By Iann Robinson
Few bands cast a shadow as long as Swans have. From the humble start as a post-punk, post-No Wave, art project of founding member Michael Gira (aka M. Gira or Gira) the band became and remains one of the most influential musical forces of the last twenty five years. Disbanding Swans in 1997 Gira went on to form Angels Of Light as well as Young God Records. Over the last thirteen years he has established himself as a premiere singer/songwriter as well as a creative force for our times.
Now in 2010 Gira has re-vamped and reinvigorated Swans for a new album titled My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and a new legacy. Speaking with Gira was scary for me being such an enormous fan but it ended up being a fascinating discussion covering fathers, musical inspiration, Swans legacy, the new album, the lack of Jarboe and so much more.
So after all this time why bring Swans back?
GIRA: It grew over a period of time beginning with the last Angels Of Light record, which was…wow I forgot what it’s called. Oh, right, We Are Him (laughs) I’m so wasted, I’ve been in the studio a lot. There was some more sort of sonic quality to this Angels Of Light album then there had been before, more electric guitars and things. That and touring with Akron/Family as my backing band with some very loud sections.
Not to say all Swans are loud sections but they had this swirling guitar, very repetitive. It took awhile to come to terms with it. It was a traumatic thing for me to restart this band, which had been like lancing off a rotted arm when I decided to quit it. Over time the notion grew and I had these songs I was writing for what I assumed would be an Angels Of Light record and I was thinking about how to orchestrate them.
CRAVEONLINE: Did that help make your decision?
GIRA: I found myself a little bored with the idea of using the normal things like strings, percussion, vibraphones and so on. I thought why not just do what I really want to do, which is re-start Swans and deal with that. I faced up to that and thought about the people involved, got in touch with them and that was it. I had these songs as a blueprint and we went into the studio and worked on them, each song, twelve hours a day. We expanded them and morphed them into a Swans entity.
CRAVEONLINE: How did you choose the people involved with this Swans project?
GIRA: It was as much about picturing myself in a room working with them as it was about their instruments. I had recently reestablished contact with Norman Westberg who I instantly thought of because he was the longest running member of Swans besides Jarboe. I thought of him and his guitar sound, which has been a joy to be in close proximity of. It’s been incredibly uplifting because it’s like a little orchestra unto itself. I called him and Christoph Hanz who I had been working with in Angels and he was over the roof with the idea. Phil Puleo played drums on the last Swans tour, so he was a natural choice and my good friend Thor Harris who played another drum set along with percussion and tubular bells. He plays with a great band called Shearwater do you know them?
CRAVEONLINE: I’ve heard the name.
GIRA: They’re really good. They’re more of a pop band. He took a sabbatical from that to play with Swans. The bass player was just a good friend who I’d never played in a band with named Chris. It’s all male to, which kind of appealed to me.
CRAVEONLINE: You’ve done a lot since the end of Swans. How does that material play into recording the new stuff?
GIRA: Where I’d left off with the Swans was Soundtracks For The Blind and then the tour so I took a thread from that, which were long mantra passages of music, and built the new stuff from there. These songs weren’t written to be played with Swans so it’s inevitably a hybrid of Swans and Angels Of Light.
CRAVEONLINE: Will that hybrid continue?
GIRA: I think on the next album I want to focus on certain other aspects of this record, such as the extended instrumental passages on No Words/No Thoughts or Eden Prison. I want to take that and then work with people on it, as opposed to having finished songs going in. I want to build the conception of it that way, maybe not have many vocals at all. I don’t know I’ve always kept working so this last ten or twelve years has informed how the Swans album happened. I was a little looser and more open to letting people play than I had been in the past where I’d stop every ten bars and say “No, no try that”. This has more of an organic feel that way.
CRAVEONLINE: Is there a story behind the album title?
GIRA: It was a lyric from a song actually not performed on the album. To me it had a personal meaning that I don’t need to go into but it also applied to me with optimism and a sort of transcendence while at the same time a dead end.
CRAVEONLINE: I was curious because having lost my father years ago, I wondered if it had that kind of meaning for you.
GIRA: My father does inform my way of looking things. He died in ‘90. Are you involved in something surrounding your father’s legacy?
CRAVEONLINE: I have small press company called Isolation Disorder Press and I find a lot of what I do centers around the loss of my father.
GIRA: Well since you’ve told me that. Both my mother and father are dead and with the song in question, which was called “Oxygen”, it was about not being able to breathe. It had to do with my chronic asthma, which has gotten better since I quit smoking, and this rope of smoke going up to heaven and me inevitably dying and following my parents up to Heaven on a rope of smoke.
CRAVEONLINE: Wow, mine was not nearly as subtle. The first thing I ever did was about a fistfight with God.
GIRA: Wow. Y’know after my father died I had a lot of intentions and things to do, one of which was these cassette tapes. I hadn’t been in touch with him for fifteen years and during the last ten years of his life we became friends really. I would go out to California and visit him and interview him about his life. He was getting older and I wanted him to have something and so I have sixty or so ninety-minute cassettes of him just talking about his life.
He was a great raconteur so he would tell me about his various adventures in business or with woman, as discreet as he could be for his generation. He talked about World War II and I have all these narratives. I was going to build a whole record around these tapes and put music to them, I just never got around to it. I did use one of his narratives on Soundtracks For The Blind. It’s where he talks about losing his eyesight. He was totally blind by the time he died.
