Witnessing Giant Swan perform live is akin to observing two stoners go feral, a spectacular blur of LED lights, lank hair and feverish, shirtless immoderation. Building up a consuming machine noise to unabating endpoints of defiled klang through the means of drum machines, guitar pedals, a surfeit of ad hoc hardware and a liberal approach to vocal manipulation, Robin Stewart and Harry Wright amass an explosive overcurrent, driven by a corresponding impulse to improvise and zealously expand their sound. In their live shows the aseptic surge and pristine wattage of techno is assailed by wicked, wall stripping hits of rhythmic noise. Yet refreshingly their performances avoid the no fun morose stoicism that often proliferates in some of the darker, more extreme ends of noise and techno, favouring spilt beer enthusiasm over chin stroke restraint. An uneasy, concussive mixture of destruction and ecstasy, the duo are a much more compelling prospect than the puritanical displays that often constitute ‘live’ interpretations of dance music. Think pill heads with power tools rather than sanitary Mac gazing; the deranged head banging theatre we should all bear witness and surrender to.
Initially Stewart and Wright devoted their time to The Naturals – a product of their teenage years and an ongoing four-piece project in its own right – but before long had their eyes turned towards a more electronic direction in the wake of collaborating on music for an art show commission. After finding their feet in improvisatory sessions they were duly encouraged by the reaction of friends and affiliates within the Bristol scene – specifically Amos Childs (aka DJ Jabu) and Daniel Davis (aka Ossia) of the Young Echo collective along with the Howling Owl label – to persevere with the project. With a contribution to Howling Owl’s 2014 Record Store Day release under their belt, last year saw their first standalone emergence as a recording duo. A self-titled fully fledged three tracker of mucoid malfunctions (‘Bring Back Fives’), protracted swellings of maleficent noise (‘Nautical Upbringing’) and unnerving immensity (‘Galaxy Spank’) conjured something devouring and infernal yet in a noxious and grisly sense; insistent and elated.
Now with ‘Earn’ - a record reputedly in the works for a while and born out of feted anticipation and coercive pressure courtesy of an early scheduling on Seb Gainsborough (aka Vessel) and Davis’ (Ossia) subversive imprint FuckPunk - the duo have again captured all the staggering tension and intensity of their live shows, encompassing shamanic throat gurgles, mutant vocal cut ups, titanic stretches of bristling noise and to paraphrase their own designation ‘let’s have it’ techno in two tracks you need to hear in a dark room as soon as possible.
I reached out to them to find out about the origins of the project, their connection and perception of their native Bristol scene and their propensity for pisstaking. In their own words, the duo reveal a project driven primarily by sardonic humour and fugitive disruption…
How long have you known each other? Have you always shared similar tastes and interests?
Harry and I have known each other for nearly 14 years I think now. We met through skateboarding and shortly after started The Naturals with our friends Kyran & Felix.
Harry was always better at guitar and he seemed to understand the growing allure of what would become the 2000's indie rock saturate explosion and was buying 7"s and going to watch obscure support bands whilst I was listening to Opeth and Dillinger Escape Plan and I think just being a regulation lanky teen who needed to get over himself before he could actually start enjoying himself. Harry helped shape my tastes and interests in this manner, but I think I always had him at skating
What did you each grow up listening to?
All sorts. The defining years were probably concerned with our discovering the various extremes of music; like that first heavy record that pricks your ears, the first electronic one, the first 'world music'...
Harry's parents like some great shit - Harry's Dad is an accomplished Jazzman and general musical shaman. I got most of my music from my older sister but really enjoyed Billy Joel and Weezer at a young age.
What kind of places did you each go out to, to hear music? Did any particular places have a significant impact?
We used to go and watch as many shows as possible. Harry and I have seen probably hundreds of bands together at this point, but I think when we started getting more and more into soundsystem culture and electronic music that the profound experiences started to emerge. Going to early Young Echo sessions, Dubloaded, Teachings In Dub...There're a lot of great nights past and present.
