SWANS – INTERVIEW – SEPTEMBER 2010 [PART 1]
By: Tim Robins
Rockfeedback: We rang you on an American number. Whereabouts are you currently based, Michael?
Michael Gira: I’m currently in the Capscale mountains about 100 miles north of New York City where I live.
RFB: As a broad opening question, how are you feeling about the new Swans album and tour? Seeing as how it’s been so long (almost 13 years) and the tour is close approaching, are you scared at all?
MG: I suppose an understatement would be that I have a great deal of trepidation *laughs*. It’s been many years since I’ve done this…Swans that is. I’m looking forward to it. We’re about to begin rehearsing, 12 hours a day, every day for 3 weeks. I think and hope that we will all be ready. I’m looking forward to it. Although it certainly won’t mean much to anybody, for me, it’s a cataclysmic experience.
RFB: Especially with such an intense schedule including 12 hour rehearsals. It sounds intense…
MG: It has to be. The band has been all over the world, so we have to get together and become a band, you know? Such that people can play together intuitively, and that takes time.
RFB: Heading a little more in-depth I’d like to turn to the statement you made on in January 2010 on the Young God Records website. You stated that during your last tour with Angels of Light the song 'The Provider' “brought back memories...maybe not memories, but a tangible re-emersion in the sensation of Swans music”, and yet that your decision to reunite your old band was “not a reunion show, not some nostalgia [but instead that you] needed to move forward”. Did you treat Angels of Light as an endeavour that was completely divorced from Swans, which you are now returning to, perhaps with a different twist, or do you see the new Swans material as some kind of culmination of all of your musical endeavours so far in Swans/Angels Of Light/Solo?
MG: Yeah, I do see that, I do see a culmination. With Angels of Light I started flirting with the more Swans-y kind of sounds and it wouldn’t make sense to incorporate that on one of their records. With the new Swans record it made sense, tangibly and practically, to include all those sounds. Right up until the end of Swans I was doing more acoustic orientated things that were then orchestrated upon, so it makes sense to take in the more epic, large-scale sounds and mix that with the more “detailed” elements.
RFB: Briefly heading back to some of your writing and work on the Young God website, you have uploaded a piece of artwork which states, “life is short bursts of ecstasy filled by interminable periods of crushing drudgery”…
MG: Oh yeah, that one shows a character on a chair, and there are all these little worms looking at him. He’s the character on stage and they are watching him have his moment *laughs*.
RFB: Linking this to your comment concerning the reactivation of Swans as a way to “keep moving forward”, is the ever-revolving lineup of the band [although original member Norman Westberg is included in new lineup], as well as your decision to restart the band in the first place, a way to mix things up avoid those periods of “crushing drudgery”, to keep your relationship to music fresh?
MG: Yeah. I wrote much of the songs on this record over the course of a year and a half, and I guess I presumed they were going to be an Angels of Light record when I had finished. But when I started to think about that, it just seemed kind of predictable and uninteresting to me to go about it that way.
I had this notion of wanting to experience these more overwhelming sounds…electric guitars and just waves of sound, so I thought why not just start Swans up and I can look at them that way. The outlook will naturally change, especially as I would have been working with different people. As long as I expanded parts and made certain sections longer etc. etc. I could change them into Swans material. I haven’t dealt with that in so many years that it opened up a lot of possibilities for me; just making the record itself was an incredibly static experience.
We had this program where we would take one song and play it for 12 hours a day, in this large recording studio with concrete walls and 18 foot ceilings. The sound is just reverberating and going everywhere! It was really like a peak experience in church or something. We just kept playing this riff over and over again. It would keep growing until it became something really active and magical…and then we recorded it. That was a great way to make the album.
RFB: After Holy Money (1986) there was a definite style shift for Swans, and on a lot of the new album material, like 'Reel the Liars In', there is obviously a lot more focus on melody than in the older stuff. Have you gone off the older, heavier material; call it “noise”/ “post-punk”/ “industrial”/ whatever? Is the “noise” side of the band something you feel you have grown out of?
MG: I never embraced the term noise music. What we did is just manipulating sounds, you know? Noise sounds to me like something annoying and buzzy or high-endy. I was always interested in big chunks of sound using primitive rhythms that would hopefully destroy your body. The intention was very positive, in a way like a kind of penitence. I wanted to achieve a period of ecstasy, and at time I achieved that. Now, the notions that I’m using in the new music go all the way back to the beginning [of the Swans back catalogue] and all the way to the end. There’s just not much in the middle that interests me. So, Soundtracks For The Blind and Swans Are Dead as well as the more intense, brutal, sound oriented, chronic orientated stuff…that’s what interests me. Live, we’re going to be doing some material from Cop and Filth, and a bit from Holy Money. I’m not going to do it like it was, I’m going to take that as a starting point and make it something new.
RFB: So would you say you’re using this tour as a way to revisit older material, and yet look at it see it with fresh eyes and new parameters, then?
MG: I just wanted to take certain things which are rightfully mine, and incorporate them back into my work again, though not in a nostalgic way. I don’t want to go and play an old album from beginning to end or some horrible crap like that. I didn’t and don’t want to sound like the old Swans, but it is Swans. The new album is unmistakably Swans; I just didn’t want it to be that way.
RFB: To go back to your “mission statement” from the Young God site, you said that you want more of the sensation that Swans gave you in past, that which you were reminded of during 'The Provider' “before your body breaks down so that it won’t be possible”. Do you feel that, particularly the brutal styling of early 80s material- Filth and Cop etc- is just too physically taxing to play nearly 30 years later?
