swans ny times article

by ben ratliff

from gnashing sound sculptures to serene art songs

Never Say Never: Swans Return
Published: September 3, 2010

I SAW just a little bit of a Swans show in 1983, in their early days, during their period of slow-but-alert, theater-of-cruelty music. If I remember right, I had come to CBGB to hear Heart Attack, the fastest punk band I knew, and after that the tempos plunged. Sonic Youth played next: lots of strange tunings, innocently curious. Then came Swans, with violent songs that sounded as if they were barely moving.

Did they have one or two guitars then? One or two drummers? Certainly there was the tall singer Michael Gira, heaving out his nasty mottos. They might have played “Weakling” (“I don’t feel pain/I never escape/I’m under the bed/I’m licking the floor”). Or “Big Strong Boss” (“Blood runs black/Cut my throat/Kill me snake/Do what I say”). But I don’t know. I was 15, and this music didn’t seem to come from music. Maybe from literature, maybe from visual art. My ears hurt, and the whole thing seemed to require thought. As many did in those days when faced with Swans, I left early.

“Thought?” Mr. Gira asked me recently. “Really? My hope was that you’d just open up, and you’d be fine. It’s like reading Beckett. If you start thinking too much, you’ll never read it. You have to just let it flow through you and accept it.”

We were at a house in the Catskills, near his home. A friend of his had offered us a quiet living room, so that Mr. Gira, now 56, could talk about why he has re-formed the group, or at least revived its name, for an 18-month tour starting this month, as well as discuss “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky,” a forthcoming album that feels unusual for what could be called a reunion. (Mr. Gira, emphatically, rejects that characterization.) The record is partly an index of currents within Swans’ music over its 15-year history, from gnashing sound sculptures to serene art songs. And, partly, it’s a whole new equation.

Mr. Gira sat for 90 minutes, intense and polite, holding an unlighted cigar in his right hand. (He quit smoking a year ago.) He spoke rapidly, full of strong pronouncements; when challenged, he first responded vehemently, then laughed at himself.

Mr. Gira (pronounced jhee-RAH) ran Swans from 1982 to 1997. The band was the Miles Davis of postpunk: it changed its sound often and unrepentantly, moving away from its early minimal-brutal work toward the lush, ambient and even acoustic. (The last stand of their negative phase was a live recording from 1986 called “Public Castration Is a Good Idea,” one of the darkest records ever.) Mr. Gira stopped barking and moved toward a style of singing occasionally resembling Johnny Cash’s; he started collaborating with the singer Jarboe, his partner at the time, who had a fuller, more disciplined voice, a female balance to his.

At their peak Swans could fill Irving Plaza — a 1,100-capacity hall — and sell 20,000 copies of a record. But in their afterlife, as Mr. Gira has made a steady stream of records with his new project, Angels of Light, the old group’s reputation has persisted and expanded, here and around the world. Not long ago Mr. Gira played one of his solo shows in Russia — these are simple events in which he sings in his planing baritone and strums acoustic-guitar chords with his thumb — and 2,000 people showed up.

He has become a folk hero, essentially, to a coalition of musicians from indie-rock to grindcore to electronic composition, from million-selling bands to metal and the art-pop underground. Tool, Neurosis, Big Black, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Godflesh, Xiu Xiu, Battles — bands and musicians to whom power relationships and confrontation in sound verge on philosophy or religion. Perhaps the spectrum is so wide because Mr. Gira isn’t part of any particular musical tradition. Literary, artistic, maybe. Musical, not so much.

By his own account, for Swans’ 15 years Mr. Gira worked hard and burned bridges. “I was negatively networking, going around the country making enemies,” he said.

He remains unsentimental but kindly. A few years ago he told an Italian magazine, “Thank God I am no longer me.”

Here and there “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” could be another Angels of Light album — there is the new calmness, the new transcendence in his music, and even the love song “Little Mouth” for his wife, Siobhan Duffy — except for a few elements. One is the drumming. On “No Words/No Thoughts,” the album’s first track, you hear the kind of slow, slammed, wobbly pattern that was all over early Swans. The group’s original drummer, Jonathan Kane, played in blues bands as a teenager; he told me that he and Mr. Gira loved the emptied-out, half-time shuffle from Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Evil.”

And here or there, the words on the new Swans album sound as if they were lifted from an earlier phase of his life, especially in “My Birth”:

Then I strangled your neck, because I love you too much.

Then I kissed your red mouth, because I love you to death.

Not surprisingly, those lyrics were written for Swans, around 1997, but left unused. Mr. Gira said he wanted to make lyrics that were impenetrable, like slogans or chunks of physical matter. “It wasn’t meant to convey a message,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to be about me.” More quietly, he added, “In retrospect I can see that it totally was.”

