Swans | ArticleChildren of God? Even though I've spent a good two-thirds of my life in frequent, dangerously close proximity to over-cranked amplifiers of one kind or another, I can only recall sustaining noticeable, permanent damage once. This dubious badge of achievement was earned by Swans, the all-time champs of the Sonic Brutality Index (defined as the inverse ratio between decibels produced and the area of the room enclosing them). This injury occurred at some unremembered gig during the band's early days, maybe three or four years ago. They didn't exactly play a lot back then (few clubs booked them more than once), but certainly more often than they do today (once in the past eighteen months in New York City), and in enough different joints to blur my already scorched memory—(places like CBGB, Danceteria, SIN Club, the Speed Trials, etc.). At this point, the details of the impairment's aftermath are more vivid in my mind than the auditory incision itself: mild euphoric delirium, physical exhaustion, and the presence of a little guy fastened to my brain stem making whooshing noises into the back of my head for three days afterward. My hearing hasn't been the same since.
But volume is (was, actually) only the most obvious thing about Swans, not the most important. The grille on the Edsel you might say. Of course, it's what most people decided was their key element, because the sheer excessiveness of a usually drove all but the most hardened from the hall. Intensity is more to the point, and purity even more central. Swans didn't set out to be the loudest band in the world (a macho conceit on the order of cock measuring), or the most aggressively offensive (as they're most often portrayed), or even the most intensely experimental, physically tactile of sound sources (positioning oneself nose-to-cone with a Swans sound system cleans you off better than any garden hose), although recognizing the importance of all those elements is a prerequisite to understanding what the band is all about.
And to find out what Swans are all about you've got to chase down Mr. Reluctant himself, Michael Gira, and poke the hell out of him with a sharp stick. Though he's quick to point out that Swans are a collaborative effort involving all band members (Gira: vocals and writing; Jarboe: vocals and keyboards; Norman Westberg: guitars; Al Kyzis: bass; Ted Parsons: drums), the band is essentially his—which means without him they wouldn't exist. He started 'em, named 'em, is the only surviving original member, and provides all the words.
They're a product of his sensibility (which isn't to say the others don't share it), and a tool of his impulse. He would probably continue to deny every bit of this emphatically, but that's because he's that kind of guy. Gira's a confounding character—extremely guarded, yet painfully exposed; thoughtful and eager to learn, yet guided by impulse and reflexive anti-intellectualism; overbearingly serious and intense, yet quick with a laugh and a self deprecating joke; very tender and vulnerable, yet powered by an inchoate rage and sometimes bitterness. He hates being the focus of this sort of examination, telling me when we spoke that this piece "would be about the work and not anything personal about me."
I'd honestly like to oblige him, but I can't. To me, those things are too intertwined to pull them apart and completely ignore one or the other. But after an appalling bit of duplicitous back-stabbing in the pages of Spin last year, he's naturally hesitant about revealing too much of himself. "If I had my choice," he says, "I'd never do another interview in my life. Or if I did, I'd like to be real showbiz and have a shpiel that I'd give every time." Not really. I know Michael too well to believe that—he'd hate himself if he was reduced to that level of robotic behavior; that's precisely what he recoils from. With a resigned shrug, he agrees.
I've known Michael for seven years or so, since the early days of his first New York City band, Circus Mort. He seemed too deeply unhappy in that situation, angry and confused, uncomfortable with the band's straightforward rock context and restless to find a more appropriate avenue of expression. Swans happened in about '82, and appeared to be the sonic embodiment of Gira's rage. They existed to blow out the circuits, to pummel you with excessive power and density, until you were pushed free of the mundane awareness and floated in the ecstatic plasma of sound. They were one of the most exhilarating drugs I've ever taken, and like a heavy dose of LSD, something I couldn't physically stand often. The Filth album, particularly the song "Power for Power," is probably the best recorded signpost of this era. Over the last two or so years Swans have matured, or as Gira puts it,"We followed that train of thought to the end...going as far in that direction as we could. It was time for something new." Not that he'll admit to any conscious decision-making here; it was strictly a matter of following his impulses, doing what felt right. The result is Children of God, the double Swans LP released this winter on Caroline Records, and also the two Skin projects, Blood, Women, Roses and Shame, Humility, Revenge LPs, probably to come out later this spring as an intermingled double-pack-alternating cuts from each of the two individual albums—(and most likely under the name 'A World of Skin'). Skin is a Gira/Jarboe collaboration, and is more scaled-down, dreamily introspective, and subtly sculpted than Swans.
All this material was recorded last winter in England (the Swans co-produced by Gira and Rico Conning, who's also done Laibach, Test Department and Depeche Mode), and it's all stunningly beautiful, texturally rich, and emotionally gripping work.
Children of God, especially, is quite possibly the best material Swans have done in years. It offers all the power and strength of their previous records, yet brings to the surface a side of Swans that has rarely been seen before. I could probably speculate on the "softening" influence Jarboe has had on Gira and Swans, but it would be just that—speculation. I don't really know if that's what happened, but this introduction of contrasts, of fragility, seems to coincide with her joining the band in late '85. Whatever the motivation, I think at this point Gira stopped feeling compelled to do things in broad, monolithic gestures—to be excessive in terms of power and density. As much as I liked that massiveness, it was a limited-yield path. The new, expanded-focus Swans feels more complete, more wholly satisfying. Gira says that came about through his discovery that he "didn't have anything against songs anymore." Too much early Swans was riffs, brutally repeated; now there's structure and programmatic development. "You've only got a limited time alive," Gira offers, "so you've got to use your imagination. Otherwise, you'll die of boredom, quick." Agreed.
Michael goes on to talk of the things he's been listening to recently, and how that's effected what he's been writing. Old Johnny Cash ("mostly for the sparseness of the arrangements, and because the timbre of his voice is so close to mine"), old Bob Dylan ("for his ability to create atmosphere and a place, and to tell a story with just his voice and a guitar"), and other similar stuff that shares a common honesty and simplicity. "Everything is built from there up," Michael says, "and you're nowhere if that foundation is dishonest in some way." Jarboe comes at it from the other direction, with "Yeah, but even with that honesty, you can ruin it with over-production. I like pure voices, but I hate what most producers do with them these days-like Anita Baker, whose got a great voice, or even Randy Travis, who's ruined by his producer. "My goal," she says, "is to make pop-oriented music that has a bit of purity. Real voices, real emotions." Sounds like an obvious thing, right? Then why the hell is it so rare these days?
Seems Swans have always been screwed at both ends when it comes to people reading the transparency of their desires. The reductionist aesthetic they followed musically, wasn't necessarily carried through in the lyrics—but most clowns can't seem to comprehend that things which appear simple aren't also automatically obvious. When Swans intend something to be taken at face value (that "purity"), people assume all sorts of sick, hidden motives; and when they want all the implications of a word considered ("rape" for example), people usually stop after the most obvious one. "People are just lazy, I think, and conditioned by what's given to them these days to expect only the obvious. In the late sixties and early seventies, there was a whole groundswell of counterculture, and people more readily accepted things that were different. I mean, you could hear Hendrix on the radio back then—if he'd come along now, there'd be no way he'd get airplay. More complicated, more ambiguous things were accepted then. Morrison was no illiterate fool, and neither was Iggy, and they could show that."
So, wise up, everybody, and stop reading the same old boring horseshit into this band. I'm damn sick of seeing the rote crap everybody writes about these guys every fucking time. It reminds me of when Michael was talking about naming his new band five years ago. I thought Swans was a rotten choice, until he described why he chose it. "Swans are these beautiful animals, who are in reality completely obnoxious. They're hateful things." Then he laughed.