The SWANS bandleader talks about performance and the pushing of sound
By Rebecca Louder / Photo by Jennifer Church
Occasionally when you import music into your iTunes, it will aggravatingly insert the genre name as ‘Unclassifiable’, which just sounds so pompous and convoluted. However there are bands for which the word is the only shoe that fits and to attempt to categorise them in any other way would be simplistic and short-sighted. Enter SWANS, one of the most indefinable and chameleonic groups of the past thirty years, led by their mastermind of ceremonies Michael Gira.
After 15 years of activity, Michael disbanded the group in 1997 in order to focus on other projects and musical directions. Thirteen years later, he veered back onto a course that fit with SWANS and reincarnated the band. They have since released two albums and have gone back to touring extensively. Their most recent record, ‘The Seer’, released on August 28, is already being hailed as one of the best albums of the year by critics and fans alike. We caught up with Michael at his upstate New York home as he was prepared for their upcoming tour.
This is kind of a second life, a rebirth, for the band. Has the long hiatus had an impact on the way you do things now in the group?
Well first of all, SWANS in its first tenure morphed constantly, with members coming in and out, so it was never one group of guys that were always on the same page all the time. It changed members constantly. There were some constants; Norman Westberg and Jarboe were there pretty much throughout, although Norman dropped out towards the end. So it wasn’t really a set thing anyway.
Also, there wasn’t really a hiatus, at least not for myself. Of course the other guys made music too. I continued with Angels Of Light and running Young God Records. To me, forming this updated version of SWANS was just a way of keeping myself interested in making music, because I kind of used up whatever nourishment was available in Angels Of Light. I wanted to challenge myself and the best way to do that seemed to be to move in the direction that SWANS would go, which is more amplified music. Of course the new record has quiet moments as well. It’s definitely been rejuvenating and it’s work I enjoy.
How do you envision your performance here going given the festival context with an hour-long set?
I’m not sure. We do pretty well at festivals but [with only an hour] that should be funny! Our normal set has now grown to two and a half hours and that’s six songs. Our set is now comprised of three new songs, which are an hour total, and then three songs from the album. The new pieces haven’t been recorded or anything, they’re brand new, and we’re sort of working them out live as we did with some of the longer songs on ‘The Seer’, so the set is different each night. It’s quite a vivifying ordeal. As for doing an hour set, we just did that recently – I think it was in Finland – and it worked out okay. So it’ll probably just be three songs or something, but it has lots of variation within the tunes so it should be gratifying.
You seem to leave a lot of room for improvisation and play in your sets…
I don’t know if you’d call it “improvisation”. I guess it’s more like following the sound where it’s leading. It’s not really us soloing or trying to express ourselves personally, it’s more like trying to push the sound further.
There’s a really fantastic group who are loosely in the world of jazz – I don’t know why they’re considered to be that – called The Necks. I feel a kinship with them. They don’t have any program when they start to play, they just start playing but they generate these huge waves of sound, and it’s just three guys. One on stand-up bass, one on piano and a drummer. It’s these huge clouds of sound so it’s really phenomenal and quite touching. It’s almost like a spiritual invocation, it’s really beautiful. You should listen to their music. But anyway, we basically have a structure of a song but we really just try to push the sound in a similar fashion, I hope.
Do you also feel this kind of spiritual invocation in your own way of pushing the sound?
I don’t want to be too heady about it. Rock music has the potential to lift you up, I think.
It seems like something that still requires and expends a lot of energy. What does it take out or put into you?
Oh, yes. I would compare it to two very committed lovers in the act of coitus just about to reach orgasm. It’s sort of like that state. [Laughs].
That’s beautiful. So is there an element of transcendence, of achieving ecstasy?
Well I don’t know. It’s like you find yourself and lose yourself at the same time.
Wonderful. So back to your sets; you say they are different every night…
Our set, per se, is the same song order but the changes occur within the songs every night. Usually in sound-check we will have learned something the night before, and then we’ll push that and maybe eliminate something. For example, the song from the album, ‘The Apostate,’ which we do live, the whole beginning of it is completely different now. That just happened one night when we were playing it and I just got sick of playing it the old way and I just started playing this guitar – I wouldn’t call it a ‘riff’, a rhythm – and the band sort of figured out that I wasn’t going to play the thing we’d worked out, and they followed along and it became more interesting to me. Not that I think the arrangement on the album is uninteresting, I just don’t want to be stuck in the same place. So things just change like that. The way we play the song live now has morphed where some parts sound very similar to the record but other parts have just changed. I kind of want to keep it that way.
It sounds like these changes happen quite organically. It also sounds like there has to be a really high level of trust or understanding between you and the other people onstage in order to have that kind of synchronicity.
It’s incredibly organic – they follow and lead simultaneously. But yeah, we’re fairly well psychically connected now, having been touring together for the last couple of years as a group and recording. It’s sort of an all-consuming effort so if we weren’t connected somehow we would be automatons.
This album, at least in my own impressions, sounds like you’re let go of all mental and creative barriers that were in your way. Do you feel like you have more freedom now?
