Feeling that resonance. Intervista a Forest Swords
Feeling That Resonance. An interview with Forest Swords

Incontriamo Forest Swords, ovvero Matthew Barnes, al Mattatoio di Carpi il pomeriggio della stessa giornata che lo vedrà suonare in duo nel locale, all’interno di un ottimo programma di preview organizzato dal Node Festival. Di Barnes conosciamo tutto o quasi, a livello mediatico. Sappiamo che al voltar della decade è stato uno dei protagonisti più monitorati di una scena dai nuovi ed inediti contorni crossover tra melodia e ritmi, assieme a James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Balam Acab e How to Dress Well, un contesto tanto caratterizzato da un uso estensivo del laptop, tra layer e manipolazioni, quanto dall’impiego di suoni concreti e di particolari settaggi sulle voci, richiamate più come essenze collaterali che come guide all’arrangiamento.

Il marchio Forest Swords, in particolare, sembra veramente vincere tutto nel 2010, anno in cui, a distanza di circa 12 mesi dalle prime immersive session compositive, il suo giovane autore si ritrova Dagger Paths – EP d’esordio uscito inizialmente su Olde English Spelling Bee e poi riedito per la londinese No Pain In Pop con l’aggiunta del 7”’ Rattling Cage – tra le migliori uscite della stagione secondo Fact (che lo nomina album dell’anno), Pitchfork (che lo valuta con un generoso 8.4), Drowned In Sound (ancora più alto, con 9/10) e per finire il popolare Guardian (che lo indica tra le perle nascoste di quell’anno). A livello di fama, e di conseguenza sul piano dell’agenda concerti, un giovane poco più che ventenne, passa in un lampo dallo strimpellare con una chitarra collegata ad un portatile in una provincia ad ovest di Liverpool a fenomeno di culto per le più importanti riviste specializzate al di qua come al di là dell’Atlantico.

Giusto un anno più tardi la stessa sorte toccherà all’amico e compagno d’etichetta Evian Christ, che finirà in uno dei tanti co-crediti di Yeezus di Kanye West, ma questa è un’altra storia, pur con qualche analogia e un importante elemento in comune, ovvero Tri Angle. Tri Angle non solo è l’etichetta che accomuna i due ragazzi, ma anche un solido porto per suoni che si sono svincolati, in particolare negli ultimi due anni, dalle tag e dai luoghi comuni hypnagogic e witch house per abbracciare alcuni dei più freschi mix di disparati elementi quali hip hop, wave, ambient, ambient, noise, instustrial, techno, dub ecc. All’interno del roster, Forest Swords – il cui sound era già assolutamente ricettivo fin dall’esordio su Olde English Spelling Bee – fa la figura della matta nel mazzo, anche solo per l’uso “rockabilly” (davidlynchiano? morriconiano?) della chitarra, elemento che lo ha reso appetibile per tutta una serie di ascoltatori e non solo per gli aficionados dell’elettronica.

Premessa doverosa per introdurvi al racconto di una chiacchierata con il ragazzo al di sotto degli strati di paragoni, paralleli, contesti e sotto-contesti. C’è una bella differenza tra il Matthew Barnes sagoma in bianco e nero con il ciuffo arricciato sulla fronte delle foto press e il ragazzo con i capelli rossicci che, di fronte a noi, braccia incrociate e gambe accavallate, ci racconta di sé seduto comodo e un po’ rigido su una poltrona in pelle imbottita. E’ un bravo ragazzo, questo lo si capisce immediatamente. Pragmatico e cortese nella media inglese, con un accento non troppo marcato e già una certa pratica con le interviste, dove senza sbottonarsi troppo fa emergere fatti sui quali non c’è nessun segreto, nessun riserbo e tanto meno colpi di scena. Il progetto nasce in un momento un po’ buio. Perso il lavoro, nel 2009, Barnes, ancora piuttosto fresco di studi alla scuola d’arte, ha un sacco di tempo libero e con una chitarra che maneggia già dall’età di 12 anni (un regalo di Natale) e un laptop, impiegato sia per usi di grafica artistica che per manipolazioni e stratificazioni sonore, inizia ad immergersi in una serie di possibilità arrangiative senza pensare a un domani né tanto meno a chiudere questa o quella composizione. “Poi le cose hanno iniziato a prendere forma e un senso“, ci confessa “ho postato questi demo su internet e qualcuno poco dopo mi ha chiesto se volevo produrli“.

