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COMMON MULTIVERSE preview: an interview w/ Swarm Intelligence

Dublin-born, Berlin-based DJ and producer Simon Hayes (a.k.a. Swarm Intelligence) sat down with us—virtually—for a conversation.

His music is a swirling cacophony of industrial distortion and dynamism, informed and inspired by technology and its shifting relationships to man. Below, he discusses AI, inspiration, livestreams, politics, hope, and his upcoming set at the Ani Klang x Gentle Riot room at COMMON Multiverse Initiative on March 21. 

First off, I’ve read that you’ve been exploring using artificial intelligence to aid your creative process. Can you talk more about that?

Hayes: As my alias suggests, I’m quite interested in the cross section of technology and art, and over the past few years I’ve been increasingly interested in the changing role of technology in music-making. I don’t know if it comes across in my music but I’m a bit of a control freak *laughs* I’ll throw an idea at the machine or computer, through my modular or a Max patch, it bounces something back, I adjust a few parameters, throw it back, until I get something that I like. I try to go as quick as I can to audio and then do a lot of finessing, tweaking, editing, rearranging, chopping, and but as a seed for a musical idea I find this thing [AI] quite cool.

Concretely, I like to add a lot of chaos into modular patches, I like to use a lot of probability, trig conditions in my Elektron machines and then I use Live and Max for Live quite a lot. Google Labs has some tools called Magenta, where you can feed some musical ideas and they’ll combine those musical ideas into a meaningful new idea, which I quite like. I don’t like the idea of generating something from nothing; I like to feed some input or some parameters and have it generate something back at me that I can work with.

As a self-described control freak, it must be interesting to work with something where you have to relinquish control in a way.

Hayes: I think especially when it comes to this cross section of cutting-edge sound design and complex composition, technologies can play quite a strong role. So there are moments when I’m producing where I kind of want to let go, things become so chaotic that it can be kind of fun just to see what happens. And of course, you just take all the audio that’s output and do something with it, something meaningful. It’s often about wrangling that back into a musical form. I mean chaos is a matter of taste. *laughs*

So you’ve mentioned you studied computer science in university – did you always know you wanted to do music and then you just happened to study computer science, or was it a pivo of sorts?

Hayes: I was always drawn to electronic music from a young age. I listened to horrible, horrible electronic music when I was much younger *laughs*. Trance is having a bit of a comeback moment right now, but that for me was like my early teens, I had all this cheeky stuff on vinyl. I remember a girl in my class in high school, her older brother was a DJ at the time and he took me under his wing a little bit. I was kind of dorky, a nerd, a high achiever in high school, and he showed me the ropes with Logic. He gave me an intro, showed me some of his music, and I came back a week later with his track, chopped up and remixed, and he was like “what?!?” 

So I realized that there was something there. University was quite formative for me, I learned that I enjoyed pushing sound into new areas. I also realized that I didn’t enjoy computer science *laughs*. So I finished up my degree and came out of it with okay results, but I knew that I didn’t want to code, I didn’t have the patience for it maybe. The only way that I managed to get a good result is because I convinced a lecturer to let me do my own thesis on—I can’t even remember what I called it—basically the tools that multimedia artists use and an exploration of those systems. And there suddenly coding made sense again and everything came together for me.

When I was listening to your music and reading about it online, I noticed your fascination with distortion. What is it about distortion that you really enjoy?

Hayes: The main thing I like about distortion is the complexity of it, the unpredictability of it. There was definitely something that I was drawn to in distortion early on in my music. Then, I was very hamfisted with my approach, I just cranked everything up; the mixdown would suffer, the musical ideas would often suffer. I started to get more nerdy about how I applied distortion, and I realized that it can be used in very subtle ways, ways that you wouldn’t imagine using it, right through to the most extreme moments. And I found that using the furthermost extremities of distortion as a musical moment in production is also interesting; using it to create tension or swells or emphasize a particular hit or to bring out certain elements in my mix. Basically, when you’re adding distortion you’re often just adding harmonics to the signal. So I could even use it to add dissonance or to achieve a particular tone. 

I have another collaboration with a buddy of mine (Monolog) called Diasiva, I guess you could say it’s gung-ho IDM *laughs*, with roots in drum and bass and a lot of sound design influences. He often laughs at me and just shakes his head. You know when you’re working on music with someone you’ve got one computer, one mouse and keyboard, and you kind of fight over it to see who gets the next idea. Generally speaking, 9 times out of 10, I’m reaching over and adding distortion. 

