“Last year I went on a road trip to Marfa, Texas, a small town in the middle of nowhere,” Pete Swanson recalls.
“The artist and designer Donald Judd owned half of it, and one of the last places we hit was his library, which was just incredibly big and included such diverse books. I found myself considering how one man could consume such an array of information and end up making such austere and individualistic work.
“As an artist, I relate to that: the continuous pursuit of information, whether or not it works its way back into your own work. I’d rather spend my life pursuing enhanced knowledge and perspective than being satisfied with being canonised in some sub-genre. I’ve got a very solid sense of self but I’m always chasing the next thing.”
“I’ve got a very solid sense of self but I’m always chasing the next thing.”
This constant chase has had the no doubt flattering side effect of making Swanson one of his generation’s most admired cult musicians. Over the past decade, both solo, and as one half of the now defunct Yellow Swans (with Gabriel Mindel Saloman), the Oregon native has built up a vast body of work – a veritable mountain of limited vinyl, CD-Rs and cassette editions – that documents his dynamic, open-minded approach to sound-making, and moreover to his own creative and personal development. “I’m restless, and I’m always experimenting with new ideas. Most of these ideas get scrapped, some turn into tapes, some get developed into albums. I’m more into big picture continuity than I am the small stuff. “
With his most recent solo album, Man With Potential, Swanson has produced his first solo masterpiece. Its core is instantly recognisable as Swanson: wild, entirely improvised electronics wrought out of erratic hardware, then looped and edited into a whole of preternatural depth and musicality. “There’s no overdubbing, no post-production as such,” Swanson confirms. “Just a lot of cutting and fading, a little EQing and a great mastering engineer.”
Swanson’s grasp of narrative and ability to impose it on even the most jarring, chaotic of sonic elements is one of the qualities that makes him so much more than just a noise or “experimental” artist. Still, his grounding in noise and the extremes of punk comes across in the physical presence of his music, which borders on the oppressive, the punishing. You have to first consent to being crushed by the sheer force and weight of it before you can get close enough to glimpse its glorious detail, and to discern the stories being told.
“I don’t really have a hierarchical approach to sound,” he continues. “I don’t place noise above melody, tonality above atonality, rhythm above no rhythm.” Nonetheless, it’s precisely an emphasis on rhythm that makes Man With Potential so distinctive, and has seen it cross over to an audience beyond the regular Swanson faithful. A thumping, techno-style 4/4 kickdrum – something that has never been explicit in his previous work – runs through all six tracks on the record, albeit with some variation. Though Swanson acknowledges a techno influence, talking passionately and knowledgeably to me about Underground Resistance and Andy Stott among others, he suggests that the use of the kick wasn’t a gesture towards the grammar of dance music so much as a musical necessity.
“The kickdrum – which is a kick module on my synth – really needed to be there on all of the tracks,” he says. “Everything on the record is edited down from these hour long improvisations on out-of-synch loops and without the kick, the pieces don’t really make sense. The kick really determines the centre of the music, and creates tension.”Without it,” he concedes, “It’s all just sort of mercurial synth and tape loop washes.”
“I don’t really have a hierarchical approach to sound. I don’t place noise above melody, tonality above atonality, rhythm above no rhythm.”
Certainly the more you listen to the record, the less you notice the kickdrum, and the more you realise it’s there principally to anchor, and make accessible, the agitated, squalling, livid walls of synthetic shrapnel that seem to press on you from above, below and all sides. His canny use of a basic techno framework to buttress his more violent sonic investigations reminds me of Surgeon’s description of techno as a “carrier wave”: a medium for transmitting extreme elements, Trojan-like, into the ears of listeners who might otherwise not be open to them. “I think my music needs elements that are accessible to listeners, because the general vibe is so dense and foreign.”
How did Swanson arrive at this “general vibe”? He was born and raised in Corvallis, Orgeon, a small college town two hours south of Porland. His parents were both volcanologists, and a lot of family time was spent “camping and hanging out in forests”.
“Portland is pretty remote geographically,” he goes on to explain, “and you can definitely feel it in the nature and the culture. There’s not a lot of wealth there, but living is very cheap. There’s also very low church attendance and a very strong libertarian or anarchist streak. Often you’ll find yourself seeing a doctor or lawyer who’s covered in tattoos, or meeting a normal parent that just happens to be a stripper. Ultimately, I think that this sort of anti-authoritarian streak comes out in my music.
What made the young Swanson gravitate towards more esoteric and obscure forms of art-making?
