Forest Swords: Wirral enigma making otherworldly magic


Liverpool’s brightest new hope has arrived. Get used to hearing the name. Getintothis talks to Forest Swords.

Quick story. March 2010 I get an email from a PR dude in Brooklyn called Trey. Trey tells me there’s this guy from the Wirral called Matt whose music is making people stateside cream themselves. Pitchfork, Gorilla vs. Bear, all the tastemaker big boys are waxing lyrical over this enigmatic muso working under the name Forest Swords, who’s barely known in his own hometown, let alone in the UK.
Weeks of exchanging emails and numerous attempts to get hold of a copy of his debut 7″ (it sells out both in Europe and in America in weeks) end in failure so we arrange to meet up during Liverpool Sound City. It doesn’t happen.
Months pass, more emails are exchanged, and then on a sunny August day BAM! Matt emails to say we can hook up during lunchtime as he’s got a copy of his EP for me.
Where shall me meet?‘ I ask. He says: ‘How about the Echo foyer – I work on the floor directly above you…
Brilliant. You couldn’t make it up.
What’s also brilliant is his record. And it’s no surprise that NME, Uncut and various other UK music press outlets are now catching on. Tonight he spun a few discs in Liverpool as part of the Biennial, later next month he’s a guest of Getintothis‘ as we’ve asked him to support Liars as part of Liverpool Music Week and in November his sold-out EP Dagger Paths gets a CD re-release through No Pain In Pop records.
It’s time we had a word…
Getintothis: Hey Matt, how’s tricks? Its been a couple of weeks since you passed on the Dagger Paths EP, and I know you were uber-busy sorting out various press-related bits and bobs, tell us what you’ve been up to.
Matt Barnes (aka Forest Swords): Since the Rattling Cage/Hjurt 7″ came out – I’ve been busy sorting out things for this upcoming Dagger Paths EP re-release too. We’ve decided to put the 7″ tracks on the end of it too for people who missed out on getting it first time around.
Getintothis: It’s fair to say there’s barely a handful of people that know about your music here on Merseyside, yet on the web – particularly Stateside – you’ve generated waves of acclaim, not least from several of the big taste-makers; Pitchfork, FACT, NME, Drowned in Sound etc – while Gorilla vs Bear have championed you from your first release. You must be pleased with the reaction you’re getting?
MB: Yeah, it’s very flattering. Dagger Paths originally came out over in the States so it’s mainly been getting attention over there, it seems. There’s something nicely perverse about nobody really knowing about me locally, I suppose.
I try not to read any of the press and so I only go off the emails and messages I get, but I’m just pleased people are connecting with it in some way. It’s admittedly a bit strange that most of the attention’s centered in a different country but I don’t mind.

Getintothis: You told me you’ve not been ‘doing’ Forest Swords for long, take us back to beginning – you started by releasing cassette tapes, right? And you were approached by Woven Tones for a limited release…
MB: Last summer I was approached by a couple of small cassette labels for limited releases – Leftist Nautical Antiques and Woven Tones over in the US.
The label Olde English Spelling Bee remixed and remastered the tracks after the tapes sold out, and I put some new songs alongside them, and we put it out as the Dagger Paths EP. It kind of kicked off after that.
Getintothis: Your music is deeply rooted in classic soul, dub and jazz while sounding utterly now – which is perhaps why it’s so good – where do you draw your inspiration?
MB: I listen to tonnes of different stuff. I don’t really draw heavily from anything in particular, so it’s just a distillation of pretty much everything I listen to.
I think getting it into your head that you’re a certain ‘thing’, or part of a certain genre, can have an impact on how free you are with making stuff.
I try not to think about it too much: the music comes out pretty naturally so I try not to dissect it.
Getintothis: GvB have coined the phrase ‘drone-step’ for your sound, but having spoke briefly about the way music is categorised and consumed, I know you’re keen to avoid being put in a certain box… Are there any soundbites you’ve had attached to your music which you’ve just thought ‘nah, not having that!’
MB: There’s been some crazy genre descriptions, but I enjoy the fact describing it doesn’t come easy to people.
Drone-step isn’t too bad really – I can see where they got it from. I appreciate that, because it doesn’t really sound like anything familiar, people feel the need to pigeonhole it into something. It’s just one of those things I can’t avoid – everyone does it, including myself. Sometimes you need reference points or digestible descriptions to anchor things on.

Forest Swords – Glory Gongs from OLDE ENGLISH SPELLING BEE on Vimeo.

Getintothis: ‘River hymns + damp woods + dry leaves + sea winds,’ – your words, is the Wirral/Merseyside’s landscape integral to Forest Swords’ textures?
MB: Absolutely, but I’m sure a lot of bands around here would say a similar thing. When you grow up somewhere like this it’s difficult for it not to have any effect on the way you approach being creative or the imagery you use. It’s such an eclectic environment – beaches, woods, rivers, a massive city, all on top of each other – that it’d be strange for it not to have an impact, I think.
Getintothis: Dagger Paths has sold out, but there’s plans for a reissue, right?
MB: There’s a full CD version, including the Rattling Cage 7″ tracks, out on November 22 via No Pain In Pop. The 12″ version has just been repressed again too, so anyone who’s had trouble finding it recently should be able to hunt down a copy now.
Getintothis: Let’s talk videos. You do them yourself, and what with your design background, it’s fair to say they’re pretty close to stunning, each a virtual mini epic in storytelling. Where do you find the material, do the songs evoke particular themes/images which shape the videos? What films/directors do you like?
MB: I had a stash of public information films my friend gave me at university – it was full of these 50s and 60s mini-movies that just looked amazing and had these really dark storylines.
I was a bit hesitant to use them at first because I wanted to do the source material justice – I didn’t want it to look like it was just empty ‘oh wow, cool retro films’. Getting the visuals and the music to fit is pretty important I think, when you’re recontextualising stuff like that.
So I re-cut them and put them to the the songs, and they seem to have gone down pretty well with people who are into the music.

