Speaking with Swans
An interview with Michael Gira
I spoke to experimental rock veteran Michael Gira a short time before the release of his band, Swans' much celebrated last album, The Seer. Now, a month after we've assimilated the aforementioned two-hour opus, the cumulative result of thirty years of music-making according to Gira, so quite a dish, as you can imagine, we might be able to evaluate said album and the trajectory Swans have taken more soberly. For me however, assuming a critical distance has been a difficult task, as my zeal for The Seer hasn't diminished in the six or so dozen listens I've dedicated to it.
Swans, which rose once more in 2010 after an almost fifteen year hiatus, are very much a “revivified" project (Gira's preferred descriptor). While Gira, who is and has always been the group's leader and motor, does not dismiss its past, he is always restless and moving forward. He seems to approach his art, like Swans do their live shows, as something that is only relevant as long as it buzzes with life. Life, of course, implies mutation and instability, vigor and entropy, all things that Swans embrace to create their often overpowering and always unconventional music.
Fortunately, for Swans enthusiasts, they are making some of the most varied and daring music of their career. On stage, they scorch, in keeping with their reputation. They burn through any venue like a purifying flame. Go see them if you can, but don't expect them to play any familiar titles, at least not in any way that resembles what you've heard on the records.
By the time you've read this, I'll have seen them again at London's KOKO in October. They're, of course, legendarily loud. I always bring an extra pair of earplugs for anyone in need.
PSF: Are the songs on The Seer as incomplete as album's liner notes indicate? A reel in the movie?
Gira: I learned from experience that you can never really look at a song as being finished. In most cases, it starts out on acoustic guitar even if it's just a rhythm idea with some vocal ideas, or it's a so-called finished song on acoustic guitar and starts out that way. That's one version. Another version is when I start working on it with people in a room and it becomes something and then maybe I go into the studio and record it and then I do all the overdubs and then it reaches this chaotic stage where I have to sort out all the overdubs afterwards and then it's mixed and that's another version. And then, when we go to play it live, I don't at all try to replicate what's on record because to me those are completely different worlds. And then it just transforms from there or it gets discarded, one of the two. I like to be in a position where nothing's ever settled and it's always kind of uncomfortable…like standing on a bridge made of sand. That makes me happiest when things are not sure.
PSF: Is that why the lives Swans experience and the studio experience are completely separate entities?
Gira: Well, they are! I'm not much of a fan of capturing a band in a room. I want to get a feel on tape. That's just the first part to me, because the studio's an instrument and I like to treat it like a film and make each song and eventually the album a film soundtrack, something that evokes a different world. That's what interests me about recording. Live is more physical and more immediate and it has to feel like it's happening right now, not like we're trying to recite something.
PSF: The Seer, like many by Swans, seems totally insular. It creates its own universe, its own mythology. Is that how you create and have been creating for these past few years?
Gira: That's a fine compliment that it's its own world. That's really what I try to do is make something for people to live in for a while.
PSF: Does Swans' music emerge purely from you and your collaborators? Do you care at all what's going on in music apart from Swans?
Gira: No [laughs]. I gravitate toward certain music. If you asked me a contemporary band that I liked I couldn't name one, though I might encounter something I like through other people.
PSF: So, it's all coming from within Swans and yourself?
Gira: Well, yeah, we're an entirely original band, I guess. But, actually right now, we have this new song, part of which is based loosely on a Howling Wolf song, just the rhythm, but that's sort of completely gone now. That's something that came from outside, I guess. But, it's just a way to find a groove to start building something on, but it is hermetic in a way.
PSF: One track that really intrigued me was “93 Ave B Blues"- it seemed really novel and different. Is there a story behind that?
Gira: [laughs] Sort of. That started out as this improv thing we used to do as an encore on the last tour, it is uncharacteristic for us, but I liked it quite a bit. 93 Ave B is the place where I lived with Jarboe from 1981 to 1992. That's where Swans rehearsed for its whole New York tenure, so that was like placing a name on [the song] that had some sentimental resonance and also was referring to this improv piece on the Stooges' Funhouse album called “L.A. Blues."
PSF: Was this the famous bunker in New York you lived in with Jarboe for a number of years?
