Pete Swanson was one half of the experimental electronic music band Yellow Swans, who made their mark as extremely ambitious musicians, and whose performances balanced improvisation, chaotically complex sound treatment and emotionally affecting harmonic progression.
Their performances in Iowa City (opening for Xiu Xiu in 2005, and playing with Wet Hair in 2008) were both arresting, memorable events that have earned them many local fans. Since their amicable breakup a few years ago, Pete Swanson has carried on the Swans’ reputation for manic productivity, releasing four albums and several EPs in the past three years, while also attending graduate school.
Little Village: How has playing live changed for you now that you’ve gone solo?
Pete Swanson: I really don’t play live very often. Because of the demands on my schedule, I can really only usually do one-off shows so that generally means festivals.
When I started getting more serious offers for playing live following Man With Potential I had to be pretty pragmatic about what I was going to bring to things. Basically people wanted an intense techno-related concert and I had to figure out how to do that in a way that was true to my process and employed the tools that I had on hand. Punk Authority and Pro Style came out of these intentional exploratory sessions with the goal of developing something that worked live on a consistent level that I wouldn’t get bored with after one or two shows.
LV: Your music is well outside the mainstream of both popular and serious (i.e. approved of by music professors) music in the United States. How does your music interact with and respond to more conventional music?
PS: As I continue making music I find myself in an odd position where my music is more highly regarded by both popular and serious musicians, while I feel like my own work is developing in a direction that increasingly has no appropriate subcultural context. I’m interested in my music being in dialog with the stuff I’m listening to. So if I’m obsessed with musique concrete, that’ll be in there. ‘60s psych rock, that’ll go in there. Techno, pop, whatever. It all ends up in the mix in some form or another.
LV: The ‘repetitive beats’ in your solo work immediately signify techno to some listeners, but your music would never be mistaken for mainstream dance music.
PS: I do listen to some techno. I listen to all sorts of music. I’ve never been very involved in club culture and could care less about dancing or DJs in most cases. I’ll listen to Cybotron or Regis while I’m at the gym or cleaning my room.
LV: Does a regular beat have some emotional resonance for you, or is it more a matter of imposing structure on your pieces?
PS: The 4/4 kick came about from practical means. I bought a kick drum module for my synth. So now I have this kick that is tied to a very basic eight-step switch sequencer. When I started solo work with my synthesizer, I wanted to work with clusters of brief sounds after making a few washed out YS records. The kick helped gel these very amorphous jams of fractured oscillator skree … I needed the grid at that moment … Now I’m starting to feel like the grid is holding me back and I’m trying to figure out ways around that.
LV: Your I Don’t Rock At All is mostly a work for guitar. Does your guitar music come from a different place than the purely electronic work?
PS: There’s very little that’s different other than I’m playing a guitar as opposed to my synthesizer. I’m not very adept with either instrument and I just play however I play. Everything is processed the same way.
LV: Your work is noisy, but not as noisy as some artists’ work. Where does your use of distortion and noise come from personally? Do you feel emotional about noise?
PS: I’m not bound to noise as a gesture any more than I am to drones or rhythms or melody. It’s just another piece of the sound vocabulary that is always present in my work to some degree. On a fundamental level, noise is just noise, and in my work there’s often unintentional noise going on.
LV: Is the noise a texture imposed on your music, or is it a foreground component to it?
PS: I don’t really have anything that’s a dedicated “noise” producer in my setup. There’s some stuff that is noisier than other things. The noisiest stuff I use are also great venues for error where the sounds I’m intentionally making have to fight for position in the mix with each other. So the noise is organically integrated with everything else. I really just want everything to sound like one big sound out of the speakers and not a bunch of fragmented elements.
LV: What music do you listen to for your own pleasure?
PS: Just about everything. Right now I’m pretty fixated on the first three Igor Wakhevitch LPs, The Trash Company’s Having Fun 12”, Lubomyr Melnyk, House of Woo and been digging into the new AraabMuzik mixtape a bit, it should be shorter than it is, but it has moments. I think almost every record should be shorter than they are.