The US record collector, label owner and (sort of) noise artist invites Matt McDermott into the weird world of his tastes.
His stance might reflect his origins in the US punk, hardcore and noise scenes, which, for the most part, gleefully spurn commercialism. The Los Angeles resident came of age musically during noise's 2000s heyday. As one half of Yellow Swans, he spent nearly a decade immersed in a world of contact microphones, basement shows and an endless stream of releases on cassette, CD-R and lathe. The duo often prefaced their name with an ever-changing D word—Die, Dynasty, Drowned, Dreamed—showing an unwillingness to sit still that continues to define Swanson's practice.
Then, improbably, Swanson and other key noise figures like Dominick Fernow (Vatican Shadow) and Ren Schofield (Container) found their sounds recontextualized as music to party to. Following the release of his 2011 solo album, Man With Potential, Swanson was swept off to festivals like Unsound and CTM, where he staged rhythmic performances imbued with the frenzy of punk and noise. When all that started to feel predictable, Swanson packed up his suitcase synth and got back to his day job working as a psychiatric nurse.
While patiently plotting his next sonic move, Swanson remains a devoted record collector. His excitement about weird sounds is contagious, and he's generous with the knowledge he's acquired on his travels, picked up through a global web of experimentally-minded record freaks. He recently launched a reissue-focused label, Freedom To Spend, with his friends Jed Bindeman (of the Little Axe Records shop in Swanson's former hometown, Portland) and Matt Werth (the founder of the respected NYC label RVNG Intl). Freedom To Spend's three releases to date, from Michele Mercure, Marc Barreca and Pep Llopis, are outré electronic documents of the highest order—singular and utterly bizarre. The same can be said for the ten records he chose for this feature, which served as a jumping-off point for a broad conversation on the beauty of defying expectations.
Jun Ray Song Chang
I don't understand what they're going for. The footage that I've seen of them live looks like they're triggering the vocals with the drums. There was this whole crew of really weird musicians in Portland that were experimenting with hybridized versions of electronic music. I started getting into electronic music through that group, people that were inspired by real outliers. Everyone was really psyched about Mego and the first couple Fennesz records, Pita's Get Out, Nuno Canavarro, Asa-Chang and Jun Ray. None of these records even fit into IDM or whatever was happening in the underground at the time, they're too eccentric.
Asa-Chang & Junray have this unusual, hybridized approach to music where it's not purely instrumental, not purely electronic. We don't really know what's coming first. Is the process coming first? Are the samples coming first? I have no idea, and who would make music like this?
When we were working on Yellow Swans initially, we took on the influence of what was happening locally, hybridized electronic projects using rock instruments, along with records like The Bug's Pressure, Mark Stewart And The Maffia's Learning To Cope With Cowardice, Loveless. But when we were on tour we'd listen to records over and over again. The tour we did when we were working on the music that ended up being [Yellow Swans'] At All Ends, we listened to Sade's Love Deluxe every day. For Psychic Secession, we were listening to The Beach Boys constantly. And I don't really think that those records sound at all like those albums, but we were trying to bring these sorts of approaches to noise music. I don't think music is interesting if it is trying to be one thing.
You have to take inspiration, but also apply it to your own personal history, your own personal processes. I couldn't just make a Sade record; I don't know how to. I don't think I'd want to know how to, but taking elements of that process or that concept helped me progress and make a record that I wouldn't have made otherwise.
It's just one of the fastest, hardest electro tracks you will ever find. Coming out of punk music, these really eccentric records were an easier sell than club music. I still don't really get how record stores that cater to that world work exactly. It's a little impenetrable to me.
So if you walk into Hard Wax...
I go straight to the reggae section because otherwise I'm like, "I don't get this, I don't know how to find anything I want." It's just foreign to me.
How do you like to shop for records? Or how did you come across this Drexciya record, for instance?
I was in a record store in Portland with Paul Dickow [Strategy]. I said, "I don't understand this, can you help me?" He said, "Oh yeah, you should check out the Underground Resistance section, they're this really punk Detroit techno crew." I said, "Oh! That sounds interesting!" And then I listened to tons of 12-inches and none of them clicked with me except for this record, which I've kept probably since '98 or '99?
