Pete Swanson, everybody. Maybe you first heard about him because he was one-half of the noise duo Yellow Swans, who did the blissed/abrasive/blissed thing pretty well? His solo debut, Man With Potential, built on that foundation, while his latest EP, the memorably-titled Punk Authority, follows in the dancier direction heard on last year’s Pro Style. Swanson makes memorable music that’s often delivered in memorable ways; Punk Authority is catchy and chaotic, danceable and dissonant. And so I caught up with him via email to learn more about the EP’s genesis, his working methods, and a certain 1980s comedy franchise.
Where did the title Punk Authority come from?
I love the ambiguity and oxymoronic nature of the title, but it comes from some overly serious discussions that I was engaged in several years ago surrounding the ways in which sub-cultures police themselves and how they can be more unethical than the mainstream systems of carrying out justice. People who are living marginal existence in opposition to the dominant culture and then perpetuating those same, oppressive structures in a smaller community.
The phrase kept coming back to me when I would consider titles for different works, but I never had a visual narrative adequately fleshed out until I came back to Police Academy 2 while recording Man With Potential…
Man With Potential has a definite rhythmic pulse to it, and Punk Authority goes further in a danceable direction. What, for you, is the ideal blend of musical textures and rhythms?
I think idealism is always a dead end. I’m an improviser. I record everything live to two tracks and I peck out most of the rhythmic content in the moment on switch sequencers on my synthesizer. The beats are the result of my buying a kick-drum module for my synthesizer and finding using it satisfying. I currently find rhythm to be a very enjoyable element in my music but I’d like to be able to get out of the limitations of that grid-framework at some point.
Instead of being concerned with issues of melody vs. rhythm I’m more concerned with issues of control vs. lack of control. Honoring constraints that I’ve developed vs. usurping those systems and trying to build some new arm of my instrument. I’m interested in the content of the music determining it’s own destiny to some extent… I’m the editor, but I’m hardly in the driver’s seat..
How would you define the concept of Punk Authority relative to Pro Style or Man With Potential?
Each record has distinctly different narrative themes as well as fairly different content.
MWP was based around ideas of hypermasculinity becoming a self-defeating expression. The music is both much more clear than the other two records, more varied in terms of sound vocabulary, and I think is a much heavier record in terms of emotional content. These are basically the reasons why MWP was released as an album and the other two as EPs.
Pro Style was an attempt of mine to engage directly with the tradition of electronic dance music. The track “Pro Style” is the most straight forward techno I can make.. The VIP version is so deteriorated and is more true to the music I was doing live at that point. That particular track was very satisfying and I ended up exploring that experiment more fully on Punk Authority
I already explained the narrative themes of Punk Authority so I’ll spare another explanation.. The music resulted from me having to prepare material to play live that was aligned with the more beat oriented work that people have been interested in. These tracks are basically the best work that I recorded over 9 months and is actually in sequential order. If you listen to the tracks, I think you’ll notice things getting more melodic and more dance-aligned. Playing out live again has been super fun and I’m cool with my work being in dialog with the audience reaction. People have been dancing.
How did you come up with the cover art concept?
Like I said above, the title came from some very serious conversations in the past, but the visual themes never aligned with the language until I re-watched Police Academy 2. There’s a scene where the police commissioner returns to the precinct after being assaulted by a punk gang and he’s covered in graffiti. That image had remained in the back of my mind since I had last seen that movie when I was 10 or so and I found the potential for self-effacing humor to be too enticing. I have absolutely no skills or resources to make this sort of thing happen and fortunately my roommates are interesting and talented people. Sara La Rosa is a competitive weight lifter and is an incredible make up artist. Ryan Burke is a talented photographer and often goes out in incredibly elaborate outfits. Between the two of them, we were able to capture this vision of being covered in graffiti and held captive by a fictional punk gang.
For a song like “C.O.P.,” how do you go about beginning its construction? Does it begin with the rhythm? With a particular melody or collision of sounds?
Well… I don’t really construct these pieces. I’m not a producer, or someone that approaches music with a great deal of premeditation. I basically just turn on my gear and make decisions as I go. I always start with some degree of predetermined melodic content that’s basically mapped out on one of two sequencers that I use that control 3 oscillators. That being said, the way that I process everything can produce several other layers of melodic or rhythmic content that may, or may not be influenced by any other more intentional sounds. Basically, I’ve devised a system that is unpredictable to a certain extent and a lot of my playing is trying to find satisfying grooves within that chaos, getting bored with said groove and trying to shatter it through various means. There’s as much lack of intent in my music as there is intent.
I throw most of my recordings away and only keep edits that I find to be compelling in terms of narrative and content.