Swimmer One: The band bringing philosophy to the dancefloor

This Scottish duo aim to cram deep ideas into light-hearted pop songs. Is it possible to dance and think at the same time?
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The Courthouse Kempinski, the hotel in which I meet Andrew Eaton and Hamish Brown, was, in a former life, the Great Marlborough Street magistrates’ court. It once housed such rock’n’roll reprobates as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for various drugs and firearms offences.

The thirtysomething duo behind Swimmer One, however, are less Mick’n’Keef and more kindred spirits of some of Great Marlborough Street’s other famous detainees: Oscar Wilde, Lionel Bart and Francis Bacon. After travelling down to London from their native Scotland for this interview, the pair headed straight for the very unrock’n’roll Sir John Soane’s Museum, a sub-rosa and thoroughly charming little curio tucked away in Lincoln’s Inn.

“A friend suggested that we visit it,” says Eaton, Swimmer One’s quietly charismatic singer and lyricist (“the feyest man ever to have a girlfriend”, according to the frontman of the London “pop noir” outfit Luxembourg, a friend of the band). We take our seats in a booth in the bar that has been converted from an old jail cell. Eaton and Brown sit on the bunk; there’s a privy in the corner sporting a yucca tree. “He was an architect in the 19th century who amassed this extraordinary collection of bits of medieval buildings and Egyptian sarcophagi. He had about 8,000 books and loads of paintings. When his dog, Fanny, died, he built this elaborate tomb for her in the courtyard. He was a fascinating guy.”

The endearingly oddball Soane is indeed a very Swimmer One character. The pair’s debut album, The Regional Variations, is, they tell me, “about taking pride in not being at the centre of things – at being different”. In the modern media, eccentricity, is, Eaton rather high-mindedly believes, “treated as contemptuous, something to be ridiculed or laughed at; I particularly dislike The Sun because it cheapens everything: it talks about the world as if it’s much simpler and banal than it is. It sounds pretentious, but there’s no room for beauty or complexity. Everything has to be very straightforward and simple.” There is, refreshingly, nothing very banal about The Regional Variations.

As “recovering band members”, Eaton and Brown, prior to forming Swimmer One, spent years in various Scottish grunge and indie outfits and experimented individually at home with four-tracks before being introduced by a mutual friend. They record in Brown’s attic at his home on the coast north of Edinburgh; Eaton lives in Glasgow. They put out The Regional Variations on their own label, Biphonic, which is also home to Luxury Car, a similarly inclined electronic pop duo. Brown has in the past scored films about Samuel Beckett and the Scottish Ballet and, more esoterically, “an existential clown show about cannibalism and polar exploration”. Eaton has written “literally thousands and thousands of songs”, mainly for himself, but also for plays, short films and a cabaret troupe. His new solo side project, First Minister, takes the likes of David Sylvian, Jane Siberry and Emma Townshend as inspirations.

As Swimmer One, they’ve collaborated with the theatre collective Highway Diner (who have also worked with Franz Ferdinand) in live performances in Scotland and Italy and worked on projects for the Scottish Ballet and the National Galleries of Scotland with the film-maker Daniel Warren, who has directed videos for Biffy Clyro and others; he also shoots the pair’s promos and designs their rather poised cover art. Among the inspirations cited on the Swimmer One MySpace page and website are “the noises that trains make”, Peter Carey short stories, Mondrian paintings and the ethicist and former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway.

Reference points for Swimmer One’s “heartbreaking, euphoricpop” range from fellow Caledonians The Blue Nile, Belle & Sebastian and The Associates to Pulp and The Beloved. “The sound of Berlinera Bowie being tied up under the stairs of a sex shop with the seedy electro of Soft Cell and the grandiose melodic pop of thePet Shop Boys” runs one notice. “Erasure with all the fun taken out” runs another – one that they’re particularly proud of. Mark Radcliffe, Steve Lamacq and Rob Da Bank count among the influential fans of their stirring and ambitious art-disco, which Brown refers to as “progressive pop… progressive in the best sense of the word in that you’re not scared to write something other than throwaway lyrics or tackle big themes or make something musically challenging.” He goes on: “One of the approaches you can take to our music is a really great dance record – one that makes you feel really euphoric, excited and emotional inside, giddy almost – but we try to combine that with complicated lyrics and difficult ideas.”

