|Label:||Young God Records|
On the eve of Swans releasing their latest album, 'The Seer', we got their inspirational figurehead Michael Gira on the line in a short break from preparations for their upcoming tour to ask him the questions that burn deep within Darkwűlf's Buckfast-insulated heart.
BR: Hello Michael. Swans released 'My Father will guide me up a rope to the sky' in 2010. Two years later, we have 'The Seer'. What prompted the re-emergence of Swans?
MG: Well, I wanted to hear this sound again, basically. I'd been doing a band called Angels of Light for about fifteen years I think since I'd stopped doing Swans. I was less than excited to do a new Angels record and I'd been thinking about wanting to immerse myself in that total sonic experience again. As I started to think about that, and work on material for that, I said 'well, let's call this Swans', because that's what Swans is about, so that's why. And then I gathered my friends after several years and we started the band back up.
BR: While recording 'My Father...', did you intend at the time to record a follow-up to it?
MG: I don't look at this as a follow-up, just a continuation of the work. Even starting Swans again, it's just a term applied to it. I'm just looking for ways to keep myself interested in what I'm doing and this, right now, to me is urgent and vital and it's important for me to make it. Hopefully it feels urgent to the audience as well; that's equally important of course.
BR: How long were Swans working on 'The Seer' in the studio etc?
MG: Some of the songs, the basic tracks were recorded while we were in the middle of the tour. After a year of touring, directly after the last show, the next morning we loaded into a studio in Gardiner, New York, which is here upstate. The band, with me, recorded the rest of the material we had, for two weeks and then I stayed in the studio for another four months doing overdubs and arrangements and things.
BR: Sixteen years passed between 'Soundtrack for the Blind' and 'My Father...'. How would you compare Swans then to now?
MG: I don't think about it. Like I say, I'm interested in doing new work, I'm not really interested in the past. On this upcoming tour, we're doing three new, unrecorded songs as well as four songs from 'The Seer' and one very old Swans song which I found an avenue to be able to play it and have it sound urgent and new. Otherwise, yeah, there's no old songs.
BR: Are you doing the song 'The Seer' live? I was quite shocked, I was listening to the album, looking at the time and it's over 30 minutes long.
MG: Yes. It's quite an endurance test. We're doing that and 'Apostate', which is 27 minutes or something. And the rest of the songs are usually over ten minutes!
BR: I saw you doing a solo performance at The Arches [in Glasgow], you were supporting Boredoms and it was the loudest gig I've ever seen or heard. It was just you on stage with an acoustic guitar. You see all these bands with loads of amps, and I thought it was funny that just you and an acoustic made all that noise.
MG: Well, it took me a long time to figure out how to perform with just my acoustic guitar, 'cause I'm not really, by any stretch of the imagination, an accomplished guitar player. But I figured out how to just make it generate sound and rhythm and that just gives me an excuse to sing...or shout. I think it works, but it was a major challenge when I stopped Swans in the 90s to be able to perform a song just on acoustic guitar and have it matter. That was sort of my life challenge at that time and I worked really hard at it. So, all the Angels of Light material was based on just me playing a song I could play from beginning to end on acoustic guitar and sound credible. And then I would orchestrate, or not. With Swans, some songs are made that way, other ones nowadays I can have a kind of basic notion or just a couple of chords, or some vague vocals down and then I just go in with the band and we start hashing it out. It's not like we jam or anything, but we just start building it up and figure out how to perform it as a band. So there's two different ways of working. On 'The Seer', a track like 'Lunacy' is much different than 'Apostate'; 'Lunacy' was written on acoustic guitar and built up in the studio, whereas 'Apostate' was pretty much complete when we played it in the studio as a band.
BR: Did you and the other members approach this any differently than the previous album?
MG: Well yes, by the time we did this album we had been playing hundreds of shows together as a band and like I say, some of the songs, such as 'The Seer', 'Avatar' and 'Apostate'; those were developed on tour, they just grew out of, like, slowly building things live. So they evolved as a group, really, with me directing I guess, but as a group. [On] 'My Father...', this band hadn't existed as six people working together in a room before. So, the way we recorded that in order to get some sense of being a group and not just people adding parts onto an acoustic guitar song, each day we played one song for twelve hours and after it had grown and developed into something else...then we pressed record.
BR: That's pretty cool. I was thinking about the album cover. It looks like a dog, or a wolf. Is that linked to the song 'The Wolf', and I wondered if you painted it?
MG: I think that's your imagination. My dear friend Simon Henwood did that for me and it happens to also feature my teeth! Those are my teeth there...it's meant to be ambiguous, I think.
BR: What's 'The Seer' going to be like live?
MG: We just finished working on our set and now we're gonna start playing it every day. Like I say, there's three new things, I think it's quite an experience. It's going to be two hours long...
BR: Will it be loud?
MG: I guess so, yeah. Often, it will be loud but that's not the point though. It goes through lots of different colours and dynamics, and it's really a psychic workout.
BR: How hard are Swans, as an entity, finding it to exist in the current age where there seems to be next to no money in the music business?
