‘The terror of trying to make something’ – An Interview With Swans’ Michael Gira

We’re just the vehicle through which the music is speaking‘ – MacDara Conroy talks with Michael Gira ahead of Swans‘ gigs in Belfast, Dublin and Cork It’s a little under an hour before I’m due to receive a Skype call from Michael Gira, the notoriously intense band leader of that notoriously intense group Swans, and a sudden rain shower batters the window as grim thunder clouds rumble loudly overhead. It’s a bad omen for the interview to come, one that rings true when connection issues (nothing on the line but ‘Star Wars sounds’, as Gira puts it in the chat window) delay our conversation by the best part of an hour and leave my already ragged nerves in a tangled mess.

But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried, as when the technical issues are resolved – and the clouds break for sunlight to stream down in almost comedically appropriate fashion – Gira is warm and accommodating, and not the least bit irritated. Nothing like the gruff exterior he projects in press photos to accompany recent Swans tours, or last year’s incredible double album The Seer, or indeed like the angry self-flagellating monster of his mid 1980s live performances that cemented Swans as an influence on extreme musical tangents as diverse as industrial, noise, doom and grindcore.

The original incarnation of Swans came to an end – via a series of transformations through folk and even pop styles – in 1997, when Gira redirected his energies into new project Angels of Light and releasing his own and others’ music through his Young God Records label, most notably kickstarting the career of freak folk troubadour Devendra Banhart. But three years ago the call of Swans enticed Gira once more, and a new version of the band was formed including long-time guitarist Norman Westberg and pre-breakup percussionist Phil Puleo. This six-man outfit produced the stunning My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky – and last year’s double live album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head – which proved that Swans had never really gone away, even if the music was now more in a blues-based, post-rock idiom.

It’s a continuation from the band’s previous body of work, not a simple revisiting, though in some ways the revived Swans is not really different from the band that earned so much notoriety in the 1980s. Listening to The Seer again recently, my iTunes let the last track ‘The Apostate’ segue into ‘Speak’, the first on their debut EP recorded way back in 1982, three decades previous, and apart from the obvious production contrast, the atmosphere is remarkably comparable, just as intense and enveloping. The same spirit that moved Swans back then still moves Gira and his collaborators today, though one difference is that now the audience is welcomed to share the experience, as they surely will when the band plays Belfast, Dublin and Cork next week.

I wanted to ask first of all about The Seer, which comes across as arguably your most spiritual work, and goes hand-in-hand with the transcendent live recordings you’ve been putting out recently. In fact the songs to me are almost like gospel in the way they help create a shared experience between the band and the audience. What’s your take on that?
For the album I’m not sure I’d agree with that entirely. There are moments of that nature, but there are also quiet, intimate moments, of course; delicate songs. I’m pretty conscious of making albums with lots of light and shade, lots of dynamics, different corridors one might walk through. But for the kind of anthemic – I can’t believed I just used that word – the kind of overarching, never-ending crescendo pieces, then yes I would agree with that. In fact I’ve drawn that analogy myself. Live, that’s pretty much the experience. We’re all inside of a sound, both us and the audience – and I like to say that it’s not really the band playing the music, it’s more like the music is playing us and the audience.

Even with the quieter songs, maybe it’s a case of being internally transcendent, meditative, when you’re recording them in the studio or even when people are listening at home.
I don’t know, I guess I’m not really capable of perceiving that myself. But if you see that, that’s fine.

Do you listen to gospel or other devotional music, or take any influence from it?
Not consciously. Certainly I like blues, which has a relationship to that – my all-time idol as a singer is Howlin’ Wolf – though that’s much more of the body and certainly less spiritual. But no, I don’t listen to gospel, but when I hear it I of course appreciate it. I like things that are all-consuming. But to be frank, I don’t listen to much music these days, due to the fact that it just seems to distract me from my work, and also my ears are so stressed constantly that it can be kind of annoying.

