Art Kicks and Conflicts
Guy Dale aka Mute Swimmer talks music, language and control in podcast "such a wolf!" by wolvesinsound
(transcription of the interview), october 2015
You are connected to "such a wolf!" podcast from wolvesinsound record studio in Berlin. I’m Daniella Grimm and I’m here to talk to Mute Swimmer with whom my colleague Antonio Passacantilli and I had the pleasure of working in recent years. For us Mute Swimmer is one of the most exciting experimental rock bands in Berlin. Guy Dale is the force behind Mute Swimmer which began as a solo project around 6 years ago and became a sometime band project in 2014. The bands’ musical spine is in dismantling traditional song writing forms, playing with the unexpected and offering inspiring insights with its trenchant poetic language. "such a wolf!" as we would say. We first discovered his music in 2014 when Guy asked Antonio to mix the band’s last LP Second . This month Mute Swimmer will release their new EP Present Perfect as an edition of 222 CDs. The music was recorded and mixed here in our record studio wolvesinsound. To me the sound felt so original, pure and powerful that I felt compelled to talk to him.
Hello Guy, I am glad that you’ve found your way back to our studio!
Hello, it’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.
What have you been doing since you finished work here in April?
Yeah, we recorded here in April. I got an unexpected call up for an art exhibition, which I did in late April. Then I was in Spain and Portugal on tour. I’ve been writing and playing a little bit closer to home over the last couple of months.
Does that also mean you are currently writing new songs?
I don’t wanna jinx it….if you say you are writing songs…then sometimes that can backfire! But I would say at the moment it’s going quite well on that score. Like I say, I’m a little bit superstitious about it, because as soon as it comes out of my mouth, I might suddenly dry up and not be able to do anything! But right now, I’m in a good moment with that. How would you describe your music without referring to any genre categories?
I don’t really like having to subscribe to genre categories, so I’m quite happy to not do that. But still, describing what I do isn’t that easy. I suppose I like exploring a point somewhere between the head and the heart, or feelings and thought. I’m kind of driven by a lot of conceptual ideas with the Mute Swimmer project. But at the same time I never wanted it to be programmatic or lacking in feeling and emotion. There’s always a kind of conflict or balancing act between intensity and emotion on the one hand and conceptual playfulness and rigor on the other. Usually the result is some kind of weird mixture of irony and emotion I suppose.
In 2014 you released your 9 track vinyl album Second. After this long and intense process, why did you go back to the studio so quickly? Did you work on the EP already while still working on Second?
No, I don’t think we were working on the new EP when I was working on Second, although some of the songs had probably been written by then. I wasn’t working with the band with those songs yet. Second was born out of a very long process, some of the songs on it were older tracks that I’ve been playing solo for a long time. Realizing them with the band took a certain amount of time. And then trying to get close to the sounds that I heard in my head with regard to brass and those sorts of things. Because I’d spent so long on Second it was important to come back and do something quicker with the EP, sort of loosen up, we wanted to do it quite live. I also think I wanted to draw on the chemistry of the three guys that I’m playing with, because through the recording and touring of Second we got a lot better playing as a unit. We had a more collective sound and a sort of more democratic approach to creating the music. Whereas, perhaps I was a bit more of the boss on Second.
Was it, that while you were working on Second you realized that this project would turn into a band project? And was it then that you wanted to create new songs with the band together?
Yeah, exactly. There are some older songs on Second but the newer songs I’d written like Time Song, or The Idea of Zero kind of demanded a band sound, in my head. I could sort of hear it and then I spent a long time trying to realize that. And then I found these great bunch of guys that wanted to play with me and it’s sort of gone on from there, really.
