Interview by Toby White
With the release of their ninth album, SOMETHING SOMEWHERE, in as many years, Astralasia are a triumph in this age of 5-minute wonders. With such a prolific track (pardon the pun) record, how is it they remain such an enigma, despite being one of the founding fathers of the global trance scene? PHASE9 calls up their leader, Swordfish, to find out why…
First off, I looked you up on a web site and you’re listed under Ambient Dub as a genre and one of the key artists of that genre, would you agree with that?
SWORDFISH: Well, I’m not really into tags. I mean, tags are what the industry put upon you and I’m not really into being pigeon-holed into a category. Really, I suppose, we’re a modern rock and roll band – we use technology and technological equipment but we are a rock and roll band. Whether you can term that rock and roll in the old context, I don’t know, but, really, that’s what it’s about.
So if you could have made music in any other era, which era would it have been?
SWORDFISH: Well, we have done in other eras. The psychedelic rock bass and early synthesizers and stuff has always been the backbone, so we’ve moved with it. I was kind of there or I felt I was there when the acid house thing kicked off and midi got invented for the first time and there was this technological breakthrough. It enabled the psychedelic rockers and the people making spaced-out music to move into a different genre using more electronics and things like that. I suppose the acid house thing was a massive influence, the mantra and the discipline of the mantra really played an early important part and that kicked off what I was doing. What I’ve since done is bring vocals and structure into a trance thing.
You’re fairly prolific, having done nine albums in as many years and they vary from chill-out trance, drum and bass, house beats, what’s your preferred style?
SWORDFISH: I feel easier doing chilled-out stuff. I find the harder stuff, what I’m doing now, requires a lot more attention to detail whereas with ambient stuff there’s a free-for-all. When you’re dealing with a dance floor, there’s a discipline that has to be adhered to – it’s a different ball game.
You’ve stayed fairly club-oriented in this time, have you ever tried to hit mainstream?
SWORDFISH: Well, yes and no. Maybe blind-sightedly but not really in earnest. We’re not dealing with the right kind of people. It’s always been an underground thing and, even some of the things I’m doing now and the labels I’m involved with are reasonably high-profile, its very much an underground thing and I’m happy with that, just ticking along and being quite eclectic, rather than having a big hit or being involved with some kind of industry take-over. Even though its nice to have a bigger deal, it involves other things…and I’m not sure whether they’re good things. It’s a double-edged sword, y’know, you don’t want it but you do want it.
Speaking of the club scene, you’re linked largely with the Whirl-y-gig, what would you say is the best club you’ve played?
SWORDFISH: In this country it would have to be the Whirl-y-gig. They don’t do what other people do and they do something that’s quite unique and it hasn’t followed a trend. It’s a bit like the old Status Quo fan club kind of thing. Even though it hasn’t evolved in the normal club sense, they have got something that is quite magical. As an artist, the way they respect you and look after you is nothing like what anyone else does in this country. No other promoter or gig is as relaxed or homely.
It’s cool to have that kind of relationship…
SWORDFISH: I think a lot of people have, it’s that kind of vibe that prevails which you don’t get anywhere else because of the money bread-headed promoters, everything is commercialised. It’s only when you step out of this country and do a gig abroad that you appreciate something on the same level as they do. We’ve done gigs for every single party company and it’s all shit. Behind it all is money and it’s ripping off the trance crowd. There’s a few genuine people out there who do it for other means, which is not the money and that’s something that annoys me.
So the music comes first?
SWORDFISH: It has to, it’s got to be the spirit, and these big ‘herd them all in’ places and the way they treat the bands, I don’t know… I’ve done a lot of those gigs but unless you’ve got the pool of people who are prepared to see it through and everyone’s on the right vibe it doesn’t come together.
Have you had a taste of the mainstream then? Because you have a pretty strong opinion of not wanting to sell-out, I just wondered if you’ve-
SWORDFISH: We’ve done all the major corporate festivals and…I don’t know what else you want me to say about them.
That’s fine, you’ve wrapped it up quite nicely.
SWORDFISH: It isn’t the way to run a festival, we all went to Stonehenge, we were there. It was the late 70s, early 80s, and we know how to police and self-run a festival and have a good time without commercialism. Now, what we have within the present laws is not the right vibe.
With that in mind, then, how do you think the club scene has changed?
SWORDFISH: I don’t know, I’ve veered away from some of it, I’m not totally up on what’s current. I’ve just been out in Japan at a big festival, similar to The Source, very hard, full-on trance and in this country we haven’t done a gig for a while so I’m not the authority to say what’s going on. For the past six months I don’t really know.
Other than the UK then, what’s the best venue you’ve played in another country?
SWORDFISH: Probably Munich.
Ah, Germany, the origins of the genre. Germany in the 90s, hey?
SWORDFISH: A wonderful set-up. That would be what Whirl-y-gig would be if they had that freedom in this country. That was quite magical.
It might be worth asking Richard [Whirl-y-gig owner] if he’s going to open a venue in Germany then?
SWORDFISH: There’s people doing it over there already. We did some of the Freezone things in Hamburg and they’ve got a good scene going up there. And the same with the Dutch gigs. It’s a shame, I don’t see the parallels so much in this country.
