Ever since FOREST SWORDS released the EP Dagger Paths in 2010, people have been falling over themselves to throw praise his way. The release of his debut record Engravings in 2013 took that acclaim to a whole different level, with a run of huge festival dates and awards following on from rave reviews; his anointment as the new prince of electro dub came when his single Thor’s Stone received the Lee “Scratch” Perry remix treatment.
Matthew Barnes, the man behind Forest Swords, sits back quietly in his chair, thinking back to that period when things took off for him. He ended up touring Engravings over an 18-month to two-year period, eventually quitting his full-time job as a designer to be a full-time Forest Swords. Two years is a long time to live with a piece of music, and the result must have been quite a claustrophobic existence. “When I finished touring Engravings, I felt like I was in stasis for two years, I hadn’t really moved forwards,” Barnes admits in one of his characteristically thoughtful responses.
His new LP, Compassion – his first release for the legendary Ninja Tune label – confronts this head on, bound by a looseness and a sense of curiosity. The sounds he was attracted to when making Compassion are bigger, more widescreen and enveloping, which came from a decision Barnes made to dedicate more time to himself away from the music. Once his period of touring was over, he made a conscious effort to go back and re-visit places he’d seen briefly on tour stops, but never got a chance to experience properly. This took him to Thailand and Istanbul, even spending a week in an Airbnb in Scotland and living in Brighton for six months. This objective separation was a shift in perspective that Barnes found massively helpful in replenishing the well of new ideas. When he wasn’t making music or taking field recordings, he was off out soaking up the identity of his locations – much in the same way he did with Engravings and Dagger Paths, where he used the landscape of his native Wirral as an external influence.
“I’ve realised that I can shift the ways that I looked at, say, the Wirral, onto somewhere else,” Barnes explains. “I could go out and look at textures and sounds and landscapes and the colours of places and try and distil all that down into sounds.”
Tension has always been a part of Barnes’ work, stalking the shadows and lending everything a decidedly eerie tone. Listening to Forest Swords isn’t always easy – but Compassion seems to have more of an organic, jazz-tinged soul to it than his previous work. The piano, strings and saxophone parts can be heard more clearly above the processed, bodiless moans and dub beats. What Barnes manages to do with Compassion, however, is blur the lines between being a progressive electronic artist and being just an acoustic artist. “On a personal level, I was thinking about expression in terms of music, and ways that I could use melodies and textures and samples to convey something… more open-facing?”
It’s rare, also, for a Forest Swords track to contain lyrics – at least in the conventional sense. Barnes prefers to carry the lyrical message on disembodied, chant-like vocal hooks, inviting us to infer meaning from the non-words. Lead-off singles The Highest Flood and Arms Out make expert use of this, the mysterious utterances tugging at the edge of your understanding, inviting you to delve a bit deeper. Barnes has done all this before on Engravings of course, but his use of non-verbal hooks is more purposeful on Compassion, as if he’s groping for ways to express things that can’t really be spoken.
“You don’t really have to understand the words,” he says, “it’s all about the intention.”
This is a response that intrigues me, and I’m keen to see how deep this goes
Do you speak any other languages?
No, I don’t. The amount of people who I meet at shows in Europe who I can’t really converse with, but [who] connect to [the music] on a powerful level, is amazing – it’s quite a shock actually. It’s helped me learn how to communicate without prescriptive lyrics.
I spoke to some linguists over the course of making Compassion, and even considered studying a linguistics course at one point. I even talked to the guy who created the Dothraki language for use in Game Of Thrones! We got into a bit of a conversation about language, how a lot of the frustrations people have about what’s going on in the world are due to the fact that they can’t express themselves properly. Maybe there aren’t words to accurately convey how we feel right now.
Do you think music has the potential to be a back-to-basics, non-verbal way of communicating that we need right now?
I don’t know… Maybe we just need to re-look at the ways we use language. Maybe it’s not actually working fast enough. Look at the way the development of slang has sped up due to the proliferation of social media. I mean, I don’t have any answers. I’m just putting the idea out there. Maybe [language] is just not catching up with how we are as humans now. Isn’t that weird to think about?
But then you’ve got the popularity of meme culture and emojis as a potential evolution of that.
Exactly. You can convey so much in an image that you can’t necessarily do with words. It’s a lot wider and more expressive than [using] words. It’s less prescriptive and… I don’t know… See, I’m struggling for the words at the moment! I get this in interviews sometimes, that I struggle to concisely convey what’s in my head. I could probably do it if I had images or mad words that I could use…
Your own language…
Yeh, yeh! The emoji thing is really interesting too. I use them a lot – and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t – and that is such a nice shortcut. You can distil hundreds of words down into a single emoji. It’s almost like going back to hieroglyphics. We’ve come right round again.
