Pete Swanson may be most famous for his work in the celebrated noise duo Yellow Swans, whose six years together lead them to acclaim in the experimental scene, with releases on labels like Root Strata and Type. Yet, Swanson also has a longstanding solo career, with a sound that is continually evolving. Most notably, he is a case study of an American musician whose work is slowly crossing over the boundary from noise to techno. The early stages of Swanson's transition to more dance-oriented music was in 2010, when he recorded Man With Potential in an isolated spot in Oregon, shortly before moving to New York in 2011 to begin an accelerated nursing program at Columbia. In New York, a scene of similarly-minded musicians with noise backgrounds were an apt audience for Swanson's new record, attracting him a fresh following. Swanson is once again switching up locales, soon ditching the east coast for Los Angeles, where he will seek out employment opportunities and take advantage of more spacious accomdations for his musical projects. We recently took some time to talk to Swanson about his experiences in New York and the ongoing convergence of techno and noise into the powerful hybrid it has become.
AdHoc: It’s sad to hear you’re leaving New York. When did you move here and what stuff did you see right away that you really liked?
Pete Swanson: I moved to New York in summer 2011, and I couldn’t really go to shows very much for awhile because of a very accelerated program I was in at Columbia. One of the first shows that I saw was actually a Bunker show with Rene Hell, Keith Fullerton Whitman, JD Emmanuel, Raglani, Led Er Est, and Kassem Mosse. It was kind of bonkers! Actually, one of my favorite things about that show was that Rene Hell managed to get really drunk that night, and he was leaning over pretty heavily on the table while he was playing one of his laptop sets. You probably know his music is getting more and more abstract, and there was this point where it was getting very, very quiet, but then it just stopped. He was just sitting there; he didn’t move at all, didn’t change his expression, and was just pawing his mouse. It seemed to take way too long, somewhat more than a minute. Eventually the promoter came onstage and tapped him on the shoulder to figure out what was going on, and it looked like he just tapped the space bar and all the sudden all of this crazy noise started coming out of his computer after total silence for that time. It turned out his computer had crashed, and he had to reboot it. He was drunk enough it didn’t really register, so he restarted it onstage without letting the crowd know, and it took forever.
It's been a few years since I've seen people on Facebook bitching about noise “going disco.” 2011 saw the release of Container's debut LP on Spectrum Spools, Pete Swanson's Man With Potential on Type, and the early swath of Vatican Shadow tapes on Dominick Fernow's own Hospital Productions. Some, like myself, went bonkers for the propulsive, fucked up sound innovated by these artists. Whether you were a head banger or a viber, these sounds seemed to destroy all rational thought and force you to listen with your whole body. Some grumpy dudes (often dudes) saw the fusion of noise and beats as a gimmick, something trendy that merited an eye roll.
It wasn't new, and it wasn't a fad. That much has become obvious. Unicorn Hard-On had been messing with dance music in plain sight at noise shows for years, and there is an entire history of power electronics which preceded '00s American noise music. Electronic music is a continuum, on which the distance between noise and dance music seems to fluctuate over the course of time. Right now, the two are particularly close, as you are generally hard pressed to find basically any experimental electronic music without a beat these days. Even the most abstract modular synthesists tend to have a metronomic tic that drives their improvisations. People will continue to gain interest and lose interest in beats until the final humans are extinguished on an interstellar mission to inhabit a new Earth.
Get ready for a bunch of names we already blather about enough as is. Local music collective Shinkoyo-- which founded Paris London West Nile, now better known as 285 Kent-- has just announced a two-day festival at Downtown Brooklyn's Roulette. Centered around technology and dubbed Mixology, the festival will feature performances by favorites Pete Swanson, M. Geddes Gengras, C. Lavender, and John Elliott's Outer Space. Additional attractions include a children's music workshop conducted by Laraaji and a record fair of labels including Software, PAN, and RVNG. Well, fuck.
In the following essay, DeForrest Brown remembers 2013 as the year that Oneohtrix Point Never's R Plus Seven helped widen and redefine the parameters of avant-garde practice in music. It's the first in a series of think-pieces focused on the limitations of retro-gazing in music, and how the death of the signifier is necessary for the musical narrative to progress.
A strict and dividing line has been drawn following the release of Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven. OPN, real name Daniel Lopatin, has over the course of his career appeared to become more and more interested in the distance between music and other art forms, slowly moving from the position of musician to that of cultural examiner. In the wake of R Plus Seven, the current spate of safely “experimental” post-internet musicians, locked in an aimless groove of pop songs with a slight edge, has been replaced with a new and bolder possibility. Taking digital artifacts (known computer-related sounds such as text-to-speech inputs), R Plus Seven displays all of them at once and out of semantic or logical order, miming the way that the contemporary listener typically experiences music: on their own terms, intermittently in their daily routine. The album toys with the listener’s relationship with the artifacts of lived experience and scatters them, reappropriating them, nullifying their meaning.
