The Seventh Hex Interview
Following the unprecedented critical and commercial success of Swans’ double-album masterworks ‘The Seer’ and ‘To Be Kind’, Michael Gira announced that the existing iteration of the band would only produce one more album and tour. ‘The Glowing Man’, as with its predecessors, is an expansive two-hour epic containing lengthy compositions that the band developed during their momentous tours. Throughout the latest release, Gira is less a songwriter than a summoner, channelling unspeakable amounts of energy into ritualistic spectacles. Many of the songs start out with tension-building drones, often utilising lots of percussion before ebbing and flowing with intense bursts, and eventually reaching ecstatic, trance-inducing states. There’s no way this type of boundless energy can simply be retired or silenced, though, so the album serves as another exciting portal into the unknown… The Seventh Hex talks to the legendary Michael Gira about being self-critical, sequencing and Buddhism…
TSH: Since the inception of Swans to now, how rewarding is it for you to consistently and continually develop little worlds and atmospheres with your compositions and have listeners connect on a personal level?
Michael: Without sounding too sentimental, that’s the greatest reward. When I talk to audience members after the show, hearing their responses and how the music has affected them in some true way is really the greatest repayment. I mean, I certainly haven’t had overwhelming financial rewards, so I’ll take what I can, ha! You know, it’s just great connecting with listeners; it allows me to strive to be self-critical and push things forward as much as possible in a true and honest way.
TSH: Is it essential for your arrangements to be free of constraint?
Michael: Yeah, I mean I never look at something as finished. It’s always a starting point for something else to happen, even with extent material it just keeps getting re-evaluated and iterated in a different way. My approach recently has been to significantly transform ideas and have them open to change as we go along.
TSH: What sort of trajectories are you applying to get your desired outcomes?
Michael: There are usually two trajectories that I’ve used on these recent records: one of which is me writing songs on acoustic guitar and then developing the songs with the band, as well as other people who subsequently perform on these songs in the studio. The other is writing songs on acoustic guitar and taking them to the band and we start developing them to perform live, which is an entirely different way of working. When we perform live things morph into these longer pieces that garner new sections constantly, and we keep pushing until new things happen.
TSH: ‘The Glowing Man’ is yet another excellent Swans release. What was your initial approach as you fleshed out ‘The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black’?
Michael: That song was just me playing this figure on the guitar and singing nonsense really. In the end, I just thought of the lyrics which I’d written and given to Sonic Youth over 30 years ago. I just started singing those words and it was kind of preposterous, but I thought, why not. I’m really happy with the end result on that one.
TSH: The remastered version of ‘The Great Annihilator’ is also another recent release. Do you remember forming the striking ‘Mind/Body/Light/Sound’?
Michael: That record was made during a great time for the band. You know, like all Swans records it was quite a torturous process unfortunately. Not being a real trained musician meant I was starting out with notions and colours with regards to how to orchestrate a song. I started working with people and I’d tell them about my ideas or play a song to them, and often they’d suggest something or they’d play something that would inspire something in me - it all just sort of grows organically with further contribution from others. I guess that’s how that song must have come about, I don’t remember too much.
TSH: Knowing sequencing is significant to you, is it often a case of following intuition with this factor?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Something I started with ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’ and continued since is developing material that works as transitions between the pieces, based on a discreet amount of already extent pieces. I’ll start developing other bits of music that serve as transitions or segues from one section to another. On ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’ the segues ended up taking precedence over the original pieces. The sequencing is really important to me in order to make the record a total cinematic experience.
TSH: Is it a constant spiritual and high level experience for you when Swans perform live?
Michael: Most certainly. I view the records and live performances as two completely different worlds, I don’t qualify them as one being better than the other. However, the live element is the apex of my life personally. It’s when the music kind of becomes bigger than us and we’re just puppets that are playing. We’re right in there with the audience, experiencing it ourselves. I always like live shows when they surprise me and wipe away my expectations of what reality is. Performing live is embedded in my bones and when the audience gets it, that’s the highpoint which creates pure elation for me.
TSH: Does the urgency of existence and proximity of death still inform your subject matter?
Michael: Well, I feel both are important topics in life for anyone to think about. At my age, I’m only naturally going to have these issues in mind. Certainly for me these types of factors inform my thinking more than anything else happening in life or in the past. I guess talking about it trivialises the subject matter though, so I leave thoughts pertaining to this type of subject matter open-ended.
TSH: Is Zen Buddhism a way of life that you admire?
Michael: Well, I think it’s preposterous for anyone to say ‘I’m a Buddhist’ because that negates the idea of Buddhism. I’m interested in the Buddhist way of thinking for sure, but I don’t prescribe to any notion of reality or how things should be.
TSH: Is it distracting to find discipline with so much information overload in this digital age?
Michael: I try to find clarity, but I’m just about caught up in this digital age as much as anyone else, unfortunately. I personally feel that social media and this age of information overload is a pernicious influence. I realise that our initial hope for the internet was the democratisation of information, but it seems to me that it’s become a swarm of distractions and neurosis. It’s like one big mind eating itself.
TSH: Also, does your daughter still prefer Katy Perry to Swans?
Michael: Ha! Yeah, she still prefers the pop world and cannot stand any Swans music. I think she kind of likes ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ by Iggy Pop, which is pretty cool.
TSH: How have you been keeping your mindset fresh during your downtime?
Michael: I read a lot and I’ve been watching a lot of movies…
TSH: You finally got around to seeing ‘The Hidden Fortress’…
Michael: Yes, I did. Akira Kurosawa is an absolute master and the film itself was a real treat. You know, I came to the conclusion several years ago that the greatest artists of the twentieth century were filmmakers, not necessarily fine artists, but, yeah, I rank Kurosawa way up there.
TSH: Knowing nothing is ever finished for yourself, as you look ahead with Swans, is it very much a case of changing the conversation and keeping things fresh?
Michael: For sure. You know, this current version of Swans has definitely been the most pleasing period of my career, which is encouraging, but also we put in the hard work so it’s a natural progression. I mean it’s great be able to be in my dotage and still make something that has a severance of vitality to it. This configuration of individuals called Swans at the current time is the most fruitful of musicians that I’ve ever experienced, and I love working with these guys. However, at a certain point you begin to anticipate and know what each person is going to do, and so it can become too familiar. We’re still performing very well and discovering new things as we go along, but I just want to change it up. Looking ahead, I’m going to make records whilst gathering musicians - people I know from all over the world for each song, many of whom will be these guys, but the end result will be one of a more open-ended circumstance.