Michael Gira of Swans on the new album and his time as a bassist
Owen Swenson SWANS
Emerging from the no-wave scene in the New York underground in 1982, Swans became known for music that was forbidding, terrifyingly intense in its execution and lyrically uncompromising in its depiction of the darker side of human existence. Although an influence on industrial music and much of post-punk thereafter, Swans was like no other band. The musical brutality contained within its electrifying, visceral delivery contained a kernel of transcendence.
It was that character of the music that remained even as the band evolved its material in a more accessible but no less raw direction. The music of the later Swans was, paradoxically, often much more pretty than the music heard on, say, 1986's Holy Money, but it was just as deeply haunting and harrowing. Swans parted ways in 1997 following the tour for its final studio album, Soundtracks for the Blind.
Michael Gira, the band's leader, performed in Angels of Light, which was a marked departure from the sheer volume and density of the music of Swans. In 2009, Gira announced he would be putting the band back together, and in the fall of 2010, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky was released to no small critical acclaim, and Swans embarked on a series of tours, including its current North American outing with a stop tonight in Denver at the Summit Music Hall. We recently had a cordial chat with the erudite and playfully witty Gira about the new album, its imagery, and his stint as the second bass player in the early incarnation of Swans.
A lot of the material on the new Swans record first saw a recorded form on your solo album, I Am Not Insane. What was it about that material that you felt should be reworked into songs done by Swans?
Michael Gira: I Am Not Insane is a handmade thing I did and made a thousand copies of in order to raise the funds to record [the new Swans] album properly. The thousand sold out in eight days or something like that. Then I had to reckon with making them all. I thought it would happen in six months to a year. When they sold out right away, I had to make all of these things, and it's a really laborious process. It took a few months to fulfill all the orders because it was very time-consuming, and I was recording it simultaneously. I'm not complaining. It helped me make this record.
It wasn't about the material. It was more that I wanted to make sounds again that were completely overwhelming, transcendent and very electric. That's something I did with Angels of Light. I had these songs I had written, and I presumed they were going to be an Angels of Light record. My heart wasn't really into doing another one, so I decided, "I'm going to do a Swans record."
This record is sort of a transition, because I made the songs into Swans songs. A couple of the songs on the record were written with the Swans in mind -- namely, the first one, "No Words/No Thoughts," and "Jim." The other ones were just sort of hanging around, and I arranged them with my cohorts in a Swans-like way. The next album we do will be specifically intended to be a Swans album, so it'll be a lot different.
You used sales of that album to help finance the new Swans record. Why did you go that route, and what kind of response were you expecting from such an approach?
I had no idea what to expect. I actually did this several years ago to record an Angels of Light album. I handmade 500 CDs of some live performances and posted them on the website in order to raise the money to make the next Angels of Light record. So I had in the back of my mind that that works. The reason I did it was because I didn't have the money to record a Swans album properly.
Looking at the personnel that recorded for this album, I see a number of Swans alumni. Was it at all a challenge to get some of those guys back in to work on the album and tour?
Not at all. Everyone was completely excited to do it. Norman [Westberg], of course, is the big fish because he was in Swans from the very, very early days. We hadn't spoken in any extensive way in sixteen years or something. But I saw him recently, a year and a half or so. I did a solo show in New York and he came. We got along great, and that was nice, so I put in the back of my mind that maybe something could work out with Norman in the future. I contacted him when I decided to do this, and he was completely enthused, so that worked out well. Everyone else I've been working with in Angels of Light -- periodically, anyway.
Did you approach Jarboe about being involved?
No. We had an intensely personal relationship, which was part of her being in Swans. Once we weren't together anymore and Swans had broken up, we didn't have contact anymore because we split up. It didn't seem appropriate for the direction I wanted to go. And opening that whole can of worms was just inappropriate, and I think it would have been a little silly and made the whole thing seem more like a "reunion show," or something, than I wanted it to be. Really I just wanted to open up this project again and move forward that way. I felt I was a little stymied by Angels of Light and wanted to experience the force of nature that is Swans music again.
What made you decide to get Grasshopper or Mercury Rev and Bill Rieflin of The Blackouts, er, Ministry and REM, and so forth, to perform on the record?
Grasshopper has recorded a couple of things for me recently. This Wooden Wand record, which is a really great album. James Toth is a great songwriter. Maybe the other was Larkin Grimm's record. We live near each other. I live up near Woodstock, in sort of the same area, and I got to know him a little bit. I needed some mandolin so I called him.
Bill Rieflin I've been working with for years. He played drums in Swans on one record, [The Great Annihilator], and he's played on several Angels records. Bill and I are good friends, and when I get Bill involved, I don't have in mind any particular thing for him to play. He can play so many instruments, and he has a great sensibility that matches mine in a way.
I just bring him in, I put up a song -- I didn't even send him any of the songs -- and said, "I had this in mind, what do you think?" And he says, "Yeah, I'll just do this." So he decided to play piano on a song, or sing on a song or play guitar, and he always adds something with his inimitable personal stamp on it, and it always benefits the project.