Earlier this year, Swarm Intelligence released the album "Against the Dying Light" on the Berlin-based label Voitax, when we premiered Dusk Falls, and today he’s delivering New Brvtalism 142, recorded live at the Champ Libre Records & Voitax night at La Machine Du Moulin Rouge, Paris (April 20th, 2018). We also caught up with Simon to discuss more about his latest release, life in Berlin and how he records bits from horror movies with a lo-fi granular sampler. (interview below)
The Brvtalist: Hi Simon, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. First of all, why the name Swarm Intelligence?
Swarm Intelligence: Thank you for having me!
I came up with the name "Swarm Intelligence" during college. I studied electronic and computer engineering and started to research swarm intelligence for my final year thesis. It's a school of thought that derives artificial intelligence algorithms based on behaviours in nature. I modelled an algorithm called Boids that was invented in the 80s. It's a set of rules that you can program to mimic birds flying; they should stay far enough apart so they don't crash into each other, they should stay close enough together to deter predators and they should try to keep up with each other. I also programmed a granular synth and linked up each "Boid" to an audio engine. It sounded pretty weird and cool – I remember presenting it at my finals and one of the lecturer's went "oh yeah, this is like Windows Media Player". Not quite...
Anyway, the idea that such a simple set of rules could result in such beautiful, apparently random behaviour (look up some bird flocking videos, this could do all that) struck something in me and seemed to tie in with the glitch sound I was making at the time.
TB: You moved from Dublin to Berlin a couple of years ago. What brought you here and how is Berlin different than Dublin?
SI: First and foremost – the need for change, I guess! I visited the city as a bright-eyed youngster and knew then I'd be back for more. I have to admit I was pretty disappointed in the beginning. When I left Dublin it had this amazing scene. Different crews supported each other and hung out, there was such huge enthusiasm and hunger. The thing I loved the most was how one night could go from ambient to breakcore. There was a journey and people went nuts for it!
Maybe I didn't know the right places to go in Berlin initially, it all seemed to be one tone of techno back then... From the bar to the club to the clothes stores, one flavour only! The positive side to it was that I tried to get out there and play the kind of music I couldn't find. I spent my first year here DJing heavy, fast music at squat parties, open airs and raves. Then Subland opened. That was a home away from home for a while, I ran many gigs there with some Irish friends, Prince Kong and Rory St John. We started trying to bring the vibe from back home to Berlin – our way of dealing with homesickness I reckon!
Berlin has changed a lot since then, there are a lot of great nights happening, the sound seems to have gotten darker, weirder and noisier – and most importantly, more diverse in sound!
But that's all about music, and the city is a lot more than just that. From the first time I visited, I felt there was something special about this city. It is open and free. I have never experienced that elsewhere. I've even grown fond of the Berliner Schnauze!
TB: Please walk us through the process of writing your latest album “Against The Dying Light” released on Voitax.
SI: I always find it hard to describe a process around my music. I can't even remember how I would have started a given track, usually! It might be a weird field recording that sparks something off, or maybe it's a take from the machines or just tinkering around with a melody. This time, I knew the tone and space I was aiming for, and I guess I was subconsciously moulding things into this form, trying out a bunch of approaches until something felt right. I know that's not a very clear explanation, but it's the best way I can describe it.
I wrote so much music for this album, I think there were twenty-something tracks in the end. I felt it important to come up with lots to choose from, so as not to grow too attached to any one track. I wanted this album to be a step forward for me, I really put a lot into it. It took a long listening session with the Voitax guys to boil this down to the final ten!
TB: The main topic of the latest album is fear and hope. Could you please talk about this?
SI: I feel we are constantly being bombarded with fear – from the recklessness of world leaders, to terrorist attacks, to the growth of right-wing sentiment, to war, the list goes on. A lot of the tracks I wrote were directed by this feeling, both consciously and subconsciously.
