Swans frontman Michael Gira sounds off on electronic music’s inherent flaws, spending time in Israeli jail, and his violent past in an interview with A.J. Samuels.
Since reforming in 2010, New York noise-rockers Swans have experienced something of a renaissance. But unlike the resurrected projects of so many rock contemporaries, the group surrounding songwriter Michael Gira has lost exactly none of its pathos and only increased in volume. While the band has churned out one critically acclaimed album after the next—most recently 2014’s To Be Kind—it’s their explosive, overtone-rich live performances that have cemented their reputation as arguably the most formidable and influential rock band around today.
The last time I saw Swans was here in Berlin at the Volksbühne a few years ago, and—
No, I know. We’re one of the best rock bands ever. I know that. I just know it. Swans have congealed and are one of the most volcanic, eruptive, virile rock outfits ever. I think one of the things that makes what we do so powerful is that it’s generous.
I mean that we’re as fully embroiled and consumed by the sound as the audience. We give ourselves up to it. We’re not hammering our songs at you. We try to make it elevating for everyone. It’s funny, but talking to an American, I don’t censor myself from using a word like “elevated.” Otherwise I would say “uplifting.”
When I interviewed [Swans lap steel guitarist] Christoph Hahn a few months ago, he mentioned that he had two Fender Twin Reverbs a meter and a half away from his head, and still your voice was “as loud as god.” Your band is known for extreme volume levels. Can you tell me a bit about Swans’ history with volume?
OK, but we’re not louder than Motörhead. We’re not louder than AC/DC. I think those bands are probably louder—if you call that a band. Rather, “brands” might be more fitting. Our loudness has to do with wanting to feel the sound and be inside of it; to be inside of something bigger than yourself. It’s like sculpting. It’s not about people or even ourselves. And the resonance of the guitars doesn’t happen until at a certain volume level. The same goes for the sustain. When it’s right, it’s like four church choirs singing at once.
But historically, very early on, volume was an issue. I don’t know why. I was the bass player and started the songwriting process on bass. I just kept getting more and more gear. I had an SVT, A10s and two five-hundred watt JBL speakers in a reflex cabinet with a Gallien-Krueger head, and since I wasn’t really a bass player doing running lines, I would just play chords on the bass and really want to feel it hit me in the stomach. It was about the physical impact and these chunks of sound.
And then we had another bass player on top. We also used a cassette player that played cassette loops because I didn’t have a sampler. For each song we had a different sound, a different tape. Then there were two drummers. So there were a lot of very intense push-pull sounds. None of them were very consonant. And then there was Norman’s guitar, and that was it. But we never used loops with rhythms in them that we would play to, because that seemed really artificial and stultifying to me. It’s like these bands that play with backing tracks or click tracks. That’s horrible to me.
I recently saw Tony Allen play as part of a well-known trio led by electronic musicians, and a chunk of the time it seemed like he was forced to adapt to their machine groove, which seemed somewhat restraining.
That’s disgusting. That’s not music. That’s, like, advertising. How could you take that rhythm, which is one of the most intense rhythms outside of James Brown—Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat—how could you fucking take that and technify it? That’s just horrible. Electronic music doesn’t reach down into the intestines enough. But I think James Brown, for instance, is a musical genius, with the kind of interlocking rhythm patterns that occur. I mean, it sounds very simple and you want to move, but it’s almost like Bach or something, these pointillist fugues. It’s all these points making this whole. It’s intense. First you respond to it physically and emotionally but then you think about how its done, it’s almost inscrutable. Fela Kuti is very similar, as he took a lot of influence from James Brown. He incorporated the Afrobeat ideas into it. It’s joyous and wonderful and in terms of the human experience, it’s the highest you can go. Swans isn’t like that at all.
But you are ecstatic.
Yeah. You know, despite the fact that you have a magazine called Electronic Beats, I am really anti-electronic music. Well, not “anti.” It’s peoples’ business, they can do whatever they want. But I feel like post Kraftwerk, [electronic music] is like wearing ten condoms.
Wearing more than one condom at the same time doesn’t even work—it creates friction and breaks them all! Although maybe with ten condoms…
Even watching someone with a laptop onstage is completely bogus to me. I’m not against found sounds or music as being, um, concrete. But nowadays it seems everything has to be so regimented in these grooves. But that’s just me. Kids like it, so what the fuck?
With club music there is the idea that a DJ or producer’s lack of a “performance,” in the rock and roll sense, makes for a different, more egalitarian atmosphere.
