Swans wing in for concerts to support new album To Be Kind (Sydney Morning Herald)
Twenty minutes into Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture, the epic 34-minute track on Swans' latest album, To Be Kind, Michael Gira shouts loudly 'Toussaint! Toussaint!', invoking the name of Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the 18th century slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
Gira demurs on whether there's a deeper resonance between the rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture's and his own iconoclastic, occasionally confrontational musical style. The thematic context for Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture, Gira says, arose almost inadvertently.
Conceived originally as the extension of The Seer, the title track to Swans' 2012 album, Gira "needed some words" to punctuate the intense, dynamic rhythm of the fledgling track. "I was reading a biography of Toussaint so I started to invoke his name in the song," Gira says.
Once present in the fledgling song, Toussaint "became something [Gira] felt inhabited by as a performer", and the track morphed into a sonic representation of the violent and bloody Haitian rebellion. "Violence was perpetrated on both sides, with great vigour," Gira says.
The frontman, who ran away from home in his teens and was imprisoned in Israel at 16 for selling hashish, has a colourful history. Returning to the US, Gira immersed himself in the LA punk community of the late 1970s before moving to New York where he formed Swans in 1982 - the band becoming a protagonist in the "no wave" scene alongside contemporaries Glenn Branca, Lydia Lunch and Sonic Youth.
Frustration with both the band's lack of popular acceptance and the misconceptions of audiences and critics to Swans' intense and brutal sonic onslaught led Gira to place the group in hiatus in 1997. "It just seemed like a vortex that would keep sucking me in if I continued." Swans' subsequent revival in 2010, Gira says, has been as liberating as his original decision to retire the Swans concept.
The collage of beauty, brutality and discipline on To Be Kind reflects an eclectic spectrum of influences and inspirations. The violent imagery of Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture is tempered by Kirstine Supine, a track inspired by what Gira describes as the "onanistic" [image] of a naked Kristen Dunst lying on a copse in Lars Von Triers' Melancholia. "[That scene] is really quite mystical and beautiful," Gira says.
His fascination with legendary blues musician Howlin' Wolf (née Chester Burnett) is reflected in Just A Little Boy (Chester Burnett). "His music has always given me great joy, and his life was an act of heroism and magic in itself," he says. "The song itself is not really about him - I added that title to it after it was written. I saw something in it that revealed his effect on me as a singer, and the subject matter, too."
Despite a colourful background - Gira doesn't consider himself a rebellious person.
"Rebelling implies that something has a power over you which you need to fight," he says. "I've never accepted a power over me, so I don't know if I'm rebelling, rather trying to live my life creatively and trying to still be vital and aware and alive. I fail miserably at that quite often, but that's the goal."
Swans play the Corner, Richmond, on January 20 and Sugar Mountain, Victorian College of the Arts, on January 24.
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