Interview: Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
Initially I'm pretty sure I just saw my dad playing and wanted to do it too. He was a primary school music specialist so instruments were always around the house. I started playing the piano and cornet when I was 6 and did my first school musical at 8. That was pretty much when I knew that’s what I wanted to do and I've always found ways to be involved and make music ever since. I was lucky to grow up at a time when there was a lot of free provision in schools and through the county for musical experiences. As a result I've played in most types of ensemble and learned a whole range of instruments including french horn, guitar and piano before settling on bass as my main instrument. The last few years I’ve got into making my own digital art so maybe I’d be doing something to do with that. In all honesty though music has been such an integral part of who I am for so long I can’t really imagine doing anything else.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I’m a huge nerd when it comes to tv, film and videogames – particularly sci-fi and superhero genres - so my escape from my own creativity tends to be into other peoples. When I was younger I read all the time and listened to music constantly as well which is kind of the same thing really. I’m very analytical by nature so absorbing all that stuff and really thinking about how it’s put together and what I like and don’t like about it is bound to feed back into how I make things too. When I do actually make it outdoors I really enjoy walking and taking photos. I love exploring cities and being out in the countryside. There’s just so much stimulation to take in that I’m constantly taking pictures on my phone to consider later. This also gives me a huge resource pool to play with in creating abstract digital art. I share it regularly on my Instagram and it means I always have images to choose from when I need new cover art for my releases.
How long has your band been together?
Pointless Beauty is a concept that I’ve been working on since about 2013. The membership shifts depending on the needs of the current project. All of the members run projects in their own right too so it’s helpful to keep things fluid anyway, but it also means there’s always something fresh about the way the music is approached. That said many of the players appear on more than one album. George Cooper and I go back around 18 yrs through three other bands before Pointless Beauty became my focus. I’ve recorded and toured with Jon Clark since about 2016 and Ant Law since about 2018. Gary Alesbrook is someone I’ve deeply respected for a few years and this project finally gave me the opportunity to invite him in to the fold.
Where are you based and how did that influence your music?
I’m based in Bristol, having moved here from Exeter in 2016, but most of the music for the upcoming release ‘Hearts Full of Grace’ was composed during lockdown. Normal working life collapsed for musicians. There were good things and bad about that. There was a lot of anxiety around an already unstable source of income performing being completely removed. For a lot of us the sense of self and positive mental health is also tied up in interacting with others through music. Suddenly we couldn’t perform or even be within a few feet of other people. On the positive side organisations really rallied and provided a lot of training and forums for creative people to meet via Zoom. I made several really great friends during that time that I would never have got to know otherwise. I’m pleased to say quite a few of those support networks survived and are still really helping me. It was perhaps fortunate that lockdown happened during a really beautiful Spring / Summer. The incredible quiet when road travel was restricted was wonderful and stays with me. So peaceful. All these experiences and more really form the basis of the album. Different perceptions of isolation, both positive and negative, inspiring a heartfelt celebration of the power of community.
How did you come up with the name of your band and what does it mean to you?
The name Pointless Beauty started as a slightly defensive reaction to feeling like our society only values things for the ability to monetise them. Over time though it shifted for me into something more subtle. There is beauty all around us and anything that makes us feel an emotion can be regarded as beautiful. A rainbow has no purpose (and could therefore be regarded as financially pointless) but is universally accepted as beautiful. Finding a new way to make my wife smile does not benefit the economy but is, rightly, the highlight of my day. There’s a power in sharing our emotive experiences and celebrating them for the release they bring in the moment without fear of judgement. I have an FB group (Pointless Beauty Community) dedicated to just this. It’s not even about sharing my work I just enjoy encouraging people to share those moments in a non-transactional way that I refer to as Pointless Beauty. It’s really great how people have latched onto the concept and will point things out to me as being Pointless Beauty quite independently.
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
The best shows are always the ones where someone unexpected comes up and tells you how much they loved what you’re doing. I’m in a weird space where the music I make is inspired by jazz but doesn’t fit what most people think that word means. For me the word just means ‘based around improvisation’. We’re dealing with 100 yrs + of music now but there’s still a heavy sense of ownership from people who think it just means Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra or Wes Montgomery. I grew up loving all those things but also Weather Report and Jan Garbarek and Return to Forever and so much more. It’s all jazz to me and I think the people who love my music the most are those that also have a broader taste in listening. I’m really happy when people come up and say ‘we don’t normally like jazz, but we liked that’ or ‘I saw Zappa in ’76 and you took me right back’ or ‘that was awesome, you’ve really inspired me to go and experiment myself’.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
Show up on time and be prepared. If you want a career working for other people keep your opinions to yourself. People don’t value honesty as much as you’d think. If you’re going to be an artist make yourself an open book. People value honesty more than you’d think. The reality of those conflicting statements is just as hard to live as it is to advise.
If you could go back in time and give yourselves advice, what would it be?
Don’t be so afraid to talk to people or ask for help. Don’t take being ignored or knocked back personally. Be tenacious.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
They all mean a lot to me for various reasons. The Shrug perhaps stands out for being the only track on the album not to have been written during lockdown. I originally composed it back in 2005 in response to a friend’s personal tragedy. It’s a gospel jazz ballad representing how sometimes we can only have non-verbal responses to trauma. Sometimes we're just so sad that when someone asks a well intentioned 'how are you doing?' all you can do is shrug. I wanted it to communicate that melancholy but also the optimism that it doesn't last forever and things do get better. It seemed really appropriate to include a new recording of this tune as part of this album.
What is your creative process for the band and what inspires you to write your music?
I go through fairly long periods of experimenting and improvising. Recording jams and editing and refining them until they feel like they have a shape I’m comfortable with. I’ll consider what sort of narrative vibe I want from an album and experiment with track ordering. I’m always aiming for around a forty five minute experience as I think that’s what naturally suits a proactive attention span. Once all that’s in place I’ll think about who I’d like to work with on bringing it to life. I’m a multi-instrumentalist so there’s a lot I can do myself but ultimately it’s other people’s personalities and talents that really challenge the music to become unique. Working as an independent artist means that all expenses fall to me so my way of working is very much framed around getting the most out of a situation in a very short period of time.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
I want to provide a stimulus for personal reflection. If a melody stays in your head and encourages you to spend time reflecting on what you're feeling that is a wonderful thing. The current album is really about reflecting on isolation and celebrating community.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I fully intend to keep innovating as a composer and producer. I’m not a natural planner but I am a constant enthusiast. I’ll have ten new ideas a day and want to do all of them. Which is why the Pointless Beauty project operates in the way it does. It’s hard wired into the ethos of what I’m doing to keep striving for the unexplored.
The most important thing I have coming up is the release of Al Swainger’s Pointless Beauty – Hearts Full of Grace on June 1st through bandcamp (music.alswainger.com). The first single from the album (The Shrug) is now available on both bandcamp and all major streaming services.
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Spotify: Al Swainger's Pointless Beauty