Gira: That was the address. It no longer exists. The whole building's been gutted and now it's some fancy restaurant, but at the time it was not fancy [laughs]. It was called a bunker for a reason. [People who practiced santeria] used to put little bags with chicken feet and some other kind of hex. I went to a local botanica and the lady there told me it was curse for me. It must have worked [laughs]. That space used to be a Puerto Rican Pentecostal church where santeria intermingled with it. I don't know how. Hearing our music coming out of the space must have bummed people out a lot because it was very loud on the street when we played [laughs]. The upstairs neighbor wasn't too pleaser either.
PSF: As a veteran label-owner, are you now more or less optimistic about small record companies like yours (Young God Records) which specialize in uncompromising music?
Gira: I can't think about issues that large. I'm too busy trying to survive on my own. I always figure out a way. I started basically supporting myself when I was 14 or 15 as a runaway, pretty much learned how to take care of myself. And as long as my health holds up, I will continue to do so and figure out ways to move forward. I don't have any skills or a Plan B. I just figure out how to make a living and make the music I want to make. That's like a source of pressure, but also healthy. I just figure out how to survive. [The state of the music industry is such] that I don't put out other people's music now. I might do a one-off with someone at some point in the future, but I can't take the pressure and the financial disaster of putting out other people's music anymore. It's a real responsibility, like particularly it was with Devendra and Akron/Family; bringing them to the world. It worked; it was great, but it was kind of all-consuming and by the time I decided to stop signing other people, I was just kind of done with being that involved in other people's music. I admire the music, but it's a huge commitment. If I would have continued, it would have required hiring staff and that's just even more of a disaster so I'd rather keep things simple.
PSF: Akron/Family sort of became part of the Angels of Light [another Gira band] project though.
Gira: Well, they were there and they were great musicians so I just asked them to play and there was a twin aspect there because it helped. We did a tour together and they opened for me as Akron/Family, then played as Angels of Light, so they did do two intense sets a night. They started out almost completely unknown and just blew people away along the way and by the end of the tour, they were more famous than Angels of Light.
PSF: The previous studio album, 2010's My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, seemed like something new by Swans and yet also a continuation of Angels of Light, while this new one seemed like something entirely less indebted to Angels of Light and more purely like a Swans project.
Gira: I have all that history in my head and it's bound to inform whatever I'm doing. When I did the first Swans album [of the current line-up], I hadn't been making the kind of music Swans excels at for a number of years, so that's probably natural that it came out that way. When we did this album, we had the benefit of having toured together for a whole year.
PSF: Right, so that's a pretty organic groove that's going with the current line-up, I would suppose.
Gira: Yeah. Live now, we're playing three new songs. They're kind of long, fifteen/twenty minutes; those are kind of developing organically, in the same way as the songs on The Seer did. We're developing them as a group, playing them for a while, realizing what works, changing something, then working them live until they hopefully become an undeniable shape.
PSF: Kind of like we saw with “The Apostate" [a piece from The Seer], which went through so many phases.
Gira: Yeah, that's got a shape now that seems to work, but that might get boring so we'll probably have to start changing that up a bit. Things are in a state of flux live. It's a good show, people seem to be enjoying it so far, but I'm not satisfied yet. I want to keep hacking at stuff. The band kind of rolls their eyes, because we spend hours and hours and hours getting a shape or a form and then, I destroy it after a show [laughs]. But, that's just the way it is.
PSF: That must be frustrating for people who search online for the set-list of a show months beforehand. That's not possible with a Swans performance, is it?
Gira: Well, the set-list is the same, but the songs change [laughs].
PSF: That unpredictability might be what keeps people going to Swans shows, what they've come to expect right?
Gira: I guess so. I mean I don't care what they expect [laughs]. It's like a piece of evolving theatre, a set. You find out the best way the dynamics work in the whole thing, rather than just playing a series of songs. It's an experience. We're not the Monkees.
PSF: Yeah, so many bands just pull out the greatest hits for the tour and what's the point really?
Gira: It's probably been a detriment to Swans' career that we didn't stick with something, but fuck it. I have a short period of time on Earth and I just want to maximize my potential at any given time hopefully.
