In anticipation of his forthcoming South African tour, which notably includes a performance at Organik – Gaian Dream near Cape Town, we dive into the multifaceted world of Evil Oil Man.
From his instrumental roots playing guitars with his older brother to the sonic landscapes of psytrance, Matthew Swain’s musical journey is a testament to evolution and innovation.
This exclusive interview sheds light on the artist’s origins, association with Zenon Records, studio work, visiting South Africa in October and more.
Starting with your early days, what inspired you to delve into electronic music production, and how did your journey lead you to become Evil Oil Man?
Evil Oil Man: So originally I came from an instrumental background. Myself and my older brother grew up playing guitars. We played at school and college a lot. We spent most of our time playing in various bands together. My folks were very much the instigators, there was always a guitar in the house or a Bowie track playing in the background.
My brother (Daniel Swain, Dirty Hippy) was the first one to jump into electronic music. We have to time travel back a bit now, he was making hip hop using an old Akai sampler that took a floppy disk. I think you could store not even 1 GB on those things back then. He was doing this for a while whilst I was trying to belt Billy Idol songs in Essex pubs, a few times we would play before or after each other. A fun time was had.
Eventually, my bro started listening to old psychedelic music, goa and such. Being the younger brother at first I absolutely hated it Then later I found my own subgenres of preferred taste. Me and my best friend would stay up all night mixing a range of psychedelics on his CD decks.
Later my brother started playing in psytrance parties within London and Europe. I was studying art at the time at university, however, I found most of the time I was entertaining myself sound bending in music production programmes. This was before YouTube was so abundant in the teachings of music production. I did not know anyone else produced so there was much to figure out myself and of course many long annoying phone calls for my brother.
We both got to a stage where we started to collaborate with each other. We both had different styles however we somehow made a brotherly compromise. We then started approaching record labels.
It was a long journey, lots of lost music and unpaid work, but nevertheless, it was super fun. Somewhere down the line our hard work paid dividends and our music and our personalities started to take the attention of some international labels such as Cosmic Conspiracy Records and then not much later Zenon Records happened.
Your artist name, Evil Oil Man, is quite unique. Is there a story or meaning behind it that you’d be willing to share with your fans?
Evil Oil Man: I am frequently asked this question so I will leave some mystery out there to stir people’s curiosity. Basically, it is nothing bad, I am not evil but I am certainly a man, let’s make those things clear [laughs].
Of course, there is somewhat a reason for my choice of name and if someone was to ask me directly I would tell. There are no secrets, but it’s good to keep people thinking. It’s a stupid left hemisphere thing.
Zenon Records has played a significant role in your career. Could you share some insights into how your relationship with the label started and evolved over time?
Evil Oil Man: I covered in the first question a little on the very beginning of the journey with Zenon. So let me talk about how the relationship has grown and developed over the years.
Since the start, I have always stayed loyal to Zenon Records as it is very much a family of friends and like-minded fun people whom I feel the most at home with. We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves through electronic music however we all have fallen into the same bush so to speak, the Zenon sound. Which is joy.
Many of us have spent a lot of time travelling together and in many cases lived with one another. This has given us a unique connection, and our releases I would say reflect our closeness. We love to collaborate and communicate. It is great when you get to an event and you know there is another Zenon artist or artists there. It is so humble and fun like catching up with close friends or a deformed half-brother or sister you really get along with [laughs] only kidding!
I think we will grow and expand as a community and label, many events love our sound and we have a great international organic following. Our fan base is very loyal, young and old. As a predominantly dark prog label, we also put out other styles. We have our Small Talk series where we explore techno, lower tempos, and psytech, which has been ongoing since 2013.
We will keep pushing our sound, continuously developing and aiming for more refinement and cutting-edge innovation. Ultimately, we all produce music, perform and DJ because we enjoy doing it and love making people happy. So big up’s to Tim Larner (Sensient) the founder and manager of Zenon Records for believing in us all.
Your discography showcases a diverse range of releases. How do you approach the creative process when working on different styles within the Zenon Music spectrum?
Evil Oil Man: Well as much as I am involved with Zenon and the electronic music scene, I do not personally listen to electronic music in my free time. I mean does a mechanic need to drive or own a car to enjoy fixing them?
It’s an expression for me and I have an eclectic articulation because I am a very multi-fascinated person.
I am creatively very impressionable. Everything is borrowed from somewhere else.
If I hear a seagull fly by or a strange garage track on the car radio. A peculiar sentence said in a film, is the feeling of a strange bass vibration or tone at a music festival at a random stage. It is all remembered.
So when I sit down and start to produce music I do not need to think about it. It is more a question of when and how fast can I get it out before I start to procrastinate. Six cups of coffee and an early morning start usually work well for me.
As an artist associated with Zenon Records, how do you see the label’s influence on the global electronic music scene, and how has it shaped your own musical identity?
Evil Oil Man: It feels like we would like to keep our presence in the underground scene, however as psychedelic electronic music is also becoming more and more commercialised it would be foolish to ignore everything that comes along with keeping relevant.
I think it is about balance. We can implicate what we can from the future or past of music to help us grow. But it’s not necessarily all about maintaining a strict sound or image because originally for something to come from nothing it has to grow like a plant. A seed doesn’t look like a tree overnight. I think that’s the same with the creative arts. For me, there should be no rules in that sense but just awareness.
