Swans | M. Gira | InterviewMichael Gira of Swans is a confessed child of the 60s. This, of course, isn't the image that comes to mind when most people think of Swans, but you have to remember that it's been years since Gira invented industrial death metal and belched enough angst to make Billy Corgan look like Peter Brady (whom he looks like anyway).
The Great Annihilator revives the feel of classic songs like The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", The Doors' "The End" or The Who's "Amazing Journey", sounds that invite you to let go of your ego and take a trip to a strange place, to lose yourself in the swirling sonic ocean. Praise Buddha and pass the LSD. Not that Gira is dancing with flowers in his hair in the Georgia home he shares with his main collaborator, Jarboe. His universe is still as frightening, but is somehow more hopeful than his past work would indicate. His artistic evolution is one of the more interesting stories in rock history. I talked to him about the new record, his new book, The Consumer And Other Stories and some other new stuff. Both he and Jarboe have solo records due out in June.
This album seems to work more as a single flowing piece than previous albums. I noticed in the bio that you recommended listening to the whole thing in one sitting.
Gira: After taking three doses of LSD [laughs]. That's how I listen to records. I was a child of the '60s, I'd guess you'd say. So I'd just listen to albums locked in my room on drugs quite a bit. So that's the way I look at it, as an overwhelming experience that you have to throw yourself into.
So is The Great Annihilator a concept album?
Gira: I wouldn't say there is a single lyrical or thematic thread to it. There are a few references to a quasi-cosmic phenomenon, the great annihilator, I don't know if you know about that...
No, could you tell me about that?
Gira: I'm certainly no science freak but according to Stephen Hawking's theory, the ultimate black hole into which all matter, time and events get sucked into once-the universe starts reversing itself is called the great annihilator. So it's like this inhaling and exhaling process of creation and destruction of the universe. To me, it was a nice image really, because I don't know much about science—I didn't even graduate from high school. It's kind of like a Buddhist concept. Actually, modern physics is veering toward Buddhism more and more. It seems, like all matter being sentient. I saw this physicist giving a lecture once about matter having intentionality.
There's also the Hindu god who is a great devourer.
Gira: Yeah, that's Shiva, right? The song "Mother/Father" kind of refers to that. It's also a tribute to Jarboe as a creative/destructive force [laughs].
You wrote that with her in mind?
Gira: I wrote it with her singing in mind. Sort of idealized her as a sort of archetype whenever I write words for her to sing. I look at her as this creative Mother and destructive force.
Her voice does have that unsettling edge.
Gira: I used to use her more as a foil for my corruption [laughs], but lately she's taken on the role as the more aggressive singer. I mean, I haven't really screamed in several albums, have I? I'm really singing more from my throat than trying to wrench my innards loose.
But you hear more of that blood-curdling screaming from Jarboe, now.
Gira: I hear it around the house, too [laughs].
Which is now in Georgia. Why did you move?
Gira: New York was just the place that I used up entirely or used me up, one of the two. By the end, I just saw no point in being there at all except to continue to devolve. Jarboe spent her early childhood in Mississippi, but she grew up here for the most part. So we came down here because it was a good place to escape. I've actually done more work than I have in years: I did this book since coming down here, the solo album and worked on her album. In New York, I was falling into the horrors of going out to bars and drinking with my so-called friends too much and I just couldn't get away from it.
So there is some relation between the enormous outpour we're now seeing after a long dry spell after the move?
Gira: The new album was recorded in Chicago while we were still living in New York. That was a long disastrous process, though. We thought we had some pretty strong interest from major labels for the record, and that went on for over a year. When that didn't come through, we didn't know what we were doing. At the time, the person that was doing our business was associated with Martin Atkins at Invisible, so we just decided to put it out on his label because he was available and had good distribution.
Why did the major deal fall through?
Gira: I don't think they really had a clue how to market us, although I think it would be a rather easy prospect, but who am I to know?
How would a major label market SWANS?
Gira: Well, it's highly creative and individual music which deserves to be heard, for one thing. For another, we've had a pretty strong influence on a lot of bands which are pretty huge right now. So, that's one angle they could take and—here I am talking like an A&R person—there's the tie-in with the book, which is pretty obvious.
