On Mar. 20, 2016, Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen experienced one of the most important moments of their careers. Neither of them remember it.
The pair were headlining the mainstage at Ultra Music Festival in Miami, closing the weekend with a dual set composed of music from their two acts — the bass-focused duo Knife Party, and the drum & bass five-piece Pendulum. It was the first time they’d played as the latter act since 2010, reuniting at the request of Ultra’s executive producer Adam Russakoff.
The pressure was intense — they weren’t sure if their instruments were going to work due to technical issues. When they got onstage, they both just kind of blacked out. An hour and fifteen minutes later, the show was over, and Pendulum was back.
Emerging out of Australia in the mid ’00s, Pendulum didn’t experience the same success in the U.S. — where drum & bass has never achieved mainstream popularity — as they did in the U.K., where their 2008 album In Silico and 2010’s Immersion hit No. 2 and No. 1, respectively, on the charts.
Their sound was heavy, pummeling and often anthemic, thanks to McGrillen, Swire and third founding member Paul Harding. Dressed in all black and rarely photographed smiling, Pendulum was as much a rock band as an electronic act. Even in the U.K., the group never quite fit into the D&B scene.
But Pendulum took a backseat when Swire and McGrillen blew up with Knife Party, which achieved headliner status in the States during the dance music boom and placed the group alongside contemporaries like Kill the Noise, Nero, Flux Pavilion, Excision and other genre heavies. In the same way the guys didn’t feel accepted into the D&B scene, they never felt quite at home in the bass world, even though they ruled it for a bit.
Now, after 10 years of making music as Knife Party, the guys have returned to Pendulum. The impetus for the comeback started with that 2016 Ultra Show, which led them to create the music that would eventually become “Nothing For Free” and “Driver,” both out today (Sept. 18). Before quarantine, the group was testing out the music with sets throughout Australia and New Zealand, and while both currently quarantined at their homes in London, in 2021 Pendulum is set to play big deal electronic festivals including We Are FSTVL, Creamfields, Ultra Europe.
Here Swire and McGrillen discuss Pendulum’s return, why they hated bass music and why albums are no longer necessary.
You guys haven’t released new Pendulum music in nearly a decade. Why now?
Swire: If you don’t bring it back within 10 years, it’s almost not worth doing at all, so it’s almost as good a time as any.
How connected do you feel to drum & bass at this point?
Swire: [We’ve] definitely got a love-hate relationship with it. We obviously come from that world, at least Pendulum does, and it’s the first scene that sort of accepted us, so we kind of owe it in that way, but there’s a bittersweet thing too. D&B has never really taken off too much in the US, so it’s hard to get a good perspective of it sometimes, but in the U.K. it was mainstream.
I think the scene had quite a hard time accepting us, especially in the underground. It was like, right, well first of all these are two guys from Australia, they’re not even from the UK. Second of all, one of guys wants to sing and the other guys wants to play a f–king bass. In D&B you want to have a female vocalist and jazz influences, so I think they had a hard time accepting us.
Were there moments you felt accepted in that scene, or was it always a more contentious thing?
McGrillen: We definitely tried to assimilate.
Swire: Yeah, I think initially it was very accepting, and then we did what we always do and got bored of sticking to the same thing. As soon as we strayed outside the lines they were like, “Nope. Sorry.”
In an interview you did with us last year for Knife Party, I remember you saying that you didn’t necessarily feel connected to the dubstep world when you blew up with that act. It seems like with both projects, you’ve had the same experience of not quite fitting into your respective scene.
Swire: That’s really true. Wow. That’s an insight I hadn’t noticed. Maybe we’re just naturally contrarian.
McGrillen: I think coming from Pendulum and starting Knife Party, we learned lessons about getting sort of constricted or locked into a genre. Even with drum & bass, the tempo locks you in. You can’t really move outside of the tempo. Maybe with Knife Party as well, without realizing it we tried not to get locked in.
Swire: Drum & bass and dubstep are both similarly cliquey in a weird way, even though dubstep is mainly U.S.-based and D&B is mainly in the U.K. They’re very similarly cliquey in what’s cool is cool, and what’s lame if f–king lame. There’s not much grey area.
Dubstep was controversial when you debuted Knife Party. People loved it, people hated it and and it created a lot of contention within the scene. What was your experience of that?
Swire: Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: We hated it. We weren’t massive fans of dubstep. It hasn’t got the groove of house music, it doesn’t have the sex appeal or the funk, and it doesn’t’ have the vibe or the energy of drum & bass, so we were kind of torn between whether we liked it or not.
