Matthew Swann is a humble, loner earthling whose existential pondering and humorous, psychedelic theories work to lull us into connecting sweetly and living well in this gorgeous and excruciating world. He has been making music as Astral Swans for more than a decade, with his home base in the polarized conditions of Calgary, AB, a starkly conservative city with a wondrous knack for spitting out prolific and outstanding musical acts like Chad Vangaalen, Cartel Madras, and Preoccupations. Astral Swans is no exception. The brilliant songwriter has carved out an experimental and introspective tripped-out indie folk niche for himself within the constellation of Canadian music and beyond.
Pre-pandemic, Astral Swans was on the road more often than not, touring frequently to Europe and Japan, where many of the tracks that ended up on his newest self-titled LP were conceived. Composed on solo walks around unexplored cities, the agrestal collection of songs brings to life an internal world—the world of a wanderer, a dreamer, and a musician whose oeuvre is fuelled by a love of art, collaboration, and getting high.
While Swann typically comes up with melodies and lyrical content under solitary conditions, he privileges collaboration as “one of the most joyous aspects of creativity.” He believes that making art is an invaluable gift, an act of resistance against the notion that fame and fortune are the only indicators of achievement and success. “Being a working artist is a really beautiful and meaningful life,” he says. “The commodification of art under capitalism makes for bad art, and strips it of its power.” The latest self-titled release from Astral Swans boasts a confidence and musical optimism unlike his previous albums, evidence that whatever subcultural kool-aid he’s drinking seems to be working.
RANGE is excited to premiere Astral Swans’ new music video for “Blackhole Town,” animated by Jordan Minkoff (Slam Dunk). The video features Astral Swans as a tiny toy car, chugging along endlessly on a track through a prairie landscape. We spoke to Swann ahead of its release about black holes, psychedelics, and living down the street from the original singer from Can.
You’ve described your songwriting practice as receiving “ecstatic downloads from the cosmos” while walking alone. Do you remember where you were when “Blackhole Town” came to you?
I was in a car on the way to Canmore to see Kacey & Clayton. I had smoked some hash, and was thinking about country music. I was not driving, lol. “Ecstatic downloads from the cosmos” … What a pretentious dick I am.
I’ve read that when matter gets pulled into a blackhole it gets “spagghettified”—stretched out into long noodle-like strands as it moves towards the event horizon, then frozen in space and time. Does this resonate with how you feel about a “blackhole town”?
Yeah somewhat actually, and props for the trippy question. I appreciate the notion that an individual within a black hole perceives time differently than an observer viewing the individual from outside the black hole’s gravitational field. Similarly, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that your hometown is the only reality.
What was it like to find your way as a musician in a city like Calgary?
I’ve always found the music scene here to be close knit and supportive. I see that to this day as it grows and diversifies. It was more just dealing with the general conservative mindset of Alberta in general, like if you don’t get rich and famous doing it, you’re a failure, or it’s just a hobby. The 1 percent exists just as much in this industry as any; either you’re Drake or Maroon 5, or you’re a kind of financially struggling Astral Swans type lol. The whole concept of ‘making it’ in a competitive sense feels like everything I grew up wanting to get away from, and one of the main reasons I chose to pursue the arts to begin with.
When did you start writing songs, and when did you know you wanted to become a musician?
The first song I remember writing was in grade two in my bedroom. I was obsessed with top 40 radio and I just sort of pieced together words that sounded like lyrics, even though they made no sense. I remember some of it and it’s hilarious:
“Like a scarecrow in the garden
or a puppet at night,
Or even a plane on it’s first flight,
the one thing i know and it’s alright
I wanna Rock”
Puppet at night. Hahaha.
Who, what, and where are your biggest musical influences?
I am primarily influenced by songwriting across a wide range of genres. I also love film, dance, literature, and visual art. I have a degree in comparative religion with a focus on mystical traditions, and an unfinished Masters in 20th Century French & German philosophy that also informs my writing I suppose. I’ve also been influenced by psychedelics, outsider art, and the absurdity of Being.
Over the past five years you’ve blossomed as a solo musician. Do you have any advice for the burgeoning musicians out there?
Mushrooms > Cocaine. Also make the work the priority! Make the work that you want to make. Very few musicians get rich and famous, but being able to make art with your short human life is a gift. Also, use the grant system. In spite of their bureaucratic flaws, grants are an amazing part of Canadian art. Also Mushrooms > Cocaine. Lastly, as the old saying goes “don’t be a puppet at night.”
You typically spend a lot of time touring internationally. What have the last couple of years been like with limited travel due to the pandemic? Do you feel this had any effect on how your newest album “Astral Swans” took shape?
Between May 2018 to November 2019 I toured Japan twice, Europe twice, and went back and forth across Canada a bunch. Covid then froze all movement. It’s been pretty bizarre to be in one place for two years. I did however find quarantine to be very creative. Early on I was writing a song a day in between naps, and I recorded nine songs at home during that first phase. Some of those songs ended up as demos for the new record. I also feel really grateful that I got to spend all that time with my cat who recently passed away at the age of 19. I’m really happy for all that time together in his last days.
Working with other artists—from musicians to psychoanalysts—seems to be integral to your approach to music-making. How do you feel about collaboration, and how does the inclusion of other artists affect the songs you initially compose in such a solo-sphere?
The songs on this record began solipsistically, and grew into collaborative pieces. I’m a fairly solitary person in a lot of ways, and particularly in my song writing. It’s incredibly fulfilling to take a song that I’ve written in private, and have people contribute to arrangements, production, and instrumentation, especially when it involves these folks whose work I admire so much. I have been very lucky on that front.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the world for your next recording project, who would it be?
Yoko Ono. I love her. I truly think she’s one of the world’s greatest living artists.
Who are you excited about right now in music — locally and internationally?
My favourites locally are Cartel Madras. Malcolm Mooney the original singer from Can lives down the street from me, which is pretty far out. He’s a great visual artist too. I also really love all of the featured musicians that played on my album obvs: Julie Doiron, Silverring, LT Lief, Cassia Hardy from Wares, Preoccupations (Scott Munro produced my last record, and is all over this new one). I love Chad Vangaalen, and Ghostkeeper, Amy Nelson is also excellent. There are so many. Internationally I only know of Maroon 5, Drake (when he’s not in Canada), and Owl Butler, an imaginary band from Ireland that I made up in my head.
What is the next year looking like for Astral Swans?
Is it a World Cup year? I’d like to win that again. A lot of folks are predicting Astral Swans vs Argentina in the final. If there’s time between training, I’d also be down to tour Ireland with Owl Butler.