As Forest Swords, Matthew Barnes is mining a rich seam. His music is an alchemic mix of a vast range of influences – listen to Dagger Paths or last years universally acclaimed Engravings and you’ll hear traces of dub, drone, metal, post punk, r’n’b and hip hop, and plenty more besides, but this music is so much more than the sum of its parts. On the one hand, it’s bang up to date – accessible, hooky and insistent. But it also, with its chants and tribal drums and cavernous dub echoes, seems to tap into a kind of unconscious, collective folk memory. It’s impossible to listen to it and not feel an uncanny connection to some unremembered, tribal warrior past. He’s an absolutely essential artist, and ahead of his appearance at Unsound Adelaide next month, Cyclic Defrost caught up with Matthew to talk about place, history, collaborations and creativity.
Neil McNickle: With Forest Swords you’ve created a very fully-realised, recognisable identity. However, I think people sometimes struggle to describe the music you make. I’m interested to hear how you would describe it yourself.
Matthew Barnes: It’s difficult to be objective about that, but I suppose in my head it’s some sort of leftfield pop music. When I started, it felt a lot more strung out and open-ended, less focused. But the further I’ve got into it the more I’ve been interested in hooks – or my version of hooks, at least – and streamlining it. Taking experimental sounds or melodies that I find interesting and trying to sculpt them into some sort of form.
Neil McNickle: From Rattling Cage onward, one instantly identifiable strand of your music has been those great, monumental guitar lines which a lot of people attribute to the influence of Ennio Morricone – is this a fair assumption?
Matthew Barnes: I do love Morricone, but I’d never really put two and two together until people started comparing the music to him. Obviously it’s a huge compliment to be mentioned in the same breath as him – he’s the greatest modern composer. Definitely one of my favourites, but it certainly wasn’t an intentional source to use. It took me by surprise a little, but listening back I can see where people get it from.
Neil McNickle: Are there any other film composers you admire?
Matthew Barnes: I really liked Mica Levi’s score for Under The Skin recently.
Neil McNickle: When I listen to Dagger Paths and Engravings, there’s a very atavistic, almost paganistic quality to the music. Where do you think this comes from? Are there any Mongolian throat singing or ‘Now That’s What I Call Gregorian Chant‘ compilations nestled among your more contemporary records at home?
Matthew Barnes: Really, once I started making music those kind of elements seemed to come to the fore, in the aesthetic and the visuals and the music. I kind of let it happen, didn’t force it. It’s always something I’ve been interested in, things like folklore and history and about human’s relationship to nature and the land. I suppose more primal sounds and textures resonate with me more. Yes, I’ve got a lot of weird and odd records like that – strange folk and oral history compilations. I’m missing ‘Now That’s What I Call Gregorian Chant‘ though, I’ll track that down on Discogs.
Neil McNickle: Where I’m based, near Donegal on the west coast of Ireland, for a lot of artists the place is inseparable from their music, and a huge inspiration. How do you think your music would differ if you weren’t making it in the Wirral? What does your location add?
Matthew Barnes: I think it’s good to be porous with your surroundings, to let it filter in but not to force it. But I didn’t intentionally think when I started Engravings, for instance, that I was going to make an album that reflected where I grew up. It just soaks in over 20 or 30 years, in ways that are probably too abstract or subtle to even try and comprehend – the atmosphere, the air, the colours. It’s not things you’re even conscious of most of the time. But it would absolutely sound different if I was based in an inner city, I’m sure.
Neil McNickle: I’m curious – is the idea of psycho-geography or deep topography something that you’ve actively engaged with (through reading, or field recordings or whatever), or is that element of your music something which happened more intuitively?
Matthew Barnes: It happened intuitively, and I actually enjoy that aspect of it more because it seemed to bubble to the surface very naturally. It was never something I’d thought about exploring before in the work I’d done before, so it was great to get a chance to utilise something and then almost retroactively delve into the concepts of it. I’d never heard of psycho-geography until it turned up in a review of my EP and then I read into it further and further.
Neil McNickle: Although Forest Swords to a great extent operates outside of any scene or genre, your Fact mix this summer did show a very keen ear for what’s happening in music right now. Is there anyone right now who you really identify with musically? I’m thinking, for example, of artists like Ben Frost, Andy Stott and Fatima Al Qadiri, whose music resonates really well with what you do.