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Foto di Daniele Casciari

La storia di Matthew sembra tra quelle che non si scrivono, con il lieto fine all’inizio del film: un breve abbattimento, l’escapismo creativo, la svolta, il successo. “Nel mentre è stata dura ma guardando le cose a posteriori, è stato un processo naturale, organico“, ammette all’inizio dell’intervista, eppure, man mano che la nostra chiacchierata procede, è sempre più chiaro quanto dietro al risultato conseguito dal producer ci sia un lavoro enorme di concentrazione, di metodo e di sintesi che non si traduce facilmente in un racconto di influenze. Certo, all’inizio è molto “interessato al reggae, al dub e al rock“, e rivela di aver speso “un sacco di tempo ascoltando interi box set della Trojan“. Eppure Forest Swords è molto di più, riassume un range di influenze di cui il suo autore non solo non è consapevole al momento della composizione, ma non è neppure interessato a discernere se non, eventualmente, a posteriori.

Molto più interessante per lui è il racconto del tempo speso per ottenere quel particolare effetto sui piatti e sulle percussioni, quel particolare timbro nei suoni. Un po’ come Aphex Twin, gli diciamo, e lui, ridendo, continua illuminato descrivendoci questo processo come “quando metti una chiave in una serratura e trovi il giusto click che fa girare gli ingranaggi“. Precisa di non sentirsi un perfezionista nel senso comune del termine perché ci sono “suoni grezzi o parecchio ruvidi” nel suo lavoro, ma è evidente che fare musica per lui è un processo che richiede moltissimo tempo. “Non direi di essere un perfezionista nel senso di uno che vuole tutto a puntino… …diciamo che quando sento quella precisa risonanza in un brano solo allora sento di poter andare avanti“.

Risonanza è forse una delle parole più rappresentative della musica di Forest Swords, è qualcosa che vibra in spazi aperti, che possiede carattere ed è refrattaria ai contenimenti, un piccolo mondo dai confini non ben delimitati eppur visibili che nasce magari da una scoperta, da un particolare attorno a cui viene costruito un insieme più o meno articolato e non gerarchico di elementi. I suoi remix, di fatto, vengono composti proprio in questo modo. “Quando remisso un brano ho l’abitudine di trovare un piccolo frammento o qualcosa di inusuale all’interno che mi colpisce e una volta individuato cerco di costruirci un pezzo nuovo attorno. Così invece di metterci un beat dietro come fanno molti, lo rifaccio da capo. C’è molta più soddisfazione così ma può diventare molto stancante e richiedere molto tempo“.

forest-swords

Una delle ragioni per le quali Barnes non dedica più molto tempo a questi lavori su commissione (“Devi stabilire delle priorità e quelle a un certo punto sono per la tua musica“) rappresenta un altro indizio della sua concretezza nell’approccio all’arte ma anche del suo modo di lavorare. “Costruire ‘blocchi’ in una traccia è quasi come fare un collage, mettere assieme elementi grafici in photoshop e elementi musicali non è così differente“. Ed in questo quadro finisce anche l’interpretazione che Matthew dà dell’uso della chitarra nella musica di Forest Swords. “Non potrei dire di essere un buon chitarrista“, afferma “strimpello fuori dal pentagramma, trovo suoni e melodie che suonano bene e stanno bene tra di loro“.

Una delle strade che hanno portato la critica a trovare paragoni con l’attività di Mark Nelson nei Pan American, per Forest Swords, sta proprio qui, in questo uso svagato e vagamente western della seicorde che fa un po’ post-post-rock e finisce per tirar fuori un’altra passione di Barnes, ovvero i Mogwai e i Sigur Rós. “Molti hanno paragonato la mia musica a quella di Pan American, non l’avevo mai sentito prima ma ascoltandolo poi ho potuto trovare le somiglianze“. Un po’ come Jamie Stewart degli Xiu Xiu con Mark Hollis, gli ribadiamo…

