It’s a handful of years since Matt Barnes has been a recognisable name as Forest Swords. In 2011 he bypassed the city’s music scene with the release of his debut EP ‘Dagger Paths’ via London indie label No Pain In Pop, who have released the likes of Grimes and Patten, impressing critics with it’s swampy guitar-tinged dance music and psychedelic, dubby hip hop shuffles. When the music industry came knocking after Dagger Paths dropped, the wary and overwhelmed Barnes shooed everyone away, instead opting to return to the shadows and work, slowly and surely, on new music and art.
In the ensuing year, he decided to create the (as yet untitled) follow-up in his own time at home, recording and mixing the album himself (mixing took place outdoors on Wirral’s windswept Thurstaston Hill, where Barnes sat over and over again with his laptop until the battery died) and, 12 months in the making, it sounds both chillingly dark and joyously triumphant. It also feels like it comes at a strong time for our region’s arts scene, with bands like Stealing Sheep gaining momentum and a burgeoning DIY arts, punk and electronic scene making Liverpool seem like a vital place again throughout its venues and warehouse spaces.
In breaks working on his new record, he’s taken on select, and varied projects: exploring experimental sound art installations and lending his production skills to others, working on R&B singer How To Dress Well’s sprawling ‘Cold Nites’; a track with hip hop prodigy Haleek Maul and others are set to appear this year.
We meet in a dimly lit hotel bar near the waterfront (“This kind of skin tone doesn’t play well with the daylight” he quips), and in person, he is wiry and slim, dressed in black, with dark red hair. He’s chatty and warm, but guarded; answers regularly tail off, and he politely declines to answer certain questions. His responses are thoughtful and considered, yet he often starts an answer and struggles to pull the thoughts from his head, giving up in visible frustration: “there’s a lot going on in there at the moment” he sighs by way of apology, fidgeting the label off his beer bottle. It’s a fitting admission for the type of music he makes; weighty, troubling. But with shards of light glinting through the clouds.
You record and mix all the music yourself, do all your own artwork and visuals, re-pressed your own records, and shunned getting any management or PR. Where did your work ethic come from?
I got into bands like Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Fugazi when I was a teenager. These were artists who were proudly saying ‘you don’t need anyone else. If you have a vision and you want to make music or anything else, you can do it. Nothing is stopping you’. It’s pure spirit than ran through them. It made me kind of reckless in that respect. I’ve definitely passed over a lot of opportunities because I wanted to do things on my own terms.
Gigs, working with other people, other projects. When it gets too convoluted or when there’s suddenly tonnes of red tape I’m just like “nah, forget it. Not worth it”. I go with my gut a lot of the time. I guess I made a decision when I started this to not do anything I won’t enjoy. What’s the point otherwise?
Are you a control freak sometimes?
[pause] Probably. But it’s important for me to keep a tight reign on everything. It’s my work, so I am protective of it. There’s a real power in doing as much as you can yourself. It’s liberating. You learn a lot of new skills as well. I enjoy that side of it. It’s definitely not good for my health [laughs]. I need to get better at asking others to help me out. I’m working on it. Certainly with this next record and in the future I’m going to have to let other people in otherwise I’m going to self-destruct.
Are you worried about having been away for so long after all the attention first time around?
It’s not that long, in the grand scheme of things. I just carried on with my life after it all happened initially. It was never like “finally! some attention!” – a lot of musician’s lives revolves around that need to, y’know, get signed and have a record out. That’s their ultimate goal. It was never ever like that for me. That’s not my end point.
There’s so much pressure to capitalise on attention nowadays, but I’m glad I took a step back. My friends thought I was crazy for turning stuff down. I didn’t want to go out and play shows and start that treadmill, because it’s difficult to get off. I’ve seen so many bands who strike while the iron’s hot and then burn out. It’s important to take time, especially nowadays when there’s such a high turnover of artists and music. You have to be headstrong and ride it out. Let that wave wash over you.
You mentioned to me before the interview that you’ve had problems with you hearing.
[long pause] Right.
Do you want to talk about that?
[shrugs] I don’t know. People suffer from much worse things.
What kind of form does it take?
Tinnitus mainly. It’s a pretty extreme form. It keeps me awake a lot, it’s relentless. I’ve learnt to zone it out but the effects are always there. If I’m in a bar or somewhere with a lot of background noise, I find it difficult to pick out people’s voices, even if I’m talking to someone one on one. You lose your ability to focus, you zone out. It’s not nice. There’s a lot of other stuff that’s happened. I don’t know if I want to go into it all yet.
Is that why your album took so long?