Mr. Gira had a bad adolescence in Southern California and Europe: an alcoholic mother, a businessman father who couldn’t contain his son’s self-destruction. He completed two years of high school and then dropped out, working in construction. By the time he turned 16, he had spent time in jail, in Jerusalem, for selling drugs. Returning to Los Angeles, he earned his equivalency diploma and enrolled at what is now the Otis College of Art and Design. He played in a punk band but aspired to be a visual artist, fascinated by Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden and various kinds of Middle European severity: Egon Schiele, Joseph Beuys, and the Vienna Actionist Hermann Nitsch, who brought his Dionysian multimedia happening, the “Theater of Orgies and Mysteries,” to Venice, Calif., in 1978.

He moved to New York in 1979, and a few years later he met Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth. (He had met that band’s bassist, Kim Gordon, in art school.

“I played him ‘Confusion Is Sex,’ which we’d just finished,” Mr. Moore said in a telephone interview, speaking of Sonic Youth’s first LP. “And he played us Swans’ first record. And we were like, O.K., we belong together. Neither of us felt too much affinity toward any other contemporary bands.”

Though Swans and Sonic Youth are now linked in that New York, post-No Wave moment, Mr. Gira said the two bands had little to do with each other musically. And though he credited some West Coast punk, he couldn’t relate to the hardcore scene in New York at all. Hardcore, he said, was a “namby-pamby” genre. “It was just a way for people to belong,” he said. “And that’s the last thing I think people should do.”

For 11 years Mr. Gira lived in a rear-storefront apartment with one window in the East Village, where Sonic Youth and Swans both rehearsed. For a few years they shared bills, at CBGB and the Sin Club. They toured the South and Midwest, to small and vanishing audiences. Back then Mr. Gira performed with a noose hanging above and just in front of his head. “I’d throw my body on the stage, get up, throw my body on the monitors, break my ribs, and I didn’t feel it,” he said. “It was like making the world into a whirlpool, lifting you up. It was exceptionally wonderful. It wasn’t negative in the least.”

To a disbelieving look, he added: “I guess in the lyrics it might have been a touch negative. But it went with the time.”

Mr. Moore recalled: “We spent a lot of time together. He was completely opinionated and negative about things, but also very generous and respectful. I think, because his family history was somewhat problematic, he wanted to hold on to being wise and educated and smart, and he took offense at anybody who would play dumb, or dumb themselves down, or settle for what they were offered.”

When Swans finally penetrated Europe, the British media wrote excited reviews about how Swans were the loudest band in the world. This revolted Mr. Gira. “I got so tired of people walking out on me,” he said. “In ’84, ’85, we did some shows in Europe where we’d turn out the lights and lock the doors and play. Like, just take it.” At the same time he said it depressed him to see “lunkhead metal kids” in the audience — the kind of kids, perhaps, who might have been conditioned to just take it, and like it.

But wasn’t there a macho element in Swans? “No,” Mr. Gira said. “There might have been a manly element. But not a rooster thing.”

The last Swans tour was conceived as such, and the live album resulting from it was “Swans Are Dead.” Mr. Gira runs Young God Records, a one-man operation that has released 43 albums, including three by Devendra Banhart, the label’s breakout success. Mr. Gira threw himself into steady music making, his own and others. He moved to the Catskills four yours ago and has two children with Ms. Duffy; he has become a singer-songwriter, essentially, although one who claims to have no aptitude for writing narrative songs.

As late as 2006, when a journalist asked Mr. Gira, “Would you ever consider re-forming Swans?,” he replied: “Absolutely not, never. Dead and gone.” But he changed his mind. It was while on the road a few years ago with the band Akron/Family as his backing group that Mr. Gira felt something like a Swans feeling again.

“The songs got longer and louder, and we entered into this kind of swaying slave-ship rhythm, and I lost myself in it.” Swans, to him, is less a particular band of players than a physical experience: “being completely overwhelmed in sound,” as he put it.

The new six-piece version of Swans includes a few members from different incarnations of the band — the guitarists Norman Westberg and Christoph Hahn and the drummer Phil Puleo — as well as the bassist Chris Pravdica and the percussionist Thor Harris, from other parts of Mr. Gira’s working life. (It does not include Jarboe, with whom Mr. Gira has not spoken in 10 years.)

The band will play in bigger halls than it ever did the first time around; its two New York shows are at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in Fort Greene on Oct. 8, and the next day at the Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side. It will even play a few rearranged older Swans songs: “Raping a Slave,” “Your Property,” “Beautiful Child.” “The harder things,” Mr. Gira said. “What I think of as the blues stuff.”

Mr. Gira is hoping his voice holds up during the tour. He has a more psychological concern as well. “I guess the hardest thing will be not to let the” — he tapped the table nervously — “destroyer aspect of myself take over, and make the audience into my victims.”