— Swindle —

On South London, Butterz, ‘Do The Jazz’, touring with Mala, travel, belief systems, collaboration, love, energy, care, battling racism and shaping THE NEW WORLD on his forthcoming new album.

(All photos submitted by Swindle – photo credit: Lauren Luxenberg)

Peace, love and music are three words that have become synonymous with Swindle over the best part of the last 10 years. An extraordinary music-maker and multi-instrumentalist who feels the power of music in the most visceral sense — both as a universal shared experience, but also as a grounding spiritual force— his sound has grown as he has, taking cues from the people and the places he encounters along the way. For Swindle it seems, nothing is overlooked — and everything is cherished. As our chat window opens early on Tuesday evening, studio walls adorned with keyboards and synths, he looks every bit like a musician back in the groove. And his energy is infectious, too. 

“I feel good in myself man, yeah”, he says brightly as we begin our conversation. “I feel like I’ve ironed out a few creases over lockdown, I’m excited to put music out again, I’ve been taking care of myself mentally and physically and although there’s been ups and downs, I’m just super grateful for the ups.” Was it tough to adjust to lockdown routine, I ask? “I mean, life up until the end of 2019 was amazing, I had some of the greatest moments of my life in that time”, Swindle acknowledges. “But it was very busy. I realised that getting on 12 flights in a month isn’t normal. Going through all these different time zones, putting my body through all that stress … it wasn’t normal. I guess naturally it would manifest in ways I wouldn’t always notice, so I was probably neglecting myself a little bit. I understand that now.”

For all the time afforded however, the lockdown period was also overshadowed by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020— a moment that forced Swindle to confront memories of a life he thought he’d long left behind. Born in Brixton in the late ‘80s, he recalls much of his time there with a broad smile and excitable, expressive gestures. “I’ve got really fond memories of Our Price, you know the CD shop?”, he asks, grinning. “We used to see Linton Kwesi Johnson all the time back then as well and he was a local celebrity at the time. I remember going to Brixton market, the fish flapping around and all that. Everything about my time in Brixton felt positive … and then we moved to Wallington when I was about 10. My parents wanted to move us to Surrey because there were good schools there and hopefully it’d give us a better chance of getting into some. It was a mixed experience, especially at first. The streets we moved into were pretty aggressively racist and I had never experienced anything like that. I didn’t realise the relevance of my colour at all, it was non-existent to me until I moved there. I struggled with it. I ended up fighting a lot at the first primary school I went to, ended up being moved to another primary school and then I guess became the naughty kid to kind of deal with that, you know. I’d be walking the streets near my house and there’d be swastikas on the wall, NF (National Front) tags scrawled everywhere. It was pretty fucked up. I only really thought about it all again, you know going back over my life, after everything that happened last year.”

“I’d be walking the streets near my house and there’d be swastikas on the wall, NF (National Front) tags scrawled everywhere. It was pretty fucked up.”

It would be in music that Swindle would find his salvation. Interestingly, myself and Swindle went to the same high school in Sutton — a large town sitting somewhere between Croydon and Wimbledon in South London, a once leafy suburb but now fast-growing commuter overspill. We were a year apart and not particularly close back then, but I always remember his grin. He’d often, admittedly, be sent out of lessons — I have vivid memories of seeing him sat trying to make passers by laugh in the modern languages corridor — but he was always mischievous rather than malicious. “Ah yeah, I was never mean to anyone”, he says as we trade school memories. “I was just naughty. Do you know by the end of it I wasn’t allowed in school without my mum? I’d been disqualified from some of my GCSEs, I’d been suspended more times than I can remember and my mum just said, ‘Look, he’s doing his exams, if you let him stay in school, I’ll come in with him’. She’d come in with me and sit at reception and then take me out of school at break times and then bring me back in again for whatever lessons I’d have afterwards. I still managed to get caught smoking behind the huts (bike sheds) once and then got kicked out while my mum was there. I never got to go to my prom or any of that as a result. While this was all happening though, music was always there.”

In Brixton, he’d learnt to play the guitar — “the first stuff I learnt was by Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King” — and he recalls there were always keyboards around the house. His dad — a massive fan of artists like Chaka Khan, George Benson and Quincy Jones — had a record collection brimming with rare 12”s that Swindle has since inherited and built on, while his mum listened to lots of reggae and ska. It was a mix that made his approach to all aspects of music — creating, consuming, performing — not only unique, but fearless.  “I used to make ringtones on people’s 3310s at school as well”, he notes. “I’d swap burgers from the canteen and cigarettes for ringtones … I remember making ‘138 Trek’ for someone at lunchtime once. When I was in college, it all switched up and everyone started rapping and spitting bars, so as a producer and someone that could make beats, I realised people respected what I could do.”

