Weekly Alibi Interview
Sometimes when I interview folks, they appear as rock stars, ready to tell you all the great things they've done for their fans and their genre. Other times they come off as skillful musicians, dedicated to their craft, to the excellence in instrumentalism they've dutifully attached themselves to over years of recording sessions, live performances and life on the road. These people I talk to can seem distant and detached or engaged, enraged and provocative. It's a job, sabes?
But when I had the opportunity to chat with Michael Gira, the guiding force behind experimental, underground rockers Swans, something entirely different presented itself. Traveling in a car from a gig in Seattle, through the barren badlands of eastern Oregon and western Idaho, Gira's phone signal, full of static and reverb, initially made our conversation sound like a communiqué between NASA and some far-orbiting astronaut.
As the dialogue persisted and Gira came back within clear coverage, my perception was enchanced. Surely this was indeed a far-away sort of person I was talking to, yet his words revealed the mark of an artist, unbound from convention, free of pretense and intensely interested in the manifestation of his vision as the only true indicator of an otherwise elusive identity.
Weekly Alibi: Let's talk about Swans, especially your new work, The Glowing Man. Tell me about that.
Gira: I just wanna say that if I cut out it's because we're driving though some desolate places; the phone service is spotty. We just entered eastern Oregon and we're heading toward Idaho. So you want me tell you about The Glowing Man?
Yeah, tell me about what events and processes led up to this new album with this particular configuration of Swans.
On the last three records, the material has developed organically out of live performance. We usually start a tour with new material, a lot of which is not finished. We have a basic structure, but as we play it over the course of an 18 month engagement, it gradually mutates into these refined, sprawling pieces. This album is live-
Does this dynamic initially result from improvisation?
Yes. What happens is we'll find something useful or exciting in the midst of a performance or during sound check and we'll decide to extend that part. We constantly find new ways to express what is already there, keeping things open, always. I suppose it's a type of improvisation, but it's more like borrowing the sound; it's not instrumentalists noodling, it's more like finding the trajectory of the sound, where the group leads—it's an organic, collaborative effort. We are kind of like one body, now. It's a very in-tune bunch of people. I didn't work this way so extensively in the past.
In the past your work as been categorized as genre-defying, post-industrial, abrasive with a confrontational aesthetic. Some say it's inimitably postmodern in that it appropriates from a variety of genres and techniques to create something new. Do such descriptions by others make sense to you?
Well, my work is not as deliberate as you might suspect. The methods that I employ are embodied by a phase, which is represented by a record. I consider what's been going on, I find the threads that have not been played out yet, that are worth exploring. I discard the ones that seem predictable. I seek the fertile elements in what is already going on, they can be exploited and explored further. That's been going on since the beginning [of my career].
Do you listen to a lot of music, do you read extensively, do you engage all sorts of different art forms to come up with those essential elements that you then choose to experiment upon?
Every once in a while I find inspiration for lyrics in a movie or a book or an art work … also in relationships and memories, in my experiences with other people. All experience is fodder for [my] work. On my previous record there's a particularly salient example of that. The song called “Kirsten Supine,” was inspired by a very beautiful Lars von Trier film calledMelancholia.
That's one of my favorite films; it seems like it's more about the dissolution of personal identity than it is about the end of the world.
He leaves the viewer with all these questions about existence, a sense of aching in the swirling cosmos. I really relate to that. The expansiveness of his imagery, the tragedy … there's a sense of wonder uncovered through the psychedelic power of the images. I don't quite know why I'm drawn to things like that.
How does the current configuration of Swans—perhaps the last configuration of the band—complicate or compliment those existential tendencies?
Swans has changed personnel constantly since the beginning. Some people have hung around for a long time—Norman [Westberg] has been pretty constant; Jarboe was involved for a long time. This configuration is the most stable iteration of the band, in my mind. It's been very fruitful, very inspiring. Aside from the practical concerns of people having lives, being around the same group of people for seven years can lead to a bit of predictability, over-familiarity. What we are doing now is vital, but I can see that if we stuck with it, it just becomes a series of tropes, and I always want to throw myself into uncomfortable waters. I want to jump off a cliff, see what happens. In order to keep the performances vital and urgent, I think it's necessary to have material that's still gestating.
So, are you more likely to embrace chaos rather than order?
I think it is important to be in the moment. I don't want to end up in a situation where Swans feels like a job. I always do my best work when I'm on the edge of failure. I want to go after that moment where it's do or die. I am trying to find new ways to thrive within the chaos of now. At times that can be very elevating. It's really about the music itself. It's like the difference between a sculpture by Richard Serra and a painting by Hieronymus Bosch; one depicts events the other is experiential. My work is experiential. In that way, I'm a sensualist; I just want to be inside the sound. That's magical.
How does the word “magic” function in your work?
I am dumbfounded by existence. It's a miracle to have a consciousness. I don't ascribe to organized religion, although I see a certain value in aspects of it. A lot of humans use religion as a sort of social programming. It can be a system of social control. To me, that's anathema. But the quest for the source of one's consciousness as it relates to the greater universe is one of the most important activities one can engage. I've been reading this book by St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul. It's very difficult but beautiful magic.
Do listeners understand the spiritual and existential gravitas that come with your work?
Our audiences are very open. Certainly we're not very fashionable or trendy. There are a lot of young people at our shows. I think it's people that want to experience something out of the ordinary. It's different than wanting to go to a party and see a band. I don't want to pretend it's important, though. I provide an experience which few others attempt. We're different, and we're extreme. I don't mean we're aggressive, but we're intense and transgressive.
If you ran into someone from another world and they asked you to explain Swans, what would you say?
I don't know, maybe that you're riding in an airplane and you decide to get up and open the door and jump out. Swans are those moments in the air before you hit the ground.