So, tell us who are the guys you’re collaborating with, who are part of the Mute Swimmer band now! There’s Bernie Bauch, he is the drummer. We’d known each other for some years. I played solo at this art show of a mutual friend of ours and Berni said to me after the concert “would you be interested in a drummer?“. I had no idea that he played the drums at this point. So I said “yeah, do you know one?“ and he said “yes, it’s me.“ And then I was sort of in a crisis because I didn’t know that he played the drums and also I didn’t know how good he was. So I went into this studio with some trepidation, cause if he’s a good friend and then it doesn’t work out then….And of course it turned out that he was a really great drummer, a modest one who listens very well. Then there’s Nicolai (Schorr), who’s a fantastic songwriter in his own right. I think in those early sessions with Bernie…when we started it was clear that we could really roll with it. I mentioned what was going on to Nicolai in passing over a coffee and he just very quickly said “well, I
could try playing the bass on this“ and he did! Felix (Koch) came in some months later. Felix was part of the band My Sister Grenadine. I knew those guys and had toured with them a little bit and got to know Felix through that. He contributes the trumpet and some vocals as well.
So it was the trumpet that you, as mentioned before, have heard in your head?
Yeah. Actually we recorded 11 tracks for that album with even more elaborate brass pieces. I’m not sure, perhaps they’ll come out one day. But brass was really central to Second on some level. I just heard it in there, I heard sarcastic brass, I heard emotional brass. It was like the brass took on different dimensions of the voice or the singing protagonist on some level. So sometimes the brass is used to ironise a statement and sometimes it’s used to enhance it’s emotional punch, I guess. And that went on into the new EP, probably more so. Also Felix has been really helpful structurally with regard to some of the new songs, he contributes some great parts to the new EP, too. All three of them have.
When you’re about to write a song, is it first a line of words or a line of chords and sounds that gives you a point of orientation?
My point of orientation into a song can be either. I think, more often I get the music first and then...I mean I can’t skat at all, but I kind of scat over it, find syllables and sounds of words that I think kind of fit in some way and then, eventually the words find their place. Song Against Itself was certainly like that and that was a very long process - of those words coming into being - of finding out what that song was gonna be. It went through so many revisions. And then other times I think there’s a kind of moment of grace where you feel that the song is already there in your head. Sometimes it feels like you just get gifted the first line and the melody. That doesn’t happen to me so often, but it’s kind of wonderful when that happens. That’s all you need then, it’s a trigger and then you can go on and sort of write the rest of the song quite quickly. I guess it’s not that separated either, it’s some sort of combination of the two approaches and they talk to
Does it also mean that they play beats and chords that inspire you in terms of new lyrics or is it mostly still you who presents new ideas and concepts?
That’s always changing but I think it’s fair to say the band had more input in the arrangements of the latest songs. Usually I come in with more than just an idea. In Present Perfect, the title track, I kind of knew musically what was gonna happen in it but as a band we sort of pieced it together, the structure. I knew where the words were going to go in the song - even if not the actual finished lyrics - and I had this melody line which the trumpet sort of took in parts. And there were the parts that were improvised by the others. I guess you can say I bring the seed or the shoots of the songs - sorry it’s lousy nature analogy! - but it sort of grows out of that, branches off a little bit and begins to gain definition and shape with the band. I can see that happening more actually, me bringing in more fragments, smaller shoots and then seeing what we can do with them.
Is it difficult for you to let go some control over the music and its making? Is it difficult to open up for something that is not only happening as a dialogue with yourself but between four people now?
Yes and no. At some points, yes, I think I kind of have an idea about where it should come from or what it should do. But more often than not I’m kind of pleasantly surprised by what comes out and that’s a real compliment to the three guys I work with and how intuitively they pick up on what I’m after and what they kind of come up with themselves. In a way you don’t want to analyze the process to much. We have an expression in English: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it“. I don’t know exactly what makes it tick, but, yes I love the element of surprise in collaboration and maybe it’s good for me to take a little bit of a step back and to kind of go - ok, this is what it’s going to sound like, this is what it’s gonna be,because this is these four people in a room right now, doing what they do.
To me your lyrics express a great eye for details - it seems that you spin and rotate every word and line, switching between different perspectives and between objectivity and subjectivity. It also seems that you are critical almost fatalistically so, of finding any true meaning in spoken and written words. Is this deconstructive, or in your words sabotaging approach your last resort to keep control?
