Published Jul 23, 2011Matthew Swann is not yet a star in the Canadian music world, but the Calgary, AB songwriter's first full-length as Extra Happy Ghost!!! will have a guaranteed audience, thanks to the production work of indie hero Chad VanGaalen. The nine songs on Modern Horses bear the distinct sonic stamp of VanGaalen's Yoko Eno studio, brimming with brittle guitars and eerie, reverb swathed vocals. But unlike VanGaalen's albums, or those he recorded with Women, this collection is starkly minimal. Many of the tracks feature barebones arrangements, with Swann's guitar and vocals joined by drums and only a smattering of additional overdubs. This sparseness adds to the haunting atmosphere, making these slow, anxious tunes sound even gloomier than they otherwise would be. Plodding opener "Mercy, Mercy" contains the sinister refrains "Mostly I'll never harm you" and "Kill all your gods." Even the comparatively peppy "So at One" repeats the dour chorus lyric, "And so we are alone" before giving way to a dissonant, noise-soaked breakdown. Bleak as it is, Modern Horses is a grower and the unsettling vibes become increasingly irresistible with each listen. Having created such a dark, addictive debut album, don't expect Swann to be overshadowed by his big-name producer for long.
How did you come to be working with Chad VanGaalen?
How it first started was through Ian Russell; Ian runs Flemish Eye Records. I was at a Vic Chesnutt show in late 2009, I believe, and Ian approached me and said, "Hey, Chad is a big fan of your record." This was my EP that I had put out a few months prior to that [How the Beach Boys Sound to Those with No Feelings]. It was a massive compliment. I mentioned to Ian on the spot that I was a big fan of Chad's work and I loved both of the Women records, though at that point only the first one had come out. I was like, "If he ever wants to work with anyone or whatever…" Then, a couple months after that, I actually ran into Chad. We talked and it was like, "Yeah, let's do it."
What role did he play in shaping the album?
Initially, going into it, I thought, "Wow, what craziness awaits?" Funnily enough, I'd say the main factor he brought to it was actually a lot of restraint. Often times when I'd be like, "Hey, let's add a Theremin" or whatever outrageous notions I was coming up with, he said, "Dude, no." So it ended up being, in a lot of respects, quite a sparse record. The other thing was his space and the gear that he uses. The sonics were an influence on it; his tape machine, in particular.
Your past releases were mostly done at home. How did it differ to record in an outside studio?
It was challenging, actually, to relinquish control. I operate creatively in very weird ways and on very weird schedules. I'm totally a product of inspiration. A lot of the time I'll lay down a weird guitar part at three in the morning when I'm drunk. That part was different ― there was all of a sudden stuff that was out of my hands. But it was an amazing experience. It's a crazy little studio that he has. It's Chad VanGaalen; he's a fascinating, extremely talented, wonderful person.
Modern Horses is named after an incident in which nine horses jumped off a bridge. Why did you name your album after that?
The horse is one of the major symbols of the city that I live in, that I was raised in and that I have an extremely complex relationship with. The song ["Modern Horses"] is about psychological dissonance, with respect to one's situation. That's what the record is about, in a lot of ways. So much about our situations, no matter what they are, is informed by so many disparate elements that are completely out of our control. Those choices that we do make are framed in such a small, limited moment of that, which has been completely determined by various dissonant elements. In respect to my hometown, I was born in this place and I've chosen to stay here, but it's kind of just circumstantial that I'm here. I think a lot of artists in Calgary feel dissonance, alienation and confusion.
It sounds like a pretty hopeless, existential idea.
Yeah, it is. I'm scared to use those words because I don't want to come across as some pretentious loser. But it's a moody record and it is an anxious and paranoid record in a very, very sincere way. I certainly don't want it to come across as some heady thing.
What draws you to write such gloomy music?
I don't know! It's funny, especially in Calgary, so many of many of my favourite bands are these fun punk rock bands that just play rock'n'roll music. I've always, in a weird way, envied that; it's almost sometimes embarrassing to not be able to do that. But at the same time, I guess it's what comes out. I'm drawn to making music to explore certain ideas and to explore complexity. Given that I'm not the guy that's playing in the punk rock band, I guess the most punk rock thing to do is be yourself.
What are your future plans with Extra Happy Ghost!!!?
I would like to tour as much as I can for the next few months. I book my own tours and then assemble some sort of live incarnation to make that happen, so we'll see. Ideally I'd like to go on the road and play a ton of shows over the next little while. I'm also anxious to get started on another record. My favourite part of it is writing and recording. (Saved by Radio)