Ian Maleney talks with Pete Swanson, whose new album Man With Potential has just been released on Type Records.
Pete Swanson is an experimental musician from Portland, Oregan who now resides in New York. As one half of the revered and ever-progressive Yellow Swans, he developed an engaging ability to draw the listener in, sometimes through barely-controlled ambience or noise, sometimes through insistent rhythmical patterns. Improvising with the sounds generated by his cohort Gabriel Saloman’s guitar and electronics, Swanson added vocals, drums and effects to create a truly unique sound experience. In his solo work he has issued a host of releases, both personally and through labels, that have seen him push his ideas and sounds ever further in new directions. Man With Potential is his newest release, and it may well be his best to date. A dark and intriguing world is created, littered with broken electronics and harsh beats, forcing the listener to make a choice: go the whole way or not at all. Man With Potential is undoubtedly one of the most essential albums of the year and highlights an artist continuing to challenge both himself and his audience.
First off I guess, how is college going? How are you finding the workload and balancing that with your music? Has the move to New York been cool?
The move from Portland has been interesting. I didn’t really enjoy school when I was younger and it took me 14 years to get my bachelors degree at a few different community colleges and universities in Oregon. Upon arriving in New York, I didn’t just find myself in a city that was culturally very different from my home, but also in an academic culture that was very foreign. I’ve gone from a small, cheap, slow city where I was very comfortable to an enormous, expensive and fast-paced city.
I’m currently at Columbia University in a program that will eventually lead to a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing. I’m not sure how well the credential I’m earning translates to other countries, but I will eventually be able to prescribe medication. The portion of the program that I’m in currently is a more general year-long program to get a more nursing license, so my class is very large and almost entirely younger women. I’m one of 4 men in a 170 person class, one of 10 people over 30. Despite my feeling like the Toxic Avenger at a sorority party, I’m enjoying my education and have been up to a lot of very cool stuff that I haven’t been able to do previously. I’ve been spending a lot of time in hospitals and have been in on surgeries and births, I’ve set up people with catheters and been very intimately involved in the care of a whole gang of people despite my limited experience in the medical world. I’m currently working at a psychiatric hospital and will eventually end up working at an organization that provides health care for homeless people, which is what I’m ultimately interested in doing.
As far as New York, I don’t really get a lot of opportunity to see the city due to the demands of my school program. I have been getting out more recently and I hope that trend continues. At least I can occasionally see a show that would never happen anywhere else. I just saw Moniek Darge and Graham Lambkin play a show. My own music doesn’t happen so much these days, but hopefully that’ll change.
Does the change in environment affect a change in the music that you make?
I can’t really say. I’ve only been able to work on things here and there since I’ve been in NYC. I did record Man With Potential and I Don’t Rock At All in a cabin in Estacada, Oregon last winter. Estacada is basically in the middle of nowhere and I don’t think those records sound particularly rural, or very similar to each other.
Where did the title for the new record come from? It’s seems a lot more positive than the music might, on the surface at least.
All of the artwork and text from my releases come from incidental events in my life. The text is all from reading and conversations that I have with friends. I’ve got four or five friends that have helped me name a lot of my solo albums and tracks. Man With Potential came out of a very mundane conversation about dating with one of my friends. I don’t think it’s wholly positive, it could be read as being sarcastic and self-deprecating. I think it’s an ambiguous statement that interacts with the music and artwork in an interesting way.
I’ve not been able to follow everything you’ve done, or probably even half of it, but it seems like Man With Potential has a very different feel to work you’ve done in the past. Was the aesthetic of it intentional or just a gradual development? There seems, to me, to be less anger and possibly more acceptance in the music, if that makes any sense.
I don’t really think I’d agree with your assessment of the record having a more positive outlook. I’m generally a very positive, pragmatic person and my work is usually pretty dark and messy. Man With Potential isn’t as depressive as Feelings In America, but it’s definitely a downer on some level. I’m glad you saw something different in the album, I don’t ever set out to make a record in a certain way that evokes a specific feeling in a listener. I’m glad people can develop their own relationships to the music.