For example, "Against the Dying Light", the title track, was written on the day of the 2017 terrorist attack on a Christmas Market in Berlin. This event really stunned me, I felt not only for the victims and their families, but also I feared the knock-on effects – some of my good friends work closely with refugees and I heard such horror stories of the hatred directed towards these people who have already been through so much pain. At the end of the day, fear breeds hate. Create fear and hate and distrust will follow. I was so afraid this tragedy would be twisted in this way to create deeper and more hateful divisions. Thankfully, Germany is much stronger than this and life went on, at least this is how it felt in Berlin, where people are both resilient and open-minded.
It's exactly this kind of strength that people show that gives me hope. It was important for me to show that even with all this doom and gloom, hope is very much alive!
TB: I know horror movies are one of your sources of inspiration. How do you translate this into music and what horror movies have you seen lately that made an impression on you?
SI: Some of the things I looked to were of a compositional nature – I tried to use dark scales and tunings to create dissonant pads and atonal leads. Others were more focussed on sound design – I tried to learn a lot about foley sound techniques. For example, in "I am Everything You are Running From", there is a weird voice sound that comes in. This is actually a glass office door creaking open, I pitched it way down and processed it into this floaty, nightmare-like sound. This was directly after watching the "The Sound of Godzilla", which I found to be really interesting and inspiring! I watched and read a lot of things like this to pick up whatever tools and techniques I could.
Of course, looking to horror films for inspiration also meant watching lots of old and new movies! I usually did this with my microGranny to hand – this is a little, lo-fi granular sampler that's heaps of fun. I'd very lazily record bits directly from the sofa! It has an in-built mic that's terrible in a really good way, this, combined with the natural space of the room, already coloured the sound so much that the source content was no longer recognisable. I'd then use the granular controls to shape it into something noisy that might end up as percussion (you can sync the grain size to the BPM – instant techno!), atmospheric stabs or very distorted drones. This device is all over the album, but features particularly heavily in "It Scuttles". Hear that grinding distorted sound that is almost like a chant? That's all microGranny!
As for horror movies I'm digging lately... I loved “The Ritual”, there's something about dark forests and folklore that I really dig, I used to be really into old Irish tales when I was younger. “The Witch” was also really great, especially the language and overall sound, it added this whole extra depth to the movie. The latest one I watched was “The Invitation”, that one creeped the hell out of me! The thought of people weakened by their own suffering being preyed upon and manipulated into carrying out horrible deeds is all too imaginable.
TB: Throbbing Gristle saw the knowledge of how an instrument works as limiting, whereas the lack of knowledge seem to be opening doors for them. For someone like you, who is an expert in Ableton’s Push and a gear specialist in general, how does the knowledge work in your favour and where does experiment and mistakes come into play in your work?
SI: Expert and specialist aren't words I would use to describe myself, but thanks! I certainly believe in embracing mistakes and flaws, it's a central part of my workflow. I like to push systems towards entropy, where sound starts to fall apart. You can reel it back in then, but it's nice to balance right along that edge.
Of course, this never makes for easy mixing. Here is where knowledge definitely can cause more doubt and worry than it's worth. I can totally see what Throbbing Gristle mean here. I often find myself tweaking and refining until I whittle a solid idea into nothing. There is a voice that comes into your head, saying that kick isn't punchy enough, that bass isn't heavy enough, there is no definition in that mid-range... It's hard to ignore!
Obeying rules and over-analysing at every step is a quick and sure way to kill creativity. I am so grateful to the friends who have helped me build up these years of knowledge, but while I know I will always need to learn more as I chase that perfect mix-down, some part of me also longs for the time where I knew none of this!
TB: Tell us a gig/event you recently attended that blew your mind and why.
SI: Probably the Eotrax night in Säule, it was the week after we did a Voitax showcase there. Eomac’s DJ set was epic, Arad’s new live set literally shook chunks of the ceiling free, they started raining down on our heads. LAIR’s set gave me goosebumps, something so deep and ritualistic about her music. Unfortunately I had work the next day so I missed Kaltès & Nene H. Have the 12” though!
TB: What do you do when you are not making music or working?
SI: Hang out with my awesome girlfriend, drink beer, eat good food, binge-watch tv shows whilst sprawled out on the sofa, mix records, meet friends around Berlin… the usual!