The Black Swans began life as Utopia on 7th March 1998, formed by Prestatyn based Tom Scriven and James Kershaw (both were only 15 years old), who were joined by Eddie James (vocals) and Carl Hogan (bass) (formerly of Flashbax). Although it did take a year of very little activity to record an EP, “Just The Way” at Rockcliffe Studios in Llandudno, May 1999. Eddie left soon after this session and was replaced by 17 year old Sarah Lipman who took over and added her own mark on songs like Smokin’ Fossil Fuels, Bind Ivy, and Alone. This line-up recorded a new EP called Fake in September 1999 and received rave reviews in the local press. Utopia played a part in local music history when they were the last band to ever perform in The Savoy Bistro in Rhyl before it closed its doors for good in March 1999.
Utopia changed their name to Carbonari in January 2000, and adopted a striking new art riot style image, with cool slogans and a great sound, and when asked about what influenced them, the answer wasn’t the expected and obvious early Manics,
‘It could definitely be said that our influences run with anything from Kylie Minogue to the Smashing Pumpkins. When you live in a world where every form of musical ‘wisdom’ is forcibly shoved up your arse it’s hard to shut your ears to anything!’
Carl Hogan left and subsequently played in countless bands but with very little output. Gavin Lawton replaced him but he left in May and went onto form Lucid and then Dred. Rather than find another bassist, Sarah took on the challenge of playing and singing. Born in New Jersey, USA the 5’ nothing blonde once described as “Debbie Harry’s souped-up granddaughter” was a little shaky at first handling the bass but plenty of practise (albeit with three months off to study for exams) paid dividends. The settled Carbonari line up put together a strong set of songs and unleashed them on the locals on 16th September 2000 at The Stand, a venue set up by Dean Roberts at Celebrities nightclub in Rhyl where the ill fated Gallery used to host punk shows in the early eighties. Dave Macher, now working for the Visitor put in a rare personal appearance and wrote: “Usually after seeing a band I have written about I feel disappointed, but Carbonari have a raw sound and their new songs are brilliant.” Dave also later interviewed the band in November on his Into the Valley radio show on Shore FM.
Two gigs in Liverpool followed the next two weeks where the band renewed friendships made from previous live outings.
Their 3 track CD Killing Ourselves was made available through Peoplesound.com and released and sold locally from November 2000 and was described by Adam Walton as ‘panther-esque – sleek, immaculately put-together, but liable to rip an arm off if you get too close and try to touch.’
This was followed by another 3 tracker recorded in October, the CD ‘Made To Order’ produced by Sons of Selina’s Martin Wilding and featured the excellent track Contradiction along with Tarantula and a new version of Killing Ourselves. Contradiction was aired by BBC Radio Wales courtesy of Adam Walton in March and December 2001, and was given another play on link2wales radio in January 2004, still sounding as angry and as fresh as it first did.
The Breeding Ground at Rhyl was an excellent venue, something the town had not had before, a place with a proper stage, proper PA and lights. It was the perfect setting for serious bands like Carbonari and they soon began pricking up ears. As Utopia they had closed proceedings at the Bistro; as Carbonari they kicked off things at the Breeding Ground, being the first band to play there on 3rd February 2001.
Cutting the ribbon that night to launch the venue was The Alarm front man Mike Peters, and opening that first night was Carbonari, and taking nothing away from the area’s other bands at the time, there was something special about this three piece. They had the look (particularly Crewe born Tom Scriven on guitar with spiky black hair in contrast to Sarah’s natural peroxide), and they had the songs. It was felt at the time that a possible second guitarist and a bassist would have released the shackles on Sarah Lipman’s superb voice and could project Carbonari into the big bad world of rock’n’roll. But you could sense they were special, a sentiment shared by Mike Peters who stayed long enough to offer them support to The Alarm 2000 at Cardiff University on December 16th to their biggest audience to date.
Within six weeks of that gig Carbonari were offered a ‘loose’ management deal by ‘Mike Jones and Associate’ who was Mike Peters’ soundman and former Judgement House and Cellophane Boys guitarist.
