Pitchfork Interview with Michael Gira
Sixty-year-old art-rock godhead Michael Gira talks about how Swans managed to return without losing any potency, the impressive power of St. Vincent and Nina Simone, and how nearly choking to death inspired his band's latest opus.
The Seer was the kind of record that seemed impossible to follow up. The nearly-two-hour 2012 LP nailed a deeply transcendent mix of drone, noise, and blues; songs that stretched to 20 and 30 minutes never felt excessive or overdone. It was my favorite album that year by a mile and contained some of the best music of Swans long career. And the band, led by eternal badass Michael Gira, hasn't given up on any of their widescreen ambition on new album To Be Kind, which is even longer than The Seer—and quite possibly better.
To Be Kind has a bluesier feel than its predecessor, with a heftier dynamic range aided by deep horn blasts and almost-shimmering production from John Congleton (St. Vincent, Baroness); 34-minute highlight “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L'Ouverture” features the sounds of galloping horses woven into its mix of cinematic drone, pummeling post-rock, and bloody incantations. The group has sounded this massive live, but never on record.
The album features the core Swans group of Gira, Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Thor Harris, and Christopher Pravdica, along with guest turns from St. Vincent's Annie Clark, Little Annie, Cold Specks, Gira's fiancée Jennifer Church, Bill Rieflin, and others who add to the violently bacchanalian atmosphere.
Gira is now 60 years old, and the drawn faces of babies that make up To Be Kind's artworksuggest a kind of agelessness. When I connect with him via Skype, he's in his home and in good spirits; he makes a point to note that he usually doesn’t turn his computer's video camera on, and that I was witnessing a rare thing.
Pitchfork: To Be Kind strikes me as an unusually positive record for you—it ends with the line, "There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes." How did this happen?
Michael Gira: If you're looking for a religious conversion, it's not here. [facetiously] Yes, I decided to give up alcohol and convert to Jesus. No, I discovered this sort of joy in the music when Swans reformed in 2010. Once we started touring, I realized the thing that was really worth pursuing was the bliss in it. I don’t feel complete or alive unless I’m making something.
Pitchfork: The live show is so intense, do you have to do any sort of training to physically prepare for a tour at this point?
MG: Oh, I’m just constantly fucked—I’ll just drop at some point. I’m not a physical fitness kind of person. I mean, I can dig ditches or shovel snow just great, but doing some kind of fitness regimen is really tedious to me, so the set itself becomes a regimen. It’s like a workout. It’s exhausting, certainly. We just work ourselves as deeply into the music as we can, and when it really works, it’s like going to church.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like it takes a lot to be committed to being in Swans? After a 10-hour practice, is anyone like, “I have to get out of here”?
MG: These days, the person who does that is me. But no, no one’s weakening. Everyone understands the full psychic and physical commitment to being in Swans because it’s not just reciting pop songs or learning how to play a song really great. It’s more like trying to find something that is immediate, but not improvised in the sense of jazz—it’s something that’s pushing a sound. I let the music go where it goes and I decide to have it end when I feel it reaches its potential. I don’t feel the need to constrain things into a song format at all.
Pitchfork: There have been a lot of bands that have come back to tour in the last few years, and a lot of have been horrific. I see Swans as a guide.
MG: Well, not naming any names, but I thought many of those bands were horrific to begin with. In fact, most of them.
Pitchfork: What do you think has made it possible for Swans to return and, in many ways, to make the strongest music of your career?
MG: I would say intelligence and talent. [laughs] And a need to do something with authenticity, to challenge oneself—all the axiomatic things one thinks about when they think of a good artist. I want to be a good artist. If others choose not to be, that's their prerogative.
Pitchfork: Why did you record this album with producer John Congleton?
MG: [Percussionist] Thor [Harris] worked with John through his old band Shearwater, and he recommended him highly. John was also contacting me repeatedly—obsequiously, I might say. He went through the proper ablutions.
Pitchfork: He sent flowers...
MG: Yeah, sent a huge black dildo. So I was convinced. He’s a nice guy, obviously super intelligent, and has worked with a lot of different people. Also, we got this great situation working at the Sonic Ranch in Texas through him, which was a godsend. He also brought Annie Clark to the table, which was nice. He actually introduced her to the music of Swans like three years ago, and she subsequently became what’s known colloquially as a fan.
Pitchfork: She ended up on four songs on the album.
MG: We had a good time. She’s incredibly disciplined and professional and has perfect pitch, it seems. I don’t recall that she missed a note ever. I was really, really impressed with her. I played her a lot of the songs that she wasn’t singing on, and she was kind of flopping around the studio in a very unabashed fashion, and I was really touched by that. She was just very open and American and friendly. She’s really cool.
Pitchfork: Were you familiar with St. Vincent’s music before working together?
MG: I checked it out on YouTube. It’s not the kind of music I listen to, but I think she’s incredibly talented, and watching her play guitar is quite a treat. It’s great to see a woman of her good looks and obvious potential for wide stardom being so intrinsically musically talented and totally in charge of the whole thing.
Pitchfork: You have a pretty diverse cast of female vocalists on the album.
MG: I like having females involved. It levens our testosterone count, which is a good thing. If you can imagine, for instance, the song “Bring the Sun”, which is the gospel-y moment on the record, being sung with male voices, it would have been disastrous. There’s something about the female voice that opens up in the air more. And I like to use female voices inside of guitar tracks—you don’t really necessarily have to hear them, but they’re providing the sustain and maybe even some of the overtones in the way that they interact with the guitars. It’s something I started doing with Swans years ago, and it also provides a counterbalance to my choking futility. And I just love strong women. I posted something on my stupid Facebook last night about Nina Simone—she is the ultimate to me. She’s such a powerful musician, person, persona, goddess. Incredible.