Altro aspetto interessante è il contesto geografico. Wirral, dove abita Matthew, è un piccolo centro a 30 minuti da Liverpool, una penisola che è anche una città di mare senza scene musicali e con poco da fare. Anche se i giri nella grande città sono frequenti in occasione di mostre, concerti ecc., è importante per lui continuare a stare lì anche per un discorso di concentrazione. Il suo ultimo album, Engravings, è stato inciso tutto all’aperto, in particolare vicino ad un fiume. “Ero stanco di comporre a casa in camera da letto al buio, e così ho pensato di cambiare scenario, mi sono poi reso conto che stare all’aria aperta ha cambiato completamente il mio approccio“. E la melodia, per uno che cresce vicino a Liverpool, come deve essere? Barnes parte da lontano: non è molto interessato alla pura musica d’ambiente o al noise. Non si sente un cantautore e non vuole scrivere canzoni, di sicuro però un certo livello d’attenzione nei suoni che ascolta e produce deve portare con sé un mood e dunque qualcosa di melodico (“Un portato dall’abitare vicino alla città natale dei Beatles, I guess so“).

Naturalmente la nostra chiacchierata, molto lineare ma non per questo fredda o di routine, finisce parlando del live: Matthew ha portato con sé un amico fraterno, un compaesano, rosso come lui ma con una folta barba. E’ il suo bassista, ma anche il suo compagno d’avventure. Alle loro spalle, durante lo show, ci saranno dei visual coordinati e ideati da Sam Wheel, sempre di Liverpool, video che sono stati creati specificatamente per le canzoni di Forest Swords e hanno richiesto quattro o cinque mesi di lavoro. La sincronia tra video e musica impone un set piuttosto strutturato che non lascia molto spazio all’improvvisazione, anche se i due amici garantiscono di poter dare il loro contributo originale all’esibizione.

Finito il concerto, proprio il giorno dopo, Forest Swords suonerà a Istanbul, in Turchia, all’interno di un festival stranamente molto brit con Zomby e Evian Christ. “Non corre buon sangue tra di loro“, gli diciamo “Non mi stupisco, Evian sui social è un autentico troll“, risponde sardonico il ragazzo, che dei suoi compagni d’etichetta, e dei producer del giro di questi eventi, sembra essere piuttosto informato. “A proposito, in Italia ti si vedrà per Ypsigrock vero?“. Barnes: “Yes mate, is gonna be amazing“.

12 Maggio 2014

So, how did it all start?

In 2009 I got made redundant from my job so I had a lot of time on my hands. I kind of gravitated towards my laptop and music software and gradually started playing around with textures, melodies, beats and drum sounds, trying to tweak things, with no intention of making full songs, an EP or anything like that. Then gradually the songs kind of morphed, becoming more fully formed and it became more apparent that I’d started something I guess. So then it sort of took off from there. I put some demos online and a couple of people emailed me and I got offered to put out a record. It has just been kind of gradual. It feels like it was a very slow slow process.

But do you think the actual process has all happened very fast? I mean, from messing around with your laptop at home to going on to making a record and being invited to play live at international festivals?

It was a bit overwhelming at first because essentially it’s just music I made in my bedroom with no career ambitions. It was just an outlet to be creative with, so it was really flattering and overwhelming to get all that attention, kinda emotional at the same time too coz it was music I’d made at quite a low point in my life. It was good to get some kind of validation in that way I guess. Yeah, maybe it was quite fast, it’s hard to be objective about it when you’re in the middle. It felt like quite a natural process for me.

What was the most important influence for you at the start?

The music probably. When I lost my job I spent a lot of time with Trojan box sets, so I was listening to a lot of Reggae and Dub and Rock, I guess that had the biggest influence at that time. And when you listen back to the music that you make you can pin point all the other influences in your life that you’ve listened to, so like bits of metal, RnB, Hip Hop, all the things that I’d liked just kinda distilled into what I’m doing. You only really hear that in retrospect, when you listen back to the songs, you don’t really acknowledge it at the time. You kind of work very organically, I just go with the flow. As I said, it’s only afterwards when you listen back to it that you can pin point various things.

You’re also a graphic designer. Could you tell us something about that and how it plays a part in your music career..

