I’ve never not had a pleasant chat with Michael Gira, leader of Swans, the New York band that emerged from the New York no-wave noise scene. And I have loved and hated his band. I was pinned to the rear wall of the Rat years ago, fascinated and appalled to watch a drooling Gira flail about on stage. But I didn’t leave. I did walk out on the live show at Royale a couple years ago – it was disorienting me, wasn’t in the mood for assault – and yet I’ll likely return there on Thursday July 7th.
Because … I have been swept into its chaotic mix of ugliness and beauty. Transfixed. Most rockers mellow out as they get older. Not so, Gira. He went through a mellowing point with mid-period swans in 1987 and then with the subsequent band Angels of Light. Swans, a sextet, is back in your face now, with a monstrous (in several ways) new, two hour album, “The Glowing Man.” (Swans do not do things half-way.) It’s been getting glowing reviews. Me, I am just digging in …
In concert, you may expect a mix of pain and pleasure, that pleasure creeping out of the pain, a shimmering aggressive onslaught with shards of beauty. The interview follows. (This was our talk in 2013.)
JSInk: Let’s jump in. “The Seer” is a monster. In your notes, “It took 30 years to make, It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” Is that tongue in cheek or do you mean it straight up?
Gira: Both. Honestly, I have been working for 30 years and it doesn’t discount the contribution of the gentlemen in my bands, but as a producer that ultimately what I am when I make a record, I work in a wide variety of styles – some things that are purely sound like this “Body Lovers” collection I did or Angels of Light, which was more acoustic songs that were orchestrated art songs, I suppose. And the chunks of sounds of early Swans which were also orchestrated things. I guess this record ends up being all of that. It wasn’t that I sat down and tried to do that. The press release was written post-making the record of course. I just realized it when I was done, that that stuff was there on the record. It’s a triple album, 2 CD album in an era of shortened attention spans. Several songs in the 20-minute plus range, this spread and sprawl.
Not that Swans ever went with the grain, but you’re perhaps going more against the grain now. Do you see that?
I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I just follow where the music leads. If there’s an audience, fine, and if there’s not, I’m certainly no stranger to that either. At one point when we talked you were disturbed that what you’d done had not had real success. I’d said something complimentary about it and you said, “Yeah, for the ten people that heard it.” Some discouragement. You’ve come out of that, so you’re more content … I don’t know about content. It’s great to have people who have a predilection for the kind of experience we provide. On the last tour, I guess people discovered it through the internet. In our absence, I guess our reputation grew rather that dwindled so there was this core group of people around the world that really want this, so it’s good, really gratifying. It’s not that we’re going up and stroking their expectations; I never would think about that. But it is good to have people willing to come along for the ride. Is there any contradiction in the various Swans/Angels of Light phases, from softer acoustic things back into the world of this onslaught? It’s a process of discovery. I would have been brain-dead had I continued doing what we did in the early ‘80s. Repeating the same thing over and over, not that a great many groups don’t do that. I’m kind of interested in having a challenging experience and making it challenging for myself and I guess by extension other people. It’s challenging in the sense that it reaches to a high place when it’s good, it opens up something maybe we didn’t know was there. It’s been working and trying to stay alive. You reached a point where it was physically just too difficult to keep doing it. Are you in better shape now? (laughs) Unlike some of my peers I don’t try to act like I’m 20. I push it physically on stage. It’s organically connected to what the music is. I guess I’m in better shape than I have been in in the last ten years. We’re back to doing these two-hour plus long concerts for a couple of years now. I’m not showing off. It’s just the music pushes me in a certain way and us as a band. And we follow it.
When you’re doing it live, is there a sense of transcendence?
I guess I used to shy away from that word, but there is a sense of revelation at a certain point. It’s periodic. It doesn’t always go the places we’d like it to go, but those waves of sound still seem to keep growing in the sense that the music is playing you, there’s a sense that it’s elevating for us and the audience.
In those liners, you talk about the songs not actually being finished, that the songs started acoustically on guitar and were “further tortured and seduced” … “now they await further cannibalism and force-feeding as we prepare to perform some of them live, at which point they’ll mutate further, endlessly, or perhaps be discarded for a while.” So, they will evolve and mutate on stage. Does this mean there’s improvisation, that somebody can take a cue and run with it?
Usually I’ll find things that are happening right then and then possibly through a series of hideous gestures, screaming or yelling, I’ll push that thing that’s happening. I hesitate to call it improvisation … Well, I try to get the bass player to find new nuances within the line. We all find variations within the theme or the chord we’re playing, and find new ways things can happen. Right now, we have three new songs – I hate to call them songs, they’re pieces, about an hour-long when combined – and those are unrecorded and in an inchoate state so they have a basic structure, but we’re still figuring things out. We go with something we work out in sound check and we play it and it grows and then I find faults and virtues and the next day we’ll work on it at sound check again and it’ll keep changing and by the end of this year of touring those songs will be in much different form than they are right now. And that’s what happened to four of the songs on the record, they were developed live in front of an audience during the last tour cycle: “The Seer,” “93 Ave. B Blues,” “Avatar” and “The Apostate.” I came up with the initial idea but they were really hashed out with the band, live. And they’re still changing. The new songs take up about half the show. New songs people have never heard before, and in most concert settings, an extreme risk …
What’s the risk? What do you mean? I guess less so for your band. People would want that for Swans, to go out on a ledge and explore things they haven’t heard. It’s the ethos of the band.
