In 2008 and 2009, a decade on from announcing the death of the band he had led since the early 80s, Michael Gira was finally able to envisage the resurrection of his singular and uncompromising outfit: Swans.
While the vast bulk of the mid-to-late 2000s reformation wave passed with little more to show than greatest hits tours and new records reprising old sounds, Swans have proved a significant exception. Now, four studio albums deep into a revelatory and expansive new era, the band are concluding their journey together after which Gira, and Swans, will move on with new collaborators and a new line-up.
Clash caught up with him prior to the commencement of the October/November 2016 European tour.
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At what point in 2007-2008 did you realise that Swans might be an identity that had a place in your future not just your past?
It was a very specific moment; I was playing as The Angels of Light with Akron Family as the backing band. We played acoustic/electric, not particularly loud, but there was this one moment which really had the Swans slave-ship rhythm, the guitar was resonating in a particular way. So after ten years of Swans not existing I thought “Oh THAT’S what it was like…” Right then I thought that maybe I had to do this again. I was right inside it and really transported. So, around that, certain circumstances occurred in my life and it seemed absolutely necessary to move on and do it.
The band came together, it’s all people I had worked with — with the exception of Christopher Pravdica, our bass player, but I’d known him a very long time and had seen him play — so it was just a matter of choosing personalities more than specific musical skills. It’s kinda how I work sometimes, when I’m conceiving a record I think “Well who would be good on this?” I’m not thinking of what they would play — it’s more that I picture them standing in the room with me, their personality and who they are as people.
We recorded 'My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky' with no rehearsals, no auditions. We assembled in the recording studio and began to work on the material I’d created, developing it in a Swans-ish way. It clicked and as we toured we grew into a really unified force — obviously it was compelling to me so I continued it.
I was always struck that Swans originally ended with 'Soundtracks For The Blind', a two hour long album, plus a two hour long live album, 'Swans Are Dead'. 2012-2014-2016 you’ve unleashed three albums in a row of that same scope and scale, all channelling what feels like the energy of that final live album…
When I restarted Swans I pictured that era as the starting point, not going back to the brutal stuff, or repeating ourselves, just taking that as the start. Usually what happens with each record is I find new things within what I’ve just done and then I pursue those while discarding the things that have become too familiar or predictable. Specifically with this group of gentlemen it’s been the most fruitful kind of collaboration that I’ve ever been involved in — at least for this period of time. That said we spent seven years, basically in close quarters probably 250-300 days a year. Things can become a little too familiar. Things always change and if they don’t change then they’re stultifying. That’s anathema to me.
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Things always change and if they don’t change then they’re stultifying...
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We discussed it together around the middle of last year, if 'The Glowing Man' should be the last one, that we would tour for it then that’d be it. This group will be dissolving and I’ll continue with the name Swans and I’ll make more music — but I have no idea what it’s going to sound like. I think that’s a good thing. And we still have a lot of life in us — we’re touring through December 2017 and developing new material but I think it’s time to jump off a bridge and see what happens.
To reach back into your past, I’ve always been struck by the strong aesthetics and visual identity wrapped around all your music and everything you’ve done with Young God Records. Was this at all influenced by your time at art college prior to the formation of Swans?
Probably just in terms of focus, discipline and trying to have a clarity of purpose. As far as the artwork goes, it’s very important to me that the band, and the label in general, have always had a clear identity that made sense to me. Pretty much every Swans record has a central icon in the middle of the record — I thought that was a useful way to present both a strong statement and one that also erases itself simultaneously.
That comes from an approach in language that I recall from my early days in art school where there would be these very strong statements maybe by conceptual artists. But the more you looked at them the more ambiguous they were and it was really more about how your mind was receiving the language, than what was being said.
Take an artist like Jasper Johns for instance, he did these target paintings in the 50s and 60s that are simultaneously very bold but also banal. The more you look at them the more trouble you have deciphering why they’re there and what they’re saying — it’s the process of grappling with meaning is more interesting to me than the actual image.
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It’s the process of grappling with meaning...
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I’ve also been noticing a distinct unity across your recent records in terms of packaging, art, sound, approach…
It’s all connected across the entirety of the last four albums, but particularly the last three albums — 'The Seer', 'To Be Kind', 'The Glowing Man'. They’re one piece of work that’s been slowly developing through performance. There are songs on the recordings that were written on acoustic guitar then developed in the studio, but as far as the long pieces go, those developed in live performance through improvising — and I use the word ‘improvising’ guardedly because it’s not in the normal sense of the word.
It’s more like following the sound and finding more pathways in this world we’re creating. Usually we start with a simple version of something then start playing it in front of an audience and it develops over the course of a 16 month tour. ‘Cloud Of Forgetting’, ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’, ‘Frankie M’ and ‘The Glowing Man’ — they’re the songs from our latest album that developed on tour. Those were all performed extensively then we went into the studio and played them once, there were no multiple takes. That’s been the gratifying thing with this group — the performance aspect of it is so strong.
Another element unifying the arc of Swans, even when I’ve read interviews from two/three decades ago, there’s still this idea of transcendence, of reaching a state of intensity allowing you to escape your body for a time, where does this come from?
I guess it’s a corollary to trying to connect with the most urgent thing in your existence. That may sound like a really pompous aspiration but really, just trying to connect with what is most urgent right now and building this process allowing you to fall into the vortex — to me it’s the most satisfying thing there is.
I recall you talking about your time as a construction worker in the early days of Swans: how much you focused on not getting sucked into the day job…
Well, there’s nothing wrong with being a construction worker: it’s a very useful trade — but it wasn’t me. I was in the wrong place constantly. I made a decision a long time ago that I’m an artist with a small ‘a’ and that’s what I have to do: it’s where I put all my energy and I don’t know how I could exist otherwise. I don’t see any point in existence unless you make good work — I think that’s what it’s about: to be involved in an activity that contributes to the stream of human possibility. That’s what I view my job as: to do the best work I possibly can, to put something positive out there for people to use.
I long ago accepted that it’s been a process, from the early 80s up to now, just a process of becoming. And that process is more the point than any finished product.
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Words: Nick Soulsby
Catch Swans at the following shows:
8 Brighton Concorde 2 - SOLD OUT
9 Manchester 02 Ritz
11 Glasgow Oran Mor
12 Newcastle Upon Tyne Northumbria University
13 London Islington Assembly Hall - SOLD OUT
14 London Islington Assembly Hall - SOLD OUT