It’s now eight years since Aaliyah’s untimely passing, but her influence continues to lap at distant shores. The Wirral peninsula in north-west England is a dramatic stretch of coastline and muse to Forest Swords, a solo songsmith who carves dusty sound from its half-known hills. He has a new tape out and from it here’s the ancient grind of “Glory Gongs.” But you should buy it for the b-side, a haunting cover of Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew” that twinkles with twilight sadness. I spoke to Forest Swords about that song and how his music “echoes his environment.”
Download: Forest Swords, “Glory Gongs”
You’re from the Wirral in the north of England, tell us about it.
Wirral’s this rectangular stretch of land sandwiched between the River Dee and Wales, and the River Mersey and Liverpool. It’s part of a region called Merseyside. It’s also right next to the Irish Sea. Most of the towns up and down it were named by Vikings who settled here about a thousand years ago. They dug up a Viking longboat not long back, actually—they found it under a pub car park. Oh, one good fact about the place is that Central Park was based on a park here, and they share lots of similar features. It had the same designer. Merseyside in general’s got quite a long musical history too—right from The Beatles, Julian Cope, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Elvis Costello, Echo & The Bunnymen, Half Man Half Biscuit down to Clinic and Ladytron and The Coral, there’s a really interesting sort of leftfield thread that runs right through them. However odd the music gets around here there’s always this sense of pop and melody that seems to rear its head in everything. Some people think that’s down to a maritime thing, I’m not really sure.
I’ve seen your music described as “British coastal jams” and “peninsula pop.” It’s grounded in a particular landscape.
Yeah, I’d say so. I’m really interested in music that kind of echoes the environment it was created in. If you look at dub or dancehall from Jamaica, ’60s west coast pop, surf, grime, whatever—the landscape and architecture and vibe is all reflected in the music. Where I’m from there’s this real mishmash of terrain—beaches, cliffs, woodland, hills, with towns dotted around. Loads and loads of sandstone and water. As it’s on the coast it gets both extremes of weather quite a lot too, and there’s a city, Liverpool, just across one of the rivers too. So I’m sure consciously or unconsciously all those elements play a part in the music.
You’ve covered Timbaland and Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew.” Why did you choose that song?
The bassline’s one of the best ever written, the whole song’s just brilliance. I was a bit wary of mentioning Timbaland because I don’t want it to be seen as tokenistic or anything—you know like all those bands that make a big desperate point of going “we’re really influenced by Can and Afrobeat, aren’t we eclectic?”—but I’m genuinely a big admirer of the stuff Timbaland, Missy and Aaliyah did together. I like Aaliyah because she really knew when to hold it back. She kept it really subtle, and so hasn’t dated at all, and all her tracks still sound amazing. They both really appreciated the space around the music. It taught me that you don’t have to have lots of instruments to make something sound big and to respect negative space when it comes to drums and instruments. They were stupidly influential on how modern music has turned out, and Timbaland still is I guess. Some of those sounds he managed to use on his Aaliyah tracks were just downright weird. The Neptunes and early Rodney Jerkins are of a similar school—something that’s quite minimal and a bit strange can have just as much impact as a big dumb loud rock song.
All your stuff so far has come out on cassette. What do you like about tapes?
The first couple of offers I got to release stuff they both suggested cassettes, which I was cool with. I grew up listening to cassette singles so I liked the idea of doing a couple of really quick, limited two track tapes to test the water. This current tape’s going to be the last one I do on that format for a while though. It’s interesting to see the differences—this project started out as more of a droney thing, and in that whole drone/avant/noise scene putting out cassettes is a perfectly normal, practical, cheap way of distributing music quickly. Then once you start taking the music out of that sphere and it gets covered in other places people seem to view it a bit of a stubborn format to use. I thought it’d be fun doing the artwork for an object that’s quite small and compact like that, too. I’m really pleased with how they both came out.
I hear you’re starting to do remixes.
Remixes are definitely something I’d like to do more of—I think there’s quite an assumption that if your music isn’t totally electronic you wouldn’t really be interested in remixing. But it’s just like remodeling something—you break it apart and reassemble it in a different form and put another spin on it, so it’s just as fun as making your own songs from scratch. I’ve always wanted to try and remix a whole album but I imagine that’s probably a ridiculous thing to try just yet.
And you’re playing your first shows soon…
I’m not sure if it’s going to be solo or I’m bringing in other musicians, but I’ve been slowly working on projections for it over the past couple of weeks. I’ve edited a couple of videos for songs that were released on the two tapes and people seemed to really like them, so it’s spurred me on to do more of the visual stuff. I’m a designer so working with moving images isn’t a massive step but it’s definitely a different way of working, especially when I’m thinking about how it needs to fit with the music and stuff. But yep, that’ll be my first show. I’m really excited.
The Glory Gongs cassette is available now on Woven Tones.