MG: Certainly if I were to perform it the way I did in those days, I would probably die half way through the first set! I’m not gunna jump around with my shirt off like Iggy Pop, you know? That’s a young man’s sport, and I don’t want to be jumping around like some lizard on stage. I’m going to try and perform with some dignity. Still, it is incredibly physically taxing just to play it. So much concentration and intensity goes into it, so I can’t picture doing it forever, that’s for sure. I know I’m going to continue Swans now though, I can tell you that for sure; I have some ideas for the next record. I honestly don’t know how long I can do it, but as long as it remains something vital and authentic I’m going to keep doing it.
RFB: Speaking of there being another Swans album which you will presumably put out, having set up the Young God label, do you think that when there comes a time that you won’t be able to perform live, will those other roles in the industry- label manager, A&R etc- take over?
MG: Well, I’ve been producing other people’s music and putting it out intensely for about the last 12 or 15 years. So actually, I’m kind of sick of it. I want to perform my own music again, and I want to concentrate on my music. Running a record label is a thankless and unprofitable task at this point. To me, Young God is going to revert to be mainly about releasing my own music. However, there are a few artists on the label that I’ll keep working with as long as they want to stay on it. As far as looking for new bands or something, that’s over…it doesn’t make any sense at this point. Right now I want to keep recording and performing. It’s my life sport, it’s what I’m made to do.
RFB: Despite the fact that Swans' live shows were something you gained so much notoriety for in the early days, in the same ilk as the majority of the “No Wave” bands who many see as your progenitors, considering what you said about the live shows being so physically demanding, do you feel that as your musical career has continued- and especially on the new Swans record- you have focused on the studio element more?
MG: I don't look at them as the same thing. The studio is one thing and live is another. I do concentrate on the studio all the time, but still the Swans material, and even my stuff with Angels of Light, has always been very visceral. I love playing live. The whole experience of recording can be quite tedious, but playing live is what I'm made to do, it's why I'm on earth. It's the best thing I could possibly be doing at that moment. Of course, recording is so different to playing live, at least for me. I don't just try to capture how a band sounds live when in the studio. I try to treat it as a different instrument in itself that you can use to develop the music beyond how it is performed. The performances must be great, but it's only a starting process, a place from which to develop. When we perform live, the last thing I want to do is sound like the record.
RFB: In the statement on the Young God site, you spoke of the music of Angels of Light during The Provider as “lifting me up towards what, I can only assume, will be my only experience of heaven...[I] remember that sensation and question whether there is a God”. Linking this statement to the title of the new album (My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To The Sky) are you at a stage of life where you feel comfortable exploring ideas of a higher power, or the point of your existence?
MG: That's what I've always been thinking about. This is pretty heavy stuff! As an artist, or as any human being, you have to be thinking about the big questions, otherwise why are you alive? You're not just an ant...well, maybe you and I are! But if you don't want to be a hunk of automated flesh then I think you have to be questioning that sort of thing. I experience music in that way. When it reaches a peak, and some kind of epiphany, which doesn't happen all of the time, but when it does, I don't know how to define it. It's not like I started reading the Bible! It's a different experience. If you take up meditation and you find that you completely lose a sense of self and become immersed in something, it's more like that. That's what I'm always reaching for. With the new record it was 8 months of constantly being consumed about how to develop things, being kept up at night with ideas running through my head, running the whole record through my head when I'm lying there. It is a whole organic process that takes me over for a long period of time, and that has its own kind of mystery.
RFB: Have your influences diversified at all for the new album? Were there current bands who have really influenced the new Swans stuff, or did you find yourself going back to the touchstones from the early 80s and hitting on those again?
The influence is Swans. We're not like other bands. There are a few key things that have influenced me along the way, and they're really diverse. One of those will be having seen Pink Floyd in the Ummagumma days, maybe in '69? That was amazing. Of course I was only 15 and on acid, so maybe it was a skewed perception of the experience, but I'll never forget it! Punk rock and bands like The Cramps and Suicide. That music had a very strong influence. I worked with members of The Cramps in Angels of Light, and that was very inspirational.
RFB: Moving into slightly different waters: can you tell us a bit about making the 1000 hand printed album covers for CD/DVD of I Am Not Insane to support costs of recording/promoting the new Swans album. You said it made you want to kill everyone...
MG: I did it with this idea that it would take 6 months or something to sell these out, so that I could do it in a leisurely way, but they sold out in 2 weeks. I had only made about 200 in advance, then I had to make another 800 of these things. It was an incredibly laborious process. In the end, it was about 2 or 3 months of 14 hour days, to fill all the orders and do all of the accounting and stuff, each order. It seemed like it would never end! In the meantime I was starting to record. Oh my God. But it was good because it raised most of the money for the recording. It was a lot of work but I'm glad I was able to do it.
RFB: Do all of these different artistic mediums work in tandem, then? Can one of your songs influence a story (Gira has published a collection of short stories entitled The Consumer) or piece of artwork, or can a story you have penned ever prompt you to write a song?
MG: Definitely. I find the artists who do the artwork for albums on my label, or I do it myself. Part of my work as an artist allows me to do that. I think one sort of informs the other, and it helps contribute to an aesthetic of a band, it's essential.
RFB: You said in an interview that you really liked the adaption of McCarthy's novel The Road (which is amazing!) Would you ever “do a Nick Cave” and think of making a film or sound tracking one, really linking your music to a visual image?
MG: Both the book and the film are absolutely amazing. I would love to do soundtracks but that hasn't happened for me, which is a shame. I would do it as long as I wasn't working for free.