Swans | ArticleBirds of Prey From the early '80s New York noise scene to their new home in rural Georgia, Swans explore the darkest, most dangerous corners of the experimental rock universe.
IN THE PARKING LOT outside a cramped Hunters Point rehearsal space, Swans are taking an overdue break. It's going on 10 p.m., and the band has been practicing since late afternoon. Jarboe, Swans' world-wearily beautiful vocalist-keyboardist, leans against brick wall, gulping in night air. Drummer Larry Mullins and bassist Joe Goldring sip beer and shoot the breeze while the band's founder, singer-guitarist Michael Gira, watches guitarist Vudi, on loan from American Music Club, fix a broken string—his first of the day.
"They usually last one set," Gira remarks.
Vudi considers this. "Maybe I'm not hitting 'em hard enough," he suggests.
For a band renowned for its rich arrangements and abrasive sound effects. Swans use minimal technology: two guitars, a bass, keyboards, drums, and the band's pride and joy, a vintage 1930s vibra-phone, which in Mullins's hands produces a haunting cadence somewhere between a bell and a xylophone.
The musicians touring with core members Gira and Jarboe are all initiates culled from the Bay Area music scene. Mullins, Iggy Pop's drummer and a longtime fan of the band, recruited his friends Vudi and Goldring, Wade's bassist, for a national tour that began July 10 at Berkeley Square and culminates at the Great American Music Hall Friday and Saturday nights.
The tour is Swans' first since Jarboe and Gira moved from New York to the rural outskirts of Atlanta a year and a half ago. Gira's escalating drinking problem was "pulling himself—and by association, me—down," Jarboe says. "The move seemed like a way for him to experience some kind of a rebirth."
"I was drinking a lot," Gira agrees ruefully. "And I'd managed to make a lot of enemies in New York. I had to get out of there."
The transplant seems to have been a success, resulting in 1994's The Great Annihilator (Invisible). Swans' first studio album in three years, and the release of Jarboe's third solo work last spring, Sacrificial Cake, and Gira's first, Drainland, both on Alternative Tentacles.
The solo albums and tour are the latest chapter in a long, tumultuous history that ranks Swans alongside Sonic Youth as one of the most seminal bands to emerge from New York's early-'80s noise scene. Taking punk's aggression into a realm of unprecedented aural extremes, Swans transformed white noise and depth-charge decibel levels into a legacy that echoes in the pyrotechnics of everyone from the Melvins to Moby. The band is equally famous for its metamorphic talents, which during the '80s led to experiments in everything from proto-industrial dance beats to Celtic and Middle Eastern syncopation. Swans song lyrics are a genre of their own, with Gira—and later Jarboe—penning grotesquely beautiful explorations of the extremities of power, transgression, and epiphanic pain.
In 13 years Swans have issued 10 albums (plus another three by World of Skin, a side project focusing on Jarboe's compositions); blundered through four record labels; weathered myriad lineup changes and radical stylistic shifts; and survived debt, alcoholism, drug addiction, and Gira's infamous temperament—which has on more than one occasion led to bruising confrontations. "I'm a domineering, brutal asshole." Gira confesses,"But I'm getting better."
That remark is typical of Gira's penchant for merciless self-criticism. Yet in looking at his personal history, the fact that he and his band exist at all is a testament to endurance. Born in L.A. 41 years ago, Gira was raised by his mother after his alcoholic father squandered the family fortune and fled to Europe. Gira took to the street at an early age. "By the time I was 12, I was fixing methedrine and breaking into houses," he says. "I got arrested all the time. Finally I got busted for possession of Seconal and was sent to live with my father."
In Europe Gira dropped out of school and subsisted as a "bum teenage druggie," panhandling his way across the continent. In 1969 he was caught smuggling hash into Israel and imprisoned for three months. "I spent a month and a half in jail before they even charged me," he recalls. "A couple of older American hippy guys took me under their wing and kept me from getting gang-raped. I was 15 years old, and I had long, blond hair, I looked like a little girl." He pauses for a moment, then adds, "My childhood gave me the ability to be fearless."
Returning to the United States, Gira learned to play his first musical instrument, the harmonica, while hitchhiking along Highway 1. He briefly attended L.A.'s Otis Art Institute—where he first befriended Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon—until the advent of punk rock prompted him to start a band, Little Cripples, and to publish No magazine, "a punk art-gore mag in the same format as Slash. Our first issue had corpses on the cover, eviscerations. At the time I was really influenced by Black Flag, Suicide, and Hermann Nitsch, a Viennese performance artist whose work was very aggressive and scatologically oriented."
