Swans Song: An interview with Michael Gira

By | September 6th, 2011 | No Comments
Michael Gira

Michael Gira making music shift on Swans 2010 tour. -- photo from younggodrecords.com

Swans, the shifting, shadowy collective birthed in early ’80s New York, is an act most often associated with discomfort of all kinds. Part of that is in content. The group’s 11 studio albums have covered everything from religious hypocrisy to nihilism to personal failure to death and decay. And the unease continues, often, sonically. The group is stylistically unclassifiable but has won fans of genres from free jazz to metal thanks to its unpredictable, ambling song structures, dissonance, and infamously ear-splitting volumes.

This is all the surface stuff though. What gets lost in all the mouth-foaming breathless talk of earplugs and obliquely terrifying lyrical fragments is that Swans is so much more than purposefully confrontational noise. It’s much smarter than that. The band’s frontman and driving force, Michael Gira, is an erudite art school grad who drops $10 words in passing and who’s penned his own collection of fiction, The Consumer.

Musically, much of Swans’ propulsive thrust is, at its heart, heavily influenced by pelvis-fueled classic blues filtered through a truly punk disregard for song structure, technique, or any other kind of trapping. Swans songs expand and contract, ranging from cacophony and almost industrial tribal rhythms to downright pretty parts. Yes, Swans wrote love songs, and devoted listeners have been rewarded with many tender moments across the group’s vast discography.

Still, the weight of Swans’ infamy lay heavily on Gira until he finally dissolved the band in 1997, abandoning it to perform with a new project, the more straightforward and stripped-down Angels of Light. Eventually, he reached an impasse with that too, struggling through a trying, depressing period of creative block.

Then, in a surprise move last year, Gira reformed Swans with a few longtime musical cohorts, including original Swans guitarist Norman Westberg, and notably without longtime Swans vocalist Jarboe. The result was a new studio album, My Father Will Guide me Up a Rope to the Sky, an energetic collection much more spiritually hopeful than earlier Swans output in every respect.

Since the release, Gira and the group have been touring relentlessly. Surprisingly (to put it mildly), they will be arriving in South Florida on September 14 to play a show at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach. Even more surprisingly, at least to those less familiar with the Swans m.o., is that the set list won’t feature songs from My Father or older material. Instead, it will derive mostly from a currently unreleased album Gira and co recorded after My Father, and, if Gira’s true to his word, even those selections will morph into ecstatic renditions that seep towards the half-hour mark.

As you will read in my recent phone interview with Gira, the performance requires cardiovascular training.

Well, first off, your fans in this area never thought you would make it this far south –

MG: We actually played there once in the ’80s.

In Miami? Do you remember the venue?

MG: No, it was really awful. I’ll tell you the story. It was a really Don Johnson, Miami Vice type of disco place or something, and everybody had their white coats with their sleeves rolled up, and tans and puffy hair and big shoulder pads. I guess they thought they were doing something artistic. It was this big kind of cavernous, really glitzy, disco-y place — all you could think about was glitter and glitz. It was really repulsive.

They thought we were arty, so they hired these dancers to walk around the space underneath a canopy of gauze or something. So there was this human caterpillar walking through the space the whole time and dancing on the bar that way and stuff.

So we had reservations about that, but then the worst came when we were back in the dressing room, and I guess about a 55- or 60-year-old woman came to get us, and she was wearing a really high mini skirt and knee-high black boots, and long pink nails and frosted hair. She led us to the stage and actually came onto the stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce, all the way from New York, the most fantastic art band in the world, Swans!”

Then suddenly, all this smoke kind of gurgled out onto the stage. It was so inept, like someone just spit it out after throwing up. Then they played “Ride of the Valkyries!” So I’m yelling at the lighting guy, “No smoke, no smoke! Shut off this fucking music! No smoke!”

How did the audience react?

MG: It was like a pick-up, disco place and they had no idea who we were, and they just fled in droves just on the first note!

Did you fire your booking agent after that?

MG: Yeah, actually, we parted company after that tour. He booked us in some really inappropriate places. So, yeah, that’s my experience of playing in Miami, though I’ve been there otherwise.

