‘n’ roll are truly dead forever.

Photo by Cara Pasotre.