Supremely Demolished Beats: An Interview With Pete Swanson

From the rhythm-driven noise of last year's Man With Potential to a new album with Sarin Smoke, Pete Swanson has traveled along remarkable paths since his former duo Yellow Swans disbanded. He tells Joseph Burnett that beats have always been crucial to his music

The release of Pete Swanson’s Man With Potential at the end of last year caused quite a stir both within and outside the noise community. Swanson was one half of famed noise duo Yellow Swans, who had achieved considerable critical success with seminal psych-noise albums Psychic Secession, At All Ends and Going Places, before disbanding in 2008.

Compared to their dense layers of hazy, caustic drone, the beat-driven, post-techno assault of Man With Potential was both a surprise and a triumphant evolution. Since then, Pete Swanson has continued to explore this furrow with the Pro Style EP, but has also found time, alongside his studies, to revive his Sarin Smoke project with Tom Carter of Charalambides. Their Vent album is one of this year’s best releases, and proceeds from sales of the album will go to helping Carter with his medical bills following a serious case of pneumonia last year.

The Quietus caught up with Pete via e-mail to discuss Sarin Smoke, his solo career and how he views his music’s evolution.

We should probably start with Sarin Smoke. How is Tom doing? How did the project get together?

Pete Swanson: Tom is on the road to recovery. He’s been back in New York for a few months and his health has been improving slowly. His body went through a lot leading up to and during his hospitalisation last summer so it’ll take some time for him to fully bounce back. But in general, he’s back to playing occasional shows and his energy and enthusiasm are as strong as they’ve ever been.

Tom and I started playing in 2005 or so in Badgerlore, which was the two of us, Rob Fisk and Ben Chasny. We all really enjoyed playing together and experimented a bit with instrumentation and combinations of players since we all had several other projects going on. Tom and I ended up recording an LP for Three Lobed and a one-sided LP for Wholly Other around that time. I hadn’t played guitar with anyone for years at that point, and it was great to play with such a sympathetic musician. Tom and I both left Oakland after recording and before any of our records had been released.

Following the breakup of Yellow Swans, I got back into playing guitar more, and Tom and I were booked on the same bill in Oakland, a few days before the 2010 installment of On Land. Tom’s solo set that night was very different to what he had been doing when we had last played together – with this sort of dying battery, hyper layered, monolithic psychedelia that really jived with what I was doing at the time. We decided to close the show with a collaborative set, which was only the second Sarin Smoke concert. Fast-forward a year and I found out that I was moving to New York for graduate school. With Tom so close geographically, it would’ve been ridiculous for us not to play.

How did you guys go about making Vent? Is it mostly based on guitar?

PS: Vent is entirely guitar. I don’t want to limit the future possibilities of the project, but I’ve always seen the project as a guitar duo that plays psychedelic rock in some form. There are no synthesisers or anything, it’s just densely layered guitar. It’s a relief for me to be in a project where I’m not focusing on routing and wiring and instead can focus on something with such a tactile interface.

Both Tom and I are invested in improvisation and all of our recordings have resulted from the two of us banging out some sonic common-ground in real time. We do have conversations regarding what we think is successful about one improvisation over another and we both will propose potential shifts in direction, but our music happens spontaneously.

Do you find improvisation easy and the best way to record?

PS: One aspect of contemporary music that I really loathe is the focus on perfection in recording. I generally see the processes that have been developed for creating records as promoting a premium on "correctness" and diminishing the emotional potency of the original performance. While I have some preconceived framework for just about everything I do, there is always a strong improvisational element and I always track everything live to stereo. I don’t get hung up on mixing at all, I just track everything live, throw away 99% of everything I record because it’s not up to standard, and then sit on the solid tracks until I’ve got something resembling a release together.

I think it’s very important for musicians to be willing to scrap their work for the sake of the integrity of their discography. So many artists treat their work with such high regard and I see that working against those artists. Just like the pursuit of improvement in recording quality and doing things the "correct" way. I always encourage people to develop their own recording process so they have more control over how their work is presented. Additionally, the quality of the recording is often as important as the content of the recording, and having a unique presentation of sound can be very compelling. So many people make serious mistakes by going into the studio as opposed to just digging deep into their own process and developing their own sound that is appropriate for their own work.

Do you think you’ll get the opportunity to tour with that material?

PS: With Sarin Smoke?  I’m not sure Tom would be up for a grueling schedule like that and I’m extremely busy with grad school. I have enough trouble scheduling tours for my solo work.