Well, the show is actually about 70 miles north of here, in West Palm Beach. Regardless, what was the idea behind coming so far south and doing such an extensive tour this time?

MG: I told my booking agent before we started this that I want to play everywhere and I want to play all the time. This is what I want to do with my life right now, make music and tour. It’s been great, I think re-starting Swans was the smartest thing I ever did. It’s been the best thing for me, mentally, spiritually. The audiences are bigger than ever, and people seem to really, really get something from it.

And it’s not a nostalgia thing where we’re playing old songs. In fact, we’re only playing one old song from the olden days at all in the set, and it’s vastly changed. So people really appreciate the new music and the direction the music’s going in. It’s been a good thing.

Does the one old song you play change from night to night, or are there a handful you pick from, or what?

MG: We have a set that is fixed, but it’s fluid at the same time. It’s the same songs, but they grow and they shift. Some of the songs have grown into these beasts and they’re like 27, 30 minutes long now. It’s a real kind of ordeal, a trial by fire. It’s very intense, but it’s also very positive and very uplifting, I think. That’s the effect I get from the audiences.

So how long are your typical sets on this tour?

MG: Well, they have stretched to two-and-a-half hours.

So that might only be about five songs, depending on how the mood takes you.

MG: That’s right! I think there are just five or six songs — sometimes six, depending on how exhausted we are.

How did you pick the other people for this formation of the band’s lineup? Obviously there’s only a certain kind of personality that can handle that and go with the flow. How do you even practice for something like that?

MG: Well, the rehearsals are very intense. I wouldn’t say it’s improvisation — it’s kind of making the music shift, let’s put it that way. We all make the music shift, but it’s not improvisation in the fact that someone’s soloing and trying to draw attention to themselves. You find new ways of expressing the part within the whole, then the whole shifts.

There’s actually a group that does this as well that I think is really fantastic. They’re called the Necks, they’re from Australia. They’re loosely described as jazz, but they get up and just start playing, and they make these vast sonic landscapes with just acoustic piano, double bass, and drums. It’s so beautiful and unbelievable! It keeps growing and shifting.

So that’s what we go for in the context of having pre-arranged songs, just pushing them as far as we can. Now I’ve lost track of what your question was, sorry.

Well, the other part was how you picked the lineup, and how you knew the people involved would be up to the task.

MG: Norman Westberg, he was the first guitarist on record in Swans. He played in 1983 with the band. I hadn’t worked with him in years, and fortunately, when he got an e-mail from me, he jumped right at the chance. So that was really lucky.

Everyone else has either worked with me or is a good friend. Thor Harris, the second drummer, has toured with Angels of Light. Phil Puleo played in Swans during the final tour in ’97 — he’s a great drummer. Christoph Hahn, who plays the lap steel onstage, has played with Angels of Light and Swans. The bass player, Chris Pravdica, is a longtime friend and a great guy. We all fit together and it works really well.

When you’re in the middle of an epic 30-minute rendition of a song, how do you know when it’s time to wind down? Do you have a signal or do you go by feel?

MG: Usually when I fall down onstage and can’t get up.

I hope you’re joking.

MG: Well it happens sometimes! It’s actually pretty physical. It’s not like Mick Jagger or something, but it’s very relentless. It takes a lot of physical energy as well as concentration.

Do you do anything to prepare for that?

MG: Yeah, I’ve been putting it off, but I have to start exercising. Mainly cardiovascular stuff.

So it puts that much of a strain on you?

MG: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s not like I’m doing aerobics onstage, but there’s something about the way the movements are — I jump, actually, like someone stuck a cattle prod up my butt or something.

To go back a little bit, something I’ve always wondered about is that the legend of your biography makes a lot of your art school beginnings. Then as the story goes, you had this break with academia and you started to focus on music. Is that really how it went? Obviously you must have been playing music before that.

MG: Not really. It was the time of punk where it was okay to not know how to play your instrument. I had never really played the guitar or anything, and I just started back in L.A. I noticed punk rock started when it was all over the media and it was this big spit in the face to consumer society, and it made perfect sense to me, much more sense than the kind of elitist art world that I was being trained for.

