Louder Than War Interview
INTERVIEW : Swans talk in depth on eve of UK tour
Written by johnrobb8 October, 2016
Swans tour the UK this week – we are hoping to the show at the Ritz in manchester on Sunday but there are other shows…all details and tickets from here
(Of a sort)
The mighty Swans are just about to end one of the most creative cycles in rock history, the band whose last four albums have stretched music into stunning, visceral and hypnotic shapes are about to throw everything in the air and change.
They are not so much splitting up as going through a high decibel conscious uncoupling with main man Michael Gira changing the band’s line up and direction in a way that even he does not know yet.
This means that this week’s mini tour of the U.K. will be the last chance to see this greatest of bands in their current powerhouse formation and we urge you to get to one of the concerts to see one of the most creative and thrilling bands at the peak of their powers with their live show and current album The Glowing Man both being enthralling.
The future of the band is in flux and that is just the way that iconic frontman Michael Gira likes it – creativity coming out of danger!
‘Well this group of gentlemen has been the most fruitfully consistent of line ups that I have ever had in Swans. It’s lasted the longest thats for sure, seven years, and it’s produced a lot of, I guess, compelling music but, you know, good things like marriages I guess and friendships kind of reach a point where it has to change. We just feel that we have been in the same room, essentially together, for seven years and it’s just time to change things up so that’s what has happened.’
Michael Gira has a deep and assured voice that has a calm intelligence and warmth to it. It’s a voice that has been through a lot in a thirty plus year career on the frontline of rock music since appearing on the New York no wave scene in the early eighties with a dense and powerful music that was heavy and dark and utterly immersive and moved the goalposts of what was was possible in rock music.
When Gira reactivated Swans after a ten year break the music took another swerve in a series of amazing albums with long songs that built up from silence to powerful drones to explosive crescendos, from moments of stunning beauty to tripped out brooding darkness. In the end there is only so far you can go with music that is this extreme and far out and the decision to end this phase of the band makes sense. Was this a mutual decision or something from Michael himself.
‘Of course it was kind of obvious that we have to change but I don’t want to give the impression that we are not 100 per cent emphatically involved with what we are doing because we are. We will be touring through to December next year so we better be! It’s a case of just when you work with the same people in close quarters for a long time you begin to develop tropes and you kind of know what to expect. To me that’s anathema like when you kind of know the answers to the questions. Also the rigorous physical schedule that we’ve had to develop to survive – a schedule that I’ve had to develop as a band leader to keep this thing running, you know, is just not sustainable so I decided it was time to, in the parlance, to ‘fuck shit up’ and that’s what I’m doing.’
So you’re the instigator of this reshuffle?
‘Oh yeah, of course…’
What was the reaction from the group – artistically when you got something good it must be hard to stop – but is there is a sense of relief when you stop? It’s a hell of schedule you work!
‘Yeah, it’s just time. Everyone agrees with that. It’s just time to move on. Everyone got things they wanted to do in their life otherwise. And it’s also for the integrity of the music and our personal necessities at the same time. It’s time to move on.’
I see our favourite percussion Viking, Thor, is not doing this tour because he is looking after his mother…
‘Well, he also has his own band and he just can’t take this 18 months on the road shit anymore basically (laughs)’
Very few people can!
‘He’s a great friend. I just saw him in Austin. It’s just time to change, that’s all. I didn’t to give the impression that it’s loosing its life force because it’s not as we are developing a lot of new music during the shows as we are going. We are keeping it vital and it’s just as urgent as its ever been for us and hopefully the audience but I want to be in unfamiliar territory as it seems to be the way I operate the best.’
To maintain the creative edge you need to be uncomfortable with no safety net and not just play some sort of greatest hits set.
‘Yeah, that would the last thing on earth one would want to be involved in. I’m looking forward to the next thing. I have no idea exactly what that’s going to be but that’s a nice feeling.’
It’s interesting that you you say you’re developing new martial on the road – could that be another release, maybe another live album? Or do you have to document it?
‘We are recording it and I’m sure it will be a limited live thing for those that want it. There are a couple of new things developing and some other songs that already are changing as well, that’s the mode this group works in. The band is constantly revamping and reinventing things and changing things as they go on just to keep us interested and try as much as possible in the moment.’
Does this knowledge that this band line up coming to an end – did that change the creative narrative of the band?
‘The material existed already – half the material on the record is stuff that we developed as we toured which is always developing.’
Do you feel a responsibility to put 100 per cent into what you are doing at any given time and also to keep the music moving?
