DJs of the Year: Beautiful Swimmers Demonstrate the Power of Collaboration in Club Culture
The DC-based duo embraces an anything-goes approach to two-heads-are-better-than-one mixing.
Illustration by Leesh Adamerovich
The art of DJing is a nebulous and malleable thing, but most of us step into clubs weekend after weekend hoping for some kind of stability amidst the world's disjointedness. And that's why the importance of the DJ can never really be overstated. The best DJs, the ones who leave you slack-jawed and breathless, are the ones that truly understand just how important they are in shaping the time we spend away from work, away from the world.
They take the ostensibly dark, disorienting environs of nightclubs and make them inviting, enveloping, coherent places for the world's weirdest and most unwelcome. Through years of dedication to the culture, unwavering commitment to their craft, and an unimaginably diverse record collection, DJs Andrew Field-Pickering and Ari Goldman perfectly embody these virtues.
The pair first met in Washington, DC as teenagers—after their bands played a show together—and were raised on the city's thriving punk and hardcore scene. Separately, they've both spent the past decade releasing music as Max D (Field-Pickering) and Manhunter (Goldman), but it wasn't until they started DJing as Beautiful Swimmers in 2009 that the pair emerged as the leading club culture proponent in Washington DC's close-knit music scene. This "punk" spirit has seen them operate as champions of the fringes, playing music that surfs across genre boundaries and largely playing intimate parties with like-minded artists and promoters, from Mister Saturday Night, to Pender Street Steppers, to Shanti Celeste.
They smashed festivals from Dekmantel to Gottwood, played otherworldly radio sessions everywhere from NTS to Radio 1, and dropped the most roof-raising and diverse RA mix in recent memory—jumping wildly from forgotten UK garage jams to deep house grooves. As the B2B becomes an increasingly commodified trope in club culture—utilized broadly to pad out festival lineups with as many names as possible—Beautiful Swimmers also showcase the transformative power collaborative selectors can have when they get it right. The pair most likely don't consider themselves a B2B in the conventional sense—they're certainly not a "celebrity pairing" of two individually recognised names—but as the world outside becomes more fractured, their friendship and seamless cooperation remains a source of hope.
To celebrate the two-headed thing of beauty that is the Swimmers in full flow, THUMP UK's Josh Baines and Angus Harrison put their heads together for their own B2B, musing on why these two are the best DJs around.
Josh Baines: I generally try and avoid introducing myself to DJs while they're behind the booth after the time I did it at my 20th birthday and the DJ in question—a Belgian guy called Mugwump who was signed to Kompakt—looked at me like I was the worst person on earth. So I surprised myself recently by stomping down to the decks at London's Oval Space and grabbing Max D by the hand to tell him was both a "fucking amazing DJ" and "one of the fellas." What do you think it is about him and Ari Goldman that inspires that kind of reaction?
Angus Harrison: I think, firstly, that this says a lot about how much you'd had to drink that night—but we'll leave that for another time. What it says a lot more about is the key dynamic at the core of every set Max D and Ari Goldman have ever played together, this counterbalance between intricate, seamless DJing and shameless, blatant fun. Their mixes manage to remain elusive and intriguing while also providing perfect, peak-time party power.
But I'd be interested to know: if you had to describe the sort of music they play—without just saying "house"—what would you say? It's a pretty specific combination of...something.
JB: In terms of what it is they play, one of the things that I know interests the pair of us about the duo as DJs is their ability to make pretty much anything sound like a "Beautiful Swimmers" record, in the same way that you can talk about a "Harvey record" or a "Jane Fitz record." With DJ Harvey, it's that low-slung and sleazy tropical disco thing. Jane Fitz has got an amazing knack for finding a kind of techno record that feels really organic, present in the room with with you. And what Max and Ari do, weirdly, sits between the two. Think back to that Flavourful mix they did for Test Pressing in 2013. They zip through everything from the deep grooves of Pepe Bradock, to the ominous clatter of Maurizio, to gloriously chintzy release of Tatsuro Yamashita, without ever sounding contrived or knowing.
AH: I think about this a lot when I'm listening to them. As you say, their dexterity is pretty effortless and a "Beautiful Swimmers record" can exist anywhere in the space between microhouse and UK garage. Above that though, more than the artists and genres that link them, it feels like there's this spirit connecting everything they play—a sort of intangible character present in every track, if that isn't too lofty a way of putting it. There aren't many DJs I attach colors and images to in the same way I do with the Swimmers. I wonder if their name contributes to this, but it always puts me in mind of their music as submerged somehow, or of partying in an abandoned pool on the Pacific Coast.
What's your favorite thing they've done this year?
JB: I've had a long, hard, proper think about this, and while I was initially going to plump for their Resident Advisor mix—which sees the lads at their most wonderfully bacchanalian—I've decided that it's their NTS show from late October that's the one for me. Radio can be used as a site for exploration—a way of working through different ideas away from the implicit-perfection of the officially-released mix, and the explicit demands that come with playing in clubs. That lends radio sets an air of freedom, which goes some way to explaining why this was the year I listened to more radio than ever before.