I love art and have a great affinity for it, and always thought I would be an artist, but it just seemed kind of recondite and elitist and just not something that made any sense in today’s world. I guess it wasn’t really that much of an intellectual decision so much as a feeling like, “Yeah, this is what I want!” So I started figuring out how to make music, and failed at it miserably for the first couple of years, and finally started Swans and found my voice both sonically and literally.

Did you have any system of teaching yourself or did you just pick up the instrument and start playing by feel?

MG: I had some people show me stuff. But the way Swans was, you had to have great feel, but as far as playing typical chord progressions, they didn’t exist in the band. I searched around and I found these chords which had the right ache to them, and I would just move my hand up an down the neck using this weird fingering.

We call it the “staircase chord”, which I know now is an octave with a seventh in it, or something. It really adds a lot of tension. So then Norman would play these open, modal chords with that. It’s really just about rhythm and sound.

In the musical avant-garde, just as in the art world, there are always certain trends or things that may be considered “cooler” than others. Why did the musical avant garde seem, to you, to be more open than the art world to different forms of expression?

MG: It’s always wide open, it’s just that the only limitation is people’s imagination.

Wouldn’t you say the same thing of visual art?

MG: Oh yeah, of course. Are you talking about the time, the environment that allowed us to do what we were doing?

Yes, exactly.

MG: Well, it took us several years to even get heard, so to speak. We would often, if we were lucky, start a show with maybe 100 people there, and by the end, there’d be 10. People had never seen anything like it before, it was just too much. It took a long time.

You also published an art magazine when you were younger. Did that overlap with Swans?

MG: No. I published that in Los Angeles, just the first two issues of it. It was what they call in England a broadsheet, 11 by 14 inches or something. It was my friend and I. I worked construction and I forget how he got his money. But we just saved, and it was a newspaper-type punk rock magazine, punk rock and art performance and some vile drawings I did, and pornography, and things like that. It was just pushing the punk ideal a little further than it was comfortable going.

So was there a point at which you specifically decided to leave all that behind and focus on the music, or did it just kind of happen that way?

MG: Yeah, I think I was still in art school when I was doing that. So I pursued it a little bit longer after I quit art school, and then I started a band with a friend of mine out there in L.A., and we played around for a while. It was called the Little Cripples, and then that broke up.

Then I started playing with another guy and we moved out to New York together and stared a really unfortunate band there called Circus Mort. We put out one really embarrassing EP, and once that fell apart, I was working with a guitarist, and I just said “Fuck this” and borrowed a bass from someone and somehow figured out how to make sound on a bass. Things grew from there.

It’s funny that you call those early bands “unfortunate” because now, with the reputation of Swans, those early acts are revered, with people trying to track down their stuff. Is that funny to you at all?

MG: Yes, because it’s really bad music! The words are good. I was looking at YouTube or something and listening to one of them. The words were good, but with the singing, I still hadn’t found my voice. I was singing probably two octaves higher than I do now.

You’re talking about words, and boundary-pushing in your earlier zine. That’s something you’ve always been known for both in Swans and in your other writing. Did you ever deal with an inner editor or censor when you were starting to write lyrics? If so, how did you overcome it? There’s a lot of taboo material discussed.

MG: That’s interesting. No, I don’t think I have any kind of inner censor. I have an inner critic, and, unfortunately, that inner critic has grown into kind of a raging beast. That’s resulted in a long period of writer’s block, which I’m only now beginning to come out of.

It’s funny, the subjects I gravitate towards, sometimes they are uncomfortable, but maybe that just feels right, like I should be writing about it and it’s urgent and necessary to write about. But I’ve written about a lot of things, not just that kind of thing. I write love songs as well.

Do you feel that material gets unfairly overlooked in favor of the other stuff?

MG: Well, it’s natural. The extreme usually takes precedence, you know. I long ago gave up trying to argue with people or convince them that Swans wasn’t this big barrage of noise constantly. That’s the first thing people notice and comment on, particularly lazy-minded rock critics, present company excluded, of course.

But if you look at the whole catalog of Swans music, it’s incredibly varied. Some of it’s downright pastoral, even pretty, at times. I’m interested in juxtapositions and different shades and colors. I don’t just focus on one thing.

