Billboard leaving meaning. Review

Swans Founder Michael Gira Talks Band's 15th Album, 'Leaving Meaning,' And 13th Lineup: 'This New Mutation Is Unique'

10/25/2019 by 

Gira explains that the latest formation harkens back to the group’s ’90s-era congregation.


That’s Michael Gira’s dry response when asked if Swans’ latest release, Leaving Meaning (Oct. 25, Mute/Young God Records), was intentionally produced with tracks that average fewer than 12 minutes — which isn’t the norm for some of the experimental act’s more epic, atmospheric-crashing chants, like the 30-plus-minute “Bring the Sun” or “The Seer.” In fact, with Swans, very little is intentional; all just comes together.

Granted, there was a different dynamic within the most recent era of the band (2010-2017). It was the most solid lineup Swans had ever had, admits Gira, but everything comes to an end. That version was dissolved, and Swans have returned in yet another form for their 15th studio album. 

Produced and written by Gira, Leaving Meaning -- which was recorded in Iceland, Germany, New Mexico and New York -- features several former Swans members along with dozens of other handpicked musicians. A different dynamic altogether, this new incarnation is one Gira says is more similar to how he pulled the band to together back in the 1990s.

Swans’ previous lineup, which gave its final concerts in November 2017, would literally start jamming new songs as they performed live; “remember them,” according to Gira; and use them for the following album. “[Swans] from 2010-2017 was a peak experience for me working with a group,” says Gira. “It’s the first time -- the only time -- that Swans ever had a stable group, and we developed over the course of that time a kind of telepathy, which resulted in a lot of the material recorded in the final three albums with that group.”

That lineup released four albums, concluding with 2016’s The Glowing Man. “It was just kind of a way of really intuitively connecting with people, and that was a tremendous experience. But things like that reach a tipping point and can’t continue,” says Gira. “It gets stale, or you know what the other person is thinking.” (The release of The Glowing Man came in the wake of former collaborator Larkin Grimm writing on her Facebook page that Gira had raped her eight years earlier, a claim that Gira has consistently denied.)

For Leaving Meaning, Gira wrote most of the songs on acoustic guitar and then entered the studio, recording predominantly in Berlin with former Swans bassist Christopher Pravdica, Berlin musician Yoyo Rohm and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ keyboardist Larry Mullins (aka Toby Dammit) to nail down the basic structure for how the tracks would appear on the album. Once the material was developed, Gira gathered artists to flush out the arrangements.

“I’m a producer, so I just gather musicians to make a record, and it’s not really a band like it was from 2010-2017,” says Gira. “It’s more of a project.”

He also tapped longtime Swans guitarist Norman Westberg, whom Gira says he “adores,” for several tracks; both recently kicked off a joint solo tour in the United States and Eastern Europe. Former Swans member (and Gira’s Angels of Light bandmate) Thor Harris recorded with Gira in Albuquerque. Producer-composer Ben Frost provided additional electric guitar, synth and arrangements in Reykjavik, while Swedish chamber singer Anna von Hausswolff, a diminutive blonde known for knocking on cathedral doors throughout Europe asking to play their organs, added a “positive, pixieish vibe,” says Gira, along with her sister Maria, who also contributed vocals.

“She’s got moxy,” he says. “She just works her way in there, and they allow her to play the massive church organ, and then she creates these amazing sounds. She’s such a positive, jolly person, and then she comes up with this demonic music.”

In addition, Gira pulled in The Necks, who played some shows with Swans when they toured Australia, for more ambient jazz vibrations. “They create these amazing fields of sound that’s tremendous improvisational music,” he says. “It’s not like the herky-jerky improv you would expect with some jazz. It’s very trance … To me, it’s like having The Beatles on my record. I mean, of contemporary musicians, they are definitely my favorites.”

To help fund the album, Gira produced an alternate version of the songs on acoustic guitar. They were released through the independent record label he formed in 1990, Young God Records, which also houses Swans, his solo projects and indie artists like Devendra Banhart and Windsor for the Derby. When people aren’t buying music like they used to, he says bands need to figure out ways to survive. “I come from a punk rock background, which to me doesn’t mean the music,” says Gira. “It’s more about the attitude and doing things for yourself. So I started making handmade CDs and started doing fundraisers so I could have a music budget to record the way I wanted.”

Leaving Meaning is a cacophony of filth, beauty, lust, disgust, the spiritual and everything in between, drifting open with instrumental “Hums” and a more monotone “Annaline” before all hell breaks loose in the 10-minute twisted, mystical diatribe “The Hanging Man,” where Gira prods, “Healer, heal my lust … Write it on the sky/These stars reveal the lie,” and fills it in with sporadic barks of “I am not!”

Swans rarely revisits past songs, yet “Amnesia,” which was first released on 1992’s Love of Life, reappears on Leaving Meaning. Far from the levitous tone of the original, this iteration goes deeper, becoming a near-Gregorian chant, while still preserving lyrics like “There’s no room here left for the strong/And everything human is necessarily wrong” and “The president’s mouth is a whore.”

There’s additional chanting on “Sunfucker,” backed with sinister chiming and both the von Hausswolffs’ shrieks, plus more doom and gloom on “Cathedrals of Heaven” and 12 minutes of dismal piano and creepy crooning by guest vocalist Baby Dee in “The Nub.” “My Phantom Limb,” an obsessive diatribe of love, sex (and perhaps something murkier), is one of the longer tracks; Gira says it will make the live set. “It’s almost kind of like one of those super-long Dylan songs where there’s like 2 million words,” he observes. “I’m going to persist with it, and maybe midway through the next tour I’ll get it right.

Speaking of live, Gira is incorporating unrecorded material and only a handful of Leaving Meaning’s 12 tracks -- only they won’t sound anything like the album. Onstage, the band (comprising former Swans Pravdica, Phil Puleo and Kristof Hahn, along with Frost and Angels of Light’s Dana Schechter) also will be seated. “It’s going to be long, involving sounds, not much crashing and bashing,” says Gira, who admits that he’s hard of hearing from decades of performing without earplugs. “I’m kind of done with that. I don’t know how to describe it, but this new mutation is kind of unique.”

And he’s already thinking ahead to a 16th Swans album. When he plays a song on acoustic and the choruses resonate against his belly, it evokes something, a color. “It’s just intuitive,” says Gira. “That’s just the way I am. I’m not a trained musician, so I work by intuition.” He adds, “I actually have a sound in my head for the next version. It’s just a color or something. I’m not sure who’s going to fill that in yet.”