“From an early age I knew that there were underground cultures that existed and I did what I could to find out about them. I can’t explain why my 7-year-old self really was obsessed with Run DMC, or why I would stay up late when I was 12 on Sundays to watch a TV show produced by Mike Lastra (from Smegma) that featured a lot of music videos and video art.”
Though Corvallis wasn’t exactly a musical mecca in its own right, it was a convenient stop for bands making the journey on tour up from San Francisco to Portland, and so Swanson got to see the likes of Unwound, Karp, Jawbreaker on his doorstep. There were an interesting local metal seen too, with musicians who would go on to form cult outfits like Atriarch and YOB, and a number of fanzines floating around at the time that apprised Swanson of goings-on beyond rural Oregon. “I particularly liked this paper, Snipehunt, that covered everything from the most out experimental musicians and performance artists, to pop-punk and DIY comics.
“My early rockist references were really very primitive and rudimentary.”
He had picked up his first instrument – an off-label, red hollow-body bass – aged 13, bought for $150 with money he’d saved from doing park maintenance between 8th and 9th grade. Perhaps even more significantly, he got hold of a distortion pedal at the same time (“some Ibanez piece of junk”). Having spent most of his childhood immersed in hip-hop, a foundational interest that perhaps accounts for his interest in, and aptitude for, looping and editing techniques, his acquisition of guitar and pedal coincided with a mounting interest in rock music – favourite bands included Karp, Boredoms, godheadSilo, Mukilteo Fairies, Bikini Kill and Butthole Surfers. “My early rockist references were really very primitive and rudimentary,” he says now, a little modestly.
Alive to the possibilities of punk and alternative rock music, Swanson formed a band called Assspasm with three close friends and someone with similar tastes from a neighbouring town. This rough and ready combo was particularly influenced by Japanese hardcore/grind, Slap-A-Ham Records and related slime. Swanson still has a demo tape they recorded. “It’s 11 songs in about 4 minutes. Real screechy, tinny stuff. Definitely very ‘noise’ by accident.”
Nothing serious took off until Swanson moved to Portland after graduation, when he founded the furious hardcore band Murder. “In that project I really wanted to push it, and try and break out of the typical punk modes, but I was young, a poor musician and in a band with a lot of people who didn’t totally care about that sort of thing.
“I brought in all of these effects, tried weird tunings, really anything that seemed out of the ordinary, but we just ended up sounding like an nth-generation Gravity Records band. We had a lot of fun with it though, and played a lot of shows.”
“I was obsessed with the idea of electronic music, but I couldn’t find anything that was as intense as the punk music I was coming from.”
Portland’s chilly bohemia inevitably introduced Swanson, at this point 19 years old, to a wider range of music. Of particular influence were Ethan Swan, who went on to form synth-punk outfit Silk Flowers, and Paul Dickow, who for some years has made acclaimed, experimental dance music as Strategy (a record on 100% Silk is forthcoming) and also runs the Community Library label. Dickow and Swan lived together, and had amassed a formidable collection of outre vinyl than Swanson was all too keen to explore. At the same time, he’d begun rehearsing with a gang of older musicians – people with serious, highly refined taste, happy to impart their knowledge to their young bandmate via mixtapes and conversation. The band itself, though, didn’t ultimately amount to much. “We suffered from having too many cooks in the kitchen and we were always playing with new ideas, trying to incorporate weird Ligeti-inspired breaks in the middle of a sort of goth/Dead C-style psychedelic burner, and tweaking 15 minute long songs for months on end. We never recorded, but I took away a lot from that project and I believe the other guys did as well – they went on to do stuff like Glass Candy, Rabbits and Get Hustle.”
Swanson took a short break from music-making, but continued to listen with all gates open. He became increasingly fascinated with experimental electronic music, zoning in on new releases from the likes of Pita and Autechre. “I was obsessed with the idea of electronic music,” he recalls today, ” But I couldn’t find anything that was as intense as the punk music I was coming from. The records sounded too hermetic and inhuman and I really saw an intriguing void in culture there that I wanted to explore…So I bought all of this cheap electronic gear and started messing around with it.”
The path towards Yellow Swans had opened up. Gabriel Mindel Saloman was living in Oakland and playing in “destroyed punk” band Boxleitner when Swanson first met him. Saloman moved to Portland, and the duo saw an opportunity to work together on a project that could combine their interests in punk and extreme electronics. “We were both aware of noise as a genre, but I think we both were coming at our music from a more out-rock sort of angle,” remembers Swanson. “I’m still far more interested in Dead C or Man Is The Bastard than I am with Merzbow.”