Seeing Aba Shanti-I for the first time left an impression on me that few others have ever managed. I also remember us coming back from seeing Surgeon a few years ago and being unable to properly convey what we were feeling - the brutal control he exacted that evening was something I don't think either of us will forget and it probably inspired us towards some of the music we make today. But, aye, we love going out and still do ha! pingers are winners!
I know people must go on about the fact that you’re from Bristol – which can often be a bit of an albatross around the neck – but what kind of relationship do you have with its history?
Bristol's musical history has always been there for us but i think had we been from elsewhere, the luminary presence of Tricky and Massive and PTSHD etc would have meant a little more to us. Not to deride their achievements and accolades, but we have a relationship with OUR time. OUR Bristol.
Carnival and the maintenance of a competent, eclectic and diverse music scene in the city is what helped create the Bristolian history that we grew up with, we're a little young to remember the riots and the cultural diversity that was challenged so aggressively by certain folks in the city. We're aware of our history but try not to allow it to enter our music.
Besides I don't think Bristol's ever suffered from anything that hasn't been put on it by outsiders who come and try to define what is constantly being nurtured and adapted *BBC 6 COUGH* and repeal it to a pastel coloured weekend of 'yeah bass music diversity is aweesssoommee' whilst selling £6 pints from a pop up bakery...but I digress.
How do you feel about the music currently being made there in comparison with the history that people often talk about?
Don't really have a feeling about it. The stuff people tend to not talk about was better imho: Team Brick, Saturation Point, Mr. Jinx, Punch Drunk recs, Zhou. the history was created by money being pumped into something that had potential and was capitalised on, heavily.
If you compare the music now to the music then, I feel you end up with a reductive and self conscious sound that advances nothing. We seek to progress and refine, not look back. Whats funny now is that I can remember watching someone like Pinch DJ nearly 10 years ago and he's still pushing forward with his label and music. You can't become complacent because of the hard work and luck someone else came across nearly 30 years ago.
You’ve been working together for over a decade in various projects, most notably in The Naturals. Do you think you ever anticipated arriving at the sound you’re now at with Giant Swan? Can you trace any significant moments which had a major effect on the course the project has taken?
Never thought it'd come to this. never. I think there was a time during The Naturals' tenure where we all felt we had to shift a gear and start challenging both ourselves and the listener more. I imagine there've been several watershed moments though.
Regarding GS, just being asked to play by friends and folks we respect and look up to has been an incentive to develop the sound more. Howling Owl, DJ Jabu, M. Loveridge (MXLX) and O$$I4 (Ossia) are all individuals who've all separately taken us aside and said 'stop fucking around you can do something important if you want to' and I think slowly we've listened to them. We hold our friends dearly in the community we've cack-handedly put together so its probably within those significant moments that we've 'shaped' the sound.
In what sense has your work as The Naturals shaped Giant Swan? How separate from each other do you see them? To what extent do your mindsets change in each instance?
I think our manifesto to remove the 'guitar-ness' from guitars in The Naturals certainly had an impact on Giant Swan. Becoming more and more aware of the contexts and behaviours of techno and the artists therein, we rock up with a bag of pedals and guitars and fucking amps! We're like a patchwork band without a drummer or a singer ha!
The mindset has gone from one of engaging heavily with improvisation and 'atmosphere'...to one of momentum, repetition and energy. We're aware of the heaviness in our sound and we definitely seek to provoke people into reacting to it. The mindset is still to retain a sense of excitement, of fun and of progression. This goes for both projects.
However, we operate on quite a concentrated and insular level when rehearsing for GS tours or what not. The performances tend be rather immersive and that keeps the two separate.
I was thinking there’s a bit of a disjunction about Giant Swan, to hear your music outside the live setting might give the impression that it’s dark and serious but judged by how you react on stage, and by your name, that’s not really the case.
It’s something that’s been further highlighted by your T-shirts, and that intro on the NTS takeover…
This is a really important point and I'm stoked you asked this question. That disjunction you mention is almost THE reason we've developed the project to this point. creating a sense of disruption within a scene that relies so heavily on a seamless sheen of continuity and precision is integral to us. The shirts, for example, are funny. they're meant to be funny. And the joke gets funnier when people hypothesise about them. And we stole the name from our fave hardcore band ever. The intro for NTS was Joe and Ade (Howling Owl) stalling for time whilst we tried to untangle our pedalboards haha. That was a sick show.
