From the corrosive angular aggression of 1983’s ‘Filth’ and the following year’s ‘Cop’ LPs, through their ‘gentler’ but still uncompromising middle period, Swans have been intermittently howling into the void for over 30 years. Resurrected in spectacular fashion in 2010, after a 13-year hiatus, the experimental avant-garde noise merchants have since released three albums to considerable critical acclaim. Discussing their latest album ‘To Be Kind’, the art of collaboration and live performance, frontman Michael Gira shares his muscular meditations and ministrations with Clash.
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Swans, ‘To Be Kind’ album teaser
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Swans’ music is about immediacy, capturing the ‘moment’. Are the records simply consolidating what you’re creating in a live environment?
There’s a couple of different ways of describing the experience of Swans. One is the live experience, of course, which is utterly immediate, and it’s always a challenge to keep it so. We have structures that we work with, songs in some cases, but you always want keep it alive and for that reason over the last couple of years we’ve decided just to let the songs be malleable and let them change into something if they decide that they want to [do so] of their own accord. And the performance for us is hopefully an all-consuming experience. If it’s working, it’s really a great source of joy for us, and hopefully the audience.
Then records are entirely different matter. That, to me, is crafting something, like making a painting or sculpture or something – something that’s necessarily fixed in time, but that doesn’t mean that the material exists before the record, on that record and after that record. All of which are different states. If we choose to play songs that are on an album [after they were recorded], they necessarily evolve into something else, otherwise to me it would just be like trying to sell Coca Cola or something.
There’s the danger of becoming a commodity then, a product?
Yeah, there’s that political aspect to it, of course. It just wouldn’t feel urgent and life is very short as I’m increasingly aware, and I want to make sure what I’m doing has authenticity: for myself mainly, but hopefully other people as well.
Does the evolution of the new material spring directly from the live shows? When you were playing songs from (2012’s) ‘The Seer’, were you already moving in the direction of creating new songs?
Yes, immediately. Which is what we’ll be doing on this upcoming tour, moving into something new already. The songs on the new record that came from playing on tour were ‘Just A Little Boy’, ‘Bring The Sun’, ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’, ‘She Loves Us!’, ‘Oxygen’ and ‘To Be Kind’. Those all existed in one form or another on tour. They grew out of playing songs from ‘The Seer’, or I had new songs I brought to the band and we worked them up live.
The one song that’s interesting, that came directly out of ‘The Seer’, is ‘Bring The Sun’, the 34-minute song on the record. There was an end part of ‘The Seer’ which was just a cloud of sound, and those two pieces grew out of that organically, just in performance, so they are truly Swans ‘band’ songs, composed with my direction but with the band live in performance.
Other songs I write on acoustic and I have the words for them and a basic structure. Then I bring it to the band and they, of course, put their tremendous personalities into them. They’re mainly already finished in the sense of having structure, but once you start playing them live you have to be open to allow them to move in new directions as well.
This is my favourite version of Swans. That’s easy to say because time has passed, but I’m very happy with this line-up, with these gentlemen and what we’re doing. And it feels like a very positive experience. I think it may have been a stretch to call us positive in the past. But I feel like it’s an appropriate description at this point.
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I loathe that, being called dark, and I loathed it back in the day, too…
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People do seem to associate intensity or having a singular vision with something pessimistic and dark. I’m not sure why that is, if it’s just people being lazy? ‘Dark’ is a word that comes up again and again when people describe your music.
I loathe that, being called dark, and I loathed it back in the day, too. It might have been severe, but it wasn’t dark. I was thinking of the spiritual commitment of someone like Gandhi or Mother Teresa, completely embracing the darker aspects of life – death, decay, disease and suffering, but ultimately it’s a very beautiful spiritual act. I certainly do not equate myself with that, but I’m just saying that it’s such a simplistic way to view music, or painting or literature or anything that deals with difficult subjects. To view that as being dark is imbecilic and shallow.
