Michael Gira on Swans, religion and the hubris of Matthew Barney (The Guardian)

The Swans frontman on why performing is like long-distance running: ‘You keep pushing and pushing and finally you break through into something else’

On stage, Michael Gira’s body is barely able to contain his energy. In person, he is all amiability, his voice sweet, his manner courteous. Not what you would expect from the frontman of the Swans, one of the most confrontational bands to emerge from the No Wave post-punk 1980s in New York City.

With their penchant for experiment and their industrial, take-no-prisoners tonality, the band inspired the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth to push their limits musically – and otherwise. Having exhausted their own potential, however, they disbanded in 1997 and Gira went on to form the more lyrical Angels of Light.

Still, the notion of returning to those extremes haunted him. And in 2010 the Swans re-formed and wasted little time in releasing five records, two recorded live.

It’s their studio albums that had critics drawn in. Bordering on Wagnerian, The Seer and To Be Kind are epic explorations of belief, violence, religion, lust and desire, featuring such highlights as the 34-minute Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture, an intense ode to the leader of the 1880s Haitian revolution, nicknamed the Black Napoleon.

Live, Swans like an endurance test too, often playing for well over two hours. It can be taxing, says Gira, ahead of the band’s latest outing at Mofo festival in Tasmania, but it also feels great. “It’s like a runner running. They reach an extreme point and they go beyond that and reach a kind of ecstasy. It’s kind of like that for us – you just keep pushing and pushing and finally you break through into something else.”

Rabid Swans fans describe watching the band perform as bordering on a religious experience. “I think that would be an example of hubris for me to claim that, wouldn’t it,” Gira says with a grin. “But we definitely aspire to something bigger than ourselves – I’ll leave that up to other people to decide what that is.”

No wonder he’s intrigued to be a guest of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona). David Walsh’s arcane collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts must appeal to a lyricist whose work is so full of references to God.

“I don’t know what interest I have in religion except the spiritual outcome of it,” says Gira, who admitted in an interview he had recently attended church. “That was something that I probably shouldn’t have talked about in public. I’m not a follower of religion, I would never be a dogmatic person about religion, but I think that certain aspects of it have great value.”

He has been reading a lot on Buddhism lately and comparing ancient theories of the cosmos and modern astrophysics.“Someone, say 7,000 years ago – what would they have thought when they looked up? Now when we look at the sky, it’s through this filter of scientific knowledge about what it is and our place in the universe and everything, but imagine looking at the sky and just saying: ‘What the fuck?’ Just having this sense of complete mystery. Being part of this swirling cosmos … That’s interesting to me.”

But those who live in cities (Hobart aside, perhaps) rarely, if ever, see the stars. “No. They see cubes. That’s right. They see cubes in their office or in their car or they’re looking at their screens. And if they look up, they might see some light reflecting off the sky, but they don’t get a sense of their place in the universe.”

The lyrics of Screen Shot, the opening track of the Swans’ latest album, seem to offer a rebuttal of existence itself: “No dream, no sleep, no suffering.” But Gira denies it’s a song about death: “I don’t write songs to explicate an idea. They were just a series of words that appeared ... In a way, they’re a kind of Zen-like prayer.”

Elsewhere, on a track titled Just a Little Boy, Gira switches to a high-pitched squeak while malevolent laughter echoes around him to chilling effect. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, in the studio, he says. “I was singing in this silly voice and I asked the band to laugh at me. I think there’s a lot to be learnt from debasement. You shed yourself of self-image. The more debased you are, I think, the closer you are to the ground – and the ground is a fertile place.”

Mona is currently exhibiting the work of US artist Matthew Barney, another master of endurance art and someone equally unafraid of debasement. Gira is not a fan: “I’m not a skeptic or naysayer of his work but I read some interviews with him – or maybe some artists’ statements – and they just reminded me of why I quit art school. Artists’ verbiage to me is a true turn-off.”

He adds: “Maybe that’s unfair – when I met him, he seemed like a nice fellow.” But on hearing that Barney has used elements of Walsh’s Egyptian collection for a “posthumous collaboration”, Gira turns caustic. “The height of hubris,” he says in a withering tone. “Jesus Christ!” And then pauses. “Well, you know, the companion of hubris is nemesis, so I presume he will be experiencing that at some point for being so presumptuous as to have usurped those images for his own purposes.”

For all his own gruelling soundscapes with Swans – like Ennio Morricone on lysergic acid – Gira is a distinctly literate songwriter, at turns biting and caustic, poetic and poignant. The combination has led more than one critic to compare him to that master of the western gothic, Cormac McCarthy.

“That’s quite a reach,” Gira says, sounding almost embarrassed. “He’s one of my favourite authors. I didn’t know that that comparison had been made.” But with their constant allusions to religion and violence, the association seems valid. “I don’t see violence so much as extreme emotions,” he says. “But perhaps you know better than I do – as soon as I finish something I tend to forget it entirely.”

  • Swans play Mofo festival, Hobart, then Corner Hotel, Melbourne, 20 Feb; Manning Bar, Sydney, 22 Feb; Sugar Mountain festival, Melbourne 24 Feb