Noise Art Intervew
SWANS: THE RIVER RUNS DEEP
by Jennifer Dohn | Aug 24, 2016
Interview with Michael Gira
Swans are looking to see where the river takes them. This year’s LP release, The Glowing Man, was the third and final epoch of an ever-evolving, coincidental trilogy summoning cathartic revelations: visions of illuminated brutalities felt from enigmatic vibrations; elevations in instrumentation between worlds above, and worlds below. It’s sonically pummeling and soothing, like bitter medicine. This manifestation of Swans—at the moment Norman Westberg, Kristof Hahn, Phil Puleo, Christopher Pravdica, Thor Harris and Michael Gira—invokes images of the languid finger of man trapped in his corporeal self, lifting up and over to a god eager for connection.
Swans’ main conduit, M. Gira, has written: “I chose the five people with whom to work that I believe would most ably provide a sense of surprise, and even uncertainty, while simultaneously embodying the strength and confidence to ride the river of intention that flows from the heart of the sound wherever it would lead us—and what’s the intention? LOVE.”  Where does this river flow? Gira doesn’t know where it will go, and isn’t worried about it, and that’s part of the point. On a Friday morning, we rang him up and spoke to him over Earl Gray tea. We were hoping he was wearing his cowboy hat, but we didn’t ask.
Jennifer Dohn: You just finished the East coast and South American portions of your tour. How were those tours different for you?
Michael Gira: Well, typically, after we start touring— after not having toured for awhile, I guess for a year (maybe under a year)— it’s very tentative, at first. It seems to go over okay. It’s just for the first couple of weeks—it’s just panic—and trying to find the way into the thing, and how to make it breathe and live. So, the first couple of weeks of the U.S. tour were like that, and gradually it kind of reached its strength. Then, we went to South America and we played, and we were in fairly good form, and the audiences were spectacular. They went wild. The response was really ideal.They received the music in an unfiltered and uncynical way. It was a true experience.
JD: Maybe there are more inhibitions in U.S. Audiences?
MG: In the U.S. and Europe they are more saturated with the media, I think. Probably. The whole thing about the internet, and everything, is about ersatz experience. Fake, unreal. It’s like, “second hand.” I’ve been obsessed with that subject. I was in art school in about 1978, and noticed the bane of modern existence is media. I’m sucked into it just like everyone else. It’s just trying to find out what is actually real, and what has been sort of implanted in your mind.
JD: It’s almost comparable to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: believing the shadows, or not.
MG: Oh yeah, that’s a whole other philosophical question. In Zen Buddhism, you look at your mind as if it’s this screen, as opposed to the actual core of your consciousness, or your essential being—the mind being the shadows. It’s kind of an interesting schism as to how you view your own existence.
JD: Has that been a theme in your music over the years?
MG: No, not really. There are many subjects I’ve touched upon over the years. I’m just talking about death in a personal way. If you keep in mind I—or we, or any of us—could have a heart attack right now, and could be brain dead for life. It actually happened to a friend of mine. He’s not brain dead, but his mind has been completely altered. I was just talking to him the day before it happened, and now he is in an institution for the rest of his life.
JD: The turn of events that can happen…
MG: Yes things just go [snaps fingers] like that so if you keep that in mind it keeps things in focus a little better.
JD: You mention buddhism; it almost reflects in your music: you are sort of in-between on this yin and yang—between divinity and this sack of meat that we humans are encased in.
MG: Hahaha! Thats kind of a high falutin’ statement!
JD: So how did you round up your current collection of artists you’re working with now? How did you get this band together?
MG: When I decided to reconvene Swans, I wrote a long list of people whom thought I could work with, and crossed off many, for no other reason than maybe the gestalt wouldn’t be correct, and ended up with a list of the five other gentlemen besides myself. We went into the studio without having rehearsed at all. I had a bunch of songs, and we started playing in the studio for 12 hours for each song. Gradually they transformed into something Swans-like in many cases, and at the end of the day, we would record. That’s how we got the basic performances for those songs. I view that first record, To be Kind, as a transitional record from what I was doing with Angels of Light. That’s how I ended up with these guys—felicitous that it worked out at all. I’ve worked with all of them in the past at some point before in some capacity, but as a group; it did not exist before.
