Local indie-rock band Dark Swallows takes its name from "Rima LIII (the dark swallows will return again)" by 19th century Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Becquer. Singer/lyricist Ivy Merrell had translated the poem for a college course, set it to music and performed it with her husband Phil Merrell. She remembered it as "the first thing that Phil and I did when we started playing music together."
In the poem, a man laments the end of a romance. The dark swallows will come back to his loved one's balcony, he says, but (as translated by Robert Lincoln Snavely) "those that paused for a moment in their flight / To see your beauty and my happiness, / Those that learned to sing our names... / They... will not return!"
"It just kind of felt like the right theme, I guess," Ivy said.
It does. Dark Swallows' sound—a mix of desolate tunes, limber grooves and interlocking guitar drones—has a melancholy beauty similar to that of the Becquer poem. Dark Swallows' second LP II (self-released, 2017) was one of the best local releases of last year, capturing the power of the band's live shows and showcasing Ivy's terse, haunting lyrics.
"You know, it's interesting. I think we play different music than we probably all listen to," said band member Stephen Samuelson. "I think there are aspects of it, but I don't think that I necessarily listen to music that sounds like us. And I think that actually [contributes] to the marriage of us all—we all have different kinds of things that we're into and we bring."
Ivy added that Dark Swallows may have found more inspiration in "cool shows with [other] bands."
Talking with the Dark Swallows' main members—the Merrells, Samuelson and Hyrum Haeberle—it becomes obvious the band really is a marriage of sorts: They finished each other's sentences and added to points their bandmates made.
"Our band is easy, because we're kind of two couples," Samuelson observed. "Phil and Ivy, obviously, are married, and Hyrum and I..."
"We've been going steady," Haeberle said, joking.
"Since we were kids," Samuelson added.
Samuelson and Haeberle were both born in California and grew up together in Rexburg. The two musicians were playing in local rock band Juntura when they met Phil, who helped the group record an album. Phil had also played with Ivy in local band Le Fleur.
"For a hot second, I was in Juntura, which was my favorite band," Phil remembered.
"And then we imploded," Haeberle said.
"And this was born," Samuelson added. "Because Ivy and Phil had been playing a little bit. ... They were a package deal, we were a package deal."
Dark Swallows recorded its self-titled debut (self-released, 2014) at Audio Lab with Built to Spill drummer Stephen Gere, and released it during Treefort Music Fest 2014. It's a solid effort—tracks like "Golden Breather" demonstrate the intricacy and power of the band's sound—but the group prefers II, which Samuelson called "more us."
"The first songs are always training-wheel songs. ... You're learning each other's language and how to write and play together," he explained. "But this album, we've played together long enough—almost eight years—that we know where we fit best."
The three-year gap between albums stemmed partially from the band's creative process.
"Some people just really need to work on stuff a long time, you know?" Ivy said. "Our band, when we write songs, we tend to work on things for a really long time before we actually play them live."
Their families can make it hard to play as well: The Merrells and Samuelson both have young children.
"It definitely makes it challenging," Phil said, adding that Ivy is more of an organizer and planner than he is, so she has made sure they have someone to watch their daughter every week.
"We've had a couple of practices where the young ones have headphones on and an iPad," Haeberle said.
Unlike the birds in the Becquer poem, the band will return. Dark Swallows is scheduled to play Treefort Music Fest 2018 and plans to work on new material. The group might not hit it big, but the musicians don't mind.
"I cherish some of those albums I have that not very many people have," Phil said. "They're really great—a special thing that you have. And if we can be that in somebody else's musical collection, then that's, like..."
"That's, like, the ultimate compliment," Samuelson said.