Tuesday, 29 January 2008

INTERVIEW: Swimmer One - The Transcripts

Well, I promised more transcripts and here's another one now that i've finally got through the mountain of CDs I've had to review...

I interviewed the rather excellent Swimmer One (a duo made up of Andrew Eaton and Hamish Brown) last year and their debut LP The Regional Variations went on to become one of my favourite's of 2007. They're a mixture of understated 80's electronica and the sort of twee-clad, soul-searching that's been emanating from Glasgow's cafe-spated West-End over the past 10 years. I'm a gibbering sucker for both genres - dependant on mood of course - so I'm very fond of them and, having spoken to Andrew not that long ago, it looks like a new record wont be that long in the making so hurrah to those mighty fine singular swimmers. Anyways....transcript ahoy. Enjoy (formatting was totally fuckered on my word doc for some reason so, be warned, there are words adjoining other words!)


The Regional Variations has received wide-spread acclaim since its release. Did you expect it to be so well received? How have youreacted to the praise?

Andrew: The arrogant but honest answer is that yes, I did expect good reviews, because I think it's a really good album! So my main reaction is relief, actually, since it suggests we weren't completelydeluding ourselves.

How would you describe the sound of The Regional Variations? I find it quite difficult fathom to be honest. It kind of depends on my mood. Was this your intention to create an album that seems almost reactionary to people's emotions?

Andrew: It's both a dark record and an optimistic record, and I'm pleased that a lot of people seem to have picked up on that. A phrase we both use a lot when writing songs is 'tears on the dancefloor'. We both love pop songs that make you feel incredibly happy and incredibly sad at the same time Those are the kind of songs we aspire to write. In terms of the way the album is structured, it's deliberate that it begins with someone drowning and ends with someonelooking out to sea defiantly, feeling that life offers 'endless possibilities'. The album is partly about how you get from one state of mind to the other - how to be happy when there is so much in theworld to be depressed about. And I've always thought that you can'tbe truly happy unless you understand what it's like to be utterly miserable!

Hamish: I'd say it is quite a hopeful sounding record and I think we're both quite optimistic people on the whole. The other sentiment I'm glad people have picked up on from the album is that it's OK to be different.

I think another way of describing the feeling we sometimes go for is 'euphoric melancholy'. A lot of good dance music has this quality as do people like M83, Neu and Steve Reich and more recently The Field album From Here We Go Sublime on Kompakt. It's rhythmically exciting and quite 'up' but melodically but quite moving

What makes it stand out in today's current musical environment?

Andrew: I'm not sure that's for us to say. It is an unusual record, maybe, quite grown up. They're not teenage pop songs about going out, getting drunk and snogging people, or falling in love for the first time, which is what most pop songs are about, but I hope it's not a self-important, self-consciously 'mature' album either though. It'sinteresting that we get compared to lots of very different kinds of bands - Belle and Sebastian, the Associates, Pulp, Elbow, even the KLF. If we can sound like Belle and Sebastian AND the KLF then we're obviously not a band you can easily pin down -in the way that Editors are blatantly 'the new Interpol', for example, and I think that's avery positive thing. We tried to emphasise that in the album artwork- we liked the idea of using exotic flowers on there because a very warm, colourful image of nature in full bloom is not something you'd usually expect from an electronic pop duo..

Hamish: The other thing that makes us stand out is that we don't have a gimmick, we just have great songs! Although this in itself may count as a gimmick.Rather depressingly, I think the thing that makes us stand out is that we're not really trying to sound like anyone else, which might seem a dismissive conclusion writing off everyone else as unoriginal plagiarists, but it's not meant that way. I think the amount of copyists and revivalists around is a combination of a music industry understandably scared of getting behind anything unless it's meeting an already proven market, whether it's the new Lily Allen or the new Libertines or whatever and there being so many bands quite happy tomake unambitious music that sounds like the latest big thing. We don't make wildly experimental free jazz, it's recogniseable pop, but it's probably a healthy sign in terms of originality that we haven't been dubbed the 'new somethings'.

So, why do you think critics have taken to it so well?

Andrew: You'd have to ask the critics that! Because it's quite thoughtful, maybe, so appeals to people who think a lot about music'
Hamish: I think perhaps it's because we made an effort to put some musically interesting and lyrically intelligent ideas on the album. We're reclaiming pop back from being dumbed-down and reintroducing it as potent musical force capable of exploring and communicating complex ideas. There is a place for vapid pop, but our studio is not that place.

The record is embedded with romantic notions of Scotland. What is itabout towns like Largs that inspired you?