That’s a fine observation. Yes, I think on the one hand I’m very suspicious of language and on the other hand I’m completely obsessed with it and love it. I think I’m always writing from a position of tension between those two things. You might say that’s another sort of thought-feeling conflict and I think it was very important in the Mute Swimmer project - that I make myself vulnerable within the lyrical structure. But at the same time by trying to account for all perspectives and kind of wearing all the possible hats that I can, even taking on the audiences possible perception of what I’m doing, yeah, you could say that that’s a defence mechanism as well, or a way of taking control on some level. Yeah, that’s an interesting question.
But so far as I understand it, it’s also a way to accept and to show vulnerability. Is it also a way to keep the responsibility over it, to control it again?
Yeah. But I think anyone that sings or makes music that really moves you is probably more often than not putting themselves in a vulnerable position. It’s not like I think that I’m original in that way at all. What I do, perhaps, that a lot of artists don’t do, is make the relationship between the artifice of singing and presenting yourself publically in that way very visible. And the way that I sort of unpack a lot of the things…. Perhaps it’s a bit like a Brecht play where the scenery and all the backdrop and all the stuff behind of the stage kind of folds in to the performance - the stage is turned around and you’re looking at the backstage which became the front, the ‘play’. That is something I find very interesting in art and in filmmaking and in other art forms. Being in love with the art form, but at the same time being quite self referential, perhaps also critical of the mode, in which it happens. You’re questioning the medium that you’re using and that’s something I find is often missing in songwriting in particular. There’s this emphasis on being very earnest and confessional and true. And it can be all those things, of course it can. But it’s also a construction and it’s
often faked. I think it can be more complex and interesting than that. So, I wanted to actively play with that and in that process, yeah, I kind of had to drop my trousers for the audience right at the opening part of the song, metaphorically speaking. But at the same time everything becomes your shtick and I’m very concerned that I don’t repeat that trick and I’m not writing Song Against Itself over and over again. I think a couple of the new songs on the EP take on a slightly more linear narrative or are trying to connect more conventionally with ‘songs’ and with ‘melody’ than I did previously. But who knows, it’s still very fresh. New songs that I’m writing are different again, so let’s see.
But you maintain this critical position on language and this will probably also be the basis for your work on narrative songs in future.
I think that is a constant with the Mute Swimmer project. That doesn’t mean that all the songs I write always have to have that element. I think there’s a part of me that just wants to write simple, beautiful, heartbreaking love songs and maybe I don’t let myself. So maybe there’s another project waiting for me there, where I can indulge that. Or you do
that, but with a critical kind of unpacking. But yes, language and sabotaging language or playing with language is really important to me in the texts and the songs. That’s as consistent throughout Present Perfect as it was in Second which is really like nine songs that I built around, and deconstructed the process of…what it is to write a song, to be present, to be self-consciously moving through time - the impact of memory and the impossibility of being truly present I suppose. Language’s ability to weave in and out of that process and to hopefully make the audience aware of that processes, is something that the project is there for.
Is it part of your concept that the lyrics express such an obsession for linguistic details but the music itself seems sort of rough and pure?
I’d like to say so, yeah! I’d like to say that the language is more sophisticated and the music is there to bolster that on some level or contrast with it. But I think the truth is that I’m probably incapable of doing other than rough and pure! I don’t know that I have that many strings to my bow….smooth and complicated probably isn’t in my repertoire. I kind of relate to the punk, post punk ethos of making music in that sense, because I’m simply a visual artist that picked up a guitar. Which is kind of weird that now I’d quite like to do something with a chamber orchestra….Maybe smooth and impure is on its way, who knows… probably I won’t be playing on it though!
Speaking about language leads me to the ambiguous title of Mute Swimmer’s upcoming EP Present Perfect. Why exactly 222 copies and why CDs but no Vinyl?
222 was a number that probably came up after one too many beers. I think it was Nicolai’s idea. We wanted to do a very limited edition with each CD being a unique artifact in itself. So they’re all kind of one-offs basically. We’ll make 222 individual CD sleeves. I’m just designing them at the moment actually.