PSF: Your daughter didn't sing on this album.
Gira: No, she didn't.
PSF: Are you going to incorporate family vocals in future Swans endeavors?
Gira: [Laughs] Oh, I just use whoever's at hand. That's the way Jarboe was. She's a tremendous resource. She was also there all the time, so, of course, I used her abilities. PSF I recently found out Jarboe was classically trained and had to retool her skills considerably for Swans' approach. This must also happen a lot with collaborators, like Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk from Low, who contributed to The Seer, and make very different music from the kind Swans specialize in.
Gira: Well, I'm a producer, so a director basically- it's natural that people would just aver to my input. When Jarboe first started, she was playing a very crude version of a sampler keyboard, one of the first ones, and I made these really hideous slabs of caustic sound and she'd just bash them down in rhythm with the two drummers we had at the time. It was anything but classical music. Unless you like [Polish composer Henryk] Gorecki. There's a really wonderful Gorecki piece I mention to people. It's his Second Symphony, which is pretty apocalyptic. I discovered it post-that era of Swans, but it's kind of similar in a way. Not Symphony # 3, but #2. Number 3 is a very beautiful piece, but it's much different. I want to create an immersive experience that's like a film I guess. That started around the album, [1991's] White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, but even with [1987's] Children of God, I started thinking that way. It's just something that's gradually developed. I used to have these segues that would build between songs to make that the songs have a context and eventually by the time [1996's] Soundtracks for the Blind happened, the segues were more important than to me than the songs. I don't know what the deal is now.
PSF: Well, the last two albums haven't had very many traditional rock songs.
Gira: There are songs, there. I don't know how successful they are as songs, but I think theyr'e nice mood pieces. “Lunacy" is a song, sort of traditional in a way. “Song for a Warrior" and “My Daughter Brings the Water," and the end of “A Piece of the Sky" that's a song.
PSF: Do most of these songs grow out of improvisation?
Gira: Parts like the end of “A Piece of the Sky," that's something I play on my acoustic guitar and sing... The other stuff is just building a context around and making an event.
PSF: Would that have been the Angels of Light method?
Gira: No, with Angels of Light, I would have just taken that end part and just adorned that. Whereas in this case, I made this sonic landscape.
PSF: Do you consider Swans a rock band in the usual sense, or something completely separate?
Gira: Well, we definitely rock harder than anyone else on the planet, but we don't sound like anybody else. But, we don't really play regular music. The shows are pretty intense. Our idols are of course are the early Stooges, but I wouldn't want to sound like that, that would be kind of preposterous...
PSF: And James Brown is an influence?
Gira: Yeah, lots of music I love that's really visceral, but you could say Nina Simone as well. Stuff that cuts right through your body into your soul. That's what I respond to.
PSF: And that's very present in the live Swans experience you'd say…the direct and visceral element?
Gira: Yeah, but it's also sort of transcendent. I don't want to be preposterous about it, but it feels transcendent when it's the best, when it's really great. But, then again, so would the Stooges have been and so would James Brown have been. It's just so completely mind-blowing [laughs].
PSF: Swans, with the latest album and tour, are getting a lot of hype. The visibility of Swans is on the ascendant.
Gira: It's kind of funny, yeah. I don't know what to do about it. How do I stop that? [laughs]
PSF: It's a problem?
Gira: I look at that as very transitory. I don't hold any stock in it. Whatever happens happens. If it helps sell the record and hence enables us to live and make more music, then that's great. But, it doesn't mean anything to me in terms of justifying what I do and I certainly don't expect it to happen next time for instance. So if things are going well that's good, but ive learned to survive in either situation.
PSF: The expectation doesn't determine the trajectory at all.
Gira: No. I mean you've gotta be humble, because I've been very poor in fact quite recently [laughs]. So it's all relative. It seems like things are growing considerably, but again I don't count on it and I don't expect it.
Swans' The Seer, like most of the band's catalogue, is currently available from Young God Records. Swans are still on tour. Find out if they're playing near you. You owe yourself some transcendence.
Also see articles about Gira's Angels of Light and this 2006 Gira interview and this Swans article.
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