Interview Swans: ‘The Music Is Playing Us; We’re Just Inside Of It’

Colm McAuliffe speaks to Michael Gira about the release of Swans’ twelfth studio album.

Swans leader Michael Gira doesn’t take long to ruminate on whether he thinks the ‘re-invigoration’ of his band, after a near-thirteen year hiatus, has seen them become almost hip, a name to drop. “I certainly hope not. The effect of the internet has seen a lot of young people discover the music, it seems like mostly people who care about music for its own sake because it’s not exactly fashionable and never has been. But people who have an inclination towards the experience have found it and that’s really encouraging.”

‘The Seer’ is Swans twelfth studio album and maintains the remarkably singular vision laid down by 2010’s astonishing return ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky’. With the title track alone clocking in at over thirty minutes, ‘The Seer’ is a challenging, almost daunting listen, equally primal as it is purgative and, according to Gira, “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve made been involved in or imagined.”

The Swans project emerged in early 1980s New York but Gira’s history prior to this has been well documented – as a runaway kid he ended up in an adult prison in Israel but not before happening upon some remarkable live music. “I saw Pink Floyd in 1969 on their Ummagumma tour in Belgium. I was still a runaway but saw them at this festival [the Amougies Festival] where I also saw The Pretty Things, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an early incarnation of Yes – who were great! – and lots of great experimental jazz bands, there was this early confluence of genres that didn’t really happen much before then. I wouldn’t say it was a pivotal moment at the time, it didn’t register. I was just a kid but after I had been doing Swans for four or five years, I started thinking about it, what it meant and so I tried to incorporate some of the ideas, or experiences more than ideas, from that festival.”

After returning to the US at the behest of his father, Gira resided in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, working in and around the nascent performance art scene, in particular the visiting Viennese Aktionismus Movement, assisting in one particular performance which entailed blood and entrails poured through a lamb’s carcass on to the bodies of a series of boys on stretchers while local musicians made as much noise as humanly possible, banging on cans, blowing trumpets. Nowadays, Gira is somewhat less enthused about this particular movement.

“[Performance art] – what an unfortunate genre that is! Well, there were a few good things at the time which I appreciated like Hermann Nitsch [originator of the above performance], [Rudolf] Schwartzkogler, Otto Muehl, Chris Burden, Bruce Naumann, COUM Transmissions. I like those things but that genre quickly devolved into confessional or very self-indulgent, almost living diary entries, something pretty pathetic. Maybe there’s some good practitioners but it’s a genre that I don’t really care about. As far as my background in that, I don’t know how it affects what we’re doing when playing live, I just always want to make something all-consuming happen, for us performers, in the music and for the audience. At moments, I view the performers and the audience as one. At those moments, the music is playing us. We’re just inside of it.”

The mention of COUM Transmissions suggests a certain influence on Swans from the start. “Oh yeah, I was hugely a fan of Throbbing Gristle.”, Gira confirms. “Of course they were an influence in the early days. Equally them and the Stooges. And Suicide, perhaps. I think there’s a clear thread that runs through them.”

The preternaturally primal, intense sound of early Swans still retains a frightening intensity with Gira at the core, sustaining, directing and driving the current which appropriated his feral muse. His role seems like one of an auteur within the music. “That’s a bit grandiose.”, Gira corrects. “But starting back at the time of ‘Children Of God’[1987], I started to think about records as cinematic experiences and gradually that entailed making these segueways or instrumental passages between the songs. Eventually culminating with ‘Soundtracks Of The Blind’ [1996], those segueways became more important than the songs. That’s trying to give the songs a context, I don’t want to just have a series of songs on a record like normal bands. I want it to be a total experience from looking at an album that way. Some of the great albums are like that, if you think of ‘Electric Ladyland’, ‘The White Album’, ‘Ummagumma’, those are the things I gravitate towards. Even the Mothers of Invention’s ‘Freak Out!’.”

After a major label flirtation in 1989 which produced the fitfully interesting ‘The Burning World’, Swans regrouped in 1991 with the masterful ‘White Light At The Mouth Of Infinity’ shepherding in an era of staggering consistency, anchored by Gira and his musical partner and spouse Jarboe. But the era was marked by personal and inter-band disharmony with Gira shouldering the majority of the toil. “It was such a struggle for fifteen years, I don’t know how we did it”, he reflects. “On my part, it was twenty-four hours of work all the time, constantly borrowing, begging to make the records, always figuring out a way somehow and subsisting somehow too, but just never getting much financial reward for it, and also the way it was perceived was very annoying, it seemed like a trap.”

In the interim period after the split, Gira worked on his considerably less fierce Angels Of Light project and finally found a modicum of success, through his Young God imprint and the signing and success of hirsute folk wunderkind Devendra Banhart. “I absolutely love Devendra. He’s a true savant, his musical direction is his choice and I’d like to see him make his own ‘Blood On The Tracks’, personally. He’s a magical person and a true talent.”

I venture that the success of Banhart must have also reaped hitherto unheard of fiscal rewards for Gira. “Well, yes. In the early days, as his success took off, there was all this money coming and I was flabbergasted because I never experienced having money. So, I didn’t touch it, I saved it and unfortunately bought a house at the top of the market and lost my entire savings! So now, I have a house but I also have a huge debt – I don’t know if that’s good or bad…”

But against all odds, Swans are now on their second studio album in three years yet Gira remains nonplussed about his band’s return. “I knew that this was the path I had to follow”, he says. “Making music for thirty years – I’m well aware that things change. There’s success and there’s abject failure too so I try to just focus on making the music now and not worry about the future or the context and just try and live in the moment.”