MG: Well, we do play live I guess, but I do lots of hand-made stuff, special projects and things to raise money for recording and hopefully take a little money to live on as well. You have to be just very clear in what you offer people; they want something special nowadays, and so I make some special things. I was even thinking about doing songs for people: say you give me your name, I would write you a song... ha ha. And you would pay me $500 or something.
BR: I'm sure I've seen that on Kickstarter or your website?
MG: Yeah, if you go to our website, we've done things like that.
BR: I know quite a few people who've done it...
MG: You just have to be creative, y'know. We still have a certain amount of people that buy the finished product; it'd be very depressing if they didn't but things are much different than they used to be, that's for sure.
BR: What brought Jarboe back to the new album?
MG: We'd been in touch and I needed some clear vocals, clear drone vocals sung by a female, so naturally I called Jarboe because she has a beautiful voice. I'm not sure if I'm ever prepared to work on songs with her, the primary reason being that I don't want to enter into nostalgia-land, so I thought this worked. But as far as anything other than that, I don't know.
BR: Why is 'Cowards' the only old song on the new tour?
MG: Because I'm interested in new work. Swans has always been that way, infamously so I guess. We would release an album, then not play anything from it, just play new songs (laughs). It's just to stay in an uncomfortable place. I'm not interested in playing things people are familiar with, I want this to be a true experience, that both me and the audience are discovering things, not just rehashing old ideas.
BR: Is this going to be the last Swans album?
MG: No. I intend to keep doing this until I can't do it any more.
BR: Do you prefer playing with a full band or solo?
MG: They're completely different. I don't prefer one over the other. I would say playing with a full band is definitely more challenging physically and it's very extreme for us as performers as well as the audience; it's gruelling in a way but it's very satisfying spiritually. Playing solo, things are much simpler, but it's stressful because everything is on me and it taxes my voice quite a bit as I have to really sing all the time, whereas Swans is long, sonic passages. That's quite a challenge, but they're both really different.
BR: Over the years, how have your ears survived, with all the noise playing live etc?
MG: They're usually fine. Right now we've been rehearsing eight hours a day for three weeks so far and we have another week to go. So my hearing right now is horrible. I can hear sort of like an ocean roar in my ears all the time, but that's from playing music eight hours a day. So, I'm presuming that the touring will be a vacation for my ears in a way, 'cause it's only two hours a night.
BR: Tell us what a typical day off for Michael Gira involves...
MG: I haven't had a day off in...I can't remember when; ideally I like to read but I never have time to read as I'm just having to work. Usually if I try to read at night, I just fall asleep, but it [reading] is my favourite thing.
BR: Who's your favourite author?
MG: I don't have a favourite author, but I just read a great book by Russell Banks, the American writer, called 'Lost Memory of Skin', it's a tremendous book but I like lots of different authors.
BR: Is 'The Seer' going to be available on tape? Quite a few fans have been asking.
MG: On cassette? No. It's a double CD, a triple LP, and there's a special version which is the double CD with a live DVD.
BR: What was the catalyst for the stylistic shift from the post-No Wave, industrial clatter of the mid-80s Swans to the latter pre-break up Swans?
MG: Well, first of all I don't agree with that terminology. I never felt that we were Industrial or No Wave. To me, it was using sound and rhythm to find a new way to make the ultimate rock music; in the early days, kind of forgetting about melodies altogether and just making sound and rhythm. There were some inspirations for that, some of which you might recognize such as Throbbing Gristle or The Stooges, but in equal measure others which are more unexpected: Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, even David Bowie; people that used sound as their tool often. And No Wave was kind of an influence at the time just by dint of the fact that they weren't using regular rock chords and progressions. But I wanted something that was more visceral than that music and something that really reached deep, so we came up with what we did, and I thinks the early stuff is more related to blues than it is to industrial music.
The reason for the shift is really just trying to keep oneself challenged and interested in the work, and if the audience comes along as well, that's fine. That's the way I work, I just follow my imagination and try to be in anew place with each cycle, new record and touring.
BR: The media sometimes assign certain words to bands, and they get caught up in that when they're not really...
MG: ...Yeah, Swans is unique. No-one sounds like Swans.
BR: A lot of, for example, doom bands have come out and said Swans was a big influence on them.
MG: That's sort of the cartoon version of it.
BR: How do you feel about bands still being influenced by you?
BR: Well, usually they're pretty awful so I'm not flattered, I'm kind of indifferent. But, yeah...that's how I feel about it, ha ha. I just heard this tremendous cover of a song from 'My Father...' called 'Reeling The Liars In' by this tremendously talented soul singer from Canada, a black woman. She goes under the name Cold Specks. Look it up on YouTube, she did a really beautiful version of it, and it's the first Swans cover I'd ever heard that I liked (you can watch this at the bottom of the page). The song had sort of a gospel melody, and she took that and really made it gospel and coupled with the words, it was really powerful. That's the kind of thing I appreciate, when someone takes something and puts it in a new context in the world; that shows creativity.
Photo courtesy Beowulf Sheenan
Posted: Mon 20 August 2012