Swans: “Getting Up And Making Shit Happen”

Before Swans take the stage with a tremendous release at San Miguel Primavera Club next December, we talk to legendary Michael Gira on "The Seer", an album that leaves a scar

Michael Gira admits that his young daughter “can’t stand” his music, claiming “as soon as I play guitar she comes up and puts her hands on the strings and gets me to stop.” Although his work as Swans is more readily greeted with awe than aversion; a visceral response is understandable. We spoke to Gira ahead of his performance at this year’s San Miguel Primavera Club Festival about punk rock, DIY and all things Swans.

“Swans”, Michael Gira tells me, was chosen because “it was the least punk-rock name I could think of”; before adding that punk rock is definitely the lineage he sees himself set within, “not in the style of the music but the idea of just getting up and making shit happen”. True to his word, for the last 30 years, Michael Gira has been making shit happen. As a musician, author and founder of Young God Records, Gira has earned notable recognition. It is the awe-inducing Swans, however, for which he is perhaps most fervently celebrated.

Swans emerged from New York’s no wave scene in the early 80s, amidst a crash of abrasive experimentalism and gut-rupturing intensity. After disbanding in 1997, they “reconvened” in 2010 releasing My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To the Sky and, most recently, The Seer; both to huge critical acclaim.

Intentional or otherwise, Swans is an entirely appropriate moniker. Both the bird and the band are purveyors of elegance and beauty, underscored by a not-so-nascent ferocity (I kid you not, earlier this year a notorious swan dubbed “Mr Asbo” was famously evicted from his village pond for violent behaviour). This dialogue between seemingly disparate qualities is something Gira recognises, both in his own work and that of his influences (from Herzog to Kurosawa, Suicide to Wire “every book I read, every film I see, everything I experience I draw upon”).

We spoke to Michael Gira ahead of Swans’ performance at the San Miguel Primavera Club Festival, held in both Madrid and Barcelona this December. Swans live could not be more highly recommended. Awesome in the purest sense of the word, at once brutal and breath-taking, Swans are a force to be reckoned with.

There seems to be an incredibly visceral, physical quality to your live performances is that something you consciously pursue?

I don’t think we start out making music that has to be visceral and physical, but it ends up being like that most of the time. Our live shows are quite overwhelming both for ourselves and the audience I think, though in a very positive way I hope. It’s like being inside a church, with four or five different choirs singing different songs at once.

To what extent is it an exchange with the audience? Do they have a palpable effect on the performance?

That’s difficult to describe. Yes, I guess they do. If it’s obvious that they are responding; if the room is full and it’s hot and it feels like a mutual undertaking, then I guess it is more intense. It’s not like we are trying to serve them, but they definitely are a part of it. At the best times the music is really playing all of us and we are following it, holding on to the reins. That’s when it’s best.

"I think the ideal way for someone to play it would be loud; just close your eyes and experience it"

And how does improvisation play into that?

Well it’s a big part of it, but it’s not improvisation in the typical sense. It’s not like we are noodling or trying to express ourselves as players within the sound; you know, taking solos or some crap like that. It’s finding new ways to push this thing that’s occurring. You just try and push it as much as you can, it just evolves. It’s hard for me to describe because it’s not like it is six separate people, it’s one big thing and you are just pushing into it really. The music changes from night to night, for that reason I guess. We have new material that we are playing now too that is just taking shape. Much in the same way that some of the songs on the album “The Seer” took shape, they are just finding their form live, in-front of people. It’s a process of discovery in that way.

You say you discover them playing them live. Once a track is recorded, is that the quintessential version of it; or is it still changeable?

Oh yeah, they have to be. The songs that developed live that are on the new album are “The Seer”, “93 Ave. B Blues”, “Avatar” and “The Apostate”. Those were developed live, in the way I just described. But the ones we are playing live are changing again. I don’t want to just try and duplicate what is on the record; I think that’s kind of boring.

How do you think the intensity of your live shows translates into your recorded work and people’s experience of listening to it? Is there a certain way you would like people to listen to your work, or is that entirely their choice?

Yeah, it is up to them. There is nothing you can do after you’ve finished it. On the records there is a lot more nuance, there is a lot more orchestration than we could ever do live. There is also a lot more very quiet moments on the record then we might have live. Just the different types of instrumentation involved. I really look at them as two different mediums; completely unrelated almost. I think the ideal way for someone to play it would be loud; just close your eyes and experience it. But you can’t really control that.

There is quite a literary quality to your lyrics. Is literature something you look to for inspiration?

Oh sure, lots of songs I have written have been written right after reading books. There is a song called “Live Through Someone” on the Angels Of Light record that I wrote after reading a couple of histories of the battle of Stalingrad. There are all kinds of songs that grew out of reading books. But, I don’t know, these are song lyrics; I think it’s a bit pompous to look at them as literature.

Are there any other art-forms that particularly inspire you?

Oh, filmmaking for sure.

Are there any filmmakers specifically you can cite as an inspiration?

Werner Herzog. Those panoramic sweeps that he does sometimes that are really beautiful. And also his sense of tragedy - even in his documentaries – is really profound.

"We are all miraculously pretty much friends. That hasn’t always been the case in the past with Swans line-ups"

It’s interesting you cite Werner Herzog. With Herzog there is a real sense of dialogue between seemingly opposing forces. Similarly, some people talk about your music as being profoundly joyful and ecstatic, whilst others say it is dark and depressing. But perhaps they are not mutually exclusive. I see it as two sides of the same coin.

