Swans Song | Extensive Interview and History | Howard Wuelfing

Michael Gira, leader of the influential but little-known band Swans, isn't just floating along with the current. He's controlling it.

"The reason I write is because I have to, that's what I do. I don't have any other choice," explains Swans founder/frontperson, Michael R. Gira late one Summer afternoon at NYC's Knitting Factory, before a spoken-word performance. "It's the reason I make music. That's what I do in life. I'm not adjusted nor adjustable to anything else."

Gira's Swans are one of those rare acts that have really "mattered" in the course of rock music's evolution. It's unlikely that their album sales at home in the U.S. have broken five figures -- to Gira's continued puzzled dismay. But, like the Velvet Underground before them, a hefty percentage of the records they have sold were to musicians who went on to form bands with significant debts to their unmistakable oeuvre. The massive, harshly textured sounds, ponderous rhythms and hypnotic repetition of their first half dozen recordings would become central elements of Industrial Rock and avant-metal's "Grindcore" movement. Musicians like Bill Rieflin of Ministry and Justin Broderick of Godflesh readily admit Swans' influence. The group count the likes of Metallica's Kirk Hammet, Henry Rollins, Courtney Love and even Jeff Buckley among its admirers.

Their latest album, Soundtracks For The Blind -- released on Gira's Young God Records in late October via Chicago's Atavistic label -- is also their last. These past few years, Swans' founder Gira has found the "Swans" imprimatur more burden than blessing, carrying with it associations and expectations that he outgrew a decade ago in his constant striving to, "keep revivifying the thing to keep myself interested in making music."

On Soundtracks For The Blind, Gira, longtime collaborator Jarboe and a supporting cast that includes guitarist Vudi, Iggy Pop's drummer Larry Mullins and Joe Goldring on bass proffer an expansive, exhausting 2 1/2 hours worth of profoundly visionary music on two CDs. Soundtracks represents a shocking, powerful synergy of the aleatory overkill of early Swans and the focus on increasingly sophisticated, perversely seductive songwriting Gira has been cultivating since the late '80s.

The album comprises studio and live recordings, songs from the sessions for The Great Annihilator, their preceding album, as well as a dizzying multitude of tape loops, samples of found sounds, studio-recorded noises, old surveillance tapes from the files of Jarboe's late father -- he was an FBI agent. This is stuff Gira's been collecting since beginning of Swans. Subsequently, it was all, "dumped into a computer, totally re- arranged and messed-with/mutilated," manipulated into an extravagant, ambitious, many- leveled, multi-directional yet, ultimately, totally cohesive magnum opus. An ideal swan song.

"Armed with only the most basic and orthodox rock instrumentation, bass/drums/guitar, augmented by occasional percussion and tape loops, they'd created a visionary oeuvre that was unprecedented in its darkness, awesome density, and relentlessness.

In January, a final world tour is scheduled; afterwards, Gira is devoting himself to systematically remodeling the group's entire back catalogue (their official discography lists 14 albums excluding the new one, 2 EPS and 3 12"s; one album is owned by another label and won't be included just yet) into a series of four double CD's, each defining a particular epoch of Swans' history. Then he'll be striking out on his own without Swans for the first time in some 15 years.


When Swans first surfaced in the early 80's on New York's pivotal, turbulent underground music scene along with the likes of Sonic Youth, Live Skull, et al, they boasted an immediately identifiable, overwhelming, and to some, daunting style. Armed with only the most basic and orthodox rock instrumentation, bass/drums/guitar, augmented by occasional percussion and tape loops, they'd created a visionary oeuvre that was unprecedented in its darkness, awesome density, and relentlessness. Gira had already been through two bands, L.A. outfit Little Cripples and Circus Mort in NYC, that had deeply frustrated him, but at the same time helped solidify his concepts of what he did and didn't want his music to be. He had also experienced an adolescence that Voltaire would have hesitated to saddle Candide with.

"I was a drug-riddled adolescent who got arrested a lot, was kind of a vandal and consequently I was either going to have to go to juvenile hall or to live with my father -- my mother and father were separated--in Germany; my father was a business executive. And I ran away from him in Germany, but first in France." From the age of 14, Gira hitchhiked around Europe, panhandling and getting into trouble. After a brief stint back with family, he left again, ending up in Israel at 15--and eventually being kicked out of the country.

