Of all the albums that have insinuated themselves into FACT’s consciousness this year, few continue to feel as resonant and rewarding as Dagger Paths, the debut LP by Forest Swords.
Released by New York’s Olde English Spelling Bee label, Dagger Paths is neither laptop-slick nor lo-fi; rather it’s carefully constructed but highly expressive music with real presence, real character. You can unpick the ‘Swords aesthetic all you like – the plangent, picked-out guitar lines put one in mind of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks, early Tortoise and Angelo Badalamenti at his most mischievous, while the dub-infused sound design recalls the heyday of On-U-Sound – but it doesn’t change the fact his music, in its totality, sounds like no one but he.
Based in The Wirral, a world away from the American terrain stalked out by the hypnagogic and chillwave artists which he tends to be associated with, Forest Swords’ music is suffused with a rainy-day melancholy perhaps unique to the North West of England. But he wrings a tense, redemptive beauty out of that all-consuming pall, and melody is a clear priority, placing him – albeit obliquely – in the grand tradition of Liverpudlian psyche-pop. Combined with his mastery of the spatial arrangement of sound, and an ear for body-jerking hooks learned from a lifetime of R&B and hip-hop fandom, it makes for a heady cocktail indeed – check out his painstakingly edited videos (collected here and embedded throughout this article) for a visual corollary to his sonic explorations.
With a new 7″ out on London’s No Pain In Pop label, Forest Swords – real name Mike Barnes – was kind enough to field some questions from FACT on the origins of the project. We found him to be refreshingly honest, unpretentious and fair-minded, with a strong belief in the importance of emotional ambiguity and a distaste for empty gestures of nostalgia.
How are you? What have you been up to recently?
“I’ve been pretty busy sorting out stuff for this new 7″ on No Pain In Pop, and doing a couple of remixes which should see the light of day in a couple of months.”
Tell us a bit about how Forest Swords came into being, and about your life in music prior to Forest Swords.
“I only started it last summer, so it’s all happened fairly fast – I had some time on my hands and had been meaning to start making music again, as I’d not done anything properly for a few years. I’d tried various things before but this just felt really natural in the way it sounded and fitted together. I just sat down with a guitar one day and it happened.”
“I’ve always liked artists with a pretty clear vision, you know, when everything clicks together. You have to stick with your own ideas of what you want and be pretty disciplined with it.”
What did you grow up listening to? How have your tastes changed or solidified as you’ve grown older?
“I’ve always had a pretty mixed taste, really. It’s only got more like that as time goes on. I listened to a lot of pop and dance stuff when I was younger but the first bands that really made any real impact on me were maybe the punkier end of things. Bands like Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, Blur, Bis, Sleater-Kinney, Kenickie, At the Drive-In, that kind of thing. Those were my gateway bands to all different kinds of artists and learning to respond to music in a different way.”
Were there any particular artists, records or labels that inspired you to make music yourself, and to do so in the style that you do?
“I think it’s mainly the attitudes of some of those bands I mentioned that inspired me, rather than the music itself. Labels like Kill Rock Stars, Slampt or Warp taught me pretty early on that you could make any type of art or music and if it feels good and you’re totally genuine about it people will respond to it, and engage with it. Try to consciously fit in with a trend and you just instantly compromise yourself, so what’s the point in even bothering? Forging your own path is much more exciting because you’re not constantly aware of, or comparing yourself to, what other people are doing. I’ve always liked artists with a pretty clear vision, you know, when everything clicks together – the music, the covers, the visuals, the whole vibe of it. You have to stick with your own ideas of what you want and be pretty disciplined with it.”
“In terms of actual records, I’ve always been drawn to albums that have a bit of tension to them. White Pony by Deftones was a big one for me when I was a teenager – it’s really dark musically but with these joyful melodies. A lot of Smashing Pumpkins and The Knife. Vespertine by Bjork, and [The Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds also, both ridiculously amazing but in turn pretty creepy and melancholy in places. They’re on a knife edge.”
“Try to consciously fit in with a trend and you just instantly compromise yourself, so what’s the point in even bothering?”
Is all the music you make Forest Swords music, or do you write and record some stuff that doesn’t fit with this particular project?
“At the moment yeah, it’s all Forest Swords stuff. In the future I’ve got ideas about moving forward a bit. I’d like to ultimately do soundtracks and scores and things like that. Maybe a bit of producing. I played around with the idea of doing a beat tape a few weeks ago actually, putting out a load of instrumentals and let people do whatever they like with it. I want to try new things out and take it all in different directions as well as doing the traditional release thing. Just challenge myself, really. We’ll see how it goes, anyway.”
Your music sounds steeped in dub, what with all the reverb, the basslines and spacious arrangements. Do you have much of a personal interest in dub/reggae, or have you arrived at these techniques by a more circuitous route?
“I’m a big fan of it. But I only started really immersing myself in the past couple of years. When I was doing my degree, a mate used to play me loads of grime and dancehall, and from there I dived into dub and reggae. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of discovering it, but I’m glad I did. But really, it wasn’t a conscious or calculated decision to make it ‘sound’ like that – I’ve just soaked up so much of that music that it’s come out like it has. There’s a really interesting vibe to a lot of it – there’s tons of space and melody in there, but it feels heavy and claustrophobic a lot of the time. I like the fact you can really feel where it was made as well, the environment and the atmosphere.”
“The production and ideas in hip-hop and R&B are light years ahead of anything else in pop or rock.”
Your guitar sound and melodies bring to mind Ennio Morricone. Are you familiar with his work, and if so, do you see it as an influence on your own?
