Interview: Elena Savlokhova
Photography: Yky Galore
Why do you think music is such a vital element to our existence?
Haha that’s a bit of a loaded question! I guess I mostly agree. It is certainly vital to my own existence. I couldn’t imagine my life without music. Music has always had a huge presence, right through the years. We’ve all had our teen angst phase, when blaring the most aggressive music we could find at full blast was our defense against persecution, real or imagined. Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” did that job nicely in my case.
Music also provided comfort when things were hard, during break-ups and personal failures. In times like that, I used to walk along the Dublin coast listening to stuff like Autechre’s “Stud” – still one of the most beautiful pieces of electronic music in my eyes.
Music also soundtracks our celebrations and achievements. It sets the tone for moments of intimacy and romance. It protects us when walking home late at night. It drowns out the oppressive noise of city life.
Whether or not you deem music as vital to our existence, it is clear that music can play a large role in supporting and shaping our emotional state. There is even solid evidence that sound and music can be used to treat anxiety, chronic pain, sleep disorders, and PTSD.
As a music maker, music also provides me with an outlet for emotional expression. I believe there is a reason why many of the people making harsh, aggressive music that I’ve met were approachable, friendly and easy going. It makes sense when you think of music as a release valve. There is nothing more cathartic than building up a wall of feedback!
Do you enjoy going out to clubs these days when you’re not performing?
Absolutely, though I reckon I am a bit spoiled with the scene in Berlin. Either that, or I am getting old! Nowadays I definitely spend more weekends staying in, focusing on music. Trying to find a healthy balance between playing gigs, working full-time, making music and having a social life means taking it easy sometimes and I am at peace with that. I enjoy hangover-free weekends as much as I do late nights with the right company and soundtrack.
When I do go out, I usually enjoy DJs who aren’t afraid to take risks. I’m not so into the “how many bangers can I fit in an hour” approach – it gets boring. As I said, maybe I am getting old. Techno for me has always been about being at the forefront of music, less so about constraints of rhythm, bpm or instrumentation. I love to see a DJ who deviates from the norm and takes the night down a rabbit hole.
You’ve explained that ‘the name Swarm Intelligence comes from an artificial intelligence algorithm based on flocking behaviours in nature’. Is technological singularity inevitable? If so, do you think that technology could become a threat to civilization as we know it?
Yes, the names comes from a college project. I studied engineering and became interested in these kind of systems. That said, that was quite a while ago. I haven’t written a line of code in years, so any opinions I have on this question come only from a personal interest these days. In other words, I’m no expert.
From what I’ve read, there are a couple of differing definitions of singularity that make this question tricky to answer. As far as I know, the term “singularity” comes from physics and refers to the center of a black hole, where the laws of physics as we know them cease to operate. This is used as a metaphor for technological leaps forward that are so impactful that people before the leap cannot recognise the world afterwards. In other words, it’s used to signify highly unpredictable outcomes of a new advancement in technology.
Taking this point of view, it could be argued that we have already experienced multiple technological singularities – from the printing press to the dawn of social media. So, will there be some drastic change in our future due to advancements in AI? Yes, I think so. They are already happening.
It’s not all bad though, maybe even mostly good. There are many examples of how AI can be used to improve our society. AI is rapidly augmenting healthcare and longevity. Self-driving cars could lead to a huge decline in fatal road accidents. Many dangerous and arduous jobs are being automated, thanks to AI. Of course, there are just as many possible negative outcomes – mass job-displacement, economic disruption and growing inequality. Not to mention the risk of oppressive state surveillance, deepfakes, autonomous weapons, etc.
So whether or not there is a point in the future where AI’s develop ‘super intelligence’, it’s clear that technology will pose a ‘threat’ to civilization as we know it. What’s unclear is whether this will be a positive change, or if it will lead humanity further down the path of self-destruction.
