Swans | ArticleGoing for a Swan Approaching Michael Gira, frontman of Swans, one of New York's most groundbreaking and exhilarating musical success stories, you would imagine is something to be done with appreciation.
Disregarding all those ill-directed goth/metal press accusations, the Swans musical catalogue, (new LP and first since 1992, "The Great Annihilator" included) remains a fearsome beast, surveying all aspects of love, life and death, and in doing so dragging both band and listener through emotional and sonic hell. Thus, two shocks confront me upon our encounter, firstly, 'manic' Michael Gira is the softest spoken, politest man you could ever meet, and secondly, he's endured a personal hell comparable to anything depicted on his records, carrying friend and collaborator Jarboe through the midst of it.
"The story is one of a host of disasters. We took some time off after touring the last album and then I was ill for six months before beginning the recording process. We wasted about a year and a half being dicked around by major labels and then Jarboe and I moved to Georgia." In contrast to their new idyllic rural home, Swans found for once that when it came to recording they had the perfect backdrop. Chanteuse Jarboe describes the record as "hell to make. We were working in a warehouse in the middle of one of the most dangerous ghettoes in the U.S. (in Chicago). At night we'd go up onto the roof and see the gangs running." Inevitably the new LP reflects the harrowing surroundings. "The environment not being, erm . . . ideal resulted in this emotional, nervy quality that comes through. It's definitely got more immediacy than the last two albums, it's very raw and not as produced. I prefer it to anything we've done since 'Children of God' (1987's opus)."
Michael considers the album to be Swans' finest and proof that they keep evolving. "We're not really representative of any style. I like to think that we take the role model of the Beatles; they just kept changing and moving forward. I think the album holds up pretty well against our chunk of past work and is very well realised. I'm more open to the ideas of others, especially Jarboe's." The working relationship appears to be a balanced one. "It's fine by me that Swans are seen as Michael's band," affirms Jarboe. "I see him more as a director, he criticizes and pushes me to a higher level of singing. Some of the vocals, like on 'Mother/Father,' there's no way I could do that without Michael pushing me. It's good to have someone getting a performance out of you." This recalls Gira's remark of about twelve years back in pre-Jarboe days that Swans was about "a dissatisfaction with basic ordinary experience, a matter of trying to get more out of the human body."
Now in his country retreat, Gira has more time for writing, his book due for imminent publishing by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 company, unsurprisingly having already fallen slightly foul of the British customs censors. But what prompted the move? "Well I'd moved to New York from LA and been there 14 years and I was just fed up, disgusted with New York and myself in New York, and I'd never seen the band or the music as part of New York." Writer Don Watson once described Swans as "the most New York of bands."
In the early '80's an assortment of New York bands, Swans included, were grouped under the name 'No Wave,' all connecting them with a debaunched lifestyle and a fascination with the seedier side of human existence, all presided over by the Empress of Filth (and one-time Swans collaborator Lydia Lunch). Gira laughs at this version of history. "No way were we ever part of the No-Wave thing. We came from nowhere. I remember much about that time fondly. Bands like Teenage Jesus, DNA, Blind Hatred and Suicide. It was a time when I drank too much. But Lydia Lunch is supremely unimportant to me."
Whether they were part of No-Wave or not, Swans certainly outlived it: "We just kept progressing and refused to die."
Absent for so long much as come and gone since Swans were last visible, the passing of grunge, the "Second Coming," PJ and Duncan. Did any of these impress Mr. Gira? "To be honest, I don't pay any real attention to music in the world outside of me." The Stone Roses apparently are "awful" (to prevent possible embarrassment for many of you I'll omit a trouser width related joke Michael makes). If it's any consolation he was even ruder about Pink Floyd. Worse still, "I'm thoroughly nauseated by the rise of so-called alternative music. I hate the emptiness, the over-saturation and I've always thought of the whole idea as insipid. I always hated that high school cliques thing that was such a part of being alternative." His voice rises to a mocking chirp at this point.
"The only bands I really like at the moment are Nine Inch Nails and PJ Harvey, she's really something." Is the insipidity of alternative music the result of the major labels interference? "I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to be on a major label. If you're a good band you deserve to make a living. The problem with Swans is that, in a market oriented industry, we're not very easy to market. It would be nice to have some money one day and for each record not to be such a struggle and major effort."
In the near future, after what Jarboe calls "the tremendous release of getting out of Chicago," both have solo projects forthcoming, Michael a solo LP, "Drainland," and although Jarboe features, it differs from Swans, being "more rudimental." Recorded at Ministry's Bill Rieflin's house on a 12-track, Michael describes it as "more naked, with the emphasis on the stripdown." As for Jarboe: "I'm working on other things all the time. Although I have to be very dedicated to Swans I have my own personality and ideas about music. I was in a band as a kid and I pursued many different musical jobs, even lounge room singing, after college so I do have a life completely away from Swans." Her third solo album approaches.
Swans keep on doing it. Pushing themselves and the music to their physical limits, before crawling from the wreckage only to live to record another day. If it's a trip through life's darker side you fancy, then "The Great Annihilator" might well be for you. But don't expect to endure it without feeling due sympathy for its creators. But not too much sympathy though, for putting themselves through recording torture is all Swans know, or it would appear care to know.