Of course, I also would have to be aware of the changes that happen within the music industry but I potentially could find that fascinating.
If I changed the style of the music I started producing I do not think it would be a shock to my audience. I generally have just done what I want but bearing in mind the particular content or release I am making and where it is directed towards.
Zenon Education lists you as faculty. How do you balance your roles as a music producer and an educator? What insights do you enjoy sharing with aspiring producers?
Evil Oil Man: I absolutely love sharing information I have learned, both from my own experiences and from others.
I generally find it refreshing to hear myself deconstruct something I take so often for granted. It builds competence within myself to go backwards into my brain and pull out information that is so tightly stored there.
I very much enjoy teaching and would love to put more time and energy into this in the near future. I am painfully dyslexic but I understand I have a creative intelligence I would very much strive to explain and share. I just need spell check, google, and a 24-hour helper with me at all times.
Over the course of your career, how have advancements in music production technology impacted your creative process, and are there specific tools or techniques that you find particularly inspiring?
Evil Oil Man: Yes, for sure, there are a few. Recently a Yoga ball instead of a chair has changed my life. You only get one spine and believe me you do not want sciatica.
The right equipment for your production level is pretty important. It is okay to have lower-grade music equipment when you’re first starting out. As you progress so should your equipment, if you can afford it.
The best thing I ever bought was a pair of Focal SM9 monitors recommended by a good friend. I have also influenced a few people to do the same. Better speakers equal confidence in mixing tracks and a much higher quality output of sound.
It’s important to spend money on whatever helps. Whether it’s a sandwich or a random plane ticket to Thailand, both have equal value. You should do what feels right without the influence of TV advertisements, the daily news of current events or social media. Use your brain and manifest your own future.
But I have a trick. When I have finished for the day and I have my first rough mix of a track completed I do this. I listen on iPhone earphones, my DJ headphones, my production headphones, and my laptop speakers. Usually, I hear something different from either of these drivers where I would not have heard it before. They are usually mistakes that I can then go back to alter. It sounds simple, but like anything, a complex result can be made using a simple tool.
Often I would also take a walk around the block, or lay down with headphones away from the screen and hear back what I did that day or the morning after. It is a totally different listening experience. When you are looking at the screen for so long it gets to a point where all you hear is information. Good to take a step back and hear in a different listening environment. Better with fresh ears.
A few other tips are: bouncing midi tracks and synths into audio was a huge game changer for me. My sound design is a lot done in audio editing.
Also using Ableton stock plugins and effects I find is a quick way to get an idea out of my head. For example, I would use Ableton EQs when producing and later replace them with better ones. Speed in production for me is key. But that is how my brain works.
Beyond the music, are there other art forms, experiences, or aspects of life that influence your creative expression?
Evil Oil Man: I do. I studied art for most of my younger years. I was very passionate about it. It does not have the expression outlet I need in order for it to be a long-term career. However, I have never closed the door on it. Without it, I would be a different person. I have confided in drawing by hand more than any person. Unfortunately I hold a pencil with a very strange grip almost the form of a crab so my drawing stamina is affected badly.
I am extremely excited about cooking food. I love all things chilli peppers and multicultural cuisines I find stimulating, I love fusion. I very much enjoy fire cooking the most and cooking for a person or persons is one of the most relaxing and rewarding things I can do in my life.
I briefly mentioned that I grew up playing instruments, which I still do to this day. My guitars have never let me down. I songwrite but it is more like poetry for me. It is a solitary pastime I dabble in from time to time.
The psytrance scene is known for its tight-knit community. How do you see the role of collaboration in your work, and are there any artists you dream of collaborating with?
Evil Oil Man: I don’t currently have anyone specific in mind. I respect my elders so any collaborations with older artists would always feel flattering.
Your upcoming tour includes South Africa, marking your first visit to the country. How does it feel to bring your music to a new audience, and are there any specific expectations or anticipations you have about the South African scene?
Evil Oil Man: I am tremendously excited. It is a new place so I do not know what to expect but I have vibes from friends. Everyone seems very upbeat and interactive with me which feels really welcoming.
I am humbled to be invited to this wonderful country to share my work.
My neighbours are South African, and I am already familiar with making biltong and jerky—no pun intended.
Collaborations can sometimes arise from touring experiences. Are there any South African artists or musicians you’re hoping to connect with, either on stage or in the studio, during your time in the country?
Evil Oil Man: It is already happening. I met some friends from South Africa at the Ozora Festival this summer. Miles from Mars is one of their projects. We are currently working on our second collaboration. We did a track on my last album with Zenon Records.
I will be hosted by one of them and I am very excited to be there and experience this trip with them and other friends from South Africa also.
It is a small world. We all know each other somehow. Especially in the psychedelic music scene.
As a first-time visitor, are there any specific places or cultural experiences in South Africa that you’re hoping to explore during your downtime?
Evil Oil Man: Braai (BBQ) for sure and maybe I will adopt a Great White if I find the time. A biltong tour would be great. I will just freestyle it and see what comes with open arms.
Thanks for the interview! What can fans expect from Evil Oil Man in the near future? Are there any upcoming releases, collaborations, or projects that you’d like to share a sneak peek of?
Evil Oil Man: Thank you for the interest and well-thought-out questions. I am constantly working on new music so don’t worry, it is a little too early to share but you guys will be pleasantly surprised. I will post everything on my socials as things come to fruition. So keep your eyes peeled. Thank you!