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Hard-Driving ‘Lovecore’ Trio SWAE Teases Upcoming Tracks

Band blends post-hardcore riffs and romantic shoegaze

 

A portrait of the band SWAE, consisting of band members Christian Fuentes, Ricardo Portillo, and Jonathan Ramirez.
SWAE is a post-hardcore, shoegaze band in Charlotte. (Courtesy of SWAE)

Carlos Fuentes was riding in a teal 1960s Chevy Chevelle convertible with the top down. His grandfather Daniel Penado Cisneros, a Salvadoran guitarist who once toured his native country playing Bolero ballads, was driving.

“[We were] on a highway with mountain panoramic views,” Fuentes says.

His grandfather didn’t look well, so they pulled over and Fuentes took the wheel. The two men arrived at a pristine beach where the water was a crystal teal.

It was all a remarkably vivid dream, explains Fuentes, because Cisneros had died more than a year before this ride to the beach, where he spent time with his grandson one more time.

Fuentes, guitarist and vocalist for hard-driving emotive power trio SWAE, turned his dream into the song “Drifting.” The band won’t release the tune until April, but when the band played it at a recent Bart’s Mart show, I witnessed the band ensnaring the crowd with the tune’s enticing spell.

In the swell of Jonathan Ramirez’s crashing drums and Ricardo Portillo’s nimble bass, Fuentes’ voice turned hazy and warm.

I dreamt that you drove me, you held the wheel/ And your car, it’s so covered in teal/ And I hear you in every sound/ I’m near you, I’m on the way…

A photo of the drummer, Jonathan Ramirez, of the local Charlotte punk band, SWAE.
Jonathan Ramirez of SWAE (Photo by Alaura Cichocki)

“The song starts melancholic,” Fuentes says. “Towards the end, it’s a celebration, like, ‘I’ll see you when I get up there. We’ll play on the same stage eventually.’”

Another of SWAE’s new tracks, “Teal,” dropping on Feb. 6, grabs the listener aggressively yet enfolds softly. The song swings as it seizes your heart with an unexpected gentleness.

“It’s post-hardcore romantic shoegaze,” says Ramirez.

Born in New York to Salvadoran parents, Fuentes came to Charlotte with his family in 2003. When he was 3 years old, Fuentes’ Salvadoran grandfather sent him a guitar.

“Ever since then I wanted to play music,” Fuentes says.

Born in Mexico City, Ramirez immigrated to Charlotte when he was 12. East Los Angeles-born Portillo likewise moved to Charlotte in 1994. After receiving a drum set from his brother, Ramirez crossed paths with musician and visual artist Lisandro Herrera (Bravo Pueblo) and the pair started jamming with friends.

At age 14, Fuentes bought an electric guitar. He spent the next decade jamming and playing onstage with local bands like Rothschild. After playing with Portillo in Latin-influenced post-hardcore band Off With Their Head, Fuentes landed in Avionsanspilot, a group including Portillo and Ramirez, in 2013. The trio of friends then formed SWAE.

A rhythmic Latin Influence filtered into SWAE’s self-styled “lovecore” a blend of post-hardcore riffs and romantic shoegaze vocals.

“Latin music tends to have a lot of heartache, emotional beats of loves lost … and getting your heart broken,” Fuentes says. “We tie it into that.”

Fuentes also cites the beautiful yet brutal Deftones as an influence.

“We all take [Deftones] heavy cinematic post-rock feel, then we put our own dramatic twist on it,” he says.

Fuentes was not SWAE’s first singer. Originally the group was a foursome fronted by vocalist Digna Marte. Fuentes, Ramirez and Portillo backed her on songs like the jazzy “In The Shallows,” which boasts Marte’s lyrics.

“Digna has always been a soulful singer, very jazzy … like Sade,” Fuentes says.

The lineup worked for awhile because SWAE would include mid-tempo sections in their songs where Marte would sing.

