Techno-Punk Bristol powerhouse Giant Swan are in town for a run of shows, including the formidable Unsound Festival in Adelaide.
I had an in-depth chat to Giant Swan’s Robin Stewart about industrial music, John Cale and their worldly escapades.
People seem pretty receptive to both your latest EP, Whities 016, and you guys as a group. What’s it like dealing with this growing local and international praise?
To be honest with you man, it’s amazing, but it’s pretty weird (laughs).
My mum kind of believes that I do work and I don’t just sit on my ass all day. Praise for the record and praise in general is a weird thing to be hit with. Especially when it’s over something you’ve worked on with a very small group of people and it’s all been very closed off to lots of others. Because the market’s so big and there’s so many others making electronic music or whatever, it’s just very special to be called up for something you’ve made.
Is there anything you guys do to stay grounded?
We seek the guidance from herbal remedies, if you know what I mean?
I’ve also known Harry since I was 17. We keep an open discussion about music and we play a lot of gigs. Without gigs and without playing for people and meeting people it would be very dehumanising I think. If it’s for radio DJs and magazine editors then you’re kind of lost within the journey of it somewhat. I think being a duo helps too. If one person acts up then the other one can just kind of give a slap around the ear and say “What were you thinking?”
I feel like I hear a bit of early industrial and possibly even power electronics influence on Whities 016. Has that sort of music been much of an influence on your sound?
We like noise music like Russell Haswell a lot, but not really.
I was talking about this last night actually. Not really the sonic aspect, but how a lot of that music was kind of attributed to, and connected with right-wing politics to shock audiences. We’re not a political band by any means and we’re not right-wing, but I think the use of shock within the context of music is something that we’re interested in. We’re more interested in that within the realms of techno, kind of divorcing the listener from what they expect from techno and from the club.
Sonically, there isn’t a lot of direct influence from industrial music, but certainly for me, power electronics, I kind of take with a pinch of salt. I think a lot of it’s quite funny. Like Whitehouse and all that kind of stuff. A lot of techno and electronic music is based on industrial music, but I think mostly through ideology because it’s so provocative.
It’s a very funny little corner of music and there’s a large degree of self-parody there too. If people take it all at face value, then they may have missed the memo a little bit.
Certainly. I think it’s a really basic thing, industrial music, in a lot of ways. Music that evokes machinery or labour or a kind of productivity. That whole idea of commodification and commercialisation being manifested into a nasty sound deserves a more nuanced discussion than a school boy in a home county in England calling for a new holocaust.
I know you guys come from more rock/punk/metal beginnings. What kind of groups were you influenced by in the formative years of your music making?
One band in particular is a hardcore band from Seattle called the Blood Brothers. They had this shrill, brutal sound with 2 vocalists and really articulate lyrics. There was something very camp about it, very dislocated from the beatdown, boreish, long hair metal kind of vibe. The whole Bay Area, bands like The Locust and a lot of technical hardcore, moving more into grindcore. But we were also really into ‘pretty’ bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Mogwai but also really liked dorky, scream-y bands. Then we got into stuff like Swans and Sunn O))) and became really obsessed with volume for a long time. If you weren’t ear-splittingly loud you were nothing! And the Melvins. Really can’t leave out the Melvins, they were a huge influence in regards to having humour in music.
All bands that were pushing some pretty strong boundaries in their respective ways.
Yeah certainly. Also when we learnt about Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop and this totally punk approach to music from the time. We were listening to rock stuff when we were in college that was predominantly based on the imperialism of rock music like ‘Rock is the best! Men are the best at making rock music and the guitar is my chalice!’ then suddenly we’re listening to these really provocative women who are making music using paints.
Even hearing the song The Gift by The Velvet Underground for the first time was like ‘They’re tearing up the rule book! What are they doing!’. All of that stuff was very formative in telling us you can do whatever you want, as long as it hits an emotional chord. Whether that’s one note or one word.
I’ve heard a rumour that John Cale wanted to record the next Velvet Underground album under water which seemed to coincide with his exit from the band…
(laughs) Yeah man I’ll just get my violin all wet, it’ll sound great.
