Jonathan Kane and Swans

Mojo Magazine | Andrew Carden

Michael ... asked if I wanted to work with him on a project he was gonna call Swans

JULY 1982 In the beginning Swans was Michael Gira and myself. We’d played in a band called Circus Mort. Like so many young rock bands, we broke up the moment we put a record out. The evening Circus Mort discussed its demise, Michael and I went out to pick up some beer and cigarettes and he asked if I wanted to work with him on a project he was gonna call Swans.

By Spring ‘82, after dozens of rehearsals, we still hadn’t found a proper band. Nobody would stay. Either they weren’t right or hated the music. Then Sue Hanel came along. Sue was the most fearsome guitarist we’d ever heard in New York. She was unbelievable! Sue on guitar, Michael on bass and vocals, and myself on drums, became the nucleus from which the Swans sound evolved.

I always thought of Swans as a kind of blues band. One of the things that helped me forge the band’s rhythmic set-up was my fascination with Howlin’ Wolf. His song Evil got played out in my head endlessly while bashing away during a Swans song. Our first gigs were with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth playing second bass and different people doing percussion and metal-banging. Everything came together at our second gig, in July ‘82, at a little club in New York, Tramps. I realised we were truly unique. The percussionist that night was a huge guy called Mojo who used to be the doorman at the Pyramid Club. The show was amazing. I’ll always remember the stupefied look on the faces of the blase, “seen it all” New York crowd. They looked like the audience during Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.

MAY 1983 Shortly after the Tramps show the line-up solidified when Roli Mosimann [drums] and Harry Crosby [bass] joined. We went on tour with Sonic Youth, it was both bands’ first tours: 10 of us in one airless, seatless van with a trailer at the back for the gear. Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth named it The Savage Blunder Tour and indeed it was; parading around the US being met with indifference or hostility.

Michael was notoriously difficult to deal with. We have a good, if distant, relationship now, but at the time we argued about everything. While it helped fuel the tension behind the sound, it became extremely tiresome. I wasn’t having fun. People would come up to us in the early days and say that their guts had been rumbling with the bass being so loud. It was thrilling to be part of something so in-your-face, but eventually the bowel-loosening shock-waves thing was no longer what I wanted to impart on an audience.

Swans was largely Michael’s vision and he picked on a couple of aspects of my playing that he wanted to use, and pushed them to the fore. My fascination with blues and slowing the tempo down helped to create the dirge-like Swans crawl, but it was restricting. I’d helped create a monster and now I had to get away before it killed me.

My last gig with the band was at a three-day festival in New York called Speed Trials, with Sonic Youth, The Fall and the Beastie Boys. On the first day Michael and I had one of our huge fights about nothing, screaming at each other. I said “I quit!” He said “No, you don’t quit – you’re fired!” The next day I played our set and that was it, my Swans swansong.