Swans | Michael Gira | InterviewHaving Michael R. Gira of Swans as your first interview out on your own with no press kit is a daunting task in itself. However, after being scarred for life, in the best possible way, by coming through to Edinburgh on a school night when you are thirteen to the now legendary 1984 gig at the Venue. And to watch half of those ten foot tall menacing men with shaven heads leave with their ears bleeding. For me it was my personal endurance test, I was going to stand there until the end, even though I was going to die, or at least be copiously sick. My worries were unfounded; that's my own fault I suppose for reading too many interviews with Gira where he is portrayed as some sort of a bad tempered demon. Lets face it the music with its intensity, atmosphere and general agro mood doesn't help. Gira was polite, accommodating, patient and had a wonderful sense of humour, spending most of the interview laughing with us or was it at us? After all, he told us to go into the toilet when we came to interview him, we looked at each other and slowly walked into the two foot square toilet looking back, yes Gira and the rest of the band where laughing at us. Ok, big joke I laughed too, while gritting my teeth for having made a fool of myself in front of such a dude. "But no seriously the acoustics will be better in there for you to listen to the tape, why, he was just being thoughtful. Swans music really has its own identity and feel about it and has so obviously progressed and changed over the years but the fans are still there who where there in the beginning regardless. Love of Life, Prong line up for the album, and brief descussion of the songs.
Are you disbanding after this?
This may or may not be the last Swans tour we'll see. It just may not be called Swans anymore. I'm just not sure the audience is going to keep on expanding you know? Our audience has diminished in England somewhat. Actually, this new album sold more immediately than our last one, but this (gig) should have been sold out based on our last shows. It's getting better over in Europe and in the States it's growing. 30,000 records sold through my independent label. When I come over here, in England I meet with such preconceptions about Swans, it doesn't seem to keep growing. Maybe if we'd been successful once. It has to take a major step forward or ditch it and go on to something else, I will certainly still keep working, just won't call it Swans.
How hard are you working for your record label?
Fucking hard, I worked every day 18 hours a day, for two months before I came on this tour; rehearsing, making a video, arranging the tour and doing all the finances, and all that shit, it was fucking ridiculous. I had one day off in an 18 hour day, every day.
Unfortunately I don't have time to sign other bands, maybe just friends and projects I like. Jarboe works with this guy I like in New York City and they have a group called The Beautiful People Limited. It's quite nice, they're really nice people, it's real experimental and interesting, I'd love to do that.
I heard that you wanted to do some hard grinding dance music?
We did that a long time ago. Yeah, we used to do that shit (laughs). We just did some remixes for a couple of songs for 12" for disco, Love of Life and Amnesia. They're quite successful actually, I like them.
Those songs stand out on the album. The samples on the album are unusual, like the reference to Monterey, and the old man narrating the culling of the deer.
Oh, that's not samples, that's tapes which Jarboe recorded as a little girl, about 12 years old. That was a tape she made for her brother in Germany. She had another brother who went to Vietnam. The old man, that's her grandfather. To me it fits with his generation, it's banal too. He has got all these stories, he was a justice of the peace in Nevada in the mountains, and she has all these tapes. We play them at the beginning of the set, or in the set sometimes, just him talking about arresting people, or going out looking for water, or putting a new roof on the house, things like that. Its really great, I really like older people of that generation. My father is like that, I have six ninety minute tapes of my father just telling the story of his life and I would really like to release a record on Young God records with that. You know, just put it to music like we did with the grandfather with some nostalgic film music in the background, just let my father tell the story of his life on record and just call it Robert P. Gira.
Why do you have these tapes? I Have nothing like that.
My father is getting old and he'll probably die soon and I just want to know what he did with his life. I want to know what he experienced and he is such a great raconteur that it is a pleasure just listening to him talk. I think it is more symptomatic of previous generations that people told stories really well. We don't do so well because we all watch TV and don't talk so much.
But weren't you the one that watched 14 hours of TV a day?
(And he decks himself)
Why the title Love of Life for the album? Don't you have a fatalistic stance especially since The Burning World? Is it celebration or sarcasm?
(Gets offended) No I hate sarcasm in music, I am never sarcastic. That is the most stupid alternative rock music that is sarcastic and non-committed. It is a phrase that comes from the title of a Jack London short story I was reading. He was an American realist writer, it is taken from Darwinism. Love of Life, you kill to survive, you'll do anything to survive and it was just a phrase that I liked. I just put out different repetitions of it and slight changes. To me it sounded like Buddhist ideas, you know.
That is a theme through several of the albums: Destiny, Rivers and the blood which flows through the veins, do you have any spiritualist or religious beliefs, did you have a religious upbringing?
No not really, just church. I think about my death a lot, as us all.
So you resign yourself?
