Words by Tanya Bonnie Rae
Hailing from Liverpool, England is experimental, trip hop artist Matthew Barnes – aka Forest Swords. His latest album ‘Compassion’ was recently released on UK tastemaker imprint Ninja Tune (home of Bonobo, Amon Tobin, Machinedrum, Mr Scruff) and follows on from 2013 LP ‘Engravings’.
We chat to the enigmatic composer/producer/sometimes-graphic designer on how changing environments affect his musical process, why he decided to give out his personal number on Twitter, and how art and photography can effect sound.
Forest Swords’ European tour is kicking off in Barcelona this week and rounds up in Madrid on December 1st. Check out tour dates here
Stoney Roads: Hey Matthew, thanks for taking time to chat to us. As someone who makes music that is damn raw, highly evocative and complex, we have to ask – other than music, is there anything else that inspires your sound?
I spend a lot of time in galleries and museums just walking around, just soaking it up. Sometimes it might be just a tiny thing that catches my eye – the way the paint’s laid on a painting, or the way the light shines off a sculpture. It’s just a way to trigger ideas and sparks of thought processes, really. I love just experiencing different places, too. Walking around a new town or city, people watching, and trying to make sense of it.
SR: What is the best environment for your music?
In terms of making it, I’ve learned I can change up my environment and still feel inspired and creative. I recorded bits of ‘Compassion’, my latest record, in different cities like Instanbul and Brighton, and then in the Scottish mountains. I learned I could take all these different environments and they could filter down into the music somehow. In terms of experiencing it, a lot of people seem to go walking or driving listening to it. I’m totally into that. I got an email once from a soldier who was serving in Afghanistan who listened to my stuff to calm him down. That was pretty crazy.
SR: If you had never pursued a career as an artist, what would you be doing right now?
Probably a graphic designer. I trained as one, so it’s my natural comfort zone. Though that’s probably still classed as an artist isn’t it? When I’m not touring or writing I still do bits and pieces of design for friends, and old clients I had before I started doing music properly. If I had to pick something else I’d probably have been a teacher.
SR: Why do you think it’s important for artists to make music?
It’s not, really. Music is just one miniscule facet of things you could be creative about. It’s important to create ‘something’, and be creative in your day-to-day life, I think. But you can be creative even if you’ve got a really boring desk job or work in retail or something: how can you speak to people creatively? Or engage with your work creatively? From those kinds of questions can come really interesting and fun ways of living.
SR: Why did you decide to give out your personal phone number on social media? What did you learn from that experience?
I’d been frustrated with platforms like Facebook that really work against artists getting their work out there into people’s timelines. Everything’s an uphill struggle, even ones that seem more direct like Twitter. They still felt very impersonal to me. A lot of the themes of the record are about human connections and I wanted to try out something very direct, so it seemed like a good way to open a new channel of communication. I sent out a bunch of new music to people, one on one, over the course of a day or so through messaging app Whatsapp. Probably about 700 people contacted me I think, which was a lot more than I was expecting. It was really fascinating getting to chat to people directly. People seemed to dig the idea, it was a fun experiment.
SR: You’ve collaborated with the likes of Massive Attack and Young Fathers, who else do you see yourself working with in the near future?
I’d love to work with Bjork
or Kate Bush
, but they have such clear visions that I doubt they’d ever need me. I’m really open to collaborating a lot more in future with other people – I’ve worked for quite a long time on my own and doing the collabs with Massive Attack, as well as working on dance and film projects recently, really made me understand the value in working with others. There’s only so much you can do on your own before you start noticing the limitations of working solo.
SR: Can you tell us about the vision behind your label/creative studio Dense Truth, and what it plans to achieve?
It’s half creative studio, and half record label. It’s basically an outlet for some of my more experimental projects – I created and scored a contemporary dance piece last year, Shrine, for instance, which was one of the catalysts for this. But it’s also a way of bringing in talented collaborators to make new projects and work, either with or without me. It’s totally open in terms of what it could do: dance, theatre, film, music. Anything that I find exciting and can support. I’ve just released an EP by a guy called Zurkas Tepla from Moscow who’s done a concept piece about a bank robbery. It’s pretty insane and brilliant.
SR: You’ve said previously “emojis or gifs have wide, open meanings, and have a lot of wiggle room in what they can convey to someone else. In some ways they’re more expressive and creative than using words” – are images more creative than sound and music? How?
I think they’re both expressive, but it just depends how you process them individually I guess. Some people are really good at conjuring up and inferring things from music or sound, while some are better at decoding images. One person might have an entire movie playing in their head while they listen to one of my songs, for instance, while someone else might not feel or see anything. It’s totally subjective, but it’s really fascinating to me.
SR: There is a special edition of your album ‘Engravings’ that comes with a 20-page booklet of your original photography. How do you think image affect sound and vice versa, in your work?
They always have to work hand-in-hand for me or there’s no point in even doing it. I always get frustrated seeing album packaging that feels like it has no relation to what’s inside. As a music fan, if I’m dropping $40 on a record then I want to be buying entry to a world I can explore for an hour: sound, visuals, packaging. It’s the same with music videos and promo images. They all have to link up in some way so I can see the thread that runs through everything.
SR: What’s next for Forest Swords? Any plans to visit us down under?
I’m touring Europe until the end of the year and starting on some new projects in time for 2018. Next year I hope to visit down under at some point: I’ve played a few headline shows a couple of years ago and it was great fun, and everyone was so kind and welcoming.