When Punk Authority (Software Recording Co.), Pete Swanson’s new EP, is emanating from my iPhone, a funny thing happens: my German Shepherd rushes in from wherever else he was in the house, snuffling and whimpering and breathing heavily. The ears flatten against his head. His entire body heaves. “For the love of God,” those large, sad, watery eyes seem to plead, “shut that fucking noise off so I can get back to chewing on my spine.” And then, when I comply, his mien all of a sudden reverts to normal and he saunters away like he just won the mother of all staring contests.
Who can blame him? Whether you’re listening through high-res headphones or crap speakers, the latest ledger entry in the former Yellow Swans member’s solo career (the transplanted Portlander now calls NYC home) Authority carries its immediate predecessors’ predilection for drawn-and-quartered electronic paintball to new, extra-cyclonic extremes — it’s a mulched-beat half hour of power that requires a half dozen listens to really worm into your mental jukebox. The cover and promo art more than match the mood: a wide-eyed, graffiti smothered Swanson backed up against a brick wall and slung over the shoulder of an interloper. From the gesticulating frequencies of “C.O.P.” to the fracking-drill feedback of “Life Ends At 30” to the title track’s spin-cycle upheaval, Authority rages, wild-eyed, against encroaching complacency.
SOTC emailed with Swanson about the making of the EP, how he’s balancing noise and grad school, and how he knows that his 20s weren’t wasted.
Have you had any notable run-ins with police? I’m guessing law enforcement has shut down a Yellow Swans show or three over the years?
Yellow Swans didn’t have a lot of problems with police. There were a bunch of shows that were broken up by police when I was younger and a few of them got pretty hairy. I was at a show in Florida when I was 19 that got pretty out of hand where the cops cleared it out with police dogs. I also got teargased at another party in Eugene when I was 18. I’m a pretty straight shooter though; I usually keep it on the right side of the law.
I have worked a lot with prisoners in my mental health care career and have always found systems of establishing and maintaining social order to be incredibly interesting, extremely complex ethically, and hugely rewarding to engage with directly.
Talk to me a bit about the EP format, and how it fits into your artistry. To appearances, it’s a format that you prefer to LP length.
I wouldn’t say that I prefer EPs to LPs, but I have particular things that I consider to be essential for presenting music as an LP. EPs are much less complicated for me to do, and a lot of my work lately benefits from being presented on a shorter format. I was considering trying to make Punk Authority into an LP, but I didn’t find the work appropriate for a longer format. Do people really want to listen to such blown-out sounds for an hour?
Pro Style was more of an explicit dialog with dance music culture, which I thought would be an interesting gesture after finding myself in the middle of this tech-noise zeitgeist. I have always relied on the use of established signifiers in inappropriate contexts.
There is a certain degree of specificity that is appropriate for EPs that is not for LPs. With LPs, there needs to be a larger narrative from track to track; they require some breadth of emotional and sonic content. If I’m asking a listener to be willing to sit with my music for longer than 30 minutes, I want to show those ears a bit more respect and not simply bludgeon them or present work without variation. The longer a work is, the more compelling it should be. I hate that many listeners expect albums to be more than 50 minutes. Length does not equal value, and generally, long records are a huge waste of time.
I’m currently planning one more EP before I make another LP, but I need that album to be differentiated enough from *Man With Potential* where I don’t feel like I’m repeating myself.
I hadn’t thought of this before, but given the propulsive, dance-y nature of the recent releases, maybe the EP is a fitting vehicle anyway: given how dance artists tend to embrace singles and 12 inches.
Yeah. Pro Style was my take on that more traditional dance music format. Punk Authority is something else. It’s basically like a little mini-album that specifically studies how far I can simultaneously push pop elements and more deteriorated/corroded qualities.
I’m definitely not all-in with the whole dance music world, and doing EPs for years with no albums. It’s just most appropriate for the work I’ve been doing since I’ve been in New York. All of my previous albums were recorded over very focused sessions, and I’ve only really been able to work in short fits since I started grad school.
Punk Authority registers as almost industrial in spots; it’s harder, less friendly, in a way.