“Egalitarian”? That’s anathema to me. It’s not art. To me the most interesting conceptual approach to that was a story Genesis P-Orridge told me. He was asked to DJ at a rave and he forgot his fucking tapes or something. So you know how when you have a big PA, when you turn it on when it’s not muted it makes this massive popping and exploding sound? He did that for half an hour, just turning the PA on and off. That’s Gen. He’s a genius. That’s making music. Or banging two rocks together. Or two heads together.
Have you worked with Genesis in the past?
No. I was friends with him for a while, and we were on the road together solo a couple times before the passing of his beautiful wife. And then, because of life circumstances, I haven’t seen him for a long time.
When I saw you perform solo recently in Berlin, I was surprised at how there was still so much volume generated just by your voice and an acoustic guitar. It also seemed like you were often channeling different voices.
That’s phrasing. It’s finding a spot in yourself where the music comes from. If you listen to Nina Simone, it’s like, my god, what a singer. There are five different aspects of her in a single phrase. As I’ve done this tour I’ve also discovered these voices and tried to bring them out a little more.
It sounded like you were channeling not only other voices but also other characters. Can you tell me about that?
Not really, because I don’t know. It sort of just happens. I’m guilty of having looked on YouTube to see if anybody posted from that show because I know it was one of the best solo shows I’ve done. I found a clip where I am going into this intense litany of revenge and in the middle I did this thing, where I’m kind of going [makes guttural squealing noise] and I was shocked. It was like another person. I don’t even remember doing it. It was like an evil demon that lived inside of me and just wanted to stick his head out.
At the beginning of the show you were really aggressive, telling people who were talking to “Shut the fuck up!” and threatening the sound guy if he turned you down even the slightest bit. But then you started warming up and by the end your attitude towards the crowd was almost friendly.
You have to train your slave. The orifice has to relax so everybody enjoys themselves.
I’m kidding, of course. But I do want people while I’m there to know that I’m not fucking around. It’s real, and they should shut the fuck up if they’re talking. Why are they there if they’re talking? And why are they looking at their phones? I had this dude in France where I played in this beautiful cathedral with great sound, fold out chairs, 350 people. Everything was great and then I look and see this fucking snit in the front row checking his fucking emails. So I just stopped the song and I was like “Hey, you! What are you doing? Go in the back! Get the fuck out of here! Fuck you! Fuck off!” Then he got up with his girlfriend and made a face and went, I don’t know, to text somewhere. But how dare a person do that? Everybody’s living in this virtual reality experience now, walking around with their phones and watching it through them, too. Nothing’s more infuriating to me.
Hip-hop was getting big in New York at around the same time as Swans were developing. Did you follow that development at all in the beginning?
I’ve never related to hip-hop, I have to say. Black music I like—R&B, blues, funk, Fela Kuti, of course. But the whole hip-hop thing to me was too a-musical and too aggressive.
Yeah, in a kind of dumb macho way. But that’s just my proclivity. There was some great music that came out of there. But watching some guys gesture and talk about gangs onstage with basically a cassette tape or sampler playing their shit is like karaoke. I don’t want to sound closed-minded because we used samplers and tape loops before. Gradually though I realized it was a bit of a crutch and got rid of it. In fact, when I stopped Swans for the first time, I threw away my samplers and got rid of entire trunks full of floppy disks. I would sample 20 or 3- different kinds of snares, kick drums, babies crying, whales being butt-fucked, whatever. Samples were a part of making Swans. But at some point I just said “Fuck it! I want this shit out of here!” So I took it to the dump and threw it all away. I started writing on acoustic guitar to go to a place where I make something happen right now, with no crutches.
What do you mean by “crutch”?
For us, it was volume. I just wanted to play acoustic guitar and look at you and make an event happen. Not in a folky way. And gradually I learned how to do that. Swans is now loud again, but it comes from a deeper place, I think.
At your solo performance in Berlin, you got a frog in your throat at one point and shouted, “I have a little negro in my throat.” I was kind of shocked. What was that about?
I don’t know, it just came to me. I always say the wrong thing at the right time.
Was that always the case?
Yeah, I was like that as a kid too. A little bit of Tourette’s. One thing that always interested me in performance art were these odd social conjunctions, like Vito Acconci being under this ramp, masturbating while you walk in. Or Chris Burden, Viennese actionists…
It was shocking and impressive at the same time. He had interesting things to say about art and morality. Of course Otto Muehl was strongly criticized for his amoral approach to art and for…
They did some fucked up shit, which made me think, “I don’t really like this anymore.” There was this video by Otto Muehl, filmed by Kurt Kren, with this woman and a swan. They’re touching each other and there are feathers everywhere. Eventually they cut the head off the thing and she takes the neck and… I was just like, you can’t hurt this animal. And then there was Muehl’s commune with the child molestation, and I was like, “Fuck that.” But those guys were pretty intensely good artists, trying to get to the core of reality and change reality.