Andrew: This is not something I'd noticed, actually, but I am quite romantic about Scotland so it makes sense. It's possibly because I'man outsider - I grew up in Carlisle but always felt drawn toScotland. Scottish identity is a very strange mix of fierce patrioticpride and a sort of chippiness and resentment about being on the edgeof things (about being overshadowed by England, principally). I think The Regional Variations, as a title and a theme, is quite Scottish -it's about feeling like an outsider, but also feeling proud of that. Actually, though, one of the main reasons I drop quite a lot of references to Scottish places into the lyrics - Whithorn, the Clyde,all the towns in Largs Hum - is because I like the idea of peopler omanticizing Scottish place names the way I romanticize the names of places in other countries in other people's songs. I've always wanted to go to Tom's Diner, for example, because of the Suzanne Vega song, or Mario's Café because of Saint Etienne, even though they're probaby just very ordinary cafes. I like the idea of someone from Canada or Mexico wanting to go to Largs because of Largs Hum.

Hamish: I was born and grew up in rural Scotland which with hindsight probably has had a profound effect on me - I still spend a lot oftime exploring the countryside and the cities here and it is anamazing country. I don't really romanticise things in the same waythat a lot of tourists do but I am proud to be Scottish. There are lots of things about Scotland that are pretty unappealing too and I don't see us as a Scottish band at all, we just happen to be based here.

Apart from Scottish towns, what else inspired the record?

Andrew: The songs were written over a long period of time, so lots of different things, but lyrically they're all linked - a little bit tenuously in a couple of cases - by the idea that everyone is a'regional variation'. I'm really interested in the way the little differences between people (what music you like, what makes youlaugh) are often much bigger factors in whether people get on or not than the big ones (what country you're from, what religion you were brought up with). Musically, the desire to write a great pop record in the spirit of the pop records we both love - in my case things like Actually by the Pet Shop Boys, Parallel Lines by Blondie, Dare by the Human League, His'n'Hers by Pulp and Debut by Bjork, albums that were commercial but also quite leftfield.

Hamish: Most of the songs were written based in guitar, piano or synth sketches we came up with and developed from there into epic productions of varying scales. I tend to think about how songs are going to work most when I'm out cycling.

I've read that it took you quite a long time to complete The Regional Variations and the themes of the album hints at a longing for perfectionism - is this the reason for the delay?

Andrew: We are both perfectionists, sometimes to the point of tearing our hair out - but never tearing each other's hair out, thankfully.But yes, that was one of the reasons for the delay. We could have put out an album earlier (not long after our first single, in fact) but when we were writing and recording the songs didn't live up to the standards we were setting for ourselves. I'm glad we waited. Our second album will be better though.

Hamish: We both knew we wanted to make it a great record rather than rush an OK one out for the sake of it. So it took us a while becauseit's all killer, no filler! Also you have to live with your work forthe rest of your life so it's worth getting right.There were also several other musical projects we were involved in.We spent a few months playing live to the point where we were good,we collaborated on a theatre show with Highway Diner which toured to Italy and were commissioned to compose and record a score for a film about Scottish Ballet for The National Galleries. Once we decided toget the head down and finish the album however it was a fairly quickprocess.

How long have you guys been on the go for? How did you get together?

Andrew: We met at the turn of the century, while working together to foil the millennium bug, for which we have never received the credit we deserved.
Hamish: A mutual friend introduced us as we were both recovering band members writing and recording a lot of music at home. We swapped tapes of ideas and they were both so totally different that we knew instantly were made for each other.Our key strength is that we are both very good at what the other is rubbish at. I can't really sing or write words and Andrew has no interest playing the guitar or programming synths and drum machines.This almost total lack of skills overlap between us makes division of labour very easy.
And why did you decide to set up Biphonic Records?
Andrew: We had a vision of a future in which major record labels would collapse due to internet piracy, and enterprising bands would release music themselves rather than accept shoddy deals from peoplewho then told them what to do all the time. Also, we got tired of waiting for people to sign us.

Hamish: That pretty much sums it up. We did talk with a few industry people after our first single but to be honest, none of them were people you would trust to promote or represent us as enthusiasticallyas we could. You've just got to get your hands dirty and get on with these things sometimes if you want the job doing properly. So our motives were a combination of control-freakery with an added elementof 'screw you guys, we'll do it ourselves' thrown in. We remain open to offers, but just not from bampots.

Has it been difficult being on your own record label? What are the positives? What are the negatives?

Andrew: The positives are that how we look and sound is entirely up to us, and that we get to keep more of the money we make. are that we have to spend a lot of time doing boring admin and can't afford to take out adverts in Q or get videos made byMichel Gondry

Hamish: We are alarmingly good at administration. That's really whati'm doing with a laptop onstage. Managing a big f*ck-off spreadsheet.
With Radiohead releasing their new LP on the internet and with more big acts to follow suit where do you think this leaves 'The Record Industry' on a whole?

