INTERVIEW: Pete Swanson

In advance of his show at Incubate Festival this weekend, US noise luminary turned purveyor of skull-crushing, volcanic techno(-ish) rhythms discusses live performance, his current plans and why physicality in music is critical

"Supremely demolished beats," said Pete Swanson last year, describing his current musical output to the Quietus’ Joseph Burnett. If anything the former half of Yellow Swans has continued to hew closer to that notion throughout 2013, following up his caustic Type editions Man With Potential and Pro-Style with the crushing Punk Authority EP and a string of live shows that have brutalised and exhilarated in equal measure. (His performance in Dalston venue Birthdays at the start of the year, for example, managed to make even its well-polished surrounds feel like a grubby, flea-bitten sweat pit.) It’s the sheer physicality of a Swanson show that really hits home – with the crowd squashed in around him and speakers cranked to frankly intimidating volume, he attacks his table of hardware with an equivalent vigour and intensity to the volcanic, noise-ragged beats that come pouring from it, with the entire set-up seeming to teeter on the edge of total shutdown at any time.

In the time since Man With Potential‘s 2011 release, we’ve witnessed the emergence of a large (and growing) community of musicians – often US-based, with their roots in noise and punk scenes – creating dancefloor music with a fractured, noisy sensibility, saturating their rhythms with effects and distortion to create beats that fray and bleed around the edges. Some of the most thrilling club-friendly music of the last two years has emerged from that axis, from New York label L.I.E.S and its roster of weird cosmic techno and gutted house, to Dominck Fernow’s rhythm-driven Vatican Shadow project and the biohazardous chemical infusions of Metasplice and _moonraker. Swanson is part of that community – knowing many musicians personally from sharing stages while part of the noise scene and having made a similar jump towards (just about) danceable beat structures – yet seems to stand apart from it, with his own particular vision somehow harsher, stranger and more uncompromising than almost all his contemporaries.

Swanson plays at Incubate – the Tilburg-based multi-genre festival to which Quietus HQ has currently relocated – this Saturday, 21st September, in the 013 building. So we took the opportunity to drop him a line, following last year’s full feature interview, to discuss his current plans, the last year’s worth of live shows, improvisation onstage, and why physicality in music is of paramount importance.

This is your first time at Incubate – what you most looking forward to, musically and otherwise?

Pete Swanson: To be honest, I’m not going to be able to see much of the festival. I’m just doing a weekend tour with Tim Hecker. We’re playing London on Thursday, Glasgow on Friday and Incubate on Saturday. I fly back to the States Sunday morning. I’m doing graduate studies, so I generally can’t be away from New York for more than a few days. Missing most of Incubate is unfortunate, as I’d like to see a lot of the acts there and there are a lot of friends playing as well that I’d like to catch up with. That’s not going to happen. I am playing the same stage as Hieroglyphic Being, and I haven’t seen him play live ever, so I’ll hopefully be able to stay up late to see him. If I were around for the whole festival I’d try and catch Lubomyr Melnyk, Ghédalia Tazartès and Brutal Truth. I haven’t seen any of them live and have been into each of their music for years.

What can people expect to experience when they watch you play at Incubate?

PS: I’m traveling with a similar set-up to my last few tours, so the basic elements will continue to be very synth-focused and driven by rhythm. I’ve been experimenting a bit more with atonality and with modules that allow a bit more rhythmic fluidity and live manipulation. My recent sets have been increasingly sloppy and aggressive, and I imagine Incubate will end up being pretty pummeling as it’s slated to be a fairly short set and I’ll have come off a few shows that’ll be a bit more sit-down theater venues. I’ll probably be in a mood to go off.

The Punk Authority EP from earlier this year felt like a further development of the demolished beat-driven aesthetic that you’ve been honing for a while now. Has it been a conscious process, moving your music more towards, broadly speaking, club functionality? Is it something you’re aware of when making music, a wish to elicit that sort of physical response in listeners?

PS: I’m not concerned about club functionality at all, but I have been experimenting with making music that’s increasingly more engaged with the sonic vocabulary of the electronic dance music world while trying to subvert those gestures. In essence, the more the music I’m making approaches functionality, the more I enhance elements of the music that are failing in some way or another. I would hope the music I’m making isn’t simply functional or appreciated as being extreme or as some intellectual exercise. I hope the work that I’m doing is understood differently by every listener.

That being said, I have explicitly engaged in this critical thread of noisy techno that sprung up regarding Man With Potential. I’m constantly looking for new constraints to play with, since I’m more of an experimenter than a partisan musician, and trying to give an audience a developed version of my work that was being written about seemed like as viable a constraint as any. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing this music, and I’ll continue to mess around with it until I reach the point where it becomes unbearably boring to me.

Equally, it seems like you’ve been touring quite a bit recently – how have the shows been going, have audiences responded in ways you’d have expected?

PS: I’ve been playing a lot of one-offs and short weekend things. I can’t really tour because I have to go to class and see patients during the week. The juggle between the two is exhausting but I love it all, and find both music and my academic work to be very fulfilling.

In general, my shows have been great. The audiences have been growing, the sound systems have been getting better and better. A lot of noise die-hards have been coming out, and a lot of people more interested in dance music have been coming out. It’s been cool traveling with my music again and meeting a lot of Yellow Swans fans. I’ve never had as much fun playing shows as I have this year. People have come out and danced, fought, sat around, etc, and it’s all equally justifiable. I just really like playing and getting some engagement from the crowd. I don’t really care what they do with it.