So you think the time is right for Swans to...
Gira: I don't ever see us approaching the mainstream. I don't think the lyrical content fits. It's not really commercial music, except for a few songs maybe.
Is there a Swans tour planned?
Gira: We'll be touring in June. it'll be a merging of Swans and World of Skin. It's not going to be a rock-oriented tour, although it will be loud, I guess. It'll be more atmospheric.
Is the band nailed down yet?
Gira: Yeah, Jarboe's gonna play keyboards and samples. I'll be playing acoustic and electric guitar and singing. Bill Rieflin, ex-Ministry, is gonna play piano sounds and tape loops, actually samples of rhythms. And we're gonna have a person named Larry Mullins who drums for Iggy Pop. He's a classically trained percussionist who'll play stand-up bass drum and snare, as well as vibraphone. And then we have a guitarist we've been working with for the last three albums named Clinton Steele, who plays electric guitar and E-bow, things like that. So it's gonna be more oriented toward the songs, but with large wells of sound, not so much the guitar overdose.
You mentioned the Beatles earlier. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a song that came to mind when I was listening to the Great Annihilator. And there's a song that reminds one of "Let the Sunshine In" from Hair.
Gira: [Laughs] That's stretching it! But yeah, I see what you're saying. There's a lot of songs from the '60s that had the endless swirl of vocal harmony going at the end.
So you don't consciously steer away from commercial territory.
Gira: Absolutely not. My heroes musically—Bob Dylan, the Beatles, whoever were massively commercially successful. I guess the obvious thing for us to do right now, commercially, would be to do a highly sequenced kind of hard, dance noise record or something where I make a fortune, but that would be a pretty repulsive prospect.
So if you were given a huge recording budget you'd know what to do?
Gira: [Emphatically] Oh, yeah. My ambition has always been way bigger than my pocket book.
Let's talk about the book. Tell me about the rotting pig story.
Gira: That story stems from when I went to art school and I was obsessed with television and media at the time. I wanted to invent these goggles where you could see images of your thoughts, so you could live an entirely ersatz existence. It seemed to me the only distraction would be your body, so the way to lose your body would be to immerse yourself in body-temperature fluid and be fed intravenously. I thought that would be the ultimate end of media and television. And now they've almost done that with virtual reality.
And what would you become if you did that?
Gira: Ultimately, you would become nothing, I think.
Would you have any sense of your existence?
Gira: Hopefully not—that would be the idea.
But you'd still be alive? [Jeez Paul, haven't you got yet.- ed.]
Gira: I'd guess so, I wouldn't know. To me, if you take the kernel of the frame of mind that occurs when you watch television, that's seems to be the incipient seed of what I'm talking about there. The way your body melts into the couch and your mind completely empathizes with the image.
But I can't help relating that to some SWANS songs that are more spiritual in their content, like "Where does a Body End?"
Gira: To me, television seems like a very spiritual thing, at times. It's also very mundane and a mind control device, as well, It's born from growing up and watching massive amounts of television, I guess it's embedded in their consciousness.
But you seem to be tapping into something a lot of people desire.
Gira: The whole American nation, yeah...I've always felt that, at least in the louder moments with SWANS, that the ideal thing to have happen, particularity live, would be to have it just dissolve you—the intensity and swirl of the sound. I think that's what people want from loud rock music.
Most of the book is set in L.A. Why is that?
Gira: That's a place I'm pretty familiar with, having grown up there. So I'd take a memory and extrapolate from there. I actually did live in a tiny room above a porn theater in downtown LA. [like the character in the Young Man That Hid His Boy Inside A Horse, or, My Vulvic Los Angeles] It didn't have a toilet. We had to shit in a gallon bucket and we'd wrap it with a trash bag and carry down through the lobby and dump out there on there on the street. [laughs]
So there are some autobiographical elements.
Gira: Obviously, that story isn't entirely autobiographical, but I did take a lot of speed, too. And I did once take so much speed that I sat in front of the mirror picking at my gums because I was convinced there was something living in them. When I finished, I realized three days had past, my gums had swollen like there was a boxing glove inside my mouth, and it took me about a week to recover from that. That was the last time I took speed.