Swans | ArticleMoulting Swans: From Blobs of sound, they've evolved a generous palette. From Blobs of sound, they've evolved a generous palette
Swans are coming to town—and don't feel too bad if you don't know who they are. Considered a pioneering post-punk band, an influence on such noise-shapers as Sonic Youth and Nine Inch Nails, Swans started out in '82 by recording a series of albums of such grotty alienation—loud, lumbering music with queasy, sadistic lyrics (the song title "Raping a Slave" captures the ambiance)—that even though they established a core audience, they also turned off many who possibly appreciated the concept but chose not to wallow.
What those who turned away don't know is how vastly the group's music has changed since those early grinding blobs of disgust. Their most recent album, "The Great Annihilator" (Invisible), as well as solo discs by the group's songwriter Michael Gira ("Drainland" on Virus) and its female singer and mood modulator Jarboe ("Sacrificial Cake", also on Virus), offers a wide range of music. The touchstone is a slamming industrial rhythm, but the variants lead into acoustic and non-recognizable areas of electronically layered ruminations. Even the lyrics, though still leaning to the sick-o image, have been flushed out with poetic insinuation.
Still, when I recently told an editor at a famous big-circulation rock mag that I thought Swans were now pretty swell, he responded unjokingly, "But do you think they have any appeal for normal people?" Putting aside the question's implication about my own condition, as well as my firm belief that "normal" people are just people you don't know very well, I'd have to say, well, sure. After all, one can read De Sade and eyeball Bosch without developing a taste for atrocity. Quite the opposite.
When I mentioned this incident to Gira in a recent phone interview, he laughed, but than sputtered a rebuttal: "What are normal people? A bunch of brain-dead idiots that only eat junk food . . . Jesus!" In conversation, Gira delivers an articulate and sincere line of venom, punctuated by sane little laughs. Knowing he was a bright guy, I assumed that his lyrical fascination with mutilation and murder-most-foul was a metaphoric conceit couching some general outrage. But it was more: "It interested me as an extreme state. The first song I wrote about that, taking on the Ed Gein character [a real serial killer who was the basis for Norman Bates in "Psycho"] was 'Young God,' which I wrote in '84. Because everybody has that potential. I certainly know that it's in me to kill or sink that low. And by the time I wrote 'Young God,' I'd been having these dreams where I'd killed somebody close to me, murdered her. And I'd wake up thinking her body was dead beside me.
"But it's a used-up topic for me," Gira continues. "'Killing for Company' (on "The Great Annihilator") is the last song I'll write from that point of view. It's based on a real guy who lived in London and used to collect boys. He'd pick them up and take them home and kill them—mainly because he was lonely. He'd wash them, prop their dead bodies up next to him to watch TV. Then he'd feel guilty and bury them under the floorboards—then get lonely again and dig them up. I guess he made loved to them and eventually he'd eat them."
Okay, wait a minute, let's back up. I don't think everybody has this potential for brutal and bent murder. And falling short of being in a plane crash in the Andes, I don't think the desire to eat people is in my behavioral repertoire—not even that large untapped portion.
"Well, you don't know me," Gira says. "I tend to bring out that potential in people. If a person has a rage in them, after they've been around me for a while, usually they express it [laughs] . . . ask any musician that's toured with me. But I've moved on, in the music. I probably didn't realize it, but the early material was written from hate really . . . for the world we live in, for American consumer society . . . and for myself, of course."
Not that the recent material is exactly happy, but now the gruesome bits about the malleable meat of the easily corrupted body are interspersed with musings on the eternal and transcendent mind and spirit. A more positive development?
"I had a some alcoholic visions about that, so I don't know if that's positive. But I got the feeling that all of the molecules in me were moving, shifting around, and I began to lose sense of how they were separate from the air and from the chemical stew of biology that we live in."
The current Swans touring line-up consists of Gira on electric guitar and vocals, Jarboe on keyboards and vocals, Larry Mullins playing percussion (the whole range—"sometimes pounding, sometimes atmospheric," says Gira), and guitarists Vudi (from American Music Club) and Karl Goldring. It will probably be pretty creepy, but in a savory, aesthetically heightened sort of way—Grand Guignol with smarts, an enlargement of all the horrid little things that are eating at you. So to speak.