The formidable Wirral producer talks watery influences, past lives and learning to be an artist.
Forest Swords is sat on a bench in a cemetery. It’s just a short five minute walk from where he lives in the Wirral, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool. “I don’t usually hang out in places like this,” he says down the phone. It’s the only thing he says unconvincingly over the full hour we chat, a freewheeling conversation in which he speaks on a whole range of inter- and totally un- related topics - from the liberating creative approach of performance artitst turned architect Vito Acconci to his desire to be regressed to find out about his past lives. He’s earnest and endlessly curious. Incredible and incredibly trip off his tongue like autumn leaves popping out their tree sockets.
All that passion is thrilling to listen to; I'm almost high off it. He’s a great storyteller is Matthew Barnes, the red-headed artist behind Forest Swords whose 2010 debut EP Dagger Paths has proved to be one of UK electronic music’s most effective and enduring cliffhangers of recent years. Happily, its sequel, and Barnes’ first long-player, ‘Engravings’ [Tri Angle] is absolutely its better. There’s that same untamed streak - echoes of the wild west that Italian composer Ennio Morricone writ large across pop culture in the 60s - but, as with any act two worth its salt, there are glimpses of the protagonist’s past (Thor’s Stone), the weight of an unknown sadness (Friend, You Will Never Learn) and a sensuality that prickles the skin (Onward). It’s an album that engulfs, that floods the senses, swelling and crashing like water - something that, it transpires, is no coincidence.
What’s it like where you live in the Wirral, compared to Liverpool?
Forest Swords: "It’s a lot quieter, there’s a lot more fields. I’m right next to a river. It’s quite handy being here ‘cos I’m only 20 minutes away so I still feel connected to Liverpool but I don’t feel part of it. Sometimes you’re a city person and sometimes you’re just not. I think I struggle in cities. It’s really weird actually: whenever I go to a city I always have to anchor myself by where a river is. If I’m not near a river or some water I become really anxious and antsy. It’s really strange. Even if I’m not near one, I have to know where one is. It’s something I’ve only really realised since I’ve been going out doing shows. When I go and visit somewhere I’m like, right, I know where I am but where’s the river?"
Water is super spiritual - it’s the essence of life.
Forest Swords: "I don’t know if everyone else feels the same way or whether it’s just because I’ve been so close to water all my life. In Merseyside, the rivers are so pivotal to everything. The way Liverpool is structured is down a hill and the Mersey is at the base of that. There’s definitely a lot of focus on the river. I just tend to prang out a bit when I don’t know where water is. It’s weird, though, because I have a phobia of open water."
"Whenever I go to a city I always have to anchor myself by where a river is."
Like the sea?
Forest Swords: "Yeah, you know when you look out on open water and you can’t see where it ends? My palms get really sweaty and I get anxious when I’m around that. I don’t know where that stems from. But in terms of the river, it’s like my compass point."
So water is like a magnet to you: it both attracts and repels.
Forest Swords: "Yeah! It giveth with one hand and it taketh away."
Do you find that water has become a theme in your work?
Forest Swords: "Possibly, I’ve never really thought about it. In what way?"
One of the things I love about the album and one thing that runs throughout it is this confrontational, almost defiant, energy. There are the simple, friction-led moments like Gathering but then you’ve got the bigger statement tracks which crash. Hearing you talk about water is making me think about the ebb and flow of the album.
Forest Swords: "That’s really interesting. One of my greatest fears, that I’m completely petrified of, are tsunamis. Just the thought of it brings me out in a cold sweat. Maybe that thing where water can be incredibly peaceful and spiritually nourishing but it can also be incredibly violent and powerful. The pull of it. You read about people getting swept out to sea. They swim in the shallow end and then they get swept out to sea. You think, how can that happen? That’s ridiculous but you underestimate the power of it a lot of the time. For me, maybe it’s that balance between it being violent and angry and horrible, and then the peace of it. Maybe you’ve got a point there."
Does your family have any connection to water, with the docks or anything?
Forest Swords: "Generally, everyone’s family round here has dockworkers in their family. Directly, I don’t think I did. The most interesting job that a family member of mine had was a magician. He was a magician on cruise ships in the 50s and the 60s and he left me loads of magic tricks that I’ve got in my attic at the moment. There are all of these vintage tricks - you know those magic sticks that turn into rope, flowers. That’s such a weird job in my history because most people round here are descended from dockworkers. It’s still a big industry round here. Everything’s based around that maritime vibe. Even going back to The Beatles. The only reason they sounded like they did was because rock’n’roll records were shipped in through the ports. So Liverpool and Merseyside has this debt to the water."
"I work in quite short bursts, a) because of my patience and b) because of my tinnitus."
Could you explain a little of your creative process?
Forest Swords: "I work in quite short bursts, a) because of my patience and b) because of my tinnitus. I’ve gradually got used to working in one or two hour periods and then leaving something. I’ve become very attuned very quickly to different energies. You can definitely hone in very much in a quicker way. I’d sit down at the laptop and something would just happen. I’d find a sound or find a melody and I could base a whole song around that. It felt like a very natural process. You bear witness to it in a way. Even though I was sketching things out quickly, the actual fleshing out of the album - taking things away and adding stuff and taking things away again - was a long process."
