“As soon as the Chainsmokers hailed J.Lo in ‘American Idol’, that scene was dead.”
At the end of February, Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen made a brief stopover in Mexico City for the massive Electric Daisy Carnival of dance music. The festival, which drew more than 100,000 participants to a giant running track each evening, epitomized exaggerated pre-COVID delirium.
After their set as a Knife Party on the bass-focused Circuit Grounds stage, Swire and McGrillen took a flight back to their adopted home, London. Swire remembers hearing a cough in the cabin and wondering without knowing if it could be this mysterious virus on the news. Two weeks later, no one was going abroad for an hour-long DJ set.
For many in dance music, the pandemic has come as a shock. As touring schedules dissolved, DJ-producers around the world worried about their future. This is not the case with the duo behind Pendulum and Knife Party. In fact, Swire and McGrillen breathed a shared sign of relief. âThe first six months without having to travel have been amazing,â says McGrillen. “Aside from the worry of getting fatally ill.”
“And money,” Swire adds ironically, before supporting his bandmate’s lockdown optimism: “If it were up to me, I’d be spending as much time in the studio as possible.” With no gigs to rush to, the couple could finally re-engage with Pendulum, the project that started it all.
An elementary return
I connected with Swire and McGrillen on Zoom just as Covid restrictions ease in the UK. It’s late on a Monday night in London, and Swire announces he’s in the studio working on “pop production stuff” for an anonymous artist. The subject of our call is the new four track EP by Pendulum, Elementary – their first body of work since the 2010s Immersion album. (The other original member of the band, Paul ‘El Hornet’ Harding, lives in their hometown of Perth.) Swire and McGrillen are exactly as I remember them from interviews years past: funny and watched at first, but ready to warm up with a little restraint.
We start by recalling the couple’s unfortunate trip home on New Years Eve. Pendulum was booked for a âTrinityâ DJ set at Perth’s Origin Fields, and Swire and McGrillen spent two weeks in Australian quarantine to get ready. (Harding, according to McGrillen, âjust drove five minutes down the road.â) Days before the event, COVID pulled the pin on Origin Fields. While Pendulum has managed to whip up a club show, the UK members have come a very long way to be disappointed. After this trip, they stayed in London, polishing their new music.
Elementary hits all familiar Pendulum pleasure centers. ‘Driver’, the stage designer of the EP, would have been comfortable on the group’s debut album in 2005, Keep your color.
âWe had all of these tracks ready for an upcoming show,â Swire says. âI thought, even though I like these new tracks, we can’t just start with just one of this fucking stuff. They are not a Pendulum show opener.
âYou can’t open with just one of these fucking things. They are not a Pendulum show opener.
“Driver” was designed to do this job. The middle tracks – “Nothing for Free” and “Louder Than Words” (a collaboration with British bass duo Hybrid Minds) – find Swire on the mic, where Immersion left off.
If âDriverâ is an out-of-the-box opening game, âCome Aliveâ sounds like a closer callback. A riot of crisp guitar and ’90s rave touches, this is a combination only Pendulum would do. âI was in this group called Conditions Apply,â says Swire. âThe drummer in this group was in a car accident and died. A group of band members descended to a [Pendulum] concert in Melbourne, so as a tribute we covered one of the band’s gothic / industrial tracks that night. We listened to the sound afterwards and we said to ourselves, Jesusâ¦ â
“It was fucking sick,” McGrillen intervenes.
âYeah, it was an interesting vibe, we were making that sound,â adds Swire. âSo ‘Come Alive’ was born out of that. “
How the pendulum came back
Pendulum’s return to full swing has never been a sure thing. In 2014, Swire and McGrillen ran a typically acid-steeped Reddit AMA to promote Knife Party’s debut album, Abandon Ship.
Asked by a Redditor about the status of the new music Pendulum, Swire watered all hope. âAround the time we started Knife Party, I really lost my heart for the [Pendulum] project, âhe wrote.
The breaking point apparently came when Swire watched television coverage of the band’s set on the main stage at Glastonbury in 2011. Immersion had peaked at No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart, earning Pendulum the BeyoncÃ© warm-up slot. On Reddit, Swire recalled the empty faces staring at them from the crowd. âI didn’t like anything about it,â he wrote. Luckily for Swire and McGrillen, however, their EDM Lark Knife Party was exploding.
