"Swans’ Michael Gira is Searching for God" | Wondering Sound Interview
When Swans emerged from the white heat of New York’s no wave scene 32 years ago, they sounded like nothing else. There were fellow travelers — groups like Sonic Youth and Mars, or contemporary composers like Glenn Branca — who shared their passion for dense, layered sound and extreme, ecstatic volume. But Swans’ leader Michael Gira was his own beast. By day a construction worker hauling concrete and girders, at night he turned into a sort of mad monk, taking the stage barefoot, tearing at his clothing and laying himself supplicant in worship before Swans’ immense slabs of noise.
But if Swans were one of a kind, they were also a band compelled by the urge to evolve. With the help of long-term collaborator and sometime-partner Jarboe, who joined the band in 1986, Gira opened up Swans to the influence of folk, neo-classical and soundtrack music, with 1996′s Soundtracks for the Blind, prefiguring the apocalyptic post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Swans dissolved shortly after Soundtracks, with Gira turning attention to his acoustic project Angels of Light and his label Young God, which released early records by Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family. In 2010, though, following a 14-year hiatus, Gira announced that Swans were again operational. Four years later, he might be making the music of his career. New album To Be Kindhas much in common with its 2013 predecessor, The Seer. Like The Seer, it was made with long-time compatriots like guitarist Norman Westberg and percussionist Thor Harris. And as with The Seer, it clocks in at a mighty 120 minutes and employs a dizzying array of instrumentation — viola, horns, dulcimer, bells and mandolin — as well as guests including St Vincent, Cold Specks and Little Annie.
“Michael’s new music is incredible,” says Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records, the label that released a number of Swans albums back in the ’80s, as well as To Be Kind. “It was amazing back then, but the records he’s making now — he’s on a creative high, I would say. He’s always moving his art forward.” And it’s true that To Be Kind is unlike any other Swans album to date. Here and there, it grooves, a quality typified by the deranged lurch of “Oxygen.” And also, as the album’s title might imply, there is a perceptible tenderness — a fact we can attribute to Gira’s current domestic status (he’s engaged to be married). This being Swans, though, To Be Kind is hardly lovey-dovey. Kirsten Supine begins with sweet entreaties (“May moonlight fall upon your breast/ May god send wind to lick your lips”) but gradually turns apocalyptic, Gira shadowed by a guesting St Vincent as he sings of crashing planets and rains of ash. And then the song ratchets up, gradually but inexorably, towards another squalling Swans climax.
In the garden of a pub a couple of hundred yards from Mute’s Hammersmith offices, Gira is far from the big bad bully of Swans legend. At 60 years old, he is still powerful of frame, still sporting that trademarked Stetson. But despite pronouncing himself exhausted, having recently finished a tour of solo shows across Europe, he is relaxed and conversational, discussing his favorite beers (Czech lager, not so fond of British ale), admitting an admiration for the current Pope (“He’s almost a social activist, right…but maybe he’s going to be assassinated, you think of that?”), and chatting cheerfully to the bumblebees. He discusses his career with humor, honesty and a surprising humility.
So you’ve just come off a solo tour…
My McDonald’s job. I’m being facetious of course, but it’s the way I make a living, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of us do it. Howlin’ Wolf did it. There’s a whole contingent of people I know who do it — Xiu Xiu, Richard Bishop, Carla Bozulich. You go out solo, then you go out with your band, and that way you maybe pay your rent, if you’re lucky. But I think I have become fairly competent at the task, and it’s fulfilling because I think I am doing something well.
The word “love” comes up on six of the 10 songs of To Be Kind. Is it a preoccupation?
It’s interesting. I think one of the reasons I use love as a signifier on this record — it’s giving up, isn’t it? Love is giving up. And that’s how I see the music, when it’s working, when it’s performed live — it’s about giving in to a sound or an experience. You know, I have a lot of trepidation about our next tour. I don’t know what direction we’re going to take. How it’s going to be, working with these fellows again. But I’m hoping we reach those same kinds of highs that we achieved on the last two tours.
