This Is My Sermon: M Gira Of Swans Speaks To John Doran
John Doran , May 6th, 2014
Ahead of the release of magnificent new Swans album To Be Kind, Michael Gira speaks to John Doran about that LP's ferocious grooves, his role as band leader, Haitian history, the early days of the group, and his terror at the ever-increasing commercialisation of our society. Photography by Jennifer Church, Sebastien Sighell and Matias Coral
I read something very smart about Swans that was posted on the music discussion board ILM about twelve years ago. A poster made a comparison which was so unusual it threw some fresh light on the subject at hand (often the best kind of comparisons to make). After saying Michael Gira's rock group were philosophically similar to the hip hop duo Clipse, the person known as EC said: "Both Clipse and Swans find social reality at the intersection of sex, money, and power. They view everything else as pretty fluff, designed to obscure the harsh truth. The difference is, Gira and co. sound traumatised by this discovery, whereas Malice and Pusha T sound like they're doing a gleeful dance."
I mention this comparison to an unfailingly polite, dapper and healthy-looking Gira at Mute's in-house studio in West London. Swans are releasing their thirteenth album in just over three decades, To Be Kind, on their own Young God label at home in America, but are licensing it to the venerable English indie in Europe. He's here to record a radio session of new songs performed acoustically. Just him and a guitar. This is often how he writes nowadays, and indeed how he has done for some time. So no matter how big the current Swans sound when filled out through live performance - and it is monolithic - it's not an odd or uncomfortable way to experience the music. In fact fans of the group will be well used to hearing acoustic versions in advance of the fleshed-out album tracks. Gira has been using his own version of the Kickstarter method to fund the recording of his albums since Angels Of Light's How I Loved You came out in 2001. He releases limited run live and demo albums to raise money, and now he applies the same process to financing Swans albums as well.
So Not Here/Not Now introduced some of this material last year, and these songs were also developed during recent tours. Despite this, nothing can prepare the listener for the pure, sublime, visceral hit of To Be Kind's two-hour statement of a band triumphant. I've been lucky enough to have this album for two months now and I'm still staggered every time I listen to it. The line-up remains the same but the sound has effloresced; the layered slabs of noise and sound have given way - in part - to monstrous grooves which lock you into a frame from which it's difficult to escape. It's a fool's errand trying to score or rank any album when it first comes out, when often in your heart of hearts you're not 100% sure about how you'll feel even a year later. However, I am inclined to think this may be Swans' best album yet.
Gira tells me he hasn't heard of Clipse, but he agrees with the sentiment… up to a certain point: "When did the poster say this? 11 years ago? Well, I'm not that person anymore. I mean, I may have been once. Those were the things I concentrated on in the early days, but certainly the subject matter and the thrust and gist of the music has moved on beyond that considerably since then. I made albums called Children Of God and Soundtracks For The Blind it's true, but I've moved on from that. But fair enough, you know. I guess when you do things that are extreme in your youth that's what you're remembered for always."
He laughs, adding: "You really can't get away from that. I could make new age music now and I would still be advertised as the loudest band in the world… on their harps!"
Of course, Swans have changed beyond all recognition since they slouched out of New York's Lower East Side as a progressive post punk, industrial, no wave leaning unit in 1982. On the surface, there is little to connect the snotty nosed nihilists and aggressively new-sounding noise freaks to what they have become. But it's too easy and probably misleading to say that they're completely different; perhaps it's more that now they're the other side of the same coin. The music they create doesn't exist in easily blocked-out phases, rather it has gone through an initially disturbing but ultimately redemptive narrative arc. This timeline stretches over 32 years, starting with trauma and existential crisis, through nihilism, then understanding and anguish before acceptance, a change of perspective and ultimately the ability to reach an accommodation with existence itself.
The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective travels from a roughly anti-natalist/nihilist position to accepting the possibility of peace, not by changing who he is or by deciding that he was wrong, but simply by affecting a simple but very hard won shift in perspective. Likewise, Gira's music has not travelled that far in spiritual terms, but has gone through a perspective shift where it counts. In this sense, Swans are a very modern band - learning about how little control you have over your own life and coming to terms with that can ultimately be the most liberating experience you can have. In short, I like to think that Swans are less of a Thomas Ligotti or EM Cioran kind of band, and are now more a John Gray. (This is the fun part of Swans. Everything I'm saying on this score is complete conjecture. Despite being extremely candid on all other topics, Gira won't discuss his lyrics or his own spiritual beliefs. I get the sense that he wants you to make your own mind up about what he's saying.)
So what else does the worldview of Swans say to me? It says, yeah, we may brief, anomalous, very, very small flickers of what passes for sentience caught inside a very, very large accident we are completely ill-equipped to understand, but look at the view we've been afforded. This is the sound of people harnessing the energy released in this accident, converting it to glorious music and reflecting it back out into the void, momentarily, beautifully, improbably, saying, 'I am here'. They are no longer staring into the void or weeping into it. They're singing into it instead.