How does working with Tom differ from your collaborations with other artists such as Gabriel [Saloman, the other half of Yellow Swans]? Do you approach each collaboration differently?

PS: Every collaboration requires a different approach. If I’m able to work with someone over a longer period of time, I’ll develop a set-up that is appropriate to the dynamic dictated by our shared aesthetic goals.

You’ve also this year worked with Mike Shiflet – how did that come about and what was it like?

PS: I’ve known Mike for years. He booked a Yellow Swans show on our first US tour in 2004. We’ve been in touch fairly regularly since then. He wrote me asking about the possibility of a split and it was an easy call. I love where Mike’s taken his music over the last few years.

The whole noise scene from that era seems to remain pretty close-knit, despite aesthetic deviations and geographic shuffling. I’m very appreciative of the fact that I first gained some recognition in such a small and inclusive subculture of people who remain creative and engaged.

You’re considered to be one of the major figures on the American and international noise scenes. How do you feel your music has evolved in that respect? Do you have much involvement with noise music, beyond your own?

PS: I don’t really consider myself to be a "major figure" at all. There’s regard in certain circles, but on the larger scale, very few people are interested in my work…

I’ve always felt like an outsider in any culture I’ve been involved in. When Wolf Eyes, Hair Police, No Fun, etc were going on, I was on the far end of the US in Portland, fairly removed from what was going on in the Midwest and out east. I was very focused on representing noise/experimental music on the West Coast when Yellow Swans was having some degree of success, because hardly anybody else was representing that work. I stopped running a label and putting on shows and mastering stuff for other folks, mainly because of time constraints brought on by my pursuing education and prioritising that over my musical activities. I do still try and help out people whose work I hold in high regard and advocate for artists to get onto bigger labels. I do this sort of thing very rarely, most recently for Bulbs and Justin Meyers.

In general, I’m much less engaged with social music culture than I’ve ever been, and spend a lot more time listening to new music and working on my own sounds. I wish I had more time to be more engaged with music, but I’ve made some pretty serious choices the last few years and I’m resistant to put that all on hold to go play shows and put out tapes again. It would feel like a step backwards for me.

I’m actually constantly alienating people in the noise community with my work as I move forward. Some of my choices have turned off harsh noise folks, drone folks, etc. I can’t be concerned with appealing to any particular micro-audience, and I hope that each of my major release loses a few listeners and gains more. If you’re not turning people off, you’re not progressing.

How would you say your music has evolved, from the early days of Yellow Swans to now?

PS: I don’t believe it has changed very much. I’m still concerned with creating extremely cathartic, physical electronic music. I think the greatest development has been regarding clarity of vision. There’s a lot that hasn’t changed at all.

Yellow Swans were a much-admired and popular duo. Do you miss performing and recording with Gabriel? Were you aware of the impact Yellow Swans had at the time?

PS: I’m still not sure I understand the impact that Yellow Swans had. We were always aesthetically marginal, but had a lot of critical success. That didn’t translate into money or record sales, but it did allow us to travel a lot and to put out a lot of music. Since I hadn’t been playing live much for several years, I didn’t ever really see the impact of Going Places, but since I’ve been touring more and getting back in touch with music-world types, I’ve got a lot of very positive feedback for the work Gabe and I did.

The greatest reward for me has been meeting people like Tom Krell from How To Dress Well and a few of the guys involved with Tri Angle records who are all younger artists who are doing excellent, highly-regarded work that have all voiced appreciation for Yellow Swans. It’s very flattering to see your previous work be assimilated into others’ work. It’s a similar style of influence that groups like the Stooges and Velvet Underground wielded in their time, they were the bands that inspired generations of music. I doubt Yellow Swans will have the same degree of effect, but it’s amazing to me that that work is still relevant to younger people who are just starting their music careers.

I miss Gabe for sure. We had a very close working relationship for seven years. He’s still a good friend and we keep up. I don’t miss working with him though. I’m very happy for my autonomy, and my current life demands make collaborating with someone full-time completely impossible. I don’t think there will ever be a Yellow Swans reunion, but I think that people can scratch that itch via my work or by Gabe’s work. He’s got an LP coming out on Miasmah at the end of November that I think will resonate with some Yellow Swans fans. Hopefully we’ll hear more from him. He works a bit more slowly than I do…

Do you find that your solo releases are informed by both your previous work with Yellow Swans and your collaborations with other artists? I would venture that Going Places seems to have echoes in Man With Potential

PS: There is absolutely continuity between Yellow Swans and my solo work. I spent years developing an instrument (comprised of many elements) and an approach to playing. I don’t think I could fully reject that history at this point. I’m focused on process and constraints for producing my music, and many of the elements that were used throughout Yellow Swans are now used in my solo work. Virtually nothing has changed beyond the primary sound sources. I traded my bandmate for a modular synthesiser.

