By the beginning of this year, most of us had probably given up hope of hearing another record from Forest Swords.
Certainly, the signs didn’t look good. After the success of his Dagger Paths EP – a remarkably poised and ageless synthesis of hip-hop, dub, doom metal and Morricone-esque melodics that ranked among the most interesting debuts of 2010 [and ranked as FACT’s #1 record of 2010] – Matthew Barnes seemed to do everything in his power to reject the trappings of success. He stayed in The Wirral, where he had lived all his life, hung onto his day job as a graphic designer, and pointedly ignored the hordes of music industry admirers hammering on his door. There was even, he says, a period when he considered abandoning music-making altogether.
We should be thankful, of course, that he didn’t. But the fact that music seems to be a thoroughly secondary concern for Barnes might just be the source of his strength. In many respects his debut LP, Engravings, is more of the same – there are few radical departures from the sound laid out in Dagger Paths. But such a distinctive sound is it, so unstirred by the prevailing winds of taste and so keenly, patiently distilled, that it’s near impossible to resist its charms. One sweltering afternoon in early August Barnes made the trip down to London for the debut show of former Sugababes trio MKS (the first Sugababes LP was, he says, “a seminal British pop record”). FACT’s Angus Finlayson cornered him on a shadeless roof terrace to discuss the inception of the record, and why it might mark the end of his lifelong relationship with The Wirral.
So, how are you finding this extreme weather?
Considering I’m the palest person in the world, I actually quite like the summer. I’m not as bad as most ginger people [laughs], who just cower whenever the sun comes out. I’m pretty into it.
I gather you mixed the album outdoors. That’s a very arresting image. What time of year was this? I guess I had assumed you were working under sullen grey skies, gathering storm clouds etc.
It was done early spring this year. This winter seemed to last for three or four months longer than it should have done, so it was quite overcast and thundery, fairly cold. I decided to mix it outdoors because I did the whole record in my room, so I felt like I needed to break out of it a little bit. The most obvious place was this little bench near where I live that overlooks the River Dee – which is the opposite side of The Wirral to the River Mersey. I did all the record on my laptop, so you can take it anywhere really. Initially I was going to record it outdoors too, but logistically it was a bit of a nightmare. So in the end I set myself the three hour battery life on my laptop for every song.
So you had to finish mixing a song within those three hours?
Yeah. It was quite interesting – considering [writing] the record took so long, and then the mixing was this regimented process. As well as the weight of creating the music, I think deciding when it’s finished is also quite an important thing. Because it could just go on for ages and ages if you let it.
That idea, of recording outside, reminds me of Matthew Herbert – how he doesn’t soundproof his studio, so that sounds from the outside world can bleed in. Were you thinking along those lines?
I think it was all about focus really. Certainly the process of mixing outside. It’s so different from mixing indoors, because suddenly your focus changes – you have all these things around you. You aren’t as stringently looking at things in the same way that you would be if you were in a dark room. So I hoped that in some way a different energy from the outside might bleed into the music. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous. But I hoped that kind of vibrational thing you get outside sometimes might change the way I listened to the music, and change the way I mixed the music. It’s certainly something I’d like to try again, maybe with more resources.
And could you have been in any place, or is there something specifically about The Wirral?
Yeah, I grew up there so it’s got that emotional pull for me. And it’s quite a unique place, the terrain of it – you have sandstone, a beach, these incredible views, then there’s Liverpool, which is 20 minutes away. It’s this whole mish-mash of energy and vibration and texture and colour. So I definitely get something from it – some kind of… inspiration.
I understand you’ve been looking into local folklore, too. How did that feed into the album?
Obviously everywhere has history, but when you grow up [somewhere] it contextualises it a lot more. It’s a lot more impressive when you can see physically where those things are. Thor’s stone, for instance, is a place in a village called Thurstaston. Local legend has it that it was used as a sacrificial place for Vikings and settlers and stuff. So to find all these things… it kind of felt right for me. And it came at a time when I maybe wanted that connection with my home. You get to a certain age where you want to reconnect with where you were born and where you grew up.
For many young people the place where they grew up is the most horrifically mundane place imaginable. Have you ever been tempted to move away from that part of the UK?
Not really, no. It’s a strange one because I love visiting different places. I’d never really thought of it like this, but maybe this record is my way of drawing a line under that place, so I can move on from there. Because I certainly have different urges – especially playing shows in all these different places, you think, ‘Oh man, I’d love to stay in this place for a while.’ Maybe that’s the way forward for me now, I don’t know. Maybe that’s what this record’s all about and I’ve only just realised [laughs].
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With the success that you had a few years back, a lot of people would have moved to London or Berlin, one of these cultural hubs. Did you feel pressure to do that?
Yeah. Because you get offered shows, you can go into the studio somewhere, get cheap space somewhere. But I had a day job, primarily. That was almost handy – I wasn’t suckered into that whole cycle of having to go on tour, moving to London and becoming an ‘artist’. It was never really attractive for me anyway. I think it weakens your work, in a way, because you’re on that treadmill. You say yes to things you don’t want to do. So I was very conscious, when [the early releases] did well, of not getting into that whole thing. Like I only just got a manager a month ago. There was a real power in me doing it myself, and not having people to dictate to me what I was going to do.