“I used to make ringtones on people’s 3310s at school as well. I’d swap burgers from the canteen and cigarettes for ringtones … I remember making ‘138 Trek’ for someone at lunchtime once.”

“I was into drum & bass like everyone else was at the time”, he says when I ask about his own tastes and how they compared to friends at school. “I remember I always used to buy the One Nation tape packs and they kinda inspired me to learn to DJ at about 13, maybe 14. I learnt on vinyl and it was all drum & bass … RAM Records, Full Cycle, all of that. Garage was happening as well at the same time so there was a bit of crossover. I’d record drum & bass mixes in my garage and then go to my mates house and we’d record garage tapes with MCs from school. I remember stepping back from that for a bit to make beats, which is when all the Take 2 Win stuff started to happen.”

Take 2 Win were a crew comprised of local MCs including Sedman — an artist once tipped for a bright future in grime — who had started to make waves in the area. His debut tape, ‘Da Takeover Vol 1’, was largely produced by Swindle and featured breakout full crew anthem ’Stop It’, which earned plenty of rotation on Channel U in 2005. “In different times, we were getting somewhere, I know it”, says Swindle. “Unfortunately, a lot of stuff happened and it didn’t work out, but after that I felt like I was on my own for a bit.”

It was a period of transition that’d see him start to look beyond the borders of South London and instead start to link up with prominent MCs of the time — names like Purple, Ghetts and Big Narstie. Based out of legendary engineer Danny C’s studio in Greenwich and later Bermondsey — itself a hub for an emergent generation of grime MCs and producers in the mid ‘00s — it was a move that’d launch Swindle’s career proper. His debut tape, ‘The 140 Mixtape’, released in 2007 and was a testament to his legacy at Danny C’s A.I.M Studio, featuring collaborations with everyone from aforementioned names like Ghetts and Big Narstie to Nolay, UKG pirate radio kings Nikkie S & Nyke, Bruza, Baby Katie (early moniker of Katy B), Mz Bratt and Little Dee. “I used to take the whole ends up there”, Swindle recalls, grinning. “You had to walk through New Cross and Deptford to get to where the studio was, so we’d roll up there with the whole of Take 2 Win, 15 man deep. Back then though, I still saw it as a side thing. I knew I was becoming someone if you like, but I knew it wasn’t like any of those artists I was working with were rich yet. Danny C helped me a lot though. I rang him recently actually and it made me realise he was the first person to really try and big brother me, you know. I remember he met my dad and he was like, ‘your son’s got something really special, he’s really talented, he could really do this’. There was definitely a sense of community there too, and that’s basically how I met everyone in East London because I didn’t know anyone before that. I linked up with everyone on the mixtape there I think. Well there and via just hitting people up on MySpace.” Was he confident back then, I ask? “Yeah I was confident”, he says assuredly, “…almost to the point of being cocky.”

With music still very much a side hustle, Swindle found himself working job after job to make ends meet. “I worked in Peacocks in Wallington for a bit, that was my first job”, he recalls. “I got the sack from there, then went to Next and got the sack from there, Mad House in Croydon and got the sack from there as well. I was still in that school mode of just being a joker, really. My first serious job was at Abbey National and I worked there just as it got taken over by Santander. That was the longest I’d held down a job at that point and I felt like I was getting somewhere. I went from cashier to personal banking advisor pretty quickly but I hated the job and I hated the people. I lost my temper one day and you know me, I’m energetic, so if I lose my temper it comes with the same energy as when I’m being a joker or whatever. I ended up getting suspended but a week prior to that, I’d just got my first PRS cheque from a track I’d made with Ashley Walters (‘With You’ ft. Mutya Buena). A guy from your year at school was going to Morocco that week and asked if I wanted to go with him, so we dust out to Morocco and the Abbey National called me … I knew they were gonna sack me … but they were like ‘oh we’re here at your disciplinary hearing’ and asking where I was and I was like, ‘I’m in Morocco man, stick your job!’ kinda thing. I’d been living in Croydon and really struggling really to be honest. I remember my rent and bills were £1150 and I was getting paid £1016 a month. I ended up moving back into my mum’s, using a chunk of the PRS cheque to help turn her basement into a studio and we rented out my older brother’s old room to exchange students. We’d get up and make breakfast for these students before they went off on their day trips or whatever, and in the meantime, I was building the studio as best I could. I grinded hard back then.”

