"Yellow Swans are evil" was my first introduction to the uncompromising electronics of Pete Swanson, the ex-member of the Portland-based noise band Yellow Swans 2001-2008. Speaking of the band's malevolent sonics was Juan Mateos-Garcia of 20jazzfunkgreats, while showing me his new 7"s. He meant it as the strongest endorsement.
In the thriving noise scene of the 00s Yellow Swans punched above their weight, and put out around 50 CDs, 7"s and .rars during their time as a band. While often associated with fellow mind-flayers like Lightning Bolt and Black Dice, there was always a velvet-gloved generosity to their music's punch, which has continued into Swanson's solo work. His new EP Punk Authority is his debut on Software, with a brittle techno pulse, rushes of noise and the giving urgency of a concrete dancefloor. The thumping video for 'Grounds For Arrest' compiles with vintage grainy rave footage, pointing to his music's concession to melody and hook as it veers away from the didactic hammer of power electronics.
In a recent Twitter discussion with Holly Herndon, Swanson said "The dream is to have perpetual digital and analog meltdown. How could we ever make that happen???" Perhaps the uncertain moments in his work are what make it so captivating, with it's twisted euphoric moments.
Dazed Digital: Would you describe yourself as an experimental musician?
Pete Swanson: “Experimental” is a term that is virtually meaningless at this point. I mean, if something so profoundly pop as Radiohead, Bjork or whatever can have the term applied, I don’t know what isn’t experimental at this point. That being said, I think most music created these days suffers from homogeneity of production quality and process. It applies both to more pop and more avant-garde work.
I consider my process of creating music to be experimental. I use a complex processing system to create my music. I record everything live. It’s all improvised on hardware and mixed live to two tracks, which I’ll edit down into something useable later. I don’t really use a computer to make music beyond recording that one stereo track, I throw away 99.99% of everything I record, etc. I do rely on some pop sound vocabulary in my work, but the way that the sounds are forced to struggle for supremacy in the mix ends up producing work that is automatically somewhat avant-garde despite the source sounds that the music is built out of coming from a pop vocabulary.
DD: Your video for 'Grounds For Arrest' feels nostalgic. In your experience how accessible are dance parties on that scale? Or it all Lena-Dunham-goes-'raving'-in-gentrified-Bushwick?
Pete Swanson: I barely go out to concerts, and when I do, it’s usually to more avant-garde gigs with less than 50 people. With the video I’m playing with other people’s nostalgia and with the critical narrative that has framed my contemporary music. I suppose that may make me “Lena-Dunham-goes-‘raving’-in-gentrified-Bushwick” in that I’m an inauthentic imposter throwing inaccurate garbage at the “true believers.” I’m pretty resistant to the idea of authenticity.
DD: You have a song called 'Grounds for Arrest', but have you ever actually been arrested?
Pete Swanson: Nope. Never been arrested, but I’ve worked a lot with ex-convicts and I am very seriously considering working in prisons once I’m done with grad school. Like any good young punk, I did manage to end up in a few rowdy situations when I was younger and I have had a few run-ins with riot cops. It really sucks to get tear-gassed, chased by dogs or shot with rubber bullets. I was usually profoundly sober in these situations and was able to get out relatively unscathed.
DD: Historically, loads of important inventions came about when someone was trying to invent something else. Does this kind of thing happen to you when you're making music? You talked before about the importance of failure in your work.
Pete Swanson: There are so many levels of failure in my music. Maybe too much to get into, but I welcome all of the problems that are at play in my work. There are problems throughout the system. I often start off on new works trying to emulate something I heard.. It could be early computer music, pop music, whatever.. It doesn’t matter. The Yellow Swans album “At All Ends” was hugely inspired by Sade. “Man With Potential” was inspired by New Order. “Psychic Secession” was inspired by “Pet Sounds.” None of those influences come across on the records. A big part of that disconnect is that that inspiration is often conceptual or based on poorly-recalled gestures that reoccur in each of those blocks of work. But I also have used the same processing system that I’ve used for ages and whatever I’m trying to do gets chopped up and spit out in unpredictable ways via a number of different processing routes. There’s all sorts of problems and interruptions and stuff playing out in there. Generally I know what sorts of problems I can expect so I can often work around the unfavourable problems and stick to the favourable ones.
