Pete Swanson's Muse Leads Him Down Ever-Gnarlier Alleyways
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.