I imagine part of that is from the punishment you took performing on stage loudly so often for so many years.
Yeah, and unlike the other members of the band, I don’t wear earplugs. It feels great at time time, but the next day I can hardly hear, though usually by the time of the next show it’s OK. I seem to have pretty resilient ears. But the motive for the volume is not aggression, as some people mistake it; it’s more to make something that’s bigger than all of us so we can be inside of it. Also the tones of the guitars, and the resonance of things, doesn’t exist until it reaches a certain volume. So that’s the motivation for it.

You’ve talked before about the difference between the physicality of your earlier performances, and your reticence today to put your body through those same “stupid things” like throwing your body onto the monitors, or breaking your tooth on the microphone. What else are you leery about doing today that you wouldn’t have thought twice about doing before?
I suppose, acting like an idiot [laughs]. But I do twitch and dance about, I can’t seem to help it. I don’t know how dignified that is, but the music elicits certain physical responses in me and I go with them. I’m not as self-destructive or as likely to test my endurance as I once was.

But maybe you do that in different ways now. It seems like you’ve refocussed a lot of that physicality into, say, hand-making the live discs you produce.
That’s an incredibly arduous and tedious task, I don’t know if it relates at all. But I’ve worked all my life; it’s just a job to me, which is fine. As far as the live performance goes, it’s still very physical, and it feels right to act in certain ways with it, to throw your body into the down beats. It just seems to feel correct, so that’s what we do.

I know you’ve just come off a tour with Low, and that band’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker guest on the first track of The Seer (‘Lunacy’). How did your collaboration with them come about?
I was just writing the song and for some reason, as I was singing it, I just instantly thought of them. I don’t know what it is about it that evoked their involvement but it seemed undeniable, so I contacted them, and I was delighted when they agreed to work on it. And yes, we just played with them – I can’t really watch the bands that go on before us because I’m way distracted before the show, but I watched great portions of their sets, and to me they’re just absolutely truthful and spiritual and beautiful music. It’s not rock, really; it’s outside of any genre, and it has an authenticity to it, which I truly admire.

Their own music has taken on a new intensity in recent years. Maybe that made them a better fit for a Swans record…
I don’t know about that. I think their recent record [The Invisible Way] is quite subdued again. Really I just heard their vocals and their beautiful harmonies on the song, so that’s why I asked them to sing on it.

You’re a hard-working band – in a way you give the term ‘workmanlike’ a positive definition.
I view it as an existential challenge to find work in life that defines you – or you define it – or that is a test of your ability as an individual to actualise yourself. That to me is the ideal ‘work’. I’m fortunate enough to have found that path on my own. You know there’s a lot of tedium, as we mentioned, but I think the work is what makes me largely who I am. Or vice versa. 

It’s the product of an unrelenting refusal to work a shit job, which I did for many, many years. I guess that’s a privilege. In the end it doesn’t matter at all, I suppose. But right now I view it as work, and it’s good work that actualises me. I also view it somewhat as someone who’s a skilled carpenter who’s doing the same thing; that’s really admirable.

So the reward for that hard work is becoming the person you want to be, or to do the things you want to do.
Yeah, but they’re both completely intertwined.

Do the other players in the band feel the same way?
I don’t know. I’m sure they’re inherently musicians and so they’re delighted to be able to make a living doing what they love. I don’t think they view Swans as their their life’s work – in fact I hope they don’t. That would be a little ridiculous [laughs]. But for me, I do.

Even aside from Swans, you also for a long time made your label Young God a part of your work. And you have extensive experience as a curator of talent, whether through the bands you put out on the label, or the current version of Swans. How do you take that as a responsibility?
As a record company person, or personage, I took it very seriously – probably too seriously for some of the artists that were on the label. I didn’t view it as just like signing some pop musical act that was going to get fame and fortune or that goal. It was more about trying to find people that wanted to make excellent work, and I wanted to share with them my experience – which is pretty extensive – when they had no career whatsoever, and I got quite involved in helping them with their careers. 

