In Conversation: Forest Swords

On the making of the incredible 'Engravings'...

Forest Swords is one Matthew Barnes, a Liverpool native whose music is communicated with few words but absolute feeling. It’s simultaneously unsettling and comforting – something you know, twisted into alien shapes. It’s electronica and dub, the darker fringes of trip-hop and ghostly R&B, made whole in a singular manner.

The debut Forest Swords EP, ‘Dagger Paths’, emerged in 2010 to great acclaim. Despite its short length, it was named FACT’s album of the year, and received strong ratings across the critical spectrum. Its follow-up, 2013’s ‘Engravings’ (released via Tri Angle), is one of Clash’s albums of the year, earning a 9/10 review on these very pages

As the maker of one of our very favourite LPs of the year (look, really), Clash felt it was only right to speak to Barnes about the gestation process of ‘Engravings’ – a long period, during which he questioned whether he’d even return to music – and the new position he finds himself in today, as his songs seem set to turn from hobby to full-time calling.

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Forest Swords, ‘Thor’s Stone’, from ‘Engravings’
(Listen to the Lee 'Scratch' Perry remix of this track here)

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During your period away from music, was there ever the thought that you really wouldn’t be able to make it again?

I was quite content with just leaving it, and not doing it again. I don’t hold any romanticism to being a musician, or anything like that. I trained in graphic design (he designs his own sleeves – Ed), and that’s my day job. Well, it was my day job – music is now getting to be full time.

When ‘Dagger Paths’ came out, it was a nice splurge of attention. It was great that people dug the record, and that people connected to it. But I was completely fine with leaving that as a singular project. I think there’s something quite nice about doing that – if I’d left it there, perhaps it’d have stayed an underground thing, and people would find ‘Dagger Paths’ in 10 years’ time, y’know…? Like, someone might find it in a record store and wonder what it was, and take it home. I quite like the statement of putting something out and never doing anything else again.

But the urge did come back, gradually. I was playing around at home, with some beats and melodies. So this album slowly presented itself to me over time – I was like, “Oh, I’ve got songs here”. Enough to form into another EP, or an album. But it wasn’t until I had seven or eight songs that I thought I had enough for an album.

And is that when you took the songs to Tri Angle?

Well, Tri Angle contacted me right when ‘Dagger Paths’ came out. My thing was that I knew I might not be doing any more, and I told Tri Angle that. I said they’d need to leave me to it. I don’t like the idea of a label breathing down the back of my neck – that’s really ugly, really unappealing. So it wasn’t until I’d finished the album that I took it to the label and discussed putting it out.

It was a very quick turnaround, actually. I only finished ‘Engravings’ in May, this year, and it came out in August. So it was a really quick turnaround – which was a bit weird given how long I’d spent working on it. I guess it took about 18 months, in total, to make – but not solidly. We’re talking half an hour a day, a few hours per week, most of the time.

This album was very much something I was dipping in and out of. It was only towards the end of making it that I felt really involved in something. I could see its form, that far into the process.

Given how you were working on ‘Engravings’ in such irregular bursts, and small ones at that, were you concerned at any point that the end result wouldn’t really gel, that it wouldn’t feel like an album? After all, a man finds himself in several different headspaces across an 18-month period…

I was a bit worried about that. Obviously, as a person, your tastes can change drastically across a period of 18 months. But thinking of the reasoning behind the sounds and melodies that I chose, and I don’t think that they’re tied to any particular trend that was happening. It’s amazing how quickly some records can date, so I tried to make this album sound like its own space, in its own time.

Because the record was taking so long, I was very aware that I didn’t want to make something that would sound dated in six months’ time. So, I worked on this mutual ground, with the songs. There were some songs I made at the beginning of the process, which by the end… I was like, “F*ck, this is not fitting.” So there are a lot of leftovers, as well.

The record has a pretty consistent feel throughout, and bear with me on this, but… I’m wondering if that’s tied to when you recorded it, as in the time of day. It’s not quite a night-time record for me, but it’s evocative of dusk…

Yeah, it is an evening thing – it was all recorded in evenings, between six and 10 at night. I like my routines, and I always go to bed at a certain time and get up at a certain time, so recording this was a case of slotting that work into my regular life. And if I wasn’t feeling inspired, and nothing was happening, I’d just ditch it.

I wasn’t working on this super passionately. I wasn’t on it for four hours a day, every day, for 18 months. It was more of a casual thing, and I think that worked out for the best. You can be a lot more objective with material if you’re dipping in and out of it. There were sounds that I chose one day that, the next day, I just took out. It was like assembling something, like a car. But yeah, it was a dusk album for me, and I’m glad you felt that.

Given you were dipping in and out of these songs, and given their nature – all of these layers, sort of machine-made – how did you know when one was actually finished? Was it as simple as not touching it again for a while?

Exactly, yeah. If you’re not going back into it, after a while, it’s probably finished. To me, it’s difficult though, because nobody tells me… Well, when I’m at work, doing graphic design, I have deadlines to meet. So I know that, when that deadline comes, it’s done. But with music it’s a lot more open, and free, and I’m working to my own brief and parameters. So the only way I knew that this was finished was when I was emotionally exhausted by it – when I’d become completely spent.

I’d have the label say to me: “You kind of need to get this out soon, now. It’s getting ridiculous.” At the same time, though, I didn’t want to make it all shiny. And there are times where a record like this really can’t come out – it couldn’t have come out at Christmas. And it’d get lost with all of the new bands in January. So we had to find this sweet spot to release it in.