Punk Authority is basically a collection of recordings I did while preparing for shows. I wanted to present something really immediate and physical to whatever audience I had. I haven’t played live much since the end of Yellow Swans and I want all of the shows I play to have some degree of impact.
With Pro Style, I was focused on recording music that could more appropriately fit in the dialog of contemporary dance music, but as I prepared for my shows, I became fixated with enhancing the melodic qualities of my work while simultaneously beating it up, and ripping it apart in the hopes that it becomes something else.
You are correct to think that the work is harder and less friendly in some respects than other recent releases of mine, but it also has more prominent melody and elements that could be considered hooks. I just wanted to turn everything up on the aspects of the other recent releases that I found most compelling.
What were audiences’ reactions to the Punk Authority material when you first started performing it?
To be honest, I haven’t played very frequently in any one place for years now, so I have no gauge on any shift in reaction. There was a long period between recording Man With Potential and my playing out more overtly techno-oriented work where I was just doing whatever I wanted for shows. I did some sets where I was playing processed finger-picked acoustic guitar songs, some sets that were sort of prototypical versions of Do You Like Students; some sets were just messy.
After Man With Potential came out – and I had taken the better part of a year off from playing concerts up to that point – it became clear that there was an emerging audience with expectations, and that it was in my best interest to develop material that was aligned with Man With Potential. This was also a direction that I found to be potentially rewarding on a creative level. Those practice sessions produced Pro Style and Punk Authority.
I’ve become more comfortable with the setup that I’m using live and, for one of the first times in my career, I have material that I’m doing live that is fairly similar to material in my most recent releases. It’s actually been very nice having a crowd that vaguely knows what to expect, and there’s been growing momentum following each set of shows. People have been flipping out and dancing and moshing and doing whatever during my sets, and it’s been incredibly fun playing out. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun playing live music.
As a listener, do you feel like the LP format is generally abused or misused?
I wouldn’t say that the format is abused or misused, but I often don’t think artists consider the format very seriously. I think most people just focus on writing good songs or making banging tracks or whatever. A collection of great tracks doesn’t make a great album.
There was also a shift around the time that CDs became the most mainstream medium for albums, where albums went from being 35 to 45 minutes to being 60+ minutes long. There’s this unfortunate perception that increased length of content equals increased value or more significant work. I find that more focused, intentional work more often results in albums worth considering.
I think experimental musicians have to be particularly careful with the records that they present as albums, since we’re not working with pop forms. It’s not like I ever have a “hit” that I can count on for album sales.
Tell me a bit about the Punk Authority artwork. It’s by far your most arresting, colorful solo art.
I’ve been into creating these imperfect narratives for each album. It’s something I’ve been developing since Feelings In America through Man With Potential and I Don’t Rock At All, and now Punk Authority. The art and language for each release play off of each other in a way that is not made explicit, but is the result of some patchy thread that makes some sense to me. There’s always some degree of humor and self-deprecation.
The Punk Authority art and language is all built up around these themes of individuals perpetuating oppressive systems. I had the title of the album sitting around for a long time, but I didn’t have the image until I re-watched Police Academy 2, and became fixated on this image of the police chief covered in graffiti by a punk gang. That image is so ridiculous, but is also sort of the ultimate blow to the authority of that individual. I didn’t have the resources to re-create the image until I moved in with my roommates, who are both involved in the whole club/drag world and are incredibly talented with make-up and stuff like that.
Ryan Burke took that photo and is a talented photographer; Sara did the makeup and is the “punk” in the photo. We took a ton of shots, but this image was the only one that seemed particularly compelling. It seems to have a lot of visual echoes of other records.
I’m glad you were struck by how colorful this record is. There’s a lot on this record that I
think may challenge the more gray-scale sensibilities of a certain subset of fans.
What were the narratives at work on Man With Potential and I Don’t Rock At All?
When I use the term “narrative” to speak about the art and language involved in a release of mine, I don’t exactly mean a literary narrative. There’s not some explicit, scripted story being told beyond the content that is included in the packaging and in the music, but I do think that there is a certain resonance between the images, the language, and the sonic themes.
