Michael Gira on ‘Dangling Off the Edge of a Cliff’ for Swans’ Epic Final Album
By Jordan N. Mamone
Swans leader Michael Gira is awake and affable at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning. His alertness at such an ungodly hour may initially seem contrary to his group’s dark, foreboding image, but it actually squares perfectly with the singer’s Stakhanovite work ethic. (Never mind that he’s also the father of a pair of young children.)
Born in 1982, broken up by 1997, and revived in 2010, Swans subsequently began attracting their largest audiences yet thanks to marathon world tours, symphony-length shows played at concussive volume and a total disregard for both commercial niceties and bankable nostalgia.
Every public performance is an awe-inspiring spectacle of art and exertion. Dual drummers hammer away at gongs and dulcimers, Christoph Hahn’s modified lap-steel guitar whinnies like a spinning drill bit, and Gira alternately commands and submits to the resulting tidal wave of sound, bellowing in the baritone of a wrathful lord then spastically slapping himself in the face.
Released June 17, The Glowing Man is the third consecutive Swans album—each issued as a mammoth triple-LP set—to synthesize all of the band’s stylistic quirks.
The car-crushing riffs and slow-motion rhythms from the group’s earliest years now flow seamlessly into the sometimes bucolic, sometimes thundering expansiveness that characterized its later material. But a loose, live-ensemble feel supplants the lockstep rigidity of yore, and the strongest songs flirt with modern psychedelia as they rumble past the 20-minute mark. Having taken this approach to its logical conclusion, Gira recently announced that the new record and the gigs supporting it would be the last hurrah for the current incarnation of Swans.
In advance of Swans’ upcoming concerts at the Bowery Ballroom Friday, July 29, andat the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday, July 30, Gira spoke to the Observer about the wide-open future that lies before him.
The Glowing Man is the final record by the current lineup. Has making music with these people reached its logical end or do your bandmates have too many outside commitments?
Both. Having a band and being the leader is exhausting. At this point, I’d prefer to have a revolving cast of characters like I did in the ’80s and ’90s, some of whom might end up being these same guys. I’m just gonna take it record by record. But after seven years of constantly being in each other’s presence for probably 200-plus days a year, all of us are shocked to discover that we have lives. They have other things they want to pursue, and I look forward to having more time to read, listen to music and think.
So nobody quit abruptly or needed to be replaced?
No, no. I feel that this has been the most musically fruitful period of my life. There’s a real willingness to let the songs lead us into unexpected places live, to just explore. I’d never felt comfortable doing that to such an extent previously. I think it’s fair to say that we love each other and we’re still looking forward to the tour and then dangling off the edge of the cliff. I just wanna find out what happens next.
For the tour, keyboard player Paul Wallfisch will replace percussionist Thor Harris. Why did Thor leave, how did you find Paul and what will Paul will bring to the table?
This was decided right after we’d finished recording the new album, in September or October. Thor’s mother is elderly and he wants to stay closer to her. He was also exhausted by our touring regimen and he has his own music. We’re still really close and there’s no animosity between us at all. I’d met Paul several times over the years, and he plays with Little Annie, who has toured with us.
She was a guest singer on Swans’ previous album, To Be Kind, from 2014.
When Thor decided to depart, I called Paul. We got along great. He adds organic keyboards, piano and organ. This is kind of a pompous way of putting it, but I guess the sound is more orchestral now.
So there won’t be two drummers onstage anymore?
No. Gotta move on. I wouldn’t try to imitate what Thor was doing.
Will you be performing any older stuff?
No. I’m using the words from the song “Amnesia” [from 1992’s Love of Life] but the music is completely different. Otherwise, there are no nuggets.
The last three records sound like a trilogy. Why do you think there is such consistency between those albums?
It comes from the band. I’m the musical director but it comes from the sensibilities of the players and how the songs develop live. Maybe half of the last three records came about that way; the other stuff is material that I wrote on an acoustic guitar and worked up in the studio. So there are two different trajectories in the way the records are made. But the sprawling, ever-developing soundscapes evolve from performance.
Before you recorded it, you changed the lyrics and title of the song “Black Hole Man” to the more optimistic “The Glowing Man.”
