Pete Swanson: Interview
“If you want to take what I do seriously, go ahead… If you think it’s a waste of time, that’s fine. You’re not getting in my way or hurting my feelings.”
The reemergence of beats in experimental music isn’t a new thing at this point, but it remains an interesting development. On one hand, “noise” suggests the absence of musical qualities or perhaps even opposition; however, that many noise artists have since moved on to new forms of musical creation — techno, pop, etc. — suggests that the noise “genre,” as it were, had reached a point of rigidity. The (re-)introduction of elements such as pop structures and/or the immediacy of a drum kick, then, may represent the collapse of “noise” as its own contrarian meta-narrative; more succinctly, many noise artists just got really fucking bored with the whole thing.
Although beats aren’t unheard of for Pete Swanson, with all sorts of rhythmic clatter surfacing throughout the depths of Yellow Swans’ discography, the recent emphasis on the percussive physicality of his music has come to the fore since Man With Potential and the more recent Pro Style EP. Punk Authority — out March 12 on Software Recording Co. — is Swanson’s newest solo outing, and it’s his most brutish assault on the intersection between noise and dance music yet, asserting itself with huge physicality as beyond-redlined bass oscillations singe through your consciousness and take control of the limbs, crushing every last ounce of crackling pressure under the immense weight of burning speakers melting through the dancefloor.
So how’s it going? How’s the year starting off for you?
2013 started out pretty well. I found out that I passed the NCLEX and am now a Registered Nurse. I played my first show in Portland in two years to a room full of old friends and then ran off for a string of 13 shows in 17 days around Europe. Now I’m back in school, and I started giving talk therapy to my first psychiatric patient. It’s already been a pretty big year.
You’ve mentioned that your time for music has become limited since pursuing graduate studies. What are you studying? Do your academic interests cross over into your music at all?
I’m getting a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing at Columbia University. I always had social work jobs when I was doing Yellow Swans, so this is a logical extension of that work. There are some loose connections between music and work. The most overt association is that I grew up in a punk subculture and wanted work that was more socially engaged than working food service when I was 20 or so. I was compelled to make a living doing something meaningful despite my not having a college degree.
I’m basically at the point where if I can’t play on the floor, I won’t play. Monitors won’t cut it and I hate the energy of playing on a stage. When I’ve done it in the last few months, I’ve come away feeling like my set was neutered.
So “Punk Authority” — that’s a title that can be read in quite a few ways. What kind of punk authority are we talking about here? Punks as cops? Radical law? An oxymoron joke à la “jumbo shrimp”? You haven’t been making your way through the entire Police Academy series, have you?
All of the above. I generally get my titles from pretty inane conversation, and then grow to appreciate their complexity over time. Initially it was related to punks policing themselves, and emulating oppressive systems that they are overtly opposed to. But it is an oxymoronic joke… and I am an ex-punk who is fascinated with the legal system and has some desire to engage with it directly. It’s basically as stupid or as serious as you want it to be, which suits the music. If you want to take what I do seriously, go ahead. If you think it’s fun, cool. If you think it’s a waste of time, that’s fine. You’re not getting in my way or hurting my feelings.
Pro Style made more overt gestures to dance music both in presentation (the amazing 12-inch sleeve) as well as in musical content. Part of that comes through on Punk Authority, but there’s now more of a physical immediacy, a huge presence of sound, as if the pressure of the room was condensed and turned into part of the music itself. This physicality is especially loud and distorted on Punk Authority, like Psychic Secession levels of distortion — what brought on this aggression?
I’m glad you picked up on the overt engagement with dance music culture on Pro Style. It was intentional, but at that time, most of my work was actually sounding more like the VIP mix of “Pro Style” as well as the Punk Authority tracks. All of the Punk Authority music was recorded preparing for live shows from June through November, 2012. The intensity and “pressure” are characteristics that I want to be conveyed in my live show. I want things to feel pretty physical and unhinged in the live context, and this sound reflects that. When I get a decent PA, I really can peel off some faces.
The level of intensity comes from my going out to shows and being disappointed in the delivery of experimental music. I swear I go to more seated concerts than anything. Other shows I go to are almost all A/V presentation style, with people playing laptops. I hate that. That’s what the default live thing has become, and I think it’s often a total cop-out. The physicality and intensity of the sound and performance are a result of my trying to play shows that I would want to see.
In recent years, there’s been an especially noticeable shift from several noise/experimental/punk/etc. artists — people that didn’t necessarily begin in the dance/electronic world — toward a more movement-oriented, techno sort of music. And while Yellow Swans had their moments with this kind of thing, in recent years not only has more attention been paid to it on your end, but there also has been the surfacing of artists like Ital and Container, to name a few. Do you have any thoughts about this?
While much is being made about “noise guys gone techno,” there have also been noticeable moves of noise guys toward pop music or quieter improv or composition work. Basically, noise became a boring, rigid subgenre for a lot of artists who came to noise initially because of its apparent inclusiveness. Because of that, you end up with Vatican Shadow, [C.] Spencer Yeh’s pop album, and the Lescalleet/Lambkin records. These are records that break the rules of noise and push that artist’s work into some nebulous area where the work has to be taken on its own merit.
