FEATURES Uncompromising Swans By Andrew Jervis · May 13, 2014
“Being inside this sort of vortex of sound with the audience, and feeling like the music is playing us, and playing them as well, is really very rewarding.”

The latest incarnation of Swans, revivified by frontman Michael Gira in 2010, is a sprawling beast of a band, capable of precision, beauty, and raw power. For the last four years they have produced an almost constant stream of music, beginning with My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, through to their brand new release To Be Kind. Well known for creating uncompromising music on a grand scale, the latest Swans album presents a vision of music as epiphany, and weighs in at around 2 hours long. Most of the songs were developed in live shows over the last few years, and they showcase blues-inflected grooves, dense drones, and Gira’s incantations.

Uber Swans fan Randy Gibson sat down with Michael Gira to discuss their most ambitious album to-date.

Randy Gibson: The scale of the new album is really wonderful – when you’re in the studio, are you thinking about individual songs, or about the album as a whole?

Michael Gira: Well the songs are the album. I’m just making the music, and I’m shaping an album. I don’t go in to make a series of singles or anything. I’m not really interested in that. We craft the songs separately, but consider it as part of the whole thing. So, to me the priority is the album.

RG: I was at a show in Brooklyn where you did “To Be Kind,” and it was just mind-blowing. How much does a piece like that evolve while you’re on the road? And is there a lot more evolution once you’re in the studio?

MG: Most of the songs that we played live, when we went into the studio, they changed further. I guess the one that stayed pretty close to its live form would be “Bring The Sun / Toussaint.” — the other ones went through considerable transformation. And now that we’re rehearsing to go out live again, we’re definitely altering them considerably, and doing new songs, too. Some songs are written by me, on acoustic guitar, and the band fleshes them out, or you know, they grow naturally. Other things, I may just have an idea that occurs on stage, or someone else does, and we just start expanding on it, and those turn into the kind of long things that you hear on the record, particularly “Bring The Sun.” And they sort of change every night too.

RG: Can you tell me a little bit about Toussaint L’Ouverture and why his story inspired you?

MG: Well, we had this piece of music growing, that we were playing live. I didn’t have any words, and I was reading a biography of Toussaint, and so I naturally just started invoking him because he is sort of an inspiration to me. I’ve read several books by the author that wrote the biography, Madison Smartt Bell – he’s written some historical novels about Haiti as well, one of which is All Souls Rising, which is the title of a song I recorded for Angels of Light. So, to me, I don’t know, something about Haiti really attracts me, it’s just so tumultuous, and it’s such a fucked up place, but it’s also sort of like the fulcrum of human possibility and failure.

RG: Was having access to the right personnel the reason to bring Swans back?

MG: Well I thought about doing it, and instantly, when I thought about doing it again, I started thinking about who would work – and these are the guys I came up with. And, fortunately, it worked out right away. When we started the first album (My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky), we hadn’t played together as a group at all, and we just met in the studio and started running over songs. Gradually they transformed into something that was the expression of this six-headed beast. But, it’s sort of the way we work, you know, I guide things, and I do a lot of orchestration after the initial recording is put out. The personality of these fellows is very important to me.

RG: You have a long history of releasing live recordings – and the new album is on the same sort of scale as a live show…

MG: Well, I don’t know, the new album to me is not like a live recording. Some songs are recorded live, but you know the additional augmentation of them is considerable. And when I’m producing, when I make an album, it’s really like trying to make a film. There’s a lot of work that goes into dynamics and variations of color and things to lead one through the whole experience. As far as live goes, it’s just a snapshot of a show usually, or a series of shows. I don’t really consider a studio album to have much to do with live experience. I think they’re pretty far removed.

RG: I’ve never really thought of Swans as a “rock music” band because I think you’re going for something bigger than yourselves – something that’s definitely within that vernacular but feels, hmmm, “Rock Music”, I’m not sure that would be the right term for it…

MG: But sometimes it is you know… I don’t know. One good friend of mine, she’s trained as a classical musician and she’s kind of a high-end booking agent of classical music, she sees a strong similarity to classical music in the music of Swans, She brought people from one of the big organizations that put on classical music to see Swans, and there’s been some discussion about us doing some things.

RG: That would make sense, but it’s such a different energy, of course, in a classical setting.

MG: And I don’t want to at all be pretentious because I have no training whatsoever. In fact I normally don’t know what chords I’m playing let alone anyone else. I just make shapes and push the sound and I guess, if anything, I’m kind of an organizer of sound.

RG: Well you know John Cage said, “Music is organized sound.”

MG: Well yeah, good… good. Incredibly boring musician, but, [laughs] It’s alright. I know it’s sacrilege to say. It’s like Francis Bacon said, he’s never finished a boring book, and I never finished a boring record.

RG: Fair enough. So at the time you were getting started there was a lot of interesting intense big music happening, Rhys Chatham or Glenn Branca is sort of an obvious comparison.

MG: Oh yeah.

RG: Were you aware of that scene when you were getting started?

MG: Of course, I was there. I mean. I played bass for one show with Rhys.

RG: Oh really?