‘It’s interesting that every record we make is quite different from the one before and that’s different from the one before that.
How you even envisage such huge records? There is so much detail and depth on the records that, like with The Glowing Man, it kind of pulls you in. It may take a couple of of listens but once you are in it’s very difficult to get out again! do you have a clear idea of how you want the record to sound before you make it or does it just develop?
‘I make extensive lists of what needs to be on there – not musical charts but a list of things that will go on but typically when I’m in the studio the notes I use get more stretched out and discarded.
I make extensive charts and lists not musical charts but lists of how things will go but typically when I’m in the studio those notes are just a reference point but they pretty much end up getting torn up because once I hear things on tape it opens up all kinds of possibilities – too many possibilities (laughs) and then I persue those!’
I guess that’s why the records are so long because there are so many creative possibilities!
‘I don’t know. I can’t really answer why they are so long but it’s what that material demands in certain cases and it’s also about not being beholdant to record companies since I am my own record company. I just follow the thread of the music as long as its compelling and seems to have a reason to exist then that’s what it it is…’
This what you fought for! for decades early Swans there was fairly obviously no-one telling you what to do and you would find the creative freedom that you really had to fight for…
“Well it’s just this is my life and I want to leave behind or certainly be involved in something that has an element of truth in it, so I prefer to follow that path rather than worry about anything else.’
The subject matter on the record is fascinating. I’m interested by the religious overtones on the tracks and the ideas of losing yourself into the sound. I was thinking about when I read early interviews with you and you would talk about that rehearsal space in New York where you put the ampegs in a circle and stand in the middle to get lost in the noise and this sense of what you are trying to do with these tracks getting lost in the power of the music sounds similar not so much there this idea of losing yourself inside the music would that be a fair analysis
Absolutely that’s, you know, 45 years of being on planet earth and developing a spiritually as a human being you know – spirituality is potentially fraught with all kind of hokey connotations and is more really trying to immerse yourself into the kind of cosmic cloud that exists and perhaps when we get wrapped up in quotidian daily life forget about and this is trying to create that and try and be involved in the moment.’
Your idea of religion is not going to be conventional and more spiritual.
‘Yeah, I don’t subscribe to any kind of conventional religion although I’m certainly drawn to Buddhist thinking or Christian mysticism but you know that’s neither here or there – that’s my personal proclivities.’
You’ve worked this into some of the lyrics of the album?
‘Yeah that was a book I was reading – The Cloud Of Unkowing – I don’t know if you are aware of that book or not it’s kind of a difficult book but it’s very beautiful…’
A bit like Swans in a sense!
‘I don’t know! The book was written in the 14th century by this abbot – a monk for his acolytes – teaching them the correct way to prey and to meditate and to reach union with god or the divine and I found it very compelling because these are the most important questions you can ask. I found an answer in it to Buddism and to the music that was developing on tour at the time and I didn’t have any words and I was reading that book so naturally those kinds of that ways of thinking infused the lyrics. The music itself of that particular song created that state of mind where those lyrics from that book would fit perfectly. They kind of both have similar aspirations I guess.’
I often thought when I watch you play live that it’s quite interesting watching people’s reactions – there is always someone who collapses resisting the music and yet also people with their hands in the air surfing on the sound and when you get into that state of mind the louder and more heaver songs are really meditative and it’s interesting that when you talk about this and these themes on the new album it ties together. Something I always felt with your music is that it’s something that as a person at your concerts you can get into this lost meditative power of sound mind set.’
‘Well that happens to us too when we are fully connected. The term I use is that the music is playing us rather than us playing the music. That’s what it’s all about. I think that’s what’s inherent in amplified rock music anyway from the Stooges onwards or even from Pink Floyd in 1969 when I saw them on tour. It’s a totally immersive experience and we are following that path in our own way.’
Do you get that immersed in the music from the first chord or gradually…
‘It develops as we play. The songs we are playing sometimes have the the same chord played for a long time and the voice sings and the overtones that occur the kind of guide us into playing different ways with different versions of the same thing, so they are gradually morphing. As a producer, when I try to create that effect on record it’s difficult because you can’t really capture that volume and what happens with the overtones that are generated harmonics that are independent of the chords that are being payed and it’s really hard to capture that. I have to use different ways to try create that.’
It does work as a listener because live the experience is so powerful and an instant thing and I find if you put headphones on and lie down you can get completely lost inside those immersive sounds and it’s a wonderful experience.
