Jake Hulyer catches up with the Bristol duo whose turbo-charged live sets and records are putting a raucous spin on techno.
This wasn't the first time the duo had polarised an audience. The night before in Munich, someone leaned into the sound booth to turn down the volume. Robin Stewart and Harry Wright say they embrace the wide spectrum of responses their music elicits, including from people who point out technical missteps. "The important thing," Wright told me, "is that those people can coexist in the same space with people who don't give a fuck about techno, who just wanna take drugs for the first time."
I saw them play in Birmingham recently at Supersonic, a festival for noise and experimental acts, where they closed at 1 AM. They stood either side of a table laid with synths, drum machines and cans of beer, nodding their heads energetically, dancing and hollering at the crowd. A thumping kick drum was the constant, hitched at various moments with gnarly synth sounds, skittish percussion and reverb-heavy vocals. Stewart pulled his shirt off early on and, at one point, climbed off the stage, beaming a smile at someone who reached their hand out to him.
I met Stewart and Wright earlier that day at a pub near the venue, not far from Birmingham's city centre. They had a brotherly air, bouncing their answers to my questions between them. We were in the ex-industrial neighbourhood of Digbeth, a mish-mash of creative enterprises, derelict warehouses and new builds devised by developers hoping to make a buck. Supersonic took place in a factory that used to produce Bird's Custard.
First bonding over skateboarding and graffiti, Stewart and Wright have known each other since they were 11. They started a band, The Naturals, with two other friends around the same time. They made friends with other Bristol-based artists, like Vessel, who was a bit older than them, and who put them onto labels like Punch Drunk, Tectonic and the Young Echo collective. "They knew all the white labels that we had no idea about," Wright said. "We were into, I dunno…" he pondered. "My Bloody Valentine," Stewart laughed.
It's an example of what they see as the benefit of overlapping music scenes in Bristol, where they grew up. It's a small city, where a heritage of soundsystem culture—owing to the large Afro-Caribbean community in the St. Paul's neighbourhood—mingles with rock, avant-garde art groups and drum & bass. A good example is the annual New Year New Noise shows, organised by their friends at the label Howling Owl, where the bill will often bring together guitar bands, out-there electronics and performance pieces.
Visits to clubs in London gave Stewart and Wright their first transformative experiences of dance music. A key venue was Corsica Studios, where they saw DJs like Oni Ayhun and Regis. "That was like our pilgrimage," Wright said. They were 18 at the time, and starting to make music outside of The Naturals. They had little knowledge of the music they heard, but were grabbed by the energy. "We had no idea," Stewart said. "We just went to the raves, would do a pinger, talk about it for months afterwards, then go to another one."
They started Giant Swan through hanging out in each other's bedrooms, smoking weed and recording sprawling drone tracks. As they got to know each other better outside of the band, they explored different kinds of music, and it was a natural path from making those earlier tracks to the music they produce now. The immersive sound of drones shares similarities with techno—the feeling of locking into a rhythm and getting lost in it.
Stewart and Wright often still feel like they're outsiders to dance music. Putting out records has meant they've discovered the inner workings of releasing a club single, like the expectation to include a DJ-friendly intro, and the buzz of having DJs tell you they've played your music. Batu, who released their fourth 12-inch on his Timedance label, also remembered how they were unfamiliar with some of the patter commonly used in club music. It once led to a comical misunderstanding, when he'd sent them feedback about their tracks. "They replied," he recalled, "and were like, 'I have no idea what you're talking about.'"