At the beginning, were you aiming for any particular genre of music, or were you aiming specifically to be genre-less? The reason I ask is because Swans gets categorized sometimes as “No Wave”. Did you feel you were part of that scene?

MG: No. Well, I’ll answer that in two ways. I had only gotten to New York when No Wave was dead. So in retrospect people have lumped us in with that in a lazy way. We started, and we were friends with Sonic Youth, and we felt a kinship at the time because nobody was doing anything like us. The popular fare at the time was kind of New Wave disco, or fake jazz music. We were the antithesis of that.

But as far as Swans goes, I had a predilection at the time for Howlin’ Wolf, and used to listen to him a lot. But I didn’t want to sound like blues, because that was corny as hell for some white guy in 1985, to be playing the blues. I didn’t want to make music like that, but I liked the kind of sex in that sound, the way it came from the groin.

So I fashioned a lot of the beats and grooves around that, and just made that happen. I didn’t think about it as No Wave or punk. I think it was more punk than punk ever was. I just wanted this kind of extreme, searing, probing expression.

You mentioned you were frustrated by people seeing Swans as only this loud, discordant group. Is that what caused you to dissolve it eventually to form Angels of Light? What happened, creatively?

MG: Well really by the time I stopped in ’97, I was just exhausted. We gained some notoriety, I guess, but it was never very remunerative, and it was just constant, 24-hour work of trying to survive, and begging, and borrowing, and trying to get the money to do another album, and trying to find a way to release it. Over and over and over, for 15 years, constantly. So I was like, forget it!

Also, yeah, I had felt that the reputation of Swans was kind of constraining. I wanted to simplify things, and start from a basic song that I could play on an acoustic guitar by myself in front of an audience, and make a genuine experience occur. Not as some kind of folky person, but from the core root as a performer, and go from there. Swans usually started from a sonic perspective, you know? I wanted to hone it down.

Is that project still technically active, or is it done for now?

MG: It’s done for now. The reason I re-started Swans was because I was just at an impasse with that, anyway.

With you being the driving force behind both bands, why did you decide to revisit Swans, specifically, instead of starting another project in another name?

MG: Well, Swans has a specific way of working that I felt was apposite to my situation at the time. I wanted to take what I’d established and build on it. So that’s why. Like I said, I didn’t want to revisit the past or be a nostalgia act or something.

But there are certain ways of reaching a sonic epiphany, where the music keeps crescendoing and growing until it reaches this impossible height, and that’s kind of what I was looking for. I didn’t even know how we could go about it this time. To a lesser extent on the record, and to a greater extent live, and that’s really gratifying.

To what do you attribute finally coming out of the creative block you mentioned earlier?

MG: Desperation. It was either that or suicide, basically. There was a lot of change in my personal life which is not appropriate to talk about in the press. But I’ve written a lot of songs for this new album — I guess I didn’t mention we’re already recording a new album.

Even though you’re just now technically touring behind My Father?

MG: Yeah, yeah. We recorded for a week in Berlin. We were there on tour and had a hiatus so we took advantage and recorded the new songs we’ve been playing live. Then we’re going to record at the end of this little stint that we’re doing now, and the album will be out next year.

So the material you’re playing on this tour is technically not from any record, not even from the one that just came out in 2010?

MG: [Laughs] That’s what Swans did its whole career until the very end. We would play a whole record live, then record it, and never play it again! The audience would come and never know what to expect. We’re not quite doing that this time, though. So live, we’re playing two or three songs from the current album; one old song, which is transformed pretty much beyond recognition; and then two or three songs. But as I said, each song is stretched so the whole set is pretty long.

Which is the old song?

MG: “I Crawled”.

The new material that you’ve written, is it similar to what’s on the 2010 disc?

MG: It’s kind of taking that and moving forward. I’m interested in grooves now, so there’s a lot of endless groove stuff that we’re starting. You can go to YouTube and look up the Primavera festival, and look up the song “The Apostate”.

Do you use these tours to sort of develop and finish writing the studio versions of the songs?

MG: No. It’s a really performance-oriented version that we do live. But then we get in the studio and I do that on tape, but then to me, that’s a beginning. I don’t look at the recording process as being just about capturing a band in a room.