As somebody with tinnitus, is there a particular tone or timbre that helps alleviate it? Can you block it out or hide it when you’re listening to certain music? I’m wondering if it informed any of the sounds on 'Engravings'?
Forest Swords: "That’s an interesting question because my tinnitus disappears when I am focusing on something. When I focus on one sound, when I’m very much engaged with one texture or sound. While with Dagger Paths there was a lot of stuff going on, with this record there’s less going on. I think maybe that has something to do with the fact that when I hone in on a sound I can explore it for a decent amount of time without worrying about [his tinnitus]. I don’t necessarily know about tones or anything like that because I listen to a lot of different music but it definitely disappears and shifts when I concentrate on something. It’s the same as people who have a stammer, when they sing their brain tricks them into thinking that everything’s okay and you’re not conscious of it. Also, tattoos. My friend got a tattoo and he was saying he was having a conversation with someone and he wasn’t thinking about the tattoo and the needle going in and didn’t feel any of the pain. But as soon as his focus shifted back on it, the pain appeared."
The cover art for 'Engravings'
I’m going to use that tip when I eventually get my tattoo. Have you got any tattoos?
Forest Swords: "No, but I have a dispensary of things that I want on me. I think it’s a good thing to have in your head though: you need to stay with it for a while before you commit to it. I want “No more drama” on me by Mary J Blige. It’s one of the greatest songs ever written and one of the greatest songs ever sung."
And the sentiment is perfect for the 21st century.
Forest Swords: "It’s pure gospel. It’s absolutely incredible. There’s this one performance of her doing that on Jools Holland. She gets the holy ghost. She’s stamping and screaming and it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. That song is just one of those ones if you go through something bad, you listen to it and it’s an instant soother. It’s quite an angry song but it still soothes. I’d also like “I just wasn’t made for these times” by the Beach Boys. I quite often feel like that. Outside of things or quite separate from what’s going on. I’m always attracted to text because I’m into typography and design. The meaning can change if you have it in a different type face. It’s a very underrated artform, typography."
I wanted to pick up on what you’re saying about not feeling made for these times. There’s something in the album - you hint to it with titles and also texturally as well - that feels like a surfacing of history. Maybe it’s the water washing things away and then washing them up again.
Forest Swords: "With water there is that connection to your ancestors, it’s always been there. It will always be there. It will outlive all of us. So it’s a thread running through all of us. I’ve always felt like that, though - that I wasn’t designed to be here sometimes."
"Part of that hinting at ancient things within the work is a conscious thing and it just feels right to me. I’d love to be regressed."
What temporal zone do you live most in? Are you someone who’s often looking back?
Forest Swords: "Actually, no. I hate nostalgia with a passion. It makes me depressed to look back. I’m not one of these people that looks back on old photos. I never look back on my life and think, oh it was so much better then. I think that’s a very negative outlook. So in a way it’s kind of weird for me to feel a connection to my past past rather than my life past. I’ve not an unhappy life so there are things that I could look back on and say that was great, that was amazing, but there’s something inside me that doesn’t think that way. It’s not like I’m constantly looking toward the future, though. I think I’m a lot more about the present. I think that’s very underrated: living within that single moment. Part of that hinting at ancient things within the work is a conscious thing and it just feels right to me. I just feel that deep connection to it. It’s quite an interesting avenue to explore. I’d love to be regressed."
So you ascribe to the idea of past lives?
Forest Swords: "I think so. I believe in energy and I believe in the transferral of energy between things. I think it’s all swirling round us and it gets distilled into various things. My physical body might not have existed a thousand years ago but definitely something inside me has. It’s like everyone, it’s not just me - I’m not some special person. Everything has an energy and it’s all everywhere."
That’s my favourite life theory.
Forest Swords: It’s only really in the past few years that I’ve thought about that and connected with it. Possibly when you create work, such as music, because it’s sort of an unconscious thing you maybe connect to your own energy in a different way. You can shift your perspective slightly. I’ve always felt a deep connection to something in my past. I don’t know what it is. But I would love to get regressed, it would be fascinating.
Do you know anyone who has been regressed?
Forest Swords: "My mum got regressed once. She had this problem when she used to drink orange juice, she used to feel sick. It only started happening when she turned 50. It was this real problem so she got regressed and found out it was something that happened when she was two or three. She had some orange juice on a train with her mum and dad and was sick because of it. That memory had stayed with her and lay dormant until she was 50. I know that is present past life."
"There’s so much stuff that’s gone on in our lives that we must have put to the back of our heads. It’s all lying dormant there."
But still the fact that there’s all this stuff that’s lodged in us that we can’t access.
Forest Swords: "There’s so much stuff that’s gone on in our lives that we must have put to the back of our heads. It’s all lying dormant there."