Last autumn they supported the synth pop legend John Foxx (ex-frontman of Ultravox) on his UK tour.

Eaton, a “poptimist” if ever there was one, reveres OMD, Kate Bush and Kitchens Of Distinction, and grew up listening to A-ha and the Pet Shop Boys, bands he still holds very dear. Brown has more of a jones for the kosmische: Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster, To Rococo Rot, “obscure” German electronica and minimal-house outfits such as Tarwater on Berlin’s Kompackt label. Both adore David Bowie. Says Eaton: “Pop music is what I’ve grown up with. Pop as opposed to rock and pop as opposed to indie, because rock always seemed to me self-important, and indie very self-consciously cool. I never felt I was very cool growing up, and all the cool kids read the NME. I didn’t relate to that. I found solace in pop. I was very much a Smash Hits reader as a child.”

As a boy, Brown gorged on electronics magazines, comics and instruction manuals. He sometimes spends up to a week adjusting hi-hat sounds (“I could do that all day. I live for that,” he says proudly). As a teenager, Eaton surfed shortwave radio, taping random sounds “to make little melodies out of the chaos”. One of the band’s publicity shoots has the pair holding hands; they’re clearly fascinated by their similarities and differences between themselves and others.“

The Regional Variations is about the simple differences between people, the little differences, not the big things,” Eaton comments. He cites Laura Veirs’s album Carbon Glacier as an influence on the album’s subtle thematic links.

“A lot of the songs are about people either making a connection or failing to make a connection. There’s a lot of stuff about the end of the world. Take the opening song, ‘Drowning Nightmare 1’. It’s based on a bad dream I had. It’s imagining someone being on a Jerry Springer-style chat show on a ship like the Titanic and they’re being interrogated about their sex life and meanwhile the water is rising over the stage. It’s this idea that you hear these dire stories about climate change and how the earth will become inhospitable and how billions of people are going to die and the world is just going on around you and everybody’s still talking about Heat and celebrities’ sex lives.” In other songs, Eaton, a “recovering Christian” who grew up as a Presbytarian, ponders religion.

“‘The Balance Company’ is an odd concept for a song. It’s kind of the opposite of what most pop songs are about. Most are about being irresponsible. ‘The Balance Company’ is about a guardian angel who is looking after people who are having problems and being very responsible. It’s almost a parent’s song. But he’s fed up with the day job and getting disillusioned with the routine. He feels that he’s failing all the time. It’s a guardian angel angst song!”

The Scottish weather and landscape are also central to the pair’s vaulting sound. “The sea is a big thing for us. We both spend a lot of time outside in the countryside and by the seaside,” says Brown. “I was brought up in Dumfries in Galloway in the arse-end of nowhere, really remote. Geographically, Scotland is a big cul-de-sac. In terms of Europe, if you go driving, you get to Scotland and that’s it – there’s nowhere further north to go. You’d have to go via Belgium and up through Scandinavia if you want to go farther north. It’s like an island in some ways.” Eaton concurs: “The album is a kind of geographical tour around Scotland – you start in the sea and you end on a beach. Scotland is talked about as somewhere that is far from the centre of things and that can’t help but seep into your consciousness in all kinds of ways. That’s partly where the title of the album comes from. I’m wary of saying outsider because all pop bands want to be seen as outsiders. It’s seen as a romantic thing and I don’t see it as romantic.”

“I think it’s OK to be an outsider,” Brown interjects.

“But it’s not a necessarily heroic thing…” Eaton retorts.

Outsiders or not, the pair have no small ambitions. Says Eaton: “Of course we want to be as popular as possible. But if we made a record that we didn’t think was very good and it was hugely popular, I wouldn’t be happy.”

But will people get what you’re trying to do? “On the one hand, we’re saying to people ‘Dance, dance, dance!. Have agreat time!’” says Eaton. “And on the other, we’re saying ‘The environmental catastrophe!…’ We’re asking people to dance but while they’re dancing we’re asking them to think of Samuel Beckett. My worry is that it’s a slightly odd combination. You don’t want to be thinking about philosophy on the dancefloor. It’s too big a jump.”

“Philosophy?” Brown says, putting on a his best mock-RP accent. “At this hour? You must be mad.”

‘The Regional Variations’ is out now on Biphonic. The single ‘The Balance Company’ is out on 10 March