That was a place-holder. I hadn’t yet come up with what I thought were good words. “Black Hole Man” is a bit puerile, isn’t it?
The words almost seem a little superfluous compared to the overall mood or sound.
I wouldn’t agree with the word “superfluous,” but they are just signposts along the way. For a while, on the song “The Apostate” [which was eventually released on 2012’s The Seer], I was singing Lady Gaga’s [name]. [Laughs] I really admired her for a time. I thought she had a lot of moxie. Unlike a lot of pop stars of her ilk, she can actually sing incredibly well.
I suppose she comes from a certain classic, Broadway-influenced tradition.
It’s something alien to my word but, on the schmaltzy side, I have a lot of respect for someone like Bette Midler. Or, on the other side, someone like Frank Sinatra or Nina Simone. They’re entertainers. The music business these days makes things kind of generic, but I thought Lady Gaga was great. I’m not paying attention anymore but, for a while there, I was. Just like everyone else.
Who is “The Glowing Man”?
It’s Donald Trump; can’t you tell? [Laughs] I think it should be self-evident. It’s a state of mind.
Positive, of course. The whole record is positive, in my view. It’s all love.
Throughout the lyrics, you’re tormented by a sinister figure named Joseph, who has appeared in your songs before. What’s the significance?
I think he’s a sort of animus and messenger angel. For a writer, he comes from an ineffable place where the words and the creative flow appear. I’m interested these days in the complete dissolving of the self. I was hoping that he would aid me in that endeavor.
When I was an adolescent, I took lots of LSD: I would stare at my face for hours on end and suddenly I’d be staring at an alien other person, who has his own reality and is a complete entity outside my own consciousness. Maybe that’s him?
You’ve characterized the songs “Cloud of Unknowing” and “Cloud of Forgetting” as prayers. Prayers to what?
Books I’m reading often leak into the words. When we were first performing those songs, I only had rudimentary lyrics and I was reading a book called The Cloud of Unknowing by a 14th-century contemplative Christian mystic. It was written in the form of a letter to an acolyte, to guide him on the path of reaching a union with the divine. It’s sort of like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith: giving up your experience, your language, your identity and your presumptions about existence and being very open to the love or life force that is behind all that.
It’s very similar to Buddhism, which is what interested me about it. Buddhism does not ever mention the word “god,” by the way. And I read an interesting and beautiful book about a year ago called The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. He draws a parallel between the spiritual aspirations of various religions, about the seeking of union with the divine and the loss of the self.
It’s necessary to forget as part of the process. If you ever meditate, you’ll find that you have this chatter in your mind: I have to do this or I hate that bitch or I love that bitch or I have to go to the store now. You have to focus and be exactly in the moment, which is almost an impossible task. “Cloud of Forgetting” is about leaving all that quotidian stuff of existence behind.
Do you meditate often?
I do. Not as much as I would like. It’s a life goal to make it a more consistent practice. Zen, in particular, appeals to me because it’s the least ornate branch of Buddhism. It’s the most dry and pragmatic and it’s about pure consciousness. I’m not fond of the emphasis on deities of some branches. Reincarnation doesn’t interest me.
There’s hocus pocus in all religions but it’s all relative. There are beautiful Christian thinkers, as well: I’m reading Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross right now, which is very similar to what’s in The Cloud of Unknowing.
I believe it all leads to the same place, regardless of the nomenclature that people use. To ascribe things too closely to it leads to fundamentalism, which I think is really stupid.
But the core aspiration of spirituality in religion—not the tenets of religion—is very similar in most practices. Now that I’m interested in this more seriously, I’ve found that it’s something for which I’ve had an affinity for years, without really knowing that it has parallels in a more established practice.
On a more earthly note, your wife, Jennifer, sings a pretty gut-wrenching song on The Glowing Man called “When Will I Return?” What’s the story behind that?
Jennifer lived in New Orleans for a long time. She was back visiting, post-Katrina, six years ago. She was at a friend’s house and she went out to a local store to get some food just as it was turning dark, fairly early in the evening. A man leaped out of the bushes and grabbed her and was attempting to drag her into his car. She fought him vehemently, as she’s that kind of person. And her life flashed in front of her eyes but she refused to accept it. So she fought, and he beat the shit out of her.
