One of my strongest musical memories when I lived in London was going to the University of London Union (ULU) to see Swans. I had heard some of their music via early albums such as Creep, Filth, Cop, Holy Money and Children of God. There was something disturbingly alluring about their albums and their artwork. But that did not prepare me for the seismic wall-shattering, chest pounding music that emanated from the stage, by a band that didn’t look concerned or indeed particularly excited by the almighty racket they were making, such was their mean and moody demeanour. The packed audience, minus those who could not take it and left (which legend has it, many have done over the years), took it in; swaying and nodding to the heavy, ponderous and loud rhythms, many eventually finding their own inner ‘bliss’. Founder and frontman Michael Gira calls Swans’ music, “soul-lifting and body-destroying”. For me, it was deeply primal and not a little uncomfortable. It was quite unlike any other musical experience I had had up to that point, and indeed ever since.
Fast forward to 2014, and Swans are gracing The Old Market stage in Hove, a fitting finale to the Drill:Festival, a moveable city-orientated festival organised by post-punk legends Wire, who joined Swans on stage at the end of their set for Wire’s ‘Drill’ song. Could the sound system cope? Would some of the notoriously fussy local residents complain? 25-years on from that ULU gig, Swans were still delivering their music at ear-splitting levels. Sole survivor of the original Swans formation, Michael Gira, was still stalking the stage, subtly orchestrating the band, and coming across like a deeply immersed and less bug-eyed Iggy Pop. Not bad for a 60-year-old, “I was a huge fan of Wire,” says Gira. “I must have listened to those first three records hundreds of times. That was a great honour. It's not something I would want to make a habit of (appearing on stage with another band), but just because them being who they are, and they requested it, of course! I was a bit ambivalent about it while we were doing it, I wasn’t sure it was translating.” I tell him that in my opinion, it did. “I’m happy it did,” he responds in that deep, and measured baritone of his.
Even 25-years later, many in the audience, perhaps not used to a Swans performance, could not take it and drifted off, to rest their ears and ponder what the hell was that they just saw and heard. If you are not prepared or open to this kind of aural onslaught, it can be a little overwhelming to say the least.
Swans are not for the faint hearted. Notorious for their extremely loud gigs, they actually make music that is trance-like and meditative. We're not talking hardcore thrash or death metal here, but music that is visceral, but also transcending and indeed, quite beautiful at times. The music may, in places, be violent in tone but Gira the man is pleasant on stage (he says “thank you” after a song) these days and in conversation. Not that it has always been that way. In particular, their earlier gigs were sometimes dangerous affairs. Not only with regards to the volume, but the tendency of a young Gira to be antagonistic towards his audience, with stories of the band sometimes locking the doors and plunging the venue into darkness. He also apparently once punched a sound engineer in the chest when asked what sound he required, demonstrating physically what he wanted audibly.
There’s no doubting that Swans, and Michael Gira in particular, have toned down their act a tad. Gone is the outright antagonism, but still in place is the massive musical maelstrom they make, albeit perhaps not quite as brutal as it could be. And since re-forming the band in 2009, following a 12-year break, Swans’ reputation and their following has only got bigger.
Following a pre-manhood that involved some petty crimes, and hitchhiking across Europe, he found himself in an Israeli jail for possessing and selling hash, to be followed by working in a copper mine, before eventually working on gaining an arts education back in California. But music was calling him and so was New York City, where Gira formed Swans in 1982, at the tail-end of the post-punk and no wave scene (Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore was an very early member of Swans). The band congealed around Gira, a “near-constant” foil in guitarist Norman Westberg, who joined the group in 1983, and Jarboe, with whom Gira developed a strong musical, physical and emotional relationship that also saw both Gira and Jarboe enjoy a side project for a few years, Skin. Their sound approximated a cacophonous rhythmic throb which drew on post punk, industrial, doom metal, avant-minimalism and the blues; a sound which was matched by Gira’s often nihilistic, existential lyrical concerns. They could barely play, which of course helped immeasurably in Swans gaining their own distinct sound; one built on anti-rock foundations, within the DIY portal of punk. But they played and worked hard and soon developed a musical bond that circumvented their rudimentary knowledge of orthodoxy, and developed a cult following. “Everybody’s searching for something bigger than themselves,” Gira has said. “I found it in my music and it’s the closest I get to God.”
There has been perhaps only one musical regret of Gira’s long career. That was when Swans signed to MCA, on the back of this growing cult following, and the release of a cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ which became a college radio hit in the USA. "I'd worked so hard all my life", said Gira. "At 15, I was digging ditches in the desert in Israel, and I put myself through college painting houses. I never saw any money from any of our records. So by the time I finally got that carrot dangled in front of me, it was like, 'at last, I can make a living at what I love to do.'" The one album they released on MCA, The Burning World, contained discernibly conventional pop melodies. It bombed, and reportedly sold only about 5,000 copies, a derisory number in those days. Unsurprisingly, the band were quickly dropped.
