Q&A: Forest Swords On Coming Up In A Small Town And His Visual Approach To Making Music

Matthew Barnes, the composer and producer behind the Forest Swords moniker, is the first to tell you that he doesn’t listen to all that much music. It’s a curious thing to admit, seeing how Barnes is not only in the business of beatmaking, but his work is an amalgamation of dub, experimental soundscapes, hip-hop, techno, and drone. Yet the visual has always been central to Barnes’ creative and professional life: Before throwing himself into music full-time, he worked as a graphic designer.

“It’s more of like a spark for me. It just kind of sparks off a train of thought that I wouldn’t have thought otherwise.” Barnes says. “I’ve never been one of those people who listens to a lot of music and is like, ‘Well, I really like that, I’m going to take that and put it into my music.’ I’ve never really magpied like that. Like a lot of artists do. So I guess the visual stuff is a lot more influential to me because it’s more like word association or something.”

The hours Barnes spends in art museums and galleries are central to him conceiving his synesthetic albums, including 2013’s stirring Engravings, the artwork he creates for his album covers, and a series of other scoring projects he’s done as of late, like the drone film In The Robot Skies and a contemporary dance piece, Shrine.

On his latest album, the marvelous Compassion, Barnes set out to work on the road instead of working in complete isolation. That openness reverberates everywhere on Compassion, an album that gestures outward and features vocals unfurling behind ominous string sections and synth lines swirling in and around themselves. The time that Barnes spent making Compassion — and beyond it, too — has become somewhat of an exercise in breaking down walls, both personal and musically.

“I think the last record in particular felt very closed off to me,” Barnes says. “And I wanted this to be a lot more open and less pulling the shutters down, and opening the door a bit more.”

STEREOGUM: You’re from the Wirral, which is close to Liverpool?

BARNES: Yeah, it’s kind of the equivalent of growing up in Brooklyn I guess, it’s just over the river. So it’s very, very close but it’s a completely different vibe. Very woodland-y, very seaside-y. So I get to experience both things, really. I can dive into the culture and arts of the city but also take my own space and chill out in the separate bit. It’s very handy. It’s nice to be able to have those things.

STEREOGUM: What kind of music scenes were coalescing around you growing up there?

BARNES: When I was a teenager I had to go to Liverpool to see bands. And even then, Liverpool felt like it was 10 years behind everyone else. Then all of a sudden, around I guess like 2001, around the Strokes’ time, everyone seemed to start a band. There was a band called the Coral from the Wirral. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of them, they’re from the same town as I am. And as soon as they got started, a bunch of other stuff popped up and it felt like this quite vibrant enclave to be part of.

It’s difficult for me because I can’t be truly objective about it. I don’t think you can be super objective about where you grow up. But I did find it really inspiring in terms of the way it looked and felt. Particularly as soon as I started to make music, and kind of being able to pull all those influences into how it feels and how it sounds. I didn’t really have that small-town, “Oh my god I need to get out of here” thing that other people did from other small towns, I think. There’s just something about this place in particular … there’s a really good sense of community, and having super-good transport links to other cities enables you to not feel that claustrophobia, I think.

STEREOGUM: Don’t hype it up too much, otherwise everyone’s going to move there.

BARNES: [Laughs] I hope not. I think it came at a time when you get a bit more curious about the history of the place. And this place in particular has quite a wild Viking history and goes way back. So there are all these signifiers around, if you look close enough, of this incredible history… so maybe I stayed a lot longer than other people would have done. There’s kind of a cliche about being from a small town and wanting to get out. But a lot of people here didn’t necessarily want to have that because, I don’t know, with small places sometimes it creates its own ecosystem almost. So when bands like the Coral turned up, a lot of people, like me, who were into music and teenagers at the time were like, “Wow, we can do this?” We don’t have to live in a big city, we don’t have to live in London or whatever. We can make it happen here.

STEREOGUM: What was the first instrument you ever picked up, and why?

BARNES: I was given a guitar when I was 11. I suppose that was quite a key moment. But a bigger thing for me was getting given a four-track recorder. This was before laptop software, I guess. So with that four-track I started to play around with sounds, and how I could layer sounds. Just kind of understanding sound as a tool, something that you could wield and sculpt. That was when I was 12 or 13, so it was a prime period for having an impact on me. So I kind of learned to play guitar, but for me a more important thing was playing around with this four-track and learning how to layer sounds. I can look back now at what I’m doing and definitely draw a thread between those experiments when I was an early teen and what I’m doing now. I often think what I would be doing now or the kind of stuff I would be making now had I not had the opportunity to play around with cassette experiments when I was a kid.

STEREOGUM: Was the four-track your gateway into other music programs?