When I was told, in black and white, that if I didn’t finish it now, it’d have to come out in 2014… that terrified me. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve only had one record out before this. You have a look at your life and think: I do kind of want to put out these things now. So it got a bit traumatic towards the end, as I was just so exhausted by the while thing. It was a very intense, emotional album to make, so actually finishing it was just… it was a bit of a headf*ck.

Because of the quick turnaround, though, between delivering the record and it coming out, ‘Engravings’ still feels like a part of my life. I feel all of the themes in it, still. It’s like we talked about: you change so much over a few months. If this record had come out in January, I would have been in a completely different place.

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Forest Swords, ‘Miarches’, from ‘Dagger Paths’

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You say about emotions. A lot of the reviews of ‘Engravings’ were more concerned with how the record made a person feel, than how it achieved that, you know. I mean, the unspoken attachment, rather than the assembly method, the actual instrumentation, the mechanics…

That’s important to me, for that to be the case. I’m not a tech-head. I’m not an equipment geek. I’m a lot more concerned with trying to communicate things. The mechanics are less important than the intent – I’d rather that people just feel something, rather than think: “Oh, that’s a sick drop.”

So what sort of emotions are we talking about, specifically?

Just day to day things. I’m an only child, and I’m quite solitary about the way I work. Also, I don’t really talk about things, openly – males tend to be like that, don’t they? Not unless you’ve had a few. So it’s almost like therapy, making this music – you can sit down and have a conversation with yourself, without going crazy. There’s this back-and-forth relationship, and I find that quite therapeutic.

But a few things were going on, a few years back. I had – I have – really bad tinnitus, and when it comes on you really struggle with it. I don’t think people without it have any idea how bad it is. It’s really not pleasant. When there is a certain level of background noise, even if I’m sitting really close to you, I won’t be able to hear you. I won’t have any idea. It really numbs certain tones.

So I found that difficult to deal with, at one point, and that has definitely fed into the record. And there is that everyday stuff, too – personal stuff that goes on that you have to deal with. So making the record… it wasn’t escape, as such, but definitely therapeutic. I was putting my energy into it – into a conversation with myself, and the listener. It splits in two. And that’s one of the reasons why I was reluctant to have vocalists on this album. I didn’t want to articulate anything lyrically – I wanted to do it musically. There, I’m a lot more… Well, I get to keep some things back for myself.

If this was a singer-songwriter record, I’d be talking to you about my lyrics, but you’d already know about them, so we’d have nothing to really talk about. And those artists, they hold nothing back for themselves.

I’m quite reserved, anyway. I’d never spill my guts out to you, about anything. I like to do things in my own way, and on my own level. That’s just how I am.

There’s something about the mood, I suppose, of ‘Engravings’ that positions it, in my head, with a few other records that don’t actually share distinct stylistic traits: F*ck Buttons’ ‘Slow Focus’, and These New Puritans’ ‘Field Of Reeds’. I have no idea if that makes any sense to you…

Well, they’re all very, singularly British albums. I think they all have their own identities, but they have these textures that I can definitely relate to, and see with my own record. Those guys use space really well, and I’m really interested in that.

I don’t really keep up with new music much, but those two records… I can’t imagine what it’s like for you, trying to keep up with the daily deluge of new stuff. But I suppose, when you come across something you really like, it means it hits home that much more.

Which is sort of what happened with ‘Dagger Paths’, looking at the critical reception…

That was surreal, because I never expected that sort of reception. I never did it with that intention – it was just something I made in my bedroom. That was it.

What would it have felt like, though, if ‘Engravings’ had been poorly received? You’re clearly very attached to the album…

I think it’s not a cool thing to admit, but if it’d have gone down poorly… The album proved such catharsis for me, and there’s a lot of emotional energy and investment in it. If that didn’t communicate, and people didn’t click with it in that way, then yeah, that’d have made it a failure for me.

It’s almost like a conversation – I’m articulating something with no words, through music, and I’m hoping that people infer the right things from that. And they have, which is amazing. It’s also a growing process for me, as a musician and a producer, to use those sounds and spaces and getting the feelings across. It’s been great to see how many people are into it.

I get lots of offers from people wanting to sing on my records, but I’ve never wanted to be one of those people who puts out a ‘producer’ album, with all of these different vocalists. I think that’s an ugly way of making a record. So I did have just one vocalist on ‘Engravings’ – Anneka, from Brighton, on ‘Anneka’s Battle’ – but that was done so early that other material was sort of built around it. I used that as a starting point, so it always had a natural place. But I was initially a bit reticent to work with other people.

You must get even more offers now, though, in terms of potential collaborations.

There have been some interesting ones. That’s the thing about the music industry, though: once you get a certain amount of attention, everything is suddenly accessible. All of the people you thought were impossible to talk to, now you can send them an email. Like, Laurel Halo sent me an email the other day and I was like, “F*ck, I love you.”

But, also, you can tell when someone’s getting in touch just because they’ve seen your name around, and that you’ve had a well-received record. You can tell from the way they write to you. You can see through that, all the time. But it’s great hearing from anyone who’s into it, to be honest – whether that’s because they think it’s a good look, or whatever. It’s all nice, isn’t it.

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Find Forest Swords online here

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