A few days after our meeting, I wanted to ask Gira a few more questions and arrange a Skype chat. When you speak to him via computer, he doesn't switch the video link on, so you're left staring at his avatar, a stern portrait photograph of Samuel Beckett. At the end of our chat he apologises in case it made me nervous. I tell him that it's ok, and that I love having dead existentialists glare at me while I'm interviewing people.
He replies: "Existentialist? No way! He's just a Zen Buddhist right?"
Like I say, an essential shift in perspective.
With My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, you said yourself that this was a roll of the dice, you were trying out a new line-up after a hiatus, and you also said that The Seerwas the culmination of thirty years of musical experience. Now, some people, having made those statements, might have felt that they'd painted themselves into a corner, but presumably this isn't how you feel about the new album?
Michael Gira: You journalist types often think that we arty types do things in a calculated manner for the ends of parsing, whereas actually, in my case, I just try to make the best music I possibly can at any given moment. I was very conscious of putting The Seer out of my mind and just doing something new. Otherwise I'd be trying to live up to it or some crap like that. I can't listen to it anyway, all the music sounds like shit to me to be honest. I can't stand it. [laughs]
Are there any exceptions to that?
MG: Once it gets really old then I can visit it with some sort of sense of rueful nostalgia. But not for a long time. I just tried to listen to the new album and I got through one and a half songs and I was just like, 'Ugh'. When you're making it, it's so full of mystery and light and it's so invigorating. You think, 'Finally I've reached something true!' And it sounds fantastic and then you work on it so much, and you hear it so many times and you run it through it through your brain so many times while you're laying in bed thinking about it, that by the end… it's just like a used condom. [laughs]
Having attended Swans gigs between albums and the Kickstarter-style demo albums, you can hear this natural kind of evolutionary process taking place. What's interesting to me is that although it's undeniably an organic growth, there are things that do stand out to me on the new album. Yeah, sure, it's still monolithic, but I think the grooves are maybe funkier, maybe even sexier... is that kind of a fair comment?
MG: Yeah, that was the intent, we did sit down and say 'lets make a sexy groove' because we're so sexy…[laughs]
Like Alexander O'Neal or something…
MG: What I discovered on the last record was that I wanted to push forward on this one. It was about this groove and how I could really focus on that, not necessarily these big sheets of sound, but more about the possibility to find something that could just keep going forever, without feeling mechanical. So we pushed that aspect. We often focused in on the rhythms, but the idea of us actually getting funky is pretty preposterous. It's some kind of idiosyncratic version of that I guess, but it's a fine line for us to tread, because I don't want to be a white boy trying desperately to grow a big butt.
It is interesting, because I think that if you take the groove that starts off the track that everyone's heard, 'A Little God In My Hands', I'm not over exaggerating when I say I can hear someone like The Neptunes sampling that as a locked groove to make the basis of an R&B, or a hip hop song even.
MG: Okay. I was trying to play guitar like Nile Rodgers on that. It was a Swans guitar chord so it was a little atonal, but I think it works.
So the new album is coming out over here on Mute. I think that Mute seems like a really good fit for the band, but obviously you've got history with the label, haven't you? How far back does your history with Mute go?
MG: Swans signed to a subsidiary of Mute called Product Inc. in 1986 after we did the albumCop, and then we did Greed, Holy Money and ancillary singles on Some Bizarre, and then we went with Mute for Children Of God and some side project things that I did with my companion Jarboe. Daniel [Miller] was very supportive of us and there was a big push for the music. Everything was very encouraging and lots of money was spent, and the record tanked commercially so we parted company pretty quickly. And after the resurgence, the reconfiguration of Swans, Daniel contacted us. So it's not a signing though, to me, its more because I'm on a label, produced it myself, I run my own label and pretty much know how to release records and put them out. It's more like a partnership really, and they're certainly great, and they're going to be great for us outside the United States. We're still Young God Records in the United States.
Can you explain to me the history of the artwork and how you finally managed to secure it from Bob Biggs?
MG: Bob Biggs was a dashing figure - he was a rather handsome man actually - that I knew in Los Angeles during the punk days, probably in 1977 or 78. He was an artist and attended a performance or a happening. He arrived with a full-sized heifer cow in the back of a trailer truck, and let it into the Masque Club, and walked it around, and it took a shit on the floor. Then he took it out and left, and that was his performance. But he also was a painter and a draftsperson, and he did these great baby head paintings. They looked a bit like the Gerber baby logo but a whole series of different babies, and I was always struck with them. They just seemed like icons of some obscure religious cult or something, but they always stuck with me, and I could never figure out what they meant - I'm not sure I can now - but they just seemed like sentinels or flags that were waving the way towards something.
I asked him in the early 80s to see if I could use those images for an album, and he was just flat out, 'No'. And I guess time's passed, and I contacted him again because I was just flummoxed about what should be a good image to accompany this album, and he said yes. In his artwork, it's on a black piece of paper, drawn on an oil pastel on a black piece of paper. But I cut them out, and they're printed now in the commercial release of the album [on the CDs and LPs] on cardboard stock, on matt cardboard stock, like Children Of God was released. So these colorful baby heads will be on this raw, unprinted cardboard, and embossed so they stick up, and really glossy. Almost like a little poker chip you could pull off… and there are six panels.
