Swans : in depth interview with Michael Gira
Last year The Swans released The Seer; an amazing, sprawling work that created a musical world that completely enveloped you in its power and imagination. It was Louder Than War’s album of the year and the gigs they played in the autumn were so intense that it was hard to listen to any other music for a week afterwards.
It’s not that Swans make particularly brutal music these days. There are moments when things can get quite heavy but there are also moments of beauty and of a brooding psychedelic folkiness. In fact there are moments of just about everything in there and the album and the attendant live shows were stunning trips.
With the band back on tour in the spring and the stirrings of a new album on its way we got in touch with Swans ringleader, Michael Gira to find out where its going and where this amazing music comes from.
Michael has a really bad cold and the interview is interjected by heavy duty hacking but he is unfailingly polite and eloquent as he answers the questions we put to him.
LTW: The Seer is an immense piece of work that you can get lost in, were you conscious of the jump from the previous ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky’ which already hinted at this enormity but didn’t go to the enveloping extremes of the The Seer. How did the transition come about?
Michael Gira : ‘It’s just work really. It’s pretty banal. It’s about playing a lot live and letting the music grow on its own. It’s about wrangling with the mess you make in the studio until it finally takes on some sort of shape and then moving on to the next thing.
I think in the last couple of weeks which I’ve had off I’ve managed to gather enough basic songs together for a new album and we are already playing the new songs in our set. Half the set is these new songs and I’ve got some more now and we will start developing those live as well into their own form and violation as well.’
LTW: Any hints where the music is going? Will it be a continuation of the directions suggested by The Seer?
Michael Gira: ‘If you want to stay interested in your own work and be compelling to other people you have to move on. It’s not like I’m going to start making electro dance music next though! Some of the threads on the last record will be moving to the fore on the new one. The endless grooves will be there. We grapple with death and life with the songs that change with every show and hope to find the perfect nuances and ways to build them. I’m really trying to find a vehicle to ride, rather you driving it, you have to design the perfect vehicle from scratch.’
LTW: I’m interested in the word groove, Swans have a certain groove but not in the traditional sense of that word.
Michael Gira : ‘I don’t want to sound like a white boy trying to be funky. We have to find our own avenue, our own way, our own groove.’
LTW: Maybe connecting with a drone?
Michael Gira: ‘I don’t like calling it the drone. I suppose, as you notice with the record, nothing stays the same, things are always growing and changing within the chord and that interests me- the possibilities that are there in a single note, that kind of aspect which makes it more than a drone. Sometimes it feels like cheating to change chords you know (laughs)
I’m looking for an opportunity to use a children’s choir. We will see. I love the sound of children’s voices and need a really good children’s choir but I’m not sure which church or school would consent to me using this!
LTW: What is the creative process? Do you write at home on an acoustic and present to the band? And then do you take on the role of the conductor? Do you jam the songs?
Michael Gira: ‘We don’t really jam, although once in a while we will sort of jam. I don’t jamming like a rock band riffing. I usually come in with a rhythmic idea or a finished song, which I sometimes bring to the band. We start playing and I guess I conduct in a way but I absolutely want the band’s own input and imagination. When things veer off and it’s inappropriate I correct it. The band is very important to the sound at this point.
Some of the songs start as notes on an acoustic guitar and start with rhythm and a rudimentary vocal. The songs could be pretty finished or I have mapped out a whole song. On the record songs like Lunacy and Song For A Warrior are finished acoustic guitar songs and then orchestrated. Other songs like The Seer developed live over the year after starting out as a groove before it developed into what it became.’
LTW: Would it be fair to say that the more gentle sounding songs started off written on the acoustic guitar?
Michael Gira: A lot of them start with me in my office on my acoustic guitar and then are built up. Some of them I have concepts for and I know how they are going to develop with the input of my friends in the band. Other ones are finished as a whole song like Lunacy and then I have the people orchestrate around that structure.’
LTW: Is it deliberate to have the variation of styles on The Seer There is quite an extreme difference to the songs.
Michael Gira: ‘Well yeah, I’m a producer for lack of a better word. In a way I’m I like film director. Not to be too grandiose by any means but I’m at looking at creating piece of cinema and all the kinds of variation that implies. It’s not so much about different musical styles but to create nuance and different atmospheres. I’m trying to make a world where the listener can fall into it and lose themselves. At the highest points live that’s what the music does, it creates this environment where the audience can levitate for one moment and that’s the most gratifying thing for me.’
LTW: The Seer struck me as being almost psychedelic but not in the paisley shirt sense of the word.