Also I was pretty hands-on with even the songwriting, not in the sense that I would write a song but if there was a terrible lyric or something I would certainly say so. And I’d work with people here in my office, for instance, playing the songs and talking about arrangements – that sort of ‘old school’ thing I took very seriously as a producer, before we even went in the studio. Then in the studio, of course, my job was to make sure that the engineer was recording it properly, but also really focussing in on the performances, and just the vibe of the whole thing.

So it became a pretty overwhelming job after a while, and it was increasingly less remunerative as the record industry collapsed. Eventually I grew tired of it. But I learned a lot from the musicians I worked with, and it was an honour to be involved with their early careers.

Would that change of circumstances have prompted you then to refocus yourself on reviving Swans?
Well I was also simultaneously trying to keep together my group Angels of Light, and I guess both those activities eventually failed to maintain their urgency or necessity to me, so I was kind of floundering about when I decided ‘Why not Swans?’ I wanted, before I was deep in the thralls of my dotage, to experience this kind of extreme sound – I guess you would call it – again. So I started it, and I’m happy I did.

You’ll be heading into the studio in October to record a new album, Swans’ third in its current incarnation. Is there anything you can say about that yet?
We’re already playing a large body of it live in our shows. We’re not playing much from The Seer, we’re just playing the song itself and that morphs into a couple of other pieces that’ll be on the record. So that one piece of music ‘The Seer‘ and then the other two songs that it changes gradually into, that’s probably 40, 45 minutes of music. The rest of the set is new songs – or pieces, you might even call them, because some of them aren’t really songs – and we do this song from the ’80s, ‘Coward‘ [from 1986’s Holy Money], as well. This tour will be the last time we perform that, on this upcoming little jaunt we’re doing.

So you’re putting the older material to bed and looking forward to new things.
When we do a tour I search the back catalogue and think of what we could play and still not be aping ourselves or trying to imitate the past. And that song, I thought, had the potential for raw emotion, almost like a blues song, except without any melody whatsoever [laughs]. So we did that but it’s run its course, and after this tour we won’t perform it again.

You said you were playing some pieces that aren’t quite songs yet. Are those going to be developed into songs?
Well by that I mean, they’re developing all the time. When we start with something we’re playing live, it’s in a nascent state and it gradually morphs as we perform it live every night, and changes are made, rhythm changes, etc. For instance one piece that we started playing last August, we’re still playing it live but I don’t think you’d recognise it now from how it started, it’s completely transformed.

One of them is this song called ‘Toussaint Louverture‘. It has absolutely no melody whatsoever, it’s really just surges of sound; in fact only in one little part is there a discernible rhythm. It’s like if you think about expressionist music or Eastern European classical music, you might look at it like that. Not that I have any pretensions to be a classical musician, mind you; it’s just that that’s the nearest analogy I can give you.

Speaking of how things develop on stage when you’re performing, how do you know when a song ends?
You mean, while we’re playing it?

Exactly, or even when you’re conceiving of tracks. For instance, on The Seer you have some that are 30 minutes long and others that aren’t even two minutes.
That’s a good question. I’m not exactly sure, I guess when it just feels like it’s run its course. In a way it’s like – I’ve used this analogy so many times, I’ve done so many interviews, I really hate the sound of my own voice – but it’s sort of like extended, loving and exploratory sex. You kind of know intuitively when it’s finished [laughs].

I know you’ve been to Dublin a few times before. Have you seen Francis Bacon’s studio at the Hugh Lane on any previous visit?
Thank you for reminding me of that. I have a book that documents that, but it didn’t even cross my mind [to visit], I hope that I have time. I know what it looks like, of course, and it’s very interesting to me, especially all the hidden things that they’ve discovered about his way of working which belies initial impressions that he just started painting and things developed. Apparently there was a lot of trial and error, revisions, and taking bits of one painting and starting a new one. And also the fact that he did drawings, too, which no one thought he did, is interesting to me.