You mean I’ve gone insane? [Chuckles] I’ve always had freedom. Everybody has freedom – they just have to grab it. I just didn’t relent on this record until both time and money ran out, and I probably could have kept going on the record and perhaps it would have ended up being a six LP set! I just didn’t allow any constraints as to length of songs, or the minutiae of arrangement, really until I was exhausted in every way. That was the final thing. I don’t really look at records as being finished anymore. I just look at them like signposts along the road. The songs are always changing, like I mentioned. Many of them start just on acoustic guitar with me singing here in my office – that’s one version. Another version is when I work with other musicians and it starts to cohere into something. In the studio, that’s a whole different version of working, mixing is another version, the final record is another version. Then we start playing it live and start dissecting it some more, so it’s always changing. For me what’s important is the process rather than the finished product now.
What is the process of making an album like this for you personally?
A lot of yelling and screaming and sleeping on the couch, pacing, drinking beer. Just work, you know. You record and then you think about what you did and then maybe add some stuff and eliminate some stuff. It’s really like building a house.
Do you ever get a moment to rest and sleep in that house, so to speak?
I’ve done this for years – in fact I choose studios with this in mind – I typically sleep in the studio, [chuckles] on the couch. The engineer goes home and I go to sleep on the couch and when I wake up I’m ready. I just kind of isolate myself and try not to think about much else than what’s going on. That can go on for months. I do eventually lose my mind, so… [laughs more].
This reminds me of the way that method actors work.
Oh! Could be. There’s a similarity to that. A similarity to filmmaking, I think, in the auteurs like Cassavetes or someone. They have a sort of plan but it’s always open to being changed by the interaction between the actors or the environment or whatever happens. They’re still the director, but… I mean, I like accidents, I like mistakes. I don’t always keep them, but sometimes they’ll lead to something else. I chart out the record you know, I draw out diagrams of how I want things to go. Usually by the end it doesn’t resemble that at all.
What is your role within the band? Has it changed over the years?
I’m the master of ceremonies. Including all the side-people I get in to play overdubs that aren’t in the band per se, I’m always open to other peoples’ ideas. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but I’m always anxious to be surprised. The core group of six people contribute huge amounts, but I’m sort of the puppeteer.
So after this incredibly intense recording process, is going on tour the part where there’s a joyful release?
The goal is joy for sure, but you know you don’t really set out playing saying, “Now we are going to experience ecstasy.” You just play, and you have to be committed to it, and sometimes it works very well and sometimes it’s just a total abject failure. But you don’t really have a choice.
Do you have any rituals that you stick to for your performances?
Oh, we all hug each other before we go onstage. That’s about it.
Aw, that’s sweet. [Michael laughs] How about onstage?
I develop shticks! Like, physical routines that I fall into for each song. Certain ways I move, certain things I do with my body, my hands. It just sort of grows as the set is performed over a year. It’s kind of like an ever-evolving play.
So is it as much physical performance art?
I don’t know about performance art, that’s kind of a horrific genre. Most of it’s pretty awful.
You know there’s actually going to be a performance art centre opening in your area of upstate New York pretty soon?
Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s Marina Abramović, right? That’s very near me. Yeah, she’s alright. I like the early stuff, like Chris Burden and the Viennese Actionism was fantastic. Bruce Nauman was considered a performance artist of sorts in the early days, and Vito Acconci. Those people were pretty severe. The thing with Chris Burden’s pieces is that they were very emblematic. You could describe his performance just in words, and since you probably weren’t there that was the only way you could experience it, which is the height of conceptual art, isn’t it? It was an idea or an image that was generated by his actions but didn’t exist as a physical object and they were pretty intense experiences.
Like with his piece, I think it was called ‘Velvet Water,’ where he was behind a wall, and there was a sink full of water, on the other side there were the spectators, and he just stuck his head in the sink and inhaled the water [chuckles]. But that’s a great image, you know? Or his piece ‘Through The Night Softly,’ where he rented thirty seconds of airtime on television in Los Angeles, then he broke a bunch of glass on the pavement and slowly rolled over the glass [laughs more]. He still does good work that is positively mannerist by comparison, but it’s that stuff I really enjoy. Anyway, how did we get on this topic?
Oh, talking about your stage routines! [Both laugh] Was there anything in particular that attracted you to coming to play Airwaves?
Well, I haven’t been to Iceland since, god… I think the eighties. We played with the Sugarcubes. I don’t know when it was – ’87 or something? I didn’t even get a chance to see much, but I enjoyed it. That was at the time that alcohol was banned except for this one drink, I don’t know the name in Icelandic but they called it ‘Black Death’ [Brennivín]. One couldn’t buy beer, but they could buy that, so all the teenage males would line up on the main avenue there in Reykjavík and throw bottles at each other and start fights [laughs]. It was like a gauntlet if you walked between them, I remember that. It was really humorous considering it’s such an educated people, you know? That’s one of my main memories.
What are you looking forward to about coming back, now?
Performing, mostly. I think we have a day off too so I’m hoping to see Ben Frost, who’s a really wonderful musician. I heard some of the stuff he did with Brian Eno, and it sounded really good. We’ll see if I get out of town. Often at times I get agoraphobic and especially when there’s such a beautiful countryside to see. It terrifies me. I’ll likely just stay in my hotel room!
SWANS are performing on Thursday 1st November, 2330, At Harpa Norðurljós.