Yeah, it’s always about being in an uncomfortable place because I think that bears more fruit that just playing your records by rote or something. Or playing the songs “well.” I mean, there’s virtue in that but I’m not really interested in replication of a record. When I say a song isn’t finished on the liner notes, I mean the recorded form is just one step along the way. I saw somewhere that you’re playing only one old song, “Coward.” Yeah. We do seven or eight songs … but we play that every set. It’s nice to play a song like that which has no melody. It’s completely atonal, but it’s the way it’s arranged that makes it really musical. It’s like a rudimentary visceral form of blues.
On the record, there’s gentle pastoral melodic songs – there’s all kinds of color on the palette – but the kind of music we’re taking about, the visceral live stuff I see that having a correlation to that, the blues. You’ve always taken chanes, mixing the chaotic, ugly and beautiful all together. When it’s really working, some of that ugliness and pain, some beauty creeps out and overwhelms you.
First of all, I don’t think I looked at things as being ugly. That’s certainly not the intent. The song, “The Seer,” is kind of grand, like an architecture you can live inside. It’s very expansive and when it’s working it can be very ecstatic, just not using the usual prescription for making rock music. In “Lunacy,” which opens “The Seer,” you’re repeating the word ‘lunacy” over and over and I’m thinking I wonder if this is a comment on the songwriter as well: This is lunatic to do this. Oh no, that was a song that started out about childhood. I usually don’t talk about lyrics. It was about the unbridled id that is a young child, where that child is socialized, where your ego starts to control things and your super ego. The inner sexual violence, raw burst for quenching your needs when your just a little kid. I have a couple of little kids now, but I didn’t think about that. (laughs) I don’t think about the context of what I’m doing. It’s a long journey and it’s kind of hermetic. I work with sounds I want at the time. Maybe the record I did will suggest a new avenue and I’ll move forward with that. I don’t think about making a statement or how it’s going to sit critically or what it means. I just work. Many years ago, you told me about when you were saying an early inspiration was taking in a Pink Floyd festival show during Floyd’s “Ummagumma” period. I was thinking about that as I listened to “The Seer,” with its longs songs, its intensity and its many digressions. Yeah, early Pink Floyd. They stopped being good shortly thereafter as far as I’m concerned. After “Meddle,” it was pretty awful. The soundtracks for “More” and “Obscured by Clouds” are really nice. On of the things about seeing them at that early an age was there was no light show, it was just them on stage at a festival and in those days that was pretty primitive. It had an effect anyway. Now, when we play I have to fight the resident light person to not get all monumental with the lights and things, just to keep it really simple. Let the music speak for itself. Sonically, I don’t know if Pink Floyd even knew what they were up to. There’s stuff you can look up on youtube. It’s Bruges in Belgium in 1969. (JSInk: I tried later, couldn’t find.)
What were you doing there? You were a kid.
Yeah, I was a runaway. It’s a complicated story, but I was in Paris with my father and I was about to be sent to either a boarding school – he was an executive and one of his perks was I could go to a boarding school in the Swiss Alps – or I was going to go with his second wife’s stepmother in a little town in Germany and work in a factory. To teach me a lesson, basically. So I ran away. After being caught six weeks later in Amsterdam, I went to work in that factory in Germany and then he said, “You’re going to school” and I ran away again. I was 16 and took up with some older hippies in Paris and just traipsed around.
If I can take you back to the genesis of Swans, did you have something in mind as to what shape and sound the band would have or did it just take shape organically?
I guess it was a combination of having no musical training or skills whatsoever and the desire to make something that felt like a boxing glove to the solar plexus. I hooked up with some musicians thinking along similar lines. It was in a context of post no-wave, which was kind of inspirational. I didn’t want to sound like any of those groups, but it set an example of making something happen without having to resort to the usual three-chord structure of punk rock or something. Decibels.
Last time, I had to leave because of the level of sound. I’d forgotten my earplugs. (laughs) What level do you want to play at decibel wise?
Oh, I don’t think about it. We just turn our amps up til it sounds right. The sound man brings up the drums and vocals and maybe a little bit of the instruments in the mix til it makes sense and it ends up being pretty loud. It’s not an intent to assault, certainly not now. The guitars and the bass, they don’t ring correctly or sustain unless there’s volume. It’s something you get inside of. And that’s the intent, to create something bigger than ourselves, not just loud to attack people because I don’t care about that at all and don’t know if I ever really did. But it feels right, that’s all.
I’ve had different responses to your music at different times. I’ve been attracted and I’ve been repelled and yet I keep coming back.
So do I. I don’t wear earplugs, the rest of band does, but I feel like I’m cheating if I do. I do it every night. I’m too scared to have my hearing tested … This last bout of rehearsal something happened. I’m saying “What?” a lot. We rehearsed eight hours a day, five days a week for a month. That’s pretty intense. It was a small room. Touring, in a way, is kind of a break ‘cause we only have two and a hours.
Tix: $23 advance, $25 day of. Starts at 8 p.m.