Name: Swayzak / David Brown
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current Release: Lost Tapes on 240 Volts
Recommendations: William Basinski - Garden of Brokenness. Tim Hecker - Song of the High Wire Shrimper
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Swayzak, more information and music can be found on his facebook page, his bandcamp store and his soundcloud profile.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started when I was around 16/17. Although production wasn’t really on my mind as no software sequencers existed nor midi (laughs). More synths, drum machine, bass guitar and vocals was what I began recording. I had been playing guitar and was a big fan of The Clash but I was drawn to these synths. They were more exciting. My earliest influences were 80s electronic pop, I guess: Human League, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Heaven 17. I lived in quite a rural area and things weren’t easy to find unless they were on TV or radio. What drew me in was the feeling of making music and being creative as I was no good at school academics really I didn’t concentrate and I loved the synths and drum machines. I think the first one that had me transfixed was the Casio VLtone “da da da” - my friend had one. Back then everyone I knew was playing guitars and drums, so it never synced well. I started doing my own thing and bought a Roland mc202, Yamaha cs1 and a Boss dr.110 drum machine. Those results never made it beyond cassette, but they weren’t bad.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
The development was long and undulating for about 15 years. I worked alone for quite some time, not really knowing where I was going. My friends all thought I was mad, girls got in the way as did alcohol. But I didn’t really have any huge ambition. It wasn’t until I met James in 1988 and we started jamming - firstly with real instruments then later machines – that the whole home studio thing was kicking off with samplers and midi. I had a bad car accident in 1989 and actually took about 3 years to recover. Then we did a track in 1992. I was focused on this more after the accident, it was more trip hop style. A couple of people really liked it, we ended up in the studio with a “producer” who then ruined it. He didn’t even ask who I was - it was weird. These other people took control so we walked away and started our own thing and by 1993 we were working three days a week in the studio mostly getting stoned. By 1996 we found our Swayzak sound after a long search.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning with Swayzak, production was very basic. We learned as we went along, we didn’t get tips online as there was no online. We actually took much of our minimal studio ideas from labels like chain reaction after hearing about them on the radio, though the outcome was different. My skills were not in mixing in the beginning, that came over time. James, my old partner, was excellent in the production side, though we never used any compression until about 2 albums in … Now I try to keep it basic, but with so many tracks available I get lost. So I limit myself a maximum 16 tracks normally. To me, that's enough.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
In Swayzak, it was a bedroom set up for many years. We used hifi monitors. Now it's in the living room and once again, I use hifi monitors from Canton Karat. They are like NS10s. I love them. I sold my ADAM A7s, as they are too powerful for my space right now.
It hasn’t really changed over time just become more organised with cables etc. I guess I prefer a desk rather than studio. Still basic but more laptop based controls - Ableton 9 + reaper are my DAW tools. I use lots of plug-ins but I have a desktop g5, too, it's a noisy old mac with UAD card. Outboard gear enough to satisfy my needs. I keep the equipment to the minimum and get to know it well - less is more! I buy one piece of gear at a time. Sometimes. I'll keep it, sometimes I'll sell it once I get to know It's limitations. Right now I’m really into old Korg Electribes. They are amazing for the money. I have 4! Currently, a Roland JV1080 is my go to synth. And a Volca bass which I love and hate, but it's good for live.
I like older, weirder gear. I’m not straight down the store on the day of launch to get the latest from Korg or Roland. Although the SH01A is tempting as I have never had a SH101 and always lusted after one as it was one if the first synths I heard in the flesh - a guy at school had one. I use soft synths from Arturia, Korg, effects from UAD, plug in - Alliance, Valhalla, d16, TAL all good gear and it works well with the outboard stuff. It's a nice balance. I like the MFB drums and synths, they're portable and powerful. Doepfer too. I’m not really into plastic things, but Volca FM keeps popping into my feeds though I'd rather get an old Waldorf Microwave synth if I can. Elektron is great stuff, too, but I don't own any currently. Finally, gear is what makes your sound. But you control the gear.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
We started out with 2MB samplers that weigh 20 kilos. Now I have that technology on my phone. It's great but I limit the technology. I like human touch. Of course, processing tracks is great in software like Ableton / Reaper and Bitwig (I’m just learning it). I don't want the machines to take over so I don't use complex set ups, yet they excel at processing multi track sound. Making music is a bit easier with plug-ins but I found the productions weren’t as good if it was all in the box. I need some hardware and it generally sounds better, though some plug-ins sound fantastic for what you pay. I run 10-12 channels in the box, then group them for summing. Then, I mix them linked with outboard gear. Overall, this creates a big powerful sound.
My mixer is a line mixer from RANE so no Eqs. It's all being done in the DAW equaliser. I use a couple of tools - valve compressor + vintage warmer - in the chain. I think I’m good at what I know and may be too scared to delve in deeper to the software. Ableton 9 is great. I’m looking forward to 10 and Bitwig sounds amazing I just haven't started working on it yet. Hardware is better for the human touch. Then again, fourtet might disagree.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest It'self in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I always go to the Roland JV1080 right now. It's a great synth for pads and basslines. But I also use several software synths from Korg, Arturia and TAL with a good compressor. They sound great, but the JV always sticks out. The synths dictate the the moods as do the drums. I’m quite into deeper and darker sounds, long tracks that are hypnotic without any fancy programming It's about getting into the mind that I visualise. I don't use the DAW for massive editing I just let the tracks run. Some have to be 15 minutes long. It's a natural cycle. The bars flow naturally rather than building it block by block. Take it or leave it - that's how I work now.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Jamming works for me. I like that way of working, but I generally only work with trusted people i.e. close friends. So perhaps I need to open my mind a bit more to others. But I’m comfortable with how it is right now. Talking usually feeds the creativity and I enjoy hearing how others do things, how they think. And it's great that we all use the same tools differently.