Interview with Sebastian Palomar
I wasn’t surprised when Sebastian Palomar requested we conduct our interview at his local pool, Marshall Street Baths in the heart of Soho. Palomar – a self-proclaimed swimming evangelist, synth guru and recent signing to Dramatic Records – has spent much of the past few months touring the municipal baths of London and putting the finishing touches to his motivational booklet and album, The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Swimming.
I was puzzled, however, when I arrived in the foyer and Seb was nowhere to be seen. Peering through a doorway I witnessed the familiar glistening caps drifting amid turquoise glass, shiny forearms rising and falling like subaqueous pistons – and that noise. Was Sebastian already swimming? Was my task now to pay, strip off and track him down in the water – to disturb his state of urban escape?
Then, as I loitered nervously by the Speedo merch, I felt a confident presence over my shoulder. It was Sebastian, still dripping from the pool and with a towel slung rakishly over one shoulder. “Let’s go for a swim”, he smiled, plucking a pair of orange shorts from the rack and from somewhere producing a credit card. Soon we were in the changing rooms, and, as I disrobed, I was bombarded by what seemed to be corporate mumbo jumbo marinated in chlorine… symbiotic thinking, eros, bilateral breathing… was this man a phoney, or some begoggled messiah? After a few relaxing lengths the water became a little clearer…
Richard Greenan: Can you tell us a bit about your book?
Sebastian Palomar: The book is intended to reach out to the general public and to engage them around the subject I’m passionate about, and to motivate them to understand what I’m trying to do. It’s almost like a piece of swimming propaganda. That’s the way I see it.
RG: And what made you realise the mission was necessary?
SP: I think it’s about a response to what it’s like to work and live in London. I went through a period where I felt like I needed some kind of outlet in my life outside of work that could help me to unravel, and I tried various things, but I ultimately discovered that swimming was the best medication I could find on the market, and it became a ritualistic feature of my life, and continues to be so.
RG: But what does swimming bring you that things like running and cycling can’t?
SP: I think it’s a love for the water itself. It’s the closest you can get to flying. The more you learn about swimming the more you realise it’s unique, because when you start to be good, the less effort you put in and the quicker and more easily you swim. It does feel like an alien environment; you are choosing to submerge yourself in an alien object. There are very few devices like water, in the sense that it can totally surround you and not do you much harm. It just seemed like an extreme form of escape, where you’re quite literally surrounding yourself with something totally otherworldly.
It seems to induce a different emotional state than running. People talk about the runner’s high, but I think the swimmer’s high is far better. If the runner’s high has been compared to doing heroin, I think the swimmer’s high is far more like weed – it’s a zen type thing. It’s the rhythmical nature of swimming as well; the environment doesn’t change, the water’s the same wherever you swim generally, it doesn’t undulate. It’s all about you and there’s very little to impede your rhythm. The rhythm is also impactless, which is different to running; there’s a mechanical motion but it’s not coming up against barriers.
RG: You’ve included a download code in your book, can we explore that?
SP: The idea is that the messages of the book are enhanced by listening to the downloadable music. I suppose the ultimate vision would be for somebody to use an underwater mp3 player and upload the digital downloads onto that. But really it’s a self help idea – if you’re at work and feeling like you need to escape or to zone out, but you can’t get to the swimming pool, you would reach for the downloads, or even the videos which contain embedded messages. They’re like a self help manual I suppose, it’s just that my manual is audio and video, as well as image and text.
RG: Will you be releasing the music on any other formats?
SP: We plan on doing a limited number of cassette recordings. The idea is that you could put it on some headphones and maybe fall asleep to it. We want it to be an immersive form of medication across all media.
RG: What key pieces of advice would you give to budding swimmers?
