SWAYS RECORDS | CULTURAL APOCALYPSE SURVIVORS
“Manchester is like a giant medieval city surrounded by a great wall. It is hedonistic, violent, confrontational, morose, poetic, extreme, ideological, mad, vibrant, individual, honest - it is really a totally surreal place - it is quite magical. It is a fascinating place especially because in the centre of the city you find ALL the parts of the city congregating at the central point - all of these forces collide there." – Jamie Lee
SWAYS Records live in a concrete hole in Salford. This hole is home to the kind of bands and artists that represent the survivors of the cultural apocalypse. In this wasteland we have only hope and SWAYS. In the shadow of Strangeways prison and probably inching towards it, these survivors are making music and the old Manchester lad-scape is being altered. There are echoes of Factory not to be ignored, but with bands like Kult Country, The Louche, Emperor Zero, Naked (On Drugs) and Ghost Outfit on their books, it’s clear we’ve all evolved and this is the label at the heart of what Manchester is NOW.
Despite being Mancunian myself, I first met SWAYS in a church in Islington, North London. Alone at a M O N E Y gig, I met up with a fellow fan I only knew through The Internet. Soon though, I was sat in the pews with the whole SWAYS crew. As a bottle of cognac came down the row I knew these miscreants were probably my kind of people. We were lit by the light spilling through from rear-projected visuals, our eyes only on Jamie Lee, the poet of M O N E Y, a man instrumental to the feel of the label. However, we were all there to witness the migration of M O N E Y and G R E A T W A V E S from SWAYS to Bella Union.
The Union Chapel night went deep, we drank hard and I left with more friends than I arrived with. In the aftermath of the hangover I knew it was time to get the full story on these bastards. I’d recently read an interview with Marten and Ben, label founders and formerly of The Marder, so I get in touch with Matt Boswell, lead lungs of Emperor Zero, and another of the label’s founders, to talk about the SWAYS story. Mythology is important to good art, but the truth living up to the myth is even more important. Anything can be sold with a decent PR machine but few put together enough minds and talent for the art to do the talking.
Deep in the rubble of the area’s industrial past, in the Salford wastelands plagued by machete gangs, lies The Bunker. This mythological home to the label has gathered as many opinions as the bands, as both a gig venue of note and also due to its nickname as ‘The Fuhrer Bunker.’ I open by asking Matt about this place, the home of SWAYS.
‘Marten (from the Marder) inherited it from his grandfather, a Polish immigrant who escaped from Siberia during the war. He ended up coming to work in the factories in North Manchester and bought Victoria Mills with his pals. It's an outhouse of a much larger derelict Mill over the road which used to be 4 stories high. Now only the concrete ground floor remains.
We'd been using it as band practice rooms. Jamie (Lee) was pretty instrumental in using it for parties and gigs, the best thing being the vacant wooden 'cage' at the end of the main 'exhibition room' which the bands could play in and which is just a visually amazing and evocative context for a band to perform in.
The place itself is freezing, unwelcoming, but for the label it's home. At any one point in time there are generally a few people living there and we use it for pretty much all the recordings.’
Matt won my heart early in our first meeting, passing that bottle of cognac down the pews as we felt the force of M O N E Y. The booze came through the capable hands of photographer Natalie Curtis, who I asked about her first experience of the Bunker.
‘It was the night PINS and Savages played. I started out with a good feeling about the whole thing but I couldn't have imagined just how good it was. Somehow it all made sense. If I talk about Jamie from Money being at door handing out literature, bands playing in a wooden cage, being shown the live room that at the time was also Ben's bedroom, it probably sounds like bullshit. But the big thing for me was that it was totally free of bullshit.’
Natalie was pretty much recruited by SWAYS, and is now part of the fabric of the thing, her pictures forming part of the image of the label. The story of Natalie’s joining SWAYS in their endevours seems symptomatic of a label that isn’t so much a Record Label, but an arts project, a collection of talent intent on expressing itself. There’s a cult-like quality to the label, yet only in the positive sense. There’s no demanding cash nor mass suicide nor deviant sexual behaviour (I can’t promise this is true). Yet there’s a great sense of shared purpose and the excitement and energy that comes with it. Natalie tells the tale of being recruited by the boys from the Bunker.