BARNES: I think what it was was it kind of enabled me to be less freaked out by learning them. So I had a huge period in my life where I didn’t make any music because I concentrated on being a designer. That’s what I studied. So I was quite focused on being that, and I put music aside for a long time. It wasn’t until I got laid off from my job in 2008, I think it was, that I started trying to learn music software. I think those kinds of things can be quite intimidating at first, but because I’d been playing around the four-track when I was a kid it felt a lot more natural to me and I could just be like, “Ok, it’s the same thing but on a screen, and now I have a lot more layers to play with, so what can I do with this? How can I sculpt things into this program?”

I think when you open up a program like that, it’s an empty canvas and that can be quite terrifying for a lot of people. Me included. I think those programs can naturally be intimidating for a lot of people. Also if you’re an impatient person. I’m not particularly a patient person. I don’t have the patience to look through YouTube tutorials or anything, I just kind of enjoy diving in and trying to find good accidents. Those kinds of programs you can play around with and say, “Oh, I didn’t realize I could do this.” Or you’ll find like ways around things that aren’t the traditional way. There’s not really a right or wrong way to use those programs.

STEREOGUM: Was your background as a designer helpful in starting to make music, too?

BARNES: Yeah, I quite often think about this in terms of like… visually. So the way that I work on a screen and the way that I place things on a screen and on a grid is not too far off from laying out a magazine on a screen or placing things within a space. So I do often think about that. And also working with layers, that’s not really too far off working in Photoshop or any program like that. You’re just layering up and playing with textures, or how transparent or visible things are.

STEREOGUM: I read that you were collating a lot of images when you were making Engravings. I’m curious what role the visual plays in your work.

BARNES: Whenever I’m in writing mode, I will just collate hundreds of images I find. I spend a lot of time in galleries and museums, looking at visual stuff and trying to soak it up. And for me, it’s quite an abstract thing to talk about, but I look at an image and something about it will stand out to me. So like the way a painter has put oil paint on a canvas. Well, how can I reflect that in sound, how can I reflect that weight of the application, how can I try and reflect that or echo it? Or say I’ll look at an old photograph and it’ll have a certain color to it, a certain tinge. How can I try and echo that?

STEREOGUM: So what kinds of things were you thinking about visually when you were starting to put Compassion together?

BARNES: I was definitely interested more in color this time, and trying to make something that not only visually more colorful but also like, what’s the word? Auditorily more open and welcoming, maybe. And during the making of the record I was collaborating with lots of different people and projects and was traveling around a lot, meeting a lot of people, changing the space that I was recording in. And just that process made me want to create a record that was more open and felt like you could engage a bit more emotionally or have more of a direct personal connection with it.

STEREOGUM: Do you think the album is a way of you opening yourself up to more collaborative experiences, too?

BARNES: Yeah. I guess I was always a quite solitary child, as well. I had friends and stuff, but in terms of creating things, I always definitely felt more comfortable doing stuff on my own. Even when I was in bands as a kid, I always felt a lot more comfortable writing on my own. But doing these different projects, I kind of understood how nourishing and positive it could be getting people’s viewpoints or even talking to different people about things. Doing the dance piece, doing the film thing, just opening up that dialogue with someone else I found really, really useful. Just the idea that if someone has a different opinion than you or comes from a different walk of life, you’re going to get something from that. It came from a time when the world was pulling the shutters down on everyone else. And for me, just experiencing other people’s stories and viewpoints and creativity felt really really positive and that definitely filtered down into how the record sounds, I think.

It’s quite interesting talking to interviewers and stuff, a lot of people assume it’s a really dark record. I don’t see it that way at all. I think there’s an intensity to it, but I don’t necessarily think that means that it’s dark music. I think you know that can quite easily spill over into euphoria or into hope. I’m quite interested in those middle points between those emotions…playing around in that middle space between things. I’m always fascinated in the idea that maybe changing a note or changing a beat can completely change the intention of the song or melody. It’s quite interesting, spending hours and hours on a loop, and shifting one thing one way or another can completely shift the intention of it.

STEREOGUM: Did you set out to do anything else differently this time around?

BARNES: I think on this one in particular I was a lot less concerned with things like structure. And I think on Engravings in particular, there are a lot of songs that have a particular structure to them. Like an AB structure, or I guess you might call it like a pop structure. I think structurally it’s a lot wilder than the last one… so you know, bits of the record the synths degrade and have a lot of breathing room, but that’s balanced with a lot of quite heavy intense moments. And just letting the songs kind of do the work like that, I took a lot of pleasure in this time.

STEREOGUM: That sounds ideal. I would imagine the process can be pretty grueling sometimes.