“Honestly I didn’t realise the similarity until other people pointed it out. I’ve always played guitar like that – teaching yourself, you maybe get into habits you don’t realise other people don’t do. And I’ve never, ever enjoyed playing guitar using chords for some reason – it’s always been about picking out melodies or riffs. Playing chords is just a bit dull for me, and I’ve rarely written music like that. I hadn’t heard any Morricone stuff for ages until people started making these comparisons, and I went and watched the Dollars trilogy, so I’ve got a new-found love for him again.
Have R&B and hip-hop impacted on you at all?
“Yeah, absolutely. Quite often I’d go for weeks and listen to nothing but. Lately it’s been a bit of Brandy, Missy Elliott, Jeru The Damaja and I’ve been trawling through Mary J Blige’s back catalogue again. The production and ideas in hip-hop and R&B are light years ahead of anything else in pop or rock. It’s just a lot more instant, it snaps and jolts in a way that’s really exciting. Even if you go back to the 90s, some of the sounds and rhythms they got away with were ridiculous and abstract. It does go through phases and dry periods but there does seem to be a real joy in pushing things forward or doing something unique. Even if you take something massively mainstream like Kanye West or Black Eyed Peas – both use some really powerful, out-there ideas. ‘Boom Boom Pow’ sounds like something beamed in from another planet.”
“I get a bit confused with the genre names thrown around – chillwave and hypnagogic and all that. I find the nostalgia element a bit off-putting.”
Were your first two cassettes self-released, or are Woven Tones and Leftist Nautical Antiques other people’s labels? Was releasing on cassette done out of necessity, or do you have a particular affection for the medium?
“They’re both small labels that contacted me early on. Leftist regularly puts out really great stuff on tape. Both offered to put out a cassette – it just wasn’t viable to do a 7″ or anything at that time as nobody had heard of me. I was fine with that. Tonnes of stuff still gets released on cassette when you delve a bit deeper underground, especially in those drone and noise areas. It’s just more practical when you don’t know if releases are going to sell more than 30 copies or whatever.”
How did your relationship with Olde English Spelling Bee come about?
“They sent me an email and basically offered to do a 12″ straight up. It all happened very quickly. I was a bit hesitant at first because I’d not really heard much on the label before, but I was really won over by how honest they were. Todd, the guy who runs it, is a real gent. We seemed to share a lot of the same values about things and OESB were really open with what I wanted to do with the 12″. I liked how they were risk-takers, I think – there’s some really weird and wonderful stuff they put out. I’ve been lucky enough to have that release out at a time when OESB’s really come into its own with artists like Julian Lynch and Rangers. I don’t know if I’ll put out anything else on there yet but it’ll be exciting to see where the label goes next.”
“If it’s not done well it can look really lazy – you know, like slapping a faded photograph from the 70s on a record sleeve as shorthand for emotional resonance.”
Do you feel part of the hypnagogic “thing”, or do you feel some distance from it?
“I don’t really feel any affinity with it. Though that’s probably because I really don’t understand it that fully, and haven’t delved that far into it. I get a bit confused with the genre names thrown around – chillwave and hypnagogic and all that. I find the nostalgia element a bit off-putting – in fact I just find nostalgia a bit depressing, if I’m honest. I’ve always disliked looking backwards. If it’s not done well it can look really lazy – you know, like slapping a faded photograph from the 70s on a record sleeve as shorthand for emotional resonance. Any ‘old’ stuff I’ve ever used, like the footage for my videos, it’s all chosen carefully and all re-edited. You have to be respectful with things like that. I spent a long time poring over them and getting them to feel right. They’re purposefully a bit uncomfortable and ambiguous, and all have narratives; it’s not empty rose-tinted nostalgia, I feel uneasy with that. The past wasn’t all that great, was it? We should get excited about the future, not some imaginary ideal of how the past was.”
How would you describe your own music?
“I’ve no idea. Someone emailed me last week to tell me it sounded like ‘strange soul music’ which was quite a nice way of putting it. It’s difficult to be objective about it, because I didn’t set out for it to sound like anything in particular, and I’ve no idea where I fit into the grand scheme of things. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know.”
“The music has been inspired by what’s around locally – the landscape and the environment, echoes, winds and rocks and rivers, the city.”
There’s a lonely, isolationist quality to your music. Is that something you agree with? What mood are you trying to evoke with this project?
“It’s isolationist in that it’s all done by me, I suppose. It’s all about how people infer stuff, isn’t it? I suppose it goes back to those kinds of albums I talked about – where there’s a bit of tension musically or emotionally and it can go either way depending on how you’re listening to it. I’m cool with either as long as people get something from it. As far as moods go, a lot of it’s been inspired by what’s around locally – the landscape and the environment, echoes, winds and rocks and rivers, the city.”
Are there any local artists who you feel an affinity with?
“There’s always interesting stuff going on in Merseyside. I don’t hang out with bands really so I only really know the local scene from a punter’s viewpoint. Philip Jeck is amazing. There’s a lot of stuff bubbling under: Clinic, Mugstar and Apatt are always doing challenging stuff. Bill Ryder-Jones, who used to be in The Coral, is doing great solo work at the moment. There’s tonnes of weird pop bands around. And a lot of promoters and arts organisations that are always putting on good shows across Liverpool.”
Plans for the year ahead…?
“I’m going to start getting out and about towards the end of the year: a bit of DJing and a couple of live shows here and there if it feels right. I’m probably going to start looking towards starting another EP or a full-length later in the year as well, perhaps.”