Interview with Michael Gira of Swans
By Bob Gourley | Published on October 16, 2014
Swans is known for their intense and visceral live shows, but don’t expect to hear them perform all your favorites from their extensive back catalog. Leader Michael Gira firmly believes that Swans music is experiential and not meant to be repeated or recreated. Live, even recent material gets reinterpreted to take on a life apart of the studio recordings.
Swans was originally active between 1982 and 1997, with Gira moving on to Angels of Light before re-activating Swans in 2010. Their new album, “To Be Kind, ” is their third release since returning. It was funded by Swans fans, through the sale of a special limited-edition, handmade live album “Not Here / Not Now”.
Swans is rounded out by Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Thor Harris and Christopher Pravdica . The group has embarked upon a year-long World tour to support the album. In the following interview, Gira discusses “To Be Kind,” his musical process, and more.
I know that some of the material on “To Be Kind” goes back to the last Swans tour, while some was developed in the studio. Could you talk about what the breakdown was?
“‘Screenshot’ is a song we were doing on the tour, but I was dissatisfied with it, so we dropped it. I expanded the words and re-wrote the basic groove on an acoustic guitar, and then we performed it afresh in a new way in the studio. ‘Just a Little Boy’ is actually something we performed, but this music is completely different. Same chords, but the dynamics are completely different. ‘Little God in My Hands’—that was written on acoustic guitar and built up in the studio. ‘Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture’ was developed entirely live. It grew out of the end of ‘The Seer.’ At one point, we were playing ‘The Seer’ and it blended into these pieces, so that was like an hour’s worth of music right there. ‘Some Things We Do’ was written in acoustic guitar, but the string arrangements are from the wonderfully talented Julia Kent. I sing a duet with Little Annie there. ‘She Loves Us’ was again an amalgam. Part of that was how we performed it on tour, but the whole first part, with that great groove…that was developed in the studio because the way we did it live didn’t translate. ‘Kirsten Supine’ is an entirely acoustic guitar song developed in the studio.’Oxygen’—the groove for that was written on acoustic guitar—but of course we played that live for a year and that’s why we sound so cognizant of each other’s presence as we play it. ‘Nathalie Neal’ is an acoustic guitar song which we did perform live for a little bit, but dropped it because it didn’t really fit with the set. But I was happy to do it in the studio. And ‘To Be Kind,’ that’s pretty much how we did it live for a year and a half.
“I should emphasize that once the performances are down, there’s a whole other world that takes place with orchestrations and things like that.”
You financed the album through the release of a special, handmade live album. Could you talk about your use of crowdfunding, and why you chose not to use something like Kickstarter?
“I’m just a masochist. I like to work for hundreds and hundreds of hours at an incredibly tedious boring task [laughs]. I didn’t want to get involved with other people [Kickstarter] in that way. We’ve been doing this kind of thing since 2000, with Angels of Light at Young God Records. I started doing it because if you’re not a pop act, your records sales of course are not stellar, and you have to do something. The fans, hardcore fans especially, they appreciate it and it’s a good sort of interchange with people. It’s a way to survive in this ever-sucking vortex of the so-called music industry.”
Having run your own label for many years, what impact do you feel the Internet has had?
“The Internet is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Our music has reached a lot of people, particularly the young people, which is very encouraging to me. I look out in the audience and see mostly young people, actually. Of course everybody is young to me [laughs]. People in their 20s and 30s—it’s really nice to see. It seems that a lot of them have discovered the band in the last few years, but they’ve also gone back and looked at the history and hopefully they’ve looked into Angels of Light, too. That’s encouraging. It’s heart warming, in fact. But then, as you know, a great many people steal. In fact, I’ve had a few comments on the Swans facebook page about how much people liked the new album, before it was released. So what the fuck, you can’t really do anything about it. I don’t like complaining about it anymore, because it’s like complaining about the weather. You really can’t do anything about it.”
In the past, a new fan might need to put a lot of effort into seeking out your prior music, but now they can just go onto Spotify and hear most of it. What are your thoughts on that?
“I don’t know if that’s good or not. Maybe it’s too instant. I won’t even dwell on the financial repercussions of Spotify, but maybe that’s one problem with modern culture. Maybe things are too accessible and too easy.”
Do you feel it makes the new fans more aware of older material? Are you getting more people asking for it at shows?
“We don’t really get many people calling out for older material, fortunately. Not only can we not play it, I just think it would be kind of embarrassing for us to do that. We’re not that kind of band. It’s an experiential band, trying to be in the moment. Even the so-called ‘current’ material that we’re going to play on our forthcoming tour will be altered pretty significantly from a way we might have performed it last year, for instance.”
In terms of how songs evolve, how much of it to do you feel is a conscious thing, wanting it keep things fresh, versus just something that happens naturally based on who you’re working/performing with?
“Well, sometimes it will be in a nascent stages, like right now I’m working on a couple of things on acoustic guitar. One of them is a bass line and on the other is a guitar line. And I’m just singing phrases, coming up with words. But sometimes that’s how I present something to the band, and we just work on it and come up with something reasonably credible and then subject it to the intensity of being in front of an audience. It will grow into something, just spontaneously in front of the audience. Maybe someone will do something, and I’ll look at them in a certain way and they know it means extend this or push that. And gradually, just through our interaction, things morph and change. That’s exactly how the long piece on the record, “Bring the Sun” / “Toussaint L’Ouverture” happened, over the course of time.
“Sometimes we’ll be doing something and I realize that it isn’t really clicking, and so the next day in soundcheck we’ll haggle about it and figure out a different approach, or we’ll can it.
“Mainly, I like to feel that we’re in a place of urgency. I don’t want to be reciting the material, trying to replicate what was on the record. That’s out of the question. But even trying to play the song perfectly is really supremely uninteresting to me”
Do you feel that live performance is the ultimate representation of a song?