Art school is quite a big influence in the way that I approach making things. I went to an art school that was quite progressive, it really pushed you to challenge yourself and I’d never really go for the lazy option, so I’ve kind of like carried that through in what I’m doing now. And also, musically, art school is quite a big influence because I was hanging around for the first time with people who were playing dance hall and grime, Hip Hop, black metal and stuff like that. Stuff that I hadn’t really engaged with that much when I was younger, when I was like 18, 19, so it was a real eye-opener for me. To hear all that at the same time and try and take it all in. I suppose being a designer as well it’s not that different from making music coz I can think about it in a similar way, and approach it in a similar way. So when I make music I do it on a computer and you can quite clearly see the building blocks of tracks so it’s almost like doing a collage, putting things together in photoshop or something like that. It’s not that far removed.

What about your story with the guitar?

I started playing the guitar when I was about 12. I got an electric guitar for Christmas one year so I’ve been playing for a while but I’ve never actually become really good at it. I wouldn’t say I was a good guitarist. I can kinda work out notes and things, and again it’s the same process of making stuff on a laptop in the sense that I just try and find sounds and melodies that feel right and fit together.

Some people say they can hear some bands like Pan American and Labradford in your music..

I’d never actually heard of those bands until people started referencing them in interviews and it’s only after I listened back to it that I saw the similarities. The post-rock bands I was into were Mogwai and Sigur Ros. But yeah, I can definitely hear those other bands that you’ve mentioned but it’s only after people have told me in interviews like this. I think it’s cool that people can do similar things and not be aware of it.

Talking about your last album, you said that it was influenced by your home town..

Yep, it was recorded and mixed on the Wirral, which is where I live – a Peninsula, right next door to Liverpool. So I live in basically a seaside town. It’s maybe 30 minutes away from Liverpool so I’m still able to connect to a big city and engage with it on a level like, you know, go to gigs, shows and galleries. But I can also exist in my own space there because there’s no music scene where I live. In my town there’s no real things to do. So I find it quite inspiring making music there because it forces you to look inside yourself a bit more. You have the time and space to play around. I’ve used a lot of field recordings and mixed the whole album outdoors as well. I live next door to a river and I mixed it on a bench overlooking it, just on my laptop. So then I recorded the whole thing indoors over about 18 months until I became quite sick of being in a dark room, my bedroom. So I thought I’d try and do this process and see what happens with it and it makes you approach music in a completely different way when you’re in a space like that. I’m really glad I did that.

People are talking about a triangle of different artists and tastes all on the same label..

I do feel a real friendship with the other artists on the label. The interesting thing is that we’re all doing quite different things but there’s sort of an interesting overlap which where the triangle fits in. The label can spot these artists that do quite different things and fit them together. I’m really pleased to release the album on it.

What do you think about playing with other artists for your next album?

As I’ve got older I’m more open to collaborating with people and try new things. I think it’s because I’ve made two records now completely on my own. I think it’s probably healthy to try and work with other people and get other people’s opinions on things. The problem with when you make an album on your own is that it’s all internal dialogue and you make all these internal decisions so it can get quite stressful, quite dark at times, so it’s probably good to open it up to other people. Definitely for the next record I’ll be trying to involve people a lot more.

Any views or thoughts about cinema and your music?

I was never really a big cinema fan until about 5 or 6 years ago and then I started really understanding it a lot more, especially to do with music. It’s quite interesting the relationship between sound and image. It’s been quite a late process for me, getting into it and understanding how it works and how people engage with it. It’s something that I’d really like to explore a lot more. I’d definitely like to try to do soundtrack work to a film or something, maybe later on in my life. It’s quite a big project to do so maybe when I’m a bit older.

Where does the melody in your music come from?

I’ve always been a big fan of melody, especially pop music coz I kinda grew up listening to a lot of pop music when I was younger, like everyone does I guess. I think it’s really filtered through to what I’m doing right now. A lot of my songs have quite a strong melody, I try not to finish them without some kind of hook of some sort. Partly that’s maybe to do with living around Liverpool as well, a huge history of pop music and a strong sense of melody, quite intrinsic to everything. That happens in Merseyside so maybe it comes partly from that, partly from growing up on music. Also from a selfish point of view, making music that I engage with on a listener’s level is really important to me. I could quite easily try to make noise music or drone but it’s not something that I would ever listen to really, even if I do appreciate that kind of music. Saying that, I do listen to that kind of music at certain points of my life, if I’m going through a certain period, or in a certain mood, but it’s not something I ever seek out to listen to all the time. It just doesn’t really click with me that much, but that’s not to say I don’t think it’s amazing. A lot of the festivals or shows where we play are with drone and noise artists, amazing experimental artists that I like completely appreciate and love but for me it’s not the type of music that I want to be making right now.