Michael Gira: ‘It’s emotional music and, for me, closer to what Fela Kuti does or Beethoven’s Ode To Joy. For me music has this potential to completely consume you, particularly in music that is so physical and it completely enables you to be acutely aware of the moment to lose yourself completely in it.’
LTW: It’s interesting the reactions people have to your music. At the gig in Manchester people were feinting, surfing the noise, resisting the volume are, like me, finding the album and especially the live gigs almost meditative…
Michael Gira: ‘Yeah sure, that when music is at its highest. If you listen to his piece by Henrik Gorecki symphony 2 but not 3, it’s all consuming and just incredible but you could listen to the Stooges Funhouse and you would have the same feeling.’
LTW: The Stooges were far more complex and clever than they let on.
Michael Gira: ‘I don’t know about clever but tremendous…’
LTW: There is also an air of classical music in your stuff, the way it moves through to different moods and places with highs and lows.
Michael Gira: ‘People, friends of mine, who are classically trained suggested some of the record was classical in a way. I have no musical training whatsoever. I work by instinct with sound. I shape sound is what I do. So I can’t say anything about being a composer. I don’t know fucking anything about music! I work by instinct and I aim to be not timid and to be fearless and to just follow my imagination.’
LTW : Is it a case of the more you know getting in the way?
Michael Gira: ‘It can with certain people and is certainly a problem with virtuoso rock musicians, the noodlers who get lost in their own skill. One of the lessons of punk , for me, was that obviously. But that doesn’t say I don’t respect great players, it’s just that sometimes they can be trapped in their own canon. Personally I don’t have that problem because I don’t know a single scale.’
LTW: Does the music just come into your head?
Michael Gira: ‘Sometimes but usually I fiddle around on the acoustic guitar and find chords or shapes I like the sound of and start playing them and then a rhythm occurs and then, hopefully, by the grace of god, words will find their way into my brain..’
LTW: Is it fair to say that The Seer was the culmination of all your years in music and all that have you learned?
Michael Gira: ‘I said that sardonically in my stupid press release! I guess it’s true in the sense that a lot of the methods and styles and usage of sound that have occurred in my chequered past- ranging from the thudding rhythm to the soaring crescendos and the sonic landscape came from there. Everything has been reluctantly learned over the last 30 years as a producer or musician.’
LTW: Do you recognise this if you ever listen to early Swans records?
Michael Gira: ‘I don’t listen to early Swans records.’
LTW: Do those early records feel like a different era now?
Michael Gira: ‘Yes. It’s thirty years ago now. A very different time for me’
LTW: A lot of bands become variations of themselves but do you feel detached from your earlier work?
Michael Gira: ‘Yeah but I try to respect the person that made it. I don’t see how I did what I did even though I was that person! I was a pretty intense individual but you have change with time- if you don’t you are just dead.’
LTW: Is your life very different now than it was when you lived in New York?
Michael Gira: ‘New York was an incredibly different place then to what it is now. It was a very difficult place in those days. The city was in decay and decline. There was lots of violence and hardship and, in a way, that was a productive element because it weeded out the weaklings. You had to be really, pretty brutal to get any kind of thing going and any pretention to being relentless. It was a lot different to what it is now. I think a lot of younger musicians in New York these days see music as a career option choice thing, and it certainly was not like that then.’
LTW: Was there more space to be creative then?
Michael Gira: ‘I had a 900 square foot storefront which I built myself. It was a shabby space when I moved in but I did a lot of construction on it. When I moved in it was a 100 dollars a month to rent but with a lot of hard work I made it into a space to work.’
LTW: Did your music reflect the environment you were in at the time and have the changes in your music reflect the changes in your environment?
Michael Gira: ‘Not really. I guess I’m not a good enough musician to interpret my surroundings or anything for that matter. I just follow the music and the music itself is the message, you know. It’s not like I try to translate where I am into music. I just follow my imagination.’
LTW: So in the older era your imagination was not affected by the brutal New York of the time?
Michael Gira: ‘I don’t know. The main thing with early Swans was that I was just stripping down the essential elements of what we consider to be rock music really. I was getting rid of everything else and pushing what you then found to an extreme. That came through rehearsing and being properly severe about the choices that were being made.’
LTW: What were these elemental blocks?
Michael Gira: ‘That’s a big subject for me. It’s what we wanted to do with just sound and rhythm. It’s really very emotional music for sure and there is really hardly any melody. Every once in a while a vague one might creep in but it was mainly sound and rhythm with the sound generated mainly by bass drums and guitars.