By 1997 they were spent, Gira dissolving the band, and turning his attentions to less brutal musical pastures via Angels of Light. They released six studio albums, all on Gira’s own label, Young God Records, but never quite hit the heights that Swans achieved. “It was utterly necessary in every way, but it could have been a complete disaster,” Gira has said about re-forming Swans. “The goal was to keep the music new, vital and electrifying.” So in 2009 Gira re-formed Swans, with Angels of Light bandmates Thor Harris, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, along with Norman Westberg and new guy Chris Pravdica. These six have remained together up to the present day, releasing a string of extraordinary albums; My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (2010), The Seer (2012), To Be Kind (2014, and this year’s The Glowing Man. “In 2009 when I made the decision to restart Swans I had no idea where it would lead,” says Gira. “I knew that if I took the road of mining the past or revisiting the catalogue, that it would be fruitless and stultifying. After much thought about how to make this an adventure that would instead lead the music forward into unexpected terrain, I chose the five people with whom to work that I believed would most ably provide a sense of surprise, and even uncertainty, while simultaneously embodying the strength and confidence to ride the river of intention that flows from the heart of the sound wherever it would lead us.” And what was that intention? “LOVE!”
With Swans, there would be no resting on their laurels. Indeed, they have surpassed their best work with this string of albums. Even Gira is satisfied, “(There’s) more complexity, nuance and scope than I would have ever dreamed possible.” But, once again GIra is calling it a day, albeit a very extended goodbye. “It's the last tour with this configuration of the group, which has been seven years standing now,” Gira says. “After this tour, which goes through to December of next year, I’m going to revert to my old ways, which is gathering people on a case-by-case basis for each record and tour. And, I'll be touring a lot less. It won’t be a set band as it is now. So, it's not the final Swans band, but it is the final Swans tour with this particular gathering of humans. I have little idea what shape the sound will take, which is a good thing.
“| have to say this group has probably been the most fruitful and consistent of my career, and it's been tremendous working with these fellows, but it has reached its inevitable conclusion. We're on a high point right now but I can see that if it kept going it will become a habit, and maybe predictable. So, I think it's best and we can all agree to push this to its final stage and call it quits.”
It has, according to Gira, been an exhausting regime these last few years; the recordings, the touring, the physicality of the performances, and various other Swans projects have, it seems, caught up with Gira and band. But he is in saluting mode, “I hereby thank my brothers and collaborators for their commitment to whatever truth lies at the centre of the sound,” says Gira. “I’m decidedly not a Deist, but on a few occasions – particularly in live performance – it’s been my privilege, through our collective efforts, to just barely grasp something of the infinite in the sound and experience generated by a force that is definitely greater than all of us combined. When talking with audience members after the shows or through later correspondence, it’s also been a true privilege to discover they’ve experienced something like this too. Whatever the force is that has led us through this extended excursion, it’s been worthwhile for many of us, and I’m grateful for what has been the most consistently challenging and fulfilling period of my musical life. Having a set band is a huge responsibility for me, as the leader, label owner and all that sort of thing. And, I'm exhausted, and everyone else is too,” he laughs.
I ask him if this is a similar moment to when he first disbanded Swans back in 1997. “The configuration then was one of many, there were different people involved with each tour. There was a different set of circumstances. Basically I was fed up with the struggle. Also, I felt there was a trap that Swans had created for themselves and so I did the opposite. I started doing songs that were written on an acoustic guitar, and arranging around those. That was fruitful for a while, but the sound was calling me again, so I decided to get Swans up and running again. But, I just don't think it's going to be fruitful, creatively, to have those hemmed in configurations. So, I'm going to throw a bomb at it.”
Musically, Swans are slightly less brutal than they were in their earlier, more youthful incarnation. For the last seven years they have been making – as well as a number of ‘average’ length pieces – very long pieces; slow burning, repetitive and hypnotising. They are free of constraint. “It's not that I want to do them, it's just how they end up,” says Gira. “I follow the music where it leads. I just follow the thread to where it leads and the songs end up going on at length. I certainly wouldn't let them do that if they weren't compelling that long, I just allow it to happen. There's no A&R man telling me to cut it down so that we have a radio single. Anyone can do anything they want. People are surprisingly free if they realise that,” he reasons.
“There's two different trajectories, and they are pretty discreet. One is these longer pieces, and those developed by my having – and I hate that word 'riff' – a guitar figure, and maybe some words, some vocal lines. I take them to the group and we start to play them. Once they reach a basic rudimentary state of where they can be performed we start playing them live. And gradually, by following the thread that takes place live, they transfigure themselves – and I'm using that word very decidedly – they transfigure themselves into the forms that you can hear on the record. I mean, those longer pieces – ‘Cloud of Forgetting’, ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, ‘The Glowing Man’ – those were all developed over the course of 16 to 18 months on tour. They started out with a basic shape and they just grew intuitively. With my judgement as a producer and as a bandleader, they took that shape. The other way of working is that I write a song on acoustic guitar and it's pretty much set, and I go into the studio with the band and we orchestrate it and then I orchestra it further with other musicians as well.”
