Late last year a little-known producer called Albert Swarm released an EP on Ceremony recordings. Held came snug in the reviews of Resident Adviser, bestowed with a 4.5/5 rating and some brightly, glowing words. Its cover was adorned with interwoven dandelion leaves (or perhaps Georgian handkerchiefs), shadowed in the middle and blooming on the edges. It was complex, fluid.
The magical art proves indicative to the contents, for the brilliant Held is marked by two characteristics: the feeling of climax and circumspection, and the path of water. It movesbetween celestial and portentous – from the innocent, stream-like ‘Foundling Wheels’ to the old and weary ‘Aging Out’ – and is throughout underpinned by a mellifluous consistency. Held ripples, drips, cascades; flows like water.
Given the chance of speaking to Albert Swarm, the question I wanted to ask the most was not, as one might expect, of his hitherto speculated identity. I had to ask if Swarm was born next to, near, or even in, a significant mass of water.
‘There was actually a lake right in the backyard of my childhood home,’ he says, searching for an explanation, ‘but I guess I wouldn’t count it as a conscious or direct influence. Instead I’ve always been fascinated with the Mediterranean, since I spent a lot of vacations there when I was younger, and also because of Luc Besson’s movie The Big Blue. I saw it when I was maybe 10 years old and it had a huge impact on me. I haven’t seen the movie since but some of the imagery that took place under water was just overwhelming.
‘‘Homecoming’ (from Held) was originally going to be titled ’Immersion Days’, as in referring to baptism by immersion. But the EP ended up having this overall, loose theme of parenthood and abandonment so I decided to change the name after all.’
This last comment brings us to the other apparent and intertwined themes of Held:climax and circumspection. In places it is ominously conclusive and lonely. ‘Homecoming’ is simply like drowning, while ‘Recurring Dream’ drips with the tears of an inconsolable goodbye. Yet to quite the contrary Held landed on my mat at the end of an era, at the sunset of summer and the sunrise of something else, and seemed its perfect soundtrack. Tracks ‘Familialities’ and ‘Foundling Wheels’ are comparatively jubilant. Was this an intended contrast?
‘The songs were actually written well before June!’ laughs Swarm, shattering my summery assumptions. ‘But maybe there’s this sentimental end of the summer feel there because while I was writing the songs I knew I was about to leave New York and it might have brought this subconscious ‘ending’ feeling into the music.’
Alongside this, he explains, was a more cogent idea of what he wanted to produce. ‘I was fascinated with the idea of creating a loose theme for the whole EP that would serve as a narrative and give the 5 songs some cohesion, as I felt that the songs were quite different from each other. I was reading a lot, and somehow the news articles and books had themes on orphans and dysfunctional families in them… So I just felt that the theme of abandonment would give the EP a tragic tone, without really underlining anything there. Bar the titles of the songs there’s little indication in the music, but there’s one hint in the song ’Recurring Dream’, where a woman in the beginning is saying in Finnish ‘Yes… it was only a lullaby for a child’.’
Albert Swarm is Finnish. When Held came out, it was perversely refreshing that no-one knew much about him; he still largely eschews twitter and his Facebook profile is nascent and primitive. Online he seems a man of few words.
Swarm grew up in Lapland, Finland, before moving to New York via the Netherlands. As many electronic producers do, he used his experience in bands as a base for his new productions. The Netherlands proved fertile ground for both learning about electronic music – ‘in fact, I didn’t really listen to electronic music before that’ – and about sampling and working on DAWs. Holland, though, did not necessarily ply him with the slick house it so often delivers; instead, as exemplified on Held, Swarm moved towards ambient and downtempo, and for interesting reasons.
‘There was actually only one and half years between the first song I wrote and the first Albert Swarm song ’Foundling Wheels’,’ he says. ‘But the time in between was pretty intense when I was spending most of my daytime learning new things and trying desperately to understand how music is composed/produced.
‘I come from a shoegaze and post-rock background although it’s maybe not really audible in the music I make. One of the biggest influences for me has been Justin K. Broadrick, not really sound- or production-wise but on an emotional level. If Jesu (a Broadrick project) was stripped down to a distortion-free skeleton, I think the result would sound like ’Homecoming’.
‘I’ve always been more attracted by downtempo and ambient stuff, like Pantha Du Prince and Stars Of The Lid. I just feel like you can have more elements and things going on when the tempo is slowed down and there’s a lot of space in the structure of the songs.’