We used to use tape loops then but not with a rhythm. We would bring them in and out of the sound playing on a cassette with the sound that was like a roar- raawww! And that cassette would be in a tape player that be amplified through a SVT rig with an extra cabinet creating this huge sound. The other bass player, because we had two bassists then, with myself being one of them, he would bring in the sound with his volume pedal . We would be trying to have these physical forces with the sound. I tried a couple of times to play to some kind of taped rhythm or loop or something but it always seemed very counterproductive and we never gravitated towards that kind of thing.’
LTW: Is the current Swans a much more band orientated way of working?
Michael Gira: ‘It’s a band. A great band. But I’m the guy who is the band leader you know. It’s not like I’m this fucking composer like I was saying. I have a kind of instinct where I want things to go and I try and shape it with whoever I’m working with. With the line up now it’s very similar. I’m giving these guys a lot more leeway because I like them. It’s part of being with a good band. I mentioned in an interview the great band leaders like Nina Simone, Fela Kuti or James Brown or Howling Wolf- those are all band leaders and their music didn’t just happen. They would get together jamming but someone has to focus things and it’s not just the excellence of the players.’
LTW: Your role is to give them the space to create but within parameters?
Michael Gira: ‘Yeah and then at the best moments this singular sound is bigger than all of us and we are following it and not the other way around.’
LTW: You mentioned before the physicality of the music and that was very noticeable at the Manchester gig.
Michael Gira: ‘That was a really good show. I nearly feinted and a couple of people in the audience actually did feint.’
LTW: They did. Right in front of me. One of them went down like a sack of potatoes.
Michael Gira: (Laughs)
LTW: People’s reactions are very different. Some people hold their hands in the air and surf on the volume.
Michael Gira: ‘Absolutely.’
LTW: And some people fight the noise…
Michael Gira: ‘Sorry, I don’t like the use of the word ‘noise’. Sorry. It’s sound- noise, to me, implies an annoying fly in your ear sound.
LTW: OK, some people have their hands in the air feeling the sound, surfing on it. Some people are trying to react against the sound, some people- like me- find it very meditative and relaxing in strange way. Do you like diverse reactions?’
Michael Gira: ‘Those all sound good to me. I mean you can’t come up on stage and say ‘ok. we are going to create a moment of ecstasy…’ That would be preposterous but that is sort of the goal you have. If the music elevates people then it’s succeeded. It’s nice to see the responses from the audiences. In the early years our relationship with our audience was anything but sympathetic, our music was aggressive but not in the sense of trying to attack someone. The sound was pretty forceful and a lot of our career was spent in an antipathy with the audience.
Now I really enjoy having people seeming to come for the experience that we can provide. That’s just the passage of time. Maybe the internet helped a lot with people understanding what we were trying to and getting the information out there and telling people the experience that we can be and people like that and come to it understanding. That has been a very good aspect to it. It’s certainly not because we are fashionable! when has it ever been? It seems to have attracted an audience of people who understand and like this sort of thing.’
And what do you get physically when you play this kind of music?
Michael Gira: ‘At best I completely forget who and where and what I am. I also get incredible exhaustion after the show, especially now as we are playing up to three hours sometimes, which is pretty demanding.’
LTW: Are the length of the shows important?
Michael Gira: ‘The length of the show is not a goal actually. It just seems to be unavoidable. The material is growing in such a way that it feels like you can’t stop right there. It’s not a series of versions of songs from the record. It’s a living thing. We’re not, in any way, trying to replicate what’s on the album. We are trying to make something happen in the moment and it just happens that that moment is growing exponentially.’
LTW: Do you lose track of time up there?
Michael Gira: ‘Oh yeah!’
LTW: How do you know when to end the set!
Michael Gira: ‘Usually some official from the club comes over and says get the fuck off the stage (laughs).’
LTW: In Manchester the show was about three hours but it felt like twenty minutes!
You have toured a lot since the My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky album, did that have a profound affect on the music that went onto The Seer.
Michael Gira: ‘Oh yeah, for sure -like I say the music develops from the moment when we are in front of audiences. It develops organically. We have a path that we want to follow but we find new things every night. Sometimes things don’t work so we lose them and move forward to a different way, maybe someone will do something in the gig and I will hear that and register it and at the next soundcheck, when we have the luxury of the having time, I will take that new idea and expand it. Every night it’s altered and changing and that’s a good thing. It’s not like sitting in the studio and kind of artificially trying to inject nuances- it happens just through playing.’
LTW: Is the live thing the truer version?
Michael Gira: ‘No, there is no true version of the music. It is whatever it is at the time. That’s why I don’t consider the Seer album finished. It’s just what it was in that moment. The songs you see us play live are remarkably different from what was on the record.’
LTW: Was the My Father album about mortality?
