Giant Swan: The shape of noise to come
Robin Stewart and Harry Wright are a confirmation of every bias you ever held about music geeks. They render their life in cultural terms: who they rate and who they don’t, and how that informs their social outlook. In conversation, they zoom around a grid of references, slowing down on occasion to parallel park into an analogy, making sure the fit is just right, before haring off into the distance again. They have been best mates for 16 years. They also happen to be Giant Swan, one of the most righteous live acts on the planet.
We meet on a bright Monday in Stokes Croft, Bristol, at a vegan cafe. Robin arrives first, in a black denim jacket with large patches of Crass and Bokeh Versions stitched onto it. His hair, once huge, has been shorn. He chats in a rich brogue, half-Scottish, half-West Country, with a friend behind the counter. Harry follows up, chest-length hair pleasingly intact, though scrunched in a bun today. As soon as they are together, they feed off each other like plug and socket, bickering over whether it’s ethical to enjoy the music of Iggy Azalea.
The pair first fell in together through skating and graffiti, before forming a group with two other mates, The Naturals, when they were 12. They would raid CD racks for anything sufficiently heavy and check out as many bands as possible in Bristol’s thicket of bars and venues. “We played drone at the beginning,” Robin says. “It was really naval gazey, getting stoned and plugging in the delay pedal. Then you come out of it all excited about that moment where it got really crunchy. And Harry would go, ‘Yeah man, that crunchy bit was sick!’”
They followed the crunch from there, and out of that primordial stew emerged Giant Swan, their sheets of feedback coalescing into something more consistent to latch onto. “There was always an undercurrent of noise in our music,” Robin recalls, “but we couldn’t control it, as we never quantised it.” It took an accident to find their current form. Harry broke his arm, so the duo jettisoned guitars from their set-up for good, prioritising atmosphere, vocals and a dose of faster action instead. “It’s different now,” Harry adds. “We’re both doing rhythm, so we can bring in dynamic shifts as we move through it.”
Transformative clubbing experiences piled up in the mid-2010s, and expeditions to dub gatherings in the city’s St Paul’s district sent them home reeling. “We got really into dub in a very personal way,” Robin explains. “Our experience of extremity in music came from My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, and then it was like, ‘Holy shit, there are dub sound systems that can actually go louder.’” They became close with local likeminds: Young Echo’s Ossia and Vessel, and Timedance’s Batu; artists who absorbed the quality of dub as a communication medium, and a mode for independence and craftsmanship, then fashioned it into their own unique sound.
A 2017 show at Krakow’s Unsound Festival – where they demolished the art gallery they were booked to play – was a riotous success. It was followed by a 12” on Timedance, and another on the similarly buy-on-sight label Whities. Word got around that they were unmissable; a force of nature. They began notching up eyebrow-raising bookings at Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival, Berlin’s Herrensauna and Birmingham’s House of God, as well as mini-tours as far afield as China and Australia.
© Tom Andrew
As people, Robin and Harry embody that strange sort of fandom where you both praise and kill your idols. They like to hear from both sides of an argument, but poke a finger in the eye of both. They are highly prone to taking the piss; a witty zinger always follows a moment of profundity, like night follows day. Early merch bore the strapline ‘Dev-ide and Conquer’, showing the three ages of Dev Hynes, tracing backward from Blood Orange through Lightspeed Champion to his fringe days in Test Icicles (the project you’d imagine they rank best). I have a sticker pack thrust into my hand early on, including one which extends the typography of no-nonsense label PAN by two letters, becoming PANTS. Bill Kouligas, apparently, was amused by it – a rare victory.
We saunter down along Stokes Croft, from hardware hub Elevator Sound to stately emporium Mickleburgh Musical Instruments. We arrive at their bolthole of a studio to find two school kids punching the shit out of each other in the middle of the road. This kind of thing is apparently pretty common. “We’ve gone out and there have been police and ambulances and stuff before,” Robin tells me. “There’s lots of heroin and lots of spice in that park, like a rolling carnival of souls. This area can be pretty gnarly sometimes.”