Taking to NTS' little hut just a few hours before they hooked up with Ron Morelli and Pearson Sound for the aforementioned gig at Oval Space this October, the pair rolled through with two hours worth of freewheeling gems. There was sad-lad boom-bap, old half-forgotten Soundstream remixes, and an always appreciated airing of the space-age bachelor pad brilliance of Bobby Konders' remix of "North on South St" by Herb Alpert. Every track had me rushing to Discogs to spend money I didn't have. Plus it's always a joy to hear Max drop his trademark "yes, yes..." ad-lib on the radio, which always contributes to the sense that for these two, it really is effortless. I think I know what you'd call their best moment, but indulge us....
AH: Well, actually I am a bit torn, because Beautiful Swimmers B2B with Pender Street Steppers was also pretty special—but we've already covered that in our mixes of the year list, and we're only talking about Max and Ari here. So on that basis, I'm predictably going to shout out their 10/10 Resident Advisor podcast from October. It's the most fun listening experience I've had in what was somewhat famously not a totally fun year, and it taps into exactly what I was saying earlier about their balance between headsy selections and full-on, summertime celebrations.
Opening with the crackle of rave atmospherics, the session starts bouncing and doesn't let up—from the irresistible swagger of RIP Productions "You Cheated," to the more delicate UKG flourishes of Urban Myth's "Stronger," it's an absolute masterclass. I wish every night out sounded like this—a fluid, reckless abandonment of the grey, tired landscapes of 2016. I guess we shouldn't forget to mention their sterling work running their respective labels, either...
JB: Do you want to know what the best day of 2015 was? I'll tell you: it was the 9th of November. Why was that the best day of the year? Because that was the day that Max D opened his arms and let everyone in the world grab a compilation of Future Times classics for whatever price they could afford. Christmas came really early that year. And this year, Max's been responsible for putting out great records by the likes of Magic Mountain High and Motion Graphics. Oh, and he put his own album Boost out too. That one seems to have, oddly, slipped under the radar in the EOY lists—ours included. Maybe because it came out the day that Prince died. Anyway, we should remember that Ari's just as important as Max.
AH: You're right to point out that while Max might be the face/voice of the operation, Ari is just as vital and it's been exciting to see him start his own imprint this year in the shape of World Building. His first, and only so far, release on the label was the exquisite "Fatal Flaw in Disco" by Mark Seven—a record that couldn't be more Beautiful Swimmers if it tried.
JB: We've not covered something really important here, have we? And that's the fact that Beautiful Swimmers are an unbreakable duo. The whole "art of the B2B" thing is super interesting to me on a creative level. DJing is about the creation of the new from the existing, remodelling disparate sounds and corralling them into something approaching cohesion. Two selectors going going head to head is always going to make that apparent—you're literally merging two record collections together. Do you think that Max and Ari fit the traditional idea of what B2B sets are, and how they work?
AH: I think we need to be clear what we're talking about when we say B2B. The model that's been popularised on festival bills over the past few years typically sees variations of team-ups between individually established DJs. Whether you think these sets are simply an attempt to maximise time on festival lineups or, as Ben UFO argued earlier this year, they provide a more participatory experience—allowing different artists to challenge each-other, sharing both music and ideas. Beautiful Swimmers are far more than a pairing of two DJs. They play, tour, and produce as a unit, so we probably shouldn't talk about them as a B2B as such, but I do think Max D and Ari provide an excellent example of what can be achieved with two pairs of hands. As Beautiful Swimmers, they have become far greater DJs than their respective parts—the very fact that we're reluctant to class them as a straightforward B2B shows how much they've coalesced as selectors.
I guess a good place to conclude is to ask: why this year? The Swimmers have been doing their thing, and doing it well, for a good while now. Why do they deserve to be our DJs of the year in 2016?
JB: They deserve it because—and sorry to come across like the supply teacher that Lisa Simpson falls in love with or something—they're proof that if you're really fucking good at something, and come across as halfway decent human beings, you'll eventually get somewhere. In their case, it meant playing higher up the bill at big-boy festivals like Dekmantel, it meant getting that coveted RA mix, it meant generally becoming even better known and even more well-loved than they'd been previously. And they did it without any fucking corny gimmicks, too. Put simply, Beautiful Swimmers are a permanent reminder of just how amazing DJing can be when you leave it in the right hands.
AH: I also think they've gotten better this year. Across the past few years there are isolated highlights—their 2013 album Son, or their Trilogy Tapes mixes last year—but it's been striking just how prolific they've proven this year. Wherever they've popped up, festivals, radio stations, clubs, they've been untouchable. I think it's important we celebrate those bastions of the underground who consistently excite and innovate, without necessarily getting the recognition they deserve. They are an intensely hard-working pair, they never disappoint live or on record, and as their popularity grows, particularly through Europe, this feels like a more than fitting point to step back and appreciate their great work.