Michael Gira: ‘I don’t know about thematic things. I can’t discuss them anymore. Sometimes there’s a very specific subject matter and a general theme to a song but not to a record. I don’t think that way. In the case of a song it could be like Song For A Warrior, that’s a little poem, a little lullaby for my daughter. That’s how that started- it was a little love letter from her dad.
There are poignant songs like that whilst on other ones, the words are more like indicators of my state of mind. You have to keep your personal self out of it and try to come up with, I’m not sure what the word is I’m looking for… Phrases just point exactly what the music might suggest to the listener themselves.
LTW: Do you write the words after the music?
Michael Gira: ‘Usually. Although I just, remarkably, wrote a whole lyric without music to it. But usually it’s afterwards. The words do not come easily to me anymore. I’m pretty self critical and I try not to repeat the same kind of things. Although it is the same person writing, so it’s inevitable ultimately.’
LTW: As you get older do you get more self critical?
Michael Gira: ‘Yeah, you have done a lot and inevitably you are going to start repeating yourself. It’s just the way it is. By the way, did you hear Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest.’
LTW: Yes I did, sounded great. I love his voice now, the way it is so fucked!
Michael Gira: ‘Personally, I’m a little disappointed in his voice but what can I say? he’s 70 something.
I think lyrically, though, it’s phenomenal. It is so beautiful. It’s romantic and suffused with a kind of morality and the meaning of death. You know it also has this over arching , sweeping poetic vision of life. I think it’s incredible. It makes you cry. It’s about how temporal we are ultimately. It’s this whole a list of experience and it’s all pointing to that…’
LTW: Are you writing that way as well?
Michael Gira: ‘I can’t. I’m not like that. He’s very gifted at classical song writing and I’m not like that. Every once in a while I will have a little luck and write a narrative song of that nature but I’m different. I’m in my own little place in life. I have carved out my own world but he’s a more universal kind of writer.’
LTW: Is Bob Dylan a key influence?
Michael Gira: ‘No but there are people I hold as icons or heroes or examples of what is possible but not as influences. I mentioned a few before like Nina Simone or Howling Wolf- John Cale might be another one at a certain time, he has done some awful work in his life as well but also some magnificent work too. I even look at Nico at being very inspirational in a certain way. It’s not like I want to sound like those people. Some people take influence and you hear it in the music, it’s not like that with me. I like James Brown -good god what a magnificent human being! maybe not so much his personal life though but as a creator or a creative force he is important as far a I’m concerned.’
LTW: These were people with a vision that did not follow other people’s paths, is that part of the inspiration for you?
Michael Gira: ‘Yeah that’s true, maybe that’s why I’m interested in these people. That’s a good point. When I look back in retrospect an influence on me is Glenn Branca because he refused to compromise and was really going for the peak experience through the sound. I don’t understand his music technically at all and nor do I care to but having been around him in his early symphonies and watching him work was very interesting. He was kind of the cliché of the mad genius and the kind of way he worked was just truly, profoundly inspirational. It’s what you think about when you decide you want to be an artist, you look at your guides or heroes and you want to be as all consumed with the world as they were and that was what he was and it was pretty awesome to see.’
LTW: You are also a big fan of the The Beatles…
Michael Gira: ‘That’s a whole different thing. The Beatles were a whole cultural, economic and musical phenomenon and also a convergence of technology at the time that was the psychedelic era. It was just all that converging all at once. As well as having exceptionally talented pop song writers, if not such great lyricists as far as I’m concerned, but they had that ability to make a world in just few minutes was pretty unparalleled.’
LTW: You’re 58 now and in some ways, a child of the sixties, does the idea of the sixties remain in your work?
Michael Gira: ‘Yeah, I was born at that time. I was too young for the hippies and too old for the punks (laughs). I gravitated towards punk when it happened. Obviously I was a little older than everyone else at those punk shows but the whole musical kind of cataclysm that happened in the sixties to the early seventies was pretty phenomenal.’
LTW: Was the punk thing for you a reprise of the energy of ideas of the sixties thing? Tearing down fabric to create something new?
Michael Gira: ‘That’s like, no offence, but that’s what a critic thinks. I just followed my path. I don’t think about overarching big issues. This is the only way I know how to work. I guess I’m lazy minded. I have a terrible memory. I’m always stuck like a Doe in the headlights grappling with the moment and I just do my best with what talents I was left with and I don’t worry about the bigger issues.’
LTW: Did you ever feel what you doing part of was part of late period No Wave?