JD: Were you thinking at the time that there was some sort of “current” taking you in this direction? What was that experience like?
MG: At first it was just sort of the anxiety–ridden environment of the studio. There is always the “time is money” thing, and you got to get things done. Once we started touring, we played songs that were pretty much finished, and some old songs. We were playing that for about six months or so. It just seemed false, and then we started exploding things, tearing them apart, and tried to make things happen in the moment. That is when this group sort of “came into being”—when we realized we were kind of one body that moved with the sound as a whole—and we didn’t have to constrict ourselves to specific scriptures. It’s kind of difficult to describe how it works. That’s when I realized this was a really great group, as opposed to six musicians trying to play or recite songs.
JD: You’ve created this wall of sound and vibration that is incomparable to anyone else. It’s unnerving and hypnotic at the same time. The Glowing Man seems to be garnering these feelings of catharsis—a feeling of being unsettling—yet hypnotic. When I first listened, it reminded me of when I was swimming in the ocean, and I was taken under by a pretty strong undertow. I was starting to panic underwater, and I was thrashing and fighting with this force. But then, all of a sudden, this total calmness and peace came over me, and I thought: “well, if I’m going to die here and now, this will be just fine.” Have you noticed other listeners almost resisting at first, only to completely succumb, and be released into some sort of heightened state?
MG: That should be in a movie! That’s how we feel, too, actually, when we perform. That’s great. When the music works best, it becomes an act of letting go, rather than control. That state of mind you talk about is actually the ideal state of mind to employ in your daily life. But, it’s a tougher course. Unless you’re a spiritual master, it’s impossible to do. I think that awareness of the proximity—the gnawing proximity of death—is really a very healthy thing. It puts things in a very urgent perspective.
JD: Living life more authentically, more presently. Speaking about that, how do you prepare for these shows? You’re channeling such immense energy. What is going through your mind?
MG: Well, I’m certainly not reading the Kabbalah before! No, but really, it’s just a routine. You wake up in the tour bus, you do whatever, you try to find some coffee, maybe find a place to shower, then you load in the gear, sound check, then you hang out and twitch for a couple of hours, and then you walk on stage and you play the show, and you pack out the gear, and you collapse, and you do it all over again. You just get into this flow of it. The moment is when you are on stage, and it’s a kind of crucible, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you just put everything you have into it.
JD: I’m wondering, for you, if there is anxiety building before, or is it calm before the storm?
MG: No, I don’t ever feel calm. I don’t ever try to think about it. I just do it.
JD: You created the album art for The Glowing Man. To me it has this sort of runelike symbolism to it.
MG: I’ve had this notion of using characters from other languages as icons on each panel on the LP and digipack CD version, and each character from each language would be on each panel. It was going to be “glowing man” or “world” in Japanese, Sanskrit, Hebrew, a few other things, and I just started to look at it and saw how New–Agey it looked. It looked like Orientalism or something, and I was appalled—and I said, “fuck it,” and threw it out. There was a deadline. So, instead, I just drew these characters myself. I realized later it sort of looks like The Disasters of War by Goya a little bit—body parts hanging from the trees. I also saw a parallel afterwards to Bruce Nauman, who’s a great conceptual artist and sculptor, who made this piece called From Hand to Mouth. It’s a sculpture of a cast of a mouth, leading down to an arm. It’s just that—not the rest of his body. It’s kind of a wonderful piece. The cover art is up for interpretation.
JD: Swans are sometimes associated with the no–wave scene that was going on in the 1980s. Can you tell me a little more about what was going on for you then?
