Swans | ArticleFor someone with a reputation as a bit of a sourpuss, Swans' mainman Michael Gira is in surprisingly jovial form. He's sitting in the West London office that houses the UK arm of his Young God label, attempting to summarise a career that's spanned 13 years and 11 albums—not to mention a myriad of contrasting sounds and styles—in one pithy sentence. It's not the world's easiest tasks, but Michael seems up to it. "I'm sitting here looking at a Velvet Underground poster with a big banana on it," he starts promisingly. "Maybe we're that banana, but peeled and rotting."
The Great Annihilator is Swans' cheerily titled new LP, stage one in Gira's plan to clear a heaving backlog of songs. More will be premiered on Gira's first solo album—the stripped, low-fi Drainland also imminent this year—and in the live arena where he intends to draw together his various recording personage under the catch-all banner of The World of Skin. But while Swans early recordings were notorious ugly ducklings, over recent years their abrasive guitar power has been harnessed more elegantly—so how does he feel his songwriting has changed?
"At present I write on an acoustic guitar, but I'm not sure I'm going to continue that way. I'm beginning to think that it might be kind of limited. In the past, I would write to a throbbing drone or a tape loop and vocalise to that, but then my songwriting was more like sloganeering. The beauty of the acoustic guitar is that I can just [do it] myself if I'm alone in a hotel room. It's a good way to form a song."
However, further echoes of Swans noisy past resurface on the album with the slight return of scowling axe-god Norman Westburg—a tall Manson lookalike who scares young children for breakfast. "Norman's got a really great sound," says Gira of the reunion, "and I like his deceptively harmonious chords. He always used to play through a bass amp, with a couple of Marshall 4x10's, and he'd put everything on 10. Yeah, I don't think he's so keen on the quieter numbers . . ."
And what of Gira's own plank-spanking antics? "Ha ha, my guitar playing's a joke," he laughs again. "I play with a lot of open tunings, various different ones, just in order to get by. I use the guitar to get a basic structure, as a base to form a melody, but I'm not really a guitarist."
That may be true, but by his own admission he's a top dictator. The Great Annihilator is testament to that.