Interview: Forest Swords

August 28, 2013

Matt Barnes, aka Forest Swords, makes deliberate music. His new album, Engravings, out right now on Tri Angle, is built on hypnotic repetition, a strong foundation of dub and an earthy minimalism that sounds ancient and cloaked in a heavy fog. It's an accomplished record, clear-eyed, with a definitive sense of purpose that doesn't often come so early in an artist's career. Barnes spoke to me about the ideas behind the record, coping with hearing difficulties and how his job in graphic design influences the music he makes.

Where did you grow up? I grew up and I live in a place called the Wirral, which is between Wales and Liverpool in in the northwest of the UK. I grew up here and I went to art school in Liverpool and that kind of was the catalyst, I guess, for me making music and pursuing art as a full-time thing.

What kind of art? Graphic design. I left art school and became a graphic designer and I lost my job in about 2008-2009. I had nothing to do, so it was just a product of experimenting with music programs and seeing what happened, really.

Had you been making music before that? I'd been in bands when I was at school. Like 16 or 17. I had issues with it because, I guess, I realized back then that I'm quite a solitary worker. I find it difficult to explain ideas to other people. Part of it was to do with my age at the time. When you're 16, you have trouble articulating things anyway, so to try and articulate ideas and concepts—I found it quite difficult. It didn't really go so well. I enjoyed playing live with people, but as soon as I got to art school, I put it on hold, and tried to concentrate on something else. It wasn't until I left that I got back into making music, and that was partly to do with what I was exposed to in art school. People used to put on their own iPods. It was the first time I heard dub or grime or dancehall. It was mind-blowing to me. At the time I was into Deftones and punk stuff and DIY hardcore and Riot Grrrl stuff, but to be exposed to this other music that was equally powerful but had the same impact as what I was into was a real eye-opener for me.

Had you used programs to make music before? I didn't any kind of preconceived idea of how difficult or easy it would be. I was a virgin to all that. I'm from a long line of stubborn men, so I never read manuals or anything like that. A lot of techniques I use or sounds I play around with, I discovered purely by accident. The interesting thing about a lot of music software nowadays is that there's no right or wrong way to do things, so you get interesting stuff just by playing around with it. Though I do think it has a negative effect, because so much electronic music especially is prescribed in a way. If you hear a cool sound—a dubstep song or whatever—a kid can go on Youtube and find a way to replicate that exactly. I suppose that's no different from being in a band when you're a teenager…out of those things you can forge your own path. I mainly only use one music program for the whole thing that I do. When I was a teenager and I was doing those bands, I got a four track. I found that very liberating because you could see the layers building up in front of you. I like that about music software: you can see layers and textures right in front of your eyes.

It sounds like your graphic design background influences how you make music. It's really not that much different for me—using a music software program or using something like Photoshop. It's about playing around with blocks of color and fitting things together and seeing what works. Taking the tone down on certain things or taking the transparency down. You can take the transparency down on a color or a sound—it's really no different. I don't know if it's difficult for people that don't have a design background to understand that, but it's just how my brain works. I am very conscious of making it not sound like I'm a designer that just does music on the side. They're actually of equal importance for me. It's a common thing for graphic designers to dabble in music because they're so intrinsically linked.

It seems like with commercial design, the end goal is to make something aesthetically appealing, whatever that might mean within the context of the work you're doing. But with music, the end goal is a bit more murky. The very similar thing between design and music-making for your own personal enjoyment is just about communicating an idea. Whether you're designing for a huge sports company—you still have to communicate a message, and it's exactly the same in music, whether you're making it for yourself or not. It's a lot more fun to bury ideas in music so people have to work for it, whereas with commercial design, you have to be clear and it has to have a hook to it that people can respond to. With music, quite often, people like to be challenged, so you can bury those ideas and pull them apart.

Can you give me some background on Engravings? It kind of just happened, exactly the same as with Dagger Paths. It wasn't until I was six or seven songs into it that I was like, Oh, maybe I have a full album going on here. I didn't go into it with any clear vision, but as soon as I had a bunch of songs, I had to look at them all equally and draw consistencies through them. You mold and shape each one to to fit a narrative. I didn't have any specific ideas, but I was definitely—listening back to it, it's a lot more exposed and open and maybe a lot simpler than Dagger Paths. I don't think that takes away from the energy of it though. There was a lot of imagery that I was collating at the time. I had a lot of hard copy images around me so it was interesting to try and pull inspiration from those images and try and distill that into sound. It took so long, so much went into it, and your life changes so much over the course of 18 months—your creative process and decision-making. The album shifted so much over 18 months, like a glacier. It was moving along and then it shifts and melts and suddenly it reveals itself.