Would you agree that you keep on returning to themes of innocence and childhood in your work?
MG: Can you name a specific instance on this record where I do that?
I guess my first go to example would be 'Just A Little Boy'. Is this about a quest for returning to the innocence of childhood?
MG: No. I just wrote those lyrics really without thinking. Not in some kind of compulsive or eruptive way, I wrote them slowly, but for me it was about trying to go back to a place which is usually repressed, namely the id. But I didn't set out to go, 'Oh, I'm going to explore my id', for God's sake! I just realised later that that was sort of what happened, particularly in the way I sing those words, is very much like that. Like that sort of creature that comes out from that part of yourself that you hide from others. And I just let it be and let it come out, because I'm very good at saying the wrong thing at the wrong place and just being uncomfortable. I did this solo show in Berlin, and I was half way through a song and I stopped – I don't know why I did this, I just found it on YouTube and looked at it – and I just started going like 'Eeee', with no music or anything, and then continued! It must have been very strange for people to witness, but I kind of just want to let that person out. And I found a kinship in Chester Burnett, Howlin' Wolf, who had that same quality. He was a very powerful performer, but also very infantile, including the way he sang sometimes, and I just feel a kinship to him, so that's why I dedicated that song to him.
I saw you doing this kind of performance at the Portishead ATP. There was a really long bit with just you crying like a child, but then slowly more and more screaming like an adult. And during that bit, despite the fact it was in Alexandra Palace, packed full of thousands of people, you could have heard a pin drop, I think people just didn't know how to react.
MG: Really? I don't remember that… I guess sometimes things happen, I don't know [laughs]
Well it was amazing anyway. Do you listen to a lot of Howlin' Wolf?
MG: Yeah. I love that box set Smokestack Lightning: The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960. My go to tracks off that would be 'Evil' of course. The sheer sex of it. One of the best grooves ever. 'Oh Red' makes me very happy. It's a barroom song with horns. His first release, 'Moanin' At Midnight' is just unearthly. The vocal line? Out of this world. Unbelievable. 'Just My Kind'... [starts singing] His ability to go from this deep stomach moan up to this falsetto is just stunning. Once he perfected this it became a schtick, and he repeated it as often as possible. His music always makes me happy - that's why I listen to it.
I can hear the reference to Howlin' Wolf in lateral terms, but also on certain songs on the album, such as 'Oxygen' and…
MG: James Brown...
Yes! The JBs. The two people I was going to mention were James Brown and the J.B.'s and Sun Ra and the Arkestra.
MG: Sun Ra's music I don't know that well. I saw him play… thank God... randomly I was walking through Tompkins Square Park and they used to have a band shell, and they were playing.
MG: And I watched for like two hours, I couldn't believe what I was witnessing. I've heard a couple of records, but I'm not overly familiar with him. But how do you see a relationship with that music?
Well I guess it's a lateral thing rather than a literal thing, but it's the brass stabs, it's the beginnings…
MG: Oh I see, like the atonal element.
I'm a massive fan of the militant funk of James Brown and the J.B.'s, and what I was wondering was like, Howlin' Wolf was a band leader, James Brown was a band leader, Sun Ra was a band leader. Is this how you see yourself in relation to Swans?
MG: I guess that's how it's ended up, yeah. And it's a role that I'm sort of made to inhabit. I respect my musicians tremendously and I want their input, but I'm usually the guy that says 'Yes' or 'No', and pushes things in another direction. I write most of the songs, they collaborate with some of the songwriting by virtue of the fact we're playing them live and they change. But that's just my role, I guide things, the director, the film director or whatever. But I don't think James Brown's music is militant. Take something like 'Hotpants'. That's like Bach. It's incredibly immediate and sexual and you can't help but move to it. And at the same time it's incredibly pointillistic. There are so many different rhythms going on and it's always constantly shifting, even though it's always on the one, of course. It's almost like a Bach fugue. And to me that's wonderful. And for me he bled into Fela Kuti, who ended up doing something tremendous and incomprehensible with grooves as well.
I don't think it's preposterous to compare Swans to Fela Kuti or James Brown, because it has that base of hypnotic repetition as the source of exploratory music.
MG: Yeah, and certainly when we're good the music becomes bigger than us, and we're inside it, and it is like the music is playing us. Which is what I imagine the sensation was like for those players. But it's totally different of course.
To extend the analogy then, would it be fair enough to ask, is Norman Westberg like your Bobby Byrd; is he your deputy in the band?
MG: [laughs] Let me ask him… he's calling right now. [picks up ringing phone]
[They have extremely long conversation about what Bobby Byrd's exact role in the Famous Flames and the J.B.'s was. He hangs up]
MG: No, Norman's not the Bobby Byrd of the Swans, he's the Ron Asheton of the Swans.
I don't believe I'm wrong in saying that Norman's probably your longest running and most relied-upon musical partner. Can you tell me a little bit about how your relationship musically with him has matured over the years?