Michael Gira: ‘The No Wave thing was before us and Sonic Youth, both of us moved to the city at the same time but it had pretty much died out when we got there. It didn’t last long. Teenage Jesus, the Contortions, Suicide and all that stuff to me was an indication to get the fuck there to New York from LA where I was living .
I got to New York where I could make something, for lack of a better word, happen. The No Wave thing had been a liberating thing, it was not about the usual three chords- fuck the three chords is what we thought.’
LTW: When you play live do you consider yourself an entertainer?
Michael Gira: ‘Sure, ultimately that’s what it is and on many levels it’s about being an entertainer. I really respect great entertainers like Nina Simone, James Brown even Frank Sinatra, who was a great entertainer. ‘
LTW: You croon like Frank sometimes…
Michael Gira: ‘(Laughs) In my own gravelly way, that guy had a trained, beautiful voice and I have anything but. But again I find my voice in my own music and I can dig that. I’m adequate as far as being a real singer. I’m have not got any illusions about that. I guess the music is tailored or whatever for my voice and my voice just happens to fit in with what I write whether it’s whimsical or wistful or a sorrowful tune- I’m not so hot at that. ‘
LTW: On the album I can hear threads of the sixties in songs, Sometimes a bit of the feel of the Doors…
Michael Gira: ‘I have no idea. As a kid I wouldn’t say I was a fan but the Doors were part of my whole inner psyche. I grew up in southern California and I guess I was 13 when their first album came out in ‘67. I was right there and I was taking LSD and listening to it. I have listened to the first three Doors albums so many times that I could recite them in my mind. I didn’t have to play them any more because I could recite them.’
I didn’t even know what blues was at the time. I didn’t think of them as American blues. It was just its own sonic world you know. They grated very much against mainstream America at the time which was so different that it’s hard to even describe. The power music could have in the culture was much more profound then than it is now. ‘
LTW: Do you find it frustrating that music is now generally more background and do you react against that.
Michael Gira: ‘I don’t react against thing or look at bigger issues. I do what I do and I’m happy that certain people like it.’
LTW: You are also a fan of early Pink Floyd as well and not so much the Syd period.
Michael Gira: ‘I was at a Pink Floyd show in 1969. It was a festival in which all kinds of bands like the Pretty Things, Frank Zappa and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Robert Wyatt played with Soft Machine. It this confluence of jazz, experimental, and psychedelic music and it was a great experience. I saw Pink Floyd perform what became the material of the Ummagumma album and it was great.’
LTW: Did that open up possibilities to the imagination?
Michael Gira: ‘I had no notion at the time that I would be a musician. When Swans started to expand the sound I started to think about formative experiences and where I wanted the music to go. I rediscovered that music that had started me thinking and about making an experience happen rather being a song or something.
LTW: These experiences look pretty draining to play. How tiring is it to actually perform that music?
Michael Gira: ‘Incredibly. When I get off tour I feel like I could run up a mountain and I probably could! But when I’ve been back for a month I’m sick as a dog and looking forward to getting back into my exercise regime which is just stretching before the gig but the show is my exercise because it’s so intense.’
LTW: Do you feel the energy come out of you on stage? Your melting with sweat…
Michael Gira: ‘It depends in how successful we are in getting the venue to turn of the air conditioning! It can be quite a cleansing experience in that way (laughs). In Manchester I believe it was out of control in the room with the heat. The main reason I had them turn off the AC there was that it was right above the stage and blowing in my face whilst I was singing and that is counter productive because my vocal chords dry up and I can’t sing. So I had them turn that off. It’s nice when it’s hot but that was beyond the pale. We just did a show in Brooklyn last year and it was the same, just unbelievable. I thought I was going to lose it. I was on my knees and someone poured water on my head because I was so hot.’
LTW: Do you like that feeling?
Michael Gira: ‘I’m good at surviving. Who knows, maybe I will have a heart attack and die onstage!’
LTW: ‘Do you have to mentally prepare to get into that intense space?’
Michael Gira: ‘No, it just happens. I don’t do a secret ritual or anything before going on stage (laughs). My job as an entertainer is to occupy the music.’
LTW: How intense are you after the gig?
Michael Gira: ‘I’m very nice to people. I’m always at the merch table and I always say hello to people after the gigs.
LTW: Swans are getting bigger. You are actually becoming popular!
Michael Gira: ‘(Laughs) I’m grateful for that. If that means I can make some money and keep working that’s the main thing. It doesn’t do anything for me emotionally or egotistically. There have been so many years of stupid hard work that it is good to see something back. It doesn’t mean anything beyond that.
LTW: So success is more of a practical reward for you?
Michael Gira: ‘I have other skills if I needed them tomorrow. I could go and paint houses if I had to…’