Not surprisingly, in interviews, OPN has made some very interesting and definitive statements about the current state of music, notably pointing to a lag between it and other forms. “I think there's things to accomplish in music that have already been accomplished in the visual arts and prose," he told Resident Advisor in an interview surrounding the album. "There's knives that have been put in the heart of mediums-- the James Joyce effect-- that have not been put into music.” This interest in a severing of ties with the basic functions and ideas of music, the suggestion that music in its current form is no longer capable of carrying a message on its own legs, is appealing in that it sees Lopatin scrutinizing the medium in which he operates. It's as though he's calling its very structure inadequate, limp and staid in the face of other media. The proposition of a knife piercing the heart of music suggests a firm new route, one dealing more with process and texture than exhausted genre forms and traditions. This new possibility in music is decidedly post-Mark Fell and Autechre, that is post-deconstructionist, past the point of meditatively toying with modes of tuning and rhythmic structures in digital-spatial settings. This approach is more generative, constructive in focus, geared to a more physical and spatially oriented music.
Boiler Room sets are purveyed as an emulation of being in a small room with your favorite DJ. But generally, watching a DJ set on your computer-- as opposed to say, dancing to one in a dark warehouse-- is just a tad more interesting than frying a really good egg. Pete Swanson's set stands as an egg-ception. You're familiar with Swanson's noise/party binary if you have listened to his most recent recorded work,yet his live sets tend to induce the feeling that you're raging at the lip of a sink hole which leads straight to Mother Earth's own magma wound. You can't really emulate the loudness on your headphones, but you do get an accurate sense of Swanson's relentless half hour which seems to crack temporality itself. The video hilariously juxtaposes dance music of the utmost brutality with half-assed vibing and visible boredom. Party on, Pete.
“Lose your mind in an empty street.
Empty minds please stay asleep.”
--Wolf Eyes, “Choking Flies”
“Black girl sipping white wine,
Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.
Grabbed it with a slight grind.
Held it 'till the right time,
Then she came like *robot orgasm*
That's why I'm in it and I can't get out”
--Kanye West, “I'm In It”
What is it that Kanye can't get out of? Is it that daughter-bearing “pussy”? Is it the shackles of wealth and fame, the omniscient gaze of a paparazzi society? Is it even just life itself? “I'm in it and I can't get out” is basically the premise of every story by Philip K. Dick, Franz Kafka, and Michael Bay. The only other rapper with the balls to fixate on existential dread for an entire album was Biggie and they shot him for it. Of course, Biggie came in the midst of lyrical trends that were constituted on hardness, while today's rappers are more concerned with getting high than selling drugs. Street violence is nowadays the lyrical territory of rappers with names like Gunplay and gunshots are more likely to show up as a snare hit in a trap song than as the topic of a verse. In the age of Drake, Miguel, and Old Man Jay-Z, it's pretty bizarre to hear an album that's the equivalent of screaming at your drug-smeared visage in the mirror.
As with any iconic vision of noise, Pete Swanson's is idiosyncratic. Noise sprung from subversion-- by terminology alone, noise is music's waste, or at the very least, music's other-- and its progenitors were often obsessed with power dynamics. For Whitehouse, it was society's institutional power. For Boyd Rice, it was the performer's power over audience. The 00's noise scene saw a plurality of new voices, few of them reverent to the genre's genesis. But then again, a strata that's so anarchically diverse barely allows for reverence. In both Yellow Swans and his own solo work, Pete Swanson has repurposed noise's power as power over self: power to induce ecstasy, to foster catharsis, sometimes to just get trippy and have some fun.
Swanson's history is very tied up in reformulations of noise. The Jyrk collective that he helmed with Eric Dreg and fellow Yellow Swan, Gabriel Saloman, supported the likes of Axolotl, John Weise, Grouper, White Rainbow, and Xiu Xiu. You could not name a more disparate group of musicians, but Jyrk's catalog is a reminder that noise was never a prescription for sound, instead a grounds for diverse and radical exploration. In truth, you'd be hard pressed to call more than a handful of Jyrk affiliates noise-- if anything, their tie to the supergenre is in the community of a scene which itself couldn't be called much else besides noise.
Seems as if the Vernal Equinox bacchanal/orgy has come a couple weeks early. Pete Swanson-- gatekeeper of facts about Pete Swanson-- has teamed up with Britain's Dazed and Confused to bring us an early stream of his new EP on Software Label, Punk Authority. Swanson has been tackling this "mutant techno" thing for a few years now, and Punk Authority is his harshest, rawest, most fucked up iteration of this to date. Good music for pumping iron or driving too fast or maybe just a quiet dinner with the one you love, if you love someone really cool.
Anyone else finds it jarring that Pete Swanson now gets music videos made in advance of albums? Whomever helmed this project very literally applied common Swanson descriptors like "death rave" and "nervous breakdown in the club." Anywho, even if the visuals themselves don't particularly whet the old appetite, the sounds sure do. It's great to see Swanson consistently reconciling his noise lineage with his recent beat infatuation, instead of just ditching noise at an interstate rest stop. Punk Authority is shaping up to be the most brutal entry in the man's post-Yellow Swans catalog.
Pete Swanson, one of our favorite modular synth maestros, has teamed up with experimental composer Ashley Paul to remix her track "Soak the Ocean", which we wrote about here. In the original, Paul uses abrasive white noise to punctuate her delicate cocktail of saxophone, vocal harmonies, and chiming piano. These brief moments of radio hiss became the basis of Swanson's take on "Soak the Ocean", as he creates a bed of noise that Paul's melody floats dreamily along on top of. Swanson's remix manages to be at once quiet and loud, silky soft and rough, melodic and dissonant.
"Soak the Ocean" is off the forthcoming Line the Clouds, which will be released March 18 on Eli Keszler's REL Records.