Gira moved to New York in 1980 and formed Swans two years later. "Someone gave me a bass guitar, and I started building up sounds around these chugging rhythms." he says. "I made tape loops, then got a guitarist [Norman Westberg] involved and just had him play chordal sheets to the rhythms." The first Swans record, Filth, was released that year. A landmark of pure noise, the album and its follow-up, Cop, offered a screeching Gotterdammerung of feedback; thunderous, excruciatingly slow rhythms; and atonal vocal roars. The band's live shows were notorious for vacating venues in minutes as audience members fled,...(edit)
Those who stayed often gleaned inspiration from Swans' gruelingly cathartic repertoire. Jello Biafra recalls being blown away by the band at the Mabuhay Gardens in 1984. "I was in a really bad, depressed state, but when I walked out of there my brain was sailing with new ideas," he says. "What amazed me was the sheer power. Swans took rock and underground music to a level of severity nobody dared try before."
Henry Rollins says seeing the band play an L.A. warehouse in 1985 (borrowing Black Flag's P.A.) was "one of the most uplifting experiences I've ever had. They had this awesome power that was so huge and totally unique. And it was so loud—they pushed everything into the red until even the cymbals were distorting. It regrooved my brain. And I've gotten the same vibe every time I've seen them since."
For Jarboe, living near Atlanta at the time Filth was released, the album was magnetic. "I became obsessed with Filth. I played it over and over and over again, like a crazy person," she says. The daughter of a high-ranking FBI agent, Jarboe remembers that "growing up with a father who was the ultimate law-enforcement man, especially in the late '60s, was really interesting. I started to run away millions of times, but he always found me. He could get a photo and a description into every police station in this country in seconds. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a direct number to the White House."
After spending several years in Atlanta singing cabaret in hotel lounges and "doing silly gallery performances with contact microphones and bodily noises," her Swans obsession led Jarboe to New York. "I tracked them down and sat in on rehearsals. I wasn't actually allowed to go in, so I sat just outside the door. Nothing would stop me." In 1985 her persistence paid off when Gira—who in retrospect admits he felt "an immediate connection"—finally asked her to join the band on keyboards.
Ten years later the Jarboe-Gira collaboration remains an exercise in aesthetic symbiosis in which Gira's relentless drive fuels Jarboe's creative fire and her stoicism cools his counterproductive excesses. In conversation they cross-reference each other with a reflexive ease born of a decade's worth of shared suffering, vulnerability, and inspiration.
Musically, Jarboe's arrival signaled a dramatic shift in Swans' sound. Holy Money, released in 1986, branched off into new musical textures as Gira, frustrated with the limitations of conventional rock instrumentation, began experimenting with samples and new vocal polyphonics that combined Jarboe's haunting, incandescent singing with his own transition from guttural howling to evocative, crooning bass. After a brief flirtation with industrial dance music the band moved into the luxurious ambience of early-'90s albums like White Light From the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life.
But musical innovation hasn't translated into sales, and Swans' commercial record reads like a black comedy of errors. After they recorded The Burning World for MCA in 1989 the label went through a shake-up, Swans' A&R rep quit, and the band wound up $25,000 in debt. Rough Trade issued White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and declared bankruptcy the same week. A subsequent deal with Sky Records also ended bitterly. Gira blames his naivete and explosive temper for the band's catastrophic recording history. "I've burned so many bridges," he says, "People in the industry hear my name and say, 'Oh, that asshole.' So it's a gargantuan effort trying to gather the money for a new Swans album."
Friends like Biafra, however, place the blame on an increasingly commodified music industry. "Look, they just aren't cute or cuddly enough for MTV," he snorts. "Can you seriously see Michael or Jarboe in a Burger King commercial?"
This uncuddly aesthetic also extends to literature. Henry Rollins's 2.13.61 publishing company has just published The Consumer and Other Stories, a collection of Gira's perversely elegant vignettes on everything from scatology to incest. With some amusement Jarboe recalls a reading Rollins and Gira did together in 1985: "It was great, the juxtaposition of Michael coming out and reading these really brutal stories that left the audience with their jaws hanging open, and then Henry coming on like Henny Youngman: 'Hey, folks! How ya doin'?' Total night and day."
Asked if the suffering that permeates his lyrics and prose acts as an emotional emetic, Gira laughs. "If it were I'd be a shriveled-up little pea by now. It seems to be more of a magnet for onuses. I just write about the things that preoccupy me, just the weirdness of being in this body and existing, and extrapolate from there. That's the only way I've been able to keep working."
After their U.S. tour Swans plan to record a double album—although how, where, and for whom remains a question—combining ambient musical pieces with taped samples, including out-takes of interviews with Gira's and Jarboe's fathers. After that, as always with Jarboe and her volatile partner, the future remains open. "Let's face it," says Biafra, "Swans are gonna do what they do whether anyone likes it or not."