The seeds for Pendulum’s comeback were planted at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami in March 2016. Adam Russakoff, the festival’s talent buyer and avowed drum & bass fan, has promised Pendulum the final spot on the stage. main if they met. It was too bold an offer to refuse. The ensemble took a lot of planning, starting with a DJ Knife Party set before the stage turned to reveal the Pendulum band members at their instruments.
I was there that night to cover the festival and was struck by the weirdness of a live band coming in after a whole day of DJ EDM attacks. Even with special guests like Deadmau5 and Tom Morello, the set was nothing like the brilliant sound of Zedd and David Guetta’s USB drives. For the members of the group, everything was a blur. âIt was too stressful to plan both sets at once – it almost killed us,â Swire recalls.
It was also surreal that Pendulum, a group that never found much success in the United States, ended up headlining their biggest dance festival. “Knife Party is our only act that has ever done damage to America,” agrees Swire. “Pendulum has always been a little weird, because they don’t like drum & bass [in the US]. It connected in pockets and in a cult sense, but not like in the UK or Australia.
That said, Pendulum hasn’t felt like part of a drum & bass “scene” since the mid-2000s. The band’s love for heavy metal dynamics has more in common with Muse and Tool. than with LTJ Bukem and Roni Size. âI feel like people keep trying to get us into the scene,â Swire sighs. “I feel like [Pendulum] is its own thing, and that’s the way I prefer to think of it.
Dance music after EDM
Pendulum may not belong to drum & bass, but Knife Party was no more comfortable in the candy-colored world of EDM. The project coincided with the hysteria of American dance festivals, and tracks like “Internet Friends”, “Bonfire” and “Antidote” (a collaboration with the makers of sweet hymns Swedish House Mafia) found their people. Somehow, however, Swire and McGrillen watched everything with amused detachment, like the two cynical metalheads in a drama loving children’s classroom.
âWe really feel like strangers, but with Knife Party we have intentionally made ourselves strangers,â says Swire. âThe whole scene could get a little self-righteous and cheesy. At least 50 percent of [Knife Party] was a pisstake. Do they think Knife Party fans perceived the duo’s buzzsaw sounds as pisstake? “You hoped so,” said McGrillen, “but I have a strange feeling some people didn’t get it.”
Knife Party has been riding the crest of the EDM wave, but ironically, but the duo agree that the bubble burst around 2014. âAs soon as the Chainsmokers launched J.Lo on American Idol, that scene was dead, âSwire thought.
Despite all of this, the producers can’t wait to return to Knife Party. âI always like it when you don’t know where to get something,â Swire says. “This is definitely the case with Knife Party, and it is certainly the case that no one in electronic music knows what to do anymore.”
âThe whole scene could get a little self-righteous and cheesy. At least 50 percent of [Knife Party] was a pisstake.
After I researched more on this topic, guys turned to the big tent dance music outlook after the pandemic. âFor a while there, it was kind of an arms race,â Swire says. “Everyone was trying to do heavier tracks than the next guy, and it ended in loud dubstep.”
âIt will be interesting to see what state the EDM is in when it all opens up again – and if anything has progressed sonically,â adds McGrillen.
âThere’s also the fact that towards the end of EDM being massive, there was a weird disconnect,â Swire continues. âWhen Skrillex and Knife Party first released stuff, people were listening to that music at home. âBangarangâ and âInternet Friendsâ were broadcast on the radio. When all this shit ended, people were listening to this shit at events, but not at home.
âWe would be in a transport vehicle taking us from the festival, hearing people in their cars playing cooler versions of EDM,â says McGrillen. âThis is how guys like Illenium came to be. People would listen to him in situations outside of the rave, after being strafed in the head by dubstep for 17 hours.
(For what it’s worth, guys don’t know where rock music is going either. âIt struggles to be relevant,â Swire shrugs. âThe pop-punk stuff looks promising at the moment.â)
The core Pendulum trio are booked for DJs ‘Trinity’ shows this summer, hoping to bring the full group back in 2022. Swire and McGrillen were waiting until Elementary dropped out to start working on Knife Party again.
Considering everything we’ve discussed, I’m curious if they have any idea what this is going to sound like. âIt’s tough,â McGrillen deflects, but Swire is ready with a line. âSomething dark and fucking loud,â he bet. âThe good thing about Pendulum is that you have to write songs, and the good thing about Knife Party is that you don’t have to at all. “
Jack Tregoning is a Sydney-based freelance writer – he was previously Editorial Director at Beatport and Editor-in-Chief of Inthemix. Find him on Twitter.