MG: Yeah. Rhys gave me my first bass. Which is how the basic kind of templates of the early Swans songs were done. I played bass. There were two basses in the band. And then I played in one of Glenn’s performances, compositions, pieces… Symphony no. 3 at BAM. Of course the score was just numbers, do 5 of this… but Glenn was particularly inspirational to me. Not in the sense of trying to learn anything from his tunings or any of his theories about harmonics or anything, a la Sonic Youth for instance, but more in the sense of him going for complete epiphany, kind of total experience through music, which to me is what it’s all about. We definitely went our own path, but that kind of idea of being completely immersed and lost in sound is really beautiful. And although he’s coy, he’s kind of shameless about the ecstatic yearnings of the music.

RG: I think your work gets there too, especially in the live experience. It’s really just enveloping, and exquisite, and ecstatic.

MG: That’s good to hear. Thanks.

RG: Do you think about duration at all? I’m sure that there are venues that won’t let you go forever…

MG: Yeah, like right now we’re shaping a set, and, I haven’t figured out how long it’s gonna be yet, but usually we let the music determine the duration. I mean, however long something feels it should go, is how long it goes. That was kind of a revelation early on with this iteration of Swans. That wasn’t a consideration. You know, it wasn’t like we’re writing “pop songs” or “rock songs,” so what’s the difference? And they’re based on slowly morphing rhythms and atmospheres anyway so, just let them take their own shape.

RG: On the new album, and The Seer, there are songs that are longer than anything you were doing before. Some of the versions of “Helpless Child” or “Blind Love” got pretty long and intense. Were you doing things of that scale live back then, or not really?

MG: Back then? I don’t know how long, say “Helpless Child” or “The Sound” were, and there’s also this song “Feel Happiness” we did, during the final Swans tour. I think they were close, but maybe like 20 minutes, 25 minutes.

RG: Some of the recorded versions are around that, 18-20, something like that – they’re beautiful.

MG: Yeah, I actually like those three songs we just mentioned. But, no, I don’t know. In this particular band, things are just, I don’t know, out of control. [Laughs]

RG: [Laughs]. In a good way I think.

MG: I hope so.

RG: It feels like you’re pushing the live experience even further, and I’d imagine it’s incredibly rewarding to have an audience that goes with you for that. How has that experience been?

MG: To have the audience responding positively or being inside the music with us? That’s incredibly rewarding after so many years. It’s not, like, you know, we’re The Grateful Dead and we’re trying to, like, have this communal experience with our audience. But being inside this sort of vortex of sound with the audience, and feeling like the music is playing us, and playing them as well, is really very rewarding. And to speak to people after the shows, or through various other means of communication, to find that people get something true and real from it, is really the best possible reward.

You know, I totally discourage any kind of like, rock-star/fan relationship. You know, it’s just about us, we’re basically sound workers you know. It’s just nice to have a good relationship with the audience. I look at it as similar to the old school country musicians, the way they were with their audience, which was very not, like, “pop act” oriented.

RG: Well your presentation is not “rock star”; you’re just making sound.

MG: Yeah, there are no fucking lights. I just want to set this atmosphere, and maybe change colors every song or something. No movements, no smoke, no flash, no nothing. You want to see the band and that’s good. Have you ever seen the Led Zeppelin concert movie, The Song Remains The Same?

RG: Sure.

MG: It’s like, that’s great, it’s a great performance, and they’re just standing there on stage with no lights. No lights you know. That’s how I like it. And whenever we play a festival and I see some other subsequent rock puppet act come on and they do their, you know, Ride of The Valkyries kind of like sound, visual images, it’s just, yeah, pretty frightening.

Swans, on stage

RG: It’s really a shame when the presentation takes away from what would otherwise be really enjoyable music.

MG: Yeah, that’s just, that’s the norm these days, and people expect this crap.

RG: A friend of mine, who was actually the person that introduced me to Swans, told me a story about going to see an Angels Of Light show at a Chinese restaurant in Kansas City.

MG: Oh yeah, I remember that show.

RG: Where there was apparently a buffet served.

MG: Yeah yeah.

RG: You had some sort of interaction with his now ex-wife, asking her if she wanted a beer, or something like that, and it seems like such a different world from what Swans is now. I mean, a Chinese restaurant in Kansas City is probably extreme but…

MG: That was a good show, I think. I liked that!

RG: With the solo shows you’re doing a lot of old different work, is it a testing ground for you? Seeing how these songs fit?

MG: No, I just come up with what I think is a good set, whatever songs that I’ve written that I think work live, that’s what I’ll do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Angels Of Light or Swans or something that’s unrecorded.

RG: What strikes me is how incredibly in control you guys are of your sound, and how focused it is when you play live. How do you go about preparing for that in rehearsals?

MG: With the new songs, I start playing them for the band on acoustic guitar, and as soon as I plug in my electric guitar it sounds completely fucking different, usually to disastrous effect. There’s so much resonance in the acoustic guitar that when you plug in your electric it’s just so different. So I eventually figure out how to transpose that, and then, just start making suggestions, or they start playing, and I’ll say this not that, this not that, so you just build, and that’s the stage we’re at right now. You know, people come up with their own ideas too in terms of the music, and those are often integrated into a song and it becomes more a band song than my song.

RG: There is a collaborative process to developing them.

MG: I’m kind of the impresario, but yes, if it wasn’t collaborative it would be really boring.

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