Interview by Shannon Lawlor
Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords is an experimental electronic musician and producer hailing from Liverpool, UK. Since 2010, Forest Swords has released numerous EPs and two full length albums; Engravings which was released in 2013 via Tri Angle, and 2017’s Compassion released via Ninja Tune, which saw a slight change in direction, blurring the line between analogue and organic composition, using newly found techniques from generated instruments and digital processing.
Forest Swords’ music could be best described as a blend of lush, fervent electronics, against deep, vigorous textures and atmospheres. Haunting, processed vocal work and a vast array of programmed beats and drums encapsulate Forest Swords’ distinct signature and intimate sound.
We spoke with Matthew Barnes on recording Forest Swords’ last album Compassion, and where to stop when on tour:
After stepping into such an ever-changing period within the electronic music realm, could you give us some background on how you first formed Forest Swords, and what your initial vision around starting the project was?
I got made redundant from my job, and just started playing around with sounds and music software. It was really just out of boredom, but I started to realise it was creating this sound world for myself that I could extend into making proper tracks. I gradually started to upload some tracks here and there – back in the days of mp3 music blogs – and it really slowly snowballed from there. There was no particular vision or concept for it, it just kind of presented itself.
Your last LP Compassion was released in May, and was met with much praise. What can you tell us about the recording process, and how it may have differed from previous sessions?
‘Engravings’ was written in one room over the course of about a year, but I’d been travelling around so much playing shows that I really wanted to get back to a lot of the places I’d visited to try and write. Just taking it outside of a single space was really liberating and just being able to collect sounds and snippets of ideas here and there. Consequently I think ‘Compassion’ probably sounds a bit more open and welcoming than ‘Engravings’. It’s a bit warmer, and less closed-in.
Forest Swords’ tours seem to be quite fruitful in destination – where are some of your most memorable countries or towns to perform in?
It’s usually the ones that aren’t major touring cities that are the best. This tour, places like Bern in Switzerland, Belgrade, and Prague, have been the most enjoyable. Eastern Europe is always really good to play: Poland, Croatia, etc all really seem to ‘get’ what I do and have a real appreciation for electronic music.
If you could collaborate with, or perform alongside any artist, who would it be?
Kate Bush or Bjork, probably. I don’t think either of them need me, of course, but it would be great to spend some time in the studio to see how they work.
During performances your energy is definitely enchanting. Could you elaborate on what some of your favourite aspects of performing live are, when being compared to a typical recording process?
I couldn’t think of anything worse than just standing behind a laptop motionless. The more you play live the more you realize that it’s just a dialogue between the person on stage and the audience, the energy goes back and forth a lot. I can be pretty enthusiastic on stage but I’m not really aware of what I’m doing most of the time. It’s fairly cathartic some nights when the audience and myself feel on a similar level. Compared to recording, it’s a lot more spontaneous and direct.
Name three of your favourite albums of 2017?
Greg Fox, Mogwai, and Actress.
Are there any key pieces of equipment, hardware, software – or even acquired techniques that you feel is most detrimental to capturing Forest Swords’ unique sound, and if so, could you explain why?
My phone’s voice recorder has captured lots of different sounds that have made it into tracks over the past couple of years. I’ll pull out a lot of found sounds and use them as drum hits, or just to have a bed of ambient sound at the bottom of a track. Recording stuff like that makes you listen to the world a bit differently.
You are also a talented graphic designer, receiving attention from prestigious publications such as Dazed & Confused, Creative Review etc. How does your artistic aesthetic fit into the imagery of Forest Swords?
For me it’s just about creating a fully-realized thing for people to delve into. The artwork is just as important as the music to me, they go hand in hand and need to work together, or ask questions of each other. As a music fan I’ve always loved poring over artwork and packaging and so it’s really crucial that I get to pass that on to people who decide to buy my stuff too, or come to a live show.
If you could single-handedly change the music industry – how would you do it?
I’d make the entry points for people from low-income backgrounds a lot easier. I don’t know how I’d do it, but nowadays most of the music industry is made up of people who can afford to earn low wages in big cities – be it they’re independently wealthy, or whatever. It goes for both musicians and people who work on the industry side too. There’s no way you can continue to have a diverse and future-thinking industry when it’s all from the same pool of people.
Forest Swords is currently on a European tour. See dates below –
18/10/17: Village Underground – London, UK
19/10/17: The Haunt – Brighton, UK
20/10/17: Headrow House – Leeds, UK
21/10/17: Gorilla – Manchester, UK
25/10/17: Teatr Warsawy – Warsaw, Poland
27/10/17: Six Dogs – Athens, Greece
28/10/17: Salon ISKV – Istanbul, Turkey
29/11/17: GNRation – Braga, Portugal
30/11/17: ZDB – Lisbon, Portugal
01/12/17: Caracol – Madrid, Spain
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Image credit: Dense Truth