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Interview: Sebastian Palomar

Earlier this month, we sent Jack Urwin for an early evening swim with the inimitable Sebastian Palomar in celebration of the electronic musician’s latest album, The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Swimming. As the title gives away, it’s a tribute to Palomar’s favourite de-stressing [not to be misread as distressing - Ed.] pastime.

Below, you can read up on how the two got on – that is, when they weren’t in the pub munching on Mini Cheddars – but first, we’d like to give you a little preview into some of the transcendent work that Palomar’s put in on the record. So here, for your listening pleasure, is ‘Benefits Meditative’, a track that perfectly suits its blissful title; kept in place by the faintest of beats but dominated by sparkling synth chords and dabbles of meandering guitar.

Somewhere between standing beside one another bollock-naked and discussing the underrated pub snack that is Mini Cheddars, Sebastian Palomar has taken time out of our interview to show me a YouTube video on his phone. The clip in question is from the first episode of Orson Welles’ Future Shock, a melodramatic early 70s documentary in which the man behind Citizen Kane explores the worrying dystopia the world is headed towards. As with many of the sci-fi movies and wild predictions from decades past, it’s fascinating to see what ridiculous ideas people in times gone by believed the future held for us.

For Seb, this is a huge influence on the music he makes. The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Swimming, Palomar’s new album, is in many ways an exploration of these classic documentaries via the artist’s love of swimming. At a glance it sounds unbearably pretentious, but as he talks about the themes behind it all, it kind of makes sense. Meeting at the stunning Marshall Street baths in Soho, we swim a few lengths in the slow lane while Seb explains why he’s brought me here of all places.

“I wanted you to re-remember swimming,” he says. “It’s something we do a lot as children and then we sort of stop. A lot of it is British school culture, and I think that’s part of the reason why so many people don’t realise how brilliant swimming is: it’s considered a life skill but less a life pleasure, and I think it’s a traumatic experience from childhood that needs to be reclaimed.”

Despite this, he warns it’s something people are interpreting poorly. For Seb, too many people see swimming as a competitive event, another part of our ever-accelerating lives.

“In the past year I’ve seen an increase in incidents I like to refer to as ‘swimming rage’. People angrily brushing past you in the pool, shouting at those slower than them. But that’s not how it should be – it’s the best medication on the market for me, it’s the most meditative thing.”

“I used to swim when I was younger, and I was quite a serious swimmer but that was a long time ago. I started doing it again and I noticed the happiest moment of my entire week was standing in the shower at the end of swimming, and so you become attracted to it. Part of my fascination is how unsociable it is, everything seems so socialised these days and I find that very claustrophobic. I’d love you to go to the baths just by yourself and do 25 lengths, not speak to a single soul, look only at the water and the ceiling.”

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As it happens, our interview is cut short by a fairly unsympathetic lifeguard who Seb points out is just another victim of an aggressive, all-too-work-focused society. We’re forced to get dressed and relocate to the dry comforts of a pub where, over a couple of beers and the aforementioned Mini Cheddars (“if you were to analyse them alongside a McCoy, you’d find the Mini Cheddars have so much more going for them”), Seb explains what prompted him to create the piece of art he has between the stresses of his job in corporate finance.

“I was looking for something and flirted with various ideas, then I was in the shower in Hampstead Ponds and I thought ‘this is something really big for me’. In many ways, it’s an ode to Sunday professional music-making, I recorded it in the small hours and on weekend afternoons.”

“I think I’m undecided to what extent the music aspires to be memetic of swimming or to what extent it’s a literalisation of the swimming… I don’t think the record answers that. In splashes of the album it seeks to sound underwater and in other parts it gives up on that, that’s an imperfection of the record. It oscillates between sounding a bit like water and sounding like how I feel in water. There are certain tools I use to help that aquatic sound, but then there are moments where it’s far less literal.”

While inhabiting quite different worlds thematically, the album isn’t too far from Spiritualized‘s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, a comparison Palomar is happy to take.

“If Ladies and Gentlemen… is about narcotic epiphany,” Seb says, “this was about physiological and mental epiphany about something quite natural. There isn’t a deliberate swimming and drug analogy, but it does play out a bit.”

When you listen to The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Swimming, this makes a lot of sense. Like Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s very much an album written as such: a coherent, whole piece of music, rather than an unlinked collection of songs. But the Spiritualized influence doesn’t stop there.

Lazer Guided Melodies is a beautiful record,” he continues. “The thing is, they’re sort of these drafts of narcotic ascent, but they’re only drafts. At that point, J Spaceman hadn’t worked out how to really write a song that would wrap itself up, it’s something I don’t think I would particularly ever want to master. I quite like drafts. Spaceman writes quite left to right, he layers, he creates harmonies. And that’s the way I was trying to write on this record, they’re episodes, they’re sort of thoughts. The idea was that they were aquatic hallucination thoughts.”

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Perhaps one of the reasons Palomar’s album works so well is the frankly intimidating levels of research he seems to have put into it. This foresight; this preparation – it’s evident in every aspect of Seb’s life. Every sentence he speaks, every answer he gives appears to have an incredible amount of thought behind it. In the hours running up to our interview, he sends me a series of picture messages – each a poster, or a self-help book cover, or a little quote about swimming.

“When you have a concept it becomes a method performance so you have to immerse yourself in the world. The world around my studio was just complete monomaniacal obsession with swimming. Everything around me: swimming. Full of quotes about swimming, posters, images, everything.”

For Christmas a couple of years back, his mother asked him what he wanted. Books, was his answer. Piles upon piles of books about swimming, and self-help, and every possible bit of information that would gradually work its way onto the album. For such a calming, ethereal and ambient work, The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Swimming found itself at the surprisingly detailed hands of its creator.

“The original subtitle for the album was A Phenomenology of Swimming. I think it’s Camus who does this famous phenomenology of a pint of beer and it’s the idea that it might seem banal, but how can a descriptor get into everything; every single bubble of that pint of beer? In the end that didn’t quite come together so I decided to go for a different approach which was as if it were a self-help manual – all the different benefits. I became fascinated in the cults of self-help.”

The results are astounding. It’s almost anachronistic in its creepy, discordant synth washes and flecks of minimalist spoken word, uncertain whether it belongs in a bad 70s sci-fi flick, or an early 90s Windows advert; or perhaps a combination of these if Boards of Canada and The Books joined forces to rewrite this odd musical history. If nothing else, it succeeds in Seb’s manifesto – to get us to appreciate the serene, lonesome beauty of swimming: a feat most probably unique to Palomar.

- Jack Urwin

The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Swimming is available now on Dramatic Records. You can buy it here.



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