If you go back through the discography of Yellow Swans, you’ll find several elements recurring in Man With Potential. In certain regards, MWP addresses similar concerns that I was attempting to address in Bring The Neon War Home. Everything I do is part of this trajectory that is informed by my taste, my experiences and the developing processes and playing strategies that I’ve employed. Old fixations pop back up all the time.

Man With Potential received a lot of praise when it was released. Were you prepared for such a reaction?

PS: I had zero expectations for Man With Potential. I recorded the album in December 2010, it came out a year later. Between recording and releasing the record, I moved across the country to start an extremely demanding academic program at Columbia University, so all of the critical success of the record has only recently turned into any feasible opportunities for me to capitalise on. My program has slowed slightly and I can make occasional weekend trips to Europe for festivals, but that’s about the extent of what is possible for me currently. I just have to study on the plane.

It was also a departure from your previous solo material, with a use of beats and synths over guitar drones, almost sounding like techno. Have you always had an interest in techno and other forms of "dance" music? Could you imagine tracks such as ‘Misery Beat’ being played in a club?

PS: I don’t really think Man With Potential is that much a departure. It seems like there is some critical consensus that it is new for me, but there was a long build-up through several of my tape releases until I got to my split LP with Rene Hell and the Challenger tape, which are more direct predecessors to MWP. There were also a lot of beats in Yellow Swans music through the years, but most writers seem to be most familiar with At All Ends and Going Places, which were the least beat-oriented of the records.

If you listen to all of my music, you’ll hear some consistency in sound vocabulary with repetitive melodic patterns, drum machines, frenetic high-end noise. The inception of Yellow Swans was based on a desire to make electronic music that was physical and cathartic. Both Gabe and I came out of an avant-hardcore background and all of our friends were getting into techno and IDM, we both found the music to be intriguing, but not impacting. I connect to a lot of that music now more than I did when I was younger, but I’m also more successful at making electronic music that is aggressive and cathartic.

Listening back, MWP is the record of mine that is most explicitly informed by Chain Reaction.  My current work is maybe more informed by Drexciya. Both are artists/labels that I’ve been interested in since my early twenties. It’s not like I only listen to noise…

I actually recorded the track ‘Pro Style’ with the intention of making a ‘dancefloor’ track. The 12" is sort of my play on the 12" form, and I actually would love for it to be played out. I think the same could feasibly happen with ‘Misery Beat’, but the music remains pretty outre despite my attempts to make tracks that are dancefloor-ready.

How did you go about creating the album? Did you have to approach it in different ways to previous material?

PS: I recorded Man With Potential during the same three-week session as I Don’t Rock At All using the exact same approach that I used for Going Places and the vast majority of Yellow Swans material. It was all recorded live to stereo and then edited down to more essentialised forms of the pieces that I was working with. I would set up a particular sound vocabulary for each piece and then I would improvise on that framework for an hour or two. There are no overdubs, no digital treatments. It’s all live, improvised electronics. On I Don’t Rock At All, it was all live, improvised guitar recorded and processed using the exact same methods.

Do you feel the Pro Style EP is a progression on Man With Potential? Is this a sign that you’ve "made your home" in beat-driven music?

There’s no way I’ll be stuck on beat-driven music forever. It’s a form I find interesting right now, and since I’ve been so inactive, it’s taking a bit longer for me to get bored with the approach. Following Man With Potential‘s release, it was made very clear to me that there was interest in seeing this music in a live context, so these EPs I’ve been working on lately, including Pro Style, all result from the process of trying to hash out how to make this music work in a live context. Since the music uses such complicated gear and routing, there’s absolutely no way I could perform a piece consistently, so I had to devise a way of making the music that has a consistent impact and features a similar vocabulary to MWP. It was an interesting challenge, and the recent work I’ve done and the shows I’ve been playing have been a hell of a lot of fun.

So can UK audiences hope to see you perform over here soon? Are you planning any further releases?

PS: I’m currently working on a few UK shows in January. Due to my academic schedule, I can’t really hit the road to the degree that I did previously. My live dates are increasingly rare, so if you want to see me play and I’m coming somewhere in your area, it may be years before I make it back.

I’ve got a few releases in the works. The next thing will be the Punk Authority EP on Software. It’ll come out in March and is basically a mini-album. 32 minutes of supremely demolished beats with more melodic hooks.

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