Swans | ArticleHearts of Darkness The Swans make strange, beautiful and influential music on the margins of obscurity.
I am constantly seeking out records by those bands or individuals who still wear their emotions on their sleeves, who keep no distance between themselves and their material. Oftentimes, this includes a fascinations with the dark side, and its resultant obsessions. I'm not talking about overblown statements full of shock value, but genuine pathos that communicates with restraint and tension as often as it does aggression.
Nowhere is this more true than in the music of Swans. Swans are an ever-evolving group of musicians, led by singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer Michael Gira, and his ubiquitous companion, keyboardist, songwriter and vocalist Jarboe. They have recorded more than 17 albums, singles and EPs in various incarnations on countless labels since 1982. Swans dwell in relative, if not complete, obscurity in the pop world, despite having influenced the entire spectrum of the now-popular "industrial" music scene, including acts like Ministry, Skinny Puppy, nine inch nails and Rage Against the Machine. The reasons are difficult to pin down, but perhaps owe as much to the uncompromising and stubborn work ethic of Swans themselves as to the cash-driven machinations of the pop music industry.
The Swans' sound has evolved out of the early punk and downtown Manhattan no-wave scene, from plodding, harsh, extreme blast of guitar and drum noise to 140 beats per minute, drum machine dance music terror to exotically beautiful and shimmering musical textures that are almost medieval in their melodic structure and execution. In each of these incarnations—some of them co-existing on a single recording—has been a darkness so profoundly compelling, seductive and dense, whether malevolent or mournful, that it is all-encompassing, and at times, frightening.
Darkness, ruined and impossible love, sex, transcendence and death are at the heart of Swans, weaving their way through the music. Gira, who is also a fiction writer, accepts this, but offers no explanation.
"Swans music all comes from feelings and necessarily on a narrative way," says Gira, politely yet drolly, by phone from San Francisco, where the band is rehearsing for its first tour in three years. It will bring them to Detroit on July 22.
"Swans have a 'sound,' but that's where the discussion about direction stops. Sometimes it's violent and sometimes its quiet, but, hopefully, it's always powerful. It's body music in a literal as well as figurative sense. This music affects me in a profound way, where in the early days the sound would shove me around the stage; these days it's quieter and I can just stand there and play and sing."
Powerful indeed. My first exposure to the Swans came in 1983 when I was a buyer at a combination boutique and record store in Ann Arbor. The band's first album, "Filth," crossed my desk, and I put it on the store's sound system. It was a guitar and drum assault so loud, slow and brutal, and with the warped growl of Gira's tortured, feral vocals, I couldn't figure out which speed to play the record at!
It clearly startled everyone in the store, including me, since I'd never heard anything like it before or since. I was hooked. The lyrics themselves were so assaultive they shook me:
"Be strong/Be hard/Stick your hand in your eye/Close your fist/Resist/Flex your muscles/Walk on this line/Look straight ahead/Flex your muscles/Be hard/Come back for more."
The intensity and masculinity in the Swans' sound at that time was more ferocious than anything punk had even attempted. It wore negativity like a gaping wound. It took the idea of what was negative in rock 'n' roll and transformed it into something that never even considered "Rebel Without A Cause," but breathed Sartre's "Nausea."
"It was different than anything else out there at any time," says Gira, "But then, no matter what I've done, I've always felt that way. I go in a direction it seems some people have followed with greater success."
That sound, combined with Gira's lyrical fascination with sex and power, remained with Swans for a few recordings. The next, a 12" called "Raping A Slave," and an LP entitled simply "Cop," with their trademark sparse, black and red graphics, put Gira's obsession with the abject clearly at the center of his work. Here the sound was more, not less extreme; it cut everything out of music except power and dynamic. His lyrics focused on flesh and its various mutilations, mutual humiliation, the debasement of the human being who is enslaved to the vicious circle of power and domination and the complete destruction of the culture. (When I first heard nine inch nails' "Head Like A Hole," I immediately thought it a milder version of Swans' "This Is Mine.")
"Trent Reznor has never claimed Swans as an influence, and he's very talented, but I'm glad someone else can hear it besides me," Gira says matter-of-factly.
Despite the sheer violence in much of the Swans material, Gira is a consummate gentleman. He speaks clearly and deliberately and laughs often.
And all across America the poison fires glow/And in the blood of our procreation, annihilation grows/ Yes love was made for slaves like us, designed to fetishize/Consumption, waste and an identity based on a dying lie/So God forgive America, the end of history is now/And God may save the victim, but only: "The murderer holds real power . . ."
"God Loves America"
For Swans, the road has been littered with disappointment, poverty and misery. Records have been released but poorly promoted and distributed; tours have been aborted and personnel has changed continually. A true stabilizing influence was the arrival of Jarboe. A Georgia native who comes from a family of backwoods, snake-handling Christians, Jarboe heard Swans while visiting New York and made it her quest to get to know Gira and join the band. She succeeded. The two now live and work in Atlanta, where Gira maintains his Young God label, on which all Swans releases are initially imprinted before being licensed to other labels. She is a body builder and a good-natured foil for Gira's seriousness, but she is moved by forces unseen; a gorgeous darkness that bleeds over the margins into white light.
