One of the UK's most groundbreaking acts speaks to Ibiza Voice about finding themselves on the frontline of 90s minimal, ecstasy honeymoons, and the pivotal moment they received a call from Laurent Garnier.
Twenty years ago Swayzak were the cutting edge of house music. Twenty plus years on and the records by the British duo of David Brown and James Taylor still sound as vital as ever.
A new retrospective compilation: ‘Lost Tapes’ has just been released that rounds up some of their best tracks alongside a new song and coincides with the digital release of their entire back catalogue. It’s a move that will delight fans and irk collectors alike, the latter who’ve been trading Swayzak’s previously vinyl only releases on Discogs for hundreds of pounds and euros. Taylor has since left the duo, but 2018 finds Brown on a mission to take the Swayzak story to the next chapter.
Ibiza Voice: Aside from Swazyak what else do you do?
David Brown: Mainly just Swayzak for now. I’m putting all my efforts into resurrection. A new album in 2018 is on the cards.
Lost Tapes must inevitably have involved quite a lengthy cathartic selection process of choosing the tracks and looking back on the Swayzak story so far. Now you have the benefit of hindsight, how do you look back on the formative years of Swayzak?
With mixed feelings. I have certain moments I really dislike that ate me up for a while. I took it personally or when the releases didn’t get the push they deserved and ended up on a shelf, it felt such a waste. One album in particular was a disaster and perhaps a little over ambitious. The end result doesn’t sit with me well. [Even] though it was recorded well, it lacks something. I think sometimes we tried to put too many tracks on albums. Less is more now.
What memories did this process bring back for you?
[The] early days of experimenting and finding the right sound. Some tracks have several DATS of versions. We worked on them until it felt right. We weren’t big on arrangements, we [would] just jam live and spend long days [doing so.] It was great fun [but it] must have driven the neighbours crazy.
Can you tell us about the moment when people were really starting to take notice of Swayzak?
We cut our first record in 1997 and went about trying to sell it with zero experience. It was on our own label and we posted one to a bloke called ‘L Garnier.’ I got this call [on my answering machine] from a French bloke. “Beautiful and moody,” he said in the message in a deep French accent.
Wow, it blew my mind. Laurent Garnier had called up and left a message! Mind you he never called back! That was catalyst number one.
When we took the record to a distributor, the guy said he had no time to listen so we left the record with him. A short time later, he ran down the street after us saying how amazing it was! Then we found a great store in Soho called I.Q. They bought and sold 100s of copies. That gave us huge confidence. [On the] next EP we were moving into hi tech with pager numbers and we got loads of messages and labels asking us to do things.
What were the other major developments that helped you develop and progress as an act?
One of the biggest was getting signed to make albums on the labels, Medicine and Pagan. Although neither of them ever paid us, it was the next step towards making albums which was our goal.
Then a chap called Terry Francis told us about the club where he was going to be the resident, fabric. Terry got us down there and we played there for nearly 15 years. Big thanks to him.
Swayzak and their machines back in the day.
Can you give us an idea of how your life changed in that period?
I wasn’t doing very much to be honest. Both James and myself had drifted in and out of jobs but the music was the key. We were committed to making music. I was eternally broke and it was actually Bill Brewster who asked us to remix Larry Heard. That fee was so ridiculous, we quit our jobs to concentrate more on the music. The good thing is the remix still commands high prices on Discogs. I edited it for Bill’s compilation ‘Tribal Rites’ which is out now.
How different was the house/techno industry in the late 90s to now?
Quite different. There was a small community around a store like I.Q. and it’s more online now. Sales wise, we normally earned enough to make the next record and that was our goal. Touring was harder because of heavier gear and chaotic events. Now things seem to be well organised or maybe it’s just because I have a better agent.
We once played in Berlin at WMF club and we had no idea how to get into the club. There were no mobile phones, no email, just waiting outside for a guy to show up so we can soundcheck. And now it’s all apps. For the EP we did with Theorem on Minus in 1998, we posted the sounds to him, he sent them back.
Are there any anecdotes about how you made your most well known tracks that you can share?
