Swans | ArticleHome To Roost. Swans redefine rock 'n' roll while defining life. When the Swans arrive for their Atlanta performance, it may surprise some to learn that founder Michael Gira and vocalist Jarboe now call Georgia home, maintaining a Swans mailing address in Atlanta, and a private residence somewhere in the rural environs of north Georgia. Gira says that the move from the maddening intensity of New York City—where the group operated for most of its existence—to the obvious calm of Georgia's back roads did not change his perspective or work regimen.
"My last five years in New York were mostly spent inside a windowless cubicle," he says. "I didn't really have much of a social life. Coincidentally, once I moved down to Georgia I spent my time in the basement writing."
If ever any American post-punk group refused to trod the path of convention, either musically or lyrically, it has been the Swans.
Throughout their recorded legacy, the Swans have managed equally to alienate and enthrall a following that has watched them grow from beautiful tedium to epic majesty.
Their live shows remain some of the most brutal and powerful at a time when their contemporaries (and the generation of young bands they've influenced) have either disbanded, diluted their sound, or simply proven they have no interest in pushing themselves or their audience's expectations.
Such was the stuff of critical plaudits that followed the Swans throughout their early recording and touring years. It was in 1983 that the young Swans and Sonic Youth shared an Atlanta bill together, at a time when both bands were defining their own musical identities while redefining the parameters of rock 'n' roll through dissonance and unorthodox song structure.
On stage, with a disembodied presence that suggested a death camp survivor as much as a surly street thug, Swans founder Michael Gira's basso vocals intoned mellisonant distressed haiku to numbing, blast-furnace guitars and dragging, locked-groove tempos.
Swans songs were fragmented glimpses of fearful desires and dark submissions, the cathartic drama of unrelenting violence, and an almost unblinking embrace of avarice.
"I'm an endless fount of hatred and resentment," deadpans Gira, singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Now, given the obvious disparity—Sonic Youth is international, Swans not—and both groups' upcoming Atlanta appearances, the question is put to Gira: Does the mass adulation reserved for Sonic Youth's Lollapalooza-friendly noise make Gira happy that the Swans' music has chosen a less predictable and lucrative path than their lorded contemporaries?
"That's hilarious!" roars Gira after an unnerving staccato laugh. "I don't see how our path would be lessened if we were headlining Lollapalooza. Certainly our poverty is by no intention of our own. The teen audience that (Sonic Youth) draws has never been our audience."
Still, while the reality of relative fame and fortune did not smile upon them with their major label debut (the sadly overlooked The Burning World LP released on Uni in 1989), or indeed much of their extant recordings, the Swans are presently enjoying some of their greatest visibility thanks to their current tour. A number of new releases on some notable independent labels doesn't hurt much either; among the releases, The Great Annihilator, a new studio album on Chicago's Invisible Records, and solo offerings from Gira and Swans keyboardist/vocalist Jarboe on San Francisco's Alternative Tentacles.
"Most of the things on my solo album (Drainland), for one reason or another, I wouldn't put on a Swans album," says Gira, "because I felt they were too personal or idiosyncratic. A Swans album will usually draw from the previous album, throw away things that aren't relevant, and take a kernel from the previous album and expand on it. With (the solo release) I felt less awkward about being more personal."
As a personal work, Drainland offers an almost uncomfortable transparency, both musically and emotionally. This is evident in the opener, "You See Through Me," where a (presumably) unstaged and uncomfortable exchange between Gira and Jarboe takes place. An almost out-of-place waltz accompanies the crescendos in this scene of domestic tumult.
Elsewhere, the military drill press that fueled the Swans' mid-'80s industrial death marches (hear Time Is Money (Bastard) and A Screw) holds a song like "I See Them All Lined Up" in the proverbial cross-hairs.
Yet, the overall feel to Gira's work is an autumnal acoustic splendor overlaid with the ringing overtones that have been the signature feature of the Swans' live performances. The lilting and astonishingly beautiful austerity stand at odds with the malignant hatred Gira offers in songs like "Your Naked Body" and "Fan Letter."