When will the EP be released?
The CD will be out for a Berlin show on the 17th November at ACUD. And you asked me the second question about „no vinyl“, I mean that’s a financial
constraint largely. We crowd funded the first record successfully but I didn’t feel like I could do that every year
and every time I wanted to make a record. Maybe that’s a mistake on my part but if enough people buy the CDs then, who
knows, there might be possibility for a vinyl release.
Before we are about to end our Interview with Guy Dale from Mute Swimmer I’d like to ask my guest about a small book. Guy, once in a concert you’ve told the story about a small book that you’ve had with you on tour and where people could write something down. What do people trust you with and can you keep secrets?
Well, I guess there’s a few things that I probably wouldn’t say on air. But it’s sometimes a nice way to access the audiences thoughts or whatever. Some of the nicest things I got were drawings and things where there weren’t necessarily written…impressions or drawings sort of mixed with a comment of some kind. Sometimes people won’t say something to you and I know personally that you kind of don’t wanna go to an artist necessarily and just say – I just really enjoyed that show – or you don’t want to confront them and you kind of know that they’ll just say thank you – or whatever. The book gives them access to write something with a little more feeling, maybe, than they otherwise might. More often than not, though, it’s not so romantic, it’s an email and a – “good show” – or whatever. But occasionally, yes, people write very revealing things about themselves or about a particular song. That means a lot. You know, you want to connect and communicate with people. You want the music to reach them on some level. And it’s great when that’s recognized and you can see that that process is happening. Coming from an art background as I do, with
paintings or installations or photography on the wall, I find that relationship with the audience, with the viewer or listener is a lot more intimate and a lot more without boundaries in music. There’s less elitism and prejudice about music (compared with art) and music seems to make a much bigger impact on people. No, that’s not true! It doesn’t necessarily make more of an impact. But I think you can feel your relationship with your viewer or listener a lot more. It’s a lot more explicit in a concert sort of setting than it is in an art gallery.
So you’ve been working as an artist and as a musician. Beside your ambitious music project, do you still have time enough for art projects?
Very often I say that I don’t really make a division between my artistic and my music activities. Even though they’re different media. The project is kind of consistent and runs across both (areas). So I guess, I still feel I’m making my art. I just happened to be doing it through the use of my voice and instruments or performatively working with the space that I’m playing in. It’s is just an extension of my art practice. I made a few new works yeah, visual art works for the show that I did in April and I kind of get excited about the 222 copies of the CD, because that gives me an opportunity to indulge that part of my interest I guess, and my background. I’ll get my art kicks with the CD release of Present Perfect for sure.
So what are your upcoming plans as a musician then?
Well, we have a release show on the 17th of November which we’ll be rehearsing for and getting the CDs together. I’m probably going to have at least another EP or maybe an LP out, that’s more acoustic based, in the new year. Well, let’s see what happens with my friend in Copenhagen that I just sent this file to this morning (Own Road). Touring again next year and probably I’ll go back to Spain and Portugal. I have a Spanish friend, "Pablo Und Destruktion" coming over here in March and we are going to do a bunch of shows together. He’s doing really well in Spain at the moment and just put out a fantastic record called "Vigorexia Emocional". It means emotional bodybuilding! That’s about as far as it’s got so far. No major plans to announce. Let’s see how the EP does and who responds to it and if they like it.
I’m sure, they will. And we’ll see each other and hopefully a lot of our listeners at Mute Swimmers EP release show the 17th of November 2015 at ACUD Kunsthaus in Berlin. For those who wish to follow Mute Swimmer’s upcoming tour dates, visit www.guydale.com. There you also find more information about the artist himself, his lyrics and his art projects. Those who want to read our interview with Guy Dale, visit our homepage www.wolvesinsound.net and follow us on soundcloud. Thank you, Antonio from wolvesinsound for making the sound and mix down, and thank you, Guy Dale for sharing your time, thoughts and creative spirits with us.
It was a pleasure. Thank you for taking an interest.