When I introduced beats to my work, there really wasn’t a big hubbub about rhythm in noise, and I only found out about the work that Dom and Ren were doing after my record came out about a year after I recorded the album. Apparently the connection had to be made. I have the impression that “EDM,” in its move to US stadium raves and entrenchment in more orthodox approaches, needed a little more filth and gutter injected into its culture. Otherwise we wouldn’t have this interest from that world or artists like Andy Stott coming out of that world to create incredibly filthy sounds. It was just time for some really trashed beats to enter into the larger discourse.
You’ve mentioned before that your creative process includes a lot of improvisation and self-recording, scrapping the majority of what you come across, and working with the best moments. When performing live, are you trying to recreate those moments? As in, do you play tracks from Punk Authority live, or are you just working within a particular setup or sound that’s comparable?
There’s no way the live thing could NOT be improvised to some degree. I use primitive gear and have no way to recreate album tracks since everything happens in real-time and relies on some level of chance occurrence. I’m not trying to emulate specific moments, but rather trying to present a specific energy and have a consistent degree of impact. I currently use source sounds from my mixer that are basically the sounds used in “Life Ends at 30,” but things never work out the same way even on a remote level. I’ve had people see me play off the same synth patch for several shows and they all seem to think the sets are wildly different each night.
There’s no rhyme or reason to who I’m playing with right now, and I really like that. When Yellow Swans would tour, we’d just play with noise bands every night, which got a little tiresome… I would rather occupy a more nebulous artistic space than be in some subgenre showcase every evening.
Since the increased emphasis upon the more rhythmic qualities of your music, have you noticed any sort of shifts in the shows you play? As in, different audiences, or venue setups? Has this posed any sort of new challenges for you?
I just did my first solo EU/UK tour last month and each show was drastically different from the last. There’s no rhyme or reason to who I’m playing with right now, and I really like that. When Yellow Swans would tour, we’d just play with noise bands every night, which got a little tiresome. Now I’ll play a museum with “serious” musicians one night, a huge techno rager the next, some folk-drone thing the next. I don’t think any context is better or worse for my music to be presented in. I would rather occupy a more nebulous artistic space than be in some subgenre showcase every evening.
There have been challenges. I basically require on my rider that I have an obscenely loud PA system, a table to set up on that I can use the entire evening and be able to play on the floor, in front of the PA. I often have to fight to be able to play as loud as I would like and to be able to play on the floor. I’m basically at the point where if I can’t play on the floor, I won’t play. Monitors won’t cut it and I hate the energy of playing on a stage. When I’ve done it in the last few months, I’ve come away feeling like my set was neutered. The last thing I want is for my shows to have the potential for impact compromised. There’s just no point in me playing if I can’t present my work in the best light possible.
I did have a lot of requests to play MUCH longer than I normally play on this tour, which was pretty flattering, but I really can’t play for 5 hours… Sorry guys…
I’m curious if you follow or have any sort of awareness of chiptune. I hear what could be buried echoes of it in “C.O.P.”
I know absolutely nothing about the whole chiptune scene. I don’t use any bit-crusher effects if that’s what you’re getting at… I just use oscillators. They’re very basic sounds.
I have the impression that “EDM,” in its move to U.S. stadium raves and entrenchment in more orthodox approaches, needed a little more filth and gutter injected into its culture.
You’ve also been keeping busy with a few collaborations. There’s Vent from Sarin Smoke, and now more recently the Beer Damage album with Brian Sullivan. How new are these recordings?
Tom and I recorded most of the Sarin Smoke material about a year ago, and then spent a few months editing it. We’ve got plans for another recording inspired by some things we did at a show last fall. Tom’s out of town for a while, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to record when he gets back.
Beer Damage is an ongoing project, and we actually have another LP pretty close to being done. It’s far more minimal and strange than the last one. I think we finished this first Beer Damage LP around the same time as the Sarin Smoke tracks, but we had a harder time finding a home for it since the music is pretty out there. I’m pretty happy with self-releasing really small numbers of Beer Damage, as we seem to be moving pretty quickly with the project with pretty diverse results. I’m hoping that our next record, In Your Faceland, will be out in the summer.
Having collaborated with Gabriel Mindel Saloman in Yellow Swans for many years, and then going solo for a few years, how does collaborating with other partners feel now? And does it give you an excuse to try working with different instruments? (Thinking of Sarin Smoke here — those guitars!).
I have different gear I use and I play different roles in each collaboration. I’ve played with Tom and Brian both for years and I’ve been able to develop a playing style with each of them that has lead each of those collaborative projects to have very distinct identities. I don’t generally play with people that I can’t develop an individual approach with. It just isn’t interesting for me to play with any random old person right now…
There are one or two collaborations I might get into this year, one of which may be an ongoing project if everything goes well. We’ll see.
Have you got anything else planned for the year?
No records beyond releasing Punk Authority and maybe this next Beer Damage LP are done just yet. I have the hopes of recording for an EP and to at least start working on an album. I’ve been learning how to use Ableton by doing some remixes and that’s been interesting. I might do a few more of those and mess around with that a bit more. I am also playing a handful of festivals: Festival NRML, Mission Creek Festival, Donau, Dudingen, Obey, and Bunker at 285 Kent on March 15.