Later, Gira moved to Los Angeles, was accepted into a junior college, and received a scholarship to the Otis Art Institute in the late '70s, dropping out just before receiving his degree. About this time, the L.A. punk scene began in earnest. Gira and a friend started No Magazine Also during this period, he assisted performance art pioneer, Hermann Neitsch, a cardinal member of the Viennese Aktionismus Movement for one L.A. performance. Neitsch staged a string "Orgy's Mystery Theater" performances in Los Angeles that planted some crucial seeds that would flower in Swans.

"It was a long, extended performance--not really performances but more like rituals -- that took place over four or five hours. He would have a lamb's carcass, with each leg attached to a cable, strung across the room. Then a series of rituals would happen where young boys would come out on stretchers and blood and entrails would be poured through the carcass and onto the boys' bodies. My job was to wash bodies clean of blood so they could go out and get bloody again! Meanwhile, he got together all these local street and punk musicians, and they would be playing whatever they had: blowing horns, beating on cans, just making as much noise aspossible. So the experience of that was pretty neat. It sort of influenced Swans later when I thought about what I really wanted to get out of music: this primal thing that washed you clean."

Another important influence was an historic concert he attended by purely by chance: "During my time hitchhiking around, I ended up just north of Brussels at what turned out to be a very famous jazz-rock festival. This is 1970, I think, and I saw Pink Floyd in the Umma Gumma era, just after Syd Barrett left. Of course I was on massive amounts of LSD. And that was a huge memorable experience to me, a big influence. At that same festival the Chicago Art Ensemble played, Frank Zappa, Amon Duul and other freaky hippie groups."

Even earlier, his overall view of reality was profoundly affected by the twin engines of disorientation and alienation ubiquitous in the 1960s: drugs and television. Many of the otherworldly moods and images found in his work could be related to this: "From the time I was a child growing up in America, I was watching huge amounts of television, and then around 12, started to take a lot of LSD. The world didn't seem like a very real place to me. It didn't seem like actions necessarily had consequences. It took me a long time to erase that fantasy approach to looking at the world.

"I wish I hadn't taken so many drugs and been involved in mass culture and television, using television as a kind of alternative space for my mind for most of my life. That's why I kind of use television a lot as a kind of signifier for the desire to erase your body and lose yourself in something. I think that's sort of what people do. Seems to me like a very shamanistic medium. There's a new story I've written, MTV And The Cult Of The Body, in which I use it like an oracle."

While in L.A., Gira says he "made the biggest mistake I ever made; I started a band, got involved in music," forming Little Cripples which became Strict Ids then IDS. By 1979, he'd decided the Los Angeles scene had become "pretty constricting," and relocated to NYC, attracted by the likes of Suicide, Glenn Branca's Theoretical Girls, Lydia Lunch and the No Wave scene in general. These were people who, "were trying to do something new with sound." Upon his arrival he formed Circus Mort which released one EP, played locally and was a "horrible embarrassment," due in part to his not having much songwriting input for lack of experience. "Then, finally started Swans." At first, Swans' sound and personnel was tentative. "But, I think I found the thrust -- to use an appropriate word-- of it after about a year, and we've bashed away for 13, 14 years now in various forms."

After releasing an eponymous four-song EP in 1982 on his own Labor label with a provisional line-up, Gira assembled what many fans consider the first crucial version of Swans: Norman Westberg on guitar, Roli Mosiman on drums, Harry Crosby on bass and himself on vocals, tapes, percussion and bass. On the Filth and Cop albums (the former released on Glenn Branca's Neutral label) and the Young God EP, this ensemble created preternaturally heavy, immense and slow music sound that remains unequaled to this day. Echoes of it reverberate loudly through the early efforts of numerous Seattle acts likes like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, England's Godflesh and Cathedral and countless New York undergroundlings.

