The beginning of the pandemic was weird.
“I have this burned-in memory of this woman next to me [at the grocery store], and she was just scooping dried beans into a bag,” says Benjamin Swardlick, a soft-hearted dude in a perpetual beanie known to fans of electronic music as Swardy, formerly one-half of The M Machine.
“She put it down, and then she scooped more dried beans into another bag. She did that like three times, and I looked over and smiled and she was like, ‘I don’t know. I have no idea. I guess this is what I’m going to do.’”
That was pretty much the vibe from March to August of 2020. We all were just guessing what to do. Some of us made sourdough bread. Swardlick did that, too. He also tried to get into the art of bonsai, though now he just has one ficus tree that’s “fighting for its life.”
He did have a third hobby, though — and that was, he says, “an instant win.”
Swardlick, who currently resides in an artist warehouse in Los Angeles, taught himself to use Blender. The popular 3D animation software is free to use, and it didn’t overload his 10-year-old iMac. After a couple years of trial, error and just plain play, this week he unveils his animated video, Compact Objects, to the world.
The 8:42-long video is a surrealist feast that puts Swardlick’s longtime mascot, Morne Diablotins, in a funky dream sequence — each stylish vignette soundtracked to another snippet from the companion Compact Objects LP, released June 7. (You can the delightful clip at the end of the article.)
Like Swardy’s previous EPs and stunning Secret Sky Festival performance (done during the Porter Robinson-hosted streaming festival in April of 2021) the Compact Objects short is adorable, heart-warming and wonderfully imaginative. The first comment on the official YouTube upload is Porter Robinson simply stating “THIS IS INCREDIBLE.”
“Here’s why it stuck,” Swardlick says of his foray into Blender. “I write music in a way that is super non-linear, and 3D animation felt exactly like that. I use the program Logic to write music, and my sessions usually look like ‘here’s an idea. Move down the line a little bit. Here’s an idea, here’s an idea,’ and I’m developing a palette for a song. Eventually, I either start a new session or move down the timeline, then start a song and pick and choose little pieces that I’ve already worked on. What I liked about working in 3D is it felt really familiar like that, because you start to build out this little world and then it’s like, ‘okay, now we have to harvest something out of it.’”
Swardlick is quick to point out that he is very much a beginner, and if some Blender expert were to enter the chat, he’d probably be a little embarrassed at how rudimentary his work actually appears. That bit there, though, is the entire impetus for the project.
The songs that began Compact Objects were created during a week-long song-a-day camp Swardlick joined in quarantine, too. Suddenly, he found himself sharing rough ideas and demos with “an impressive and intimidating group of people,” and it taught him—or rather reminded him—that there is beauty in the early stages of things; that not everything has to be perfect.
“It was very validating and encouraging,” he says. “It feels like the majority of the identity that I wear and put out there is, ‘Guy who makes stuff, usually music, and everything else is for my whims and hobbies that keep me sane.’ But I think to understand and to know something is the first step to appreciating and liking or hopefully loving that thing. I want to encourage myself to share more of what I do and am with other people, including on the internet, but not exclusively.”
And thus, we get the eight-song album and audio-visual treat that is Compact Objects. It’s an exercise in exposition, and the next step in Swardlick’s journey to becoming the full-fledged world builder he’s always been.
If you saw that Secret Sky set or heard the interlude “Installation 323” on his 2020 EP Palomino, it’s no surprise. Even The M Machine was touted as a highly conceptual project. Swardlick has always made music that lives in spaces — and with Blender in his tool belt, we’re one step closer to living in that world, too.
“I don’t have the budget or the means to create the scene I was trying to design or channel in [‘Installation 323’],” he says, “but it feels like a step down the path by just doing all that I can, which is to design it in my mind and even create the entire audio experience — because that’s something I do have control of — and maybe one day we’ll actually take that elevator down and do that theme park ride.”
And if he can do it, so can you.