Neil Crud was a little wary of this and voiced his opinions to both the band and to Mike Jones in the way of a review after their second appearance at the Breeding Ground (31.03.01):
I’ve said it once; I’ll say it again; watching Carbonari you can feel you’re witnessing something on the verge of bigger things. They have an air almost professional arrogance about them and I just hope that the management deal they recently signed was more about the management making the right career moves and money for the band, rather than the band making money for an absent manager. I say this because I feel we should be force-fed Carbonari for breakfast, dinner and tea, they should be on the TV, on the radio, on the net, on your nerves, maximum exposure.
Two or 3 of the new songs they’re currently recording were given an airing tonight in a set that was as short as Sarah’s skirt but not short on quality, I look forward to seeing, reading and hearing them in the national media soon.
Crud’s concerns were that the stigma attached to The Alarm by the trendy music press would hinder Carbonari and possibly end their career before it began. Mike Peters has a very successful career, but he now does that with his faithful legion of ageing fans. Regardless of whether he can still write perfect pop songs or not, the media will not give him the time of day because in their eyes he is a ‘has been’. Mike of course stuck two very big fingers up to the whole media by breaking the Top 40 in 2004 as The Poppyfields, pretending to be a hot new young punk band from Manchester with the single 45 RPM.
But in 2001, Neil felt it was a bad move for Carbonari to be associated with someone on the circuit that was ignored by the press. What the two Mikes immediately did for the band was add dynamics to their songs and a little live production, which was evident on their next local outing, supporting Spear of Destiny in Rhyl in May. It was then that Mike Jones, over a pint, said he wasn’t sure about the name Carbonari to an exasperated Neil Crud,
‘”What!” I choked into my lager. He [Mike] was sounding me out; the decision had already been made. I was quite livid; not that I had any affinity to the band, but I thought Carbonari was one of the best names ever and it suited their image and sound. Mike argued that it made people think of pasta and asked me what I thought of the name Black Swans. “Black Swans! What the fuck do you mean, Black fucking Swans, are you taking the piss?” I screamed at him. He explained it was the name of one of their first songs, and I exclaimed I couldn’t give a fuck if Johnny fucking Rotten had written it, it was a shit name.
‘As you can see, I was pretty passionate about it and the rumour sparked a flurry of arguments on the Breeding Ground’s website message board, nearly all wanting to retain the Carbonari moniker. I saw Sarah and Tom a couple of weeks later (who were boyfriend and girlfriend at the time) and drunkenly pleaded with them not to change the name, but the influence of the two Mikes was far more powerful than my slurred voice and they were officially re-launched as The Black Swans in September 2001.’
The band had actually been working under the name as early as July and appeared at Denbigh’s Pigstock Festival as such. Sarah and Tom did stipulate that they hadn’t signed anything contracting them to Mike Peters and Neil threw caution to the wind over the stigma fears, but if you’re 19 in a band and someone offers you gigs with Spear of Destiny and Stiff Little Fingers you’re not going to turn them down.
The Black Swans spent the rest of the year honing their live set and working in the studio with producer Ronnie Stone, resulting in the highly polished and very cool sounding Limited Excess track which was dished out officially just after Christmas.
When they played what had become their home venue, the Breeding Ground on 23rd December there was a transformation for all to see. Carbonari are stood next to Matthew Kelly and they say: ‘Tonight Matthew we’re going to be the Black Swans.’ They then walk up to the doorway, turn, smile and wave to the crowd and re-emerge from the smoke and dry ice as the finished article. Gone is the polite ‘thank you’ from Sarah in between songs, gone is the timidity and in their place we get an uncompromising complete in-yer-face, ballsy, gutsy performance. The makeover worked, they looked the part, they sounded the part, and they were the part. Far too loud for the venue as Mike Jones was at the controls but this was like taking your Ford Escort for an MOT and the mechanics wheel back an E-Type Jag; it’s still a car but it looks slicker, sounds slicker and will turn far more heads as you cruise down the paradise mile. Steve Rastin, barely audible over the noise said,
‘I hate them, they make me wannabe 16 again.’ Which is of course a compliment of the highest order.
Neil was also highly impressed, ‘I too couldn’t fault them, they kicked the rock’n’roll butt ‘til it was red raw and I hoped this was the shape of things to come. Still hadn’t found anyone who liked the new name though.’