Pitchfork: What's the meaning behind the album's artwork?
MG: Well, I was tangentially involved in the punk scene in L.A. in the late '70s, and I met this fellow there who was also on the outskirts of it named Bob Biggs. He was a conceptual artist who did this rather remarkable performance where he brought a full-sized heifer cow into the [L.A. punk club] The Masque, where it waltzed around, shat, and mooed, and then he walked it out and put it back on the truck and drove away. I was impressed with that, and got to know him further. Then I saw one of his baby paintings—or pastels, actually, which are actually drawn on black—and I was always struck with their enigmatic quality. I asked him if I could use one a couple of times over the last 30 years, but he always said no.
So when this record was done, a couple images popped into my mind. The initial one was a series of nipples—I wanted a different embossed nipple on each panel. But after seeing some closeup pictures of nipples, I discovered that they're really quite ugly. [laughs] So I couldn't use that. And then I thought of Bob's babies. But what you see in the depiction that's on the web is not really accurate because they're actually going to be printed on raw cardboard stock. The heads will be embossed and super glossy, so the contrast with the cardboard is really extreme. I still can't figure out what they mean, but I think that's what I like about them.
Pitchfork: I was reading the lyrics to "Just a Little Boy" and listening to the record, and I was thinking it all might suggest some sort of return to youth.
MG: I'm not a music critic, schoolteacher, or philosopher, so I don't think like that. I just write what I'm capable of writing. Plus, I have written a lot of songs and I am eternally grateful when I manage to, through theft or other means, acquire a song. "Just a Little Boy" is all id. I found that quality to be something that is shared at times with my hero, Howlin' Wolf. That's why I dedicated it to him. Though the one time we tried to do a specific blues rhythm in our current incarnation, taken from a Howlin’ Wolf song, it just failed miserably, and we could never get it because we’re just too fucking white. But we find our own way into it.
Pitchfork: Where did the galloping horse sound effects on “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L'Ouverture” come from?
MG: The horses were wrangled specifically for the recording. I must say though, I wanted them to be in the studio with us while we were recording, but that was quickly kiboshed by the studio owner, who happens to be a horseman and knows their qualities. He, of course, invested millions of dollars in the studio and didn't want to see anything broken. So we did the next best thing and recorded them nearby and put the sounds in the record.
That was conceived before going in the studio for “Toussaint”, which is a song that developed live over the course of a couple years. As I got words for it, the song became a biography of [18th century Haitian revolutionary] Toussaint L’Ouverture. He was a master horseman, and that’s one of the things that helped him win the battles against France, because he could go from one side of the island to the other in an impossible amount of time and completely surprise the other troops. It was a very bloody and cruel revolution, just unbelievably, psychedelically vicious, on both sides. I don’t want to describe the saw [sound] on that song, but someone will read the biography and see why it's there.
The Haitian Revolution is a subject that’s compelling to me, it’s the fulcrum of Western civilization: slavery, the idea of freedom and democracy, and liberation all come together in this big violent moment, and then Haiti becomes the tragedy that it is now. It’s an epic tale.
Pitchfork: Do you find that your influences are the same as when you started or have things shifted over the years?
MG: It’s hard for me to describe what the influences are specifically, because I certainly don’t sit down and hear other music and think, "Oh, I’m going to make music like that." Often films inspire me more than music; Melancholia by Lars Von Trier directly inspired the song “Kirsten Supine”, which is named after Kirsten Dunst. But the people that inspire me, like Nina Simone, James Brown, Fela Kuti, or Can might have something to do with the sound. And Led Zeppelin, of course. To me, Jimmy Page is the greatest rock singer ever—the way he plays guitar is like singing, it’s so lyrical and beautiful. All of the imitators that came after him are just complete imbeciles, because that style became this shredding thing. Preposterous. But yeah, I hadn't listened to them in years, but my fiancée plays them around the house. She’s considerably younger, so it’s a fresh experience for her. She also sings on the album, on “She Loves Us” and “A Little God in My Hands”. Her name is Jennifer Church, by the way.
Pitchfork: Is the love on the album a reflection of all this love in your life?
MG: [laughs] Fuck no. Jesus Christ. After 30-something years, I think I'm capable of knowing when something is schmaltzy and when it isn’t. I do incorporate things from my personal life but I leven them with a bit of objectivity, so a lot of things go into the content of the lyrics, including books I’m reading, movies I’ve seen, experiences, memories, ambitions. Everything. But none of them could be specifically tied to autobiographical experience, because that’s the height of indulgence in my view.
Pitchfork: The song “Oxygen” seems based on such a basic premise, of breathing in and living, but it also seems more complex than that.
MG: Breathing and having a heartbeat are things that we’re completely not conscious of most of the time and take for granted. As someone who's had severe bouts of asthma, I’m conscious of what it feels like to not be able to breathe. I was hospitalized for it. And this song was written after a particularly severe asthma attack. But now that I stopped smoking cigarettes, hopefully that will be gone.
I had this event once when I was alone at my old house after my divorce. I was sitting, and suddenly I coughed, and whatever was in there lodged in my throat. I just couldn’t breathe at all, and I was by myself. I panicked. I really started to pass out and realized I was fucking going to die if I didn’t do something. So I just threw myself down on the ground repeatedly, and finally got a pinhole. I was slowly able to calm down and expand that pinhole and get oxygen. It took maybe 10 minutes. And then I lit a cigarette and had a beer. [laughs]