One track ‘Speedboat' was recorded on a barge on the river Thames in a studio owned by The Who. My old friend Kenny was the engineer there and we would work there sometimes if there was some downtime. The sonics were superior to many others around that time.
Swayzak now has a huge audience of young Discogs fans, is this a surprise for you to hear that your old music has had a new lease of life?
No, not really. [At the time] I didn’t think about 20 years down the line. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen tomorrow. The last ten years have changed so much I’m still adjusting to the idea of streaming music which is a part of the scene now. We uploaded the Swayzak catalog to Spotify and have had over a million plays in a month. That’s incredible. People complain about the income but I accept this is the way now. You make music to be heard in whichever way. Of course I prefer vinyl or CD, but it’s not all about me.
Can you describe the world of major labels when you started working for Island?
At Island, I used to park the boss’s car, stuff like, that. Then one day, he said: “you like music,” and offered me a job in A&R. He had seen me listening to tapes in the office, and it was simply [a question of] right time, right place. My [new] job was really fun and I was responsible for low level A&R. It was before Soundcloud and we received thousands of tapes, many from mad people who I had to appease and one [even] threatened to kill me.
Back then Island was a huge independent label but [also] a small family. Many of the people there are still good friends of mine. The managing director today started at the same time as me and he signed Amy Winehouse. He was ambitious and had his head screwed on for sure. Years later, he asked me to write stuff for some cheesy pop [act] but I turned it down (foolishly?).
I loved it there to be honest, but my direct boss was a bully who would get fired in an instant today. Oddly enough they went onto work for K7 and we signed to K7, but in fact it was a chance meeting in Rough Trade record [shop] that led to the K7 deal. I was most grateful, though I [do] recall the words: “no, I don’t think they would be interested,” upon me suggesting a deal. We then sold 50,000 albums.
It took the UK awhile to catch onto minimal (despite being a home for some of the movement’s key producers like Baby Ford or Herbert). How did you start listening to these sounds?
Indeed it did but we were travelling to places like Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin in 1998. We found great music and we found the same great music in London in [second hand shop] Record and Tape Exchange. Nobody wanted it so we bought it all.
We met guys like Roger 23 and Henner Dondor, who had the Hardwax store in Saarbrucken. We arrived there for a gig 1998 and were stunned. We became great friends and Roger 23 passed a lot of great music our way . One chap we met back then in Saarbrucken was Prosumer, or Achim as we knew him. We also met guys like Villalobos, Michael Mayer, Sven Väth and we felt part of the German scene much more than the UK’s. It wasn’t really until about 2003/4 that German minimalism took off in the UK and I felt we helped that develop with our Groovetechnology and fabric mixes.
Everyone has a honeymoon raving period, where was yours and how did it inform Swayzak?
Probably 1993 to 1997. It was a lot of parties really. House parties and drug experimenting, friends DJing, me trying to DJ. I wasn’t really a raver. I had a car accident in 1988 that damaged my head. I think that affected me for sometime during the rave years of 88 to 92. I didn’t like crowds, though possibly the best raves we went to were dub nights in London like ‘Jah Shaka,’ Mannaseh, ‘On U Sound,’ ‘Jah Observer’... real, deep spiritual music. At one [party], we gave a tape to Gary Clail who DJ'd on cassette! He dropped our track in the club and it was a great moment.
Describe life operating as a solo member of Swayzak? Do you miss working with James?
It took me a long time to adjust and to feel confident and to find the right way to do it. More machines, less computer is the way. Yes I miss the [extra set of] ears, I miss the laughs we had. We always got on well and still do. Now I feel confident that my writing and mixing are good and my DJing is not bad. My live sets are coming on too. Sometimes I think we are no longer relevant, then something pops up out the blue and I see our records sell for more than £20. I’m pleased people have found the music and a long, undulating history keeps moving.
What was the greatest challenge, personal or professional, that you faced while working on the tracks captured in Lost Tracks?
Mainly the time it took and some issues with clearance from labels, labels that never paid us yet claim to own our music. It makes you feel sick but I want to move on from this bad experience. No other business operates with such scammers and liars, well maybe the City of London .
Lost Tapes' by Swayzak is out now on 240 Volts.