Vanity Fair M. Gira Interview
The architect of the notoriously loud band’s sound discusses its current cast’s final record out this week.
In 2009, Michael Gira decided to breathe new life into his band Swans. Originally critic-dubbed “art-rock” contemporaries of Sonic Youth in the early 80s, the band underwent several aesthetic cycles with a rotating cast of characters, all while remaining ranked as one of music’s loudest entities. In 2010, after a 13-year hiatus, a newly consistent lineup of musicians has yielded some of the most exciting, intense music of Gira’s storied career. Despite success, Swans’s upcoming LP The Glowing Man (June 17, via Gira’s own Young God Records) has been announced by Gira, 62, as the last from this specific group of members. “I’ll continue to make music under the name Swans, with a revolving cast of collaborators,” he said when announcing the record. VF.com talked with Gira before he embarks on the climactic post-release world tour.
Vanity Fair: When you announced The Glowing Man’s release and touring schedule, you said it would be the final offering from this particular lineup of Swans. What went into that decision?
Michael Gira: Um, seven years of being in the same place with the same people all the time. [laughs] It’s been a very fruitful relationship, at least from my point of view. And it has produced some of the best music in which I’ve ever been involved. I just feel like as a band—as a classic formation “band” where it’s the same members all the time—it’s kind of running its course. And I think we all agree.
Are the different incarnations of the Swans a result of your personal life or is it more collaborative?
Well, I have a musical agenda. I gather people around me and seek their input. Certainly people have contributed greatly—it’s not as if I’m a composer or something. But I have basic concepts of how I want the music to be, and then I start working with people, and as they respond to those ideas then I go with this new reality, which is their input, and just kind of guide things. I’m more like a sort of impresario or musical director I guess. But I definitely want people’s input. And with this lineup, it’s been the most mutual collaboration of any lineup so far.
I know you’re just coming off a solo tour. Does your psyche experience any striking differences when you’re performing totally independently of your band at this point?
Well solo is an entirely different thing because it’s absolutely dependent on my performance vocally. And the words. And how I play my guitar—my acoustic guitar is rudimentary. Maybe it’s idiosyncratic, and it might be interesting in that way, but it’s very rudimentary. It just kind of provides a basis for the voice and words. So it’s all on me. There’s nobody else to blame. And I like that crucible, but it’s just different. Completely different. Swans is more of a sonic experience.
Endurance and volume seem to be pre-requisites to really accessing the transcendent aspect of your music these days. How do you feel with recorded material when those elements can be disregarded by listeners?
Let me qualify ‘volume’—it’s a tool, not an end. It’s not as if we’re trying to be, “Fucking loud, man!” It’s more that the sound doesn’t really exist if it’s not at a certain volume. Overtones and resonances that might occur in a room wouldn’t happen at a more moderate volume level. So that’s the reason for it—the physicality of it, and the kind of swirling mass that happens just doesn’t happen unless it’s at a certain volume. So that’s the reason for that. Now, on a record trying to replicate that is a big deal, because you can’t really capture that. At least I’ve never been able to capture it literally on a first recording, so I have various go-to tropes and modes that I use to try to replicate it or something through the production. And then of course on an album there’s a lot more possible dynamics and nuances and arrangements and things. Does that answer your question? I don’t recall what your question was.
Basically, when the endurance aspect or the volume is more anemic for somebody listening
Listening in their little peanuts?
Is that something that bothers you obsessively or no?
Well, they’re just two different mediums.
Has your hearing taken a hit over the years that you’ve noticed or not really?
Oh yeah. It hadn’t—it was fine until this iteration [of Swans]. But yeah I’ve really noticed quite a bit. I guess that might be another reason for winding things down. Although I’m not sure what the next version is going to entail, it might be equally loud in certain ways. But yeah it can be quite painful. I don’t wear earplugs. The other guys do, but I can’t imagine making the music without being right inside the totality of it.
How far back does the genesis of the songs on the new record date?
The songs “Cloud of Forgetting,” “Cloud of Unknowing,” “Frankie M” and “The Glowing Man”—those all began on the last tour for the last record in sort of rudimentary form, just basic ideas I had and then worked out with the band in rehearsals. And then we just started playing them and they eventually over the course of 16 months mutated gradually into the form they have now. Just through following the sound live. There is some improvisation going on, though not in the sense that you might imagine—not in the sense of players kind of stepping out. It’s more like finding new ways into the thrust of the music. So those things just metastasized or something, into the shape that they have.
And other songs I had written on acoustic guitar and took them to the studio and we worked them up. “When Will I Return” was written a year and a half ago; “People Like Us” maybe six months ago; “The World Looks Red” was written right before the studio; “Finally Peace” also right before the studio. So, in those, like I said, I take it into the studio and start working with the band in rehearsals in the studio, and gradually orchestrate them into the shape that they take.
When you’re trying to achieve such massiveness in the final recording, at what point do you and the band know when a track is complete?
Well I say often, perhaps in jest, when I’m thoroughly exhausted and have run out of money. [laughs]
You studied visual art. Have you had any impulse to take a hiatus from sound to pursue anything else creatively or is sound really just your one and only home at this point?
At this point, yeah. But as I approach my dotage of course I think of other things I might do. Making art is a highly disciplined activity, and requires total commitment and immersion. And I haven’t done that in decades. So it’s not like I could just suddenly decide to be an artist again. I do these drawings and things for supporters through our Web site, but I don’t even view those as art really. I view them more as artifacts that people can have. Art is a high column. I also write, and am toying with the idea of trying to write another series of short stories. But for now I haven’t played out all of my possibilities in music so I’m gonna keep going with that.
When it comes to your personal sonic thrills, do you pretty much have to rely on the past or is there stuff being produced currently that you do find particularly thrilling?
That’s a question I get asked a lot of course, and I never have an answer because for some reason my brain freezes whenever that comes up. But I can say that my main objective when I’m not making music is to not hear any fucking music at all. [laughs] Because my ears areexhausted. It’s almost like even the most beautiful music is like a fly in my ear or something. So I don’t delve too deeply into other people’s music, unfortunately. It’s a big loss.
What do you reckon the Michael Gira of the early 80s would think of your current output if you got a chance to listen to it back then?
Oh, I’d probably think it was pretentious, bloated, and decadent. [laughs] But I don’t even know that person anymore, so it’s hard to say. I don’t even know who I was. It was so long ago when I started this band. 35 years.
Have you ever been able to fully separate yourself as the maker of the music and become somebody just purely experiencing it the way a fan would? Or is that just impossible?
Well at the moments when the music is truly alive in a live context, that’s exactly what it is. I mean we just happen to be holding these pieces of wood, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s right there in the moment right now. And we’re just as surprised as everyone else.