Pete Swanson Gives All Genres a Beating

Post Author:
Pete Swanson on the beach.

Pete Swanson has been writing and performing music for more than ten years, as a member of Portland's Yellow Swans and also not, and has his name on almost 200 separate releases as a player and producer. Lately, it has seemed like each week a record is slid under my door that has been produced by Swanson, which, when you consider the fact that he is currently attending Columbia University to earn a masters in psychiatric nursing, is a level of hyper-creation that will make you nervously bite your fingernails. His last full-length, Man With Potential [Type, 2011], is a shard-filled sonic alarm clock, loudly ringing with clamorous rhythms. Tomorrow night at 285 Kent, Pete will headline a show, his first in NYC in a while, with Keith Fullerton Whitman, Forma, and SSPS. (Yes, Impose is very excited about this show.) I asked him five questions over email and he replied in about two thousand words, every other email abbreviated with an excited “COOL!” tacked on as we made the arrangements for publishing. Pete was also kind enough to provide some new music for you to listen to. “College View” is an edit of a split with Columbus Ohio's Mike Shiflet, due for release in May on the British label Amish Records. He also provided a clip from another split, the first one in a series from Blackest Ever Black, called “Positive”, and a track he's had up on his Soundcloud for a minute called “Do You Like Students?” At first, I could not resist addressing the pure volume of sound in a finite space. How does he fit it all in?—Ari Spool

Would you consider “urgency” to be a theme of at least the first few tracks on Man With Potential? Why or why not?

I hope that there's some degree of urgency or impact in all of my music. There's also another way of hearing the music that places it in a more ambient/static framework. Ultimately, I'm interested in making music that is not a simple overt gesture. I hope that I can put out music that evokes a variety of responses from people. I'm glad that I've got diverse reactions from the album and that one person can hear a track of mine and consider it to be very melancholy and another person can experience the same track as something that is extremely aggressive.

“Misery Beat” is particularly aggressive though, and I experience a bit of anxiety whenever I hear that track. I grew up listening to a lot of hardcore/grindcore and I feel like that piece is as driving, cathartic and transgressive as any punk gestures. Yellow Swans was initially an attempt to create electronic music that was extremely cathartic and I think this track is an echo of that concept. People who have been listening to my music since day one have mentioned the connection between Man With Potential and early Yellow Swans. Since the release of Man With Potential, I've been working on bringing even more damage to the “techno” framework that I was working with. I'm using a more overtly “electronic dance music” oriented framework, but trying to execute that music in such a way that it's subject to a thorough beating.

I feel like I should add that Man With Potential was recorded in the middle of nowhere and most of the tracks were recorded in early hours of the day. I was as chilled out as I ever am, so I don't really consider this music to be reflective of a particular moment in time or an urgent point in life, It just happened at 9 am one morning when I was staying in this cabin on the edge of the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Do you think electronic dance music deserves the beating you are giving it? As a genre, does it, in your view, have any really fun creators right now? Or, do you think it needs to be wrung dry and reconstituted?

All genres deserve a beating. Established genres and even established aesthetics for individual artists usually lead to boring, middle of the road representations of that genre. Even extreme styles of music are subject to being codified and develop in ways that enhance the most boring aspects of what was once vital music. I think you can pin down a lot of my moves and moves by artists like Dominic Fernow and Spencer Yeh to be related to the noise genre becoming codified and thus a less promising template to use for personal expression.

Of course, the most difficult system to challenge is one's own. Even though I pull from diverse influences, the music I make is still subject to the framework that I've developed for creating music over the last 15 years or so. I've used the same approach and processing systems for the last 7 years with only a few minor deviations. Despite using the same framework, I try and keep the more visible, major works differentiated from each other. I have to embrace that artistic oedipal urge to murder the current album's father but retain some semblance of the sonic genealogical lineage. In some sense, I see my creative process as an act of self-harm as much as it is an act of creation. It may be more self destructive than anything. The jury's still out on that one.

To take it back to dance music. My tastes are fairly arbitrary, but contemporary artists I really like are: Regis, Andy Stott, Holy Other, Raime… I've dug Wolfgang Voigt's music for a long time and I like a lot of music on Basic Channel. Fairly obvious calls, but that's what's been speaking to me. [Ed. note: I had to look up every single one of these people; the only thing I had ever heard of was Basic Channel.]

Electronic dance music and noise music seem so different to me, in the sense of what their goals might be. Dance music, specifically, always seems like it's supposed to be cradling a certain amount of sex appeal, “for the club”, while aggressive and non-aggressive noise music seem more oriented towards a more chaste manner of almost science-lab-type personal expression. When you are murdering electronic dance music, are you eliminating the sexual aspect of it, or are you trying to make aggressive experimental music a little sexier?