Is it always different? Or is it about maintaining something?
Well, I kind of have to move somewhere else — I don’t want to do the same tour we just did, the same music, but I want to find a new path, move somewhere else.
Restarting Swans must have been an enormous life decision. You didn’t know what it was going to be.
Right. I had no choice. It just leaped.
So you’re in the grip of something. It forces you.
Well, for me the music is utterly enthralling when it’s working live. In the studio, I love the process, and it’s sometimes enthralling as well, but it’s also more cerebral and practical. As a record producer and, as I think of it, an audio filmmaker, I spend a lot of time thinking about learning how to shape a sonic environment. That’s really important to me. It takes a lot of time, having no musical training whatsoever. And if it fails miserably, I have to make it work. It’s enthralling and terrifying at the same time.
When talking about The Seer, you called it the culmination of every other Swans album…
That was a facetious aside. But there’s something serious there.
Does that make it difficult to top?
Well, what about this moment? Isn’t this the culmination of every moment we’ve lived [laughs]? But I did mean there that I’d kind of pulled out every kind of sonic arrow from my quill. From making instrumental soundtrack-style music to heavier things to quiet folky things to art rock songs — it’s all in there. I don’t know why, but it felt like something I had to do.
It clocks in at 120 minutes, but it doesn’t drag. It feels natural at that length.
I think I’ve become well versed in the art of dynamics. Opposing textures, themes and colors. The music feeds back on itself, moves and shifts and changes. I spend tons of time thinking about that. Even while songs are halfway recorded, I’m thinking about that, thinking about little pieces that will help move a song forward. I’m just trying to use intuition. And not be intimidated. To make something I want to hear. Sometimes it’s hard, not being trained, working with people who are. But most people I get in the studio with have an open mind.
Are you hitting on things the first incarnation of Swans didn’t touch on?
Yeah, I suppose so. I don’t know about formally. But in terms of the way the music feels and is received, and the way I receive it, it feels like a much more positive affair in general. And the goals are certainly geared more towards, uh, ecstatic experience… or a gentle caress.
When talking about Swans, you often return to sort of quasi-religious language — of a state of ecstasy. Did you grow up religious? Did you later reject it?
I went to Catholic church. But I started taking LSD at age 12, and so church was immediately gone. So was baseball [laughs]. So was anything else besides drugs.
An introduction to God firsthand!
Exactly [pause]. Now, I don’t know if I should talk about this — tell me if it gives you an “ick” factor. But I have been going to church. It’s a surprise to me. I’m not going in a credulous state of mind. I’m just somehow drawn to it and interested. It’s not because I intend to digest the credo without parsing it or questioning it. There’s something about the aspiration that interests me.
It’s not icky, but it’s a surprise…
Right? I go to a very normal, suburban church…but there’s something that’s very poignant about it, beautiful. I started reading the Bible, not expecting it to be the literal word of God. But the threads that run through it, as a piece of literature, are amazing, and the aspirations contained it in are beautiful. But then, so is Zen meditation — you know, my feelings on it are inchoate, not fully formed yet. I’m trying to find my way.
There’s a number of women on To Be Kind — St. Vincent, Little Annie, Cold Specks. Were you looking for a female presence?
Yeah, I guess so. Blatantly it is. But they’re also skilled. Annie Clark [St. Vincent] is tremendously skilled. She’s incredible. She sang for six hours in the studio with me — I had her singing the same note over and over, laying different octaves. Never did it vibrate out of tune. She takes the craft of it very seriously. Plus she was totally sweet, it was amazing. She was recommended to me by my engineer, John Congleton — he’s recorded all of her albums. He said, she’s a fan, she’d been listening to my music and I should consider it. I’m always looking for voices. I use them lot of different ways. Cold Specks sings with Annie Clark on “Bring the Sun.” Cold Specks is the only person to do a cover of a Swans song that was any good. She did “Reeling the Liars In” [from Swans' 2010 comeback album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky]. I wrote it with a gospel feel to it, and she sang it gospel — it really works.
