Seminal post-punk veterans Swans have been in existence in some form or another for most of the past 30 years. Formed in New York City in 1982 by frontman Michael Gira, Swans were first known for their innovations as part of the No Wave scene of that era and for their brutal live performances. They disbanded in 1997, but were reformed by Gira in 2010, which resulted in the formidable magnum opus that is My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky.
Swans’ music is paradox embodied—layered, complex, and at times jarring, but crafted in a way that every element melds together as an object of sheer simplistic bliss. Their latest release is no exception. The Seer is a two-hour double disc set, which includes demo tracks from the recent limited release (only 1,000 copies were pressed), We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head. From the caustic (“93 Ave. B Blues”) to the sentimental (“Song for a Warrior”), the album is a wholly theatrical experience. The Seer is a culmination of sorts, and while it pays homage to the past three decades of sound, it also serves as a continuation of the constantly evolving organism that is Swans.
As the founder of a band whose impassioned live performances were rumored to induce vomiting and physical pain amongst the audience, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gira, but I had an opportunity to chat with the conspicuously affable and exceedingly humble frontman via Skype this weekend.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you talk about the conception of Swans?
Michael Gira: I was in New York and had this other unfortunate band that didn’t work out. I wanted to do something more severe and original, so I just gathered musicians. We used to have two bass players and two drummers and a guitarist. I was one of the bass players and it was quite a severe experience, but very satisfying though. Then things changed along the way of course, which they should.
What did you draw upon for inspiration in those early days?
MG: The sound itself—it just felt good, really. I wasn’t trying to make a point about anything. It was just what was satisfying for us to play, and I guess that entailed getting rid of the usual rock & roll cliches and trying to get to the bones of what we thought was good rock music.
Also books. I read this book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich and a lot of Jean Genet and such. I read a lot back then since I had time. I don’t know if any of that really informed the writing of the music specifically. The early lyrics were more inspired by television and billboard advertising and the way that language could be very blunt, but also contained entendre and had a seed to plant in the subjects’ mind.
Were you exposed to music as a child?
MG: Not really. I mean, I started fitfully and ineptly trying to make music in the days when punk first started. I was in art school, but that was a career path I decided I didn’t want to pursue, especially when punk came around. Punk, to me, just seemed more immediate and pertinent to everyday life, so I did that and figured it out. I guess that was one thing punk was about: you didn’t have to be a trained musician or anything. I was equally inspired by other music at the time like Throbbing Gristle and The Stooges and other good punk bands like Black Flag and also the No Wave movement. To me, No Wave was a revelation because those were people using conventional bass, drums, and guitars, but approaching it in a really non-musical fashion, so to speak. They were just shaping sounds and rhythms and making an excuse for someone to scream, which was great.
Tell me about the current incarnation of Swans. How does it compare to the original line-up, or is comparison just a moot point?
MG: Swans, as you said, has gone through so many transformations, and truthfully, the work has just led to where the most imagination can be utilized to make it. If we had kept doing the same thing, it would have been like a cartoon. Being the band leader, for better or worse, I would find a thread in something we had just completed that implied a new route and pursue that, so for that reason, the music would just keep changing. I guess now, as I say in my silly little press release, I think this album is really the culmination of 30 years of work. My friends in the band, of course, are extremely important, but as a producer and band leader, I’ve kind of drawn out all my experience, techniques, and ways of making sound in the studio and really tried to make the ultimate statement that I could make at this point in my life. There are quiet songs, which are gentle, and then there are other elements that are a little more sonically overwhelming. Really, The Seer is just all the different facets of things that I’ve worked on throughout my life. There are found sounds, sonic environments and all those different things, as well as quiet acoustic songs that are also incorporated into the record.
And you wrote many of the songs acoustically first?
MG: Yes, I sit here at my desk and sometimes I come up with full songs that I can sing on a guitar, and other times, I write bits that I plan on bringing to the band and let them develop electrically. With many of the songs, we started with a basic groove or idea and then started playing it in front of people with improvised lyrics and they gradually developed. The song “The Seer” happened that way—it grew through performing it, so it’s pretty organic, and hopefully, it’ll continue to morph as we go. Musically, I don’t really like being stuck in the same structure live. I like things to keep changing and I like to put myself in an uncomfortable position, much to the annoyance of the band I can believe.
