Who's Afraid of the New York Swans?
At the end of the Swans' hypnotic set last night at the Bluebird Theater, frontman Michael Gira told the crowd he'd be at the merch table in ten minutes if anyone wanted to talk or have him sign anything. He seems to do that every show. On stage, the guy is mysterious and menacing, but in person, he's friendly and engaging even as he exudes an undeniable intensity.
Tom Murphy Michael Gira of Swans at the Bluebird Theater
Is that aura something we impose on him based on what we all know of the music and the honesty of his performance? Perhaps, but Gira clearly respects the people who come out to see his band.
As with Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, in town earlier this year with their band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Gira pretty much stuck around until he interacted with anyone with the guts to approach him. He could have lived up to the myth of the mysterious, detached, forbidding musician that his music might suggest, and that would be easier, but it's clear that Gira gets something out of the real human connections he makes on tour, even if only for a moment. That's one reason he seems to have garnered long-term loyalty and respect from critics and fans.
Part of the ethos of hardcore and punk generally -- the world out of which Swans came -- is an anti-rock-star stance. It can be easy to maintain that when you're not selling out stadiums, and yet when some artists hit the status of Swans, they put a distance between themselves and their fans.
Paradoxically, the kind of organic, atmospheric and harrowing music produced by Swans and opener Carla Bozulich, while dark and emotionally raw, even unsettling, actually invites the listener in; the experience offers better potential for catharsis. Bozulich and Gira are also funny and unpretentious, even though both clearly employ theatrics as part of their art. Bozulich has even been known to go into the audience and individually invite people closer to the stage, putting her hands on their shoulders and looking into their eyes while doing so. Artists who want to keep people at a distance do not do this. She and Gira invite you in and only keep that distance in order for the musical end of the shared experience to be executed properly.