That actually makes sense. I’ve heard about Lee Perry from the black ark, legendary dub producer, built a river underneath his studio so he could have a ‘water vibe’. Then he burnt down the studio, because it was cursed.
I think these legends are really important for the fabric of character and avatar in music these days. We actually met John Cale in Porto Airport.
Yeah waiting for his wife I presume. I said the stupidest thing I could have said to him which was “You’re John Cale” to which he said “Yes, I am”. He shook my hand and took off.
I guess it was a case of validating the encounter. Is the inclusion of the word ‘Swan’ in your group’s name a reference to Swans at all?
No, it’s not at all. The name is actually totally derived from the Blood Brothers. The last track off their last album is called Giant Swan. It’s that because I just always thought it would be an amazing name for something. I always enjoyed the description Michael Gira gave to why he used the name Swans though, something that’s very beautiful but very pissed off.
Yeah, I think it was “Swans are beautiful, majestic creatures with incredibly ugly temperaments”
That sounds about right. And what better way to describe Swans?
I feel like Swans are like a 40 year relationship that suddenly boils over one night in one really violent drawn out streak. With us it’s kind of like you’ve had too much sugar and you trash your bedroom. We don’t quite have the tectonic power of Swans, but we’re younger than them. We give it a go.
What was it that influenced your decision to play in Almaty, Kazakhstan?
That would be DJ Nazira. She’s a DJ and a promoter who’s based in Almaty who we met 2 years ago at Unsound Poland and she’s just wonderful. She invited us to play her party, she put us up and she played the night as well.
I feel like because it’s the first time we’d ever played in Central Asia, it’s the first time we ever had a proper impression of the influence of the West, particularly European club culture and how it is picked up and emulated around the world and how there is this self-defined push back of what a DJ or a club night should be like. Nazira embodies everything positive about these things and we were just really lucky to be invited out to play.
Interesting what you say about ‘emulation’. A lot of scenes around the world try to emulate Western output and inadvertently create something really interesting that becomes unique to them.
Definitely. I think a lot of the magic has been lost at a lot of parties because people are trying too hard to recreate the Berghain or the Hacienda or whatever.
We played this party in Moscow this year and I’d never seen so many friends of the promoter helping set something up, like 60 of his friends were helping. There was a lot of queer representation at this party, and in Moscow of all places. There was this version of something I recognised, a big dance hall with big lights. That’s universal, but it’s everyone’s attitude that makes it unique to there. More often than not, people in these places are in it for the right reasons.
Across your shows in places like Kazakhstan and also Uganda, did you feel like Giant Swan naturally slotted in with the local scene, or were local audiences more shocked by what you were doing?
Certainly in Uganda, it didn’t go down very well… (laughs)
There was a large number of European exports playing but it wasn’t about us or the other European names playing. We were guests in their country, playing an African festival where the biggest names were Pan and Sub-Saharan African artists. It was a really nice experience to be shown these artists that you’re never going to be able to get to listen to on your Soundcloud.
What are you looking to expect from your time here in Australia?
How inflammatory can I be? Every cliché imaginable.
I’ve been told it’s going to be incredibly hot so I’m expecting extreme heat. I think It’s going to be a really good time. From what everyone has told us the parties in Australia are really fantastic.
I want to play Knifey Spooney and meet a koala bear.
Well you can’t leave without meeting a koala bear. Being relative Unsound veterans, what words of warning would you give to this years attendees in Adelaide?
The Unsound people are some the most shrewd promoters of music and contemporary culture that I know of. So people can expect not to have an easy road and people should expect to be moved in a lot of different directions by a bunch of artists who cover a massive spectrum. They always make sure the sound system is really well-tuned and they’re really good at making the artists and audience feel relaxed. So I feel there’s a good balance between not over-egging the pudding and on quality.
So, you’ve given us a lot of EPs. Are you guys planning an album anytime in the future?
We are. January and February we are taking two months out where we are playing zero gigs and we’re gonna be writing music which is gonna be great. We got a little downtime in Melbourne so hopefully we’re gonna be able to track some stuff there.
It’s been in our heads for a while and next year people can expect new music from us, for sure.