You know that is a very good way to put it. May I use that quote? Because I am really underwhelmed when people describe the music as dark and depressing. It’s kind of a cartoonish way to describe the experience. Another person who has inspired me – even though I haven’t watched his films in years – is Kurosawa. I was going to cite this movie, it’s a book as well actually, but because it is still early in the morning for me and I was up late last night I can’t remember the title … [ pause] … “Dersu Uzala”! Have you ever seen that film?

No, I haven’t, should I?

Ah, it’s amazing, it’s amazing. I guess it was sort of an aider in his career, financially anyway. He got funding from the Soviet Union to make a film and he based it on this story of an explorer. He is a military guy but he takes a troop and they explore Siberia. He was this native, hunter gatherer type guy who serves as their guide. There are beautiful shots of nature, but it is also this story of modernity coming into this wilderness and just spoiling it, ruining it and the eventual demise of the trapper whose name is Dersu. It’s just such a beautiful film. It is absolutely one of the best films I have ever seen. It’s a great book too.

Has releasing on your own label had any tangible effect on the sound of your output? Did you ever feel constricted by the confines of your label?

It’s the same struggle, but I don’t have to answer to anybody. Not that you shouldn’t answer to people when they are investing money into you. But now it’s my own money, so stupidly it’s the same struggle to get the money and to try and bring it to the state it should be in. But I don’t work well with … [ pause, laughs] … other people. So it’s just necessary for me as a personality to have my own venue.

In regards to working with other people, to what extent do you see Swans as a collaborative project?

Well in this instance it’s very collaborative in the sense that I’ll have a picture of how I want things to go - or just a grove I want to pursue - and people bring their own personalities to it. I want that. I’m guiding it along the way, but I definitely want their input. Particularly with these guys; we are all miraculously pretty much friends. That hasn’t always been the case in the past with Swans line-ups, so there seems to be a sort of unusual commitment to things and that’s really wonderful to experience.

"I reconvened Swans because it was necessary to me as a human being and as an artistic type to find a new way of working"

Going back to Young God, do you have any plans to continue releasing other artists through it; or has the focus shifted back to solely your own work?

Yeah, my own work as Swans, or whatever name I give what I do. Maybe a few special projects by people I admire. But right now, at this minute, I’m so completely overwhelmed with just trying to keep up that it’s impossible. It’s also not financially the most propitious thing to do to release other people’s music nowadays, for obvious reasons, so that’s something that inhibits it. As far as being a regular record company anymore – developing people’s careers like Akron/Family or Devendra Banhart - it’s not possible, for me anyway. I’m not sure how labels stay afloat now. I guess they license things to films and they have people working on that. I don’t have employees per se. I have people that do the accounting and the publicity that I hire on a case by case basis. But as far as being a record label, it’s such a huge undertaking that it’s just not possible anymore.

It does seem that the music industry has changed. It’s interesting to see DIY labels flourishing.

Well that’s exactly what Young God is. But I don’t know, I think even smaller indies that have a DIY aesthetic are going under too. But that’s subject that doesn’t even bear discussing anymore because it is what it is.

I understand you referred to your re-appearance as Swans as a “reconstitution” rather than reunion. Why was that?

Well it’s not a reunion: the members are different. I mean Swans constantly changed along the way, in our first 15 years of history anyway, but I am specifically not interested in just trying to replicate something from the past. We certainly don’t go around playing our old albums. That would be really embarrassing to me. I reconvened Swans because it was necessary to me as a human being and as an artistic type to find a new way of working. And to me that was new, after doing 13 years - I think -of Angels Of Light. It’s opened up all kinds of possibilities that I’m following.

Where did the name Swans come from? Does it hold a particular relevance?

It was the least punk-rock name I could think of! And it seemed like it didn’t have the baggage that you might accrue with a name like “The Shitters” or something, it would kind of be limiting you know? So I just wanted a name that was an icon but that didn’t really answer any questions.

Is punk rock the lineage you see yourself fitting into?

Oh definitely. Not in the style of the music but the idea of just getting up and making shit happen, for sure. Although the standard punk rock bands don’t stand up very well musically, the more adventurous - bands like Wire - stand up to listening to now. Also the kind of elemental stuff was an influence on me, some of the New York bands that just used sound as an emotive source, like Suicide for instance. I guess it gave me the courage – not being a musician at the time at all - to just get up and make something happen and eventually figure out a milieu which I felt comfortable in. The rest is just what happened, a lot of years doing what I am doing a lot of learning too.

You had children in the period before you “reconvened”. Has that affected your work, or is your personal life very separate from your artistic one?

Well everything informs it. Every book I read, every film I see, everything I experience I draw upon. There are a couple of songs on the new album actually that are little messages to my daughter. I guess maybe the delicate quality of that might have resulted from having children. Although I guess in the past Swans certainly had delicate moments as well. The song “Song For A Warrior” was written specifically for my daughter. It’s a letter to her that I would like her to read when I am gone.

Does she listen to your music now?

Oh she can’t stand it! In fact as soon as I play guitar she comes up and puts her hands on the strings and gets me to stop.

Ha! I’m sure she’ll grow to love it.

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