I came close to just giving up making my own music… not necessarily just the hearing stuff, but yes, it played a big part. I would do a track, come back to it and it would sound totally different to how I thought it did the day before. And when you’re working on your own, that can be frustrating. You don’t have anyone to be objective. It knocks out the calibration of your hearing sometimes – you feel like you’re going insane. It’s something a lot of people don’t talk about, especially people involved in, or fans of, music. There doesn’t seem to be dialogue about protecting your ears.
You’ve started to do gigs here and there [accompanied by Loved Ones bassist Jay Freeman]. Has it been good?
Getting to see all these really nice European towns is good, yeah. I’ve not done too many — I don’t ever want to do long tours — but it’s great to see these places. You’re constantly meeting nice people. You make a lot of new friends. It makes me want to learn new languages though; I feel embarrassed going to these places and having everyone speak perfect English back.
What was the crowd reaction like?
[thinks] At a few of them, I was really surprised. It was this quite visceral, instant energy. I don’t know if it’s because the live show can get quite intense, or if it’s just a European thing. When you’d chat to people afterwards it wasn’t like [shrugs] “oh yeah, nice show” or whatever. People really seemed to connect to it and want to talk about why. It’s very flattering considering it’s basically just music I have made in my bedroom. It’s not something I could ever get used to, I don’t think.
Do you get nervous?
Sometimes. I went to art school here in Liverpool and was lucky enough to be tutored by this amazing guy, John. He passed away last week. I’m gutted. I wouldn’t be doing half the stuff I am without him. If something was crap, he’d tell you. If something was great, he would tell you. He always used to say not to overthink and ruin your work… “just make it beautiful. Make it fucking beautiful”. I loved that. I’ll need it tattooed at some point. So I’ve deconstructed all my own work like that for years, talked in front of classmates about it and in my day job, so presenting music live is no different to me.
It’s weird sometimes for me to see musicians who just stand around disengaged. The music is personal to me, and so playing it is quite cathartic and that balance can go over the edge. A lot of it has to do with the energy in the room. You become very attuned to the people in front of you. It’s a strange place to be.
You don’t sound that confident in your work when you talk about it.
I believe in the way I do things, but there’s a push and pull inside. I’m completely obsessed with creating, though it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m confident in it. It’s an addiction. But I can never make tracks and say “yes, this is good”. I’ll finish it and think “OK, right” [laughs]. I just feel I need to create things. You bear witness to it, almost.
What else would you like to do?
I’d love to get into soundtracks… films, documentaries, working with those kind of visuals. I’ve got exhibition and installation ideas I need to finish off too. Hopefully they’ll see the light of day sometime. More production for other people too.
You seem to have quite an open mind about the type of work you make.
Well, like anyone I’m influenced by a lot. It just all gets distilled down into whatever I’m doing.
Can you give me an example?
Maybe I feel like I’m getting more tuned in at looking at one medium and applying it to another. So… you could look at a sculpture, for instance. The colour of it, the shape, the scale. Then take those properties, and apply those onto a melody or beat. It’s not an easy way of thinking at all but it’s still a process of triggering ideas to get where you need to be. There’s music I’ve done that has been kicked off by a piece of clothing I’ve seen, or a photograph, or whatever. It’s all interchangeable. You have to take that spark of an idea wherever you can find it and work it out.
You recently started another project called Dyymond of Durham. How is that different to Forest Swords?
That ties in to what I was just mentioning, actually. I used to study with all these really talented illustrators, whereas I was kind of stuck doing computer work because I couldn’t draw particularly well. I enjoyed it, and I learnt a lot [Barnes' work has been featured in design publications like Grafik and Creative Review] but it still bugged me for a while. There’s something pure and primal about being able to draw and paint. I did a Forest Swords commission called Ground Rhythms that was based around audio responses to architecture – working with field recordings and so on, last year.
Right after that, I went to see a Lucien Freud exhibition, who I’ve loved since I was a kid. I came away thinking – OK. I’m doing music at the moment. How about I try and create portraits with sound like that? It’s the one thing I can have a very loose and free relationship with. like you would paint on a canvas. So Dyymond of Durham is an experiment specifically in that area. Taking people, the body, and forming sounds. Reflecting something three dimensional in front of me into texture and rhythm. I try to work through the music how I imagine a portrait artist would do it; making layers and changing blocks of colour until I get something similar to what I’m viewing. I’ve had one track out, and there’ll be a couple of EPs soon hopefully. Maybe live stuff.
You’ve mentioned in the past you don’t feel part of the music scene here. Does that still ring true?
