Jason Sweeney is an Adelaide based composer, filmmaker and artist who has worked across numerous genres and musical projects. I first encountered him via his electronic duo with Cailan Burns, Pretty Boy Crossover, who produced insanely precocious pop orientated experimental electronics in the early 2000’s, though he has also been in Other Peoples Children, Mist & Sea, Simpatico and School of Two. He has released his music on labels like Pleasurecraft, Surgery, Clan Analogue, Sensory Projects, Morr Music, Library Music and more recently Greek label Sound in Silence. The moniker Panoptique Electrical is reserved for his film, dance and theatre work, sounds that are typically quite minimal, gorgeous ambient leaning textures and drones that just fill the room with warmth. They’re really something special. His 8th album is a grand exercise, which sees him compiling 20 years of Panoptique Electrical music and sequencing it sequentially across 2LP’s. Decades 2001 – 2021 is ridiculously bold, with its synth drones, broken piano, field recordings, layered strings and cello resulting in a singular artistic vision. As long time fans of Sweeney’s music (you can see his Cyclic Selects here) we reached out via email to discuss this epic undertaking.
Cyclic Defrost: I remember when I first heard your solo work as Panoptique Electrical I was quite surprised as it felt like a radical departure from Pretty Boy Crossover. Where was the genesis of this new moniker and style – was it existing in parallel with PBXO or did one have to end for the other to begin?
Jason Sweeney: In many ways I made music in both ways, ambient and electronic, beats and drones, and even more differently when I was doing pop bands like Sweet William or Other People’s Children. Pretty Boy Crossover was largely driven by samples and beats created by Cailan Burns and I responded with synth and bass-lines. Panoptique Electrical began as a kind of outlet for all the instrumental and soundscape music I’d been making for various theatre, dance, film and art projects that I’d been asked to compose for or collaborated on. It was actually Steve Phillips at Sensory Projects who encouraged me to release the first album ‘Let the Darkness at You’ in 2008 after sharing a lot material that all seemed to work together as a cohesive sound – and I needed a name that wasn’t my own because it felt like a collective effort at the time because I’d often bring in other musicians like Zoë Barry, Jed Palmer and Tristan Louth Robins.
With Pretty Boy Crossover – it continues! In fact, Cailan and I recorded a whole two hours of new stuff a couple of weekends ago. And that sound is very much still there, I’m happy to say.
Cyclic Defrost: How did you arrive at the name?
Jason Sweeney: Panoptique Electrical was actually the name I used to give my home recording studio! So it seemed like a perfect name to apply to this music which was mostly made at home on old tape machines and computers. What it means … expansive sonics? I really just liked the look of those two words side by side. It felt like an experimental sound lab which I wanted to inhabit.
Cyclic Defrost: I remember you once told me that whenever you encounter a piano that you cant help yourself but take a seat and tinker away. That you were never trained, but you would just get bewitched and lose yourself in it. What’s your attraction to the piano and how important are these chance meetings to Panoptique Electrical?
Jason Sweeney: Ha! I’m so happy you remember me telling you this. Yes, it’s true. I really can’t help myself, particularly on old and broken pianos. To me they are the acoustic instrument that allows me to dream in drones and long sustained notes. The heaviness of a piano, as an object, is really alluring as it feels like you are engaging with an instrument far greater than just the sound it makes. It took me years before I was once recording an album with cellist and collaborator Zoë Barry who finally trained me to use a sustain pedal properly! At least now I have an understanding of how to make a chord resonate and not always default to discordant transitions! But, yeah, I’ve been really lucky to find myself renting houses that have had pianos in them, quite by accident, over the past few years – so I’ve taken advantage of immersing myself in their presence.
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve spoken a lot to people who have worked in film and theatre, and often they’ve been quite frustrated with some of their collaborators lack of understanding of the power of sound/ music to communicate and the directors desire to replicate other pieces of music rather than trusting in the musician in front of them. I guess listening to this collection of material it all sounds like you. Is that because we’re listening to the pieces before they demanded 4/4 beats and the death metal riffs or because you worked hard to retain yourself in the music you’ve created?
Jason Sweeney: Oh yes, I know that feeling very well. One of my pet dislikes is when a director shares with me a piece of music they really like and perhaps hope I might emulate. Why why why!!? Word to directors – this is NOT an approach any composer likes and, let’s be honest, it is kind of insulting. So I actively discourage this now or at least call people out on it if it happens. It’s the same as saying to a director ‘here’s this great show made by some young up-and-comer from New York – now try and recreate that please’. See? It doesn’t work! Imagine saying to an actor ‘can you please act like Tilda Swinton please’ (I mean, that’d be great… but you know what I’m saying!).
