The Seer Returns: Swans

"I don’t have anything else I can or want to do in life."
Swans starlight.jpg
Swans are just about to release their 12th studio album: The Seer. It’s one of the most uncompromising, yet accessible records of their 30-odd year career. Just four hours before he was due to set off for the airport to fly to Berlin for the first date of their latest European tour I spoke to vocalist/bandleader Michael Gira about the new album, how the band has changed over the years, and what it’s like to be an influence on other influential bands.

“We’re always searching for the perfect moment; but it’s more about the search than actually finding it…”

This seems like the most open Swans album yet. It’s more expansive and less claustrophobic than any previous record you’ve done. Despite being a world away from your earlier music, it’s resolutely Swans. Would you say it almost sounds more like a celebration?

I guess so…I don’t know about a celebration. To me, an album is a whole world that you can occupy. It’s idealistic to think so, but it’s a world to lose yourself in not just a collection of songs. I worked long and hard to make sure it all interlinks and creates its own environment.

Swans morphed quite a bit along the way, it was never just one thing. I suppose it started out with what people would call the brutal/super intense material, but it changed pretty rapidly and continued to change along the way for the first 15 years.

Many Swans members have come and gone over the years, does having different band members change the process of making an album?

That’s a good question. Yes and no. I’m still the same dictatorial son-of-a-bitch I’ve always been, but I suppose how people respond to that has some influence on the music. I don’t tell people exactly what to do of course, but I do seize on moments and try to push them in directions that I find as I’m working on the material.

Each person’s contribution is very important, including the people who just come in to do overdubs and things. I don’t really work with people that are ‘session musicians’ per se; I need to have some sort of sympathy with them, musically and personally, to have them on the record.

I act as an auteur/director in a way, collaborating with the actors at the same time the whole thing is going on. It’s a give and take process; there are a lot of mistakes made along the way. It’s generally like going into battle…

And how does Norman (Westburg, guitarist) fit into that? He’s been with you since the beginning. Is he like Carlos Alomar to your Bowie?

God, I don’t know…maybe Ron Ashton. I know what Norman does best and of course I try to seize on that. I rarely have to give Norman more direction than what the chords are, and his sound is so unique that it works. And Norman’s a fine person, so it’s good to have him in the band.

This band I believe, and I can’t make a judgement musically, but in terms of us having a common pursuit or common goal, it’s the best. We get along very well, and when we’re on stage the music is playing us, rather than the reverse. We’re subsumed with what we’re doing.

There are quite a few guests on the new album, Grasshopper (Mercury Rev), Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) to name just a couple. Was this the first time you’ve brought outside people in on such a scale – where it’s a feature of the album?

It depends on how you look at it. The last album had a lot of guests; Grasshopper played on that too. But I don’t know if there was anybody of the renown of Karen. But I’ve often used other people aside from the core group to help colour the records. I’m a producer for better or for worse so, if I’m objective and able to pull back from the fact that they’re my songs, I can look at what the songs need or what I would like them to sound like - and see who should add the additional parts or arrangements. So it’s a symptom of working that way for many years.

I guess I’ve had guests in since the late 80s, but I’m happy to have all the contributors. I mean, Karen was a blessing…I couldn’t sing that song (Song For A Warrior). I think it’s a really beautiful song, but for me to sing it would have been a disservice. It required someone with a compassionate, aching voice – it required a female too, considering the subject matter. Our bass player was friends with her, he played me some of her solo work and I heard her voice in a new way. She really has this American…not really country…but I could picture her as a mother singing to her child y’know? That’s the quality I wanted on that song.

A wholesome quality?

I don’t know about wholesome…

Some of the recording took place in Berlin and the rest in New York. Do you think that contributed to the different atmospheres on the record?

I don’t know about that really. Everything ‘s very worked on. There are very few moments where it’s just the band playing in a room – I’m a very hands-on producer, I’m not interested in trying to capture what the band sounds like and leaving it at that. Using the studio as an instrument is as important to me as the band performing.

When we started recording we were mid-tour. We had these new songs we were playing live and writing at soundcheck etc. So we recorded those in Berlin during a few days off. Then the day after the tour finished we went into the studio in upstate New York to work on more ideas

Why do you change the arrangements of songs live? Most bands seem happy to just play tracks as they are on the records.

I don’t ever really look at a song as being finished, because most of the songs began with me on acoustic guitar singing and figuring out how they went. Four of the tracks on this album were developed with the band live, and they just transformed into these massive sonic experiences. Another way of working is that I’ll bring in a song on acoustic guitar, do a basic version in the studio and start orchestrating it; that’s one version. Then you do more orchestration or overdubs, and that’s another version. Then you mix it, that’s yet another version. When we play it live, to me it has to change…otherwise we’re just trying to ape something that already exists. I want to be in the moment, so we can get the electricity out of it.

So, I like to change things along the way, but we’ve just rehearsed for a month and we have three new ‘experiences’ I’ll call them, because they’re too long to be songs, three new things we’ll be playing that aren’t recorded yet. And we’ll be changing them more as the tour goes on. We’re always searching for the perfect moment; but it’s more about the search than actually finding it.