MG: That's very interesting. [long pause] Well, in the olden days - so now quite ancient - usually the song would start on a bass guitar. I played bass and worked on a bass. Then I'd get another bass player involved, and then Norman just played [over that]. And it's still sort of like that now – he plays something and I say, 'Play it like this, not that' or to add something… but usually he's right though. And gradually as Swans became more melodic during his tenure he grew along the way, and he's always been pretty intuitively correct. He's very simple [musically], you know, he's from Detroit, so the Stooges were the thing for him. So there's no frills, and usually he's right. Sometimes I guide him along in a different way or suggest something, but normally he just does what the song's calling for.
Time and again, the conceit or idea or metaphor or simile of slavery has come up in certain Swans records. On hearing your new album I read all about Toussaint Louverture and the 18th century slave rebellion. A fascinating story. I believe that the history of Haiti is something that you're really interested in. I was wondering if you could expand on that?
MG: Your French pronunciation is worse than mine! [bellows in over-exaggerated French accent] 'TOUSSAINT! L'OVERTURE!' Damn. I'm just going to have to face it… I'm an American.
Well, Toussaint was the guy who pulled together the revolutionary impulses and forces during the Haitian revolution, and he was captured at the very end of this exquisite adventure by the trickery of Napoleon's forces, and went to France and died in prison there. So he didn't see the final liberation that Jean-Jacques Dessalines ushered through in 1804. But Toussaint was the fella who pulled it altogether, and he was a former slave who had been freed. He was educated, he read military tactics and enlightenment philosophy and was a really great horseman. He pulled the forces together in this really complex, bloody and trying revolution.
I'm not a scholar but I just ended up reading these books about Toussaint, just randomly came across Madison Smartt Bell and read All Souls Rising, which I found to be an exceptionally moving book; a historical novel about Haiti. And then he wrote two more volumes in that trilogy, one of which is called Master Of The Crossroads, and the other one which is called The Stone The Builder Refused. It's an incredibly tragic and apocalyptic history. More recently he published a straight biography of Toussaint and it made for a really incredibly fascinating story.
As I was reading it we were developing this evolving orgasm of sound, that came out of the song 'The Seer' live, it became it's own song, I just started shouting "Toussaint, Toussaint!" I was reading that book and I just started grabbing phrases that seemed to evoke that moment. And actually I just started feeling inhabited by the spirit of that time, which was very bloody and very cruel and very desperate, but also it represented some of the best human characteristics as well: heroism and triumph. I'm fascinated by Haiti because its history contains the worst and best of humanity. Currently, right now, it's a devastated place.
I'm probably being guilty of applying a very journalistic narrative to Swans with the next question, but I'm going to do it anyway. You said that you thought of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky as a very masculine record, a very male record. Is To Be Kindmore of a feminine record or is it more gender balanced, or is it just coincidental that you happen to have a lot of female collaborators on this record?
MG: I like to get women involved. I think it's necessary, but also the way that female vocals are used in, say, 'Bring The Sun'... if those had been male vocals, the conception of it would be pretty awful. It would have almost been like some kind of 'Ride Of The Valkyries' style thing. By having women sing it to me makes it even more like gospel music, and more effervescent. And I like women's voices, obviously Jarboe was in the band, I used her voice quite a bit, and I think it levels or counters the inevitable, albeit humbled, testosterone that exists in the music.
Can you tell me about the role of individual guests. For example, Annie Clark, a fearsome artist, is on a lot of tracks on To Be Kind...
MG: She's a very singular artist. She doesn't make the kind of music I'd normally listen to, I have to say, but since meeting her and finding a context, I can really appreciate her music. And I really appreciate her talent and her integrity. She's also an extremely nice person. She was extremely gracious when she came in to record. I believe she has perfect pitch, which I don't think I've encountered in a singer previously. She is a trooper! I put her through her paces, and it's not always clear from the mix of the songs, but say on 'Natalie Neil' she sang twenty tracks in all. Her vocals are this hovering sustain inside the guitars, but I had to track it that many times for it to dissolve and not have any kind of consonance in it and have it be this kind of hovering mist.
Do you know Little Annie from back in the day?
MG: Do I know her from the Crass days? Nope. I think I met her through Kid Congo Powers years ago. We've run into each other over the years. She was just on tour with my friends in this band Larsen, and they were opening for Swans and Annie was singing with them. We were talking and I love her presence and she's a really wonderful woman. She has a voice that displays the shadings of her years. As I wrote that song, I thought of her right away. There is another lady, Jennifer Church, who sings on a couple of songs, 'She Loves Us' and 'A Little God In My Hands'. She is my fiance.
Now, I was wondering whether to ask this question or not, but seeing as you brought up the word gospel, I was going to ask - 'She Loves Us' and several other songs that you've done since the reconfiguration of Swans, they do kind of scream out spiritual music to me. I was wondering if you saw them in this way? I'm not necessarily talking about any kind of formal religious beliefs, but do you understand that people are starting to get more of a spiritual feeling from Swans music?