And she kept fighting and screaming. Eventually people came, and he fled. That experience is something that continues to inform her life constantly. This happened before I met her, but I’ve witnessed her struggles with it. She’s explained to me that something like this changes the chemistry of your brain forever. Nightmares and different events trigger the release of the same sort of chemicals. That’s what happens to veterans, as well.
PTSD. The title “When Will I Return?” refers to returning to one’s normal mental state?
Yeah. I wrote it as a tribute to her, as an act of love. When I first played it for her, she was pretty moved. But it was very difficult for her to sing it.
That was recorded last summer. She hasn’t listened to it since.
Did you consciously make the gentlest song on the album about something so violent?
I don’t know. The song was written on acoustic guitar and the arrangement seemed appropriate for it. I just like using female singers on the records. In this case, Jennifer has a great voice and a strong story to tell. I think to orchestrate or perform the song in a violent or overtly forceful manner would have been corny and would have undercut the truth and poignancy of the performance.
They’re absolutely false. It’s the complete opposite of the truth, in fact.
What happened between us was plain stupid, but it was also utterly consensual, by any possible interpretation of the word. It was completely and mutuallyparticipatory. In the end, it was an awkward and regrettable interlude between two adults that led nowhere. [Her claim is] just astounding to me. I was in shock for a month when this happened. It was as if someone poured a fresh cup of battery acid onto my brain.
When I first went out in public, which took quite some time, I thought I was gonna be yelled at, basically stoned in the public square.
It was incredibly difficult to do my [European] solo tour [in the spring]. Unfortunately, in today’s media environment, I’m presumed guilty by many people and anything I say is a clue to my supposed guilt or is interpreted as an attack on some victim, which she is decidedly not.
I also feel it important to point out that the accusations of dropping her from the label for some nefarious reasons are patently false. By 2009, I was broke and I made the decision to restart Swans. Soon after this decision, I informed her and all other artists on the label that I couldn’t take on any new projects, that I would have no time or money to do so. I carried through for a while with projects to which I’d already committed, but that’s it.
I’m a very proactive person, so the most painful thing, aside from the deep and lasting damage to my loved ones and my reputation, has been being put in a position where I can essentially do nothing. You can’t prove a negative. I’m getting better at dealing with this psychologically now, but I’m hoping that, at some point, the truth comes out, and that this gets resolved.
You mean her admitting that she made up or changed certain details of the story?
Yeah. That would be the right thing to do, certainly. But what are the chances of that? I don’t know. I always liked her and thought she was extremely talented and intelligent, and I was very supportive of her and her music, as she knows. I don’t recognize the person that would do something like this. But I feel zero animosity. It’s certainly been a lesson in humility, I’ll say that.
Around 1983, Sonic Youth amicably borrowed a set of your lyrics for their song“The World Looks Red.” Why did you reclaim those lyrics for a song on the new album?
I was just playing a guitar figure and, for some reason, I thought of those words and started singing them. They were just place fillers. And then I thought, why not use them? Of course, they’re written by an alien being at this point. I have no idea who that person was. They’re pretty much utterly paranoid.
For me, they’re a potent evocation of walking around the more claustrophobic parts of New York, like Chinatown.
I didn’t walk around much in those days. I would often not go out for a week. I was very agoraphobic. A lot of strange things would go through my mind, which was, at the time, fueled by chemicals, I suppose. For a long time, my world outlook was informed by having ingested huge amounts of LSD when I was very young. Some of those thoughts probably stem from that.
I do think that LSD was very useful in that it gave me a sense of this kind of divine force that infuses everything. I wouldn’t encourage anybody to take it. Or maybe I would? I don’t know! But it certainly opens up a different perception of being, which you might not otherwise have access to. That has stayed with me to this day.
Getting back to the present, is it more daunting or exciting to totally change the band after so many years?
Both. I don’t wanna do things by rote. Like I said, it’s dangling off the edge of a cliff. But I think that’s a good place to be.