From his mum’s basement, Swindle penned some of his earliest and most iconic productions; ‘Airmiles’, ‘Who Said Funk’, ‘Mood Swings’. “Things started to move at that point”, he notes. “It was like the beginning of the next chapter of my life really. I remember it was around that time that I first got to DJ abroad in Amsterdam as well. My mates were like, ‘are they gonna pay for your flights?’ and I was like, ’they’re gonna pay for my flights and pay me as well!’. I couldn’t believe it, bruv. I remember when I got there and Hatcha, who I knew from Croydon, was there already and so was Joker. Me and Joker had been speaking on MSN for years but had never linked up in person properly before so it was mad. They were playing the main room and us lot … me, Elijah & Skilliam … were playing the side room at this club and I was like ’nah, I want in with these lot’. They were drinking champagne, the crowds were huge. I just knew I wanted in with that.”

In Elijah & Skilliam and the wider Butterz label network, Swindle found friendship, guidance and consistency too — important foundations laid early. A formative member of sorts — “Terror Danjah originally put me onto Elijah in 2010 but they were just known as the Butterz DJs then” — Swindle’s Butterz career now spans seven 12” records, one studio album and a nine-track compilation. He was a fixture at some of the label’s now iconic parties at both East Village and later, Cable, in the early 2010s too — memories he still looks back on warmly. “I remember playing b2b with Joker, with Skepta and JME on mic at Cable”, Swindle recalls, scratching his head almost in bewilderment. “I remember pulling up that night and seeing Skepta, JME and Jammer outside arguing with the security like, ‘nah, nah you have to let us in, we’re the special guests tonight’ and they were having none of it. The club actually used to say to Elijah that he couldn’t bill MCs on the line-up because of the threat of violence … we know what they really meant but anyway … so all of those guys used to turn up un-billed. You couldn’t book any of those guys now, it just wouldn’t happen, but back then they all used to jump on set. If you try and tell people about all of that stuff nowadays, people think you’re lying.”

“I remember pulling up that night and seeing Skepta, JME and Jammer outside arguing with the security like, ‘nah, nah you have to let us in, we’re the special guests tonight’ and they were having none of it.”

“Elijah and Skilliam broke the mould of how independent labels could be for me”, he continues. “A lot of labels around at the time were really cliquey, but Butterz always saw what was best for the artist. They’d be like ‘Royal-T, you should do an album with Rinse, it’s the best thing for you’. They never tried to own anyone or withhold their masters, none of that. They encouraged me to work with people outside the label too because they saw it’d be good for me, and that’s the main reason we’re still a unit to this day. When I went to do ‘Peace, Love & Music’ in 2015, they allowed me to use their entire machine, all their facilities, as well as retain my masters. Nobody does that, do you know what I mean? I sold all the records on Bandcamp and they didn’t take a penny off me. Butterz has always been more about building the foundations than being the biggest label in the game.”

“Butterz has always been more about building the foundations than being the biggest label in the game.”

Through his work with Butterz, Swindle was also earmarked by Deep Medi early in his career. His debut Medi plate, ‘Forest Funk’, was released in 2012 and lit the touch paper for a relationship with Mala that would later inform the title of his debut album proper (‘Long Live The Jazz’). “Mala was another person to big brother me in a way”, Swindle says fondly. “His ‘Mala In Cuba’ album had just dropped at the time of ‘Forest Funk’ and he told me that Brownswood were looking to set up this band and that he wanted me to come and play keys because he knew me and thought it’d be a good opportunity. I told him I’d never played keys on stage before but he basically said, ‘well learn the parts and come and play’ kinda thing. That was my first experience being part of a live outfit and figuring out how that all works, which in turn, inspired me to launch my own live show. I think we played 44 dates on the ‘Mala In Cuba’ tour and I was around Mala a lot. He gave me a lot of good advice and he definitely influenced me in terms of how I carry myself and how I treat people as well. It was good for me to learn from him.”