Do you draw a line at a certain point with art? Nitsch explained that he draws no boundaries—or rather, that he doesn’t have to explore them all himself. I found the idea disturbing.
He’s right. It’s almost like a Zen kind of reality at that point. Take the Battle of Stalingrad, for instance, where the Germans and the Russians faced this incredible hardship and cruelty and committed vicious acts of murder and cruelty towards each other. During these winters of intense human suffering and violence, it becomes like an opera. A million people died, you know? It’s a heroic moment in human history, leave the ideology out. It’s a heroic moment in human history. It’s utterly unbelievable.
There’s a moment where I leave my ethical judgment aside. But as far as art, when it comes to cruelty towards the innocent, I’d probably be drawing the line. It’s one thing to attack the bourgeoisie—if that even exists anymore. It’s another thing to think you’re some demi-god and that you have no ethical responsibilities whatsoever.
What’s replaced the bourgeoisie?
I think now we’re all just programmed consumers. The more urgent issue at this point is whether we have a self anymore with consumer advertising and media making up our DNA; whether there is free choice or whether we only exists as consumers.
How do you see the increasing corporate involvement in art and music?
That’s another thing I don’t like about rap: the bling. It’s all about consuming. But that’s in rock, too—it’s everywhere. But ever since I was a kid I was obsessed with the idea of advertising. Back then it was television advertising kind of overtaking your mind, and you trying to decide where “you” begin and where influence from all these images impinging on your psyche ends, and vice-versa. I just read a factoid today that the average person sees more images by breakfast than the average person saw in a whole lifetime in 1890.
What kind of effect do you think that has on people?
I don’t know, I’m not a sociologist. But you can see it in people. The weirdest of all are these things [points to iPhone] and seeing how quickly they’ve overtaken the culture. Watching people in a city space, which was an interactive space, just walking around staring at screens is so strange.
I recently read an interview where you contrast your ability to network with that of Sonic Youth, who were especially good at promoting themselves. You describe traveling across country and making enemies left and right. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It was even worse than that. We negatively networked! I mean, how many enemies can you make around the world? It was just me then. I was a violent motherfucker. I don’t know why. I would just confront the promoter about not having the right PA and then force him to go get it and he would lose money. I was angry about everything and I don’t know why, to be honest.
Tell me a bit about what inspired your new album, To Be Kind. The first thing I noticed were the song titles, especially the opener “Screenshot.” I know you’re very active on Facebook…
“Active on Facebook.” Does that mean that maybe I’m masturbating a lot?
I notice that you can post any random video, and hundreds of people will automatically like it.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. I would like to leave Facebook but it’s such an integral part of Swans right now so I have to do it.
How was working with St. Vincent?
It was great. She sang on “Kirsten Supine,” “Nathalie Neal,” and “Bring the Sun” with Cold Specks.
Does she play guitar at all on the album? She’s a great guitar player.
No, she doesn’t. Yeah, she is good, in her own way. But she plays very different than how I would do it.
Some of your albums are also funded with fan donations. In an article by Sasha Frere-Jones he mentions that for your solo work, you offer fans the opportunity to have a song written about them for 500 dollars. How did you come up with the idea?
I started doing it in 2000 with another band, Angels of Light, creating hand-made CDs with the specific purpose of raising money to do the next record. A certain group of people cares about the music on a personal level, and since record sales were shit—not because the record industry had collapsed yet back then but because our music was not popular—it was a way to get more people more involved. And I’ve been doing it ever since, much to my chagrin because it’s a huge amount of work. But I thought, “What can I give to people to make them feel like I am really singing to them and thanking them?” It was to write a song for them. I don’t know what the next step is—maybe to go have anal sex with them?
Always an option.
But these are the things you have to do these days to continue as a musician.
So your income is mostly from live shows?
There are some sales. With the level of interest that we have recently, I’d be doing great if it was 15 years ago when people were still buying records. But whatever. I’ve been learning how to survive since I was 14. I just figure out ways to keep going.
Can you tell me a bit about surviving as a kid? I know that as a teenager you spent time in an Israeli jail for getting caught dealing hash.
Yeah, it was scary. I was 15 from Southern California and suddenly I was in an Israeli jail. The hippies who got caught dealing there would come and go and I stayed. I didn’t have any friends. I was alone. Eventually one of them came and was like, “What are you still doing here after a month and a half?”—because I hadn’t even been charged yet. He went and got me a lawyer and the lawyer got me charged. So I got out and was then sentenced to another month and a half by a judge to a juvenile facility.