[surprised] No, no. It was never meant as a negative comment. It was just honest – I have no idea where I fit in here. I don’t really hang out with musicians, so I just don’t get a chance to be part of [that], but I’m aware of it all. I’ve no idea if people here even like my stuff, you know? Just go on the assumption that nobody does [laughs].
Do you feel a bit alienated, not feeling part of a community?
Not alienated, no… I like what’s going on here. I was chatting to [Ellesmere Port based] Evian Christ about that kind of thing, he’s in a similar position that I am, slightly separate from things. And we agreed that sometimes it works out for the best. When you’re immersed in a city you’re so aware of what everyone else is doing. When you’re not, you can play around in your own space. But I still try and dip into it and support it.
I feel like it’s a bit of a duty for musicians and artists from here to big up Merseyside, too. Whenever I do shows and hang out with people we always try and talk about Liverpool. It’s had some bad times, and it feels like there’s a real turning point now, but it requires everyone to do their bit and reverse any, y’know, negative reputation. I mean, last year it won an award for the friendliest city for tourists to visit. That’s great.
Do you feel positive about Liverpool’s future?
Yes. There’s still a lot of work to do, and the government seems intent on making things difficult here and similar places. That’s a whole other conversation. But it’s a resilient city, and it’s the people that really move things forward: it doesn’t necessarily come from the top. There seems like a collective agreement here now where everyone’s like “OK, right. It’s time to push on”. With areas like the Baltic Triangle, for instance, you can see a collective willing for it to do well. But it’s important not to be too insular. We still need to attract people here. A city doesn’t thrive on an endless feedback loop.
How do you think the music scene compares nowadays with the past?
When I was growing up and started going to gigs, the early 2000s I guess, it seemed to consist entirely of blokes, wearing big coats, playing guitars. Liverpool seemed to take longer to get over that whole jangly scouse, Britpop, Oasis-y thing than every other city; we really dragged it out. I don’t know why that was. It was fucking awful. It said nothing to me. It needed to be taken out in the yard and put out of its misery. Then Ladytron came along, Mugstar, Korova, Chibuku, all changed the entire landscape here. I saw so many incredible bands in that [Korova] basement. Nights like Engine and Evol opened my mind. I am so grateful. It’s snowballed from there and it’s really healthy now, people pushing forward. Having all these new spaces available really helps.
Would you say this forthcoming album feels quite specific to Merseyside and the Wirral?
Yeah. I tried to approach the record almost like folk music — songs that resonated with this area. I wanted it to sound kind of earthy; ancient. That way of relating to my environment, but using the technology I work with. Software, electronics. read up a lot about the age-old aspects of the Wirral, the Viking and Norse history of it. There’s lots of very interesting, brutal, folklore around this area. I dismissed it when I was a kid but I find it fascinating now. It definitely informed a lot of this record.
The thing I like about your music is that it’s definitely electronic music, but it doesn’t always sound it.
No. I guess using very current electronic sounds or techniques – you know, the latest synth sound or a synthetic drum beat, is often like putting a time stamp on it. Whereas if you’re looking at using sounds in a more organic and loose way, and throw in different instruments, it’s less chained to a specific moment in time. I go more towards thinking like that.
So what about the next one?
I’m keen to have each album be done in a different place. So the next is being done…[tails off] I’ve got a few of places I’d like to do it. But who knows. I haven’t decided quite what happening with this new one yet. I don’t know if I want a traditional release for it.
From the preview I heard there’s more vocals on this record, was that a conscious thing?
I’ve been playing around with putting samples together with my own voice, you slice them up so small — literally vowel by vowel — that it makes these strange, elliptical phrasings. You can’t tell either way, when you treat it with effects and pitch. You can start to become one with something else. It’s a lot of work though. Working on a really zoomed-in level.
How much of your music is sample based?
Less than you’d think.
This might sound strange, but a lot of your songs sound almost like ballads to me.
Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe not the tempo, but I can see where you’re coming from. I’m curious in that balance between really intense euphoria and this almost bleakness; melancholy. I’ve learnt that it’s such a fine line. A lot of ‘Dagger Paths’ felt very tentative in places, it was just me playing around. And it felt very intimate. On the new tracks I’ve been attracted to sounds that were intense and deep and that really hit me: snatches of choirs and strings. It has a different energy, for sure. There’s sadness and hope… I feel like you’re able to play around with the joy in either, if you tap into it in an honest way.
Dyymond of Durham’s ‘Hunger’ features on a No Pain In Pop compilation out now.
Forest Swords album released spring 2013 TBA