I always roll my eyes when I get invited to compose for a new director who, I had assumed, listened deeply to my work, to only realise that they wanted something with a latin beat or write some kind of blues anthem! Do they not know me at all?? They soon do! Sparse drone piece with melancholy chord progression – I’ve got you sorted. But yes, that is frustrating when asked to replicate because why not just pay for the rights to use a specific track and I’ll then fill in the rest with original score (which I’ve definitely had directors do).
I often think composers are the last in the chain during a creative process – so my solution to this is to get in very early with lots of ideas that I then send to a director. More often than not they’ll be really inspired. On very rare occasions I’m met with a kind of blank stare. I’ve been really lucky to work with a select group of directors over the years who continue to commission me for scores – and who know my music intimately or at least know the kind of composer I am. Having said that I actually can be quite a dexterous and flexible composer when it comes to genre and I can certainly attempt different styles if the work needs it!
But to be challenged – I’m always up for this. I was recently asked by a very close writer-director friend of mine if I would be up for the task of writing a Disney style theme song. So… you see what I mean? It’s certainly not based on my past work! But I’m always ready for anything. Can I achieve it? Well, I’ll certainly give it a go. Will it end up on a Panoptique Electrical album? Certainly not!
Cyclic Defrost: What do you think that you’ve learnt from 20 years in creating scores? I was quite struck by your point in the liner notes that these pieces are ‘core collaborative elements that lay the sonic foundations,“ for dance, film or theatre. I guess it’s the foundations element – that they’re designed for building upon – yet somehow stand on their own – or become something different when they are consumed on their own. I guess this long winded question is do you think about the change in context by presenting them on their own?
Jason Sweeney: When I set out to make this record my starting point was always to create an album in its own right. So the curation and selection of material was really clear to me. It goes back to the previous question about having to sometimes make music that I wouldn’t normally want to make, if I wasn’t being paid to do it – and of course none of that music made it onto the album. When I went right back to the work I’d been making in 2001 there was already a flavour to the sounds and I knew that it was consistent to the present day, just with different uses of instrumentation and technology.
I guess another way to answer that question is to say that another frustration I have working in theatre, especially, is how backgrounded a lot of sound and music I’ve made for it is in the final production, when my intention was to really foreground a moment – the director’s ‘please turn it down’ request often being a cause of great anxiety for me! But, of course, this can be difficult because actors need to be heard and I am a collaborator in a large team – so it can’t all be about me! So, this album was also a way for me to finally foreground and turn up the volume on pieces that would have otherwise been very subtle to the ears of the audience in their original form.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you talk about your relationship with ambient, or music that cherishes stillness? What is it about sparseness and space that attracts you?
Jason Sweeney: I’m a very anxious and introverted person. Ambience, quietness and stillness is a way of life for me. To find this in music is like finding treasure in a world full of noise. I’ve always been attracted to the drone, the long long hum, the sustained note. I suppose it is a kind of mental and sonic medication for me. I’m also interested in this word ‘relationship’ because, as a single queer person living a pretty solitary life, I certainly find that I am in a deep, long-term committed situation with music now. Ambient music has been there for me and saved me many time in life. In fact I’d like to add another ‘A’ to the LGBTQIA+ for ‘Ambient’. I am Queer Ambient.
Cyclic Defrost: Have their ever been any touchstones for your score work? How do you reconcile them but maintain your own identity?
Jason Sweeney: When I went headlong into main-stage theatre in 2008 after years of doing more independent and experimental work before that, I kept Scott Walker’s ‘Drift’ very close to me and I have ever since. I remember particularly that album, at the very least, gave me permission to push myself into directions I hadn’t previously. But I also draw upon really early Not Drowning, Waving music – especially the ‘Another Pond’ album – which still inspires me today. I also really love the score work of Mica Levi and also the soundtracks that Canadian composer Mychael Danna has done for Atom Egoyan’s films too. All of those artists are pretty much on repeat listening when I’m seeking inspiration and would feel any kind of honour to have taken something of what they’ve done into my own work. But, directors, please don’t send me links to their works and ask me to replicate them!
Cyclic Defrost: Given its an industry and people get pigeonholed, what do you think you are the go to for?
Jason Sweeney: I always think about this question too! I guess because now I pretty much work with a select few directors and companies perhaps it is more to do with the long-term artistic relationship than the specific style of my work. I have a quiet sensitivity to collaborative processes which the people I work with I think are drawn to. That in itself can be a skill: to be a listener, rather than just impose your ideas on something. I know that, more often than not, I’ll say during a creative process ‘I really think there needs to be silence here, no music!’ – so I’m good at talking myself out of a job!