One of the things about the Whirl-y-gig, there’s this trick the audience do with a parachute…
SWORDFISH: That’s right.
…what’s that all about?
SWORDFISH: It’s a way they finish off the evening. It’s a way to chill everybody out and take them to a different space after they’ve been fully taken up there on the trance. And the music they have to compliment it is always live, a guest band. We’ve done some of those.
In terms of the music itself, the nature of trance, it can carry on for ages – what’s the longest track you’ve ever done?
SWORDFISH: [thinks] I went through a period of doing long tracks, I think I did one that lasted about half an hour or something. And I did one for someone else that was about that long as well.
Is that because you got carried away?
SWORDFISH: No, I think it was on one of the albums, we included it as a free album. We called it ‘Ande’ and it was supposed to be a near-death experience, a build-up to a trip or a place and out again in one piece. Conveying something that couldn’t be done in a short space of time. But we had to cut it in two for the vinyl because it wouldn’t fit on.
What about the rest of the band, how did you guys all meet? How did you get the band together?
SWORDFISH: Well, initially, when the acid house thing started, I was housed at an arts centre and they had this beautiful theatre they weren’t really using and I said “How about having a big party?” We’re talking late-80s and I put a set together and got a load of geezers and dancers and made this techno experience. I didn’t have the equipment to do a whole set live and we then worked it into a techno format we could take out live and we stripped it down into a four-piece with a vocalist, chanting to get the audience going, and then me and Wayne, using the techno, a 303, a sampler and an antiquated laptop and Sam adding some strings and some harmony and we kept it simple so we could be flexible to move from an ambient to a hard trance situation. We’d turn up at a place, listen to the mantra and what the DJs were doing and then try and keep that mantra going, because that’s paramount. It has to fit in with those DJs and the groove of the night and try and take that to another level.
Just a couple of quickies now…list three emotions that influence your music.
SWORDFISH: Obviously, there’s passion, the love for what you’re doing. Then it’s the buzz out of doing it and the buzz out of doing it now. Then there’s always searching for something more. I don’t think I achieve it half the time, I mean I hate everything I’ve done and I don’t listen to it so I try and go in on a different tangent every time. I’m pleased about the new album but I’m also working on the next thing now. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, unless there’s progression it just gets stale and boring.
Moving with the times…
SWORDFISH: Yeah, and the worst thing about some of the purists of the trance scene is that they limit it. I know a lot of people that insist that you can’t have a vocal or a string pad…but you have to be able to fuse and try and come up with that mutation or try and get something. I know certain things don’t work but you have to try and transcend all levels to appeal to as many people as you can. And that’s the whole thing really, just trying to communicate. And I want to be free to experiment and not be tied down in a genre and be tied down to a fixed set of rules, which is not the way it should be.
Yeah, sure…does your mum like your music?
SWORDFISH: [laughs] She’s heard a couple of things but she’s more into jazz. She doesn’t think I’m a real musician.
Have you tried laying any jazz down on a track?
SWORDFISH: Yeah, we have. We’ve overlaid a lot of stuff. A lot of the earlier stuff…and a couple of guys I’m working with now are very accomplished jazz musicians and we’ve tried everything. I’ve also worked with some really great jazz musicians in the past and people have free-formed and stuff, yeah…
Right. Where does your name, Swordfish, come from?
SWORDFISH: It’s a long story…it’s a password to something. It was from a Marx Brothers film.
Oh, which one?
SWORDFISH: I can’t remember, it’s the one when they’re in the hotel and Groucho asks Harpo for a password and the geezer can’t talk so he pulls out this swordfish. It was a running joke and some people in the studio overheard it and it started getting put on albums as a production thing…my name’s actually Mark. It got stuck and it wasn’t really by choice.
Excellent. How well has the new album been received? It’s just released in the States…
SWORDFISH: I’ve got no real gauge on that, I mean the States is so vast and I can’t really relate that to what its like over here. I don’t know what the sales figures are or the reaction…we’ll see what happens.
Speaking of albums, I’m curious, who’s the woman on the cover of White Bird?
SWORDFISH: She’s the singer.
Interesting. Often, with underground bands, you hear their music and, unless you go to gigs, you have no idea what they look like.
SWORDFISH: Well, if you look at the previous cover, although its a photo composite, that’s all of us.
Couple of random ones: what’s the last movie you saw?
SWORDFISH: At the cinema? Swordfish. And we had a track on the soundtrack that Paul Oakenfold remixed…
Really? Any other movie soundtracks in the offing?
SWORDFISH: Well, I have submitted stuff for another film but I’m kind of glad they didn’t use it because the film wasn’t any good.
What’s the strangest question you’ve ever been asked?
SWORDFISH: Err…I don’t know…
What’s your favourite vegetable?
SWORDFISH: I’ve had that actually, it was cheese.
Cheese? What, cheese is your favourite vegetable?
SWORDFISH: No, no, “what cheese do I eat?” It was some women’s magazine. I think they were trying to be alternative.
Finally, how would you like to be remembered?
SWORDFISH: Oh, god…
What would your epitaph be?
SWORDFISH: Communicated through music?…I don’t know…I don’t think about things like that.
Okay, Mark, many thanks.
SWORDFISH: Thank you.