Forest Swords – Miarches from OLDE ENGLISH SPELLING BEE on Vimeo.

Getintothis: Several of the people that have interviewed you before have drawn on the subtle undercurrent of ‘Merseyside’ trickling through your sound; is it hard for Liverpool musicians to escape or free themselves of their roots and heritage?
MB: Maybe yeah, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing. I don’t think you could listen to my stuff, or even a.P.A.t.T., or Seal Cub Clubbing Club, or whoever, and hear The Las or The Beatles.
I’d like to think the ‘Merseyside’ tag means bands around here just have a knack for a tune, however weird they get. It’s a place that’s built on pop music and melody isn’t it.
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Getintothis: The day I got your record, I went home and my mum popped round for a brew. I played it to her and two and half songs in, she said: ‘Turn this off its giving me a headache.’ The bass and drums are killer. There’s certainly a malevolent, intensity at work, Visits in particular is a dark song. Do you enjoy the darker side of life?
MB: It was mastered specifically to have a really heavy low end – I love really heavy dub and reggae and big drums and so it was important for all the rhythms to be as full-on and immersive as possible.
Maybe it’s a bit too much for some people – sorry to your mum – but I wouldn’t have wanted the record sounding any other way. I don’t really think about it being dark or light when I’m making it – it’s just how people interpret it I suppose.
Getintothis: Your hosting your own celebrity dinner party – dead or alive, fact or fiction – name five guests to invite to your gaff for tea.
MB: Brian Wilson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Blake, Missy Elliott, and David Lynch. I’d get Janet Street-Porter to wait in the car outside as a reserve.
Getintothis: I’m always raving about Liverpool and its creative renaissance, but what would you like to see more of/introduced to the city to improve it?
MB: There is amazing stuff going on, but it feels so disparate and disjointed that it’s difficult to follow sometimes. It goes in cycles, I guess. It can be frustrating and inward looking – a lot of people seem cool with just doing things for small groups of their friends and, with a few exceptions, don’t seem that bothered about getting their voices heard outside of the city or even to appeal to a wider range of people here.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily – it can encourage really interesting experimental stuff – but it seems foolish that some of the good creative work isn’t getting recognised by anyone further than Manchester and many are quite content with that. I’ve had messages from people genuinely surprised that I’m from here because they assume it’s all ‘indie’ stuff.

Forest Swords – Visits from OLDE ENGLISH SPELLING BEE on Vimeo.

Most people outside of the region probably think the music scene starts and ends with The Beatles and The Wombats, and that’s a bit concerning. I just think it’s a shame the exciting forward-thinking, homegrown stuff in the city – be it music, art, design – doesn’t connect with or reach outsiders in the way it maybe should: it doesn’t have that internationally recognised creative stamp that places like Berlin or New York do. Hopefully the tide’s changing slowly though.
Getintothis: Have you any phobias? Strange habits?
MB: For someone that’s based in a place by two rivers and a sea this is a bit odd, but I’m terrified of big expanses of water. I’m ok if I can see what’s over the water, but if it’s an open horizon I’m massively uncomfortable. I panic just thinking about it.
Getintothis: You’ve spoken in the past about how you’d like to get involved in remix projects, anyone in particular take your fancy?
MB: I’m quite into the idea of remixing a whole album for someone in future, I think. Just taking the source material and crafting a totally different thing out of it.
I have a few remixes on the go at the moment which will appear later in the year – not sure I’m allowed to talk about them yet, but I’m excited to get them out there.
Getintothis: Fantasy gig time, everyone’s available, who’s playing Forest Swords’ curated festival?
MB: Outkast, Lee Scratch Perry, The Beach Boys, Jay-Z, Mary J Blige, Talking Heads, Steve Reich, Kanye West, Destiny’s Child, Jimmy Cliff, Deftones, Ladytron, Bikini Kill, Mogwai, Brandy, Smashing Pumpkins, Huggy Bear, Deerhunter, Bjork, At The Drive-In, American Football, Kenickie, Fugazi.

Getintothis: Tell us your tips on life.
MB: Regret nothing.
Getintothis: Everyone’s keen to know when/where we may at last see Forest Swords in live action, any time soon? Aren’t you playing as part of a Mercy/Biennial event?
MB: The set for Mercy is on Saturday October 16 and is a 40 minute remix piece, so it won’t be a traditional/standard Forest Swords gig. I’ll be hopefully getting out and about through next year, bits of Europe and over to America too. Some DJing here and there as well.
Getintothis: Footie? Who do you support? Or do you not?
MB: I don’t follow it, but at a push it’d be Everton because my dad’s a die-hard.

Getintothis: I asked my followers on Twitter for a penultimate question; they didn’t know I was asking you. Here’s the two best. What do you know about ‘double rainbows?’ and what posters did you have on your bedroom walls as a child?
MB: I had a big, A1 sized Blur poster that I took from a record shop when I was about 10. That stayed up for ages. If double rainbows are just literally double rainbows, then I definitely approve, but I’ve never seen one.
The Forest Swords EP reissue is out on November 22 and can be pre-ordered here. Bonus CD includes remixes by Pariah and Becoming Real.