Did that make it difficult to be wedged into that scene and play for that fan base, or were you just happy to be there?
Swire: We were happy to be there and happy to experiment. We’ve always liked making things, even if it’s not our favorite style. I think what was so difficult was that everyone was quickly like, “Oh, Knife Party, they’re a dubstep act.” We were like, “Hey, s–t. Hold on.”
Coming out the other end of that project and feeling a bit creatively burnt out and lost, was it always an intention to go back to Pendulum?
Swire: The initial kick off was Adam at Ultra. Pendulum was a never a huge thing in the States like in the rest of the world, but Adam Russakoff, the promoter for Ultra, was always a huge fan of drum & bass in general and of Pendulum too. He came to us before a Knife Party show in 2015 and kind of sat us like, “What will it take for you motherf–kers to come and play Ultra with a full fucking band?”
I didn’t want to do it at all, so I started calling his bluff and throwing out stupid shit, like “I want to headline the mainstage with Knife Party and Pendulum, and then I’ll f–king do it.” He was like, “Done.” I was like “Shit.”
That Ultra show was incredible. What did it do for you in terms of moving you forward?
Swire: I guess a lot in terms of starting the motions to bring it back and giving us the opportunity to play a slot like that, which was pretty much the only scenario in which we’d have brought it back. It was a lot of rehearsing. We hadn’t played in six or seven years by that point, so it was a lot of work to do.
What was the pressure like?
That had to be one of the biggest shows of your career.
Swire: Definitely. And if not the biggest, definitely the most high-stakes, because on one hand you’re bringing back a project where you can’t remember how to play all the songs and the drummer has f–king forgotten what goes where and the guitarist used to do something but he can’t remember what it was, and I can’t remember the lyrics. Then on the other side, you have to plan a whole Knife Party set and make sure it’s not boring. Too much.
To actually walk out on that stage, did you feel ready?
Swire: I think when the stakes are that high you just kind of see white noise for an hour, and then it’s over.
McGrillen: I don’t remember it. Not a minute of it.
Swire: The other thing was, they had this rotating stage at Ultra to cut down on switchover time, so that was the whole plan with Knife Party and Pendulum. We had the whole Pendulum live setup at the back of the stage and the Knife Party DJ set up at the front. Everything was plugged in in the back and all of our technical crew was like, “We don’t know when it turns if shit’s going to stay plugged in or the power will be out.”
McGrillen: Yeah, it would have left an hour of dead air.
These two new Pendulum tracks are really massive. How did they come to life?
Swire: The first came to life in 2016 or ’17, around the same time we did Ultra. The idea was banging around in our heads, and originally they were supposed to be for Knife Party and everyone was like, “That’s great! That’s Pendulum!” I was like, “No.” Eventually it was like, if everyone keeps telling me it’s Pendulum, then it probably is Pendulum. In retrospect, it’s blatantly f–king Pendulum. I don’t know what we were thinking.
Is there more music coming?
Swire: It will be two tracks, then two more tracks. After that then we might get back to some Knife Party. The album format seems like it’s not a good idea anymore, which works for us, since it’s too much stress.
Not a good idea why?
Swire: We’ve had cases where we’ve given someone like Spotify or Apple Music four tracks at once, like “Here you go! Here’s the EP!” And they’re like, “If you guys had spaced this out a bit more, we could’ve put it on different playlists” and we were like, “Okay, well, surely then an album works entirely against you in that case.”
McGrillen: Doing it this way gives each individual track more attention, more focus and a better opportunity at being successful, rather than giving them a whole body of work and one gets attention and the rest are buried.
Swire: It also means that instead of one large overarching, and may I say pretentious, concept album, you can come up with mini concepts for each EP, which I kind of like.
What does success for this new music look like given the current situation?
Swire: I guess it’s just positive reactions online, and I hate that phrase, but it is true, because what else is there? It’s weird because shows are always kind of stressful for me. Touring, I’m sure Gaz would agree, gets really tiring, so the idea of not playing is like “Yeah!”
But when it actually happens and you can’t actually play anything out, it’s hard to get excited about what you’re doing because it’s like, “Well if we can’t go and play it, what the f–k is the point?”
McGrillen: Especially when you’ve gotten so used to driving your career by the reactions of the audience. There are some artists that don’t really tour, whereas touring has literally been the driving force for both acts for so long. I guess it’s just being optimistic that there will come a day, hopefully soon.