In terms of the academic side of things, are there certain people that you have learned from? I’m thinking of people like Curtis Roads and stuff.

Hayes: I definitely went through a lot of that. During college I was researching for my thesis but also just got really into trying to understand electronic music: where did this particular sound that I like come from? It was also the time where I went from listening to dodgey trance and house in high school and to electroacoustic, found sound, and musique concrete midway through college. It’s hard to say one particular person from an academic point of view influenced me. Curtis Roads, definitely read a lot of that stuff. I also dug into the works of Xenakis to learn more about granular composition. But when it comes to actually learning, the route I took was probably the slowest because it was pure exploration. I didn’t really have anyone guiding me or pointing me in a particular way, it was just trying stuff out, and then going “hoohoo, that sounds cool!” Distortion especially, it often gives you that moment: you’re sitting in the dark, just grinning cheekily to yourself as this horrific sound is coming out of the speakers, but it’s also horrifically awesome.

That’s also usually pretty good because you don’t get boxed into any one sound or one directive from a so-called “master” of the craft! So you’ve mentioned in a few interviews that part of the DJ experience you enjoy is responding to the audience’s energy. You’ve done a few pandemic sets; how has that changed the experience of DJing?

Hayes: One of the reasons why I picked DJing or electronic music in general is, at least at the gigs I play, you’re kind of tucked away in the corner or hidden somewhere, it’s usually quite dark and you can hide behind your equipment. I’m not usually someone who is comfortable in the spotlight, and now this has been totally flipped around. The DJ sets I’ve played for streaming shows, there’s a camera literally in your face, it’s super brightly lit, and all that’s going through your head is however many thousand people are watching your every move, and if you make a mistake everyone’s gonna spot it! 

So the feeling goes from you bringing the energy to this group of people, it’s like shit o’clock in the morning, people are completely lost in the zone, you’re providing a service to them. You’re not some star, you’re just the one keeping the party going. And that sort of flips into this weird, other space when you’re playing in front of a camera and you’re thinking: “oh do I look stupid?” It becomes much more about appearance and second-guessing, and it doesn’t feel so natural to me, that’s for sure. 

Then again, I’m very grateful because it’s the closest thing you can get to playing a show right now. From a selfish point of view, you still get a rush from it, there’s still the nerves so that’s good. I love DJing because I love sharing my music and my musical taste with people, and if this is the way to do that now I’m also at peace with it. Who knows, maybe it helps someone somewhere to hear this stuff at a particular time during the pandemic. 

Yeah, personally these sort of virtual streams have been really helpful for me. I actually started getting into electronic music during the pandemic, and drinking a beer and tuning into a stream on the weekends has been getting me through it.

Hayes: The earliest experiences I have of this music were in a setting with a bunch of people: loud, dark, it’s really visceral, you leave it a changed person. It’s hard to compare even if you’ve got a good sound system, it’s just hard to relate to that experience now.

I’m ready to get my mind blown when I go to my first rave post-COVID! In terms of inspiration during this time, can you talk about your latest EP 47026?

Hayes: That’s my second EP for Tommy’s label. I’m super happy to be on that label to be honest. Before that, I’d been bouncing around a few different labels including Voitax and Ad Noiseam, but this for me feels like a good home for my current sound. Tommy pushes me quite hard but in the right direction. I’ve worked with a few labels in the past where the direction I was pushed in didn’t feel right, whereas 47 definitely hones the sound in a direction that I wanted to take it. That EP took me not so long to write, but a very (x5) long time to finish, bouncing back and forth mixes with Tommy and trying to get the sequences to line up. He gave me some good insights and good feedback, and I had to get things right. That really took a lot out of me, and between sending the first demo and when it was released, the pandemic kicked in. When I wrote all the tracks, I imagined dance floors, darkened spaces, being out there playing live shows built around it. So it was bittersweet when it came out; it was really well-received, but it was right at that point where everything, the doom and gloom really set in around the pandemic. And there’s so many releases these days, which is great, but there’s tons of releases and I feel like the shelf life and attention span has gotten a bit shorter. I still hope people will be playing it by the time clubs re-open!

