Swayzak and the art of Tenori-on
Can it really be 10 years since Snowboarding in Argentina – Swayzak’s debut long player – was named album of the year by Mixer magazine?
It is indeed, but in that time James Taylor and David Brown have been keeping themselves busy both live and in the studio, all the while building a global reputation that’s as organic as the deep, home-grown dub-house they’ve become synonymous with.
Few artists straddle the thin divide between underground and mainstream quite like Swayzak. Their music, like their production style, almost relies on the haphazard, lo-fi ethic that’s been a constant mainstay of their back catalogue. Yet despite being five albums in (as well as two mix compilations), they’re as keen to follow their own path as they always have been – re-releasing Snowboarding, ambitions to make an album featuring 80s vocalists, David’s perennial obsession with vinyl…
“James and I have been buddies since 1989 when we worked at a record label together,” David begins, “but it wasn’t until 1992 that we actually started making music together.”
“I’d been into music since I was very young. The first thing I had was a Bontempi organ, and by the time I was 12 I was a young punk. I was lucky enough to see Joy Division as my first live band, and I guess that set the tone! I got my first synth – a Yamaha CS01 – when I was about 15, I think. Then I got a Boss drum machine, a Roland MC-202 – can you believe the guy in the store actually talked me out of getting a TB-303! But overall what I discovered was that the sound was better without guitars.”
Despite this penchant for a retro minimalism that pervades their music, they recently adopted Yamaha’s uber-futuristic Tenori-on as a way of exploring new directions with their music. David first heard about the Tenori-on from a friend who’d emailed him some details on this brushed magnesium frame.
“At first I didn’t really understand it and thought it was nothing more than a toy. But then one day I was looking for a new machine for our live show and by chance I heard the Tenori-on in a London store and thought it would be just perfect for our sound.”
“To begin with it was the bleepy sounds and the lights that drew me to it, but we’ve now incorporated it into our live show in a number of ways. We’ll process it with some tape delay and reverb, sync it to a laptop running Ableton Live… and just for fun last weekend we used a 1960s WEM Copicat to make some strange live sounds. Studio-wise, I’ve been recording it through various effects. The one that’s giving the best results is Korg’s KP3 – these two together are sounding very cool!
“Tenori-on helps us to make a more improvised sound when we’re playing live. Sometimes the laptops can be a bit boring, which is why we always have real outboard effects such as delay and reverb to hand. This way we can play with the sounds on the desk. And now the Tenori-on can throw in extra bleeps and clicks.”
“For the live set we’re running it with Ableton Live, two laptops and various outboard FX, and we’ll just jam with the Tenori-on to add bleeps and beats. Essentially I like the simplicity of the sequencing… and that it’s always in tune!”
“We used Tenori-on in Tokyo recently, and people were freaking out. They’d never seen it before, which is pretty unreal for Japan. Occasionally I’ll use it on a flight, and people are always wondering what sort of game it is I’m playing!”
The Tenori-on fits perfectly with the simplicity of the Swayzak sound, as David explains.
“Our philosophy to making music is quite simple, I guess. Do what you feel, not what you think will make you money. Many people follow trends – and to a certain extent we’re all guilty of that – but we’ve always experimented with our sound and taken risks. Some good, some bad, but we like to try to be different. There aren’t many electronic acts like us. We released on Minus Records in 1999 and Sony in 2000, and since 2002 K7 has been a good home for us. Like us, they are somewhere between underground and major label. And as an electronic outfit we’re big in the underground but small in the mainstream.”