Swans veteran and No Wave legend Michael Gira talks to Cormac Duffy about the blues, nostalgia and Karen O
With an acoustic tour to promote an album of home recordings on the immediate horizon, Michael Gira offers a fittingly odd summation of the experience. “Performing by yourself solo is a bit like being a fly about to be crushed by a hammer on an anvil.” As the frontman for the beloved Swans (and sole consistent member since their inception) and Angels of Light, he does not contrast performing with a band to the solo experience in his own mind. “It’s a very intense experience for myself and the audience, I think.” He adds that it has the intensity of blues music, without the shared musical traits. “There’s something about the sexuality of the rhythm and the joy of [blues music] I really connect with.”
Having reformed in 2010, Swans are set to follow up their masterful comeback album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky with a new record, The Seer, clocking in at a whopping two hours over two CDs or three LP records. “It doesn’t have a concept to it, except that it’s a long film. Songs bleed into each other and there are a lot of dynamics and cross references.” Gira is keen to emphasise that it will be experienced as a full work rather than a set of songs.
In other interviews, Gira has commented on a six-month studio stint that has left him in the throes of exhaustion. When asked if he feels it has paid off in the album’s outcome, he points out that he sees it as an unending process. “The song never really ends,” he believes, seeing it as something that is reinterpreted not only en route from his acoustic guitar to the final mix, but in each and every live performance.
Musically, Gira promises a mix of old and new; “It has a lot of the sonic intensity Swans are known for, but also some pastoral moments. It’s probably the most varied thing I’ve done as a producer.”
What is most exciting about the prospect of The Seer is its promise of a formidable range of guests. Fans of Swans will be more than a little intrigued by Gira’s revelation that the record will feature vocals from Jarboe, Swans’ only other long-term member in their first life. Despite the original band’s breakup, and her lack of involvement in the revived group, the two have stayed in touch on and off. “I saw her recently in Atlanta, and that put the seed in my mind to think about it. I just emailed her and we did it.” Did recording with an old partner carry any of the familiarity one would expect it to? “No,” he says with a laugh. “Her voice is a great resource and I just wanted to utilise it, so I did” he says, pinning it all on a want for a good record. “I’m not at all nostalgic.”
Other collaborators include Yeah Yeah Yeahs front-vixen Karen O, and everyone’s favourite married Mormon slowcore pioneers, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low.
“I heard Karen singing a song, a really beautiful rendition of Willie Nelson’s ‘Mama Don’t Let your Boys Grow Up to Be Cowboys’,” he explains. “I thought her voice was so incredibly touching on it that I immediately wrote this song for her to sing.” The track is to be one of the record’s quieter moments, in Gira’s own words; it is “sort of like a country ballad.”
As for Low, the two acts have a long standing connection. “They played with Swans on a tour in, I guess, ’97 or something and I’ve always admired them tremendously,” he says, describing their work as “intensely spiritual and beautiful American music.”
On that note we enquire into the spirituality many listeners often find in Swans’ ethereal music. “The spirituality that I find in Swans, particularly live, is when the sound is overwhelming and all-consuming. It really is like reaching into something greater than yourself.” With that said, Gira follows no spiritual tradition or religious practice. “Except for my music” he adds as an amendment.
From 1983’s pummelling Filth to 1996’s expansive Soundtracks for the Blind, Swans set an inspiring template for bands to follow, as they fearlessly experimented, drawing in formerly disparate genres such as No Wave and ambient music to leave a huge influence on alternative rock, metal, industrial and almost any other style you could care to name. To Gira, it’s about the forward march. “I don’t see any reason to make music unless you continually challenge yourself and your audience; otherwise, it’s just like going to the bank to work or something.”
As a record label owner and artist, Gira has been no stranger to the financial woes of making music your day job. Despite introducing the world to acts such as psych-folk heartthrob Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family (who appear on The Seer), an ebbing industry has left Gira unable to release music by anyone but himself and his projects. He still speaks highly of his time with the label’s roster, happy to reveal that “most of the people I’ve worked with on the label have stayed friends. It was an honour with Young God to be able to work with really talented people and it taught me a lot.” Music is still his day job however, despite the challenges he faces. “I’m very resourceful and I work all the time, so I manage to survive somehow. Obviously, I don’t make pop music, so it makes it more difficult. I don’t have any choice, because this is what I do, I have no other skills.”