swim interview
(15th February 2002)

It's like this (and that's the way it is.) Music is sloshing off down its own plughole. The once rich, healthy sea of talent has been reduced to a thin and sparsely populated ocean of poisonous clag being sucked into the vortex of chart placings, marketing budgets, manufacturing costs (the bands, not the records) and television tie-ins. The underground provides us with the lifeline. Your choice is simple: either sink or Swim.

The Swim label is run by Colin Newman (yes, that Colin Newman, yes, the bloke out of Wire) and Malka Spigel. It was started the best part of ten years ago with an advance for Malka's Rosh Ballata album and, despite releasing only a few records a year, has consistently thrown inflatable dinghies well-stocked with emergency supplies to music lovers ever since.

For a while early on Swim was perceived as a dance label. Later releases, while still predominantly electronic, have showed that, like anything and everything, techno is just one inspiration. Dub is another. Punk is another. Doing your own thing is the main one. Swim are serious, committed and passionate about their music, and music in general. I started with the obvious question.

Why is wm your catalogue code?

Colin: When we started the record company, we didn’t know anything about running a record company at all. We just had this idea that we wanted to put out records. We had to learn absolutely everything and one thing was: how do you do your catalogue numbers? Surely, we can have swim 1? Well, it turns out you have to check with this company that does the barcode numbers and all that. They said we couldn’t have swim, and we couldn’t have swm [he pronounces it "swum"], we could only have wm ["wum," laughing], so that was what we had.

Malka: I don’t remember that. What about the Post Office vans?

C: Oh yeah, WM is the coding for Wimbledon, and we are located in Wimbledon, so you see these Post Office vans going by and I’ll say "that’s Ronnie and Clyde" or "that’s My Pet Fish" ‘cos it’s wm19 or wm10 or wm17.

I realise it's pretty anal, but I love it when record companies have a story behind their catalogue numbers.

C: Like Mute’s releases being stumm whatever, yeah.

M: We followed all the rules when we started Swim. We did it all by the book.

C: There’s so many details, there’s just endless stuff that you have to know and you just learn it all eventually.

M: Then you unlearn it all! Paying for a photographer, paying for a designer. You end up dropping all those things because it costs too much money.

The other anal thing I wanted to ask is: why is there a tilde in the Swim logo?

C: Oh that’s a Jon Wozencroft design thing. We asked him to design a logo for us and it was a very trendy blur typeface with a tilde that represents a little wave. It was kind of like Nike with the tick. He was designing a trademark as much as a logo. The only other label I know that uses a tilde is ~scape. Which is Pole’s label and I’m sure that was totally taken from Swim. I’ve known Steffan for ages and Steffan would have known about the tilde.

So you’ve seeded a field of tilde labels?

C: I think "field" is a bit of an overstatement, a microclimate is more like it.

M: But you always claim to influence everybody.

C: Of course.

M: Every piece of music is influenced by you.

C: Absolutely. Completely. I invented everything.

Was part of the reason for setting up a label the idea that you didn’t want to be signed again?

C: Actually, it was even more basic than that. When we lived in Brussels we had this Oracle project that we’d worked on for a few years. It was proto-hip hop and no-one was interested in us doing that. They were interested in me doing Wire and Malka doing Minimal Compact.

M: I think it was a natural process, doing music and then thinking that we could release it ourselves.

C: It was a kind of revolution that someone from our generation could understand better than someone younger because they’d had the technology and were used to it. I was shocked that so many people who were making dance records were making them in their bedrooms and then taking them to a studio to get them finished. But I could see that in the mid-to-late 80s you could do the entire production in your home studio for the first time and it wouldn’t be lo-fi. We didn’t want to do state-of-the-art, but we didn’t want to do lo-fi.

I think that’s what interests us. That you can make something in your own space and your own time and then it’s a logical thing to end up releasing it yourself. But it’s a lot more hard work than you think.

So tell us about your first release. It was Malka’s Rosh Ballata album.

C: That was a commission actually. A record company in Israel wanted to release it and they commissioned us to make it. They thought we were going to do something different to what we did and in the end that record company didn’t release it. But another record company did want to release it and they gave us an advance and everything and they just had the rights for Israel. So we had a release, all the artwork, all the stuff because we’d made the entire thing and then I realised that we could take the advance and manufacture our own copies and maybe sell them.

M: It was obvious that we could do other albums. What was our second one?

C: Oracle. We put out all this Oracle stuff that we’d been working on as a kind of retrospective of what we did in the 80s. Then we’d released everything we had so we had to start inventing something. We had to invent an artist who wasn’t us, that’s when Immersion came about.