‘A mutual friend knew that we'd get on and pointed SWAYS in the direction of an event I was doing with the band Marion. It was all a bit full on (singer went AWOL, incident involving a rejected groupie etc). I was somewhat thrown by the appearance of Ben and Matt, as I was attempting to have a sneaky smoke out a window and, since it was clear they weren't crazy Marion fans, I was thinking, shit, who are they, what do they want?
It was a bit like being approached by Mormons. In a decent non-scary way. They were full of mad stories and there was an urgency about them. Yet they were very together and dressed really well. They did actually save me as well. For various reasons, I was seriously considering a move to the sticks. Realistically, had I gone ahead and left, I would have been totally miserable. So I'm eternally grateful that SWAYS changed my mind about Manchester.’
This kind of gang effort is something I believe is key to Getting Things Done, and the reason I’m with Brain Wash. Everyone’s got their digits deep in each other’s action. I asked Matt how the gang functions and who’s in there.
‘The label has grown up as a project between friends, led by Ben and Marten when they were in the Marder (RIP), but with ever more people joining the ranks along the way. SWAYS is always in flux. From the very beginning we knew it was going to be more than just a label. Marten was always going to be at the helm with the recording: in many ways his recording ability was the thing that made everyone realise we didn't really need someone else's label. Then there was Steven Cherry, a friend of theirs, who started making videos. Lois from PINS has now become instrumental to the running of the label, even though her band isn’t on it they do use it for recordings and gigs. Josh from B L O O M is also a massive help.
Most bands on the label have a figurehead of some kind who plough themselves into the running of the label and start to influence its identity, people like Jamie and Yousif (Kult Country). There are also lots of people around the bands who help out with art and videos and photography, like Nick Delap, Natalie Curtis and Will Sharp. Without sounding pretentious (that means I'm going to sound just that) SWAYS is an art project that is about more than just the music, or which provides a distinctive context for the music, and loads of promoters (Now Wave) and writers and DJs have also thrown themselves into enthusiastic support of the enterprise as I think that they can see we're in it for the right reasons, and this has led to something quite special happening.’
Music videos are a true love of Brain Wash and Steven Cherry’s work for Man With The Red Eyes for Matt’s band, Emperor Zero, really stands out. Starring Steve Evets from Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, it captures both the band and the apocalyptic Salford landscape perfectly. Cherry’s latest work for Emperor Zero’s new single Mental Health Café sees the band playing in the fabled wooden ‘cage’ of the Bunker. Adding to the collaborative effort, the record sleeve for Mental Health Café will wear a photograph by Natalie Curtis (above), which she describes as ‘One of those rare unplanned photos that also means something (to me at least).’
Visual representation is key, but a slick production is not always required. M O N E Y’s early videos were smashed together from Youtube clips to pick at your mind. Moving through place, time and emotion is something that comes through the music but also the visuals. Jamie Lee has that little something that makes him seem like a True Artist, mainly because he’s pretty and charming as well as being talented. It’s all part of the wonderful deceit of artistry, that synthetic, imposed glow of brilliance that it’s only possible to create if the goods are good. A writer first, Jamie has a style that is archaic and elegant, but with a relevance to now, this time of everything. As a musician he plays the piano beautifully and has a captivating voice more interesting than most that are loudly heard.
An eye for aesthetics is important and something that is fairly striking with SWAYS-associated bands is in their typography. Starting with M O N E Y, a spacing-out of band names has swept through the gang. With the older acts influencing the younger, like in the case of B L O O M. I asked Matt what the fuck this was all about.
‘I would like to say something wanky about the way that the phrasing articulates something about the silences within language, the spaces within the music. It started with M O N E Y really, though I'm not sure whether they borrowed the idea. Then G R E A T W A V E S followed suit. To me, this expressed a nice affinity between the bands. It also does give a sense of the expansiveness of the music, its openness, the way it unfolds. GREATWAVES is dense and difficult, whereas the reality of G R E A T W A V E S is that their sound is mystical, almost transcendent.’
Transcending trend and genre seems to be what SWAYS do best and it’s one of their newer bands that have really caught the eye recently, with some great videos, a sensational name and twisted tunes. Naked (On Drugs) conjures a beautiful image, one of deep nudity, where your mind is on show as well as your genitals; a deep Berlin kind of nude. Matt tells me that the punctuation is a product of artistic differences.