So, after developing the ‘long’ ones on stage, how do you approach recording them for posterity? “Actually, each one of those was one take. We had played those songs for so long, we just went in and once we had the sound right, we performed it and I did some fancy footwork with the editing and orchestration. Those are live performances and the first take I think in every case. It's hard to be in the studio and perform the song for 30 minutes and then do another take, you know,” he laughs. “At that point you just want to be done with it. We're performing a couple of them live now (‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’); they are transforming again live. They still resemble what is on the record, but they are still developing.
“It’s about trying to become so immersed in the material that it’s embedded in your bones. Then you can move forward with it, rather than just recite it. That’s another reason for doing what we do live. The songs change as they’re being played and when that happens, it’s an amazing state to be in. Things start happening because the force of the sound pushes us in new directions, and I encourage that.”
Knowing that he doesn’t do concept albums, and that all the songs are individual pieces, I pick a track at random from The Glowing Man, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, and ask him to explain the thinking behind it. “It was really from a book called The Cloud of Unknowing,” says Gira, “which is a very beautiful book of Christian mystic thought that was written in the 14th century. It wasn't written as a book, it was written as a tutorial by an abbot, I believe, to his acolytes, teaching them the way to pray and to meditate, and find union with God or the Divine. And it's anonymous in the sense that no author is attributed to it, but it's a very beautiful bit of spiritual searching and I find that it has a direct corollary to Buddhism, which also interests me. So, while the piece of music was taking place live I added phrases that alluded to that way of thinking. The phrase 'Cloud of Forgetting' is also used in that book as well.”
One of the shorter songs on the The Glowing Man is 'When Will I Return?' which features vocals by his wife, Jennifer. It is based on the fact that Michael was publicly accused of rape and sexual harassment by an artist called Grimm, who was on his label at one time. 'When Will I Return?' “… is a tribute to (Jennifer’s) strength, courage, and resilience in the face of a deeply scarring experience she once endured, and that she overcomes daily,” he has said. But he politely declines further discussion except to say, “I wrote that song for my wife. She doesn't really want me to talk about it anymore, which is understandable, because it was a quite a traumatic experience that the lyrics were based on. But I wrote it as a tribute and homage to her in her courage in facing the initial experience and the aftermath.”
Over the years, and following a trajectory that they first developed in the initial incarnation of Swans, the band have gradually diluted the initial extremity of visceral impact, but have added musical complexity and sophistication. And he still doesn’t wear earplugs. “ I can lie in a quiet room and the gentle waves of the sea are always with me,” he has said. “But I enjoy it. It’s a fix. It must unleash endorphins, because being inside the sound is to me the ultimate. When it’s working and we’re all psychically connected and the music’s taking us over, I can’t imagine anything more exquisite. The music becomes like a meditation, it attempts to be exactly connected to whatever primary energy is contained in the moment, in the now."
“The thing itself is more a beautiful vortex that takes place that you can immerse yourself in. As far as the volume is concerned that is purely a technical necessity to reach the point where the guitars resonate in a certain way, and create harmonics that wouldn't exist otherwise. There's a corollary to a minimalist composer whose work I love by the name of Charlemagne Palestine. He did a piece called 'Strumming Music' and that's him sitting between two grand pianos, playing one with his left hand, one with right hand, and he's playing arpeggios and gradually he develops those arpeggios furiously, and eventually – the piece is about 60-minutes long – about halfway through you realise that these chords of harmonics are taking over. There's just this choir of angels, these resonate taking over, and they‘re more prevalent than the actual notes that are being played. There's a similarity that happens with us with our guitars. I believe he’s very influential on people like Glenn Branca. In our case it's something that just happens naturally. Through rhythm and sound it is something beyond the chords that were created."
Finally, I ask about the volume levels that are reached by this band, but also loud amplified music in general. Isn’t there something a little bit unnatural about that, how the very fragile ear was maybe not built to deal with such noise? "I think that if you went to a proper concert hall and heard a Wagner symphony, it would be pretty fucking loud,” he reasons. “It's still an all-consuming experience. I think people intuitively reach for that, that overwhelming force. It’s something that when you're performing you don't really feel responsible for; you don't feel that you are doing it, it's playing you." It doesn’t seem to have affected Gira at all, despite being in the centre of the fierce vortex for much of his life. We are talking on Skype, audio only. He can hear everything very clearly. No damage there it seems. What about the creeping public health and safety issues; is that affecting where he can play? “Yeah, I think we may have reached our sell-by-date. I notice more and more when we travel in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia and France for instance, that there are very strict laws that preclude us from even playing. Maybe the nanny state is going to obviate us entirely.”
Read our review of their album The Glowing Man here: http://brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/article/12-music/1567-swans-the-glowing-man