But that was you.

M: Yes.

C: Of course it was us but [laughing] we pretended it was somebody else. Well, in the early days of independent dance music labels you’d get compilations that were obviously all one bloke.

M: And in dance music you never saw the faces anyway…

C: So who did it matter who they were? We thought it’d be cool if they came from Germany.

M: And we did these ridiculous photos with wigs and everything.

C: Because we’d gone through this thing of us being ourselves and somehow people had not been interested in that, it seemed to us that the best thing was to bury our identity. The Immersion album did really well, especially in Germany. That was how we got other artists. Once people thought there were other artists on the label…

M: … and we did the Immersion remixes.

C: Yeah, Robin Rimbaud [Scanner] started that. He came up to us in Battersea Park and he was like, "I really like what you’re doing" and basically he was saying "you’re amazing for old people, it’s really contemporary" [laughing again] He said that he’d do us a remix.

M: He was still working in the library in Battersea at the time as well.

C: Then Mark Gage [Vapourspace on Plus 8] came over to do some Vapourspace gigs and I met him in Mute and discovered he was a massive Wire fan. I gave him some Immersion stuff and he said he’d do a remix. So then we had two people wanting to do a remix so we thought, well, let’s do a 12" with remixes on.

M: With special covers.

C: Yeah, with special covers. Then the next thing was that we started thinking that we’d phone up some people to do remixes and do loads of remixes. I don’t think anyone had really done that before – now it’s a common thing. So, LFO had remixed Wire years before and they’d done something really smart with it. They’d remixed a track using all the things that weren’t on the final track – which is a very Wire thing to do. Y’know, that’s like yeeah. Anyway, Gez [Varley, of LFO] sent us an Immersion remix which was really good and then he sent us a tape that was really good. It sounded to us like reduced pop music. It was incredibly catchy with like three noises in it.

We certainly hadn’t heard a lot of minimal techno. At that point there really wasn’t much about. There was what Richie [Hawtin, Plastikman] was doing but that was much more ambient and even the Basic Channel stuff was more dub. What Gez was doing was much more dancefloor and he wanted to do stuff that would make people jump up and down on the dancefloor and LFO and Warp were going in a more ambient direction because of Aphex Twin. Then Gez asked if we wanted to put his tracks out. We were like, y’know a bloke from a group that are techno heroes wants to release a record on Swim. Of course we do!

So you put it out..

C: We put it out and it caused a bit of a sensation. I remember looking back recently and I saw some review you’d done of G-Man at one point and I realised that you used to really like it. In this country virtually nobody got it. They didn’t really sell. G-Man 2 sold like 5000 copies in Germany and that’s masses for an indie label with no financial backing.

Who else did you get involved?

C: Gez was one of the first artists. Then we knew this guy who ran a club called The Blue Room in Edinburgh and he sent us tapes of everyone on the Edinburgh scene who was any good. Most of them we thought sounded too much like other people and then there was one artist, Lobe, and we just thought it was fantastic. So deep and soulful and not really like anything else out there and that was how we got him.

He was very young when he first came to us. I remember one of his quotes: "One of those tracks I sent you wasn’t entirely in stereo." [laughs] Meaning it was in mono because only one channel on the mixing board he was working on worked.

M: He’s still a bit like that.

C: He’s sent us some really interesting material this week

M: And we want to get in touch with him to tell him it’s good…

C: But email bounces and he’s not answering his text messages and I’m not sure where he’s living right now. But that’s Ian for you.

So at that point you were a dance label.

C: We were and we weren’t. We didn’t only want to be a dance label.

M: But you were completely anti-guitar at that point. Anything with guitar was like, "no way!" We just got so excited because the electronic sounds were so fresh.

One of the things you said to me when we last spoke was that even though you’re not a dance label, you’re still tagged as one and only get coverage in the dance magazines.

M: As soon as dance music became mainstream, we felt like running away and looking for something new. It’s hard.

Is that the label philosophy: always find something new?

C: I really think that, and this sounds really arrogant, it’s like a school of excellence, Swim. That’s how we see it. I mean, we don’t have everything that’s good – there are people out there that make records that aren’t on Swim that are good. But the idea is that we would like people to be able to pick up a Swim record and have no idea what was going to be on it but to be able to think "well, there’s going to be something I like in there because I like other things that they’ve put out." Not "that label always releases the same kind of stuff."

It is authored, what we do. If we work with somebody and like some of what they do we won’t just stick it out, we’ll try and guide them towards putting out something that’s more special than they would have put out otherwise. Sometimes, you can just leave people because they’ve grown up enough to do that themselves. We’re quite hands-on. We do get very involved and I think that’s why we have such a good relationship with the artists that we continue with. Some people don’t like it and we’ll move apart.