Robin and Harry finish a smoke and head in, past bins stuffed with takeout pizza boxes and into a musty room with a cymbal-less drum kit. The wall is lined with etchings from one-time inhabitants IDLES, which Robin points out while adopting a mock-luvvie tone and imitating frontman Joe Talbot’s mannerisms: “This is where it all started for us…”
© Tom Andrew
Giant Swan are not just cut from a similar cloth to the studio’s former co-owners, but pegged as the next great noisy thing outright, logical successors to a lineage of rough ‘n tumble music, from Black Dice and Fuck Buttons to Paula Temple and Surgeon. What marks the duo out as something worth championing is how they bring people in to ride the lightning, too. They wholeheartedly reject the doctrine of power and domination that pervades throughout experimental music. They preach inclusivity and see extreme sounds as something expressive that even the layperson can buy into. They bristle at comparisons to the ghouls of the power electronics circuit and have absolutely no time for dark techno lads swinging their balls and ego around, nor industrial imagery that fetishises cruelty and death. Though their tastes scatter across the map, the aim of their moral compass is true.
You might not get a sense of these values when witnessing Giant Swan in the flesh. There is a disjunct between the conscientious, sweet boys in front of me, offering blueberries and picking the right Horace Andy record for the studio speakers to set the mood, and what happens when they’re on stage. Backed by walls of amps, they are apocalyptically loud. They stand across from one another, Robin perennially topless, separated by a table of step sequencers, effect boxes, pedals, drum machines and microphones. Everything is improvised. “We get gold out of shit,” muses Robin. “That’s the whole game.” He then smirks and corrects himself. “Not even the whole game. Someone came up to us at De School as we were leaving. They went, ‘Thank you for the show. It was like watching you two have sex.’”
They are a kinetic whir, teetering on the edge of madness. Neither knows fully what the other is up to, so they rely on coded body language of stops and gos. They count in 1-2-3-4 like duellers drawing pistols. When it’s fully popping off, Robin picks up the mic to bellow to the heavens or “make little yelpy noises, trying to imitate a dub siren.” Meanwhile, Harry breaks loose to stomp around like a bassist in a nu metal band. Their affectations are cribbed from the spasmodic contortions of mid-00s grindcore and screamo outfits like The Locust and Blood Brothers, from whom they got their name. Short of driving a bulldozer through the wall, as a pre-Boredoms Yamantaka Eye once did, it’s hard to think how they could be more disruptive to clubland’s performative airs and graces.
© Tom Andrew
Importantly, though, the impetus is not on disruption, but liberation. The facelessness of Four Tet or Amon Tobin, where “all you can see is an Apple logo” or a silhouette backed by a light display, doesn’t do it for them. They want people to feel it and follow it. They point toward The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra as historical examples of performers that would court urgent, furious squalls, yet not “be an arbiter of violence.” The messages would manifest instead as a call to action. “Harry said it once to me,” Robin recalls, “‘if you can be the stupidest looking person in the room, you give everybody else agency to feel less self conscious about reacting to what you are doing.’” They hope for people to hang up their hang-ups and join in the chant, though they feel just as motivated when presented with a challenging crowd.
“We’re lucky enough to have [a different] perspective, coming from a rock music background,” Harry reasons. “You learn gratitude when playing for £40 and four warm Red Stripes. When you’re at a rock gig, you’re not going to have a fag halfway through, then come back and fuck around at the bar when the band are playing. You’ll be worming to the front, singing along to lyrics, partaking in the central event of where your money has gone. With dance music, half the people there don’t give a fuck about you, so there’s something more for us to prove.” He grits his teeth. “What I have a problem with is DJs that aren’t aware of any of that. They feel the audience owe them something, griping about someone in the crowd on their phone. You’re basically playing on a massive phone anyway. Behave yourself.”