“You know that’s where ‘Do The Jazz’ comes from, innit”, Swindle continues. “I used to send Mala all these bangers, but then I’d also send him tracks like ‘Mischief’ and ‘If I Was A Super Hero’ and all this mad funk and jazz stuff at 140bpm. He’d always tell me that’s what I should be doing. I remember the phone call quite clearly where he told me that if I didn’t follow that path, someone else would do it and I’d regret it. He finished the call by just saying ‘Do the jazz’. That was it. The album was called ‘Long Live The Jazz’ as a result.”

“I used to send Mala all these bangers, but then I’d also send him tracks like ‘Mischief’ and ‘If I Was A Super Hero’ and all this mad funk and jazz stuff at 140bpm. He’d always tell me that’s what I should be doing. I remember the phone call quite clearly where he told me that if I didn’t follow that path, someone else would do it and I’d regret it. He finished the call by just saying ‘Do the jazz’.”

At 13 tracks, ‘Long Live The Jazz’ was a full-blooded tribute to Swindle’s unique brand of funk, birthing tracks like ‘Ignition’, ‘Kick It’ and ‘Do The Jazz’ — beats that caught the ear of Gilles Peterson and Brownswood, who would later sign Swindle up for three-track EP, ‘Walter’s Call’, in 2014; released as a joint venture with Mala and Deep Medi. “‘Walter’s Call’ was the first track I made with the intention of it being played live, rather than the live element being an afterthought”, he explains. “I showed it to Gilles and Emily at Brownswood and that was the beginning of that relationship and that record, really.” How did it feel to get Gilles’ blessing, I ask? “Bruv, do you know he went to Greenshaw (the school we both attended in Sutton)? I swear down. One day, I was staying at my grandparents place in West London while they were in Jamaica and recording some bits in their front room, and I was talking to Gilles on the phone and I mentioned my mum’s place in Wallington. He said, ’Ah, you know I grew up in Cheam?’. I couldn’t believe it. In passing, I then mentioned I went to school in Sutton and it turns out he went to Greenshaw too. So that’s you, me, Gilles Peterson and Bradley McIntosh from S Club 7. What a legacy.”

With a bustling discography and a growing reputation, Swindle was now in demand and soon found himself heading to parts of the world he’d never even dreamed of as a kid; Japan, Brazil, the US, China, South Africa. “It was crazy, bruv”, he says, half shaking his head. “I always used to question why I got to do this. I was never destined for success. School was a complete failure and that was the talk around me and my name, I was gonna be a failure you know? Because of what had happened to some of my friends growing up, I dunno, I just used to think ‘why me?’. I remember starting to give thanks and asking for guidance and I guess I became more aligned with consciousness. The penny dropped that I should probably start recording in all of these amazing places I was getting to go to, you know. To go somewhere, play a few tunes and then jump back on a plane and fly home felt like a waste of time and a waste of an opportunity. I started asking where the nearest studio was and who the local musicians were wherever I was and I’d just jump into sessions. I remember we were in China and there was a girl who played a guzheng and I was like, ‘What’s a guzheng?’. Two minutes later I’m on YouTube like ‘how to mic a guzheng’, you know. I learnt a lot of the production skills I still use today on those two records; ‘Peace, Love & Music’ (2015) and ’Trilogy In Funk’ (2017).”

“To go somewhere, play a few tunes and then jump back on a plane and fly home felt like a waste of time and a waste of an opportunity. I started asking where the nearest studio was and who the local musicians were wherever I was and I’d just jump into sessions. I remember we were in China and there was a girl who played a guzheng and I was like, ‘What’s a guzheng?’. Two minutes later I’m on YouTube like ‘how to mic a guzheng’, you know.”

“It was like I’d won the lottery, I felt so blessed”, Swindle continues. “Travelling to all these places is where a lot of the messaging started. If I’m playing in front of a thousand people four nights a week all over the world, I started to think like, ‘maybe I could get them to hold up a peace sign or shout ‘long live the jazz’. I started challenging myself and thinking about how I could leave people with a positive experience. Before going on the decks, I’d sit there with my head down and ask for strength and power and for the chance to leave people with positive memories. It helped me feel a sense of unity and oneness and it made me appreciate people and love people in a way that I hadn’t before, especially if you consider how Wallington was for me in those early years. It became my belief system, basically. Anything that comes to me through music, I now have to repay with music. That’s the ecosystem, that’s how it works.” Was he lacking a belief system before, I ask? “Yeah, totally”, he replies firmly. “Now I understand religious people in a way. I pray like them, just in a different way. I suppose I can compare people worshipping together to the dance floor. It’s never about me praying to them, it’s about us, the collective. Whenever you get hundreds or thousands of people experiencing the same thing at the same time, it’s incredibly powerful. People say that praying in community is more powerful and I can tell you that’s true because it used to happen every Friday night.”