I’m not sure if you’re using “aesthetic” to ask about this record being more focused on beats, rather than more noise or drone elements. On some level I’m a little surprised that some listeners have found the focus to be a dramatic shift. Yellow Swans has always used rhythmic elements and was actually very heavily beat oriented during our first few years as a band. There’s always a lot going on in my music, and just having a prominent 4/4 beat in parts of the album does not really equate a techno record. I can see this album being in dialogue with techno, but it’s such a fragmented, distorted vision of any particular form of music. My initial intention for this record was to make a record that was built out of very small synthesizer sounds in poorly synchronized loops.
I wanted to ask you a little about what your creative process is these days? Is is still quite improvised or have you got certain templates you work from?
I haven’t done any compositions since At All Ends (or 2006). My music isn’t wholly improvised either, I generally have some sort of established framework and cache of sounds and improvise with those elements.
You’ve mentioned in the past a recording system that leads to the sounds you have, not using distortion pedals and the like. Is that still the case? Has that setup changed much since the Yellow Swans days?
It’s not a recording system, it’s the arrangements of instruments that I use live. I have been developing a processing system since the beginning of Yellow Swans and I continue to use that same system. There are no distortion pedals or anything like that. The noise element, as well as the diversity of fidelity in my recordings, is all due to the reel-to-reel that I use as an analog delay. I have added a loop pedal since YS and I’ve had to add sound sources since the bulk of my contribution to YS was in processing Gabe’s sounds. I’ll use drum machine, synthesizer, electric or acoustic guitar or tape loops as each show or recording requires. The source is always secondary to the processing and is what really defines my work.
You’ve talked about being interested in mistakes and errors within systems, is this still something that appeals to you? Do you apply that on a compositional or arrangement level to your work, or do you think it’s inherent in improvisation?
Flaws in performance or production are often what I find compelling. I’m not a big fan of improved production or musicianship, those things tend to kill the power of the music. I work with these systems that allow for things to be out of synch with each other, sounds can vie for position with each other, sounds disappear and reappear. Everything I record is performed live to two tracks and edited down without overdubs. The flaws are things that happen live and are a result in an imperfect processing system. The errors have nothing to do with the actual execution of the music.
There’s a 7″ of covers that I have coming out that relies on flaws in memory. I decided to do a 7″ of covers on acoustic guitar. I didn’t revisit the original songs at all, I simply assembled them from memory and documented the results. Some aspects of the songs are spot-on, some aren’t. In this case, the error results from my poor memory and is more a problem in system than in execution.
Are you playing the ‘Man With Potential’ material live at all? If so, what are your plans?
There’s no way I could logistically pull off playing specific material off of the album, but I’ve been doing shows that use a similar sound vocabulary. The live execution generally falls somewhere between Going Places-style immersive ambience, Man With Potential-style fractured electronics and Challenger-style dense-synthetic abstraction.
I can’t play very frequently or tour because of the whole school program. I’ve played two shows in NYC so far and I did a 4-show tour last August. That’s about as much as I can do right now. I’ve had to turn down a handful of great show offers, but I haven’t been able to take many people up on their offers.
How much consideration do you put into the format on which people hear your music? Also, kind of on that topic, what’s the difference for you working with a label instead of self-releasing?
I enjoy releasing c-20s. That’s really my preferred format for self-releasing music. I might do more LPs at some point, but I like that I can keep tapes in print forever. I don’t really worry about the quality of the music aside from time-constraints of the format, the quality should always be high regardless of format or venue.
As a general rule, I only work with labels for significant releases. Man With Potential, Feelings In America and I Don’t Rock At All seem to have a certain integrity to them as cohesive works. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but generally I only work with labels when I feel like a piece of work could appeal to an audience larger than those who pay attention to my non-promoted, self-released tapes.
What kind of thoughts do you have about what you’re doing next? You’ve been pretty prolific in the past, is that set to continue?
I never feel like I’m doing enough. I’m tempted to say that I keep slowing down, but that’s just not true. My work is more efficient now than it was during Yellow Swans, so hopefully I’ll continue to put out releases fairly regularly. There’s the 7″ of covers that I mentioned above coming shortly, a collaboration with Scott Goodwin called VEPA, a collaboration with Brian Sullivan called Beer Damage, hopefully more collaborative recordings with Tom Carter as Sarin Smoke are going to happen soon. Type is going to have to wait awhile for the next “big album,” since I’ve only really got these previously documented approaches going right now, there are ideas for new directions, but nothing new has been happening easily. I might put out some new tapes myself. Those just happen as they happen. I’m not pushing the music thing, it just has to happen.