I suppose that it's general conventional wisdom that club music = sexy and noise = academic. I really think this is too simplistic. The sexuality of the club is more aligned with really sanitized portrayals of sexuality. It makes me think of a comparison in the rock world being something like Van Halen being “sexy.” It's basically built into the framework of the marketing of the music which portrays overt sexuality in a very safe way. There are sexual gestures built into the music, but it's safe, it's not dangerous, it's not real, it's part of a designed product. If you look at the sexual expression of a group like The Stooges or Whitehouse or something, that expression is both more transgressive and more genuine. In the case of early Whitehouse, the sexual expression is often a source of controversy, but I think the difficult subject matter fits the aesthetic of the sound. There's a really interesting essay by Maja Ratkje where she aligns the misogynist lyrics of Whitehouse as being a feminist gesture because they place those concepts in the same context as murder and pedophilia. I think it's difficult to deny the conflict that arises when considering Whitehouse, but there's also a visceral sexuality to the music. It's music that functions as intellectually engaging art and as an expression of sexuality. I think there's a lot of dance music that manages to do the same. Most dance music and most noise are not successful at being sexy or intellectually engaging.

I'm not interested in the phenomena of dance music or noise music. I'm not interested in making sexy music or making intellectual music. I'm simply trying to make music that is real and conveys many different things to different people. I record everything live to two tracks to preserve some degree of immediacy in my work. Everything that I'm releasing has happened live without overdubs, without computer processing. It's ugly, it's flawed and it's music that I found to be gripping over numerous listens. I record constantly, hash out tons of different ideas and trash 99% of what I do. I usually know when I've got something good on my hands from a point where I'm in the process of recording the track.

I also feel like I should make clear that in the last year I've experimented with recordings that are more aligned with psych rock, classical, folk, etc as well as techno. I'm into an exploded aesthetic vs a cohesive one. The cohesion is all in the systems ive developed to create the music. I'm pulling ideas from everywhere and it's absolutely unclear if I'll make another record that is so aligned with electronic dance music.

Some of the most disappointing concerts I've been to have involved interesting electronic musicians catering to a club environment. I saw Autechre play a show in 2000 that was pretty “club” oriented and it was hugely disappointing. When I see someone live, I want to see them take risks, I want to see them fail. I don't want to see someone providing a sonic backbone to a weekend warrior's night of debauchery.

Other than leaving in the flaws, how do you think your recorded music shows the systems you devise to create/compose it?

By flaw, I'm not really speaking to Problematic execution. I'm not leaving in wrong notes or bad mixing. . . But my setup features several venues for sounds to influence each other. Lately the more techno-related work I'm doing is extremely dense and there is a lot of interference between sounds. These venues basically lead to almost all of the sounds being represented as bastardized forms of the original input into the mixer. Sounds will become rhythmic that are drones, high pitched sounds or low pitched sounds can envelop other sounds. It's a very messy processing system and it's incredibly unpredictable.

I'm not sure if the casual listener will be able to determine what's what in my tracks, but everything I do is run through the same processing system. It's what defines my sound. I don't need the system to be apparent to the listener and I think that a certain sense of mystery is important in listening to or creating anything worth spending time with. I don't even understand what is happening in my setup a lot of the time. I'm not always in the driver's seat. I have to react to what's occurring at the moment.

Do you have suggestions for artists who are trying to push the boundaries of experimentalism? Advice for people who are trying to keep their work from falling into the pitfalls of repetition and codification? What can people do to make sure they are creating challenging, interesting work?

Well… That's the million dollar question, isn't it?

I don't think I'm successful at avoiding being recursive, either on the larger scale or on a personal one, and I really don't think I could guide another person through any sort of process of determining what works for them in that quest. I try and develop my work organically through constant experimentation on my own or with others. I try and avoid treating what I do as being precious or even valuable beyond the time that I am actually working on the piece. I'm concerned with the process of creating and then sculpting these raw blocks of sound into something more compelling. Once the take is edited into a usable track, those refined blocks are further refined into releases through more rounds of editing and discarding. Ultimately, the resulting piece of sound that I'm sitting with often feels very removed from myself. I have a disassociated relationship with the work that I'm credited for making.

My whole thing is working with plural coding, pulling influence from anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes my work is more focused on techno, folk, psychedelic rock, musique concrete, etc, and those influences are revealed simultaneously and often in ways that are more weighted towards one approach than another. These leanings arise from personal sonic concerns at the time of inspiration. There's also a lot of ideas, conceptual frameworks, approaches, etc that arise from reading or having conversations with friends or whatever that work their ways into the music. In no instance am I ever concerned with doing things in an authentic way, but I embrace the refraction of interpretation and am happy to let a track that I started off imagining as my version of techno-pop becoming this nightmarish electronic abstraction.

So, in a sense, I see the pursuit of authenticity as being entirely without value. I also feel similarly with virtuosity and “doing things the right way”… I've seen so many bands/artists make one good record and then end up being terrible with following releases. I see all this as some odd desire to better emulate the artists they're inspired by, along with a predictable move towards technical capability. I would hope, at some point, the focus would shift to the pursuit of more individualistic and sincere/honest work that includes stuff as broad as playing with genre and as narrow as developing one's own approach to producing albums in the studio. I really just look for music that is emotionally gripping or intellectually stimulating. I could care less about a good hook. There have been so many great hooks in all sorts of music, do we really need any more? We probably don't need any more abstract scrapings either, but people keep picking up my records and writing about them so I don't see a reason to not put out something I'd be doing anyway. I can't quit music, I've tried too many times.