Whilst the GIT award is here to celebrate the achievements of Merseyside artists, it feels more appropriate to look at Forest Sword’s achievements in the context of the UK music as a whole. His debut 2010 album, the coarse, abrasive Dagger Paths, found plaudits both sides of the Atlantic, with Fact Magazine suggesting it was the most “unified, moving and substantial musical statement they’d heard” as they named it their album of the year ahead of Kanye and Darkstar. Three years of writing, touring and recording later, a follow up finally emerged in the shape of last year’s Engravings, presenting a collection of songs equally as challenging and packed with impossible amounts of detail, earning him a place in Pitchfork’s esteemed Best New Music club as well as an illustrious range of albums of the year list.
Despite only emerging into public consciousness in 2010, Matthew Barnes already has plenty to reflect on. I mean, three years is almost long enough to make you a veteran in UK electronic music, and with two hugely acclaimed albums and several tours under his belt, you can already expect him to be the kind of artist who’s career is remembered in terms of era’s instead of years. Based on The Wirral, he writes and records almost all his music in his home studio - a decision based on logistics as much as it is aesthetics: “I don't like the idea of setting up in a large studio”, Barnes explains. “For one, I couldn't afford it. And also, having a smaller setup means you're working within certain parameters. You can't go completely crazy. Everything is a lot more pared down, and it affects the type of choices you make when it comes to the components of songs. I'd much rather have that, than endless choice. I don't want to disappear up my own arse in Abbey Road or something”. That notion of doing your best with the tools you have has always shaped great electronic music. And with technology moving so quickly, producers are able to figure things out spontaneously to create something that is truly unique. On Dagger Paths and Engravings, sounds are warped, chewed up and dissolved to the point where it becomes almost impossibly immersive. And whilst the texture is dark, ominous, and even frightening at times, listening to a Forest Swords album always feels like a journey of rich and rewarding discovery.
Even with this impeccable run of releases, Forest Swords has never been an easy artist. These are songs, and indeed albums that require constant and detailed attention, allowing all the little nuances and touches to unravel slowly before you can call them your own. Forest Swords clearly harbors and deep fascination and affection for the way sounds are produced and for the way they are experienced. With each song on Engravings and Dagger Paths, you can picture the producer hunched over his mixing desk in his home studio, mug of coffee in hand as he spends four hours going through sample packs for the sake of a three second clip. Whilst I may be sensationalizing a little, that feeling that you are experiencing sounds as painstakingly sourced and tailored as these is extremely powerful for a listener. Barnes might have shut himself away in that home studio of his, but he left the door slightly ajar, providing a glimpse into his world of sonic madness and wonder.
Part of the Tri Angle Records family, Forest Swords is often lumbered with terms like enigmatic or elusive. And alongside label mate Evian Christ, his relationship with the local musical community has always appeared quite tenuous. We haven’t seen that big homecoming show, and his nomination for this year’s award was met with surprised calls of ‘I didn’t even know he was from here’ from various corners. The low touring costs and the predominantly online listening experience mean that community in electronic music is built on components other than location. “Because electronic music is more solitary, you gravitate to likeminded people”, Barnes agrees. “All the electronic acts I know personally are solo artists, and tour on their own, so it's a lot different to being in a band and having your mates around all the time. You connect on a different level with other electronic artists. It's reassuring. I can appreciate what's going on in Liverpool, and how vibrant it is at the moment, but I don't feel part of a community. I've always felt like a bit of a musical outsider. There is always positive things going on and the city's constantly improving”. That sense of local community does absolutely exist among listeners though, and however the artist receives it, a feeling of local pride for artists is still important for fans of all kinds of music, and one that awards like this should continue to encourage it. I mean, I remember visiting my parents in Kent and hearing my brother listening to The Weight of Gold, feeling compelled to make him aware that Forest Swords was from Merseyside as I tried to claim some kind of weird ownership over it. “I like witnessing the city’s music scene in different ways than as an artist, even if its just as someone that goes out to eat or drink around here”, Barnes elaborates. “I just don't really hang out with people in bands up here or anything. I've always worked at my own pace and in my own space. What I do try and do though, is mention where I'm from when I talk to people. I feel it's important for people abroad or in different cities to understand that there are good things going on here. That it's just as vital and exciting as any other European city. Not even just musically, but culturally. I feel like it's important for everyone here to big it up”.
Barnes has just finished supporting Mogwai on their European dates. And with fellow Merseysiders Mugstar and Clinic also propping up the bill, it is a welcome reminder of Liverpool’s continuing musical impact in the UK. “It was fantastic, and a real once-in-a-lifetime thing to support one of your favourite bands of that size”, he explains. “Playing to huge theatres was a culture shock. It was an honour to be chosen, and it was great to see Mugstar and Clinic do some dates too. I did speak to Mogwai about us all being from Merseyside, and they didn't even put two and two together, which is even more of a compliment - the fact we were just chosen because they liked our music. It was a pretty overwhelming experience overall”. With barely enough time to stop and take it all in, Forest Swords is now about to embark on a US tour with How To Dress Well, passing another milestone as his reach extends further beyond our small little island. “Touring is mentally exhausting, but it's a thrill to go and play to cities you'd never ever expect your music to reach”, Barnes explains. “Sometimes if the crowd's a bit rowdier or more reserved I'll change the songs up. You learn to read an audience's energy a lot better the more shows you do”.
Forest Swords has rightly earned his place as one of Merseyside’s most lauded artists. And with Engravings and Dagger Paths, he has created a body of work that have allowed him to be celebrated as one of the UK’s most innovative and most original producers as well. If we have learned anything from his creative path thus far, and what is clear from this interview alone, is that Barnes is an artist who revels in a state of learning and discovery. This makes the idea of a new Forest Swords album, and any others that may arrive in the future, almost impossible to visualize, both aesthetically and contextually. What we can say for certain though, is that electronic music fans all over the world will be listening absorbedly and intently, as they attempt to make sense of the world he has created.