I read an interview between you and Tom Fleming of Wild Beasts the other day…
Ah, nice guy.
… and it struck me, a lot of the people singing your praises now are young, people who didn’t catch the first incarnation of Swans firsthand. That must be gratifying.
Yeah, they’re the salient points arising from the general tide of young people coming to our shows, which is very gratifying. Not teens [laughs]. People in their 20s and 30s looking for something…meaningful, is that the right word? Looking for something authentic, rather than whatever is trendy.
What is the audience split, these days?
There are not, thankfully, many people my age. There is not a tide of pot-bellied men in black T-shirts [laughs]. It’s a mix. Normal people. Some hipsters. Lots of women, which is nice, because in the early days it was certainly sad to look out and see this bunch of fucking lunkheads. It’s a nice thing, to have young females.
You’ve spoken about the Swans crowds of old, and the antagonistic relationship between band and audience — the crowd spitting at Jarboe when she sang.
Yeah, that was those people. Lunkheads. I used to see those people and really harass them, make them leave. You know, it’s partly your fault — the UK press, hyping up that volume thing, Swans are the loudest band ever…I’m so sick of reading, “Oh, my friend attended a Swans show in the ’80s and he literally threw up, the sound was so loud.” Gimme a break. Bullshit [laughs]. You know, we’re not as loud as Motorhead. The big difference between Swans and Motorhead, or My Bloody Valentine, is that we have these huge, almost orchestral dynamics. It’s not this onslaught.
Not a wall of noise.
So it’s about the subtleties in it, the counterpoint…
Not even that intellectual! It’s just about…leading the herd [laughs].
When you speak about Swans, you talk about it in the language of the sublime — something huge, expansive. That must make it tricky to write lyrics for. By its nature, it’s something difficult to express in normal language.
Yeah. You’re going for…emotion is a misused word, but you’re going for an experience. The thing people misinterpret about our live experience…it’s not there to convey my feelings, or the band’s feelings, or my opinion on any matter of the day. It’s to create an experience. The best art, in my opinion, is experiential.
It’s not a singer-songwriter thing.
Yeah, which is valid. But with Swans, any overly narrative lyric would be detrimental to the sound. You don’t want it to be too personal, or too leashed to quotidian reality. What we do, it’s more like gospel, repeating phrases that lead you up to heaven.
There is a song on the album titled “Toussaint L’Ouvature,” after the Haitian revolutionary…
The liberator of the slaves, yeah.
Is there anything you’re trying to communicate with that?
Well, my songs aren’t tutelage. They’re trying to create a world. It’s a piece. Not a piece, like some classical piece. It’s a [adopts French accent] composition, or a sonic wave. It came together on our last tour, but it needed words. I was reading Toussaint L’Ouvature’s biography, and I just started saying his name. It’s such a compelling story. I’d previously read three books by [novelist] Madison Smartt Bell, who wrote all about Haiti. The whole subject is so magic and compelling and violent and terrible and beautiful. But later I was reading a straight biography of Toussaint, and I started throwing in things about him, and that event in history. It was the first effective slave revolt, and it had a very profound effect in human civilization — it brought Napoleon to his knees. He kept sending troops, and they kept dying. Napoleon was wiped out, his treasury was lost, and he had to sell half of America to the United States in The Louisiana Purchase. There are so many interesting bits of that story I would encourage people to read about. But it’s not a university course, a high school course — it’s just a song. I’m trying to bring out an atmosphere. But also I’m inside it.
Midway through, there are some fascinating noises in there — the sawing of wood, the whinnying of horses…
That I specifically recorded for it. I had a horse wrangler gather horses, in El Paso, Texas. These snorting, sweating, violent beautiful horses. The saw…I can’t tell you, it’s referring to a very specific act of violence. But to tell you is banal. Read the biography! Then you’ll get it.
Do you think Swans could have come into being anywhere other than New York? Was that location key to what you became?