So the process, whether of Francis Bacon or any other artist, does that matter as much as the final work they produce?
In the end I guess it doesn’t. I don’t know why I’ve always been drawn to his work but one thing I do feel an affinity for is the intuition involved, because I may start with plans – in fact I write down notes and everything for each song as we go in the studio, how it’s going to be, even develop a sequence for the album before we even go in the studio – but once we actually start doing something I usually end up throwing that sheet of paper away and just work with what’s in the moment intuitively, trying to shape it into a form.

What environment do you think has been most accepting of what you do with Swans, whether today or in the past?
What do you mean by ‘environment’?

I mean the climate of fans appreciating the shows, appreciating the records, your own personal satisfaction with the work you’ve done?
I don’t know… I guess live, there’s just a few standout situations that I recall, but they were in entirely different environments. There was one show in Brooklyn, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last year, when I had unwisely asked them to turn off the air conditioning, because the vents were above me directly on stage and of course that dries out your vocal chords, and it also feels strange to be playing in an air-conditioned office temperature doing this music. But the temperature reached such a height that it was almost suicidal! I had to keep pouring water over my head, and I think the audience was suffering considerably as well. But it added to the depth of the performance in a way, that environment.

But another, entirely different environment was when we played the OFF Festival in Poland. It was like a kid’s rock star dream or something. I don’t know how many people, I would estimate 20,000, and we were headlining one night – Iggy [Pop] was headlining the other – so we could play our full set, and people just responded volcanically. It was really great, and I think it was a tremendous shared experience by everyone concerned.

And is that more important, that it’s shared? Obviously it’s not ‘Oh, I’m a rock star, finally!’ or anything like that.
No, I don’t care about that at all. But it is great, when we make this kind of music, to play to a large audience, because it’s large, you know? It’s meant to be. So just that kind of phenomenon is pretty gratifying. And it is great at the end when people really seem to have got something from it, and they express that in the usual way.

And you hope that you might convert some people along the way, maybe, as well?
Well I don’t know, I’m not a salesman [laughs]. But it is good; we’ve had the biggest audiences we’ve ever had and the best responses we’ve ever had, and considering the longevity of the project, that’s pretty rare and also deeply gratifying.

I know you’re a big reader, when you have the time to read. Are you reading anything at the moment, or taking reading on tour with you?
I’ve taken several books on tour with me recently and I’ve not been able to read one page [laughs]. So I look forward to resuming that when and if I have the time. A book that’s half-read right now, and has been half-read for several months because I just haven’t had the time, is a book called Iron Curtain [by Anne Applebaum], a history of the Stalinisation of Eastern Europe immediately following the Second World War. And I have a book of poetry by this Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, and I think that’s really beautiful. Otherwise there’s not much going on that way, unfortunately. It’s my dream at some point just to be able to have time to read, and write also, but right now I’m involved in something that precludes those activities.

Is there any way that your thirst for that cross-pollinates with the music you make? As in, you may not get a chance to write a short story, but you can put that urge into the lyrics you write?
Sometimes I have, after reading a book, written a song that relates to the book – I won’t say it’s trying to tell the story of the book. The song I mentioned earlier, ‘Toussaint Louverture’, is – I won’t say ‘about’; I guess ‘inspired’ is the right word? It seems a bit grandiose – drawing on having read a couple of books about this historical figure by that name, who was the main force of the liberation of the slaves in Haiti in the late 1700s, early 1800s.

Going back to what you said earlier about the music playing you, do you think Swans a vehicle for your musical ideas, or are you and the band the vehicles to channel Swans as an entity?
Well both. I don’t really have – well I guess I do have an aesthetic, but it’s not defined, in my mind anyway, but I just follow the threads that lead from one record to another and keep expanding it. I’m usually possessed during a recording by the music, and the excitement and the tension and the terror of trying to make something. It seems worthwhile. But it also feels, like I say when we play live particularly, that we’re just the vehicle through which the music is speaking.

Swans play the Limelight 2 in Belfast on Wednesday 14 August, the Button Factory in Dublin on Thursday 15 August and Cyprus Avenue in Cork on Friday 16 August with support from Josephine Foster. Tickets for the Dublin and Cork shows are available from http://www.tickets.ie and usual outlets.

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