I sometimes get shadows of it - like an outline of something, a silhouette, and I’m like, what is that?
Forest Swords: "Yeah, and you don’t have the capacity to fill in the blanks. I find that fascinating. I’d love to experience that. I’d love to drag up some memories from my youth as well. I think partly because I don’t take much pleasure in looking back at things so maybe a lot of stuff I’ve swept under the carpet."
What do you think’s been the overriding thing you’ve learnt over the last three years?
Forest Swords: "I think I’ve learnt to do things with conviction and stick with my decisions. I’m a very indecisive person. To actually create things and say this is going to sound like this forever or look like this forever, it’s quite a big deal for me. To make those permanent decisions and cement those ideas, encase them forever. So I’ve learnt it’s okay to make decisions and it’s okay to stand by them because there’s no right or wrong; you can’t go wrong really when you’re an artist. It’s so important to realise that. You trip yourself up and you second guess yourself and all this nonsense. So I’m definitely a lot more confident about the work I create now because I know that there’s conviction behind it. People might not agree with it but that’s not my problem."
"Where I grew up, being an artist isn’t a proper job. But I started to realise that the more I create things, the more it's okay to understand that’s what I am."
It’s you that’s got to live with it.
Forest Swords: "Exactly, so if I’m happy with it that’s all that matters really. It’s quite difficult, also, making this new piece of work - you kind of think, Dagger Paths had this quite singular sound. You’re like, if I completely deviate from that..? You start questioning your own self, you start thinking people might not like this. But I just don’t care anymore. One of the interesting things that’s happened over the past couple of years is that I’ve started self-identifying as an artist. Suddenly it’s okay for me to call myself an artist. For so many years there was always a shame attached to that for me. Where I grew up and stuff like that, being an artist isn’t a proper job. But I started to realise that the more I create things and the more I commit myself to it and the more energy I put into it, the more that it’s okay to understand that’s what I am."
Does that open things up in terms of what you’re allowed to explore?
Forest Swords: "Yeah, it suddenly opens up these doors: shit, everything is possible. Anything you want. I was in Chicago recently and there was an exhibition by Vito Acconci."
Oh - the architect!
Forest Swords: "Yeah, he went from being a performance artist and being in this very temporal headspace to creating architecture and public art, which has a lot more permanence. So you suddenly realise it’s okay to shift between these things. It’s okay to not box yourself in. I can do whatever I want and I don’t have to sign up to this thing where I’m making a record every few years and touring. I can do whatever the hell I want and it’s perfectly okay. I have no-one to answer to. It’s very liberating realising that. It’s interesting seeing people like that and seeing how their work’s changed over time. It’s almost like they impart knowledge to you, say it’s okay to do these things and not be restricted to what you’re doing."
I saw him talk at MoMA as part of Kenneth Goldsmith’s guerrilla poetry readings there. Acconci read a bunch of his treatments for buildings and they were like poetry. He gave a little preamble about how his idea of architecture was one that people can change. One of the ideas he had was for a building in which the lighting followed you around the space. He explained that it would work with little LED lights everywhere and as you moved they would be activated. So it would be like you were being followed by all these star-like lights.
Forest Swords: "That’s incredible because you can definitely see the train of thought between that and his performance work. The people influence what’s going on: they are part of the work. It’s quite inspiring to hear that because you understand that the threads that you start sewing now will go with you. Even though I’m not aware of them right now, they’ll still carry on with me throughout whatever I do. I saw that exhibition and it was mind-blowing. It started off with that one where he was masturbating under a plank, Seedbed I think it’s called. At the time there was this huge uproar around it but his thinking behind it was incredibly beautiful and articulate, and it’s so interesting to hear you can go on to something like architecture or whatever. When Kanye says these things like he wants to start a design company, start an architecture company, change healthcare, he’s almost sneered at a little bit. It’s almost like this inherent you can’t do that, you’re a rapper. Why can’t he do that? Why can’t he try his hand at these things? He’s an artist, he can do whatever the hell he likes. There are no rules."
"When Kanye says things like he wants to start a design company, start an architecture company, change healthcare, he’s almost sneered at a little bit. Why can’t he do that? He’s an artist."
It’s true. I think part of the reason things go so filtered into boxes is that we live in such commodified times...
Forest Swords: "Right, and it’s easier to sell something that people can latch onto. That’s totally true."
We need to buck against that.
Forest Sword: "Talking about performance art and commodification, someone like Marina Abramović has become a brand. She’s managed to make money out of it after a long, long period of time. I find that fascinating in that you can almost turn it on its head. So many people have made so much money out of her in the past - gallery owners, magazines or whatever - and suddenly she turns it around and becomes her own brand. She’s like a popstar of performance art, [yet] it’s extremely confrontational and uncompromising work. It’s really nice to see that. She’s also one of those people that you can see the threads through everything she does. In a way I’m looking forward to getting older to explore those a bit more. Suddenly it feels like my world’s opened up."
Tri Angle released Forest Swords’ debut album ‘Engravings’ on 26th August 2013.