Portland seems like a cluster of insane record people, Paul's up there, [Freedom To Spend cofounder] Jed Bindeman is up there, [Visible Cloaks'] Spencer Doran's up there. Can you talk a bit about that culture?
So Portland's gone through a few major shifts since I lived there. When I first got up there, I met Paul Dickow [Strategy] and his roommate Ethan Swan... they were the older guys with the records. So they probably had as many records as I have in here in their living room, and I was 19 when I met them. This is the early ages of the internet, and I'm like, "Oh, Suicide! I've heard of this. This Heat, I've heard of this." I would just hang out there for hours and they would play me all these records that they were already bored of. Those dudes gave me a really serious education. Also around the same time I was in a band with Johnny Jewel, from Chromatics and Glass Candy.
Yeah, the guy who was on Twin Peaks the other day.
Yeah, the guy! He lent me Gate's Metric, he lent me White Winged Moth. In terms of record stores, there were these two shops and then Mississippi came along and that opened up down the street from my house.
Maybe you can describe what Mississippi was because I feel there are now so many labels that do what Mississippi does as far as compiling and reissuing obscure world music.
I also have almost everything that Mississippi ever put out. You'd just roll into the shop and there would be all this wild stuff on the wall that you'd never heard of. It was one of the first places that I went to where there was somebody there who was dedicated to digging up dead stock, who was actively buying collections from people, who had pretty deep knowledge and had buyers working for them internationally. So you would just get ridiculous stock.
Spencer Doran spent a lot of time there, Jed spent a lot of time there. There was a coffee shop right next door, and there were a lot of arty types who lived in that neighborhood, so we'd all run into each other, it was a cultural hub. People would show up and hang out at the listening station all day, but also it was the kind of shop where neighborhood kids would come in and ask questions about what punk record they should check out.
So without exaggeration, Portland is one of the best record towns in the US.
Portland is a town where you can have a super curated store that caters to a small customer base but is able to survive because the cost of living is still relatively low. It's increased a lot in the last couple years, but you go into these shops that are the size of a closet and it's floor to ceiling $300 records. Something's up [laughs].
You've obviously spent a lot of time in record stores digging. Why do dance music shops still feel foreign?
Well, the thing is that I'm not really a digger. I'm not somebody that will spend all day at a listening station at this point. I know what I want, I'll go in and look for it, but the way that DJ record stores are organized, it just doesn't make sense to me. It's like BPMs, sub-genres of electronic dance music. My interest in it has always been not as a club-goer but as somebody who listens to records at home.
Sometimes I'll go to the shops. Actually I was in Paris a couple years ago and I was hanging out with Ron Morelli and the guys who do that label In Paradisum. We went to the shop and they were like, "Oh, you need this Terrence Dixon 12-inch. You need these Gherkin Jerks reissues." I didn't really plan on buying anything. Sometimes it's just a social thing, going to record stores with friends. You end up in a shop that's not really focused on what your personal interests are at the time and they open this door for you. I'm someone that wants to walk through those doors at any opportunity.
Ipan In Xiktli Metzli, México Mágico Cósmico, En El Ombligo De La Luna.
Something that really captured me with these pre-Hispanic records is that there are contemporary elements—Fairlights, multi-track recording—but there's also this cultural concern. When you're living in a country that has a history of colonialism, there's been an attempt to erase indigenous culture and these people are exploring an aspect of their culture by using instruments that predate Spanish settlers. It's not exactly political but it's an exploration of personal identity that I find very appealing.
In a lot of cases, there's a tradition for these instruments, but sometimes people don't even know what they're supposed to sound like.
Right, you still have people working in this way, like that FIS And Rob Thorne record [Clear Stones] that just came out, where Rob's playing traditional Māori instruments. I think it's always going to be interesting when somebody is merging their past with their present... their ancestral past, or even trying to merge their experiences with travel and cultural immersion.
One of the vagaries of globalism is that it's a purely swallowing economic force and there's not enough of an attempt to bring it along culturally as well.
It is happening culturally though, and there are times where it's happening in a way where it's really problematic, and there are times when it's happening in a way where maybe it's a little problematic, but it's also compelling. Or, there are some instances when it's an exploration of self.