To me it’s like getting sound and then starting to organize it and then building it into something that’s a sonic experience, rather than depicting a band playing. I don’t know how recognizable the songs that we’re playing are going to be on record. Well, they’ll be recognizable, but it’ll be much different.

So it’s intentionally two distinct versions?

MG: Yeah. I’m not trying to be too philosophical. But I start writing it on acoustic guitar, and I sing and play it endlessly in my room until I’m sure it feels right, and also just for the joy of playing it. Then the next stage can be that I go into a studio and I show it to one or two people, and we get a version on tape and start orchestrating it and building it. Sometimes it grows into something that’s just incredibly different from the original, or sometimes it’s just an orchestrated version of the original.

Conversely, I might work with the band. Their input is very important, and we’ll start building up the thing as a Swans song. It becomes something very different from just an acoustic guitar song, obviously.

Then, say I do the record and mix it and edit it, and do all this work to it, that version’s there, and it’s captured and finished. But then the song, when you start to play it live, it transforms again and transforms itself every night. It’s always changing. I think it would be really silly of us to go out and sound like our records. That’s really for mid-20s hipsters to do.

But mid-20s hipsters love your band now!

MG: That’s really nice, especially the female variety. I enjoy that.

Now that you seem to have this renewed flurry of activity, are you writing any fiction as a follow-up to your previous book, The Consumer?

MG: Well, I don’t have time. To be a decent writer — not to say I am — one has to read constantly. I have very little time to read. Usually by the time I go to bed I’m exhausted. So I don’t read enough, and I don’t have enough time to devote to writing.

When I wrote the stories that were in The Consumer, I would spent six to eight hours in this basement room just focusing. I don’t have that kind of time now, at all, and I don’t have the kind of mind where I can be on the tour bus and just write a bunch of stuff. I have to be in a space by myself and focused and reading a lot.

To ask a completely unrelated question, your band is so associated with the New York of a certain time period. I just called you on a Brooklyn number, so I’m wondering if you still live there, and if so, if you feel connected to any kind of musical fabric there? Obviously, the city has changed so much.

MG: Well actually, this is my cell phone from Brooklyn, but I live in the Catskills near Woodstock. I’m two hours north of the city.

How long have you been there?

MG: Five years.

Do you miss the city at all?

MG: I do not miss New York City. I enjoy going there sometimes, but living there I do not miss, at all. It’s my own personal kind of neurosis. There was so much time spent there that was so incredibly difficult for me, literally being hungry and not having enough food and things like that.

There are so many bad memories. I can go anywhere in the city and there’s some memory attached to it, some of them good, of course. But when I left, I said, I’m done, I’m never coming back to live. It’s gone. I don’t want to go back. As far as what’s going on in New York right now, I don’t know. I don’t really care.

What about new artists in general? Does anyone excite you?

MG: Oh, I like Fever Ray, and Lykke Li. It’s just great singing. They’re really good singers with really inventive music. I like it a lot. I hate it when people ask me this question because I can never remember!

Have you had any contact with them? You plus Fever Ray would be amazing.

MG: Oh really? Because I want some female element on this new record, and someone suggested I should contact her.

To wrap up, after this tour, when do you see yourself finishing the record and what are your general plans for the rest of the year?

MG: Oh, I forgot to plug one thing. There’s a live album which I just finished mixing, coming out in November. The first version is going to be a handmade edition of 1000 on the Young Gods Records web site. It’s the live set from this tour, basically. Then it has five additional songs I’ve written, acoustic guitar versions. This is for fans, it’s just a small edition. It’s called We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Head. Then later, it’ll be available without those five songs just as a regular live thing.

Then the album, I’m hoping it’ll be finished in December so it can come out in March or April, because I’m hoping we’ll start touring then.

It doesn’t seem like you’re taking much time off.

MG: No, I don’t want any time off. I go insane when I’m home.


Show details

Headline: Swans, Axe and the Oak, Sir Richard Bishop
Where: Respectable Street (518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach)
When: Wednesday, September 14
Cost: $18.50 (presale), $22.50 (door); 18+
Event Page: HERE

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