With Man With Potential, I was fixated on themes of masculine success and how often those things were also seen as being forms of self-abuse. When I was working on that record, I was having a pretty hard time. The music was fractured, somber, and quietly violent. The language and artwork is self-effacing. I constantly find myself in places in life where I have to kill a past self to progress into a new phase, and this record attempted to reflect that necessary process of self-flagellation to become a better person, a better artist.
Of course, there is also some levity to the content and I really try and have a certain amount of humor and mystery in the content of all of my records. I find so many records provide a streamlined experience where there’s an overly consistent aesthetic. There’s so much hand-holding on the part of the artist, and I really long for the enigmatic object with enigmatic content. As an observer, I want to experience enigmatic and rewarding work that requires more consideration than “this is a metal record” or “this is a goth record.” There are so many ways one could do things, and I have no idea why someone would pursue such a unified and singular experience if that ground has been paved by other artists. It makes no sense to me.
I Don’t Rock At All was built up of a lot of awkward references and dumb jokes. That album title was a play on Jack Rose’s “I Do Play Rock And Roll,” which also came out on Three Lobed Recordings. In a way, it’s a tribute to both Jack and the label, but it’s also supposed to echo that album’s title as something that reads as being a way of Jack placing himself outside of the freak-folk thing that was going on. I Don’t Rock At All actually is probably my most “rock” album in terms of sonic content, but it actually really doesn’t “rock” since the pieces are all long, pastoral guitar improv pieces.
The packaging was almost entirely a visual joke. Cory Rayborn asked me to do a bonus CD for his Not The Spaces You Know box and it wasn’t going to be announced ahead of the release who or what the CD was actually going to be. So it was a surprise thing for most people and I wanted to delay that surprise by making the reveal require actually opening up the package and taking the CD out of the tray before there was text actually identifying the release. I had gone on this walking expedition with a few friends and we ended up taking a few pictures of trash including the photo of me pointing out a CD in the wild. The trash pictures are on the outside of the case, the photo of me is on the inside (and I wish I could have a picture of everyone who randomly got that CD opening up the tray to see that ridiculous picture) and the text is printed below the tray. Unfortunately, the CD company could not understand why you would package a CD that way and we had to have them re-pack the CD over and over and over again because they couldn’t get all of the artwork facing the right direction. It was absolutely insane and we ultimately had to re-pack everything ourselves because we had already sent back the CDs and had them re-packed three times. I guess I should add that the trash images are supposed to reflect how much I value CDs and I thought it was funny that I was making a CD-only release. It was bonus trash for the dedicated Three Lobed fan.
How is striking a harmonious balance between music and grad school working out for you, so far? And – as ridiculous this question may seem – have there been areas where the two overlap?
I wish the relationship between music and studying to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner was even moderately harmonious. Things are a little bonkers right now. I only have two (albeit, fairly long) days of class per week, so I have five-day weekends where I can travel abroad and do these one-off festival shows that I’ve been doing. Tours have to fall on breaks in between semesters and forget about setting aside a long chunk of time to work on new music. I can only take little jabs at new sounds in between trips or during sound-checks. I do homework on the plane and in hotels. It’s a pretty awkward way to live, and I have no idea how long it will last for.
I have another 18 months left in my program, and each semester change results in a new schedule with a new framework that I have to work my music activities around. After that point, I’ll likely take on a fairly serious job and I have no idea how shows will work into that. It’s unlikely that I’ll quit playing music. My career has already had a lot of ups and downs, and there’s no way I’m banking on ongoing artistic success paying the bills. I have a fantasy of buying a house or land with cash in hand before I’m 50. That’s just not happening with music. My work is too marginal for most and I’m not interested in having my work being more influenced by an audience than it already is. I’ll keep making records. There’s very little that I enjoy more than playing music.
The transition from playing a few sets in a distant state or country to classroom learning must be really wearying; it must take quite a toll on you. Do you ever find yourself unable to tell which way is up?