Something like this Luis Pérez record, it comes from this place that as white kids from America, we don't really understand. I'm wondering if the tradition that you're generally looking back to is like basement noise shows, or power violence festivals at the 924 Gilman Street venue.
Getting bruises on my shins. Yeah.
Why did you get bruises on your shins?
The stage at Gilman Street was about a foot-and-a-half high, and if you were at the front you'd get pushed into it because it's the pit. I would end up with all these bruises.
But is that what you look back to? Is that what feels most real to you to some extent?
No... it's not all nostalgia at all.
But the feeling more so, or the energy behind it.
I think with Punk Authority [Swanson's solo release from 2013], it is that energy. It is that drive for catharsis. I had a couple of live shows where it definitely felt like a club night that had turned into the gnarliest mosh pit. When I played at Unsound, people came up on stage and my gear was falling apart while I was playing. The knobs from my pedals were falling into the body of my gear. It was impossible for me to go on at a certain point because everything had collapsed.
Because people were bumping into you?
People were going so nuts that the floor was buckling and my table was going all over the place. People were crowd surfing. That is a nostalgic experience for me, where you have this sense of danger.
There are a lot of different ways that I appreciate music, that I identify with music. I'm not going to make a record that's exploring my small town Oregon culture through using Mexican flutes [laughs]. That would be inappropriate. That would be the wrong way to mess around with fourth world gestures. Maybe I'd use Renaissance fair recorder ensembles with crust [punk] guitar parts and a kick drum underneath. I have no idea, but I'm also not making music right now.
This is one of the first records you told me about. Something that you went to Portugal to hunt down?
[Laughs] Not exactly. I did a residency in Portugal that was through ZDB and the ADDAC modular synth company. They hosted me for a week, I spent a bunch of time recording. I only had certain times that I could be in the studio, so I spent a bunch of time wandering, going to record stores, meeting people. I ended up meeting up with a record dealer and he sold me a copy of Belzebu.
Telectu was around for decades?
These guys made so many different records. I think my favorites are Belzebu, Off Off, things like that. Their first album is this weird, slightly new wave, slightly post-punk, Philip K. Dick-themed album that's chaotic, but it's songs with vocals. I've also heard records of theirs that are just pure drone. I've heard records of theirs that are free jazz. They did a whole bunch of different stuff. It's baffling. There's this creative dynamic that's occurring in Portugal, which during the '80s was somewhat isolated. There wasn't a lot of risk or reward. They never had exposure outside of their country.
So, what is it about Belzebu?
The ambience of it is perfect. It's playful, it's sinister. There are a lot of aspects that are familiar, but it still has this alien quality. It sounds like UFOs. It's deeply strange—the artwork and the music. Everything about it is super endearing.
Do you feel like sound poetry is an underappreciated genre amongst record collectors?
Well, it's like the most obscure genre. I'll go into Amoeba and there will be some rare sound poetry record up on the wall. I'll bring it up to the front counter and they'll be like, "What is this?" I'll say, "Oh, this is a sound poetry record." They'll respond, "I've never even heard of that. What is that music even like?"
It's so marginal and a lot of the sound poetry records are compilations with a couple OK tracks, a couple of bummer tracks and then a few that are crazy good and very unusual.
Sound poetry has yet to experience any sort of cool-guy revival.
I don't think it will, and that's OK. I have to have my own little pockets that nobody cares about [laughs]. I'll end up at record fairs and sometimes know the buyers, and people come up to me and they'll say, "Oh, you know him, he's going to get all the good stuff." And I'll say, "He's not going to get what I want!" And that's pretty much always the case.
Solo 1978 / 79
Now we're getting into Smegma territory. So, Ju Suk Reet Meate is the guitarist from Smegma. I think they self-released this and it came out in 1980. Everything is hand done, all the artwork is all paste on. There are these inserts of collages they made. For years you could find it around Portland. I don't think that's the case anymore.
Smegma was a band that I grew up seeing, they were always there. I didn't realize this until I got to know them but some of my earliest access to underground music was through a TV show put together by one of their members, Mike Lastra. Bohemia Afterdark, that was music videos of underground bands, live concert footage of groups like the Butthole Surfers, video art. It was on this network TV channel.