If Gira is the Swans' restless cerebral voice, then Jarboe is its darkly evocative soul. An Atlanta native, Jarboe came to the Swans in the mid-'80s, drawing on her experimental vocal work and music as part of Atlanta's nascent noise underground and WREK's early experimental music show "Conceptions" hosted by Arthur Davis, now Colossal Records impresario. With Sacrificial Cake, her third solo endeavor, she serves notice to her strengths as a contemporary songwriter, and that she can rightly claim her place of influence within the Swans oeuvre.
Like her trademark palette of darkly haunting voices and the collision of elements within her musical alchemy, Jarboe is, at first, difficult to intercept when directly asked about her music; however, she responds openly and enthusiastically.
Sacrificial Cake deals with "the different dualities and the blurring of distinctions between men and women," she states. "The songs were coming out of an interest in meditation and were suggested from visualizations including the different sexual positions and aspects of tantric Buddhism. The album is also directed specifically to women and female audiences."
To these ends, songs like "ode to v" and "Not Logical" speak to the unresolved and reconciled, the known and the imperceptible.
In the almost straight-ahead rocker "deflowered," Jarboe takes a dismissive tone with the "girl rockers—the riot grrrl types I've met." Apparently, the song's "bad bitchin' whore" comes out the loser in Jarboe's one-on-one.
However, it's for sheer inventiveness and experimentation that Sacrificial Cake stands out. At times painterly, with ghostly keyboards, samples, and percussion moving against a Satie-esque canvas, at other times a tidal wave of vocal textures, tape loops, and noise moving about the stereo spectrum. "This album takes more chances and is like my earlier experimental works," Jarboe explains. "There are more tone poems than traditional songs."
As for The Great Annihilator, the first Swans studio album in some three years, Gira and Jarboe are joined by some of the personalities who helped to forge the Swans' early studio masterpieces, notably guitarist Norman Westberg, bassist Algis Kizys, and drummer Ted Parsons.
Annihilator provides musical truth in advertising, with wave after crashing aural wave of ominous sound. Recalling at times the cinematic breadth of Children of God, the Swans are in their element with orbiting modalities and song cycles that many of their old-time fans have longed for.
The current Swans touring lineup is an interesting cross section of musicians, that, longtime observers take note, will not include many of the old guard Swans mainstays like the aforementioned Westberg, Kizys, or former touring guitarist, Atlantan Clinton Steele. Joining Gira and Jarboe will be Vudi (of the late American Music Club) on guitar, Joe Goldring (of San Francisco's Wade) plays bass, and percussionist Larry Mullins rounds out the group.
Of Mullins, Gira seems to be especially enthused, stating, "He plays a stand up bass drum with mallets, and a kick drum and snare in addition to that and vibraphones. The vibraphone adds hovering tones."
Fans of older Swans material and the Gira/Jarboe side project World of Skin are in for a treat.
"World of Skin has certainly always been more ambient, more quiet material. I wanted to dissuade people from thinking it was going to be exclusively a Swans tour," says Gira. "However, we're choosing very old material, including 'Your Property' from Cop. Jarboe's going to be singing it, and it's done in a kind of medieval ballad fashion."
On performing her songs live, Jarboe notes, "Live is a very different feel. The songs change after they're written and recorded, and my set is designed to catch up with myself before I write new material."
Always seeking to push her creative comfort zones, Jarboe holds special contempt for artists who "like to recreate their sound exactly as it is on their record, or use backing tapes to accompany them. I've never understood that."
The immediate future will be quite busy for Gira and Jarboe. Following their tour, Gira promises a new Swans recording that will be a double CD including soundtrack work to the film Two Small Bodies by New York underground filmmaker Beth B. "We'll be flying in narrative tapes (of) FBI surveillance tapes we found (and) interviews with my father," Gira says.
Gira, with a new book of fiction titled The Consumer, also joins the likes of Alan Vega and Exene Cervenka in being published via Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 press. Jarboe is looking to engage in more experimental outings—"more piano and storytelling"—she says, including collaborations with the noise troops of Merzbow. She also is to be included in a multivolume Re/Search magazine series on women in music, edited by Andrea Juno.
In a 13-year performing and recording career that has seen the cantankerous perversity captured in the early '80s listener endurance-breakers like Filth and Cop, to the sonic sweeping grandeur and lyrical ambience characteristic of 1987's Children of God and the group's most recent output, Gira and his revolving band of musical cohorts have provided the soundtrack to human frailty in all its beauty and horror.