“We were both aware of noise as a genre, but I think we both were coming at our music from a more out-rock sort of angle.”
Swanson’s pragmatic, process-driven approach to making music found its perfect compliment in the more conceptual strategising of Saloman, and Yellow Swans produced an enormous amount of music in their nine year lifespan, including splits with the likes of Skaters, John Wiese and Ashtray Navigations, and collaborations with Axolotl, Mouthus and Burning Star Core. Their most coherent, “complete” full-length statement was also their final: 2010’s Going Places.
“It took us about 18 months to get the music to the point that we were happy with it,” says Swanson of the album. “I had plans to record vocals over the record, but by the time we had completed the instrumental portion of the music, I was pretty out of the Yellow Swans zone, deep in school, not really writing at all and I began to realise the music was dense enough already.
“A lot of people have hypothesized that we quit the band because of ongoing interpersonal conflict,” he continues, “But that’s far from the case. In 2007 we both had hit a wall from touring hard for years, and not really achieving any amount of financial stability. Gabe had recently fallen in love and wanted to pursue that in Canada; he married and seemed really happy. I didn’t really see how or why we would continue as a band if he was moving to Canada, since our working process was based on constant rehearsing.”
There was a sense also that they’d got as much out of the partnership as they could. “We both had expressed the feeling of having painted ourselves into a corner creatively and didn’t know where to go from where we had arrived at.” Following the release of Going Places on Type and one last live show at Barcelona’s Sonar festival, Yellow Swans was amicably declared dead.
Swanson by this point was ready to move to New York to pursue a masters degree in psychiatric nursing at Columbia. He’s been working in mental healthcare for a decade. “I first got into it because it was work that could satisfy my ethical needs and was very flexible in regards to allowing me to tour. The last job I had was working with homeless, mentally ill adults and I want to keep working with that population, or maybe prisoners or veterans.”
When it comes to music, his solo output is now his primary focus. 2011 saw the release of an epic guitar drone suite, I Don’t Rock At All, but it was Man With Potential, released towards the end of the year, that announced the arrival of Swanson as a major solo artist. Along with KPLR’s brace of records and Container’s LP on Spectrum Spools, Man With Potential was part of a quartet of 2011 releases offering unique, outsider takes on techno that prompted many commentators and genre-guardians to question what their beloved Techno actually means. Given some of the more fervent debates and hyperbolic testimonies knocking around, you could be forgiven for thinking these techno-records-by-noise-artists have rocked conventional dance culture to its very foundations. Of course they haven’t, and nor was that ever the artists’ intention, but the proliferation of such projects is undoubtedly interesting. Artists not strictly part of the dance community making something akin to dance music, but grubbier, is hardly a new phenomenon – from Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Hot On The Heels Of Love’ to Carlos Giffoni’s No Fun Acid project, the precedents are numerous and varied – but of late there does seem to be an inordinate number of figures from the noise/out-rock underground offering deconstructed takes on techno, house and the rest. If “proper” techno music is about function, then the Swanson, KPLR and Container records are about dysfunction – and their refusal to be useful to DJs and consumers feels like a quietly political statement. “I don’t really like the idea of music being produced for a functional purpose,” Swanson says. “I would be shocked if someone actually played Man With A Potential at a club and people were into it.”
“I would be shocked if someone actually played Man With A Potential at a club and people were into it.”
This dysfunctional techno music is, perhaps, a natural result of the cultural conditions it’s been created in. Says Swanson: “People didn’t connect with techno in the US on the same level that they did in Europe; I think that’s a significant cultural divide there. In the US, the whole rave scene is still very marginal and I think a lot of the dance music consumers here in the US just listen at home.”
If an artist or listener is consuming “dance” music primarily on their own, in their own home, it’s perhaps inevitable that they’re going to focus on the psychedelic, mind-altering, introspective properties of the music, rather than worry about funk. Why make music to dance to, when there’s nowhere to dance, and no one to dance with?
Swanson, it should be noted once more, doesn’t see Man With Potential as some kind of abrupt shift into the techno paradigm. He cites two older Yellow Swans records, Bring The Neon War Home and Psychic Session, as being “in dialogue” with techno. “Both of these records prominently feature beats and reference industrial techno and electro,” he asserts, before conceding, “In a way that’s sort of interesting, but not entirely successful.”
“I really don’t see Man With Potential as any kind of departure, it’s simply another step in a career that has always been developing in several directions at once.”