What really struck me when I saw you in London earlier this year was the sheer physicality of your live performance, the sense that everything was being held together by the skin of the teeth and might collapse at any time. But equally that’s what gave it much of its energy. Is that a state you enjoy reaching, do you feel it having a consequent effect on the music?

PS: I grew up going to punk shows and not parties. I don’t really relate to or understand the purpose of DJ culture and going out to clubs… I don’t intend to knock it in saying that. It’s a valid experience that a lot of people enjoy, I just don’t relate to it personally and am very much engaging with that culture as an outsider. I relate more to going out, seeing a band, not knowing if you’re going to end up in a fight, chased out by cops, have to leave early to take a friend to the emergency room, etc. I love the tension that fueled those events, and the music at those shows often echoed that potential for collapse.

As my interests branched out from the punk stuff I was into, I got into things like the Siltbreeze and Majora catalogs, which feature bands that are even more ramshackle and fractured than the punk stuff I was into. I think that threat of things dissolving into sheer chaos is very satisfying, but I also started using a kick drum sound to anchor more abstract sounds. I like my work to embrace contradictions, so it may be melodic and harsh at the same time, it might have elements that conform to a clock and elements that do not. It makes for a much more interesting listen.

I think the physicality of my music is essential to the live show. I’ve had to play with volume restrictions and on stages a bit in the last year, and it makes my work so much more buttoned-up. I like the immediacy and physicality, and I feel like the presentation of my work suffers without that engagement. I want my shows to feel like punk basement shows as opposed to nightclub vibes.

What role does improvisation play in both your studio approach and live performances? There’s a volatility to your tracks that suggests they’d probably never come out quite the same twice – I wonder to what extent that’s true? Do they twist into quite dramatically new shapes in the live arena?

PS: Everything I do is improvised. All of my solo albums have been recorded live to two tracks. There’s been no mixing, no stems. It’s all just stereo recordings edited down. Live, it’s the same. I just bang everything out live on my synth. There’s no consistency, there are no tracks. I just have to cobble things together for records.

I do prepare some elements for my shows. There are sonic limitations with my synth, so I basically only have four oscillator voices, three kinds of gated noise that work as higher frequency percussion and a kick drum to work with. The sounds are all related to dance music and I have a few means of programming melodic content for the oscillators, although the patterns in which the oscillators are gated is a bit more chaotic. As I’ve developed my synthesiser, I’ve tried to enhance the rhythmic fluidity in my gear, so now I’ve got a few kinds of trigger sequencers and other modules that allow me to turn a knob, or send in some CV signal to modulate the rate of specific triggers… So things continue to get more and more fluid and live and less structurally predetermined as things develop. I am also looking at buying a CV sampler for my synth though, so… hopefully I’ll have a broader sound palette to work with sooner than later.

Have you been paying attention to the growing amount of hardware-based house and techno that’s been emerging from the States, often made, it seems, by people with backgrounds in noise or punk worlds? Do you feel much affinity between it and your own work?

PS: Well, a lot of these people I’ve played shows with over the last 10 years so I know a lot of them personally already. I’ve been playing a lot with Container, Ital and Vatican Shadow, and I like all those dudes and their music. I’ve met a few other dudes since I started playing more club-focused music and I really love Ron Morelli and what he’s doing, as well as Metasplice and Laurel Halo. There’s so much of this stuff going on right now and I’m so busy with school that I can’t really keep up, but I do pay attention and buy a crazy amount of records.

Despite the shared history and our current shared concerns with dance music, I feel like a lot of these artists have very different things to offer, and I think that the interest in my work hasn’t diminished much because it is pretty different to a lot of these other artists. I’d like to think that what I’m doing is remaining true to my own musical history, has continuity with my work in Yellow Swans, and is as much about noise as it is about dance music.

What have you been up to since the release of Punk Authority – have you got any new releases or collaborative projects in the pipeline?

PS: I recorded Punk Authority late last year and since then I’ve been pretty deep in school and doing one-off concerts. I have the intention of working on a follow up album to Man With Potential, but I wanted to make the record in a way that’s different than MWP, so a lot of effort has gone into building up my studio, learning some Ableton basics and developing my instrument further. So, I don’t really have any big solo releases in the pipeline, but I have been working hard towards the next thing. Hopefully I’ll have an album come out next year. Maybe I’ll have a 12" come out before then. I have no idea. I just want to make a sick record at my own speed that is differentiated from Punk Authority and MWP.

I’ve been working with live multi-track recording so I can do some more intentional production and maybe bring out some clean kicks. I’m working with an engineer, Paul Corley, who has worked on records by Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker. I’m thinking this next one will actually be pretty hi-fi and will still sound jacked. I’ve been wanting to work with tape loops lately too, so maybe I’ll bring in some of that into the mix…

I’ve talked with a lot of people about collaborating and the only stuff that’s actually been recorded and is in the works, is a track I worked on with Beans and a second Beer Damage LP, In Your Faceland. Beer Damage is my duo with Brian Sullivan from Mouthus and is pretty profoundly bizarre music. Our first record was more guitar focused and this next one is a bit more synth and drum machine heavy. The closest thing I can compare it to is that Tolerance album Divin. There’s a lot of other people I’ve talked to about making records, but nothing else is really all that close.

Pete Swanson plays at Incubate Festival, Tilburg, this Saturday 21st September. For more information on the show, click here to visit the Incubate website. The Punk Authority EP is out now via Software

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