A portrait of band member Carlos Christian Fuentes of SWAE, a local Charlotte punk group.
Carlos Christian Fuentes of SWAE (Photo by Christian Hamel)

“As we evolved, the sound got heavier and it got tougher for [Marte] to layer her vocals on top of the influences we were bringing to the table,” Fuentes says.

At the end of 2022, the band restructured as a trio, though SWAE still occasionally backs Marte at her solo shows.

Everything flowed easier with the trio configuration, Fuentes says. Initially, songs like the alternately lulling and blistering “Cafe” developed through live band jams — then time and life intervened. Ramirez, now 40, is a family man, and Portillo’s and Fuentes’ lives have gotten busier.

“We’ve had … to work around our schedules,” Fuentes says. “I’ll write a small jam track, like a scratch track, at home.”

The nascent tune then goes to either Ramirez or Portillo via email. After it’s worked on and bounced between the bandmates, it ends up at Ramirez’s home studio where everybody works on the evolving tune as a band.

Portillo is a phenomenal bassist who has developed some killer riffs, says Ramirez. As SWAE’s drummer, Ramirez takes inspiration from Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.

“John Bonham … did a lot to accommodate [Jimmy Page] and … follow the guitar,” Ramirez says. “That’s something I admire. We don’t live by egos. We always try to be complementary to each other.”

“When [the song] begins it’s a Carlos idea, but when it comes out on the other end, it’s a SWAE song,” Fuentes says. “The theme is there and we paint around it.”     

The result is tunes like “Choker,” one of three songs on the band’s self-titled and self-produced EP that dropped in August 2023.

Here, Fuentes’ whirlpooling guitar enveloped his melancholy vocals like tributaries of a braided stream. Then, the dam bursts, unleashing power chords, syncopated drums, swinging yet grinding bass and Fuentes’ conflicted, emotional wail — a mix of pain, anger and empathy.

So choke on your boredom, and give it a rest/ We all know your troubles, so try to make amends/ With yourself…

Fuentes says the song’s lyrics came from anger. An ex was badmouthing him on social media long after their break-up.

“The first thought that came into my head was, ‘How bored do you have to continuously ruminate over things that are so long ago … and continuously drag my name through the mud?’” Fuentes says. “I [thought], ‘I guess people could end up choking on their own boredom.’”

As the song developed, the anger diminished, and other emotions emerged. To Ramirez, “Choker” is an admonishment to move on and get over things.

“It’s a way of saying, ‘Enjoy life,’” Ramirez says.

“It also means retrain you way of thinking, because life is beautiful,” Fuentes says.

In this way “Choker” is like many SWAE songs, taking dark topics and turning them into hard-won affirmations. The dynamic yet drifting “Aqua” is based on Fuentes’ brush with the danger of prescribed opioids while he was recovering from back surgery. “Teal” is about his struggles to buy a house in today’s grotesquely inflated housing market.

A portrait of band member Carlos Christian Fuentes of SWAE, a local Charlotte punk group.
Vocalist/Guitarist Carlos Christian Fuentes of SWAE (Photo by Alaura Cichoki)

Despite these dire inspirations, SWAE primarily crafts songs about the desire to connect, Fuentes says.

With the band preparing for another gig at Bart’s Mart on Jan. 12, Ramirez and Fuentes urge the audience to embrace their creativity and be encouraged by their music the way they were when they first started playing.

“We [hope] we can inspire people and make them happy,” says Ramirez.

Fuentes celebrates the friends SWAE has made in the process of playing music, colleagues like Alex O’Dell [Physical Digital], who plays additional guitar with SWAE on stage, or Kevin Kinne [The Real Dolls], who gave Carlos the persistent nickname “Guitarlos.”

Fuentes’ thoughts also turn to his grandfather, the traveling musician who came to him in a dream.

“He did what we’re doing, in a completely different country, in a different time and with a different genre of music — but it’s no different than me, Jonathan and Ricardo taking off on the road to go play shows in different towns,” Fuentes says. “It’s evolving, but … it stays the same as time goes on.”


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