MG: I hope so. But it's not a denominational kind of thing, it's an aspiration towards some kind of realisation, or breathing the air that the spirits breathe, or going somewhere that is bigger than myself when I conceive these songs. It's a great feeling. I think The Stooges had a kind of abandon and release, if you listen to Fun House. But electric guitar music has the ability to do that to people, and it's also like the Master Musicians Of Jajouka, where they just keep going and you lose your mind but find it simultaneously. That's sort of the idea. My personal spiritual beliefs are irrelevant. Music is the practice.
So, I'd like to go back a little bit now and ask you a few questions about when you were younger. You're from an avant-garde art background; you were at art school at the same time as Kim Gordon was. You were quite a proactive performance art participant. You even got involved in a performance by Hermann Nitsch. Now I've seen a Hermann Nitsch performance and, my God, that's something to behold!
MG: I had quit art school and I was in a punk band called The Little Cripples. I was just about to leave L.A. - I was at the end of my time there in 78. My girlfriend was an arts organiser; she brought Philip Glass to L.A. for the first time. She got some kind of grant money and brought Hermann Nitsch of all people to come over. He did a performance in Venice. It was in a storefront space. It lasted for six hours or something. Short for him. He had the whole ritual thing, with people being brought out, people on stretchers. I was in the room with two carcasses strung up. It really was a kind of a nice image, if you picture a piece of meat in the centre, and then cables stringing it up to all the corners. Then there was another carcass at the other end of the room strung up to the corners.
There were performers coming out and pouring the blood, and the street musicians blowing their horns. The people on the stretchers were naked but they had gauze on their eyes, and the blood was poured through the carcass onto the performers. There were two fifty gallon drums of blood in the room. Once people had been subjected to this ritual, they would be shaking and pretty traumatised. My job was to wipe them off and cool them down, and then send them back out for another session! There were probably about thirty or forty street musicians just blowing noise on horns at the direction of Herr Nitsch, who was wearing an elbow length black rubber butcher's glove. He looked pretty fiendish, and he was conducting all of them with his arm going up and down. Eventually everybody was naked and covered in blood. It was a Dionysian ritual.
And this great performance art duo, these guys The Kipper Kids, did you ever hear of them? They were fantastic, I was friends with Brian, we used to paint houses together actually, he's from England. But they were swinging the meat while wearing diapers. They were drinking wine. Everyone was drinking wine. It was a very drunken affair. Any eventually one of the cables broke and the Kipper Kids who were very mischievous, started swinging the carcass around spraying blood everywhere.
It sounds like a Francis Bacon painting come to life.
MG: Exactly. There's a real connection there. And I'm pretty sure Nitsch came out of not just abstract expressionism, but was also interested in the paintings of Bacon. You can see it in the colours he uses in his paintings he makes. The whole audience, everybody was drunk. But the police came because the blood was pouring out the door onto the street, it was a street level storefront, and they investigated it because there was blood all over the sidewalk. The whole thing again was like regressing towards the id, or involved in the buried aspects of what's inside of us coming out. That was our whole thing, bringing the psyche out into the open. Sometimes with some pretty hideous results! But that was a very interesting thing. I've lost interest in that aspect of art, really. I'm done with it anyway. It was formative, for sure, but perhaps the main thing i think about it now is that it was humourous.
What would you say that you learnt during this period that you still apply today to your music, if anything?
MG: Digging. And trying to be disciplined. That's one thing that I don't know that anyone taught me at art school, but I was reading all about art - modern, contemporary art and the discipline it takes - because I thought I was going to be an artist. It's about not relenting, and digging deeper and deeper, and finding the authentic core of something you're doing.
Can I ask you the same question as regards to NO magazine - what you learnt from that? Maybe people aren't aware of this kind of culture of underground magazines that there was in the late 70s and 80s; can you tell us a bit about that, and what you learnt from that experience?
MG: That you can make something happen. We didn't have any money. What was I doing for a living then? I think I was working in construction, even back then. Me and my friend Bruce Kalberg published the first two issues, and we just saved money from our day jobs and started interviewing people. We interviewed The X, The Gogos, The Germs and Suicide. Kim Jones, a performance artist, was in there. Gina Pain, another early performance artist who kind of combined that art world and the punk world, was in there. And then we'd combine that with pornography and some kind of vile drawings. We learned how to lay out the magazine with Letraset. No one told us, we just figured out how to do it, and printed it the same size as Melody Maker.
We couldn't get it printed in LA because of the pornographic content. So we drove it up to a porno printer in Bruce's Volkswagen and got him to print it. The whole back seat and the trunk of his Volkswagen would be full of these magazines. And then we started selling them, just walking to punk gigs and trying to sell them for a dollar, and made something happen that way. Just by taking the risk and doing it ourselves, we would make something happen. As far as the art aspect, did I learn anything aesthetically from it? No, not really.
Something that I think is really interesting about Swans, is that you clearly came out of New York City, but if you asked most music fans, 99 out of 100 to talk about the continuum of New York groups, people would say Velvet Underground, Television, Modern Lovers, Suicide, Sonic Youth, maybe Glenn Branca, maybe Philip Glass, people usually wouldn't say Swans. You were obviously from New York but you weren't really a New York group, if you see the distinction?