BARNES: Yeah, and I think changing my environment affected how I viewed the music as well. Not just doing it in one room for six months like I did Engravings. This one, I was hopping around all over the place, just writing bits and pieces. And maybe writing a melody here, a beat there, going to different cities. Just trying to collate a bunch of stuff. And at the end piecing these things together in a way that made some kind of sense. I did enjoy that part of it. And I think the part I don’t enjoy about making music is deciding when it’s finished. I think probably everyone struggles with that.

STEREOGUM: Did you find it hard to do that? Going from a dark room to being on the road constantly is a completely different way of working, of thinking.

BARNES: I think when you’re thrown into the deep end like that… for instance, I had a day job as a magazine designer until 2014. And then I quit my job to do this. I had my final day at work, and the next day I was playing SXSW. It was kind of that jump in the deep end that I found really beneficial, because you don’t have to freak out about it or panic or worry. You just kind of have to do it. I found going on tour like that. You agree to the dates and you’re like, “Well I’m just going to do it and see what it’s like.”

STEREOGUM: Right. It doesn’t give you time to doubt yourself.

BARNES: Exactly, yeah. You have so much baggage throughout your life where you tell yourself you can and can’t do certain things. Like while I was making this record I got into swimming for the first time. I was terrified of swimming of for like 15 years, I had this phobia. Then I woke up one day and I was like, “Fuck, I can’t do this anymore, I’m just going to have to try and combat it.” Pushing myself out of my comfort zone like that just was really handy and useful. And likewise, doing these projects like the film project or dance thing, I had no grounding in that before. I had no history of doing them. I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do. But just having a go really made me feel happy and productive, like, “Wow, I can do this.” If you want to have a go at something, just do it. You know? You shouldn’t use all the baggage you’ve accumulated or assume what you can and can’t do, you’re good or bad at, to dictate the pathways that you take.

STEREOGUM: Tell me about sending unreleased songs to fans on WhatsApp and Skype before the album came out.

BARNES: Leading up to this, I became a lot more frustrated with the tools that artists have to work with now to get your work out there. Stuff like Facebook and Twitter and SoundCloud. These things can be quite beneficial, but can be structured and you definitely work within their parameters and what they dictate. So I was really curious about using these tools in more creative or direct ways. Especially in Europe — not so much in the US — but WhatsApp is huge in Europe. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use it. And I said, “Wait, why can’t I just send music to people or try and chat with people one on one?” It feels a lot more personal and direct. You’re just being a bit more creative about these tools, I think. And so I expected 50 messages and I got like, 700 and had to reply to them all. Yeah, it was pretty wild. It took me a full day to reply to everyone.

So I had maybe 30 unreleased tracks that were remixes or things that were never going to get on the album, things like that I sent to different people. And people seemed to really get on board with it, yeah. They were telling me where they were from and how they listened to the music. And a few of them have kept in touch, saying they’ve ordered the record or are coming to see a show. It felt kind of punk in a way, breaking down that wall. The Skype thing was interesting as well, because it was a one on one direct contact with someone. I could only do maybe 20, but I felt like it was a really cool experiment to do and made me think differently about… connecting with people moving forward. Whether they realize it or not, people are definitely getting a bit tired of Facebook and Twitter and all these kinds of platforms. Maybe we’re subconsciously craving that direct connection a bit more now, and that shared experience.

STEREOGUM: What makes you move these days?

BARNES: I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz recently, actually. Talking about technology, I guess, I got a Spotify subscription recently and it’s enabled me to delve into these kinds of genres that I was maybe intimidated by the past. Stuff like jazz doesn’t really have a clear entry point for a lot of people and I was slightly intimidated by it, but it’s enabled me to dive in fully and explore each different avenue of it.

I’ve been into more droney, ambient stuff and I’ve been doing a lot more field recordings. I think moving forward, those are the things that will infiltrate the next bits and pieces I do. Stuff that’s a bit looser that feels a bit more natural and organic. I’ve also been listening to a lot of old Aphex Twin as well, the super kind of ravey stuff. I’m just a lot more curious about things I found intimidating a few years ago, and I feel a lot braver exploring these new things.

STEREOGUM: Speaking of exploring new things, did you ever get that “No More Drama” tattoo?

BARNES: Ooh. I love that you brought that up. I haven’t gotten it yet, but now that I’m in a brave new headspace of trying new things, maybe I will! I don’t have any tattoos. I have red hair, I’m ginger, and we have a very low pain threshold apparently, like way less than anyone else. So I am concerned about that. But I think I will get it at some point. My friend says [getting a tattoo] feels more like being scratched than being murdered. So I guess I should try it. I did put it out into the world.


Compassion is out now via Ninja Tune.