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Swans' Songs

Swans frontman, Michael Gira (center, cowboy hat) talks about how his band of three decades still manages to get better with each album. (photo by Fionn Reilly)

The prevailing view of creativity is that it declines over the course of a lifetime. If that’s the case then Swans frontman Michael Gira is certainly an exception to the rule. At the age of 60, the stoic singer and guitarist has produced some of his finest work since reactivating his renowned noise band, Swans, in 2010. Swans formed in New York City in the early 1980s and perpetuated a rhythmic, no wave sound that has influenced countless bands in the doom/sludge/drone scene.

But Gira didn’t reform Swans to revisit the past. That’s not his style. He reformed the band with long time members—guitarists Norman Westberg and Chrisoph Hahn, and drummer Phil Puleo—and newly added percussionist Thor Harris and bassist Chris Pravdica to push forward, not look back. In fact a live Swans set is usually restricted to material from the band’s most recent record, whatever that might be at the moment, and unreleased material. For this tour, Gira told me that the band is playing three brand new, unreleased pieces that take up about half an hour of the set, along with a select piece from 2012’s The Seer and a few from their latest, To Be Kind, which was released in May.

Each of Swans last three records has somehow managed to top the last. The bands eleventh studio album and first after reforming, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope to the Sky was a transitional record, merging the sounds of Gira’s previous project, Angels of Light, with the grand, punishing drone-metal that would be fully explored on Swans’ follow-up, The Seer. Upon its release, The Seer became the 32-year-old band’s most critically acclaimed album to date. Rolling Stone called it the band’s “grandest statement yet,” a feat for a band renowned for grand statements. In May the band did it again with the release of their thirteenth recorded album, To Be Kind. Upon its release, To Be Kind became the band’s most critically acclaimed album to date. This is a phenomenon: A band that actually gets better with age? It’s almost unheard of. Not only are Gira and company still moving forward, but they’re doing so at an exponential rate.

Though Gira may come off as a nihilist, with lyrics heavily themed in depression, desperation, and death, he has often described performing live as “like going to church.” The music of Swans is inherently spiritual in the sense that the band’s often-droning yet dynamic music is personally transformative for not only the band but the audience as well. This week we talked to Gira about the band’s transformative live show, legendary blues guitarist Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, and the great black lake of death.

Artvoice: You’ve been on tour for most of this year already. You started playing solo shows in Europe in March. How are you feeling as you wrap up this leg of your tour?

Michael Gira: We’re touring for the next year or 14 months. The music is taking on new shapes. When we started touring we worked out three brand new pieces, or songs, or whatever you want to call them so they take up about half the set. I thought they were pretty good but now that we’ve played them a good deal, they’re getting to be very good in my estimation. We’re playing a few from the last record, and then something from The Seer and that’s it.

AV: When I watch Swans live it’s hard for me to tell if I’m hearing something just incredibly precise and rehearsed down to the millisecond or if I’m witnessing something very fluid and improvised.

MG: I would say with us lately there is no difference between the two. We’re sort of like one body. The mind of the body is the music and we’re just the limbs and torso and organs of the entity. We’re very connected, now .

AV: How do you achieve that?

MG: Playing together all the time and touring constantly. And we don’t get trapped in playing the same thing all the time. The set stays the same for a cycle, but the material grows and expands, and I like to say it metastasizes on its own. So it’s never the same, things are always shifting and extending and growing. It becomes intuitive after a while. We could play this music with just a sense of smell now actually.

AV: When you’re on stage you move kind of like an orchestra conductor, or maybe a slightly inebriated orchestra conductor. You’re flailing to the rhythms of the music. Is the rest of the band taking cues from you? Are you actually conducting in a way or is this a reaction to the music?

MG: Both. It’s kind of a highfalutin’ word, but I’m often conducting I guess. But it’s for dynamics, and the ebb and flow of things and intensity. Things sometimes become like a big ball of sound, and I’m just trying to control it so it’s not just complete chaos. I’m trying to shape it, ya know?

AV: I think it can be argued that as Swans you’ve put out your strongest material ever in the last four or five years.

MG: I would agree.

AV: That’s almost unheard of in music for a band that’s over 30 years old.

MG: It’s determination and talent.

AV: I’m trying to figure out if you’ve somehow become more creative over time, if that’s possible, or if you’ve maintained a consistent level of creativity over the course of your career, and maybe just the rest of the world has caught up to Swans.

MG: Well I think the latter is increasingly the case, and that’s good to see. The rest, I don’t know, we just try to do good work. There’s a tremendous, on my part anyway, fear of death, so I’m trying to make something that contravenes that inevitability.

AV: Is this a fear you’ve always had or has it grown?

MG: Well as you flow towards the great black lake, it obviously becomes something that preoccupies you a little bit more.

AV: There is a song on your new record called “Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett).” You’ve said that the song is not necessarily about the legendary blues artist, but can you tell me about Howlin’ Wolf’s significance to that song?

MG: I noticed that he was in me for that song, the way I was singing and the feel of it. Obviously it doesn’t really sound like him, that’s not possible or desirable. But he was a tremendous beast of a showman and an honorable man too. But also when he was performing there was this unbridled id and I noticed that in that song. And ya know, I listen to Howlin’ Wolf all the time. He could be, along with Nina Simone, some of the greatest joy I get out of listening to music. So I made it as an homage to him.

AV: In a way you’re kind of like summoning his spirit then?

MG: Yeah. I mean I didn’t realize that it would be titled that until after the song was recorded. It wasn’t like I started recording it and I said “now I’m going to be haunted by the great Wolf.” It’s the approach to the singing, the ugly id side that comes.

AV: “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,” from To Be Kind gives me a similar impression. The song is named after the 19th century Haitian revolutionary also known as Black Napoleon, but it seems like rather than embodying the character, you’re actually calling out to him as in a Séance. The song also feels very Shamanic and also very painful.

MG: I was reading a biography of this fine man and that piece was slowly taking shape in live improvisation and direction by me, as you say, and I just started shouting his name. Gradually I started adding in more words that I thought kind of tangentially jabbed at his essence. I feel in a way I was inhabited by him. He was a very intelligent, very rational strategist. He was just part of such an amazing event, that whole period in history, I thought it needed to be brought forth somehow.

AV: St. Vincent sings on three tracks on To Be Kind and Annie Anxiety, aka Little Annie Bandez sings on one. Why were these talented women included in the recording of this record?

MG: Annie Clark [St. Vincent] has worked with our engineer for this record, John Congleton, for all of her records. He’s her co-producer and co-songwriter. He knew along the way that I was going to be looking for female vocals because I often employ female vocals. She’s very talented and she has a tremendous voice and she was interested in singing on the record. She came to Dallas and sang and it was great. And Little Annie, I’ve known for quite some time. She’s developed, as she’s grown older, a very seasoned voice and she’s got a wonderful soul. I thought of her right away.

AV: You’ve described your live performance in the past as “like going to church.” Are you a big church guy?

MG: [Laughs] That’s sorta personal but I do go to church occasionally, yeah.

AV: In what sense is performing live like going to church for you?

MG: Well to me when the music is working it’s something bigger than us; we don’t take any credit for it necessarily. When it’s working it takes us along sort of an ultimate ride; it feels like as close as I’m going to get to a spiritual experience on this earth. Hopefully people in the audience can share in that sensation.


Swans will be performing with openers Xiu Xiu at the Tralf Music Hall on Saturday (6/5) at 8pm. $15 advance / $18 day of show.

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