I don’t find going back and forth between school and shows to be that different from going back and forth between shows and work. I’ve always had to have a day job, and part of my pursuing this degree is so I can have a primary source of income doing something I enjoy and still be able to occasionally budget a little time for a few shows or working on an album. It’s all sort of compartmentalized and everything has to fit together in the big picture. I think I would have a much harder time if I was trying to cram in a ton of shows on the weekends as opposed to just doing one show and being in one hotel room for my visit. It’s a short vacation somewhere, but it still feels like a vacation and I’m able to get school work done during the day wherever I am.
Every once in a while, something will get really out of balance: maybe I’ll have one week in a semester where I have to travel and I didn’t realize I had a few large projects due or something like that and I’ll have to just work all the time except for the period that I’m playing. In December I had to write a 12-page paper while I was in Madeira for a festival. That was kind of a bummer, but I got it done and did a lot of my research laying around in the sun or sweating in the sauna.
For the most part, I’ve been managing, and I would rather capitalize on the opportunities presented to me right now than pass them up.
One of my favorite moments on Punk Authority arrives at the end of “C.O.P.,” where you’ve guided the listener through this throbbing, shelled-stucco sea of noise and gut checks and sharp, bright electronics. The emphasis has been on whirling, fireworks-like sounds and bumper-car rhythms that have a certain swagger to them – and then for the last couple seconds you foreground a kind of harried, sandpaper effect. Can you tell me how that came about?
Everything that’s going on throughout that track is sounds from my synth running through my processing system. There’s a lot of chaos going on in that track and a lot of that is just live tweaking and flipping switches, changing patches and stuff like that. The “sandpaper” that you’re hearing is simply gated white noise. I use multiple kinds of gated noise to produce percussive sounds. In that case, since everything is so stripped back, you get the full effect of the layering of my processing system going on there. There’s still some interruption going on there, but it’s all the same sound interrupting itself.
Tell me about your live approach. Do you take a fairly straightforward bead on pre-written material, or is it more of a cross between that and improvisation, or something else entirely?
Something else entirely. It’s kind of complicated and boring if you don’t have a background in analog synthesis, but to simplify things, I basically have some pre-set aspects on my synthesizer that I don’t manipulate live. The only stuff I don’t mess with live, in real time, are the sequencer outputs that signal the oscillators to produce melodic content. Without these signals, the tone of the oscillators would be fixed and I’ve wanted to enhance the melodic content of my work. I do have more of these signals for melodic content than I do oscillators and I’ll have a few different melodic lines that I can patch into different oscillators and not have everything be super out of tune. Everything else is basically live. I bang out rhythms on a switch sequencer, control envelopes for the different sounds that my synth is producing, and do tons of live mixing and processing. Everything I do is live.
All of the records that I’ve made minus a few Yellow Swans studio records were recorded live to two tracks. There’s no way I can re-create any piece. My setup/gear is all too unreliable and chaotic. Even if I could produce the same source sounds from my synthesizer every night, I still couldn’t execute everything the same way every night. There are just too many variables.
So yeah: all of the sounds that I’m producing are from my modular synthesizer. Then there’s all of the processing routes that I also play these sounds through. I spend as much time tweaking my mixer and outboard effects as I do tweaking my synthesizer live. I process a lot of the synth sounds using my tape machine and a custom self-oscillating distortion pedal. These effects are particularly inconsistent and produce a wide variety of results. I really never know what is going to happen with a lot of this stuff, so part of the fun of playing live involves engaging with these surprising failures of equipment. So there’s some set elements, some predictable factors, but for the most part, my gear behaves erratically and I have to be able to interact with that behavior in the moment no matter how distasteful the unfolding events are.
“Grounds for Arrest” has a lopsided funkiness about it; if Punk Authority were, say, coming out on Epic Records, someone might try to market it as the big pop single since it’s the shortest and catchiest track. There’s a lot of obfuscation, a great deal of interference, but the melody at the center shines through nonetheless.
There are moments where that piece congeals into something vaguely resembling something pop-like or implies some sort of hook melody, but for those ecstatic points of cohesion, that track is constantly crumbling and reforming into something else. Nothing sticks around long, and the narrative that plays out over that track is particularly non-linear on the EP. Other tracks have repeating themes and persistent melodic elements that are prominent, but Grounds for Arrest manages to both be the most “pop” track on the record, while being the most non-linear track on there.