M: Some stuff’s just complete when we get it. Not because it’s sophisticated or anything, just because it’s got this completeness about it. Like Toucaen. He’s got a track on Swim Team #2.

C: He’s producing a very strange combination. Some of it is almost like Christmas tunes and quite chopped up, weird distorted fucked-up sound. It’s not as arch as Cylob. He has that thing that goes tiddly-diddly-thruupp!!!! tinkly-dinkly-bang!! Dave [Toucaen] doesn’t do that, it’s more integrated. That’s genuinely how he feels it. It’s not intellectualised. If it sounds pretty it’s because he likes a good tune and if it’s got some fucked-up sounds, it’s because he likes fucked-up sounds as well. He came to see us last May and virtually the first thing he said to us was "Do you like The Strokes?" Here’s a person that’s paying attention to music. That was a good question to ask in May last year.

I really like that attitude. When Silo came here the first time they were supposed to be like this heavy metal band that had pretensions to be something else. They came and played me their demos from their laptop. That is very un-heavy metal. But they absolutely do not come from dance music. Rhythmically, they’ve got this very strong rhythmic idea. There’s no jerkiness in Silo, no gaps in the audio, it’s got to sound exactly as if it was all played but it’s got the constancy of machines.

Those are strong ideas, it’s not like "let’s make a record and get famous and see if we can shag some girls." These are people who actually think about what they do and if we’re attracting people of that calibre to the label then makes us that very pleased and it improves us as artists. If we’re feeling challenged by our own artists, that’s a very good thing.

Do you release so little because it’s hard to find stuff that meets your standards?

M: Partly.

C: It’s also partly to do with money…

M: But if something amazing came our way and we had no money, we’d still release it.

Would you be offended if I said that Swim looks like a vanity project, given the amount of stuff that’s by or featuring the two of you?

C: I would be offended, yes.

M: Do you expect us to release on other labels? We’re musicians.

C: It’s a musician’s label.

M: It’s frustrating because I don’t feel that I do enough music. Actually, I feel like if we didn’t have Swim, I’d make more music.

C: That’s where it basically comes from. If we can make something and release it, it’s a very good way of, first, perhaps generating a bit of money and, second, having complete control over how you do it. It started off as a vehicle for us to which other artists have been added. It’s not just… Some of the stuff that people think is us isn’t us!

M: We just like it because it sounds like us. [laughing]

C: It’s like when people thought everything on Plus 8 was by Richie Hawtin. I remember being in a room and people saying that they thought The Legion Of Green Men were Richie Hawtin and I know that they’re not because we released their records. It’s a weird kind of thing, that.

So if you're not a dance label these days, what are you? It says "post-everything" on the web site.

C: That started as a quote to describe Bastard, as being post-everything, because I wanted to be generally annoying. Post-electronic is one way to describe it, I suppose. I don’t really know. I think we put out stuff that’s really good. It sounds so stupid, but that’s the basic question: why do we put out what we put out? Because we listen to stuff and we think it sounds like something we would like to have other people hear.

M: It’s almost instinctive. It’s like what you would choose to put on your radio show.

C: We’re talking about less than one percent. Not just less than one percent of what comes in the door. Less than one percent of everything, really.

M: It’s hard to sell the funny mixture of stuff that gets to us, though.

C: There were a few people who did reviews of Swim Team #1 who thought it was a single artist album.

M: That’s not possible.

C: Maybe it’s because there’s a mood?

M: We have to be friends with the artists we work with.

C: There’s no-one we release stuff with that we don’t like, or that we wouldn’t count as friends. Like Silo. They always call me Boss, because that’s their little joke. You always get a warmth with them, because it’s a good relationship.

M: We can’t offer instant fame, fortune and riches, but we can offer how not to be crap. That’s the experience that we have.

C: We’re not very interested in having artists keep repeating what they’ve done before whereas other labels, once a band does something successful they’ll want them to just churn it out.

M: Commercially, it’s a crap attitude. We get people into what we do and then change direction and they stop buying our records.

C: I suppose the bottom line is that there’s nobody to tell us what to do.

And that's the thing. Swim seems like a benevolent dictatorship. Surely the way most of us would like our lives to be run: somebody at the top making all the hard decisions, us safe in the knowledge that they're made with our interests at heart. The next releases on Swim will be albums from Lobe and Toucaen. www.swimhq.com

An edit of this interview appeared in Careless Talk Costs Lives.

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