The Black Swans also supported The Alarm in front of 1500 people in Llandudno at The Gathering in January 2002, and recorded three songs live in the studio, Profitable Prodigy, X-Rated and We’re Not Satisfied that were aired as a session on Adam Walton’s Radio Wales Show in March.
The first half of 2002 saw the band continue recording in London and Menai, polishing up Limited Excess along with some new material, as well as a meeting with Polydor Records. A few gigs with Spear of Destiny as well as a couple of their own headliners kept the joints oiled and they wisely avoided over-playing locally. In fact their scheduled gig at the Breeding Ground for July 20th was pulled after the venue was closed down. Tom was particularly angry with this, ‘This is a fucked up decision on behalf of North Wales police. We have many fond memories of TBG and thanks go out to Paul [Hammond] and the rest of team – their work will not be forgotten.’
Limited Excess did have limited success, Adam Walton, forever the champion of anything good played at least five times on his show, and it was the perfect demo to get the band further shows, the single was released in CD format only (1000 copies pressed) and was backed by Fame Game and Killing Ourselves (recorded live at The Gathering). And Mr Walton wrote this of them in his Daily Post newspaper column in November 2002:
…The Black Swans debut single ‘Limited Excess’. Based in Llandudno [sic]/ Rhyl, and formerly called Carbonari, I have been eulogizing the talents of Sarah, Tommy and James for over a year now. Their multifold talents will have been apparent to anyone lucky enough to see one of their legendary appearances at the now sadly defunct Breeding Ground nights. Their music is lithe, raw and powerful, with echoes (strange as it may seem) of Pearl Jam’s more interesting moments. A more obvious, but facetious, comparison would be to Hole… but, Black Swans singer Sarah manages to sound alluring and threatening in equal measure, without having to resort to Courtney Love’s trashy sensationalism.
Things really started looking up in September and October 2002 when the Black Swans got to open up for Crispin Mills and The Jeevas (on Tom’s 19th birthday) and then Idlewild, both at Bangor University. It really seemed like doors were opening up for them, but there was a concern from some quarters that the new material, although dynamically superb, didn’t stand above their earlier output. A UK tour saw the band take in a number of dates throughout the end of October and into November.
And it was more hard work for the first ten months of 2003 with an incredible venture of constant touring up and down the country with the likes of Stiff Little Fingers and Spoiler, as well as their own headliners (43 gigs in total). They also played ‘In the City’ on September 13th at The Printworks in Manchester, where the venue told them to dampen the snare and turn the bass down, Jamie and Sarah refused and the plug was pulled.
Then it all seemed to stop, as it does with bands who only decide the effort is worth one shot. Tom and Sarah had long stopped being a couple but continued a professional relationship, and then Tom started spending more and more time partying in London.
In January 2004 they announced that were still a band but were taking time out, Sarah was last heard of auditioning in London, Tom was travelling the world and Jamie had been spotted a couple of times in the crowd at Bar Blu in Rhyl.
Ian Jones (Downbeat Sinatra) was quite close to the band said, ‘Last time I saw Tom was at a party last summer  which ended up in Bar Blu and it was all getting a bit weird – as far as I know Jamie is in Uni and I think Tom joined him last September. Sarah is going to lots of auditions and stuff like that – girl bands, pop bands, vocal sessions and stuff as far as I’ve been told; but don’t take that as gospel!
‘Pity they split though – I thought they had something very special – even though drunk I told Sarah she was Suzi Quatro in kinkier boots. It made me laugh… the sad thing is she didn’t even know who dear Suzi was… oh to have youth on your side!’
Martin Wilding actually bumped into Tom in Los Angeles during July 2005, where he was on holiday and Martin was sound engineering for Mike Peters.
Bangor University 10.10.02
Deva Mail Club, Chester 29.08.02
Breeding Ground, Rhyl 23.03.02
Breeding Ground, Rhyl 23.12.01
Pigstock, Denbigh 04.08.01
Breeding Ground, Rhyl 09.05.01
Breeding Ground, Rhyl 31.03.01
Breeding Ground, Rhyl 03.02.01