“I don’t view the record as being less important than live or vice versa. It’s all just another version of the intention. I view the material as this constantly morphing energy. It starts out one way on acoustic guitar, then I’ll go into the rehearsal space with the band and we’ll start going back and forth with it, and work on it until it feels like it has something undeniable in it so it needs to be performed. Then we perform it, and it transforms further over the course of a year or something. And then perhaps we’ll go into the studio and it will transform again. Post-studio, if we perform it further it will transform again. And it’s always changing. I think it’s just about process, really. I realize that the fact of making a record is, to me, about process too. When the thing is done, it’s just like this dead Mackerel in my hand. But the whole act of making this thing, to me, is really enthralling. Hopefully some of that energy translates. “
What made you decided to return to Swans, as opposed to starting a new project after Angels of Light?
“Unfinished business. I was becoming less than enthralled with Angels of Light and with that way of working. I wanted a way out. I’d started to play slightly louder in Angels and I just thought, well fuck that, let’s just go to Swans. I needed to explore what potential was there. As it turns out, there’s a lot. It wasn’t trying to be a nostalgia act or something. For me it was trying to find an artistic way forward. Since it’s my brand, my band, whatever, why not call it Swans? It means that people will listen. There are also different tropes and things that Swans is perhaps known for, that carried through into the new thing. I can exploit them a little bit, or discard them along the way, but it was a way to find a new way forward in music for me.”
Are you the type of artist who comes up with a lot of musical ideas and then decides what to develop into songs? Or do most of your initial ideas end up being used?
“Do I have songs and things that aren’t used? No, it almost all ends up being what we record. There are a few things, really nice sonic passages that we built up in the studio, one thing was about 30 tracks of different types of arpeggiated guitar lines varispeeded on the multitrack. I thought it was very beautiful, but it was too much for the record. I may build that into something else later. There was another portion of a song that I might exploit later. But generally, everything that goes on tape or everything that I come up with and think is worth presenting to the band gets used.”
Have advances in digital recording over the years had an impact on how you work?
“Yes, of course it’s had an effect. It has not affected the conception, but it has affected the way I’m able to deal with what’s recorded by looping and cutting things up. Things that I used to do in more primitive ways before are certainly much easier to do now. The danger, with Pro Tools for instance, is too much fucking possibility. You can really kill the music by over thinking and over-editing it, fixing it too much. If you’re a performance-oriented maker of music such as I am and my band is, it can really kill it. It’s a whole other thing if your way of working is to just use computer sounds in the digital realm—that’s different. But [for me] it can be a dangerous road to go down.”
How do you deal with that? Do you need self-imposed limits on how long to work on things?
“I don’t work at home in Pro Tools. I’ve never recorded anything professional at home, ever. All I’ve ever recorded at home is myself with an acoustic guitar onto a tape deck. So since I don’t work at home on Pro Tools, for instance, I’m in a studio where I’m paying a lot of money. Money is really the great leveller.”
You mentioned working with Julia Kent, who I’ve been a fan of since her time with Rasputina. Could you talk a bit about the other guest musicians who appear on “To Be Kind”?
“Let’s talk about Bill Rieflin first: he’s not just the former drummer from Ministry, he’s gone on to do a lot of things, like being a drummer for REM and he works with Robyn Hitchcock. Now he plays drums with King Crimson it seems. We’re good friends, and he’s not just a drummer. He’s a guitar player, he studies guitar with Robert Fripp, he’s a bass player, he’s a great keyboard player, singer. When he comes into the studio things are at their first recorded stage. I never play him anything beforehand. He comes and I put the song up and I may have an idea of something for him to do that I’ll suggest, or he’s just say ‘no, let’s just try this’ And he’ll go and do something superb that always brings tremendous personality to the song. He actually has humor in his playing. I don’t know how to describe what that means, but I think he’s just a phenomenally talented musician. He’s very technically talented too, but he brings personality. That’s a great characteristic.
“Little Annie I have known on and off for a decade or something. I think I met her through Kid Congo Powers. She was recently on tour with friends of mine in this band called Larson; she sings with them sometimes. They were playing before Swans and we were talking. I love Annie, she’s a really really sweet person, and I was thinking about voices for this song ‘Some Things We Do.’ I just thought of Annie because she’s got a lot of experience in her voice. It was going to be just her singing, but somehow I felt that I had to sing too. We joined our voices together so it’s like one human being really singing that song, rather than two people.
“And then Annie Clark, St. Vincent, was recommended by John Congleton, who is the engineer for the record. He’s been her producer or co-producer since she started making music. She’s been familiar with Swans and I guess has become a fan. I like to use these sustained, long vocal notes by females, it’s a way of mixing with the guitars and elevating things. In the song “Bring the Sun” there are kind of these gospel elements, so we had Annie sing those. And this really talented singer name from Cold Specks [Al Spx] joined Annie on that and created that sort of gospel field.
“My dear friend and fiance Jennifer Church sang two songs, “Little God in My Hands” and “She Loves Us.” Then there are various ancillary players that John recommended. I was looking for some strings and horns and things. We were in Dallas and he knew players, so we got them involved.”
The cover art is interesting, especially compared to that of “The Seer” Could you explain it a bit?
“They are pastels that were done by an artist named Bob Biggs. He’s an artist I met in Los Angeles in the late 70’s. I had seen these images at a friend’s house, and they sort of stuck with me. I’d asked him along the way over the years if I could use one for a cover, and he said no. Fortunately, this time he said yes. Bob has an interesting back story in that he was a dedicated artist but somehow fell into founding and running Slash Records. He ran that for 20 something years, and then I guess at the millennium closed it down. He’s back to making art again.”See all interviews →