SP: Don’t feel the need to swim for huge periods of time. As soon as you stop enjoying the water, get out of the bath. The moment when your technique will work is the moment you will stop thinking about your technique. I don’t believe in wrong or right by the way you swim, I just think people’s bodies are very different. Relax, let yourself flow in the water and it will work right. What you’re looking to do is disengage your consciousness, and that’s when you really start swimming. And that’s why the high is so different, because it can be so effortless and so machine like. It’s sort of like a drummer playing for Neu – he starts to drum at his best when he locks into it and forgets about who he is. And if you watch people who can swim for hours, it’s because they’ve established that motoric rhythm. This guy in front of us is like that, he’s completely unselfconscious. He’s in another place.
RG: So are you against competitive swimming?
SP: I wouldn’t say I’m against that. It’s not the way I see swimming: I see it as much more of a communal, social and spiritual thing. One of the frustrations around the Olympic games is an obsession with only one type of performance, and that performance is about winning and being elite, which is a really negative part of our culture. Being bad at swimming is fine – just relax about it and be bad at swimming and enjoy it. One of the sadnesses of the Americanised culture we live in as that if you’re not good at something you can’t do it. I’m really about participation and pleasure, and the wholeism of what swimming can do for you. My whole album is about benefits – very few of those benefits are physical, rather than emotional.
I’m not really interested in swimming for building your triceps, I’m far more about swimming helping your love life, emotional well-being, social life, sense of calm. There’s one song, ‘Benefits Muscular’, which is very different in tone. It’s a reference to that side effect. There are some swimmers here who are not in any traditional sense in good shape, but they’re very competent swimmers. And look at the difference in styles. People rarely get taught to swim. My memory of school swimming is that you were thrown in the bath and told to get on with it. You could never hear the instructions anyway, they were never audible – the acoustics of swimming pools account for that. I love that people get on with their own style. There are a million and one ways of doing this freestyle thing here, and they’re all right.
RG: So might the listener pick and choose different songs for specific beneficial reasons?
SP: That would be ideal – to see them as different compartments of what swimming can do for you is a good way to listen to it. I encourage the digital form here, and I really see this as something that can go on a device and be used and edited for you. It might be that for some people, they don’t want Benefits Muscular, and so they will erase it. The plan is over the coming weeks to release different benefits that are not available on the record, and it will become almost an Open University course around swimming. I really want the Sebastian Palomar idea to be more than the record, and I will continue to preach about swimming, I don’t feel any anxiety about that.
RG: What other plans do you have for the programme?
SP: We’re playing live at a night organised by Kit, and that will essentially be a public engagement outreach. There will be a traditional musical element, but it will also be about addressing people and spreading the word. As well as that, I’ve been busy making a documentary about swimming in Greater London. I travelled around to different municipal baths in the area, the grass roots of swimming – not posh pools or Virgin Actives – but what used to be local leisure centres. I met swimmers and tried to decode their interests – in a way they speak for themselves.
RG: I was shocked by how quick and easy it was to leave the city and get into the pool.
SP: It is absolutely amazing to come off the streets of Soho and be in water, in this alien environment, from another era should I add, in under 15 minutes. There’s even something enormously liberating about stripping off. When do you do that? Very rarely. I think it’s a wonderful thing actually. I can’t think of many other places where people get fully naked, change their clothes, become aliens. Look at all these people in goggles, hats, strange gear. It is like people become a different species in here, which I find fascinating. There’s a lot of silent communication going on as well – it’s a lovely corporation between people. Two people can’t swim in the same lane at the same time. I’m fascinated by the way people self assess and divide themselves into categories of slow, medium and fast.
RG: There’s something about the acoustics which is very calming too.
SP: Yes, and one of the challenges of assembling the audio accompaniment of the mission was deciding to what extent the music should be mimetic of this acoustic environment, or more metaphorical in some way – impressionistic, literal or realistic. What does realistic mean, especially when you’re trying to capture something extraphysical? For me, the acoustics of the swimming pool are not just about the physical properties of the bath, it’s about the acoustics of your mind in this environment. So when I was making the album I did flip between the two, and to a certain extent I’m still undecided.
