Swan Meat: ‘All those cliches about catharsis and transcendence are true’
Reba Fay (b. 1994), alias Swan Meat, is a poet, audio engineer, and composer from Washington, D.C. Informed by her experience with chronic illness & body dysmorphia, her work pairs “a carnivalesque assemblage of spoken word pieces” with jarring, arrhythmic industrial and ambient compositions, built from a library of memories teeming with sonic detritus: vestigial feeding tube, bytes of heart monitor. Her debut EP, Bounty, was released on Paris’ PERMALNK imprint, and explored recovery from bulimia nervosa through the lense of Samus Aran from the Metroid series. She codes her own plug-ins & Max patches. Recent releases include Knife Splits Ice, a collaborative EP with the Japanese producer Yoshitaka Hikawa and a single for Bala Club. She will be talking and performing at CTM Festival on 1 February 2018.
Can you talk about your background and how you got into music?
I’ve been invested in music as far back as I can remember. I grew up playing the piano and the violin, but always thought if I had a career in music, it would be in musical theatre. My father took me to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats when I was eight or nine, and it was the most magical thing to me: the sets, the costumes, the emotional pyrotechnics, but most importantly the music. I spent hours and hours writing silly musicals as a kid, dramatic arias in the vein of Bernadette Peters and was quite involved with the local theatre. I was always concerned with being classically good, and was always that one kid lecturing her classmates on the circle of fifths, being awful. As a teenager I became quite ill and left school and had all this time on my hands, and picked up the guitar. Guitar music led me to punk which led me to No Wave and bands like Suicide and DNA, hence opening me up to a world of previously unknown musical experimentation. In hindsight, the real beginning of the Swan Meat project was when I first heard “Frankie Teardrop” for the first time. It was absolutely terrifying, and I thought, “this is the kind of music that I want to make.” I didn’t start producing until about three years ago, when after messing around with different instruments and gear I found out that software allowed me to generate most efficiently the kind of music I wanted, and still want, to make.
You are from Washington, DC, which is known for its music scene. Has the city and its legacy influenced you as such?
I was really involved in the local hardcore and punk scene for a time, and played in bands myself. I suppose my live sets are especially influenced by hardcore punk in terms of vocal delivery and performance. I’m always trying to recapture the feeling of screaming onstage for the first time. All those cliches about catharsis and transcendence are true for me. You are no longer in your body; fuck being corporeal. You’re just pure vocal energy cutting through feedback. This is of course important. Admittedly I haven’t gone to a show in DC about five years – I live in Cologne, Germany now – and can’t speak to the state of the so-called scene now, but when I was involved, it was a wonderful thing to be part of. I moved in a community in which music was directly tied to activism and organising. Shows in DC were the first places my friends and I had conversations about inclusivity and community-building in music. I think this has been more important than any musical framework DC might have built.
Your music reminds me of WS Burroughs’s cutups, the various elements of sound coming together like sonic shards. What importance does art and literature play in what you do?
One of the things the Swan Meat project began as was an exercise in highlighting the sonic qualities of text. How can word-objects function as notation and instrumentation? For a period of time, poems functioned as the literal skeleton of every song I wrote. I’d bring a dry vocal recording into Ableton, chop it up, hack the excess from it, and draw sonic elements around that frame. The poem was always the centrepiece, even if that wasn’t aurally perceptible: naturally, clarity as such became obscured by other bits of audio. But of course, this was never about following a linear trajectory or narrative or story-telling. On the page, the poems that I’ve selected to include in my music are – or might appear to be – “confessional” in the Sylvia Plath-ean way. But I don’t care if their “meaning” stays intact; I’m far more concerned with exploring how the tonal colour of the word, say, “breath” might highlight otherwise hidden qualities of a particular slice of drum patterning or some sort of field recording I’ve sourced or an instrument that I’m building. How can I bring textural qualities to the fore beyond the given definition of that word?
Words and vocals are prominent in your music. Can you describe their meaning and role?
The spoken voice is a pliable, malleable instrument. That’s before one brings in traditional conceptions of singing, chanting and prayer, before one brings in a bevy of VST plugins and external processing systems, which open up a world of possibilities. My voice is the only instrument that has been with me, that I’ve practiced since I was born, and because of this it’s been the best material to begin with when considering sound selection and design.
You mention chronic illness and body dysmorphia as directly influencing your work. Can you elaborate?
This question has been brought up frequently in the wake of my having released an EP last year, called Bounty, that was partially about recovering from bulimia nervosa. This particular piece of work engaged with – among other things – exploring my body or rediscovering how to live with my body and move with my body through using video game avatars and characters as proxies, specifically those in Nintendo’s original Metroid game. The music that came out of this was grotesque, because my body felt grotesque, recovery was grotesque: watching my body become other, and rapidly, being alone yet surrounded by all this – I don’t know, mind-detritus. That naturally manifested in the music I was making at the time, and it continues to do so because recovery never ends. However at this point in my life as a musician I’m less interested in discussing this and more interested in discussing the nuts & bolts of my workflow, the technical nitty-gritty: when I work on a track I’m not thinking “how do I convey this pain I’m feeling,” – that’ll be apparent in the audio no matter what, I suppose – I’m thinking instead, “should I or should I not apply distortion to these midi cellos?”
There are lot of scenes, and micro-scenes in music. Is there any particular scene you feel most comfortable in?
If you mean scene in terms of genres, certainly not. I collaborate with people who make music that’s quite different from mine. I like to work outside of my comfort zone and outside genre. Currently, I’m working on projects that incorporate a lot of aspects of cinematic orchestral arrangement and composition, which seems a complete 180 degree turn from the sort of intentionally and unintentionally confrontational music I was making in 2016, 2017. If you mean scene in terms of social scene, then also no. I’m still finding my place.
Can you talk about your upcoming releases and plans?
I’ve been working on a second release for quite some time now. I’m utilising these gigantic orchestral sample libraries and experimenting with them. I’m also building my compendium of melodic knowledge, as this next release is turning out to be a sort of homage to playing my favourite RPGs: Morrowind, Final Fantasy. I’ve been really inspired by this old Sega game – Panzer Dragoon Saga. Though everything’s etched out in MIDI, my goal is to bring this release to life with a live orchestra. I want to play as much as I possibly can, maybe publish some writing. I have some short stories. I want to do so much, too much, maybe.