I’m curious to see how it moves forward. And it’s going to be really important, especially with what’s going on in the world, just to be able to communicate and understand what’s going on…
In talking about her new LP Contact, Pharmakon’s Margaret Chardiet talked about the limitations of using a record as a means of communication. That albums can be one-sided and flat, declarations rather than conversations, and never the complete story. Do you think the format of an album can also be a bit limiting?
Yes – more and more I’ve been thinking about that actually. And that’s totally true as well. I recorded Compassion over 18 months, and so much happened in that time that it’s a bit reductive to distil it down into a press release or an interview.
Is there a way of getting round this? Possibly by releasing music more periodically or fluidly, breaking up the usual album cycle route?
You’re seeing more and more that people are using Spotify now – Drake, for example, or Young Thug – who are good at putting mixtapes or tracks out consistently. Even though the quality isn’t necessarily there all the time, there’s something quite punk about releasing music in that way. And it reflects how people are consuming music, too. Maybe it’s better for me not to get stuck in a rut of putting out an album every two or three years – better in terms of staying curious and finding more things out. If you’re producing stuff at a faster rate, you’re able to explain it a bit more. And you’re also able to be more responsive and react to what’s going on in the world.
Is that why the films and the visuals and things you do in other artistic mediums are important, to help express more ideas that add to the story?
I think so, yeh. As Margaret Chardiet says, the record is only one part of it: you can use all of these other mediums as ways to explain [things] in more depth. But still, that’s only half the story. I don’t really find the idea of doing albums over and over again a sexy idea anymore. More because I don’t consume music like that. I like the idea of giving people a choice, maybe… I’m not sure.
There are frequent moments in our conversation where Barnes trails off, lost in his thoughts as he mulls over the implications of a question. It seems like there’s a lot that he’s still trying to get his head around, as though he’s discovering what he thinks as the thoughts come rushing into his head. “It’s difficult because it’s kind of like a ‘brave new world’, in a way,” he says as he tries to unpick the tangle of ideas. “Stuff like this really helps, talking about it in interviews.”
Prior to the release of Compassion, a missive from the Forest Swords camp was circulated that held more than a whiff of intrigue: “Let’s try to open up a new channel. WhatsApp msg me on… and I’ll send out new stuff to you directly. 1 trk per person, for your ears only. FS.” I duly texted the number asking for music, and within minutes got a reply with a two-and-a-half minute untitled track attached. What it sounded like was some kind of field recording (featuring, maybe, an escalator and a passing train) that morphed into a ghostly lament, clearly some early sketch version of the track Sjurvival. It was like having a peek under the bonnet at the inner workings of the Forest Swords machine.
The idea for this came about from a casual pub conversation Barnes had with a friend, who he sent an audio file to on WhatsApp, which fired an idea in him: why not do this with songs? So, he put his phone number out via social media and invited anyone to text it. What was originally meant as a throwaway test idea eventually received over 700 responses over a two-week period, from people as far away as Ethiopia, Australia and Belgium.
“It was actually a really amazing experience – and it was a bit overwhelming to be honest,” Barnes explains, still taken aback by the response it generated. With no way of replying in bulk, he had to reply to every single message individually, and ended up striking up some conversations with fans. “For whatever reason, when people use WhatsApp there’s a level of intimacy there – that kind of emotional connection that you wouldn’t get if you contacted someone by, say, Twitter.”
Overall, the WhatsApp experiment was interesting, Barnes says; “opening up a new way to disseminate work,” that removes the interface that exists between a musician and a consumer (Spotify, Soundcloud, Facebook, Bandcamp). It created direct, one-to-one conversations that he found, in the end, quite liberating, with some fans even sending him their own music in return. “I think, previously, I’d have got freaked out a bit by that,” he says. “I was always quite shy as a kid, and it’s only really since I started touring that I’ve become comfortable with meeting and talking to strangers. So, to open up that channel directly felt really powerful.”
As to how this dialogue moves on from here is anyone’s guess – what Barnes has done is open the door. Compassion is a piece of music that will linger with you long after you’ve stopped listening to it – and with the themes of communication embedded deep in its DNA, it will continue to evolve as time passes. Because it was never meant as a full stop at the end of a conversation, but more like a colon: it’s up to us what to add next.
“It never really ends,” Barnes says pensively, in summation. “It’s like a child – it grows up when you’re not looking at it.”
Compassion is out now via Ninja Tune Records.