Are you wary of the impressions that people might have? I know there’s some artists who might fear a loss of face and therefore might uphold a certain kind of serious performative demeanour. In contrast to that, you regularly lose your shit on stage…
Nah, there's no point in saving face. thats why we make such stupid merchandise because we know our music is impressionable and at times very very heavy and confrontational. We've been lucky enough to hone our sound to a point where we have enough confidence in it to 'lose our shit'. and why wouldn't you?! If you like the sound then fucking react to it!!
Thats an attitude I certainly got from hearing the pummel of early Downwards releases - Regis and Surgeon and Female and those lot. The sense of abandon in those tunes is something so potent I really don't think 30 years in circulation has dented it and its an attitude we try to uphold in our own work.
You’ve toured a lot over the last few years, has your set changed a lot in this time?
Yeah massively. it changes all the time.
What have been the highlights / lowlights of all this touring?
There have thankfully been more highs than lows! we've missed the odd train which is often frustrating, but getting to perform all over the shop and meet likeminded, humble and kind people is the biggest high one could ask for. That aspect of playing still surprises and delights us. We were privileged to perform for the Golden Cabinet up in Shipley a few weeks ago and to be put alongside the hefty alumni that've played there was incredibly gratifying. Big up Golden Cabinet fam!
How do you approach recording? I was wondering about this in light of the fact ‘Earn’ and ‘Corridor’ have been staples of your live sets for a while, did anything change in how they were translated for the new record?
We worked really hard on translating the carnage live to something a little more linear and controllable. Dom Mitchison (Malthouse studios) has been like a third member when it comes to arranging and mixing the tunes and he helped guide us towards reaching a sound we like in the studio. We've since learned to record ourselves and have been working with Ossia to record new material. That side of Giant Swan is a constantly evolving process, much like the live show used to be. its very exciting.
On the new video, there are various phrases that subliminally arise. Some seem like quotes from cringeworthy reviews (particularly ‘for fans of Bonobo / Four Tet’) and some seem like mundane emails / messages about work. Where did you source these from? What interested you about having them in the video?
It goes back to what you said about creating a disjunction. the Four Tet/bonobo thing is just us being childish. in fact the whole video is rife with a sense of sardonicism that we like to cultivate haha! All the words in the vid are from emails shared between us and our mates. There're some real personal/intimate/cathartic messages in there, between Harry and I that I think help to formulate that sense of humanity alongside the music- that we're just friends trying to make tunes and etch out a small space for us to be able to express ourselves. Max Kelan is a video tape master and he helped polish our beautiful turd.
The FuckPunk info sheet mentioned that you rehearse in ‘the dingy vaults of the F.A.G. studios’. How would you describe the space?
It's our home, we've been there for years. I couldn't describe it...the amount of weed we've smoked in that room has probably rendered it utterly repugnant to others, but we love it, the dinge.
There are elements of techno and elements of noise in Giant Swan but I don’t know if you strictly belong to either scene in terms of adhering to their respective conventions. How do you see yourselves within the context of these genres / scenes?
It's tricky because we're aware of how we fit in to people's conceptions of both 'noise' and 'techno'. We've often been found to be too much one or the other in some cases. I think its important to remember that as performers our interest is pretty much exclusively concerned with the flow of ideas and the energy we can create between us. Often it incorporates noise and extremity and large kick drums. It could be called something else but its called noise and techno and is backed up by an increasingly diverse market for records and live experiences.
The club context is still exciting for us because we cut our teeth playing in art galleries and at DIY noise shows. The intimacy of those shows is irreplaceable and we try to retain that sense of extreme urgency in our performance. That said, hearing your sound through a fuck off system is an incredible feeling and more so when others can connect and express themselves physically.
In the least derivative terms, we make music for the body more so than for the chin and the more opportunities we're given, in any scene, to develop this is something we will continue to be grateful for. Lets have it.
Shouts to Howling Owl, FuckPunk, Young Echo family and Blazey X
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