“I started challenging myself and thinking about how I could leave people with a positive experience. Before going on the decks, I’d sit there with my head down and ask for strength and power and for the chance to leave people with positive memories. It helped me feel a sense of unity and oneness and it made me appreciate people and love people in a way that I hadn’t before, especially if you consider how Wallington was for me in those early years.”

After spending so long on the road touring, 2019 would signal a shift in focus. ‘No More Normal’, Swindle’s acclaimed third album and musically most dexterous, turned away from the dance floor momentarily and instead looked to moments away from the club. Released by Brownswood, it was a record that firmly laid down a marker. “I’d been speaking to Elijah a lot”, Swindle explains, “and he asked what would happen if I stayed in one place for a while and just made music for the sake of making music. A lot of my early tunes were made to play at Cable the day before, literally, but I decided to step away from that for a second … and ‘No More Normal’ was a by-product of that thought process.”

The tracklist birthed collaborations with long-time collaborators like Ghetts — ‘Drill Work’ is one of the album standouts — while also ushering in a new vanguard, including  Kojey Radical, whom Swindle had first met in Russia and has since played Jools Holland with. “Elijah had already told me I should check him out”, he recalls. “Sure enough, I loved his stuff and we ended up meeting at this venue in Russia. He was doing the day party, where as I was playing at night, but we managed to speak loads and connected pretty quickly. Two days later, we got home and went to Red Bull Studios in London and recorded ‘Water’ and ‘Coming Home’ back to back.”

If collaboration was a feature of ‘No More Normal’, then it’s at the very core of forthcoming nine-track album, ’THE NEW WORLD’, which boasts link-ups with everyone from Akala and Joy Crookes to Greentea Peng and Loyle Carner. Freshly announced with ‘Darkest Hour’ — a beautiful, soulful record featuring Poppy Ajudha and long-time collaborator, Daley — it’s an album built on love, empathy and catharsis too. “It was an accident if I’m honest”, Swindle explains, “but it happened in response to everything that happened last year. The first part of the lockdown was great, just being at home and writing tunes in my studio, spending time with my kids. But then the George Floyd incident happened and everything changed. There was mad social discourse, hooligans running around central. It was so draining. I tried to pick myself up by connecting with other people but everyone was feeling the same. All creation just stopped and there was no inspiration. I remember being on the phone to Joel Culpepper and we were both just like, ‘fuck it, let’s just get away, let’s go to Real World (the iconic recording studio in Bath, founded by Peter Gabriel). We knew we could just get everyone together, have conversations, make music and figure out how we were gonna move forward together. I guess we saw it as like a musical retreat for us. I put out a load of texts and off we went. We made shit loads of music and I retained the best for this album. It’s definitely hyper-collaborative, it’s a we album more than a me album. ’No More Normal’ took me three years of fine-tuning, where as ’THE NEW WORLD’ was written in that few weeks.”

“It was just an amazing time”, he continues. “The conversations even, as well as the music, were just as important. We all just kinda healed together as an unlikely group of people. Loyle Carner had never met Ghetts for example, so he was gassed to meet him. Things like that were like were kinda crazy. Everyone had so much to hear from Akala as well, who was speaking with everyone about what had been going on. I made a decision not to document it all too … no cameras, no mic, nothing. People could come and go as they pleased, there were no rules, it was just a free space to create for us all. That’s how the music all came together. It was amazing, it really was. I mean JNR Williams wrote a song on the piano and sang it to us and everyone, and I mean everyone, cried. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t there will ever understand our time there. It was special.”

“The conversations even, as well as the music, were just as important. We all just kinda healed together as an unlikely group of people.”

As for the future, what does he want the new world to look like, I ask, before we part ways for the night. “I don’t think we get to choose”, Swindle says without hesitation. “I think we just get to decide who we are. Harness your inner power, choose your team and put that out into the world. In that sense, we all decide what the new world is gonna look like.” 

Swindle’s new album ‘THE NEW WORLD’ releases on October 29:

https://swindleuk.bandcamp.com/album/the-new-world

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