On ‘The Seer’, Gira maintains the same core of musicians from the previous album, a consistency which was rare in Swans’ earlier incarnations. “The musicians are great and we’re all friends, there’s a kind of camaraderie which never really existed with the line ups in the past. Swans line ups were always fraught with conflict and that’s not really the case now.”
Does this have a positive effect on the music produced? “It’s good because I’m still an asshole and I still yell at people so there’s always some tension there! I get wrapped up in the music and instead of calming down, I yell ‘No! You do that! You do that!’ and, of course, I’m often wrong. Although the band do get frustrated, they’re used to me by now.”

The title ‘The Seer’ developed on the band’s touring schedule. “The title track itself developed live as a groove which is something we’re doing these days. I have a basic idea for something and I take it to the band and we build it up in soundchecks and we started playing an unfinished thing in front of the audience, I didn’t have any words and was kind of mumbling until eventually it came into my head to say ‘I see it all, I see it all, I see it all’ and it sort of tied in with the music. It made sense to call the album that but it’s not a thematic thing.”

‘The Seer’s propensity towards extended song structures suggests some of these songs were constructed through jamming. “I wouldn’t call it jamming”, corrects Gira. “But four of them developed in a similar fashion – ‘The Seer’, ’93 Ave B Blues’, ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Apostate’. The other songs were acoustic guitar songs that were built up, the skeleton of them was laid down with guitar and drums and we built them up as I band. I added overdubs with other musicians.”

The other musicians Gira mention include Karen O, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who takes the lead vocal on ‘Song For A Warrior’, a beautiful, countrified lament. “Well I certainly hope it’s beautiful – it’s for my daughter”, says Gira. “I had been writing and singing it myself but it sounded like a wart on a very beautiful leg, so my voice was not working, it made it too much about me, it drew too much attention to me as a singer and I wanted it to be a song that could stand on it’s own. Our bass player is friends with Karen and he’d been sending me some links to her solo works, and I found her voice to be so affecting, compassionate – I wouldn’t say sensual because I don’t look at is as sexual – but almost very maternal and it fit with the song.” However, Gira’s daughter is – as of yet – indifferent towards her dedication. “She doesn’t care. It’s written for her in the future, when I’m gone, basically.”

A surprise appearance on ‘The Seer’ is Jarboe. Her and Gira’s relationship splintered in tandem with Swans and the likelihood of the two collaborating again seemed remote at best. “We’ve re-established some kind of communication”, says Gira, “and I just wanted some female extended note vocals with some soul in them and I thought it would be a good idea to ask her. I’m not quite ready to write a song for her yet, I’m not quite sure if that will ever happen but it’s good to involve her in some way. A true honour for me on the record was to have Alan and Mimi from Low sing [on album opener ‘Lunacy’] because Low, to me, is the supreme ideal of what music can be, it’s so austere but passionate, genuine and authentic without being sappy or sentimental. It’s really powerful American prairie gospel music and I admire their singing, musicality and soul tremendously, it was good to have them sing with me. You may notice their not background vocals – they’re co-equal vocals.”

Another influence on the record is the unlikely figure of Lady Gaga. It’s difficult to imagine Gira happily gyrating in his Woodstock home to ‘Born This Way’ but the superstar did somehow manage to veer her way into the lyrics for ‘The Apostate’. “Well, there were no words for the song and I was looking at YouTube, really fascinated by the Lady Gaga phenomenon and I just started singing her name over and over because it was something tangible to sing and I looked at her as a demon of inspiration and gradually the words developed into what they are. I took her name out but she was an early denizen of the song. And she’s fine, I like her. I don’t listen to her but, as a pop entity, she’s pretty cool.”

On the current Swans tour, Gira is adamant that the band remain challenging to both themselves and the audience. “It’s best to be in an uncomfortable position. As soon as things become too pat or predictable, I just have to fuck it up somehow. For instance, with these new songs, two of them are changing constantly each show we do. We rehearse for a month to build them up and live, I start changing them again until I find the right essence at some point and the form will be solidified. We’re also playing ‘Coward’ from the ‘Greed’ album – right now, it’s a little too similar [to the original] but we’re working it out and changing. I kinda liked it for the fact that there was absolutely no melody whatsoever in it, no discernible clear notes and it’s just sound and rhythm which, in a way, is like blues to me. I don’t think I would be true to myself to perform much of the older catalogue stuff, Swans was re-invigorated to move forward musically for me, selfishly. And I think to go back denies that. Makes it less urgent.”

Gira himself lives at a remove from any current trends within the music world which suggests ‘The Seer’ was almost created within a vacuum. “A hermetically sealed container!”, he laughs. “I don’t see anything. I live 100 miles north of the city and I assiduously do not go to the city to see music. It’s not that I distance myself, it’s more than I’m so self-absorbed, to me detriment, but I find it hard to listen to anything contemporary because it gets on my nerves. I prefer to listen to something like Nina Simone or Led Zeppelin. I’m sure there’s lots of great music going on but it’s just not on my radar.

On the whole, the coefficients which constitute the Swans project for Gira in the past seem considerably less divisive at present. “It was good to stop Swans at the time and it was good to restart it now,” affirms Gira. “It was like removing a very angry monkey from my shoulders. Maybe I’m more mature but it’s just work now. It’s everything a person is, what they do and this is to me the most challenging and invigorating thing I could be doing. And that’s why I‘m doing it.”

Swans’ new album ‘The Seer’ is out now via Young God Records.

Tags: Swans, Features

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