Especially with Bandcamp Friday, it’s great for artists – but the release schedule has just become so much new stuff every month because people want to release in time.

Hayes: It’s so good though, of all the music streaming platforms, it’s so nice to see Bandcamp do this. They’re the only ones who fully help and support artists I think. Making a living from music right now is a tough thing to be doing, so it’s good to be able to support the artists that you enjoy as well.

After this latest EP, have you had inspiration to write more during lockdown? How is that going? Anything in the works right now?

Hayes: With the amount of energy I put into the 47 EP and when the reality struck of the situation we found ourselves in, I really struggled for quite some time to write anything. I just couldn’t connect with myself, I would try to sit down and do something and nothing really came out. But then inspiration started to come back to me and the first thing that I was really happy with appeared on the 47 compilation that came out after my EP. Before, we were talking about AI and technology and of course the role of technology in society interests me a lot. And all this mass disinformation and the political atmosphere at the time, it was just super tense, and I remember watching some documentaries and stuff about deepfake technology and the way things are going, so that’s kind of what kicked off the inspiration for that track. 

And then in this year I’m just kind of keeping things ticking along. I have a bunch of remixes coming up, more than I usually would do, but I’ve enjoyed doing them. I’ve only picked remixes where I really click with the original source material. I have a couple of tracks coming out on a few V/A compilations throughout the year. I’m working on an EP; I’ll see what I do with that, whether I decide to release something myself, or go with a label again. I’m toying with the idea of doing something myself. As I mentioned before I’m a control freak, and I like the idea of doing something that I have full control over, because I think no matter what label you work with they’ll pull you in one way or another. I think now I’m reaching the point where I’m getting closer to the identity that I feel as Swarm Intelligence, and it might be the time to come up with my own platform. 

That’s really exciting! Speaking of political situations, your latest full length album was about the fears and hopes of that moment a few years ago. Has that album changed its meaning for you now that you have the hindsight of 2021?

Hayes: At the time I wrote that album there were multiple terrorist attacks and a growing surge toward the far-right both in America and in Europe, and it was quite a frightening time politically. Even though we’re in very bleak times now, looking back to then I do get a sense of hope for the future. There seems to be some kind of awakening; even in daily interactions with people there seems to be more of a sense of friendliness, of togetherness. There’s more and more of a push towards equality, towards understanding people. I hope that we continue to push in that direction; this idea of everything going back to the way it was before when the situation ends is also not something I really want. 

I remember just to bring it into the context of electronic music and gigs and shows and stuff, I remember going out to gigs really early on before—this is gonna make me sound old now—before Instagram, before Facebook was a big thing. In the days of MySpace, it was much less about the image, much more about getting lost in the music. There was a massive mix of people: you had people of all ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations. It was a good vibe, and I hope that this feeling of inclusion, this kind of utopia, I hope that’s where we go. I do worry a little bit about the effect that even the vaccine passports will have on the future of electronic music; it further reinforces some privileges that I hope we can get away from. But I have a sense of hope for the things to come. I feel that people have been trapped and held back for so long that when they are let go, maybe we’ll find the new “us” on the floor.

That’s a wonderful place to end, I’m happy to end on that hopeful note. I’ve also seen how communities have come together during this time to throw online shows and form new collectives, especially in the wake of the George Floyd protests, all this solidarity has been exciting to see, and to see that go into the future would be very exciting. 

Hayes: Absolutely.

Finally, to close off, can you talk a bit about your set at COMMON?

Hayes: It’s probably the most out-there set I’ve done for quite some time! I really went down the experimental route. I would call it a floor-clearer set *laughs*, I probably wouldn’t play this kind of thing at a club. Anyway, I just hope that people can stay strong and last out these coming months or half a year until we get out of this situation that we find ourselves in.
RSVP here for COMMON Multiverse Initiative, happening March 12 to March 21, 2021.

Hayes: It’s probably the most out-there set I’ve done for quite some time! I really went down the experimental route. I would call it a floor-clearer set *laughs*, I probably wouldn’t play this kind of thing at a club. Anyway, I just hope that people can stay strong and last out these coming months or half a year until we get out of this situation that we find ourselves in.
RSVP here for COMMON Multiverse Initiative, happening March 12 to March 21, 2021.

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