Interview: Forest Swords

The English producer breaks down his surprisingly bright LP Compassion

Back in 2013, UK artist Forest Swords offered up Engravings, a dark-hued and uniquely arresting album that fused ominous ambience and haunting guitar tones with jagged electronics and hip-hop rhythms. He’s dabbled in various projects since, even writing a contemporary dance score, and has returned with a new LP via Ninja Tune, Compassion. In a conversation with Shawn Reynaldo on Red Bull Radio’s First Floor, Forest Swords discussed the record’s genesis, explaining how his own worry about the current state of global affairs ultimately resulted in a batch of emotive songs with an unexpectedly melodic bent.


Let’s start with the album title, Compassion. It’s a word we hear all the time, but what does it mean in relation to your music?

Generally when I title projects, I do it in a way that the words sit with the sounds and the texture. That’s a very abstract thing usually that only makes sense to me, but when I was listening back to a lot of these songs, they felt very warm and open and enveloping and have that connection with the sounds in it. I was thinking about various words and “compassion” was one that seems topical at the moment. It’s an important concept to think about.

The album’s announcement included several references to the current state of the world, and specifically to your own sense of unease it. Is there anything in particular that you were or are worried about?

That’s a big question, but I guess it’s a pervading sense of selfishness pulling [down] the shutters across the world at the moment. In the UK we’ve had Brexit, which has been quite a big ordeal for a lot of people, particularly of my generation, where part of our identity is that we’ve grown up to feel European and feel like we can travel to different countries and share this cultural exchange. For that to be pulled away from us is traumatic and there seems to be that sense of shutting up shop and being insular right across the world at the moment. I think it’s a deeply unhealthy way to approach things. I don’t think it’s going to really achieve anything in the long run.

Forest Swords - Panic

There’s an old platitude that music can heal rifts and bring people together, do you think that that’s true?

I’m fairly cynical quite a lot of the time, so perhaps not, but then again when I’ve been in a club space or a show space and you feel that connective energy with a bunch of strangers, I do think there’s something in that. In terms of putting records out I don’t think it can necessarily change stuff, but I think music as a whole can create conversations and dialogue, which is really crucial at the moment. Live shows and clubs and festivals, for me, have taken on an entirely different meaning the more the world has changed over the past 18 months. Particularly playing live and understanding how the energy of a space can change. It can feel a lot more like a shared and beautiful experience. Those things can be quite powerful and potent. I think it’s experiencing music in a live setting that can really have an impact on people.

Was making the music at all a healing thing for you? Did it at least calm your nerves in some way?

Yeah, it did. There was a lot of stuff going on in my life at the time that were dovetailing with the bigger issues in the world. Music for me was a way to navigate around those or maybe find pathways through them. The record, it’s quite distorted in places, it’s quite bent out of shape. There are some hard textures, but there’s this sense of hope and joy also running right through the record as well, I think. I hope people can pick up on that. I don’t think it really does any good to surround yourself with all the crap that’s going on in the world at the moment. I wanted to make those moments where it sliced to the darkness a bit more pronounced this time. It feels a bit more welcoming and a bit more engaging than the last album.

I don’t particularly enjoy using Twitter or Facebook. I was thinking about these tools and ways that we can use them slightly differently, almost hacking them in a way.

You’ve been taking some unusual steps to connect to your fans, like sending unreleased tracks to anyone who messaged you personally via WhatsApp, a bunch of one-on-one sessions on Skype where you previewed a track from Compassion directly with people. What was the motivation behind doing these things?

A lot of the themes that I was thinking of when I was making the record were about connection and language and communication. I made the record in a bunch of different places and I put myself out of my comfort zone a little bit in that I met a lot of strangers. I scored a contemporary dance piece and I worked with some film projects. I realized the power of shared ideas and the power of connecting with people directly through working with different people. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the current tools that we have to use to connect to other artists or to connect with what I guess you call fans or whatever. To me there’s still some disconnect there and I don’t particularly enjoy using stuff like Twitter or Facebook. I was thinking about these tools and ways that we can use them slightly differently, almost hacking them in a way.

