Swans | M. Gira | InterviewOpen & Shut Like a great many bands from 1980's extreme noise music (however you define it), Swans might be considered a name to be consigned straight to the history books. A drastic change in direction in 1988 saw them leave behind the sheer brutalism of this New York Band's earlier incarnation (people used to be physically ill at Swans shows), and opt for what seemed, initially, to be a folk-rock cop-out.
Eight years on, however, and with the memories of the annihilating minimalism of the "Raping a Slave" EP rapidly fading, Swans seem to have come back into our orbit. Over the course of three epic, tribal and hypnotic albums, "White Light from the Mouth of Infinity," "Love of Life," and last year's "The Great Annihilator," Swans have finally transcended the limitations of the past, and created a form of rock music that, if nothing else, utterly singular. The older incarnation has proved one of the more durable influences on much of the extreme music scene—The Young Gods took their name from a Swans song, while Big Black, Godflesh, and Neurosis would not have existed without them—but the new version is, frankly, even better. Swans now touch on so much that Terrorizer is currently concerned with, it'd have been churlish to have ignored them any longer. Their rhythms, atmospheres and songwriting at times could be deemed Doom, at times Industrial, at other points still Experimental Noise. Thematically, too, singer and songwriter Michael Gira's obsessions of yore have transmogrified into a collage of violent, psychedelic imagery. In 1995, he also published a collection of short stores, "The Consumer" which was so grotesque and visceral, they'd make many a hardened Death Metal fan's stomach churn and froth. With a final double CD album due at the end of the year, entitled "Soundtracks for the Blind," Swans are also a dying concern. Talking to Michael Gira while he was over on a spoken word tour of Europe recently, it transpires that the group's current output will also be their last.
"We're going to do a final Swans tour," Gira explains. "I wanna do one last gargantuan effort, one last time, and then I want to go to do things that won't be Swans, under some other name, doing more ambient, quieter music. I'm gonna leave behind the rock thing after this. There was some rumor here that the last tour was our last one, which wasn't true."
In the meantime, there's the new, 55-minute, seven-song EP, "Die TÃ¼r Ist Zu." Recorded originally for the German market, it's a taster for "Soundtracks for the Blind," a work of ambient extremity and mordant, sardonic darkness that would put Mortus to shame. Though you don't get a beat until around 15 minutes in, "Die TÃ¼r Ist Zu" is unquestionably one of the most out-on-a-limb things Gira's ever recorded.
"The first part, that's all one track, they made that all one piece," Gira reflects. "I was of the way I'm working is by dumping everything on computer and just mangling it, making huge pieces out of disparate elements. It's 25 minutes, but it's all one thing. There's a remix of "You know nothing" from "White Light," but I also took a tape of Jarboe (Swans other, female, vocalist) as a little girl added it to that. "Your Property" was recorded in London with Jarboe singing live, and the other thing was for Dutch radio. The thing at the end is just a section of a 17 minute long song, but live. "There's a song that's part of whole first piece, called "Helpless Child," "Hilflos Kind," I really like that, the way it's ambient at the beginning and builds towards the end. It's a whole new direction for us. Also, I'd say I have a vocabulary, which I use, and I have to develop, but I'm not going do hip-hop music, so it's always going to be somehow related to how I think about sound. I have to keep challenging myself, and hopefully it sounds like that."
So what will the full album deliver?
"Well, like I say, the next Swans album, which is a double CD, two and a half hours of music, ambiance and experimentation's a big part of it. A lot of the pieces were made from old cassettes of sounds I recorded in 1981! Then I mixed them in with things I recorded six months ago, and put into Sonic Solutions' computer, which is like the most sophisticated program available. It's a mastering program, but I used it as a recording tool. I would sometimes reverse them, have them bleed into others, try to make environments that kept shifting and changing.
Have you heard of anyone else attempting to use that?