Phew, that got deep. To be honest, this whole subject fascinates me. I am currently in the midst of toying around with machine learning and AI tools in my music-making process, so this is all fresh and exciting new territory for me. It’s a new way to think about music creation, where the relationship with technology becomes less one-sided, and more collaborative.
What were you crazy and passionate about as a kid?
I loved video games as a kid. I wasn’t allowed to have a console at home though, so I used to have to call over to friend’s place to play them. He had a Nintendo and we’d spend hours on it. Later came the Nintendo 64. I remember the days of 4-player shoot ‘em ups on a tiny TV screen. Those were competitive times!
Of course, this was all pre-iPhones and pre-Facebook, so we did a lot of outdoors stuff too. Playing football, climbing trees, swimming in the sea, racing our bikes. Then I discovered music and that all changed!
What was your first musical memory?
Neither of my parents were massively into music, certainly not to the degree I am now. I also had no older siblings to point me in any interesting directions so I don’t really remember having a ‘wow’ moment early on. I vaguely remember an old walkman I had that had speed and direction control of the tape. I used to think the effect it had was pretty cool on the pop cassettes I had at the time – guess I was around 7 or 8 then?
I remember getting into Dance Ejay a bit after that, then on to Sonic Foundry Acid. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but I enjoyed trying to cut up and reassemble audio loops.
What are some of the small things that you miss about life in Dublin?
Well to be honest, it’s really the big things that I miss like my family and friends. There are certain things that I miss about Dublin, but I also feel at home in Berlin now, having lived here for 10 years.
I definitely miss the casual banter of Dubliners. And the sea. Growing up beside the sea and suddenly moving to an inland city is disorientating. The air is different and I have no reference point.
I also miss the supermarkets! The selection seems to be much bigger. I love cooking and it can be a struggle to find certain things in Berlin supermarkets. It’s like they’re still playing catch up.
One thing that I don’t miss is the Irish government’s attitude towards nightlife. It’s really archaic and stunting in terms of the cultural development of the city. Everything being forced to close at 2:30 makes it really difficult to organise shows, and Dublin has such a great music scene that deserves to grow. It’s a real shame.
Thankfully, the scene continues to grow in spite of this, due to the determination of the people behind it, but it could be so much more. There’s a real magic there.
I miss the vibe of Dublin techno nights a lot. I used to go to gigs by myself. There was a real sense of belonging – and not just in a ‘good old days’ nostalgic way (well, maybe a little). I remember that no one in my class at university (or at my high school for that matter) was into the music I liked. This was the first time I found people who were into the same things I was. Nowadays, they are some of my closest friends.
What is your advice on where not to go and what not to do in Dublin for someone who has never been there before?
Hard one to answer really, mainly because I realise I don’t know the city as well as I used to. I personally avoid the city center during peak times as it gets pretty full. I am not one for massive crowds and bustling shops.
I would say try to not focus the whole trip on the inner city – head out to the outskirts too. There are some really nice spots along the coast that are worth a visit. Bray, Greystones, Dalkey, Howth are all pretty idyllic. If you can manage, get out of the city altogether and head along the coast. There’s nothing quite like the scenery of rural Ireland.
What are some of the weirdest things you’ve sampled?
“Weird” can mean lots of differing things in this context. Strange-looking objects often don’t sound so strange in the end! The recording technique can also totally transform the output, so there are certainly some weird things to discuss there. Or is a weird thing a surprising or unexpected result from recording? I reckon it’s probably all that stuff?
Focusing on the objects first, the weirdest recording experience I had was probably when we snuck onto the demolition site of an old GDR power plant in Eastern Germany. It was this immense structure that had been quite literally half-demolished. It was like someone took a giant knife and sliced the structure in two. All of the facade had collapsed and the building was hanging in half. I spent a good hour exploring the rubble and came away covered in filth, with a memory card full of cool recordings. A lot of them ended up on my “Rust” album. The closing track “Thierbach Demolish” is composed entirely of processed recordings from that day.