The WhatsApp thing was purely an experiment to see if anyone would respond, but I got nearly 700 messages and it took me a full day to respond to everyone. I sent a bunch of unreleased tracks to people and I realized that it was a thing that no one had tried before and people really seemed to dig it. It was quite an amazing experience because using that app specifically, that people are texting their boyfriends, girlfriends, loved ones all day, instantly creates this direct connection with people. I got a lot of really quite moving messages and people were maybe a bit more open and honest in a way that they wouldn’t have been if they were sending me a tweet or a Facebook message. A lot of people sent me their music in return as well and it felt like a really nice exchange.

Forest Swords - Arms Out

Listening to the new album, one thing that really jumped out at me is that the music is a lot lighter than I expected. Your previous album, Engravings, which came out in 2013 on Tri Angle, had a lot of ominous overtones and a slightly goth vibe to it. Why gravitate towards these brighter, more melodic sounds at a time when you are thinking about all of the bad things going on in the world?

I guess I found some comfort in them on some level. Making an album that sounded like the last one would not be the best choice for me because I was aware that I’m going out on tour and I’m playing these songs and I wanted them to feel a bit more expressive and welcoming. On some level it was for me and on some level it was for other people. I was very conscious about using different textures. The last record, because I toured it so much, I didn’t really have a chance to re-listen to it until I had stopped touring. When I re-listened to it, I was surprised at how shut off and insular it sounded, and I’m not surprised because I made it all on my own over the course of a year in one room, in one place. It was very much about one place, where I grew up. My environment was constantly changing on this record and that probably had something to do with it. You can maybe hear the claustrophobia in Engravings compared to this one.

People often associate light and melody in music with happiness and positivity. Does the fact that you embraced those sounds mean that you’re ultimately optimistic about where things are heading?

Not necessarily, but you have to cling onto hope somewhere. I don’t think it does any good surrounding yourself and actively seeking out bad news. I know so many people that are gripped by their Twitter feeds, they’re seeking out terrible news to validate the fact that everything’s going to shit. I’ve learned that you can find joy in different things, different environments, different people. Even if the bigger issues are pretty terrible and not particularly pleasant, you can maybe drill down on them at a more hyper-local level and have an effect that way. Looking at your nearest community and seeing what’s going on there, looking in your friendship groups, seeing if you can make an impact there. These are ways to navigate through the bigger issues, I think.

Forest Swords - The Highest Flood

You always combine organic and synthetic or electronic elements in your music, but it sounds like there is a lot less guitar this time around. Was that an intentional choice?

It was practical rather than intentional, actually, because I was traveling around making this record. I couldn’t really carry my guitar with me, so it was very much a stripped down studio vibe. I finished touring in 2014 and there were a bunch of places that I visited while I was away that I didn’t really get a chance to connect with or explore properly, so I made a conscious effort to go back to those places and spend some time there and see if I could make any new music there. Sometimes I came away with a loop, sometimes with a full song. The environment changed month to month and because of that I relied more on in-the-box sounds from my laptop. There are various externally recorded instruments, but in terms of my guitar, I don’t think there’s any on it, actually. It’s quite rare for me, but I feel like I did everything I could with the guitar on Engravings and Dagger Paths. It was a nice change to not be chained down to that.

When it comes to your music, and this goes for both the new album and the older stuff, one issue that I have is that I really have no idea how to describe it. I mean, it’s electronic but it’s not really dance music. There are hints of hip-hop and R&B, cinematic moments and classical composition, but it’s not traditional music in any way. How do you categorize your music, and what makes something a Forest Swords song in your mind?

That’s an interesting point, and it’s done me a disservice in the past because people love to process things by putting labels on things. For it to sound like something a record store employee [wouldn’t know] where to put in the racks, it’s been quite difficult for me being put on live lineups where I don’t really fit in. I guess because I make most of my music on my laptop and a majority of the music that I listen to is electronic, I would categorize it as electronic music. I feel more comfortable describing myself as an electronic musician than anything else.

It’s an instinctual thing, so I’ll end up using stuff that I find appealing or that I feel is emotionally resonant on some level. Whether that’s electronic or organic or it’s an organic sound that I processed electronically, I don’t really differentiate between them. It’s all about instinct to me and what sounds fit.

By Shawn Reynaldo on May 23, 2017

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