One spring day in 2017, Matthew Barnes—the electronic music producer and DJ otherwise known as Forest Swords—gave out his personal phone number and invited the world to WhatsApp him. For those who did, Barnes would send a snippet of something he’d been working on or a whole track from his upcoming album. A “direct line” between Barnes and his fans and an experiment to explore different forms of communication, the artist was able to connect with a public seemingly and irreversibly out of reach.
Sitting down in light of his recent DJ Kicks release and in anticipation of a long stream of summer sets to have a proper chat about his roots, alternative attitude towards art and producing and those ancient MP3 blogs, Barnes is as down-to-earth as one might expect. With his soft Merseyside lilt, he muses over the inspiration for this experiment: “It came about as a very simple idea because I was with a couple of friends and I was trying to send them a track on my phone via WhatsApp and I just thought, ‘if I can do this with you, maybe I can just do this with everyone who asks’.” Laughing gently, he continues, “so we set up this thing where people could text me and I’d reply with a track or a demo or just a little slice of music I had knocking around—and it worked out really well.” Over 600 messages later, the experiment did indeed turn out a little better than Barnes expected. And while “a little tiring”, this only further “proved a lot of the stuff [he] was talking about with people and just wanting a new outlet to share and discuss things”.
Something he noticed during the making of his last record, “a very Southern shift in the way people talk to each other”, Barnes began to recognise a need for change: “I feel people were just getting a little frustrated with things like social media that were maybe not as utopian and incredible as they thought and I feel people were looking for different ways to connect with each other, connecting one-to-one, and that was influencing what I was doing”. Indeed, something that other musicians are becoming increasingly aware of in a world of Spotify and faceless labels (Mac DeMarco inviting fans to his house for coffee springs to mind), Barnes’ approach certainly went some way to bridging the gap.
It is this organic, grounded quality that makes his music as Forest Swords so addictive and relevant in today’s society. A firm believer that you should always acknowledge and be grateful for your roots, Barnes emphasises the extent to which a passion for the history of his native North-West continues to not only affect his ways of reading space and environments but further shapes his music. “I think it’s a lot about atmosphere really,” he begins. “There’s a very certain atmosphere where I’m from which is a real mixture of different environments and I feel they really play into the sound choices that I make or how it feeds into the vision. I feel it’s just always embedded, it’s always there.” Indeed, history hangs from everything Barnes produces, even his moniker Forest Swords like something from a Northern folk tale.
However, musically, it’s the juxtaposition of the real and fake that defines the Forest Sword sound at present. Constantly playing with duality, often combining heavily serrated guitar plugins, immutable dub and dusty samples, Compassion—Barnes’ most recent album—showcases both his relentless curiosity and attraction towards this paradox. One that’s, in fact, seemingly forever plastered over newspapers. “During the writing process, I started demoing things using a lot of instrumental plugins of guitars or brass or things like that and they were only meant to be for demos but the more I used them, the more I realised they had their own unique properties to them.” Pondering this unique quality, he continues, “They were always slightly off, like never quite that realistic so I thought it’d be cool to mash these up against real instrumentation and see how they play off each other… So there are parts of the record that are all plugins and some that are ‘real instrumentation’ and you start to realise that maybe both of these just have inherently good qualities.” But rather than merely searching for that signature sound, Barnes was more captured by the concept itself: “I kind of like the ambiguity of people not knowing what’s real and what’s fake.”
Maybe it’s Barnes’ multi-disciplinary artistic background that heightens this conceptual curiosity. His previous ‘day job’ as a designer also informs his writing process: “I feel like it all feeds in. I think I realised quite early on that there isn’t much of a difference between designing a sleeve, for instance, and making a song.” Indeed, especially earlier on in Barnes’ career, the design and structure of his music is almost tangible. Gently musing, he continues, “both have very similar processes and very similar ways you trial and error ideas as well, like you go through various different processes but on a bass level they’re both very, very similar.” The artist further highlights how this allows him the perspective and space to stand back and observe objectively the creation before him, “not losing sight of what it sounded like and what was going on.” Beyond the music itself and the compositional process, Barnes designs the stunning sleeves for his albums, the complete project feeling very much like a piece of the artist’s mind and soul.
However, his most recent music breaks free from any designed structure. Listening lately to “a lot of jazz and a lot more overtly electronic music […] the last record and the newer stuff in the making, it’s a lot looser than previously.” Further emphasising the effect of his recent wider listening, he continues, “it’s definitely the thing I love about genres like jazz—it feels like it finds its own way and follows its own path a little so that’s a really fun way to make music rather than it just being a traditional AB structure. It’s much more liberating, I think.” Indeed, Compassion feels free, liberated and unrestrained. “To try and let a song find its own way has been a really exciting thing for me to discover. I think you can get locked into a grid and traditional structures, so listening to jazz and understanding how it makes its own way has been really useful I think.” An exploration going hand-in-hand with a greater immersion into classics such as Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk classics, and 90s warp artists, the impact of this is near-tangible. “I feel like the newer music I make will definitely continue to be influenced by this side of things.”
The progression of the artist and his rise to current heights are marked by the same organic quality and curiosity that effervesce from even his most recent work. “I actually was made redundant about 10 years ago so I just sat down on my laptop and learnt how to use Logic and it just stemmed from there really,” he elaborates. “I made a few songs and put them online and this was just around the time of MP3 blogs being really big, which sounds really archaic now… But it got picked up by a couple of blogs and it gradually snowballed from there.” Again, even Barnes’ initial move to music is defined by the grounded, organic and incredibly modest quality that appears to define the artist and the music he creates, his first musical excursions flowering from something negative. “Yeah, I’d never actually thought about it like that—like something good growing from a bad situation.” Moving from strength to strength, we for one cannot wait to see what’s next in the natural progression of this very natural—and hugely talented—artist.