Andrew: I have mixed feelings about the Radiohead thing. Major labels do treat bands quite badly a lot of the time. On the other hand,potentially this trend is bad for a band like us - we don't make alot of money from playing live because we don't do it very often, so if people feel entitled to download our music for free instead ofbuying, that robs us of our main source of income and jeopardizes future music-making. So I feel vaguely resentful that Radiohead, millionaire rock stars, are effectively endorsing the idea that recorded music should be free, at the expense of smaller acts whocan't afford to give whole albums away. I can see people thinking 'if I don't have to pay for the new Radiohead album, why should I pay for yours?' Then again, perhaps it's unfair to blame Radiohead for that -they're not blazing a trail so much as recognizing which way the windis already blowing and cutting their losses. Jane Siberry did thesame thing years before Radiohead. She's the real pioneer here and amusical genius, by the way - up there with Bjork and Kate Bush.

Hamish: What Radiohead have done is only an option for massive bands who have built up a fanbase courtesy of a being signed to and promoted by a major label. I'm sad Radiohead have taken advantage of their position, of being a massive act out of contract, to do something interesting however. Individuals have been able to get free music for a long time now, from blank tapes to torrents. The interesting part to me is that it's started the moral debate of whether music should be free, as it's interesting how many people are opting to pay more than the minimum 0p, which suggest some moral obligation on the part of the consumer to the artist, and the notion that the artist might actually deserve some payment for their work is one we haven't heard for a while.

Will you be releasing any singles from The Regional Variations? And, in a tenuous link to my last question, what do you think the future holds for the much maligned singles chart?

Andrew: We will be releasing a single in the new year, but probably only as a download. I actually think the singles chart will be fine - downloading works in favour of single, very strong songs much more than it does in favour of albums. The singles chart will survive longer than the album chart, I suspect. It'll just have to adapt, and in fact it already has, by allowing downloads to be eligible. And ifpeople are moving towards downloading individual tracks by bands, maybe that means bands will have to write more and more songs that sound like singles - ie: that grab the attention immediately - otherwise no one will bother buying them. That's probably not good for bands, or career longevity, but it might create a more vibrantsingles chart - or rather song chart.

Hamish: I love the idea of 'the song' as a format and I think there is still a place for music experienced in album length chunks too, but this is only through a tradition and a totally arbitrary one based on the technology of the day, so I don't know how much time it has left now that technology has advanced again.
How does the live sound of Swimmer One compare to that on record?

Andrew: We're working on developing the live show. Until now it's been just the two of us on stage, playing stripped down versions of the recorded songs, but we're recruiting a keyboard player and possibly a percussionist, so we might sound more like a 'band' soon.

Do you actually enjoy the live environment?
Andrew: Do I enjoy it? Depends on the night. We supported John Foxx recently, which was a lot of fun - sell-out crowd, very warm reaction, and it was an older audience with money so they bought lots of our albums from the merchandise stall afterwards. More gigs like that please.

Hamish: Being an electronic band but with guitars and vocals means we have a foot in both camps, so we do shows with bands and can also play clubs. Unfortunately this means either the sound engineer is surprised that we don't have a drummer and in clubs they are surprised that we have a guitar, so it's chaos either way. We play the more full-on songs in a more full-on way when we play live. We really enjoy good gigs in the right venue to the right crowd but we have no desire to play on poorly put together bills in rubbish venues.

Do you feel part of a Scottish music community at the moment? I've noticed there are a few local bands with quite a similar sound as yourselves (The Magnificents and Luxury Car from your own label being the two that spring to mind) is this just a coincidence or is there something stirring in the waters round here?

Andrew: It's a coincidence. One of the things I like about Scotland just now is that there's no identifiable 'Scottish sound'. It's full of very different, very individual bands, making very different music, but with the same independent, leftfield spirit. There are remarkably few Franz Ferdinand copyists - you actually find more of those in London.

And what local bands are you excited about at present?

Andrew: I like Found, who seem to be coming from a similar place to us, in attitude if not musically. I really like Injuns, a very clever, very unusual band . I like Amplifico too - a really good, mainstream pop band with good tunes. Luxury Car too obviously, who just get better and better, and deserve more attention.

Hamish: I recently bought the Max Richter album Songs From Before on Fat Cat and really liked the Puggies single by Rubens from Glasgow

And how are you coping with the media attention? I understand Andrew is a full time journalist - does this make it in any way easier to deal with snooping muso hacks like myself?

Andrew: It makes me more careful about what I say, possibly. Every time I say something stupid in an interview I immediately think 'uh oh, there's the pull-out quote'. I'm constantly restraining myself from slagging people off ...

And, finally, what does the future hold for Swimmer One? What plansdo you have for the next year?

Andrew: A single or two from this album, and then a second album -we have about 17 songs half-finished just now. And we'd quite liketo play Connect, Triptych or Indian Summer if they'll have us. Generally we'll be doing all we can to spread the word about The Regional Variations.

Hamish: We've been offered some distribution in Europe, so maybe some activity in that direction. We're also looking at getting some remixes done and doing some song-writing, production and remixes for other people too, so keeping very busy.

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