Considering how quickly the internet moves, 18 months is a long time to not release another record. It was partly a conscious decision and partly forced upon me because I had some problems with my hearing. I didn't really want to sit down for like three weeks or four weeks solid and make a record at that time. I've gotten used to it now. I can work for longer periods of time, but at the time I was more paranoid about putting myself under more stress. It was partly that, partly personal stuff. I'm conscious of putting things out there that are perfectly rounded and feel fully formed. I don't really feel the need to put demos on SoundCloud or give away free shit all the time just to keep people interested. I know that's the thing nowadays, but I don't feel the need to do that and I think we need to give music fans more credit. It's not like people will forget you. It felt like the right thing to do, to actually take a step back and not be part of that process that you're forced into.

Does slowing down and being deliberate play into the album title? Engravings implies permanence. It's only something I realized after I finished this record. I've had two EPs out now, and this album, and to me they're all fully formed. I cant imagine ever changing them—everything from the artwork to how it sounds and how they're mastered is just right for me. I like the idea that I'll leave those things behind. They're very tangible pieces of work. I look at it from an artistic point of view, more of a fine art point of view perhaps. I'm aware of the…legacy, but [it's] less pretentious than that.

It's like a document of your life. I take back legacy. It's more of an archive. A quite important tutor at art school that taught me a lot died earlier in the year, just as I was getting toward finishing Engravings. It took on a whole other perspective, and I was really conscious of the things I leave behind. Making sure they're absolutely what I want them to be. I think doing loads of SoundCloud stuff—that's not a bad thing, it suits the age we're living in—but I don't feel like that is a positive thing for me to have. I don't want to look back and think, Oh, that SoundCloud embed was really cool. The title is about permanency and making your mark. A lot of what I was taught by this guy was about mark-making. That's when you essentially do something without thinking and then you take that idea and give it weight and build around it. That ties in really heavily with the physical idea of engravings and having something permanent that you can't change and aren't willing to change. It's a fully formed sphere of stuff. That can include videos and artwork and a website—it all has to tie in for me. There has to be threads that run through that whole document.

The physical act of engraving is very slow and meticulous. I was a lot more aware of trying to learn my craft and learn the craft of making music and articulating ideas musically. It fits in with that. A lot of the imagery that presented itself—a lot of gold and bronze and that earthy metallic color—it just seemed like everything I wanted in a title. It fits the sound of it and it fits my view of my work.

It seems like Dagger Paths was about finding your sound, while Engravings is about defining it. It was more about refinement for me. It was about understanding that you don't have to fill space with lots of sound and atmosphere. You can make it kind of intimate. You can make it skeletal and the idea will still be just as valid and the sounds will still be as powerful.

Minimalism is pretty important to music right now. I think it maybe has something to do with the internet age—the fact that there's so much going on, so much noise every day. When you take things away, it makes it more impactful. I don't know whether I can draw those parallels correctly—I don't know if that's why it's happening. With software, it's so easy to fill out space. It's a lot braver to take things away and leave things empty. With software, you have thousands of tracks you can use. They can all be layers of sound. To just have two layers is kind of brave in a way, especially nowadays when most pop music is huge, fully mastered, super loud, super compressed stuff designed for radios. It's almost like a release—an emotional release to take it back down and strip everything away.

Does the fact that you were working cautiously because of your hearing play into the minimalism idea in any way? Yeah. I'm aware of a more natural endpoint where my body is like, Okay, it's time to give it a rest now. It meant that I didn't have the time to fill out and add loads of unnecessary stuff. Dagger Paths felt a lot more like I was throwing stuff around. I was playing around with it. I worked harder on Engravings, basically, but maybe I worked on it harder because I was aware that I only had these short periods of time to play with it. It was quite painful at times. I would do something and I would come back to it and be like, Why was I doing that or why did I do that? This doesn't sound very good. It was different compared to if you worked on a song for an entire day and you got into the zone. I would do like half a song and go back to it and think, This is no good. It did feel as I got further and further into the process that it got more focused.

You came away with a really organic sounding album. It's a very conscious decision that I never want to anchor it in a certain time or a certain kind of thing that's going on. I want it to be very much in its own space. That's partly why I use those sounds. It takes it away from that pure electronic synthesis, which I do love listening to sometimes. But I like the middle ground, when you don't know when it was made—you could play it for someone and they wouldn't say, Oh that record sounds like it was made in 2013.

Which is an interesting way to play against a lot of electronic music, which identifies so heavily with specific sounds as a way of marking time or different eras or niche sub-genres. Right. You could hear a song on the radio and be like, That drum sound is from the '80s, and this specific drum machine—electronic music is very much tied to a timeline. Forest Swords would exist in its own space. It's like being on a traffic island in the middle of a freeway. All these things are going past you, but you are still. I think it's partly to do with the fact that I find nostalgia very uncomfortable; it's very depressing looking back at stuff through rose-tinted glasses. Maybe it's a way for me to combat that. It does tie into that thing about permanency. If you create something that is not tied to a specific time period, it has a lot more of a shelf life, perhaps. I try and avoid using the word timeless because it sounds like you want to be a big star. I like timelessness in the practical aspect, in that it doesn't have a time associated with it.

Interview: Forest Swords