Ahead of the release of their debut album, one half of the Bristol-based duo discusses listening without rules and the punk sensibility of their live sets.
Giant Swan is the brainchild of Bristol-based musicians Robin Stewart and Harry Wright born, kicking and screaming, into the contemporary techno scene. Paying little heed to the posturing that has become commonplace within the genre, the life-long friends have made a name for their see-it-to-believe-it improvised sets. Enmeshing themselves in the energy of the club, they do battle over synths and pedals; combining shuddering industrial and live noise with distorted vocals and just a glint of ambient. This frenetic delivery style dissolves the boundaries between audience and performer, attracting ravers who share a similar irreverence before established convention.
First generating buzz with these live sets, drawing a mixed crowd that included techno heads alongside fans of noise and hardcore, the anarchic essence of the project has since been captured via EPs on imprints like Howling Owl, Timedance and Whities. 2017’s “Celebrate The Last 30 Years Of Human Ego” is arguably their standout release and encapsulates the duo’s unique appeal: spiky, raw and relentless. Two years on, they’re building on this with a self-titled debut album. Released on their new record label, Keck, it’s set to be an important gesture of self-definition for an act that’s always relied on spontaneity and improvisation.
So far, we’ve had lead single “55 Year Old Daughter” — a heady dollop of that “anything could happen” spirit of their live shows — followed by the spookier “Pandaemonium,” but the 10 track LP ventures into territory we’ve never heard from Giant Swan before. There’s the same noise-tinged techno, of course, but there’s also an introspective element, as seen on “‘I’ As Proof” which the duo describe as their “pop anthem”.
We spoke to Robin to find out more about the process of making the album and its influences, also taking the opportunity to learn his thoughts on the dominant club culture and how a “hardcore approach to techno” impacts the Giant Swan sound.
First thing’s first: how have you been influenced by the Bristol music scene?
There’s a lot of music and culture that is fairly unique to Bristol – an abridged tradition of slightly peculiar amplified music here. We’ve never really had a local techno scene to follow so we’ve been more profoundly influenced by the dub and Soundsystem community; and by the proliferation of more rock-orientated music. There’s a good community of musicians who help each other, which has been wonderfully influential.
You and Harry have obviously been creating together for a while now — how has your musical process as a duo changed over the years?
We started playing together when we were 11 or 12 years old – our entire lives have changed around the ways in which we make music together. Harry and I have pretty different tastes when it comes to music. The creative process usually emerges from us communicating what we’re into with each other. We’ll have a smoke, listen to some music and just talk about what we like about it. These days we tend to compose separately in the studio and then come together to tweak and collaborate on more technical aspects of the mix. We used to play all the equipment all the time and try to record as we went along but habits change and right now we’re pretty happy working semi-remotely then coming together to flesh out ideas.
You’ve spoken about how some of your early influences come from noise and hardcore – how does this translate in your sound?
Noise is something we’ve always explored in our music, from our first Giant Swan projects. The creative and expressive qualities of noise are fairly limitless if you think about it. More than anything, I think just being a duo who’ve been through a lot has enabled us to move with confidence in what we do which hopefully translates into what we do as an impressive hardcore tendency.
It seems like there’s quite a lot of unchecked snobbery in the contemporary techno scene. How does this “hardcore approach to techno” sit with this?
To be honest, we don’t comply with the more formal modes of the culture and just progress with our music and live shows. We’re fans of techno and raving but I think our concerns are centred around these elements more so than anything else. When we discuss music we like, mostly pop, dub, noise and hardcore, it can alienate people who only listen to techno. I think a ‘hardcore approach to techno’ these days could even just be saying you don’t give a shit about Berghain or think Jeff Mills is just “okay”. We’re part of something that moves much faster than what we’re used to, but the levels of self consciousness without self awareness within the techno scene often help to aggrandise our ‘hardcore’ tendencies.
People have commented that there’s almost a punk attitude during your live sets. Do you think that’s accurate?
It’s accurate sure – we give everything to our live shows. In an age where one can remain totally still and focussed behind the decks or the laptop (which is totally legit), I believe seeing two friends getting the gear out and having a bash instils a sense of abandon and a sense that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Techno parties are ostensibly and, through no ill will, incredibly predictable. Our involvement adds a thick dollop of chance into the mixture which I think people find easiest to read as ‘punk’. We’ve never said we’re punks.
Moving from the club to the recording studio: how was the process of tackling a Giant Swan album?
We wanted to make an album that reflected our being in Bristol. That was the only real way we could define our multitude of thoughts and feelings about the LP; to focus on our habitat and how we exist within it. Musically it was fairly formal; we wrote and recorded it at home (apart from a few bits we made in Australia whilst we were touring over there) and mixed it between shows. The auspice of travelling and performing was always seemingly hanging over the process. This helped us stay grounded and not deflect towards experiences we weren’t having. Maybe one day we’ll retreat to the wood cabin and write that breakup record the world is waiting for, but certainly for our first album we tackled it pretty boringly.
What are the influences that fed into it?
The album was made in the shadow of our work preceding it; we took elements of our live show and expanded on these ideas in a way that felt pertinent at the time. The painting made for our front cover was quite inspirational. It exudes a lot of what we wanted the album to say: that part of the night where you’re lighting your cig the wrong way round and it all just feels a bit ‘much’. That’s our special place.
There’s always been a bit of introspective ambient in your music, which often gets overlooked for the more industrial elements. The ambient really comes out on the song “‘I’ As Proof” off the album — could you talk more about that track?
I’m personally not bothered about how people class our music as the live show is tailored completely to the direct experience one has in front of the soundsystem – however that might sound. There aren’t any rules to listening to our music, and if it becomes the case that people from a more ‘industrial’ persuasion begin to lean closer to more progressive sounds on our account, then that’s great.
A track like “‘I’ As Proof” funnily enough was written as a direct response to our more dancefloor-based music. We wanted to flirt with the notion of “accessibility” within the techno/club mainframe. We’re not afraid of a nice hook and a dollop of introspection.
I also just love the name of that track, with the ‘I’ in inverted commas — is that a comment on self-hood?
Harry named it – it’s about the self being the imperative element in proving something; whether this be the ‘I’ in ‘I love you’ or the ‘I’ in ‘I can’t take this any more’. The track is our pop ballad. It was super fun to make; again Harry came up with the bones of the track and we sculpted it together which was a fun and new process for us.
What are the next projects you’re working on?
We’ll be touring a lot over the next year so there’ll be plenty of new Giant Swan adventures coinciding with that. Separate from that I have a lot of solo music coming out in the next 12 months – taking a more formal approach into the world of releasing as a solo artist. It’s very exciting and nerve-wracking but I’ve got a lot of support from people I look up to and respect so I’m looking very much forward.
6 November 2019