Starting in 1985, Gira began incorporating more "quasi-melodic sounds," and samples, inspired by the abilities of new recruit Jarboe, an Atlanta emigre. "Once Jarboe got involved, I had her skills as a melodicist, arranger and things to use and her great singing." Gradually other new members began supplanting the old line-up; the Greed and Holy Money albums, as well as accompanying 12" releases, were recorded by a mixture of incoming and outgoing players. More importantly, These recordings provided much of the basic vocabulary for the subsequent rebirth of "Industrial" music as a popular rock format. Indeed, Ted Parsons, later of Prong, had joined Swans' ranks at this time and Ministry's Bill Rieflin would acknowledge the debt down the line by coming on board to record The Great Annihilator.

On 1987's Children Of God double album, these changes were consolidated into a strikingly fresh and compelling direction for Swans. A new line-up had solidified with bassist Al Kyzis and drummer Ted Parsons (both of whom contributed to Greed and Holy Money) joining Gira, Jarboe and Westberg and on this album achieved a thrilling fusion of the trademark megalithic sound sculpting of previous recordings and a voluptuous, eerie tunefulness, balancing the two with a brilliant sense of dynamics. Swans' live performances of this material added another, uncanny dimension Gira recalls. "One of the strange things was, what happened usually is we'd write the song; it would be slow, you know, but as we would play it live it would get slower and slower through the tour. As opposed to most groups, they get faster and faster; we just got slower and slower! It was like I could smoke a cigarette in between beats. Ha ha ha!"

Before recording Children Of God in England in early 1987, both Gira and Jarboe made separate albums in London, each including the other's performing and writing under the name "World of Skin". Both records made marked use of acoustic instrumentation and strings and were far more overtly melodic than Swans repertoire to that point. They seemed to mark a major turning point in Swans development, pointing to the path the band's music would follow for the next decade.

The next four Swans albums, The Burning World, White Light From the Mouth Of Infinity, Love of Life, and the live Omniscience were recorded with a shifting cast of characters. These albums, as well a joint "World Of Skin" project from him and Jarboe saw Gira steadily regaining his self confidence and moving further down the stylistic path pointed out by the earlier "Skin" recordings. He allows that some of the results were "awkward." At the same time, "it's mostly me trying to learn to work in a different way, and do other things. So I was bound to make mistakes."

It was during this time that Gira forsook Swans' longtime base of operations, New York's Lower East Side, moving with Jarboe to Atlanta. "It's like walking down the street was just a torture," he recalls, "because everything was filled with memories of--in my estimation--failure. I spent the last 3 or 4 years in that place on 6th Street and Avenue B that didn't have any windows. Towards the end there, I spent most of my time in there, never going out except around 10 or 11 p.m. and I'd get so antsy I'd go to bar and get drunk and then come home. It just seemed like a real negative environment for me to be in."

Looking back over the Swans' legacy these past 14 years, Michael R. Gira has few regrets: "I think about 75% of the work is really excellent and some of the rest makes me cringe. But it's not such a bad average over a long period of time." For the future, Gira has a number of projects to pursue: re-organizing the band's back catalogue; creating a series of ambient soundscape albums under the name "Body Lovers" drastically manipulating early Swans masters; discovering bands other than Swans to release on his Young God label; putting together the follow-up to The Consumer, his first book, published early in 1996 by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61: "I want to continue to write because I'm working slowly on compiling the stories for another book.

"I have written new songs that we'll be playing on the last Swans tour that I'll then totally rework and record under the name Pleasure Seekers. This won't be a rock band at all, but be more acoustic, atmospheric stuff."

In the end, this era of relocation, retrenchment, and revision revivified his interest in music making. Significantly, he enlisted Swans alumni Westberg, Kyzis and Parsons to record The Great Annihilator in 1995, along with Jarboe, guitarist Clinton Steele and himself. It's also worth noting that the Industrial Rock clique took this opportunity to repay some of its debts to Swans, Ministry's Bill Rieflin playing drums and Martin Atkins putting it out via his Invisible label. The same year, Gira would record his first solo album, Drainland and Jarboe, her third, Sacrificial Cake, both released on Alternative Tentacles by longtime fan Jello Biafra.

In following months, the final Swans set-up -- Gira, Jarboe, Vudi, Mullins and Goldring -- would pursue this marriage of pop-classicist songsmithery and furious soundscaping both in the studio and onstage to a glorious conclusion with Soundtracks For The Blind. And now Swans can go out at the top of their game.

Sound files and photos along with this article - here