Matthew Barnes: I have to admit, I don’t follow ‘current’ music that much, so the ones that I put on (that mix) are basically the extent of what I know is going on right now. I sort of live outside of that bubble of constantly chasing new music now, through a mixture of choice and necessity. So the only artists I’m exposed to really are ones that come highly recommended to me by friends, or ones that I’ve played shows with. Ben Frost for instance has played a bunch of festivals and gigs I have so that’s how I really got exposed to his work. It’s difficult to align myself with other artists because I’m still not sure where I fit in, in the grand scheme of things. I still feel like I’m darting around the fringes of all sorts of groups of artists and sounds.
Neil McNickle: You’ve spoken in the past about not necessarily feeling committed to music as your primary or only means of creative expression. Has that changed at all with the success of Engravings?
Matthew Barnes: Not really, but that’s not to say I don’t love doing it. It’s seems quite difficult for people to grasp this because to some, being a musician is the be-all and end-all. And I totally respect that. But being a musician was never number one on my list of ambitions, I really stumbled across it accidentally. That’s not to undermine all the people that connect with and support the music, I truly appreciate that. My background is in visual arts and graphic design and that was always the path I wanted to pursue, so if the time comes where I don’t feel inspired to make sounds any more, that’s a really good thing for me to go back to, and I’m fine with that. I’m still balancing them right now.
Neil McNickle: Has the increased profile thrown up any interesting proposals for collaborations or projects this year? Any you might genuinely bite at?
Matthew Barnes: Yes, it’s really interesting to have people approach you all of a sudden, but it also makes you a bit less shy about approaching other artists. I’d have never in my wildest dreams thought Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry would be interested in jumping on a track of mine, but he did. I’m still cautious about saying ‘yes’ to stuff that doesn’t really get me excited, so I still turn down a lot of remixes and collaborations and so on. It really has to fire my imagination for me to be involved in something. I’m careful with what I put out into the world. But hopefully this year there’ll be a few things cropping up.
Neil McNickle: Music and design are two clear outlets for you. Are there any other disciplines which hold a strong attraction for you? Is there one discipline you could see yourself working in, in the future?
Matthew Barnes: I’m definitely interested in moving towards more of an installation or sound art direction. I have ideas for projects that fit better within a gallery context than in a live music setting, or attached to any music I’m doing. So hopefully that’s something I can work towards this year. In a lot of ways that kind of work will feed back into what I’m doing as Forest Swords too.
Neil McNickle: The Forest Swords project definitely lends itself to live performance, with collaborators, but you’ve said that you work much better alone. Is this difficult to resolve? Do you feel pressure to expand your act?
Matthew Barnes: I think there’s pressure for everyone who works as a solo artist to feel like they’re ‘growing’ in some way. A lot of people stumble. I think musically I do work better alone, especially when writing, but with the Engravings shows I’ve realised I can collaborate with people who really get on board with what I want to achieve. So I toured with a live bass player, commissioned my friend to do a big set of visuals for the live show, things like that where I’d have to articulate what I wanted and trusted they’d understand what I wanted in my head. It’s a new process for me to learn but I’m less afraid of collaborating because of it.
Neil McNickle: What’s your relationship to Club Music? Do you enjoy hearing music in that context?
Matthew Barnes: I don’t have much of a relationship to club music and never have done. I’m really still learning about it. I was always more into the punk and rock thing when I was younger, so I’d go to those kind of shows, and I guess I circumvented most dance music. I like reading up on the social history of it a lot more than I do actually going to clubs and experiencing it that way. It’s sometimes more thrilling to me on paper than it is in a clubbing context.
Neil McNickle: You must have had the opportunity to play some great venues this past year. Which have been the best?
Matthew Barnes: I’ve been very fortunate that a lot of the electronic music festivals I’ve played in Europe tend to use really ornate, beautiful venues. Theatres and clubs are generally a lot more well kept in Europe, they really respect their cultural history. We had a month recently where we accidentally ticked off playing the oldest cinema in Norway, the oldest cinema in Latvia and the oldest cinema in Estonia. The most impressive one I’ve ever played though was last summer in a castle in Sicily, for Ypsigrock festival. It’s a huge privilege to even step foot in places like that.
Neil McNickle: There are some incredible artists performing at Unsound this year – will you get a chance to catch any of them? who would you most like to hear?
Matthew Barnes: Unsound have always been very supportive of my music, which I’m very grateful for. They’re always putting together exceptionally well curated bills, so I’m really looking forward to seeing whatever I can. I’ve been to the Polish edition a couple of times and it’s superb.
Forest Swords Australia Tour March 2015
13 – ADELAIDE Unsound @ Adelaide Festival
14 – MELBOURNE Howler
15 – SYDNEY Oxford Art Factory