Their debut album, Giant Swan, is out this month on their own imprint Keck. It’ll stand out on a wall of records: the painted sleeve depicts someone smoking a cigarette the wrong way around, like an impressionist watercolour of an embarrassing Facebook upload. The record saw them sketch out tunes alone, before sending outlines to the other for polish and completion. Though the first two singles, 55 Year Old Daughter and Pandaemonium gesture toward it, the LP is not wall-to-wall panel-beaters. “Some of the heaviest bits,” Robin reckons, “are where there’s no kick, you know?” People might have got a sense from the nomenclature surrounding them, or glimpses of performance that telegraph a macho tone, that the album could be a straight slam-a-thon. Mentioning this is like a red rag to a bull.
© Tom Andrew
“This,” Harry says, jerking upright, “has been a terrible development for electronic music. We’re at a point where there’s this trend of ‘harder, faster, more disorted equals better’ and it’s just like, fucking hell mate – no. It’s a stupid correlation, a totally un-nuanced direction.” Robin backs him up: “There’s already a place for that! Yes, Perc’s great, but we’ve got him already. The way that the sun dial started pointing in this really inexorable way towards the horror sound in techno is bullshit. There’s nothing powerful about that.”
What was powerful, they offer, was watching Nkisi play after them at that De School show. She throttled it at 170 BPM, initially alarming even the battle-worn duo, but reaching a zen point, Robin says, where it felt “like a dub rave. The constant frequency is the loudest, biggest thing in the room.” They left the club at breakfast, inspired. “It’s important to not just use this aggressive music for shutting off,” Robin continues. “It’s about staying eyes-open, addressing topics as opposed to trying to cover your ears. It’s about being present and using your ‘brutal kick drum’ or ‘abused electronics’ or whatever to a good end.”
This cuts to the core of Giant Swan’s appeal, and what propels them forward. “You have to be positive in what you are trying to attract,” Harry says. “Sometimes we do dwell on the negative, but we’re not trying to do the classic thing of destroying without rebuilding.” It’s a case of acceleration over accelerationism. The clenched fist, open heart and clear eyes of the harsh music they grew up on grounded them in understanding that you don’t need to be foregrounded in the fight. “We could split hairs about the semantics of what [protest music] means, but I think it’s about using heaviness and social disobedience as a way to implement change in a useful way. It’s an ideology, sure, but the actual content is left pretty blank and we hand that question and answer over to the audience.”
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Giant Swan are overflowing with thoughts, not all fully formed and some evidently lost down blunted alleyways, but this is endearing. Their manifesto is still under construction, and they have ample chances ahead to crowdsource improvements. A full UK tour looms, bookmarked by an enormous support slot with their old mates IDLES at London’s Alexandra Palace. They are excited by Black Midi’s dissonant antics on the Mercury Prize broadcast, though, as clued-up students of popular culture, are wary that the current wave of agitated British music could too be a trend diced up in boardrooms. Politics, Robin says, is not necessarily what they want audiences to focus on when trying to spark communal release. “I sometimes walk around thinking, ‘Yeah, I just live in a shit country.’ But at the same time, I’m not suffering daily. If we’ve got a pulpit, it’s the stage. And maybe we were given a pulpit by people who had lost sight of what a pulpit was for. Though, yes, fuck those Tory cunts.”
They view themselves as a conduit to pass energy on, one part of a positive feedback loop. Though they stand at the centre, Giant Swan’s message is one of sharing power, a mantra that resonates. It’s a dissolution of human ego, to invert the title of their more popular jams. Rather than noise for noise’s sake, I earnestly suggest that what they do best is inspire getting free together. Robin is charmed: “That’s it, you nailed it.” Then, like clockwork, comes the follow-up. “Let’s get free together – and listen to The Vines.”
Photography: Tom Andrew
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