Space and structure are certainly evident in Swarm’s productions. It’s not ‘space’ in the James Blake/Nicolas Jaar sense, where a few sounds are given time to exhale and allowed to feel powerful. It’s more pause and dynamics, cogent consideration of tempos, and impressively deep layering – introducing individual elements from the bright beneath. On ‘Familialities’, for instance, there’s a piano chord in the chorus which I found just the other day – despite having listened to the track (at least) twice-weekly for over six months.
Despite the fluid sounds, Swarm assures me, there is no live sampling à la Pantha du Prince. Most of the ambient sounds and pads are heavily manipulated guitars – which he plays himself – and sampled household items. But what is particularly interesting (and beautiful) about Swarm’s production is its age. It’s not just that some of his samples are really old, but that they were originally intended for something completely different.
‘I normally write 90% of a song in a day, and then just add details and small parts later into the mix. Some of the recordings are years old. It’s maybe a bit naïve, but I find it a quite beautiful idea that 5 years ago I was planning on making some completely different kind of stuff and now I’ve just grown up a bit, taken all those raw ideas, morphed them and placed them into a completely new context.
‘Regarding the piano sample in Familialities, I’ve been a huge fan of artists like Boards Of Canada and Fennesz who hide these small cues and bits of sound in songs. I like the idea of leaving some of the sounds a bit raw and lo-fi, maybe even unfitting or disorientating at some moments. I can’t really remember much about working on ’Familialities’ besides that I made most of the melodies in less than 10 minutes. After I made the first minute I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make music that sounded like that and the song ended up sitting on my computer for a few weeks. Then I added the dark pad under the melodies, which finally gave the song the depth I was going after, and I probably finished the whole song in a day.’
As aforementioned Swarm has released his music through Ceremony recordings, a Brooklyn/DC label who include the impressive Swedish producer Bam Spacey on their roster. Ceremony seem a genuinely friendly and positive bunch, acutely aware of how to look after their artists and promote their music. I’m a big fan. Swarm, understandably, is likewise, and came to Ceremony after they heard his first proper tracks and suggested putting out an EP.
I’m delighted to report that Swarm is planning two new records with Ceremony in the forthcoming months – a cut from side project duo Sunso Onda, and a 7-song Albert Swarm EP. The former, says Albert, is going to be off the Swarm path, a pursuit of more straight-up 4/4 with some shoegaze influences. The 7-track EP, meanwhile, will arrive with the same intention as his recent water-focused release ‘The Sea That Calls All Things Unto Her’, but in a completely different style.
‘I wrote ’The Sea’ during one of the first really hot days of last summer. Because I was really suffering from New York’s humid temperatures, the song was based on the idea of escaping the uncomfortable surroundings. The vision of sinking into this chilly, murky water seemed like something that would fit the idea of a tranquilizing state.
‘I’ve noticed that I want to make peaceful and intimate music when I’m living in hectic cities, and more intense and darker music when I live in calm places close to nature. The surroundings tend to end up transforming into music that sounds the opposite. So as I’m now back in Finland the new Albert Swarm EP will be a bit more aggressive and faster than Held.’
We wait, of course, to see if Swarm’s new projects have the same glacial quality as ‘The Sea’, which is not only intense but leaves condensation on your face. We also wait to see if they have the same beautiful, mellifluous quality as Held, straining with climactic circumspection. Whatever happens, I’m pretty confident that both releases will be excellent, and that Swarm will continue to make music that moves, delights, and flows. Swarms, even.
wc #4 / Albert Swarm
‘I kinda wanted at first to head for this chill, ‘summer is here!’ vibe but I have this odd tendency of just jumping from one mood and genre to another when listening to music… And I guess you can kinda hear it in the mix… Nevertheless, I feel it’s dominantly summery! If it was a rainy summer, at least.
‘There’s a bunch of tunes ranging from ambient downtempo to darker beats, and also the most genius song of last year, JJ’s ‘Still’. It’s amazing! I’ve been listening to a lot of Sleep Party People (pop-electronic-focused Danish 6-piece led by Brian Batz) lately; I love their visuals, bunny outfits and the music obviously, which sounds a bit like Cocteau Twins + The Flaming Lips.
‘I love Finnish ambient, so I really needed to throw in songs by Paavoharju and Hannu in the mix. It’s hard to explain what makes them so special, but I just feel like Finnish ambient has got this complete own feel into it. If I wasn’t so computer-oriented, I’d love to go for this organic folk-approach that Hannu does so excellently.
‘I also put this Albert Swarm demo called ’I Brought You Flowers’ in there. It’s quite different from my normal work with this minimal techno vibe. I took a 5-year old guitar demo and messed around with it completely, also incorporating this ghostly opera singing style I love. This track is still on the works and next time it surfaces it might sound quite different, who knows…’