Swan Meat talks about exoskeletons for poetry, impulse-based music, the potentials of Emo and the notion of »conceptronica«.
With her most recent release Fleshworld, Washington D.C.-born and now Cologne-based prolific producer, poet and performer Swan Meat creates a sonically challenging, profound amalgam of club sounds, melodic roller-coasters and a rich variety of cultural and transdisciplinary influences. Released on Mexico City-based label Infinite Machine marks her third big solo effort – and a new artistic milestone. An interview by Jakob Dibold.
A month ago, you released your third solo EP and it feels like your most intense release so far, the most maximalist and confrontational, at times overwhelmingly romantic and dramatic, yet also conceptually the most concise. Does it feel like a first peak of your artistic process?
I guess I won’t know what my first peak was, or if I even peaked at all, until I’m done making music, which I don’t want to ever stop doing. But this is without a doubt the record I am proudest of having made, though parts of me wish it were longer – that I’d included all those tracks I’ve since discarded to the wind. When I first started working with a DAW, with Ableton, I did so because I wanted to create these compact, perfect sonic shells or exoskeletons for spoken word poetry I’d kind of shoddily recorded into my laptop microphone. As I improved as a producer, I stopped hinging my productions on this spoken word spine, but without this thick spoken word central organ it was definitely hard to recapture the visceral in my music, that sense of language. I’ve since realized melodies that catch the ear, change, grow and expand can do the same thing. I don’t think I’ve been able to write these so called »poem melodies« until »Fleshworld«.
Fortunately, you still write poetry as well: »Can you amputate a snare I asked Siri & she burped which is fair«, to quote a line I really like. (Eugenia Marionette; the poem version of Fleshworld’s third track, inspired by Emo YouTuber and Twitch streamer Eugenia Cooney.) How do you integrate it in your music? And: Is a burping Siri merely funny or a subtle analysis of our dependence on technology or the people behind it that in a way do not respect us anymore?
Because my tracks have become so rife with sonic junk, I’ve found it’s been best to bring the poetry into the live sets, where audiences are expecting something new and surprising anyway. Poetry and lyrics are how I have the most fun doing this, so most of my writing is tested out in that arena. Your analysis of the Siri line is spot-on, actually. I was thinking about that, how we’re berated nonstop with lizard-brain marketing about how great this and that new »disruptive«, »innovative« tech product is, and like the sheeple we are we throw our money – of which we already have a paucity – at it, only to come to find out it doesn’t work for us at all. Not only that, it is actively evil, actively hurting us. At the risk of accidentally falling into a Guy Fawkes mask and saying »burn it all down« in, like, shōnen anime protagonist voice, I’ll say this much: Siri might as well be burping in our collective face. But it’s only fair: we bought her, didn’t we?
Indeed, it seems like »something needs to change« – as it is whispered on the track »Eugenia Marionette«. Altogether, the EP’s title and artwork imply the aim to further transcend the dichotomy of technology versus nature. Whilst this approach has become quite fashionable and a widely agreed upon in (at least »Western«) academia, what characterizes your work in regard to these issues?
Reading and processing critical theory about »technology«, to me, has always been like trying to paint an oil landscape on the surface of a bath bubble – critical theory being this shiny permeable clearest of clear surface ready to carry a million colors, a million ideas, but breakable, ever-floating away. I always preferred reading poems to reading anything that might be reasonably classified as theory, which I guess makes me… an aesthete?
I write music based on impulse. What sounds good here, in this moment? What kind of sound makes me feel alive and kind of in pain and also a bit sexy here and now? Sure, there are ways to draw contrasts with the wider world – my, our financial precarity under late capitalism requires the hoarding of consumer goods and nothing-burgers of cash like pirates’ gold, obsessiveness with to-do lists and a fixation on five-year, ten-year life plans, therefore making music is a way to be outside, or a way to feign being outside this ecosystem, but »Fleshworld« is just that: flesh, surface, a splash of color thereupon. It’s about, I guess, yielding to this animal impulse where all other forces in the universe tell you to be an adult. Eugenia Cooney is the god-figure, the Gaia of »Fleshworld«. I really see her as a Simone Weil figure. Possessed by this being-in-the-moment she shrinks, becomes nothing but a snake of flesh in Kingdom Hearts cosplay.
Speaking of this correlation between an impulse- and emotions-based approach and new technologies, I read your post about Sunny Day Real Estate’s record Diary and I came to think: Is that a role that you like? An anti-elitist, posthuman fighter with the weapons of true emo realness, set out to save the (music) world from transhumanist billionaires? How do you identify with Emo culture?
Emo music may very well be our last stand against the evil Muskian forces of the world… – if we can recapture its essence, which will be a monumental task. Having been bred on Broadway show tunes and classical music, the DC emo scene was my first real foray into performing music outside of the dominant paradigm and feeling challenged and loved and alive and in solidarity, above everything, with others. There’s this interplay of light and shade that’s, sure, been the backbone of (gag) rock music since time eternal that, while compressed and deepened in grunge music, is put into overdrive in emo music, and to listen to it done well is to feel both ebullient and drained. It’s the massive cathartic screamo chorus meeting the so-so quiet poetic verse formula, an incantation, a magic spell, it works. It’s not my job to bring anything to anyone, but because I personally love that feeling so much, I do try to inject it into my music, especially the live sets.
»Fleshworld«’s description on Infinite Machine’s Bandcamp page emphasizes your critical stance towards the club scene and its allegiance to technocapitalism. What needs to change there? Could more open, collective approaches like BALA CLUB or ParkingStone, both of whom you worked with, provide an alternative?
Yeah, they do, because I think they champion being together, being in solidarity with others, over polishing one’s sense of gravitas. A while back Simon Reynolds wrote this article coining the term conceptronica and a good number of people took umbrage with it. First of all, how dare anyone hate on Simon Reynolds. Second of all, he was right – to be a producer, it’s somehow no longer enough to make music that instills others, most importantly your peers, your friends, with a sense of joy: there has to be this conceptual padding, this artist’s statement, this profound (and profoundly expensive) vestigial A/V organ. I’ve seen some incredible A/V shows, but when it starts becoming a market demand, that’s where the conceptual and the capitalist shake ghoulishly each other’s hand, and I’d be lying if I said this sat well with me.
Totally agree. One could argue though that Swan Meat does fit quite well into the definition of the conceptronica archetype – even if perhaps only at first sight.
All music or art is »conceptual« inasmuch as it begins with a concept or idea. Reynolds wasn’t trying to coin a new genre term, at least not how I read it. He was using that meme-y portmanteau as a framing device to talk about a moment in time in electronic music. I too am making music within and out of this moment, drawing from a similar plenitude of sources, sharing with and most importantly learning from my peers doing the same. I wouldn’t mind at all being classified as such, because I think it’s imperative that we have critics like Simon who talk about genre and its fallibility – if anything, »conceptronica« refers to the breakdown of genre. Also, once I share my music with the world, it’s out there, and people can call it whatever they want to. That’s the deal all musicians make with their listeners. Call it smooth jazz, I don’t care. I tell my dad I make techno music! lol