Swans | M. Gira | Article/InterviewThe Return of Michael Gira. SWAN DIVE
IF EVER THERE WAS A GOOD argument for just getting the hell out of town. for getting off the New York treadmill and opting for the better quality of life that you can find anywhere else, the departure of Michael Gira is a case in point. By the time Gira left town a few years ago, he was a bitter. belligerent, cynical, rude grump; a nasty skunk, an ugly drunk. Recently, when Gira returned from Atlanta with his creative and emotional companion and Swans collaborator, Jarboe, something was definitely different. The intensity was still there but, well, he smiled a lot. To the obvious question of how his perspective has changed having fled the city that rendered him perpetually pissed off and miserable, Gira says. "It was like taking off a hair shirt." And then he did something I hadn't heard him do since the early 80's: he laughed.
It's still hard to reconcile the immense impact that Gira and Swans had on music since they unleashed their first sonic onslaught in 1982 with their relatively low profile today. The prolific body of work they've released over the years (over two dozen recordings and still counting), a seminal catalog that kicked open the doors of aural perception to a type of hyper-physical sound, remains by and large so difficult to find it may as well be out of print. And Gira, whenever he reconstructs the various misguided career moves he's taken, is apt to reflect on them with asides like "not too smart" and "another great marketing error." The fact remains, however, that back when alternative was an attitude and an agenda of opposition to the mainstream rather than one of its packaging devices, when "independent" meant independence in thought, creativity and expression and not a farm league for the majors, Swans were there, kicking ass, blowing minds and bursting the eardrums of the disaffected underground.
Swans came into an immense amount of critical acclaim as part of the quasi-scene some labeled N.Y. Noise. Gira never minded the early comparisons with Sonic Youth because they were friends, toured together and had emerged out of the now-defunct Neutral Records, started by Glenn Branca. But, Gira says, "as the scene developed didn't want to have anything to do with it and made a concerted effort to distance myself from the rest of bands in New York." Rejecting on the success Thurston Moore had in embracing it, Gira just counts this decision as one of many horrendous ones he's made. "But I didn't like the word 'noise,'" Gira still asserts, "it was like someone scratching their fingers across a blackboard, and we were more like someone hitting you in the face with a sledgehammer."
If his dealings with the record industry have been consistently traumatic—MCA was "a disaster" that left him broke, Rough Trade went belly-up the week of their album release, Sky Records was "a series of bad moves," and now he's trying to rescue his back catalog from Ichiban, "an R&B label who has no clue who we are"—it is history itself that is the one thing on his side. With no support or interest from the music industry, Swans have persisted by virtue of those artists who have enjoyed success and not forgotten then. The Great Annihilator (Invisible), the first Swans studio album in three years and their most musical yet, has just released. Gira and Jarboe's solo albums are due to come out on Alternative Tentacles, the S.F. indie begun by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra. A collection of Gira's fiction, The Consumer and Other Stories is forthcoming on Henry Rollins publishing company, 2.13.61, and a compilation of rare live Swans recordings from the mid-80's is being slated for Rollins and Rick Rubins label Infinite Zero. With the support of their musical peers, and even a secure place in post-punk nihilism, it remains seen if this latest incarnation of Gira and Swans, in many ways the most accomplished and seductive to date, will reach the larger audience that music executed on this scale demands.