The mics used, as well as how you excite an object into producing sound, can lead to vastly differing results. I remember setting up a pair of contact mics on a clothes drying rack and ‘plucking’ the rungs. It ended up creating this really bizarre, stringed sound. An object doesn’t have to be perceived as weird to sound weird!
Nowhere is this more true than with coil pickup microphones. I based my “Home Recordings” EP on this idea. Sampling the otherwise inaudible electromagnetic fields of various household electronics opened my ears to a hidden world of sound. The title track is made almost entirely from these sounds, mostly unprocessed.
Does your music reflect your inner state and personality or it’s more of an external exploration?
Definitely both! I certainly like to explore concepts when working on a release. It’s my way of trying something new, and at the same time finding a coherent thread to tie the tracks together. Building an immersive listening experience is something I try my best at, especially when it comes to albums. ‘Faction’ was written as the bleak soundtrack to a future war. ‘Rust’ explored metal, corrosion and decay. ‘Home Recordings’ tapped into the unheard world of the electromagnetic fields emitted by consumer electronics. ‘Against the Dying Light’ is all about fear and hope.
Having some kind of a narrative helps me write and sound design. This is something I try to apply right across my range of musical endeavors, even DJ sets.
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life?
I believe in mindfulness and seeing beauty in the everyday. I don’t find value or meaning in trying to rate these experiences against each other. I love nature and am often stunned by its beauty. I also find beauty in the kindness people show each other.
You’ve mentioned how in your free time you sometimes binge watch tv shows, so what series would you notably recommend and why?
Ha! I had a feeling that would come back to bite me! It’s true, often I am destroyed after work and lacking the energy to dive straight into the studio. Other times, I might be nursing a hangover and feeling lazy. I feel it’s healthy to not to be too hard on myself. Downtime is essential. There are lots of great shows out there. In no particular order, here are a few I enjoyed recently: Twin Peaks, Counterpart, 1983, True Detective, Kingdom. I am sure there is plenty more I am forgetting, but these stick out in my memory.
In what ways do you deceive yourself?
I tend not to do things by half measures, so if I knew the ways I deceive myself, they wouldn’t be deceptions. I guess I often fall into the trap of over-valuing certain things in my music. Spending two hours on 30 seconds of audio trying to get that kick-bass relationship just right… Who really notices these things at the end of the day? Nobody will ever listen to the music you make with the same level of critical analysis. When you’re hearing a track for the 100th or 200th time, what meaning does it have anymore, beyond the mistakes, real or imagined? The notion of a perfect mixdown is deceiving I think. Mixdowns are all about compromises between a clean mix and the attitude of a track, and there is no single golden rule to follow.
What have you learned through your journey as Swarm Intelligence?
I’m constantly learning new tricks and techniques. There is so much I want to improve about my sound, my approaches, my setup. If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that there’s always more to learn. In terms of concrete realisations, here are a few…
- No single piece of equipment you can buy is more important than investing in a good listening setup.
- Reference tracks really do help.
- When it comes to building relationships in the music world, what you put in is what you get out – sending a copy/paste text to 100 labels with your single-track demo probably won’t get you very far. Aim to build real, honest relationships instead. If you want to be respected, treat others with respect.
- The best way you can repay the kindness shown by the people who helped you climb up the ladder is by showing the same kindness to others.
- When playing on stage, things will go wrong. It’s part of performing and it’s almost never as bad as you imagine. I once blue-screened while a piercing sound got stuck in the sound card’s buffer. Had to apologise to the crowd while I rebooted my machine.
- Failures are opportunities to learn and get better. If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never progress.
Do you have any specific ambitions with your music?
Plenty! First and foremost, I want to learn and get better. I want to refine my sound and take it to new places. I want to play bigger and better live shows. I want to challenge and re-imagine my idea of techno and hear the outcome over big speaker stacks in front of a huge crowd.
What question would you like to be asked at an interview and what would your answer be?
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