I would stay up late, surreptitiously so that my parents wouldn't know, and I would watch this stuff on really low volume and see these music videos for Quasi and Smegma and whatever was going on at the time. That was my first glimpse into culture beyond my middle school, and it was really appealing.
The artwork's amazing.
Everything about this record is a prototype for the American Tapes, noise, CD-R aesthetic. This is probably one of the first widely-available, low-run noise records.
They're elders of the noise scene.
There are a few of them, Intersystems, the pre-Syrinx group. Nihilist Spasm Band.
I'm sure you've heard these songs, but I don't know if you've heard the actual record.
I haven't heard the vinyl.
It's 15 minutes long, and it's a 45 RPM 12-inch. There is a shrill, aggressive quality to the way it's cut. It crawls out of your speakers. Compared to this, No New York sounds like a professional record.
No New York is commercial in comparison.
In comparison, yeah. Which is crazy! This is Mars at their most out. It's rock taken to its logical conclusion, extreme disassembly.
It's the last thing that they recorded.
And it's the most deteriorated. It's the most divorced from their first record, which is more like Velvets-inspired songs. These are still songs. They would still play these songs faithfully live, but it's so obtuse, it's so abstracted.
That's what trips me out about it. It was recorded on stage by Arto Lindsay. It's so tight and professional in a way, but they've carved out their own bizarre language. It's not careerist at all. It's much bigger than that, in a way.
Well, they were creating fine art.
Do you find professionalizing, having a music career, compelling?
No, that's not why I do it at all. There's a reason why I went to school and stuck with it. There's a reason I have a separate career. There have been points where I could have done music professionally, but I feel the cost of doing that—it's not the price I want to pay. I've always been somebody who's followed my muse, my own inspiration. Not being able to do that, I don't think I would create work that was good.
Should we talk about the mighty Dead C?
I actually found out about them when I was still in high school. I got their album Tusk my senior year.
Was that a Siltbreeze release?
Yeah. First couple of listens I did not get it. I kept the CD and ended up moving to Portland about a year later. I started playing music with Johnny [Jewel], who passed me that Gate [Dead C guitarist Michael Morley's solo project] album, Metric. I really enjoyed that. I figured out the connection between Gate and Dead C, and I put that Tusk CD back on and started listening to it every day. I became obsessed and have been ever since.
For a while I was working ten hours a week doing deliveries. I got paid $200 a week under the table, and then the rest of the time I was flipping records. It was the early days of eBay. I ended up picking up a whole bunch of original John Fahey LPs, and I was trading records with Father Yod—Byron Coley and [Sonic Youth's] Thurston Moore. They had some OG Dead C records. So, I wrote them and said, "These are the Fahey records I have and this is the condition they're in. I want to get those Dead C records." We worked out a trade and I got these rare Dead C records in the mail. It was just non-stop Dead C listening.
I've always found their process to be mysterious, I don't understand how they write songs. Then I ended up meeting them and it made sense [laughs]. They're autonomous players. They don't really interact when they play. They're all working and there are points when things gel, but just as important as those points are those moments when they're acting autonomously, not even really playing with each other. They're just playing in the same space. That's how their music ends up so alien—they're playing in a way that's not about forming a consensus. So much music is about that, finding that common ground. That's not what the Dead C are about at all.
I feel like every album, every live performance, has been a transmission from some other planet. Then you dig into Michael Morley's personal working trajectory... He's somebody whose creative process I find very inspiring. He recently did that record Republic of Sadness that I think is absolutely beautiful and super weird. There's not really anything else like it.
What's that one like?
It's almost in the same realm as GAS, nearly ambient techno, but there are times where it's a little funky. A little too funky. There are times where he starts singing and it's like, "Whoa, I'm in the zone and then all of a sudden this marble-mouthed 50-something Kiwi guy is talking about something indecipherable." Like weird mutterings from an old art school teacher. It's confounding. His more recent record, Saturday Night Fever, that record was disco, but totally destroyed.
The one that I keep coming back to on that one is "Hijack." The songs not only subvert the genre but subvert themselves.
Yeah, but that's also something that Dead C does. If you listen to their album Secret Earth, there are all these songs that start out in one place and then they turn into something else. It goes back to what I was talking about with regard to my electronic music experiments, where the music is subverting itself. It's not doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing.
