“I’m as in control as I am out of control.” Pete Swanson is one of that modern set of electronic artists moving from a root in punk and noise to disrupt the existing codes and systems in electronica. Container, Vatican Shadow and Andy Stott have all been lumped in with the contemporary notion of ‘deconstructed techno’, where they eulogise a past peak of underground hedonism, born in the squats of Berlin and grown into a mainstay of the mainstream, with the likes of Skrillex and David Guetta at its monstrous head.
The yield of Daniel Lopatin’s Software label –opening up its sound from the ambient drone of Oneohtrix Point Never and glitchy nu-disco of Airbird –Swanson prefers the term “repurposed noise” for his bodily onslaught of unwieldy hardware constructions producing loosely assembled club compositions. Whatever you call it, Swanson’s is a journey from the United States’ northwest, where he spent his formative years immersed in hardcore and punk, based in Riot Grrrl centre Portland, Oregon. Eventually though, he moved on from what he felt were the antiquated aesthetics of power violence and grindcore to Yellow Swans, an experimental noise duo with Gabriel Saloman, that aimed to break the mould of both punk and electronic music before disbanding in 2008.
Since then, Swanson has released a handful of cassettes and LPs, as well as 2012’s well-received album, Man with Potential. With that one being based on the imagined narrative of him “acting as a janitor after a rave”, this year’s Punk Authority EP, on the other hand, is loosely centred around the fictional character of Zed McGlunk, the nihilistic and anarchistic gang leader in comedy film Police Academy 2. Hence, the cover image of Swanson covered head-to-toe in graffiti, re-enacting the humiliation of Captain Pete Lassard, spray-painted by the violent posse, while inverting that very narrative by being representative of both the punk and its victim. That’s because, to Swanson, counterculture is an oxymoron and there mostly to be messed with.
aqnb: What were your formative experiences with electronic music?
PS: A lot of the people I talk to went clubs and raves when they were young. But that really wasn’t going on very much where I was growing up, so my exposure to it was in my bedroom listening to records. I never was into DJ stuff either, so I would put on a record and listen to it the whole way through [laughs]. I’ve talked to other people about that and it’s not really the way that they experience that culture.
aqnb: I suppose that’s the most punk way to approach anything. Picking up guitars they couldn’t play.
PS: [laughs] Right, exactly. The best punk records are like that first Slits record, where it’s just like boom-box recordings of them playing in their living room in ’75. They don’t’ know what they’re doing but it’s just awesome because the energy is super cool. You’ll hear that on punk records but you’ll also hear that on early musique concrète records, or early techno records. It’s that sound of inspiration and discovery; not having this established framework that you’re trying to work with. You’re building something new and you’re making it.
aqnb: In the same way that punk was challenging the status quo by taking these rock n roll archetypes and messing with them, like the guitar, do you think the fact you’re working in electronics is equally relevant in this technological era?
PS: The technology that I’m using is actually really antiquated. Although there’s a complex play on both gesture and execution and aesthetics, I think that what I’m doing with electronics is actually very basic. It’s very simple stuff that people were doing back in the 60s, in terms of sequencing and the technical aspect of things. It also exists in this context that was born in 90s electronic dance culture but also this very basement, underground noise scene that’s maybe more contemporary. It’s sort of this odd, awkward meshing of cultural references that are important to me, personally. It’s this really awkward set of gestures, where people don’t necessarily know how things fit.
In terms of claiming electronic instruments like punks reclaimed guitar, I’m not necessarily seeing it so much. It’s not so much an act of revolt as the use of guitar or DIY culture was back in the late 70s, early 80s, where it seems like a very explicit rejection of stadium rock or whatever.
aqnb: Do you think that, with so many artists going along a similar creative route as you, deconstructing and challenging existing frameworks within both techno and punk music, it’s reflective of a wider social issue? Of frustration, often surfacing in destructive ways, as a response to a floundering political and economic system?
PS: It’s an interesting idea. If you look at the news in the US you see that young American College graduates don’t really have… there’s incredible unemployment. I’ve never gone through a time where I’ve had to move back in with my parents, or not had a job, but a lot of younger people, who frankly are my peers in this musical underground, are in a position where they don’t really have a lot of the same opportunities that their parents had. I think that’s a very real thing because even though they are educated and they’ve done all the right things, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them.
aqnb: So you represent Zed, the nihilistic, anarcho-punk from Police Academy 2 on Punk Authority.
PS: [laughs] Yeah, but I’m also the Commissioner. We all embody all of these positive and negative systems and I think a lot of the values that we place in subculture, and in larger culture, a lot of the value that we place on gestures or systems that we’ve established, are completely arbitrary. I’m just trying to take those things that I think are most appealing and have the most potential for exploration.
aqnb: Speaking of these arbitrary signifiers, the imagery reminds me a bit of Berlin, where everything is covered in graffiti. It’s almost like this centre of two stagnant counter-cultural sets: punk and techno.
PS: Yeah but also you have the Berlin Wall there, which was toppled. You have this really incredible symbol of people breaking out and people being able to move beyond those boundaries, in a very real way, much more, than people doing weird techno [laughs].
aqnb: Do you think that rigidity and oppression is a necessary precondition for creativity?
PS: I think that there has to be a foil… well… [laughs]
aqnb: I’m not asking if you advocate Soviet Communism…
PS: No, no, no. On a cultural level there needs to be a foil. It’s valuable because it’s something that provides contrast to what you do.
aqnb: That makes me think of the paradox of social justice. As a social worker, you wouldn’t have a job if there wasn’t injustice but there’d be more injustice if you weren’t there to do it but then, that’s just life.
PS: Right, yeah. And you have to take a pragmatic stance, as opposed to an idealistic one. At least, that’s generally how I choose to operate. I think, generally, punk tends to function in more idealistic ways. My response to becoming disillusioned with punk was to actually get involved by doing social work and working with homeless people and things like that. That’s the manifestation of the positive side of those politics for me.
I don’t think that subculture can necessarily improve the situation of oppressed and marginalised people, as well as individuals taking charge and being directly involved can. Just taking the time to be with people who are in compromised positions and who have difficulties.
aqnb: That’s what struck me, knowing that you work in mental health, because you could be an idealist and focus on the fact that those social problems wouldn’t exist, if not for the system they exist in.
PS: Yeah. You can zoom out really far and say ‘yeah, we have this rigidly structured society that alienates people’. There are the people who we have determined to have mental illness, or people who do not share the same consensus reality that we all have, and a lot of them aren’t entirely able to function within the rigid structures that we have established. But some people, with treatment, can actually function, in a way that’s less painful for them, within those rigid structures that the rest of us live in. That really is the goal of the work that I do.
aqnb: You could either sit around and complain about it or you could try to minimise the negative effects of that arbitrary system on the people that are marginalised by it.
PS: That comes back to that ‘idealism versus pragmatism’ thing. I tend to be a lot more pragmatic and I’m just trying to live my life as well as I can [laughs]. I’m trying to affect people directly, in a positive, constructive way and I don’t necessarily get that sort of fulfilment from doing music. I love music, it’s a passion of mine and it’s something I’ve been doing most of my life but I don’t feel like I ever know if I’m ever affecting people positively. Not on a serious, measurable scale.
aqnb: You could say ‘music helped me’ but maybe it just made it worse.
PS: Yeah, I know a lot of people who struggle because of their love of music [laughs]. There are times when I have that. It’s just how things are. **
Pete Swanson’s Punk Authority is out now Software.