MG: Well, I made a point of that. Whether it was career suicide or not, I don't know, but I made a point of separating ourselves from other people in the scene, very quickly. At first we played with Sonic Youth quite a bit, we were friends, but that didn't work out after a while and I just wanted to separate ourselves from that because I felt that was just another straitjacket, another cliché, and I wanted to make something that was 'us' or 'me' and not be attached to that.
So, at the genesis of Swans - I'm sorry that this is a very general question - but what motivated you initially to make music? I'm guessing, given the sort of music you made, it wasn't necessarily money or chasing girls or any of the normal kind of rock band stuff…
MG: Well, I wanted to get laid, of course!
Oh yeah, but anyone knows they can get laid anyway. If you're intelligent you know that you don't need to be in the Swans to get laid, surely…
MG: Yeah. In fact, it's probably a detriment. [laughs]
So, what motivated you and what inspired you at day one?
MG: I don't know, and I still don't know, but I know I need to make things happen, and that's, you know, what I wanted to make happen. It's sort of an existential demand. I'm not happy unless I'm making art or music or something, and I don't have any current sense of being a whole human being unless I'm actively involved in making something. As far as the style of music, I knew what I didn't want it to be like. As soon as we started playing and I finally got sort of a semi-permanent net of people together, inevitably it started going into some kind of rock groove, and I was just like, 'No!'
So I just simply and completely reconfigured the thing. Even chord progressions were like, out. We were building chunks of sound too; we were using what's known as a staircase chord, because it's a flattened fifth with two octaves. So it has the octaves, which give it a kind of soar, but it has this note in it that makes it ache, not a sour note, but it aches at the same time. I'd use those on bass chords percussively rather than running lines. Everything was chunks of sound with some generous sheets of extra sound over the top of that. We used two bass players, two drummers and Norman's guitar. Playing in that way, the bass players were like… "Ch-ch-ch-gh-gh!" It was like hammer music.
Then we also used this cassette deck. I would record drums, loops, sounds - one was the sound of a cat shrieking, but slowed down two octaves - and that would be the whole cassette, that sound. The other bass player would have a volume pedal and that hooked up to the cassette player, which in turn was hooked up to an SBT cabinet with an SBT head, and another 2-15 cabinet with a Gallien Krueger head. It was really loud, so if he hit a bass with a similar set up – bwhhm – and then he'd push his volume pedal down and it would go – BWHHHM, BWHHHM – and the drums would go – bo-chee, bo-chee – in between, so you made these kind of grooves of sound, rather than making punk rock.
"Can I have less cat in my monitor please?"
MG: [laughs] Yeah, there were no monitors then! It just felt good that, it was very physical but also, to me, elating.
I think listening back now, its even easier to hear how, even in your first few releases, you influenced Big Black, the Butthole Surfers, Sunn O))), Khanate, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Godflesh… this wealth of music that would happen in the rest of the 80s and 90s...
MG: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, right?
Yeah of course, and that's even before we get to the more folk related stuff. But the dark irony is that, in music, it's weird but there's often no cash prize - or any prize at all - for being the first, is there?
MG: No. The main goal is just to be true. And that of course means not wearing someone else's clothes. So, you know, there's some remuneration involved now, something not what some of those other people you've mentioned have achieved, but that's fine, I mean, I'm still working. Many of them are not standing anymore.
That's the interesting thing, isn't it? How hard was it - given the newness of the sound in the early 80s, not because of the abrasiveness - to find your audience, and where did you find your audience springing up from?
MG: Well we didn't have one for a number of years - or those that came, left. That's an inscription for my tombstone: Those that came, left. Yeah, maybe there would be fifty people there at the start of the show and ten left at the end of it. If you walked in, there wasn't anything like it and it was very brutal, so people weren't prepared to deal with it usually. But we actually developed some kind of audience, and I don't exactly know how, just touring relentlessly, finding whatever misfits were in the town that wanted to hear what we did. Now fortunately it's reached a pretty wide audience for us, and thank God for that.
Is there any extent to which the constant themes of control and violence are helping you deal with specific or non-specific traumas from your own younger life - is this a way of exorcism or catharsis, as it were?
MG: Catharsis is not a word I usually align myself with. Well…[long pause] I don't know what you mean from my youth, but I did work from a very early age, and I was confined at a very early age, and I worked at jobs – not that they didn't have value on their own – but they were not for me, certainly. I did everything from digging ditches, to working in a copper mine, I was a plumber's helper, a roofer's helper, a hod carrier, I worked in a plastics factory, I worked in a tool factory, I washed dishes and I washed cars. I've been on my own basically since I was about 14. So the idea of work, doing work that one would find to be stultifying or a waste of your time, was the worst thing that could happen to you as a human being, because nothing on Earth is more important than time and what you do with your time. And if you give up one third of your life or more to a task that you find stultifying or not up to your potential, you're really wasting your life.
A lot of my early thinking was about that, and also about the invidious quality of commercial advertising and the media, basically from the time you're reared up through adulthood, it's invading your psyche until eventually it alters your DNA and you become a consuming machine. Your desires are molded by the media, they create anxiety and fears that don't exist naturally, so you feel the need to consume to abate those fears.
