How Francis Bacon’s studio inspired the visual language of Forest Swords’ Compassion

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Forest Swords practices the art of Compassion on weighty new LP.

Since the release of Compassion last week, Matthew Barnes aka Forest Swords has spoken eloquently about the influence of history and time on his music, providing continuity to with aptly titled Engravings of 2013 and the cold complexities of the modern world.

Rather than recourse to the ancient, Barnes has tried to find a path for his music that is not weighed down by time (perhaps like the figure on the cover) but exists outside it.

As a result, the aesthetic of the unearthed runs through the striking release, from incidental found archive photos to portraits of immigrants in post-Victorian Liverpool, staging nameless encounters between today’s listeners and historical characters who appear as apparitions across the record sleeves.

And the unlikely inspiration for this came from photos of Francis Bacon’s studio, where images that would later become oil-painted portraits, lay strewn across the floor, damaged and dog-eared.

“They were ripped and knackered, with bits of paint stepped on them and smudged to hell,” Barnes explains. “They’re nearly as powerful as his paintings to me and I got totally obsessed with them. That kind of degradation is actually difficult to fake…”

In that context, understanding what informed the artwork to the release, all designed by Barnes himself, somehow seems as crucial as talking solely about the music.

Your background is in graphic design – have you always had a hand in your record sleeves?

Right from the start, yeah. I spend so long on the music that I still haven’t got my head around handing over the design or layout to other people. It’s not necessarily a control freak thing, it’s more that I need to make sure everything fits together the way I want it, and it’s a lot speedier for me to do all that myself.

What spoke to you about the image that you chose for the cover and how does it relate to the themes of the album?

As soon as I saw the image I knew I had to use it. I always work pretty instinctually like that. It was partly that it was just quite a weird photograph: I couldn’t read the emotion on the guy’s face, I couldn’t place where it was taken, or when. I did find out eventually. It just seemed to sum up what I try and make with the music: something that’s timeless – as in, you can’t particularly date it – and something that veers between different emotions.

As a visual metaphor, it seemed to fit with the feel and themes of the record as well. There’s this big, heavy piece of weight and you’re doing your best to balance it, navigate it, or even find joy in it. It looked meditative, maybe. I’ve stared at the photo for hours trying to work it out and figure out what’s going on. I should make it clear that it’s definitely not me though, although there’s something fun in people assuming it is.

There’s a dusty, ‘found’ feel to the inner sleeves too – as if they come from another age. Did you treat the images after you found them? The cover almost looks like oxidised copper…

Yes, most of the imagery through all of this album – from the single sleeves to the tour flyers to the album artwork – is all treated and played with. Most are black and white images that I’ve layered up, or scanned in. As I said before about the music, I’m also really attracted to images where you can’t necessarily place the time it’s been made. The style reference for the artwork this time around was quite a singular thing, which is rare for me. I’d bought a book on Francis Bacon’s paintings, but rather than being inspired by the paintings themselves I was gobsmacked by the photos that they found on his studio floor by John Deakin (example 1 / example 2).

He worked mostly from photos, portraits of people. They were ripped and knackered, with bits of paint stepped on them and smudged to hell. They’re nearly as powerful as his paintings to me and I got totally obsessed with them. That kind of degradation is actually difficult to fake, so I ended up not trying to emulate it and instead just working with overlayed bits of paint that I’d do by hand or digitally on top of old photographs.

Aside from the videos I’ve done, 90% of the imagery I ever use is public domain, or out of copyright photography, or taken from old books and magazines. I’m a terrible nerd when it comes to rifling through photograph databases or secondhand shops and I love finding imagery from different sources that all compliment each other and work together, but that don’t necessarily look ‘vintage’. There’s something really nice about giving these old photographs – some of which were originally in quite mundane or obscure books – a new life in a different context. They still look totally fresh and powerful to me.

There’s a very physical, muscular feel to the these of images you’ve used. Could you expand a little on that?

I’d scored a contemporary dance piece, ‘Shrine’, earlier last year while I was recording the album. It was made out of breath and body sounds, and it got me really interested in the body as this working machine, or even just the idea of being ‘alive’. I found there was something really curious about juxtaposing these old images of bodies and torsos I’d found with rocks and boulders and landscapes. They seemed to bounce off each other.

In the deluxe edition art booklet, there’s also a bunch of portraits of people who’d emigrated through Liverpool – my home port – in the early 1900s. All of these sources just seemed to work in tandem, being sculptural in different ways and fitting with the themes of the record. So right throughout all the posters and artwork there are these different elements popping up here and there and playing off each other.

I briefly looked at doing a limited edition version of the record encased in some sort of rock packaging, too, though the costs of making and shipping that kind of thing are obviously ridiculous. Maybe I’ll have a go in future.

Forest Swords’ Compassion is out now via Ninja Tune.

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