DD: Is your EP title a play on the Port Authority Bus Terminal?
Pete Swanson: I came up with the name while I was still in Portland. Most of my record titles sit around for ages until I’ve got the right image and music to complete the package. I’m not really enamored with New York as a physical entity and wouldn’t really name anything after a place here. Cities are pretty dull for content.
DD: I read that you prefer your live shows to have an early stage time. How come?
Pete Swanson: That must have been an old interview. I do like being able to go home by midnight, but I was insisting on opening concerts in Portland for a few years. I like opening shows and setting the tone for the evening. I would always start on time and play 15 minutes or less. If things went well, it would get people to shows on time and would kick off the show in a way that was a bit more intense and high-energy than at most shows. I’m headlining a lot these days and I appreciate playing bills with people that bring it. I’m pretty competitive at shows. There’s this MC5 documentary where Wayne Kramer is talking about opening up for “cool” bands from California and New York and wanting to “beat them” at every show. I want to win. When someone plays an amazing set before I go on, it makes my set that much better. Pressure’s on.
DD: Given an unlimited budget, what kind of music video would you love to make?
Pete Swanson: I’d commission Klara Liden to make a video for me. I saw an exhibition of her videos at the New Museum and I loved how aggressive, alien and physical her work is. I think it would compliment my music very well. Go see her work if you have an opportunity.
DD: One of your press pix shows you lying on stairs and being walked all over. Is the idea of being submissive an appealing way for you to think about yourself and your music?
Pete Swanson: Interesting. We chose not to use that photo because it was a little too overtly BDSM, which wasn’t the intention. The shoot definitely had an element of that, but I wanted it to be more about self-effacement and being abducted. I guess that is fairly BDSM in a lot of regards, but I feel like the cover is pretty non-sexual but suggests those other themes.
I wouldn’t say that submission is the right term to think about my work, but there is a serious helping of humility in that embracing of failure and chaos. There’s a serious push-pull relationship that occurs when musicians are improvising and I developed my setup to reflect that sort of relationship without involving another human. My gear pushes back and makes me make decisions I wouldn’t otherwise make. There’s some ego-crush going on there even though everything I’m doing is something that I’ve built up. I’m a bit of a control-freak in certain regards, but I find control to be awfully boring. If I always knew what every change I would make to my gear would result in, I’d get so frustrated. I like a lot of push-back.
DD: What's your favourite piece of music-making gear?
Pete Swanson: My bread-and-butter piece of gear has been my Sony TC-440 reel-to-reel tape machine for years. It works as a stereo analog delay and just sounds incredible. Everything I’ve recorded is run through that thing.
DD: What are you looking forward to about Spring?
Pete Swanson: I’ve only been in New York for a year and I have no idea what to expect from spring here. I’m about to go back to Oregon for a week though and I’m really hoping that the snow has melted enough in the Mt. Hood National Forest so I can get to Bagby Hot Springs..
Portland totally goes off in the spring once the sun comes out. People there live under gray skies for months and then all of a sudden the sun comes out, and it’s like.. 55 degrees and everyone is out walking around in tank-tops and shorts wearing the most ridiculous grins. Nothing beats Seasonal Affective Disorder like a little sun exposure. Everyone is Vitamin D deficient in the northwest.
DD: What's your most-used Emoji?
Pete Swanson: I don’t think I’ve ever used anything like that. I’m just not interested in them. I recently found out that some of my women friends from nursing school won’t date guys who use them. It seems like some hilarious modern take on “the rules of dating” that I haven’t been clued into.
Follow Owen Myers on Twitter here @owen_myers