"If they do, they're insane because it was the most tedious way of going about it! I thought I could just put in the sounds and say, okay, let's have it blend in with this sound, but it becomes horribly complex to achieve. Soundwise, it starts out really ambient and quiet, and builds into a whole textural thing, keeps shifting and changing, there's a lot of recorded vocal narrations, found sounds, seven or eight live tracks from the last tour redone into the studio. Some of it's really raw and rough, with crude sources, and other things are compiled in a computer, other things are with a band playing. It's really varied."
So what brought around the change of direction?
"Ever since the very beginning, I've worked with tape loops and the very first samplers, we've always used those samplers from around 1986 in a much more prominent way, and that aspect of music is interesting me more now than rock. When I say 'ambient,' I'm not talking as it is understood now. There's certain music in America I like that's ambient, but made in a more protean way. People like Tony Conrad, he's like a violinist and associated with the Velvet Underground, to me it reaches a more primal place. I listen to that kind of stuff all the time. Or Table of the Elements, which is based in Atlanta, with people like Jim O'Rourke and Faust."
With "Die TÃ¼r Ist Zu," Swans have found a temporary resting place among the isolationists. This group of avant-garde extremists, variously also described as Dark Ambiance or Industrial Ambiance, and closely allied to Power Electronics, contains some of the most radical musicians at work today. When you think of how many bands simply churn out endless guitar riffs (not that there's anything wrong with that), it's clearly the height of extremity to ditch the whole rotten lot, and record the echoes and resonances of a gong, as Dusseldorf composer Thomas Koener has done.
Gira's approach to sound music isn't unique—the avant garde have been experimenting with tape loops, drones, sampling and more for decades—but it is, clearly, way extreme. More resonantly for us, his lyrics, found voices, narrations and images are all satisfyingly existential and psychological, his unique drawl and murmur of a singing voice being able to insinuate a shudder into even the hardest hard-case's mind. One recent short story he tells me about is central around an image which, truly, out-grosses them all, of a character who wants to climb inside a horse and live inside its decaying carcass. Others, both lyrics and stories, were inspired by his terrifying large consumption of LSD as a teenager by both good trips and bad.
"The texts to me aren't as important as in the contexts in which they reside," Gira says. "It's more the nostalgia they create, not some big message. One narration is of this tape of Jarboe's father, who was an FBI agent, and one tape she found in his desk after he died was of a surveillance tape, and he's talking about his girlfriend in this deep Southern accent, and the way he's talking about her is so murderous, really strange, we set that to music. I recorded my father talking about his blindness, another one is a surreptitious recording of Jarboe. The lyrics don't tend to come from a concept so much as an image, though."
Why did you end up singing in German on this new EP?
"I have a whole history in Germany. I lived there for a year when I was a kid working in a factory, and a whole side of my family, my father's second wife is German, and the last time we were in Germany we thought we should do something for the Germans.
"To me, it sounds comical and farcical, but Germans seem to appreciate it! There are English versions among the new songs, and I had them translated, by a really educated German woman, and my manager who has a degree in German went over them, and then I had a German kid, a rock fan, in the booth while I was singing, and he would, that sounds phony, he worked me through line by line. A couple times, though, I thought, do I sound like Blixa? [Bargeld—Einstuerzende Neubauen] Hahaha!" The interview drawing to a close—he's due at his spoken word/book reading show in a few minutes—Gira turns to musing on his strange career that's taken some strange twists and turns over its thirteen years.
"This whole tour has been great, though. I met this guy who has a degree in psychology and who works with schizophrenics and people with physical disabilities, and he's a huge Swans fan, it's wonderful meeting these people. So it's good to come into contact with people who actually realize the value of it, it's the best reward I've had in years. Especially being down in Atlanta [Gira and Jarboe relocated two years ago from New York], I have no friends, I don't go out, I don't anything, and you sometimes begin to think, what have I done for the last 13 years of my life? Punk rock ruined my life, that's what!"