Probably. The history of New York music at the time was what drew me there. Suicide, the stuff that was going on around No New York, Television…not the Ramones, I didn’t care about them. Glenn Branca hadn’t done anything beyond Theoretical Girls at that point. But that idea that was in the air, of building things through aggressive sounds, without much chord structure or anything, and that was really interesting to me. And as far as the atmosphere of the place, the state it was in economically and culturally — a state of collapse, basically — it made me think about what I could do. The music I could make, without even being a musician. You know, just like, I can fuckin’ do it.
You’ve spoken about the influence of advertising slogans in early Swans lyrics.
Sure, in those days. I didn’t take specific slogans from advertising — what’s that stupid postmodern word, “re-appropriate” [makes gagging noise]? No, it was more the terse, cryptic phrases that advertising uses, which usually have several layers of meaning. You wouldn’t notice it at first, but it’s like a worm going into your subconscious, telling you to consume, to feel anxiety. Why do I feel anxiety? I don’t know, maybe because this woman was looking at a man as if he was a worm, because he didn’t own the right automobile.
That sort of terse phrasing at the time was really interesting to me. There was a writer I read called Jerzy Kosinski whose would use that phraseology — his books Cockpit and Steps are written in this terse, violent, descriptive language. That went right into the early records. But those advertising people were geniuses, weren’t they? They took over society, changed it irrevocably. All hatched by a bunch of World War II vets down on Madison Avenue. Everything modern — consumerism, environmental disaster — it all stems from that. They’ve created this whole class of zombified peasants, consuming peons. It’s everywhere.
In the early days of Swans, you used to be extremely physical on stage — you’d flip yourself onto your back, over and over. Was that a performative thing? Was it a way of putting you in a certain headspace?
That’s a very critical way of looking at things. “Was it intended to put you in a headspace?” No, I did it because I was in the headspace. I’m not criticizing, that’s the way you guys think. I was in it, it happened, and you try to analyze it afterward. It’s an experiential way of making things. That might be quintessentially American way of making art— you say you’re gonna do it, go out and fucking do it and talk about it after. Like, if you experience a Richard Serra sculpture, you’re not there analyzing it — you’re examining your experience, your place in space. It’s a totally experiential thing. His dad was a steelworker, you know. That’s the kind of work he made. But I heard him explain his work on YouTube, and it was all this artspeak, like, ugh — I don’t want to hear about it.
When you were young, you traveled a lot, went all over the world. You spent four months in jail in Israel.
It was more like three and a half.
I wondered, did that time have a profound effect on you?
Can you define it?
It separated me from other people, quite a bit. It’s a place I go to for work, that sense of separation. That kid, curled up in the corner [pause]. I never told anybody that.
As scoops go, that’s quite a downbeat one.
I wanted to ask about another dark period in your life, when you signed to MCA Records…
But did you learn anything from it, being on a major label?
Yeah, to go back to the kid in the corner. I was earnestly trying to change the sound, learn how to write on acoustic guitar. Inevitably, as I realize now, while there were a few good songs on that album [1989's The Burning World], the production is not good. I was starting to believe the hype a little, being a little false, perhaps. But in my defense, in terms of signing to a major, I knew I was getting a little bit older, and I knew I definitely never wanted to work in construction again. Poverty terrifies me to this day. Having been hungry in my life, having to panhandle and sell my blood for food — it’s an ingrained fear, one you only know if you’ve been hungry. So I was lured into that, and I made some shitty work. But I came out of it. It forced me to make my own record company, Young God. To do that, I used my skills as a painting contractor. I knew I could figure out a space, calculate how many gallons of paint, write that down. How long will it take, how much is my labor worth? Write that down. Add 15 percent for safety…and that’s pretty much how I approach running a record label. And that was great, because it made me finally independent of anyone else.
You put out some great music on Young God — you discovered Akron/Family, Devendra Banhart…
Thank you. I failed at it a lot, also. But it meant I could continue to make music on my own terms. The independent route, it takes a huge amount of time and energy. It’s a distraction from the music. But if you’re willing to work 20 hours a day, you can do it.