Do you listen to a lot of music?

I don’t listen to that much music when I’m making music. If I’m in the process of making a song I would attempt to not listen to other records, or feel that kind of outside influence in some way. Maybe it’s a selfish thing in the sense that I don’t want to be overly influenced by something. I just want it to come quite naturally. But when I’m not making music I definitely do listen to a lot of records. I listen to the radio a lot. I listen to a lot of internet Hiphop radios. There are some really good American stations that I listen to, that I have on in the background when I’m doing my day-to-day things. And I do enjoy the throes of buying records as well. It’s just a really lovely thing to do, to feel connected to a record like that. The first time you put a record on is a very beautiful thing and so to be releasing records and for other people to do that in their own lives is incredible to me.

This is the 2nd time you’ve played here in Italy. What’s the difference between the 2 venues?

The first time was just a solo set, in a beautiful outdoor garden, an amazing space. That was a free entry show so there was a lot of curious people that came that maybe would never have come if it was paid. And tonight is in a really cool venue and I brought a bass player who plays live with me and we have a full visual set, so it’s gonna be a lot of fun I think. I feel more comfortable doing this than a solo show but last year Node festival was fantatstic and I had a really great time. It’s good to see it grow and grow every year, booking really good bands.

So tell us something about the set on your tour this time round..

So we have a bass player, James, and I do electronics and play the guitar live. We kinda bounce off each other, very cool dynamics because we are also very good friends so we can play around with songs and have fun with it. So when you’re playing night after night it’s quite a relief to be able to do that I think.

How much will be improvised in the set and how much will keep within the boundries of the song?

We have a fairly strict structure in terms of songs coz I’ve made the visuals to fit with the tracks so we do have certain parameters to work in, but within that we have a lot of fun and we can play around and improvise if we want, that’s what makes it really fun.

Did you create the visuals by yourself?

No I worked with a friend of mine from Liverpool called Sam Wheel, who does film and design. He’s also a very talented visual artist so I had a lot of meetings with him about which visuals I wanted to fit with which songs and I kinda had visual ideas that I had in my head that would maybe fit with certain tracks so we did it over, say, a 4 or 5 month period to film those things specifically for those tracks. I think they look really good, I’m really pleased at how they’ve turned out.

What about the remix process? Which was the most difficult track you’ve worked on?

I find remixing difficult to do all the time coz I do it the hard way unfortunately. I have a habbit of trying to find a very small snippet of something unusual in a track that I love and then I would basically build a whole new song around it. So, instead of just putting a beat behind it like a lot of people do, I would build it from the ground up. it’s a lot more satisfying to do that, although it can be really difficult and quite time consuming so I don’t really do them that often. I did a few back in the day when I had time to do things but now, I mean, I would have to spend weeks and weeks on it because I kind of have to prioritse my own music sometimes. So yeah, remixing can be quite difficult the way I do it, maybe I should be a bit lazier about it.

So would you consider yourself a perfectionist?

Er yeah, I would consider myself a perfectionist but only because I have high standards of what I’m doing, not really because I want to please other people or that it has to be absolutely perfect, but whether it resonates with me on some level. So I spend ages and ages trying to find the right kickdrum or the right snaredrum or tweaking sounds, just to have it right for me personally. It’s like when you have to put a key in a lock, you try to click it and eventually it moves. It’s like that sometimes. You’ll just stumble across something. So it’s really only for me that I’m a perfectionist, I don’t really care whether anyone else likes it, or thinks it’s perfect. A lot of my songs have huge mistakes, they’re quite rough around the edges, so I wouldn’t say perfectionist in terms of everything that has to be amazing and pristine. As soon as I feel that resonance with a song I can kinda move forward with it. That’s partly why I spend so long on songs, I have to feel something while I’m doing it. Otherwise it’s just not worth putting out, it’s not worth putting out to the world.

12 Maggio 2014
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