Call Nan Turner a pioneer of punk-rock tap dance.
At a recent show at the Brick, the Schwervon drummer stepped out from behind her cymbals and strapped on a pair of shiny leather tap shoes. Sporting bleached-blond hair and short shorts, she joined the audience on the floor, heels clicking and jazz hands waving. Matt Roth, Turner's boyfriend of 14 years and the other half of the rock duo, strummed a jaunty tune on his guitar. The audience responded well to the impromptu recital: Several hipster types, who had been casually nodding along, actually moved their hips and shuffled their feet.
"That's a Kansas City influence," Roth later tells The Pitch, of Turner's enthusiasm for tap dance and Independence Day-parade-style prancing at their live shows. (Turner started taking lessons following their move to Kansas City from New York City in April.) "We've decided to incorporate some of these extra talents into the act. It makes us play better. It's a little secret: If you want a band to get better, just start dancing and get people moving, and they're going to go crazy."
An upbeat pop-garage-rock-punk hybrid vaguely reminiscent of the Pixies, Schwervon favors driving beats, incandescent harmonies, and solid song structures that never lose sight of the point, whether it's overcoming self-doubt or loving someone so much that you hate him or her a little. The duo's sound is lo-fi and intentionally imperfect, with edges as rough as hand-chiseled granite. And it's loud. For two people, Turner and Roth can make a lot of noise.
That seems appropriate for a band whose name sounds like a dance move, but rocking out hasn't always been the goal. Turner and Roth met in New York in the mid-1990s after their move — Turner from Washington state, Roth from KC. They both got their start playing at the Sidewalk Café, a coffee shop in a bad part of town that catered to quirky singer-songwriters who, Roth says, "couldn't get a gig anywhere else." At the time, Roth was playing solo acoustic shows. He billed his anti-folk act as Major Matt Mason.
"A friend told me to go check out Major Matt, and I was like, 'He's probably another lame songwriter,' " Turner says. "But I went and I loved it. He was so good. And then I asked him out."
The two budding musicians soon started playing together, with Roth putting aside his acoustic guitar for an electric and Turner taking up drums. Their early songs were cute and lighthearted, an expression of their young romance. From the beginning, their music and their relationship were intertwined, with dates and jam sessions often overlapping.
"You have to pay for practice space in New York," Roth says. "You can't do it in your apartment because it's so small. So as a date, we'd go rent practice space."
As their relationship progressed, so did their musical aspirations. Thanks to Roth's European connections from his solo career, Schwervon released two albums on Shoeshine Records, the Scottish label run by Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis Macdonald. The duo embarked on multiple European tours, making stops in 10 countries and developing a worldwide network of friends and supporters.
But at home, they struggled to make ends meet. They worked day jobs in order to afford the apartment they shared with their cat, Gummo, whose face graces the cover of their 2009 album, Low Blow. Gummo had his own way of welcoming new friends into the fold.
"It used to be a rite of passage: If Gummo made you bleed, you were part of the family," Roth says. "Everybody who came over eventually got attacked."
Living in New York provided Turner and Roth with plenty of artistic inspiration, but without a car, they couldn't gain footing around the country. They knew that they needed to tour to build a fanbase, but months on the road required time and money, and Turner and Roth had neither.
"We'd been sort of banging our heads against the wall, figuring out how to tour the States," Roth says. "It's like starting a new business — you're making no money for the first year or two, so you have to commit to it that way."
Part of making that commitment meant living more affordably. When Roth visited KC in 2011, he was surprised by how much the city had changed for the better since he had left in 1993. Living in the Midwest, he realized, could give Schwervon access to multiple venues and new audiences. They could live in a house and practice in their basement for free. They could finally buy a car.
"It's hard to appreciate what's cool about here unless you went away," Roth says.
The plan to relocate made sense, so this past April, Turner and Roth moved to Shawnee. New to the area, Turner misses the energy of the city, but she recognizes the benefits of a smaller market.
"I think it's a much easier place to be a band than New York," she says. "People seem excited to hear music here, to hear different stuff, and that's really refreshing. In bigger cities, it's more saturated, and it's harder to stand out and get people to hear you. You're like, 'I've gotta write a great song because if I don't, no one is going to fucking listen.' "
Since their move, Turner and Roth have spent only a couple of months at home. Taking advantage of their new launching pad, Schwervon has gone on five tours in the United States. For a couple, spending so much time together can be trying, so they've also fought frequently. But just as makeup sex is a harbinger of restored peace, a good Schwervon performance helps navigate rough spots in their partnership.
"The music and the relationship — it's usually not a good idea, but [with us] it seems to really work," Roth says. "I can see the progress in our music, and I can feel the progress in our relationship."
Schwervon has a Midwestern and a European tour planned for later this year, and they hope to start work on a follow-up to their most recent album, Courage, in 2014. And they haven't been shy about booking shows in their new hometown. They want to see some locals out on the floor.
"That's our mission, maybe," Turner says. "We have to get more people dancing."