MG: We came at the tail-end of it. We jettisoned onto the tail-end of punk and no wave. Oh, that’s only a minor historical point; the groups that were associated with no wave (if I can fucking remember them right now) are Mars, Teenage Jesus, The Contortions, Theoretical Girls. Oh god, they were pretty much all disbanded by the time both I and my friends from Sonic Youth got to New York or formed a band. We kind of came out of that period. Certainly both of us informed on the aesthetic of no wave. I didn’t want to sound like someone else. I just was emboldened by the idea of not really playing your instrument in any conventional sense—I certainly couldn’t at the time—but still forging something. I was more inclined towards very regimented rhythms, like most of the no -wave stuff would have been, with the exception of The Contortions. It was a gate that opened up just to move forward.
JD: You were reacting to the punk scene
MG: Yeah, punk at that time, by 1980, was just a total cliché already. The attitude of punk, the emotion—violent emotion—was really attractive to me. But the idea of playing the chord progressions was just kind of stupid to me, so I never did that. Punk had a uniform and hardcore was even worse. It was like a bunch of highschool jocks that found their soundtrack, you know? To me, it was not very interesting.
JD: Speaking about violence per se, it’s rumored back in the day that you would lock the people into the show, and you were also noted to turn the A/C off while playing live. What’s the story behind this?
MG: Well, we got tired of people fleeing (laughs). People hadn’t heard anything like it before, so it was definitely a sort of undeniable presence in the room. So, I guess, a couple times we locked the doors and we turned off the lights, so it was completely dark (laughing again). Listening to Swans is a commitment.
That wasn’t a habitual thing. The A/C just really has to do with my voice. When the A/C fans are blowing on the stage, your vocal chords instantly freeze up. Plus, I also feel like I’m in a bank or something. I was heartened to read that Aretha Franklin has the same requirement—she needed to turn off the A/C on stage. Not that I’m Aretha Franklin; although I wish I was.
Yeah, I don’t mind the heat. It can be very extreme at times, where you almost pass out, but it kind of adds to the whole feel of what’s going on I guess. It’s not supposed to be nefarious or about some sadistic attitude towards the crowd. It’s simply just a by product of wanting my voice to work. I quite enjoy the sweating and the expulsion.
JD: I can’t wait to see at the San Francisco show; for me, I would imagine it would be like this sweat lodge, being ritually cleansed, or exorcised. Maybe that’s what you’re doing to the audience. Maybe some might be resisting at first, just because it’s intense and at times awkward, but then you’re released into this elevated state. Do you feel like that is happening at all?
MG: Yes, I feel like it is. But, it’s also happening to us, too. Yeah, maybe I think all those kinds of descriptions are somewhat accurate, but they’re a bit romantic. It’s just a job really. HAHAHAH! [totally cracks up]. It’s like working in construction.
JD: I know in your musical career, you have had hard times. Have you felt like, “Fuck music! Fuck being an artist! I’m just going to be a fucking banker, or a real estate agent?”
MG: Ha! I guess I would have been a lawyer. No, I don’t even have a choice. This is who I am, this is what I do. This is what I have known. I’m an artist—and it’s not with a capital “A”—it’s just what I have to do. It’s through digital means, it’s through writing. It’s through music that I feel like, “I have to do that,” or I feel like I’m not actually existing. Finding your calling is a primary realization. So, that’s just how it is.
JD: Especially the stuff you’re putting out. It can’t be avoided. It’s almost at this point borderline mysticism—spiritual in a sense.
MG: There’s a lot of spiritual aspirations involved, but again, I wouldn’t want to overemphasize that. It’s rock music, for god’s sake! I would suggest people should experience it, and if they like it, “fine,” and if they don’t, “bye.”
JD:Take it or leave it; this is what I do?
MG: There’s always been that attitude. There was a time in the late 80s that the lure of success—so-called success—put us on a major label and I made some compromises which I thoroughly regret. But in my defense, I did it out of an intense fear of continuing to work construction for the rest of my life. It’s just a trade-off. I mean, there are great commercial bands (i.e., The Beatles, The Rolling Stones). I realized, after that experience—“that’s not me, I can’t do it”—and I went back to following imagination and intuition, and let the consequences fall where they may.