With this album you still don’t back away from the difficult, heavy themes like on When Will I Return which is a really difficult song to write for a lot of reasons emotionally and to sing as well. Do you think its important to confront really difficult, heavy subject matter?
‘Well I don’t know about anybody else but there is a whole menu of things in the human experience that are there to be explored. Some are very elevating and positive and other things might be interpreted as being dark but ultimately I think exploring these sensations or experiences is just as positive as, you know, writing a religious hymn. If you look at someone like say, Goya, and his black paintings at the end of his life or Hermonious Bosch or Francis Bacon I guess you could say those are dark subjects but the form and that act of making it is very positive and very uplifting and beautiful. I love Bacon, I read everything on him, I love his work and it’s great there is the exhibition in Liverpool and I hope people go and see that.
I won’t have a chance to go myself but I would recommend people get right up close to the painting and look at the textures – that’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s just beautiful.
I don’t know what it it is. I inject a kind of spiritual quest to it although he would have laughed out loud to that, it’s just my proclivities, I think it’s wonderful stuff.
In a sense art and music confronting the dark side of life ultimately becomes uplifting or,,,
‘Yeah, I mean that’s just part of literature, part of music, part of art…’
And the duty of an artist in a way?
‘It’s just what’s there in existence and experience to write about. I mean, christ, I mean you can read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which is a harrowing experience but it’s also incredibly beautiful.’
Because all experience has a fascination to it…
‘Yeah. It’s also the form and the way the way that you reaffy things when you make some art that make it elevating, you know, there is other ways of making art that are very abstract and have nothing to do with the things we are discussing and that can also be very powerful as well. If you think about Richard Serra’s sculptures – once you walk into one of those configurations I think they are incredibly elevating and beautiful or even an artist who uses very mundane means can make something incredibly immersive and beautiful or maybe like the light artists Dan Flavin for instance.
Do you see what you do with music as an equivalent to these artists?
‘Well I don’t know if it’s a totally different experiences. I say that there is the message because people I guess they want to assume that there is some message or that it’s teaching you or telling you something and that doesn’t really interest me as much as the experience itself. The experience itself is the message, that’s more the kind of trajectory that interests me.’
At the same time and, of course, you don’t have to talk about this but there have been the Larkin Grimm accusations about you – was that making it difficult to be creative with all that hanging around you at the same period?
‘Well, you know, I use an image to describe what that was that like for me personally , and that’s like someone carefully removing the top of your skull and pouring in cup of battery acid mixed with gasoline and LSD in there.
It was perhaps the most poisonous and negative thing you can imagine and it consumed me for quite some time but I came to the conclusion and I’m certainly no realized Buddhist monk but that the only way to deal with it was to be positive and to infuse as much much love into the situation as possible and that’s not from some altruistic aspiration, it’s just that it’s the only way to deal with this otherwise it’s just an ongoing cycle of poison and since you brought it up I have to say that the accusations are absolutely and categorically false. Something did occur between us that was utterly consensual and inconsequential and really should have been forgotten because nothing fucking happened but what else can I say? I can’s prove that. You can’t prove a negative, all I can do is try to live positively and harbor no ill ill will which is what I’m attempting to do.’
Does it make you more suspicious of people?
‘Well that’s the whole thing about it, it breeds all these negative things like suspicion, paranoia and it’s just like a very evil thing and again I harbour no ill will, in fact I never did. When it happened I didn’t feel angry but completely dumb founded and utterly paranoid. Just walking out of my house was terrifying. It’s probably the internet shame, it’s very, very poisonous but again I have to reiterate that, you know, people can believe me or not but it’s not true absolutely not true.’
So at the Manchester at the Ritz on Sunday, of course, we don’t expect anything. We don’t expect the same show as last time but are there any parameter for this tour? Are we going to get the three hour immersive experience?
‘Well, we are not doing one minute Wire songs! but there is a lot new material that is developing and some material from The Glowing Man. There is one song from To Be Kind and those are changing as we go along so mainly we are just trying to keep it urgent for us and that’s the primary goal because if it’s not urgent for us it won’t be for the audience.’
Because you got Paul Wolfisch on keyboards replacing Thor on percussion, that must make a difference to the dynamic of the sound
‘Yeah it does it actually. It adds a little touch of Pink Floyd to it – not intentionally of course as we don’t sit around and try to do that but because he plays a B3 and unfortunately we can’t tour with a B3 but he plays B43 sound and piano and really analogue sounds as there is no sampling or anything and just adding that to the mix make it a very musical kind of element that he adds to the sound and it’s very good.’