Some tracks have a feeling they could have been recorded in a swimming pool and others eschew that and take on something more metaphorical or symbolic. For example, ‘Alpine Retreat’ doesn’t have that gauze on top of it. It’s far more extroverted, yet it’s about an output of swimming, the possibility of finding love and issues surrounding that. Some other tracks do have a feeling of something underwater, being towed or dragged, an inertia, the sensation of listening through a lens, lots of refractions. It’s a headspace. It’s funny what comes into your head when you swim – weird kaleidoscopes of atomised thoughts – and the record is very atomised, too. What were you thinking about when we were swimming?
RG: About my body being stretched and elongated. And that I should go swimming more.
SP: It’s very relieving isn’t it, to elongate your body. In the metropolitan world we are very compressed physically and emotionally, and swimming is a powerful decompression device. Children haven’t been compressed yet, and I think that’s why when I was a child I didn’t like swimming that much. Now I find it addictive because I need to be decompressed more often. We’re not designed to sit on chairs in offices, it’s not good for us. I see the bath as a decompression tank, and a lot of the messages in my videos talk about uncurling, elongating, unravelling, decompressing – all those themes.
RG: I noticed a brief message in one of your videos too, about “harvesting suspended energy waves,” what’s that about?
SP: We have latent anxiety and stress in our bodies which becomes negative energy in our day to day lives, and in the swimming pool when we stretch out that energy it becomes active again, and all those waves which were negative, all that destructive interference in our life becomes constructive interference. I also think being decompressed means that lots of latent memories and thoughts and ideas that were suspended and locked in this bubble suddenly release. People talk about acupuncture being the same, with suspended energy in the body being released by penetration, and I think it’s a similar phenomenon in swimming.
RG: What else has influenced your music, aside from swimming?
SP: In trying to capture the phenomenology of swimming I certainly called upon explicit and implicit references that interested me, ranging from the spiritualist psychedelia of Popol Vuh, a favourite of Werner Herzog, who is a big influence on the idea of mixing the earthly and unearthly; to the wobbliness and wooziness of Boards of Canada, and more recently the music of Hype Williams. Also, a lot of early synthesizer music, and the music associated with self health and self improvement culture. Uri Gellar, Carl Sagan, public preachers, the musical semiotics of pleasure, self improvement – some of these signposts are from corporate culture and sonic identity, the idea of music not just as mimesis, but as articulating an aspirational worldview.
I’m interested in the romance of software. People used to be fetishistic about ageing or obsolete synths. The glitch movement was the literal digital articulation of that – the breaking of digitalia. Some of the artefacts on my record are derived from a wilful over-stretching of software, and a wilful over-abundance and over-chaining of uneasy, bugged effects. Software has a life too, and ones and noughts go wrong just as electricity did.
RG: Do you have a favourite swimming pool?
SP: This one, Marshall Street Baths, is very special for its architecture. I really like the swimming baths of French campsites, because they’re so un-uniform, so gloriously haggard and amorphous, and relate to no standard idea of what a swimming pool should be. They’re also these expressions of the French imagination – these weird and wonderful shapes, that are sometimes conducive and sometimes unconducive to swimming. They’re like pleasure baths, I suppose, and incredibly democratic ones. The social epicentre of campsite communities.
The ancient Romans saw the notion of a swimming bath as a centre of negotium and otium, business and pleasure coming together in this weirdly homo erotic love-in where all the key business deals were struck in the bath. This represents a very overt sense of swimming as part of a holistic self treatment, the pre-dating of medicines, and an early sense of our physiological well-being being linked to our mental well-being. You still get that at places like the RAC, where they have the idea of the Frigidarium and Tepidarium.
RG: You mean the opposite of the kinds of brutalist swimming baths we may have grown up with?
SP: Yes, in my school the swimming bath was a very hostile, neo-communist sort of building – brutally cold temperatures, every expense spared, frankly inadequate changing facilities, and if you forgot your trunks you had to wear spare trunks which had been worn by at least 50 boys before you. Swimming gives a sense of the sublime in a very earthly way – a mixture of awe and fear. It’s one of the first things we learn to be scared of.