Certainly I don't know that it was a mass conspiracy, but this kind of web did not exist until directly after the Second World War, when Madison Avenue and all those things started really looking into how to mind control people. Which has got it where it is - to the point where you don't feel sexy unless you own a particular car or certain clothes. All of that stuff is repulsive to me, and I find it repulsive to see these rock groups and rap groups advertising products as part of their thing, it's like they might as well be cogs working in a factory, they're just part of the whole problem as far as I'm concerned.
This has become only more and more pervasive since the 50s, since my childhood. It's in everybody's brains, it's in my daughter's brain, she's seven and she's already a Walt Disney consuming machine, you know. She's learning how to think and form her identity by these kinds of images and threads that are put out there to control people. You know, if you go to a McDonald's - I don't - but if you go to McDonald's, they have these playgrounds there conveniently, just to train you to be a McDonald's consumer, you know, you're in there, you feel comfortable, there's Ronald and you're eating this poison, and it's just a cycle, it's become worse and worse. Consumerism is destroying the earth, and society and people. You know, that's my sermon, but those are some of the subjects that I've taken on, certainly in the early days, less so now. But it's still something I think about. I wrote a song called 'Promise Of Water' which is sort of about that – they live in your head and they travel your veins. In mine too.
I wanted to talk to you about the live performance. I think it's the sign of a healthy and a good band when they attract a lot of urban myths and a lot of stories, and I wanted to ask you to confirm or deny the three or four stories about Swans which I've been unable to either stand up or discount over the years. One was, I was told that once a hapless sound engineer came up to you before a gig and asked what you wanted it to sound like and you punched him in the stomach and said, 'I want it to sound like that!'
MG: [laughs] Uh, yeah, that was the soundman, I pushed him in the chest, I said, 'Like this!' doosh! – and pushed him in the chest.
Now, I'm pretty sure this is true actually, but did you turn off the air conditioning during a gig until the heat in the venue became quite unbearably hot?
MG: Yeah but it wasn't an evil intent, it was for my benefit as well. The air-conditioning, first of all, was above me on the stage, blowing on me, and if you're a singer, this immediately means your throat dries up and it ruins your voice, so I had to turn it off. But I also liked the heat in the room, the intensity of the heat and what it did to the whole experience, and actually things sound better in a humid room too, at least to me.
Yeah, the sound waves travel differently don't they?
MG: Yeah. But it just feels good too, it's like being in this kind of psychic sweat lodge and I liked that. I'm not really between that any more, I'm a little more generous with my audience [laughs] Yeah I like that experience. And in a way it's a kind of unifier too. You're all in it, in the same thing. You think it's hot in the audience? Should be us, with fucking lights on us! I mean literally, my clothes would be soaked as if I've just jumped in a pool, just completely, and I have to just pour water on my head. It feels great in a way.
Ironically for me, the first time I saw you after reconstituting Swans was Supersonic in Birmingham, and that is by far and away the coldest gig I've ever been party to.
MG: Oh yeah, I remember that.
Have you ever been in the practice of locking your audience in a venue?
MG: Yeah, I've done that a couple of times. I think we did that at Talent Country when they pulled the plug on us, but the doors were locked! [laughs] Yeah, in fact I remember now, when you mention it, that was kind of an obsession in those days, and getting people to turn the lights down all the way. There would always be these exit lights on like, we wanted to be in complete blackness and then lock the doors, and then we'd play.
I think, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you're bigger now than you've ever been. Not in terms of record sales, because who is? But in terms of tours and venues played and festivals played, I think you're bigger than you've ever been before. Does this have no impact on you at all, or does this kind of spur you on to greater creative heights?
MG: Oh, it has manifold effects. One of which is I'm able to support my children. The other is that it is encouraging, but encouragement is dangerous in that it can lead to lassitude. But the fact that it's a bigger audience means that I can keep doing what I was put on earth to do, so as long as I'm capable I'll do that. That is good, I mean, I imagine that if it had gone off like a dud after the first My Father Will Guide Me... record, I don't know what I would've done. But I wasn't really looking at it in that way, like this is going to be great or big; I just knew that I had to do it, so I did it, and fortunately it panned out.
I don't think I'm wrong in suggesting that if you look back at certain points in the Swans history, that you seem to have been guided, if not primarily then secondarily, by upsetting audience expectations or critical expectations, and you've certainly and admirably followed the path of most resistance rather than the path of least resistance in artistic terms. It feels like this is less of a consideration these days.
MG: First of all, the first premise I don't agree with. I can see why you would think that but I don't consider myself to be a stimulus and responsive mechanism. So if the critics say one thing I don't respond to that and make something else, or make the same thing, or make anything because of that - I just try to shut that shit out, because I believe it's a false voice in your head when you're trying to make good work. The main thing is to challenge yourself, and to make work that surprises you and has magic, and if you do the same thing over and over there's no magic, so you have to find a new way to do things. Because I really specifically want that magic that happens when everything is tuned, so to speak, correctly, and it's vibrating and the world sounds and looks differently because of it. It's nothing to do with critics or anything. What was the other thrust to that question, I'm sorry?