‘The brackets essentially expose a debate in the SWAYS camp, whereby me and Ben think Naked (On Drugs) is the best band name ever and the band themselves do not.’
I’m on the side of the label with this one, but whatever they’re called it won’t change the genius of Death Dance, a song that’s many things at once but certainly singularly brilliant. A slippery jazz fuck of a tune, both danceable and bewildering, it’s difficult not to be affected physically by the deep wriggle of Death Dance, it’s as if they seasoned the master with a bag of snakes. If the likes of M O N E Y aren’t quite what we have come to expect from Mancunian music, then Naked (On Drugs) are even furtherly alien. How did these guys come to call an old mill in Salford home?
‘The core of the band is Luke from the Louche (now only of Naked on Drugs) and a French guy called Sebastien. They met at one of our Emperor Zero gigs about a year ago when Sebastien was over visiting the city. He liked it so much he stayed. We played a gig with them last year and I remember watching them soundcheck Death Dance and thinking, this is just the best band I've seen for a very long time. Live, they're bizarre, visceral, theatrical, unique.’
If there was ever a more fitting place name than Strangeways then I’ve yet to hear it. Neighbouring the Bunker we have Manchester’s innercity prison, the destination of the Smiths, the once forced-housing of Ian Brown. Is this where the name for the label came from?
‘The label name was always Ben's call, I think it's a nod to the location near Strangeways, and a bit of wordplay; he called one of the first things we released 'Swayze's first mixtape'.
I remember having a massive debate with Ben about the name in a pub, when it was finally decided on:
“And hereby we name a label, for a child is born to us, a son is given to us, the government will rest on our shoulders, and we will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, we will be called:
- SWAYS -
"Nae cunt leaves 'til we find out what cunt did it."”’
This being the quality of the minutes from meetings they needed a real writer. Japanese orphan and SWAYS propagandist, Atrocity Boy, was my first real contact with the label when I was back in Manchester and working the gig circuit. His words were those that caught the moment if not the set-list. I asked Atrocity Boy about his dealings at the Bunker.
‘I don't really have any say in the matter. My will has nothing to do with it. I'm just doing my job, following orders. I do my best to represent what goes on in the Bunker, to describe the bands that play and the people who watch them. I aim to tell the Truth but sometimes I get confused. I'm easily distracted. Reality seems...elsewhere.’
The reality is that SWAYS are part of the fabric of what makes Manchester a decent place to be. The city has shown how far you can get on a bit of industry and it seems SWAYS have the manpower to see this thing through. Matt told me about excitement yet to come.
‘In terms of what next, it's a bit of a turn to the rawer, punkier, lower-case side of SWAYS in early 2013. A new Emperor Zero single came out last month, and the debut single from Kult Country is out in April. Then there's also a debut album from Ghost Outfit, which we're very excited about - hopefully it’ll give a platform for us to be more ambitious.’
Unsure how to end a journey that isn’t yet complete, I turned to Jamie Lee for his thoughts on SWAYS. His response came with talk of Blake and the underworld as a lived reality. Manchester, the Paradise, the Hell, is the place that incubated the talent and brought forward thoughts and action. Jamie gets at the heart of what binds SWAYS and their outlook on artistic endevour in general.
‘If we cannot change anything, then surely we must enjoy the freedom of occupying such a state of obscurity and marginalisation that you are free to do anything you want. That is the secret of all art that I love and I believe those around us do as well and that is - taking pleasure in the void. Finding meaning there.’
It’s in these margins that great art has always existed. Sometimes the right people get squeezed together, in a bunker, pissed, making music and finding their truths. I know about these things, I found mine in an armchair in Dollis Hill. Finding our own truths and building our worlds and forming our gangs is all we can do to survive. The spirit of SWAYS is one that fills us here with excitement, and simultaneously makes us feel like we may just survive this thing too.
‘The problem with the modern world in which we find ourselves, is that we find heaven and hell lying simultaneously in the same places, both there at every point. Our attempt at SWAYS was to remake the world on our own terms. Some kind of heaven. Where hell has been only moments previously and still lingers.’
Words By @ByCBallinger
Photos By Natalie Curtis (Except top By Tommy Peacock)
SWAYS Logo By Steven Cherry, Twisted By Liam Achaibou
Thanks to Matt Boswell, Ben Ward, Jamie Lee, Natalie Curtis, Atrocity Boy and Steve Ryan.