Georgia Straight Preview

Swans’ music transports Michael Gira into the naked now
by Alexander Varty 

Michael Gira is talking about sex, but he might as well be discussing something that he’s only going to do one more time before abstaining forever: tour with the current incarnation of Swans.

“Aside from the grunting animal aspect that it can have,” he says in an enjoyably glitch-free Skype interview, “when it’s a focused and honest and unguarded and exploring experience with someone you love, it’s absolutely a true spiritual experience.”

Now, we don’t know what goes on in Gira’s New Mexico home—and, frankly, we don’t really want to know. But having experienced the brutally ecstatic maelstrom that is a Swans concert, we’re sure that, for Gira, performing is a kind of Tantric initiation: a sweaty, three-hour-long offering of physical and emotional extremity.

How has immersing himself, night after night, in that kind of ritual changed his physicality and his consciousness?

“My physicality? I’m a wreck,” the 62-year-old singer-guitarist says, with a dry chuckle. “But my consciousness? When the music is elevating, when the music is playing us rather than the reverse, it’s the closest I get to a kind of pure state of awareness—aside from meditation, which I do fitfully, unfortunately, not as rigorously as I should. But I see the music—when it’s really taking us over and it’s really like we’re one body that’s playing—as being the closest I get to what someone in a book I read called ‘the naked now’.”

It’s not the ecstasy that Gira is readying himself to give up, however. By turning Swans into a project-based enterprise rather than a full-time rock band, he hopes to rid himself of the burdensome infrastructure that comes with being an employer. He also plans to expand his musical palette, perhaps through performing with improvising musicians such as cellist Okkyung Lee, who makes a cameo appearance on Swans’ latest release, The Glowing Man. And he might just find the time to delve deeper into meditation.

We, on the other hand, will have to content ourselves with the recordings—which, based on The Glowing Man and its immediate predecessors, The Seer and To Be Kind, will be no hardship. It’s easy to view the new double CD as a voyage: it begins with “Cloud of Forgetting”’s agonized chant of “I am blind,” reaches its sonic apex in the nearly half-hour-long title track, and winds slowly down with the self-explanatory “Finally, Peace”.

“I can see that,” Gira allows. “That has a lot to do with sequencing, of course, on which I worked very hard—but I don’t start out with a template and then fill it in.

“It’s just following intuition,” he continues, “and imposing discipline on the intuition. A painter for whom I have a great affinity is Francis Bacon, and the way he worked was, in a way, similar. I don’t know if he had an image in mind; I think he would just start painting, and gradually the image would develop. And that’s sort of how things happen with us.”

With that in mind, Gira gently declines to discuss future projects; once this tour is over, they’ll develop at their own pace. But one thing is sure: he’s going to keep working. “That’s kind of the code of my life, really,” he says. “I mean, there are personal relationships and children, but in the end, just for my own sense of having a purpose, that’s always been my way of living. I have to do the work.”