Spectrum Culture Interview
Interview: Michael Gira of Swans
DAVID HARRIS AUGUST 30, 2016
“Certainly, we are not Kanye West.”
It was a bleary morning when Michael Gira called me via Skype from his New Mexico home. Twenty-plus years my senior, the Swans front man sounded wide awake and alert for such an early hour, ready to discuss The Glowing Man, the new double-album that will likely be his last with this iteration of the band.
Although Gira is one of the most intense musicians making music today, he was amiable and good-natured. During a swift 20 minutes we talked about the idea of darkness, Spanish art and losing oneself in performance. I am proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Michael Gira.
In the liner notes to The Seer, you wrote a special note asking fans to not upload the music to the internet. I am curious how much the internet has actually contributed to the resurgent popularity of Swans.
It’s a double-edged sword. It has been a tremendous help in the sense that its tendrils reach everywhere. I don’t know why, but the music has reached a lot of people, particularly young people, to the extent that a lot of our live audiences, especially in large urban centers, are three-quarters young people. Then there are some older people. Nobody as ancient as myself usually (laughs). It seems to reach a lot of people who have a proclivity for this kind of thing which is not exactly easy. It’s not pop music. So that’s been really good. Of course, the other side of the question is illegal downloading and streaming which is a ridiculous revenue stream. It’s nothing. We have to make a living and afford being able to make records. That started happening a decade ago, more than a decade ago? Things started to become very dire. I found ways to work around it and I continue to survive and make music. I don’t really think about it anymore. I just work with this new mode.
I am not sure if you are following this new Frank Ocean drama, but it’s getting to the point where downloading MP3s is even getting passé and streaming is the new way to “collect” music. I’m not particularly young myself and if I don’t own a physical copy of an album, I don’t feel like I have the album in my collection.
It’s all part and parcel with what the internet does to the consciousness of people who use it, including myself. It makes this kind of equivalence. So people, for instance, download Frank Ocean or our music but they also download God knows who. They have these huge collections of music and it’s just like, “Oh yeah, I heard that. I heard that.” It’s like nothing is valuable. You see that in social media, as well. It’s just a swarm of information and it all slips into this neurotic kind of field. I’m not particularly fond of it, but I guess that’s kind of how human consciousness is evolving.
In the meantime, you and I are speaking to each other via Skype.
Oh, that’s okay. That’s like a Dick Tracy telephone (laughs). That has actually been a great thing. I can actually see and talk to my children because I tour so much.
A lot of people bemoan the death of the album and that attention spans are getting shorter. In the meantime, you are putting out two hour records with 20 minute-long songs and are still attracting young people to your shows.
Yeah, but we attract the “other” people (laughs). It takes a commitment to listen to our music and there’s a payoff, I hope. It has been very encouraging to see that there is a fair amount of people that want what we have to offer. That’s great. We have been very fortunate. Certainly, we are not Kanye West.
What is it in Swans’ music that attracts them? Is there an inherent darkness that some people enjoy?
The word “darkness” doesn’t really resonate with me. I guess you can say it’s intense. I look at the live performances as a very positive, spiritual performance, when it’s working. It’s not that we are donning Hindu robes before we come out and doing some sort of chant but when the music takes over, for me, it’s a very high level of experience. I think the audience gets that, as well. We want to experience that, too. That is why the music has taken the trajectory it has. So, I don’t view it as dark. I view it as incredibly positive. It’s a wonderful thing I certainly didn’t expect to occur when I re-started the band seven years ago.
I’ve seen this new iteration of Swans live a few times and there is definitely a euphoria that you reach. However, reaching euphoria isn’t always an easy road for anybody.
That has to do with either pabulum or true art, and I am not placing a capital A on what we do. Take for instance the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. There’s some pretty dark images there (laughs). But the experience of the work itself is transcendent and beautiful. There is another painter from around that time, Matthias Grünewald. He was groundbreaking, though I don’t know if people thought of art in that way at the time, as advancing the trajectory of art. He painted pretty gnarly looking peasants. He painted Christ on the cross with buboes sores from the plague. There are really harrowing paintings, but they are also incredibly beautiful and very spiritual and transcendent. There’s all kinds of examples in literature and music too. It’s just different. I don’t even see us as part of the pop world, or even the music world. It’s just what we do and I feel grateful that certain people gravitate towards it.
I agree and that is how I’m using the word “darkness,” in terms of what the status quo would consider “dark.” I am not sure if you are familiar with Goya’s late era paintings. Some people would consider them dark, but I think they are more beautiful than his airier, early work. He was losing his eyesight, the world was crumbling around him. But for me, those paintings are his most beautiful.
Yeah, he was losing his eyesight at that time. I guess that last period was painted on the walls of a cottage he was living in and his patron who let him live there was going to destroy it after he died and something. I heard someone came in and actually cut out the walls and saved them.
Luckily, we can go to the Prado now and see them.