It’s certainly people thinking in a linear fashion. Those concepts that you’re speaking about – creation and destruction, life and death – they’re cyclical, they exist simultaneously.
Yeah, it’s like a Buddhist mandala. A lot of those mandala paintings have some really gruesome images in them. But the exercise of contemplating one is a very spiritual act.
The word ‘ecstasy’ is one I’ve heard you use often. It’s a word with many meanings: the ancients regarded it as the culmination of human possibility, and Martin Heidegger thought of it as something ‘outside of consciousness’. What does the word mean to you?
That’s interesting… ‘outside of consciousness’. Heidegger was a precursor to [Jean-Paul] Sartre, right? I actually have no aptitude for philosophy. I used to go to the library every day when I was a kid. I dropped out of school so I started going to the library everyday to teach myself, and somehow I wandered onto Being And Nothingness by Sartre, so I read it all the way to the end and realised that I did not comprehend nor retain a word (laughs). It’s not for me, but it is very interesting. What does ecstasy mean to me? I don’t know. I’m no philosopher. I suppose it’s that moment of complete discovery and loss. Simultaneous loss.
Do you view Swans, then, as a type of secular worship? Rapture and transcendence are associated with ecstasy, but also usually with a godhead of some sort?
I just want to rock, really (laughs). When it works it’s completely ecstatic, but I imagine the MC5 were pretty ecstatic and The Stooges certainly were. I know that for a fact. We might not sound like that stuff, but electric guitars and repetition, down to overtones and the sounds inherent in that, has the potential to lead one to a pretty high place. This is maybe why is why rock music is so often associated with drugs as well.
It does have shamanistic overtones…
That’s impolite to speak of, because one brings up the unfortunate gargoyle of Jim Morrison. That’s not to say I don’t like Jim Morrison. I worshipped him as a kid, but there was some pretty corny language attached to what he did.
You’re giving people an arena to lose themselves in though, and that’s engendered by repetition, pushing people into a trancelike state.
It might be more efficient if I were just to bring a flamethrower to the show. Lace everyone’s beer with LSD, and then let loose with a flamethrower. That would be the best way to go about it.
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I don’t sit down to deal with some issue or to describe something or disturb someone, or anything like that…
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I’ve heard you cite ‘Ummagumma’ by Pink Floyd as being influential.
It’s a great record. I was fortunate enough to be at a concert in 1969 of Pink Floyd. In that era, post Syd (Barrett), they were still a supremely great band. Even better, in many ways. The music was more Wagnerian, more monolithic, these big crescendo-ing pieces, like ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’. I saw them at a festival in Belgium and it’s something I thought about for quite some time.
That real deep psychedelia is inherent in your own work. Whether or not that’s entirely conscious?
Of course it’s conscious. I mean, I don’t want to sound like ‘The Floyd’ because that’s pretty embarrassing, but there’s an aspiration there.
You studied visual arts initially but you gave that up for music. Is that because you perceived music to be less elitist?
At the time I started making music and abandoning a career in visual arts, in say 1977 or ’78, the arts was dominated by conceptual art – and I liked a lot of it, but it was also right at the time that art was becoming a respectable university sanctioned career path, and the artists that I admired certainly were not that. And the development of ‘art speak’ did a lot to completely alienate me. The specialised language which maybe 300 or 400 people in the world speak, and I didn’t want to take the time to learn it or decipher.
I was always more interested in immediate things and visual overload and impact. I didn’t care about the verbiage. The politeness factor was off-putting. Going to openings in those days was supremely off-putting. The type of people just weren’t my kind of people. I just did not want to be part of that world. Not that I don’t admire a lot contemporary artists, though. At that time punk rock was happening, so I switched to that. I had no musical skills whatsoever; some would say I still don’t. It just seemed obvious, and punk was really ingesting poison in the media and the general social climate and spitting it back out in a new form, spitting it back out biliously. I thought that was a really wonderful gesture and it’s something to which I related.