I guess that covers it actually. Obviously in a lot of respects, you signing to MCA didn't pan out as you wanted it to?
MG: Oh God. It was a horrible experience, and it was horrible for me spiritually. Because I started to believe my own shit, and made some really bad work as a result, and it was good, it taught me a lesson and any of the money that happened because of that was frittered away stupidly, but I did manage to start my own label and regroup and think about what the hell I was really supposed to be doing.
I was listening to every single one of the Swans albums in chronological order yesterday.
MG: Not The Burning World?
I, ah, listened to edited highlights of that [laughs]
MG: Edible turds! [laughs]
I mean, what I really came away thinking – it reconfirmed something to me, which is thatWhite Light From The Mouth Of Infinity through to and including The Great Annihilatorwas a really resurgent great period in Swans history, artistically speaking. That being the case, why did you know or think it was time to put Swans on ice, as it were?
MG: Well we also did Soundtracks For The Blind after that.
But you'd decided to call it a day before recording that, hadn't you?
MG: Did I? [pause] Yeah, I knew Soundtracks For The Blind was going to be the last one. Well, at that point it was fifteen years of constant struggle. I'm not complaining, but it was fifteen years of constant struggle, and it wasn't getting better. So I just said, 'Fuck this.' It's like that analogy from psychiatry. When you walk forward and you just keep hitting the same brick wall, instead of stepping round it, that's a sign of imbecility. [laughs] So I just decided to go around the wall, because it wasn't happening. And I felt the name in itself, at that point, was more of an onus than a benefit, and I decided to move on.
The whole way I had of making sound... I just wanted to re-evaluate it and strip it back to trying to write songs on acoustic guitar, which took me a great deal of time to learn how to do in order to be able to perform it. It was another existential exigency, another necessity, for me to learn how to do that. It was just so I could be in a room and make something happen with just a guitar and voice. Or better yet, two rocks and a voice, you know! Make shit happen like that. If I could get things down to that then I'd be ok, and that's what I did, so it took a while. And then after thirteen years with Angels Of Light sort of the opposite became true, and I wanted to hear these kinds of transcendental sounds again.
It's been a thrill being a Swans fan and getting the Not Here Not Now and We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head handmade CDs in the post. This is what makes me think that Swans are one of those rare bands that are primarily aimed at the fans. Now that you're signed to Mute in this country, are you going to keep on doing these kinds of Kickstarter things?
MG: Yes. It doesn't make sense in any event not to. I mean, I started doing those in 2000. We did the first one with Angels of Light in 2000, and it's just a way of reaching out to people. I respect the people that care about the music tremendously and they should get everything I am capable of giving. They've provided me with the ability to eat and to keep making music.
I think I already know the answer to this, but do you find that you meet people who find that Swans music has helped them through trauma or bereavement or heartbreak or whatever it happens to be in their personal lives?
MG: Yes, of course. I mean, who knows how that happens, but I know that listening to, for instance, the particular album Blood On The Tracks by Bob Dylan or even Nick Drake's first album… some of the albums that kind of go to a deep place helped me a lot. So I don't know why my music has done that for people, but it's certainly great when you hear that. It's something about the regenerative quality of good art and music.
I really hate the term synergy, but it is very specific to the thing I'm about to ask you about. Do you believe that what you're currently trying to do via Swans can only be done via Swans? Is your prose writing, for example, something entirely different?
MG: Oh yeah. It might come from the same place ultimately though. I'm not doing prose writing; I wish I was, but I don't have time. And yeah, whenever I'm making this music, it's sometimes this overwhelming sonic experience at times. The next thing I want to do - after this next series of endless gauntlet sessions is over in eighteen months - is to take a break, of course. But then I want to take the last three albums and some of the extra material that didn't get recorded, and look at it carefully for passages that can be used and combined with each other. And then to get the band together - hopefully all these guys will still want to be in a room with me then - and perform these pieces. But we will also add, say, ten hammered dulcimers playing through Fender twins, and say a fifteen piece choir, ten horns, and add more timpani and percussion. I want to make it into a total wipeout sonic event, and perform this material around in classical places. There's interest in us doing that, but the problem is the volume. They're not able to allow the level of dBs that we excrete in their venue, so I think some classical music promoters are going to try and help me gather the arrangers to do that, and we're going to try and do these events.
Just one last question, which I guess is the flipside to that question. Do you ever see something in different media and feel a weird parallel with what you're doing, be it sculpture or painting or film?
MG: Movies, always.
Yeah? Can you give me some examples?
MG: Irréversible by Gaspar Noé. Melancholia or Breaking The Waves by Lars Von Trier. Kurosawa's Ran or Throne Of Blood. Scorsese's Raging Bull, Stanley Kubrick's 2001. I love film. I don't have time to watch movies, but to me it's the ultimate medium. That's sort of why the records have this soundtrack-y quality, because it's sort of my simian way of trying to achieve that kind of greatness.
Michael, It's been an absolute pleasure.
MG: Thank you, sir.