Her first appearance with Swans was on 1986's "Greed/Holy Money." That record reflected a deeper, less defined aesthetic. Drum machines entered the mix, yielding something more like a death disco than a solid wall of noise. There was mystery and space present that seemed to enter at all the right moments.
Gira disagrees. "I think that the band's sound really evolved later, on 'Children of God'," he says. "That was were we became more wide open, and I was changing, looking for ways to widen what Swans were doing."
That record, released in 1987, reflected lyrical changes as well. While Gira's preoccupation with Eros was pervasive, it was read through a perverse take on religion. Spiritual concerns were everywhere. There was more space in the mix; rather than just assaulting the listener with power electronics, the band explored nuance and texture.
Today, Swans use space and silence as much as they do sound. In speaking about the current tour, Gira offers his thoughts on just how far the band has some musically.
"This tour we will play music from our early records, including the World of Skin records (a Swans side project) but completely reinvented. It sounds quiet, almost medieval. The power is there, it just manifests itself in different ways. It's restrained to the point of creating tension from the quiet."
Powerful silence is what the Swans achieved with 1988's "The Burning World," their only major label recording. Gira and Jarboe had been traveling the world and visited Morocco. Its exotic, Old World landscape proved inspirational. The record is alternately lush, spare and beautiful; it's easily the most accessible of the band's recordings, and yet, Gira is clearly unhappy with it.
"That record makes me cringe, often I wish I'd never even made it," he laughs.
"The Burning World," which featured Robert Mapplethorpe's "Calla Lilly" on its cover was released by UNI, a subsidiary of MCA, which, couldn't figure out what to do with it. It died an unceremonious death, going out of print before the year was up.
Undaunted, Gira and Jarboe continued working on projects. They established a working relationship with Rough Trade, which committed to releasing the Swans' back catalogue as well as the World of Skin records. Unfortunately, this too proved ill-fated as Rough Trade, the second largest distributor of independent recordings in the world as well as having its own record label, went bankrupt in 1991.
"That was an ideal relationship for us," says Gira. "What happened was horrible, and we've been living in poverty ever since."
From this debacle, Swans established another relationship with Sky Records in Georgia, which reissued most of Swans and World of Skin catalogue under Gira's Young God imprint and three new Swans' recordings—"White Light From the Mouth of Infinity," Love of Life" and "Omniscience," and "13 Masks," a solo recording by Jarboe.
That relationship also went sour and the pair moved to Atlanta to escape New York.
"It got so bad, I was drunk every night and we had maybe three or four friends left in New York; we had to get out. Here, we're just neighbors, people don't know who we are and we are free to do our work."
I'll drink the moonlight from your hands/I'll swim an ocean filled with sorrow/No lover, please don't go/We can crucify tomorrow/Let the sunlight feed the air/Let it fill our lungs with lies/We'll be memorized by Shadows/But our loneliness will survive.—
"Will We Survive"
Earlier this year, Martin Atkins' Invisible label issued "The Great Annihilator," Swans finest recording to date. Stylistically varied and full of the sort of passion that Swans fans have held dear for the last 13 years, it perfects their notion of extreme feelings and behaviors being near to religious ecstasies. Its reliance on a spirituality of the body is more pronounced than on any of the band's other recordings. Alternatively menacing and mournfully tender, it centers on Gira's pathological lyrics, which now have more than a hint of transition and loss at their core.
Unfortunately, the record was released to little notice and the usual distribution networks and publicity venues that had sustained Swans showed little interest.
"I have no idea what's going on but it's really disheartening," says Gira. "The independent magazines that have traditionally been dedicated to independent, alternative music have ignored us, despite the fact that more records and have had as much influence as we have. I guess they figure we're not hip anymore, and our history doesn't matter."
But the pair plugs on. Alternative Tentacles have just issued "Drainland" and "Sacrificial Cake," solo projects by Gira and Jarboe respectively, and have provided tour support for Swans' 30-city U.S tour before the band takes a break, records another album in a couple of weeks and then goes to Europe. Gira also has a book of fiction about to be published by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 publishing company.
"The band is the finest we've assembled for a live tour. We've got Iggy's drummer, Larry Mullins, Vudi, the guitar player from American Music Club on guitar, myself playing guitar and singing and Jarboe singing and playing keyboards and Glen Goldring on bass. It's small with a lot of power. There are six new songs on this tour as well as a lot of old ones and World of Skin's material. People will be surprised."
When asked if he is bitter, Gira states flatly, "I'm not happy about always being so close to starvation, but that's not to bear anybody any ill will, even if I wonder myself sometimes why I keep doing this.
"But I'm not giving up. What else am I going to do? Get a job? This is what I do, and I'll keep persevering and encountering the obscurity, and the poverty simply because I know it's worth doing and I think the work stands on its own as good; I have to do it. Besides, I've been stranded in foreign cities with no money and no food without a place to stay, so this is easy in comparison. Still, it would be nice to be recognized and be able to make a living."