What was really strange about operating in that world was that on some level it made sense that I would be playing in that context, but the way that I approach music, the way that I like to perform music, it didn't make sense. So it created a lot of tension at times. There were points where I wasn't really able to perform my work the way I wanted to. There were shows where people wanted me to play in a DJ booth, things like that. It was interesting because it was tense.
So something interesting arose from that friction.
I think that there has to be friction for anything interesting to be happening. But the context for your record is going to change. The way that people react to subversions is going to evolve. Right now, I don't know what needs to happen, what needs to be subverted, and this was the hard lesson of creating electronic dance music, that it just became a part of the culture. It started out being tense, and that lasted for like a year, and then it's just part of the thing. I always have this fear that if I'm playing with things that are referential, it's just going to turn into the thing that I'm critiquing. Then I'm just a participant, which is not what I want to be.
Eros In Arabia
He switched his name up for this one.
Well it's just backwards. So he was doing his own thing, he studied music in Morocco, traveled throughout the Middle East for a while, traveled around Africa, he was buddies with some of the beat writers who lived in Morocco. I just read Cosey Fanny Tutti's autobiography, she's talking about making connections with Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, and I like to think about how back then, the world of freaks was so small that everyone could correspond with each other.
His collaborations with Sussan Deyhim that I've heard, that's like mystical desert music. Horowitz also collaborated with Jon Hassell. What is it about this one that really works for you?
Again, this is the product of a lot of personal inquiry. This guy went out, lived a whole lot, made a bunch of recordings, supposedly he had this Shandar record that got nixed or maybe it just got made in such small quantities that no one's ever sold it on Discogs. He was experimenting with all this percussion and flutes he'd acquired during his travels, and then he had this DX7 and he just banged it all out.
That's something that I think is really interesting about his work that reminds me of Chris [Kirkley] from Sahel Sounds and the Sublime Frequencies guys. They spend time in these cultures and develop relationships, it's all musical, it's all based in art, but an art that's mutually respectful and egalitarian and also their personal practice is informed by their experiences.
So in the case of Richard, I'm not sure how much time he spent in Morocco or traveling around. Sussan, I think she's Iranian, there's this fourth world notion and Horowitz was a part of it, but I always felt his music is very personal. It doesn't sound appropriative at all. It's something that comes from his life. Even if it was as a tourist, he arrived at this point.
He earned his fourth world stripes.
Well, I'm not sure he did [laughs]. I think the most interesting steps that have happened musically are from cross-cultural pollination. Same thing with food, the most interesting things that have happened with cuisine are from cultures butting into each other. Unfortunately, that's often the product of imperialism, and it's something to look at critically, but I also think there are people working in way that's eccentric and personal and related to their experiences and values and interests, that is not exploitative. Then there are instances when it is and it's blatant and it's wrong.
Suoni Di Frontiera
This is a record that I was hunting for for a while.
How did you hear about it?
I hear about pretty much everything through other people. I was in Milan. There's a mail order there called Soundohm, run by the guy who does Die Schachtel, who released this record on CD. I was deeply into Franco Battiato, I knew that he had this private record store, so I made an appointment to go check it out. I go in, I'm digging through everything, and I asked, "What are some really excellent Italian records along the lines of Battiato's album Clic?" He told me to check this out.
It took a couple years to hunt it down?
I just bought it off Discogs. There are a handful of records where I'm just waiting for a copy to pop up at a good price. There are a couple records where I'm waiting and waiting and they're always like 150, 200, 300 dollars. The other option with those records is holding off until someone I know gets a copy and we can arrange a trade.
Let's talk about Soundohm and Fusetron, those experimental music distros and their importance.
I have big orders from Fusetron every other month. Soundohm, they're based in Italy, but they have really great shipping to the US. What was great about meeting Fabio was getting to pick his brain, getting to see used records he has available. He has a really deep collection with a bunch of stuff that is super rare. It's nice to be shopping or getting recommendations with someone who is deeply in the know.
That's one of the things that's great about finding out about music socially. It's a means of expanding your knowledge through people who have very deep knowledge. I can probably spend forever schooling my dudes in Italy about American noise if they wanted to get into it, but they have a way better read on this kind of thing. I like that—knowing that there are still little scenes to discover, that there's a lot out there I don't know.