I personally really love the way that track plays out. and I think it embodies the goals of this record as well as any of the other tracks. My intent was to play with enhancing melody and deterioration on this record.
With each release over the last couple years, you’ve been pushing the envelope further and further, away from guitar melee into these kind of electronic hinterlands. Do you have a sense of where you’re going artistically, in a long view sense, or is the path revealing itself to you as you move forward?
I’m glad you feel like I’m getting further and further out there. I also think I’m getting more and more pop. I’m trying to move in both directions simultaneously, and I expect that I will continue that process. I’m not sure exactly where things are going next. For the first time in a very long while, I have a representation of my contemporary work out in the world with “Life Ends At 30,” which was the last EP track that was recorded in November. The sets I’ve been playing out have been based on that track roughly. I haven’t had any time to really figure out what the next move is going to be, but generally those developments play out in the tools that I’m using first. I’ve been doing these remixes for people using my computer so I have an idea of how I could feasibly make a record by myself using the computer as either a more diverse sound source (since the oscillators on my synth can only produce so many different qualities of sound) or as a means of creating more intentionally arranged pieces. I figured out how to synch my computer with my synth and I bought a sound card so I now have the ability of integrating the computer into my setup in a way that is not wholly inconsistent with the musical process I’ve been working on for a decade. I also have been picking up modules for a while and have out-grown my touring synthesizer case. I’m waiting for a new one to show up, and I’ll be able to expand my synth so I’ll be able to craft more complex rhythms on the fly and have a few more ways to manipulate melodic content. I hoping to get out of the 4/4 grid a bit more and get into some really loose rhythms and melodies. We’ll have to see how experimenting with all of this new stuff plays out. I’m thinking that the next album will be a bit more dynamic than Punk Authority, but that’s not that hard to do.
In terms of listening to music for pleasure, what are you gravitating towards these days?
The last few weeks I’ve been pretty fixated on The Trash Company’s “Having Fun,” Rainer Veil’s “Struck,” Igor Wakhevitch, “Late Nights with Jeremih” and Peter Jeffries’ “Last Great Challenge in a Dull World.”
Your comment about “becoming more pop” made me think of another artist who’s on a similar trajectory: Eric Copeland, of Black Dice. Have you followed his stuff over the last couple years?
I haven’t kept up with Eric’s records that well. I’ve heard a few of them and I see him play fairly regularly. I like his stuff and have been a Black Dice fan for ages. I actually put on a few shows for Aaron Warren’s old band when I was in high school.
I think Eric and I are exploring similar ideas, but as with all of the other oddballs messing around with beats, we’ve all got our own distinct personality. I don’t really think Eric’s music or Container, Vatican Shadow ,or I sound all that similar. We’re all coming from a similar sub-culture and concerned with similar ideas, but I think all of our work is very different.
Has there been any one show in which you felt like you really connected with an audience on a more intense than usual level?
The show that I just played in London was crazy. Lots of enthusiasm; old friends and people that I had worked with and never met previously. I nearly sold all of the merch I had. It was also very nice for me because there were a lot of younger musicians out who sell a lot more records than I do who have been following my music for years. It was one of my first real experiences where I was able to see some generativity in regards to my music career.
Probably the most profoundly positive show I ever played was in Fargo, North Dakota when Yellow Swans was on tour with Xiu Xiu. There were probably 100 people there and most of them were under 21. None of these kids had even heard of noise before and there was this incredible energy following our set. Lots of people in the crowd wanted to ask us questions about what we had just done. The next time we came through, we played with some of those kids who had started their own band.
That’s fantastic. That must give you a real sense of being part of a continuum of influence: a perpetual cycle.
It is very nice. It makes me feel like I didn’t totally waste my 20s. It’s really hard to know how your work interacts with the audience while you’re out doing it and I think the greatest achievement you can have as an artist is to encourage others to create. Bands like Velvet Underground and The Stooges weren’t that popular in their day, but they inspired tons of bands, that inspired a ton more bands and their legacy was established through that process of rock generativity. I don’t think my work is on the same scale, but now I know there’s something being passed on.
Punk Authority is available from the Software Recording Company now.