I met some hippies there who protected me. The one thing I learned how to do in the jail cell is read, because the hippies would read books. For instance, I don’t remember if this is apocryphal or not, but I recall I read Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and The Miracle of the Rose. I also read some Frank Harris, some Oscar Wilde and maybe some Marquis de Sade. The important thing is that before that, I was just a kid fucked up on drugs and then after I read.
The other thing I learned is how oppressive—like a physical weight—time can be. I was sitting in the cell often quite alone. And it’s like the weight of the universe is just bearing down on you when you’re there by yourself. I learned the urgency of time. And not to take any sides in the conflict in Israel, which I guess is eternal, but I saw Arabs coming in who had been tortured. This is 1969. They would tie their hands to their ankles and put a stick between there and twirl them and beat them with another stick. And they would burn the bottom of their feet with cigarettes. The recovery room for them was my cell, so I would talk to some of these guys. One of them was a doctor, another one was just a family guy. And back then when bombings occurred, they would round up entire towns of men and interrogate them all.
How did you end up in Israel?
It’s a complicated story. After my fucked up childhood, my family was told by the authorities in Los Angeles that I would be put in juvenile hall until I was 18 unless my father came to get me. This is because my mother was basically an incurable alcoholic, and I was on my own since the time I was young. They were divorced. So my father came and got me and took me first to South Bend, Indiana, where he was an executive consultant for building a factory for Bendix Brakes. Before that he had his own aircraft company in Los Angeles in the ’50s and ’60s. They made brake systems for airplanes.
When that failed he became a consultant and then eventually got hired by a big company in Europe. I went with him. Then I ran away, hitchhiked around Europe and got caught. I then stayed in Germany for a year in Solingen working in a tool factory. Then he told me, “You have to go to school now, son.” He was going to send me off to a school in the Swiss Alps, which was a fancy school the children of the company he worked for could go to. I said no and ran away with a couple of older hippies I met in Solingen. We hitchhiked down through Germany into Yugoslavia, then down into Greece and from there to Turkey. We stayed in Istanbul for a little while and then had just enough money to get to Israel because they had a contact there.
At the time it wasn’t easy to enter. We arrived there penniless and stayed in a Kibbutz. They were selling drugs, trying to send hash through the mail back to the States. Pretty stupid. I got involved too, and when the hippies left the Kibbutz, they left the hash with me. When the rest of the Kibbutz found out I had the hash, they called the police and they came but I escaped with the hash to Jerusalem and was in a youth hostel trying to sell it. There the police found and arrested me.
You mentioned before that you were a violent person.
Shit yeah. I don’t know why, but yes.
Physically fighting with people?
No. I got in a fight once on acid at a punk gig. I mean more extreme behavior. I remember leaving a punk gig in downtown L.A. and everybody walking down the street and breaking every window of the cars along the way. It was anarchy as a solution. It’s nice.
What’s your relationship to religion?
I was raised Catholic and I’ve always had spiritual aspirations, but I’m smart enough to never be interested in dogmatic religion, because I realize that any sort of template or structure you place on reality is instantly going to dissolve. Usually in religion, histories are apocryphal, at best. But the aspiration to be a part of something bigger than yourself and to touch something sacred in life is universal and wonderful. So my religion, in that sense, is Swans. It is the music. But I started going back to church recently. You know, I’m on the outside, but there’s something about it I really like. I’m sort of an observer, but I’m not cynical. I don’t believe the Bible is the literal book of god, but it is interesting to me. There’s certainly something in all religions which speaks of a greater potential in humans.
In terms of your lyrics and how you deliver them, I sometimes had the impression that you’re singing from god’s perspective.
I just gravitate towards that. It’s not like I try to teach anybody anything or show anybody anything. It’s just who I am. But is the door open just a crack for believing in something greater? I believe in cosmic unity, a god inside us. But you have to be careful when you start believing in god if you care about truth—that it’s not wishful thinking. So when I’m reading the Bible for instance, I know these are just ancient stories. It’s not like god was on the mountain and told these things. They’re myths and tales that were compiled over centuries. But they do form a kind of narrative that speaks to our beginnings. The book of Genesis talks about the beginnings of the Jewish people—where their place is in the world.
But it all kind of involves, like . . . when did the Bible start, 1500 B.C.? Can you imagine being a nomad or herder and looking up at the sky? What did they see? They knew nothing about science, nothing about the cosmos. And so of course the world was probably vibrating with magic. Have you ever been to the MET in New York and gone to the Egyptian room? Or to the one at the National Museum in London? It’s astounding when you look at the sandals or mirrors or combs and you think about their view of the universe and the information they had. It was tiny. Basically, the world must have been this psychedelic experience.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read more from this issue, click here.