On Facebook recently you posted the set list for the upcoming tour. Was that to tell fans ‘we’re going to be playing a lot of new stuff, don’t come expecting a greatest hits set’?

I don’t think anyone expects that from Swans. Even in the early days, I guess a little perversely, we would play songs for a tour then record them and never play them live again – we wouldn’t play that album ever. I’m just not into being a monkey advertising my bananas.

I want to make something undeniable and vital happen ‘in the moment’.

Do you take charge of the Facebook side of things yourself? Is it a chore?

It’s something I do once a day. I don’t like the word ‘fans’ because it’s diminutive in a way. But for the people that like the music I like to give something back so they know what’s going on, without being too…sleazy about it. You see a lot of bands’ Facebook pages, and it’s just gross. I imagine their Twitter experience is pretty sickening too.

I have to extend the tendrils, and fortunately through the Internet, over the years people with an inclination towards this sort of sonic experience have found the music. And that’s a really good thing, they haven’t found it because it’s fashionable or on the cover of NME, they found it because they liked the style of music.

Do you have any feelings about how influential you’ve been over the years and whether or not you’ve been credited for it? I remember when I first heard the Cop album that I suddenly realised who one of Nirvana’s early influences was. ‘Paper Cuts’ from Bleach always makes me think of ‘Your Property’.

Really? I wonder if I can retire now, I should check that out. I try not to think about it. I’m not a victim…things are what they are. I’m happy to be making music and I try to do something that I think challenges me, and the audience. When it becomes predictable I move on to something else, so I guess throughout the years, different phases of Swans have had influence on different people.

That’s a good and a bad thing. There’s one group, I won’t mention the name - they sell millions of records. On one track this fucker actually had the audacity to copy the groove and the even the way the notes bend. He even sings like me on the song - in this kind of ‘conspiratorial whisper’ style I’ve used. I consulted some lawyers on that but apparently I have no recourse, as there’s no melody involved. To me it sounded like he copied my song exactly, but apparently he ‘recreated’ it. That was really annoying, because that’s not influence, that’s just taking me and pretending it’s him. I was appalled when I saw it.

The music industry has changed significantly since you started and with the recent live album ‘We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head’ you released some limited edition copies with various levels of ‘extras’ that people could pay for.

That was initially a hand-made edition of 1,000, which sold out in a day.

Is doing that sort of stuff a reaction to the fact that people will just torrent a complete discography for free now, rather than buying the records?

It’s necessary to do things like that to continue making music. That’s the unfortunate thing that people don’t understand – the connection between the work, the investment, and the intangible download that they get. It’s an act of intense labour and an investment of a whole life’s experience. They get a series of 1s and 0s and they fail to make, or don’t care about, that connection.

Fortunately we have a very devoted fan base who are willing to buy things, who want to buy things. That keeps us afloat somewhat…along with touring constantly of course. So it is a reaction to that I suppose, it’s necessary. I don’t have anything else I can or want to do in life. So I had to figure out a way to make Swans work in this day and age.

As far as what you said about how different it was in the early days, it’s not that different in the tangible hardships and parameters of the way things work. It’s different in many other ways though, you have to rely on your own wits more and there’s not a major label that’s going to come and save you. You just have to figure out a way to make the music you want to make and find a way to monetise it, so you can continue to do it.

Is that why you took all Swans releases into your own Young God Records imprint, so you could have more control?

Total control. I had a series of unending catastrophes, with independent labels as well as one major label. After ten years or something I just said ‘no more, I can’t do this any more’. I wasn’t really intimidated by having my own business because I’d spent many years in construction; bidding for jobs, taking responsibility for buying materials, doing the labour, figuring out what the profit would be. I thought, why is it that the music business has to be so mysterious and difficult? You’re just selling something you’ve made. So I figured out a simple way of running the business, and was able to sustain myself – or I have done so far, thank God.

It means there’s no one telling me what to do. Myself and my band mates decide what the sound will be – there’s no pressure from outside. The music’s not pop music - I’m not going to get rich off it, but I’m able to make what I was put on earth to make. Fortunately it’s found an audience.

You say that Swans will never make you rich, but I’m guessing that’s not what you’re in it for. Otherwise you wouldn’t have put out the music you have over your career.

I don’t have a choice really. These days pop music is just revolting, but in the history of pop and rock some really great music has come about. I see nothing wrong with pop, I just have no talent in that direction and I just do what I do. What my proclivities are and what my talents are is what ends up on tape.

I got a certain amount of funds from the special edition live albums, it didn’t totally cover costs for this record – but I just decided not to relent on this one. One always tries, but I just wanted to make the best thing I could humanly do, and just not give up until it was some kind of a beast that couldn’t be denied. I wanted to make some kind of experience that is uplifting for people, hopefully. I think I succeeded in that, although I can’t hear the album now. It just sounds like sonic information to me. I don’t even have to listen to it, I can just run it through my brain…I’ve caressed every inch.

Words by James Barry

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'The Seer' is set to be released on August 27th.

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