We wrote three songs, which I guess is about an hour of music actually, for the new tour that haven’t been recorded or anything. We had a little break from an initial two-week tour and I’m already rehashing them in my brain. We’re going to have to revisit those in soundcheck or something. It’s a little tense, but I like it that way.
A less violent form of self-abuse?
MG: Maybe, but I just want something authentic to be happening, you know? I mean, you could perform songs really well, and that’s a great experience, but I like using the song as the basis for something else to happen.
Is that a way of developing a connection with the audience?
MG: I hope so, but I really figure out the schtick as we go. As far as what I do physically in each song, that develops organically. Not to be grandiose or anything, but I think of it as an evolving piece of theater or something. I develop physical things that I do with the songs, and it changes from night to night, but it grows and the set kind of becomes a living thing, as much as the songs are.
Can you talk about the writing and recording process with this album, specifically?
MG: Many of the songs were developed on tour. “The Seer,” “93 Ave. B Blues,” “Avatar,” and “The Apostate” were pretty much structured when we went into the studio. What I had to do after we recorded them as a group live in the studio was just overdub and build up sections, just using the studio as an instrument, which is sort of what I’ve learned to do over the years. The other songs were based on just my playing with my acoustic guitar and getting the sketch down, maybe doing a scratch vocal and then building the song up and making a little piece of cinema out of it. I typically way over-record and then I’m stuck with the nightmare of trying to sort it out. It’s just a tendency I have that comes from not being a real trained musician. A trained arranger would record things so that nothing gets in the way of anything else and frequencies don’t collide and things like that. But myself, I just layer things and layer things and then have a heart attack trying to figure out how to make it into a tangible shape. I’m not putting myself on this level, but there’s a painter called Frances Bacon, who I think had an image in his mind, but when he would start painting, he’d let it grow organically and through trial and error, it became a wonderful image. I guess my process is kind of similar to that.
You can really hear all the elements of that process on this record, as with previous albums.
MG: Good, I hope so. I try come up with a full experience. I know there’s a lot of people out there that have done that over the years, but that’s my goal each time. I’m not really interested in writing diverting pop songs.
You can hear elements of Swans’ influence in so many bands over the years, especially those within the experimental realm. Do you see that as well?
MG: I guess I do, and in some bands it’s more obvious that others, but I think that’s because Swans, even in all its various phases, has always been pretty unique. People gravitate toward that I guess. As far as people taking cues from the band, or whatever you want to call it, I’m fine with that, though I’m usually not too much of a fan of those groups.
What about those that turned it into quick commercial success?
MG: Well, I don’t disdain commercial success. I wouldn’t mind some, but I don’t write music for that purpose. We’re having pretty good audience attendance at our shows now. I don’t know about sales because who buys CDs anymore? The attention to the band is bigger than ever and that’s great, but I can’t write music for commercial purposes, because if I did, it would be horrible.
What’s your passion or inspiration outside of music?
MG: Sex... no, I read a lot when I have time, which is very rarely now. I also have two young kids. Actually, there’s a song on this record for my daughter (“Song for a Warrior”) and it’s something I want her to hear when she’s old enough to understand. I wrote the song and tried to sing it, but my voice just didn’t do it justice. Being a producer, I tried to remain objective, so I got someone else to sing it: Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Her voice just made sense to me because she has that unassuming, but almost maternal, healing quality to her voice when she sings intimately, and it fit with the words very well.
Your live shows are such a theatrical event, and your goal with the albums is to have a total experience as well. How do you think one translates to the other?
MG: I think they’re different languages, so they shouldn’t have to translate. I don’t really look at the studio as really having much to do with performing live. To get the sounds recorded is just the beginning and then it’s a matter of me fucking things up.
Fucking them up for the better.
MG: Or not possibly, who knows? It’s just the object of my obsession, so I go in there and I just start messing with them.