No not at all, just the issue of mortality, it deserves consideration.
Do you believe in God?
I don't know, yes. But not in the way that we're (pause) yes and no. In the west we have a way of looking at God as anthropomorphic, that's the way things are. If you think about time and space, yeah.
Do you think that God is instilled into people?
That is just social control, it is more political than religious. I think religion is necessary but not the behavioural modifications that has developed over the years in earlier times it was just to order society I don't think we need that. Christianity was just a way of ordering society.
The artwork on White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and Love of Life with the rabbits drawn by Deryk Thomas of Edinburgh are very unusual cameos are they supposed to symoblise anything?
No I just liked the picture. He sent Jarboe some little pictures of them and we developed the idea and I asked him if I could have the rabbits with their heads burning off, on Love of Life. It ties in with White Light and at moments I have ecstatic awareness of what it would be like to have your head burning.
How does the band work together with so many side projects, do you encounter many problems? Is Swans really Swans?
It is just a corporate name. I like the people I work with a lot. We are all friends and we all do other things too.
We overheard someone who thought the Hair and Skin Trading Co. was going to be the World of Skin and that you were supporting yourselves.
That's a really good idea. We could make twice the money.
Not a capitalist then?
No, I just want to survive trying to make a living in music. No one has money to buy records, record sales are down everywhere, 30%, concert attendance too. In the American economy politicians have complete wrong solutions to their quick fix ideas. Bush wants to relax environmental controls to help industry and things, they are really sick.
Why did you move from the more laid back California to New York?
I was peripherally involved in the LA punk scene and I liked it at first, I went to all the concerts the X and the Germs and I was really into that, but after a while I just felt it was a fashion and I felt like making something happen that hadn't happened before. I thought NY was more appropriate. However I don't like it at all anymore. It is pretty sick and it is a constant battle to live and it is getting more dangerous and filthy. The financial infrastructure is collapsing. It is the nature of civilisation like Calcutta or something. You come to a place like this and it is a beautiful city and people have respect for the city itself.
I see from RE/Search you worked with Lydia Lunch?
I never worked with Lydia, she shouldn't have said that. We did a story on one side of a tape and she had a story on the other side. Anyway, good for her ( laughs ).
Are you looking forward to the rest of the tour?
If the rest of the tour is like tonight, no. I usually enjoy playing but I think it will get better. I wish we could have played three or four nights before Edinburgh, this is the second night.
How much is the music your life?
I am an artist, but not in any grandoise sense. If I stopped making music, I would write or go back to drawing and painting, which is what I originally did. From the time I was very little and that is how I ended up in a punk outfit and through arts school after that. I am an artist, that is what I do.
Are you satisfied by doing what you want to do with your life, do you glean job satisfaction?
Yeah, I just wish it was a little easier, it's difficult, it always has been. People that make art have always had a really tough life--some people make a lot of money and a lot of people have had to really struggle it is all part of the game, you have to figure out ways to survive and keep working. The state of popular music, I think it is abysmal, it's hopeless, it's disgusting, the whole rock culture to me is hideous. It's horrible, its disgusting, I want nothing to do with it. There is a few here and there every so often you hear someone with a really genuine voice not just in a scene or a style who will make it big. Someone with a genuine voice has a future, but in general the culture of rock music and pop music I find kind of loathsome. I hate it.
Are you part of that musical ethos?
Yeah, sort of. We all are, I don't play the game hopefully and I don't care about a cult of personality like y'know you develop it until ones a star, the whole thing, that just nauseates me, like Madonna, it nauseates me. I don't see any reason, she's just a person. I don't care. Anybody, even Bob Dylan, who is a true artist, that whole phenomenon occurred in the last 30 years probably and was built up just by advertising: like they fetishize cars to sell cars, they make them into sexual objects or they make stereos into sexual objects, its just the way they advertise and present them, same thing with people, you sell product, it is a person who supplies a subliminal need and I don't like that, it's stupid.
It's just another facet of the consumerist values of classic America.
Yeah, and its happening all over the world now and you know what's really strange is our reality becomes the advertisements and the objects. The way we attach meaning to objects that we buy our reality becomes, or our social needs are, and our priorities become: just things that we have been taught through advertising. It is like our whole culture is becoming this insipid thing, this really thin venere. Everywhere in developed countries is like that now.
Do you notice any specific differences between America and Europe?
I usually feel pretty uncomfortable in Europe, and England, Scottish People are much more friendly, they are sort of like Americans in a way, they are really friendly and open. English people have never had sex in their lives, the Germans too y'know, but I like America too, because you can talk to people, they are totally open and in Europe they are really snobby and they say that it is a sign of their ignorance or of their unsophistication, they are completely wrong. They just don't have this cultural pretense, y'know, this dead history attached to their shoulders.