In the past it’s been clear that you’ve been very independent – handling the music, the art direction entirely on your own. With this record, have you had to learn to collaborate more?
No – I was actually quite surprised. I’ve done all the design for this [record], the art direction, the website. I’m working on the videos with other people. I recorded it myself, mixed it myself, sorted the mastering myself. It still feels like a very DIY operation. I was very scared of doing things like getting a manager – I was so die-hard DIY, and I thought I would have people to answer to. Whereas if anything it actually empowers me to have these people on board who are totally cool with the way I do things. I’m definitely not easy to work with [laughs].
Did you feel a lot of pressure, working on this record, from the success you’d had prior?
Not really. I was all set on not doing another record. Because I’m a designer, and I’ve trained as a designer, I quite often think in terms of modular projects. I thought, ‘Well, Dagger Paths was quite a nice object, in a way, on its own. Maybe I don’t need to do another one – maybe it’s a nice statement just to leave it like that.’ Because I never really strived to be a musician, that was never really on the cards. You know, a lot of musicians sit there wanting to get signed and tour – whereas to me it just happened completely accidentally.
So it took you a year, two years to make the tracks?
Probably about eighteen months.
Are you very self-critical – did you keep discarding things and starting again?
Yeah, it went through loads and loads of variations. I kind of approached it how I would approach designing something: you sketch out an initial idea that’s quite natural… you know, like automatic writing, where you don’t even think about it, something happens. And then you layer it – you add texture, colour, physicality to it. Gradually building it up and taking layers away. It’s quite an interesting process for me, because all the bands that I like are kind of punk bands – bands that just record straight off, and you can hear that immediacy. Whereas this record definitely went through different processes. I’ve also had quite bad tinnitus, so I can’t really spend that much time… I know a lot of musicians work for days and days on end on their music. I literally do half an hour an evening. For my own peace of mind, too: I think you can get into weird spaces when you spend too long on something, you kind of lose all objectivity on it.
It’s interesting that so much time and thought has gone into each track, because they sound very reduced – they’re not excessively layered, or over-detailed. Where do you think that tendency to distill comes from?
Again, it’s probably from being a designer. In that I understand that if you have a powerful idea, it’s OK to strip everything away and leave the bare bones. It has more weight to it almost, rather than filling it up with loads of auxiliary sounds and textures.
It’s interesting that the album was made entirely on a laptop. I had assumed, from the sound of it, that you were sampling live drums maybe, or…
No, it’s all within a laptop. I just spend a lot of time processing sounds, getting the right sonic palette. I spend a long time tweaking things, making sure it’s the right sound, making sure it resonates with me on some level.
I guess that’s partly about degradation, right? The way in which you’ve distorted or roughed-up the sounds?
Yeah. I don’t know why I prefer those kind of sounds. Maybe it’s those punk bands I like. Or, when I first started making music when I was 12 or 13 I used to record into a four track, so maybe it’s come from that – I’ve just become used to that warmth. A lot of electronic music is super clean and shiny and pristine – that doesn’t speak to me on any level.
How about the use of your own vocals. Do they serve a special expressive purpose, or are they just another sound to be manipulated?
I went through quite a difficult period making the record, personally, so a lot of it felt like a bit of an emotional release, in a way. So I didn’t want it to be a cold production record. To have that personal interjection occasionally felt necessary. A lot of the record is actually samples spliced with my own voice – I pitched them together and mashed them together. I’d pick certain clips of vocals, then sing along to them, click those together, pull them out, pull the threads of them.
I gather you’re in London to see the Mutya Keisha Siobhan show tonight. Are you a Sugababes fan?
That first album for me is a seminal British pop record. It was so ahead of its time. It had this UK garage thing, it had British soul. And their harmonies were just insane, from a technical perspective – they’re like, distilled from heaven or something. It’s completely ridiculous how great they sound together. It’s a shame they kind of went to shit after that. But yeah, I’m dead excited to see what they’ve got up to. That probably sounds ridiculous in the context of the kind of music that I make [laughs]. It’s funny actually, part of the reason that I got talking to Tri Angle is because [label boss Robin Carolan] is a big pop fan as well. We grew up listening to the same things, the same trajectory – pop music, then the Neptunes production stuff and Timbaland, then Aaliyah, blah blah blah. Though for me I had punk stuff that intersected with that. It’s quite an interesting label to be on – to me it’s a pop label, in a weird way.
Final question. When you look back on Engravings, do you get the same feeling you had with Dagger Paths? That it’s self-contained and doesn’t need to be added to – that it might the last record you make?
Yeah. I think I would always look at every record like that. Because I’m not attached to being a musician. It doesn’t hold any romanticism for me. It’s just something I’m doing right now. And if it comes to and end then I’m totally fine with that, I’ll just move onto some other work. That might anger some musicians that work hard – it’s not me being ungrateful. But I think it’s healthy to look at the record like that – not to have a ten year plan of what you’re going to do. I think you just have to let the music happen. You just have to bear witness to it.