Yeah, the Prado is an amazing experience. I just saw a movie, for instance, called Come and See. Look that up. Its subject matter is the Nazi occupation of Belarus. It’s a war movie. It’s just absolutely devastating. Some of it is propagandistic, but you just filter that out. It’s so harrowing but I find the act of the film and the beauty of the film itself to be transcendent. The Bible is like that too, for God’s sake. I think we’ve just become accustomed to pabulum.
Speaking of film, you mentioned that when you were making To Be Kind, movies like Melancholia were on your mind. Did any films influence The Glowing Man?
Let me get my iTunes up and look at the song titles. I don’t think so. Not on this one. Let me look here.
Speaking of technology, I’m looking up Come and See and you’re looking at iTunes. Yeah, watch that movie. I watched it on iTunes on high definition.
It has been on the top of my Netflix recommended list. Maybe that speaks to the type of films I watch. You’re the first human that has recommended it to me.
Yeah, I would recommend it. Looking at the titles I don’t see anything that was particularly inspired by film. There is a book that informed the first couple songs called The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s basically a tutorial written by a Christian monk in the 13th or 14th century, I believe. It’s about the correct way to reach union with the divine. It’s an instruction to his pupil and it’s absolutely beautiful. Very difficult, but very beautiful.
That’s interesting because if I was to compare to your new album to a film I would have said Andrei Rublev. It’s like a travelogue of horror and beauty to reach this euphoric vision at the end.
Did you see Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice?
I’ve only seen Solaris, Andrei Rublev and Ivan’s Childhood.
That led me to watch Come and See, which is a very similar thing. It’s through the eyes of a young boy who visibly ages through the film so he almost looks like an old man via the horrors he experiences. It’s amazing.
In terms of your live show, you can only play a handful of songs since they are so long. Swans has been around since the early ‘80s too. How do you parse down the setlist when you have such a wide body of music to draw upon?
Just what we think is going to work and most importantly what we think has enough openness in it to continue to develop it in live performance. There is one song in the set that is pretty set. The others have open areas where things can just develop in the moment. That, to me, is very important. That is how the songs ended up being so long on the record, some of them. It’s from us following the music instead of just reading what exists. It’s about finding a new pathway or something that just seems urgent. That is what makes this iteration of the group so compelling to me. To be alive in the moment.
So Swans live and Swans on record are two totally different animals.
Yeah, but necessarily.
On a recent setlist I see a song called “The Knot.” I’m not even sure what that is.
That’s a new thing.
A new song?
Well, I don’t know if you call it a song. It’s a thing (laughs).
I’m trying to stay away from talking about dissolution of the current lineup because it seems like what everyone else is talking about. However, it’s interesting and ballsy to introduce a new thing at show when this version of Swans is ending.
I guess so. I don’t know. I just have to. I can’t just live with myself as the singer representing the thing by just going through old material. It just seems dumb. I don’t want to. I’m not super human and can’t always write new material but we try to expand on old things and make them live in the moment.
Is there a sense of discovery for you each night?
In the best times. When it’s not working, there isn’t. That’s when it’s really depressing. We always try to make it feel like it’s happening right now.
How do you know when a show is or isn’t working? How often does that happen?
I know when it’s not working when it sounds like shit (laughs). When it works, another facet of this group of individuals being great, it’s one sound. It’s not a particular part. It’s one sound that’s growing and we’re like individual limbs of a body being played by this body or being played by the music. That’s when it’s great.
I assume it’s safe to say you’ve had some experiences on stage that could qualify as out of body.
When we experience that it translates to the audience and they get something from it. That’s the goal. It’s not to just play a good version of a song that exists. It’s to find the thread of light that’s in it and follow that.
Once I saw Swans play and you started 15 minutes before you were slated to go on here in Portland. It’s one of the only times I’ve seen a band do that. A lot of bands go on late. I thought you were doing a soundcheck but the show started. Were you just jonesing to get there?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I have no recollection of that show, unfortunately. It could have been that the end time for the set was fixed. Our sets can extend to three hours sometimes and if a place has a fixed curfew that’s problematic and we have to start cutting things. We may have started early for that reason. I’m not quite sure why.
I read somewhere that you said that the size of a venue doesn’t matter. You don’t think there is a big difference between playing a festival and a hot, intimate club show?
It’s a different atmosphere and I guess you receive differently, but for us it’s still trying to find the heart of the thing. It’s not an easy thing. Takes 100% commitment from everybody. When the sound is great and the atmosphere is what we live for.
As I mentioned, a lot of the interviews I have read with you recently are about the band’s upcoming dissolution. How many people have asked you about the title “Finally, Peace” which closes the album, interpreting it as an ending as sorts?
A lot of people have asked that, not to downplay your creativity.
Oh no, I assumed you got asked that a lot.
(Laughs). When I wrote that song I didn’t know where it would be on the record. It was written on acoustic guitar. It was kind of complete before I introduced it to the band. We orchestrated it in the studio. There are three or four other songs of that nature: “People Like Us,” “When Will I Return” and one other. Those are songs that grew and developed through touring. It wasn’t a statement about the band or anything. That one just seemed correct at the end of the record.