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No Other Option: An Interview With Sex Swing
Alastair Shuttleworth , June 30th, 2023 11:01

Sex Swing speak with Alastair Shuttleworth about their formidable new track ‘Wild Peacock’. An 18-minute epic, improvised during rehearsal and writing sessions for their next album, it’s available now exclusively for Quietus Sound + Vision subscribers.

Photo by Steve Gullick

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In the wilderness of New Weird Britain, Sex Swing represent an especially fearsome landmark: somewhere between the Darvaza gas crater and Blood Falls. Combining dark, glutinous psych rock, drone and free jazz, 2016’s Sex Swing was a grotesquely powerful debut album. One might expect nothing less from a heavy psych ‘supergroup’ drawn from the likes of Dethscalator, Earth, Mugstar and Bonnacons Of Doom. Following 2020’s slightly more spacious, groove-focused second album Type II the London-based sextet have returned with a very special 18 minute original piece for tQ’s Singularity series: ‘Wild Peacock’.

While ‘Wild Peacock’ is Sex Swing’s longest track by far, that’s not all that makes it one of a kind. Principally improvised during writing and rehearsal sessions for their next album, it finds the band reexamining their sound. The brute force of their two albums is traded for a more expansive, psychedelic approach built around sustained guitar tones and a simple, chugging rhythm section. Each element of their music – usually grotesque, towering amalgams recalling Tetsuo at the end of Akira – here announces its arrival in turn: from Jason Stoll’s motoric bassline to Colin Webster’s squalling saxophone. The greatest surprise, however, lies in the unlikely insight ‘Wild Peacock’ gives us into the creative process of this formidable band.

“We were on a writing weekend in this farmhouse,” Webster explains, describing their remote Oxfordshire studio. “You really have no option but to focus on what you’re doing. You can’t nip out to the pub or anything like that – we bring in all our food, and sleep there. We were right in the middle of things, then Jason said ‘Hey, we’ve been asked to do this track!’”

Having only brought equipment suitable for demos, the recording setup consisted of three microphones: one on the kick-drum, one on the bass, and one room mic capturing all six members. “It’s not like we had loads of tracks to bring up and down,” Webster says. “What you hear is the sound of us playing in a room – it’s quite authentic.” Based around one of their work-in-progress new album tracks, the band expanded it into an improvised long form piece. “I think we had one run through, then the second run-through was the take – it was that quick.”

Keyboardist Oli Knowles, who now additionally plays guitar alongside Jodie Cox, links this improvisational approach to the band’s writing process. “It’s kind of similar to how we operate live, and how we write. It’s cuing off each other, seeing how it feels, and how it’s building.” However, vocalist Dan Chandler also notes the impact of tQ’s brief on this recording. “The challenge of doing an 18-minute track automatically creates a constraint, which you have to work around. We explored the ideas in that track in more ways than we would have normally.”

These constraints, on both the track’s length and recording setup, have notably influenced Chandler’s vocals here. His voice takes on more of an instrumental setting than is typical of Sex Swing tracks, utterly obscuring the lyrics of ‘Wild Peacock’. “There’s this snatch of a tale from the Bible about –” he begins, before deciding not to reveal the track’s subject. “We’re still working it out, and I don’t want to second-guess it” he smiles apologetically. “I think we’re going to do another version for the album.”

Given Sex Swing’s ‘supergroup’ status, ‘Wild Peacock’ invites reflection on how its sound relates to the members’ other projects. “The basis of the track is Jason’s bassline – and he’s got this really identifiable way of playing,” Webster says. Stoll has performed in the likes of Mugstar, Bonnacons Of Doom, Twin Sister, JAAW, Dømes and KLAMP. “He has other projects, but he has this really strong aesthetic he holds on to through all of those.”

“The same two notes,” Chandler chips in.

“Occasionally three!” Webster laughs.

While Sex Swing’s members share an appreciation of heavy music, their different backgrounds have fostered varying relationships with the kind of improvisation heard on ‘Wild Peacock’. “It’s something I’m more comfortable with than composing,” grins Webster, who has released improvisational saxophone performances as a soloist, and as a member of groups including Dead Neanderthals and Kodian Trio.

“I like it because it’s the complete opposite of projects I’ve done before – there’s so much freedom to it,” claims Knowles, whose other work includes meticulously arranged electronica as The Keep. “I love being able to really listen to what we’re playing, and having a genuine response to it as we play – the ideas come out as you have them.”

The track also features some more considered elements. The intro samples a moment from later in the track, looped by Knowles during mixing and layered under Cox’s sustained guitar notes. “I arranged the mix – well, I don’t know if you can call it a mix when it’s only three tracks,” Knowles laughs. “It became the opposite of improvising. I had this very small amount to work with, and had to think ‘how can we try and be a bit creative with this?’”

Throughout ‘Wild Peacock’, Sex Swing create the impression of suppressing an immense, volatile energy. From the creeping entry of Chandler’s vocal to the delayed arrival of Webster’s wild saxophone, we hear the band trying to intuit when to deploy their most scorching elements, as the pressure within the piece builds. When the track bursts into a pummelling noise break, for just 10 seconds around the halfway mark, it recalls the relief valve on an enormous steam turbine. “You can get that super intense sound, but you can’t do that for 18 minutes – I mean you can, but it could get a bit much,” laughs Webster. “It’s taking a song structure and really expanding it: taking things to extremes, waiting, bringing things in, and being patient.”

While Chandler suggests ‘Wild Peacock’ may reappear in some form on their next album, it doesn’t necessarily reflect what that record will sound like. “The new tracks feel closer to the first record,” he says. “There’s going to be less space. Most of the tracks are dense, and packed with brute force. We’re also working with two guitars, which we’ve not done in the past.”

It seems ‘Wild Peacock’ is destined to remain a true outlier in Sex Swing’s catalogue, then. However, in documenting a jam from their pliant, inter-album creative state, “maybe it gives a bit of an insight into how we work, and how we writem”,Knowles suggests. “It’s quite a true representation of what happens in the practice room. I remember having a good feeling about the track as it was going on, and after it finished. There’s always the conversation at the end: is that the keeper, or do we do it again? There was this general consensus of ‘No, that was it!” he grins. “We’ve done it!’”

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