I wouldn’t call you misanthropic but after what you said about being solitary, it’s interesting that you find yourself working as a bandleader.
I know! It’s a curse. But this band, we interact, I don’t know what the word is; the gestalt or some shit. It’s more [like that] than any other line-up of Swans. It’s a true privilege. But what I’m saying is, it’s a curse just to make a recording happen. The amount of organization, money, all the different elements you have to pull together, the personnel that you have to pull together – it’s complicated and daunting. Not being the sort of person who works at home on Pro Tools, for instance.
On ‘The Seer’ you worked with Karen O and Ben Frost. On this record you work with another incredible cast of collaborators, including St Vincent. Did you choose to work with her yourself, or is that something you consulted the band on?
No, I’m the dude (laughs). I don’t need to ask their permission. These guys contribute huge amounts, and I couldn’t do most of the music that’s been happening without them. But I’m the bandleader for better or worse. That’s my job, my raison d’être.
The thing with Annie (Clark, aka St Vincent) is, the engineer for this record (John Congleton) is her producer. He familiarised her with our music about three years ago, and she subsequently became what’s lovingly noted as a ‘fan’. I guess she went to some shows and things, so she was very much predisposed to participate. So when this record came up, as usual I wanted some female vocals here and there, and John recommended her as one of them. And it was a wise choice. She’s a great singer and a sweet person, a really delightful person. And she did a fantastic job.
Annie does a background vocal on ‘Nathalie Neal’ [among other songs] – this is where I feel she’s underutilised. She did about 20 tracks on that song. I just wish her voice was a little louder, but unfortunately its one of those things where there’s all this filigree instrumentation happening, and as soon as you bring her up they all get washed away. It’s a delicate process. She was doing this thing I’ve long been doing on songs, which is acting as the sustain or the overtones from the guitars. You can hear it, but you can’t hear it. It’s there. It needed a lot of tracks, so it kind of becomes liquid. So watching her sing that was truly revelatory for her musical skills. I mean, 20 tracks; the bit she’s singing on is like six minutes long or something. Never missed a note, and she was really a trooper – she just kept going and going and going.
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The best frame of mind to be in while you’re making this sort of music, of course, is to have no frame of mind…
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You won’t talk specific semantics over your lyrics, but broadly speaking they do deal with the monstrous and the abject. Are you purposefully and consciously disturbing social constructs?
Not, that’s not really the way I think. I would never sit down to write a song and think I’m going to break social boundaries. I just do what I do, and then it has a context later. I don’t sit down to deal with some issue or to describe something or disturb someone, or anything like that at all. I just develop a little world or an atmosphere or tell a story and how people respond to it is completely their own shit.
You don’t think that you’re provocative?
Maybe working a knife slowly into my own belly perhaps, but not someone else’s.
Do you find performing cathartic?
I’m certainly exhausted when I get off stage. I don’t know that this is the same thing as being cleansed. I don’t set out for catharsis. That starts to make the music into some Reichian therapy, or something. Which I’m not really into. It’s more just finding something that wasn’t there before. The best frame of mind to be in while you’re making this sort of music, of course, is to have no frame of mind. To be completely empty in your mind, and the music is playing you. But that takes work to get to. You can’t just do that. It takes effort. It takes hands on, day-to-day, minute-to-minute construction work.
Would you class it as a form of meditation?
Yes, it is like meditating. You can meditate using any kind of mantra you want, and it reaches the same place. You could repeat any word over and over, and it reaches the same place. It’s just the matter of the way your synapses work; eventually you will experience awareness and release. That is the goal.
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Swans, 'A Little God In My Hands', from 'To Be Kind'
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Words: Anna Wilson
Photos: Michael solo (live) by Sebastian Sighell
Michael solo (portrait) by Phil Sharp
B&W band shot by Matias Corral
Swans’ new album, ‘To Be Kind’, is out now on Mute. Find the band online here.