But to be pigeonholed? I wish I knew! Someone tell me!
Cyclic Defrost: I’m quite interested in your desire to demonstrate your creative growth by grouping your music according to years sequentially across the double album. Do you feel a little bit exposed by this? What do you think it demonstrates?
Jason Sweeney: I wanted to be vulnerable with this album, in the same way that I am vulnerable when setting out, in the dark, to compose for a brand new theatre or dance production. ‘Where is this going?’ Approaching this album chronologically was also a challenge I wanted to face because telling a story of a life in music in the space of 70 minutes is something that was important to me. I want the listener to follow me through these years and listen in to how the sounds develop, how the compositions change, how, indeed, I’ve changed – or not! I knew from the start that it was going to be in 5 year increments and how it defined a group of years. So each side of the four on the vinyl edition is five years per side. I’m really happy to expose the process of my compositional work as a time-based thing. Feels very satisfying! And, I hope, an intimate insight into how I’ve been working and what I’ve made over these two decades. And, perhaps, where it might lead next.
Cyclic Defrost: Given your use of space and resonances, I’m just curious how you approach to composition. Whilst I’m sure it differs from project to project is their any consistency in the way you approach a commission?
Jason Sweeney: I was recently reading something by the wonderful actor Parker Posey who said that every time she starts something new it’s like she’s never done it before in her life and is always terrified. This is my approach to composition commissions. I enter with complete fear and a lot of social anxiety! I suppose it is a lingering imposter syndrome that haunts me but each project is completely different and will require very new things from me. For example, I’m starting on a new work at the moment with a solo performer who needs a very DJ-esque soundtrack, definitely in the ambient realm, but this is where I perhaps default back to Pretty Boy Crossover styles and think in loops and samples that I can manipulate rather than long pieces of underscoring. So, each new commission is an unknown entity, sometimes with ease, other times with new approaches needed.
I suppose the only consistency is in the unknowing! Hence why I am a hideously over-prepared composer with a large audio bank made even before I enter a rehearsal room. The great thing about this (and I learnt this from reading about Lisa Gerrard doing similar things) is that you have a lot of extra material at the end of a commission to use on another album.
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve been a fan of Hood for a long time, so I’ve always wanted to know how Great Panoptique Winter came about. How did you two connect and how did you both approach the collaboration?
Jason Sweeney: My memory is a bit foggy on this but I think Richard Adams and I were communicating around the time of Sensory Projects connection to Hood – and I was always such a fan of them and of Richard’s The Declining Winter. So I asked Richard whether he’d be up for some file sharing collaboration and he said yes and it just began in a very slow but sure way. I was also file sharing with Noah from Great Earthquake and his drum sounds completed the ‘band’. So it’s mostly me sending instrumentals to Richard who then responds by sending back vocal takes which I then mix. We’re still doing it now – not with Noah this time (does that just make it Panoptique Winter?) – but we’re just both so busy that the second EP might take a while yet. But there’s at least 4 new songs that we’ve made that will see the light of day at some point.
Cyclic Defrost: How does it feel laying out 20 years of work like this? Were you surprised by anything?
Jason Sweeney: I turned 50 this year, in June, around the time I was sending the masters off to get pressed at Program Records, and it felt really significant to have this album released now. It feels like a marking of time for me. Although will I put out another two decades when I’m 70? I hope so. For this one though I’ve been so beautifully surprised by the response to it and also to the support people are offering to have it heard. Why am I surprised by that? I shouldn’t be should I! I was fortunate enough to also be financially supported by Arts South Australia to produce the album. I was blessed to have Elena Carapetis write such eloquent (and elegant) liner notes and to have the album so exquisitely mastered by Lawrence English. I suppose this album has revealed a world of people and collaborators and an artistic family that has seen me supported, fed (literally) and still allowing me to pay my bills and meet the rent after all these years. I guess when you are in this world of going from project to project it is all-consuming and the years just fly by and suddenly its 2021 and, hang on, didn’t I just finish that one I did in 2001? So… here’s a double album of some of what I did. I suppose I wanted to offer this record back to this world and to give thanks to all of these amazing hard-working people in the arts here in so-called Australia. Being an artist in this country and to still be working is such a gift and a privilege and I’m thankful for it every day. And so I’m surprised, at my mid-century point, that so many years have passed so quickly and that I’m still here, making work.
Decades 2001 – 2021 is out now on 2LP via Observable Universe, A CD edition is released by Sound in Silence. You can find it here.