CRAVEONLINE: Wow, I wish I had done that. (There’s a brief awkward pause as we end that aspect of the conversation) You used the I’m Not Insane record package to help finance the new Swans album. You think self-finance is the way bands will have to do things now?
GIRA: Possibly. I can’t say it’s a great thing. It’s born from desperation. People, as you know, are not buying music, so you have to figure out ways to induce them to buy with variations of the music or special editions of things. It’s good for the consumer but really bad for the artist and the record company. In this case I’m both. I just had to be creative and work two or three times as hard for two or three times less money.
It’s not pretty. I’m done complaining about but I do find the entire idea of illegal downloading to be morally corrupt and inscrutable. I spent hundreds of hours making those I Am Not Insane packages and that allowed me to cover most of the cost of recording. I paid for the privilege to record and now I’ll put that out and people will steal it. They’re stealing a lot of hard work.
CRAVEONLINE: Most bands are being forced into that or hoping the merch sells on tour. Speaking of, what’s the tour schedule for the new record?
GIRA: Oh we’re doing extensive touring. We’re touring now and then Europe and then the southwest and Australia, New Zealand and then back again. We’re going to be touring for the next eighteen months.
CRAVEONLINE: I thought maybe at this point in your career you might be done with touring.
GIRA: No, the only thing that could get in the way would be my health. For the last few years if a tour was extensive I’d get ill from exhaustion, which built into bronchitis and a few times pneumonia. Most of that had to do with the asthma and smoking cigarettes. I’m hoping since I stopped smoking and I’m exercising I’ll be okay.
CRAVEONLINE: I’m excited to see you live. Most things like this bore me but Swans doesn’t feel like a “reunion”.
GIRA: Exactly. We’re taking off from where we were before. I couldn’t live with myself just doing the same thing.
CRAVEONLINE: Right, like just come back and try to redo Cop.
GIRA: (Laughs) I couldn’t even do that when Swans existed, we had changed so much. I would feel like a parody of myself. It’s funny though because the set list is about four songs from the new album and the rest from is the Cop, Filth, and Greed era.
GIRA: Oh yeah, that’s some of the stuff I’m really looking forward to because it’s so alien. That’s some of the only Swans stuff I can listen to because it’s so distant and I’m a completely different person. We are going to change it into something else, which is the interesting part to me. I don’t want to sound like I did in those days but I can use that music as a starting point.
CRAVEONLINE: Does the song “Reeling In The Liars” from the new record have any political connotations to it?
GIRA: I started writing that around the end of the Bush era so it started off as that but inevitably it inverted and became more about me. I just figure it’s important to look within before casting aspersions. I figured I was just as guilty as anyone else.
CRAVEONLINE: Who is that singing behind Devondra Bernhardt on “You Fucking People Make Me Sick”?
GIRA: That’s my three and half year old daughter
CRAVEONLINE: Really? She has a great voice.
GIRA: (Laughs) It’s interesting that song because unlike the others it really started from nothing. It started with tape loops and different odd sounds that had nothing to do with what ended up on the record. It was supposed to be just a one or two minute transitional piece but I kept building on it and moving it around and figuring out how to deal with it. I ended up with this little ditty in the middle so I went home and recorded my own voice and thought, “who do I sound like”.
Then it dawned on me I sounded like Devondra so I called him and he agreed to sing on it. That led to me thinking about other things so I got these mandolins, Grasshopper from Mercury Rev played about twenty tracks of mandolins. Aside from some christof arpeggios and some juice harps at the beginning there’s nothing left of what was there originally.
CRAVEONLINE: Devondra sounds just like you, I had no idea it was him when I first heard the song.
GIRA: It’s funny with that song because unless people are told they just think it’s me singing. I sent him a tape of the song and he sang my melody so I guess subconsciously he sang it in a lower register.
CRAVEONLINE: What’s your take on the Swans influence?
GIRA: I suppose it’s uncompromising and it goes to places that most people won’t go. It’s not hip in any way, it’s not fashion oriented or trend oriented. As soon as it became like that I would shift or change it. It’s never been about style but more reaching for something that has an inner strength to it. One of the reasons I stopped Swans at that juncture was because I didn’t think I could do that anymore with that music.
What I needed to do for me to feel viable as a human being and an artist was to sing by myself, with an acoustic guitar, and make the experience just as intense or transformative as Swans, with all the guitars and volume. For me the thing I’m most proud of is being able to learn how to do that really well. I came from a non-musical background, punk rock, noise rock, whatever you want to call it, and eventually I learned how to play guitar and sing well enough to make an event happen by myself in a room.
It’s amazing now that the band’s reinvigorated, seeing the kind of interest in it is sort of ironic. That level of interest was never there before, but it’s nice to see. It’s interesting to look back and see the effect it’s had on groups and people in general. One of the most rewarding things for me is to be at a show signing things and talking to people and having regular non-music people come up and tell me how much the music has meant to them. That to me is a really, really, high reward to have effected somebody in a true way not just because it was part of some kind of scene.
CRAVEONLINE: Final question. Why is Jarboe not involved in the new Swans work?
GIRA: Fair question. She was a very important part of the band, she was a tremendous resource and I incorporated her into the group because of her talent and she had a lot to say. At this point it would be a complete farce to involve her. I haven’t spoken to her in twelve years and considering her prominence in the band it would be a nostalgia act to involve her. I don’t have anything in common with her musically now after hearing some of the music she does, not saying that it’s good or bad, but I just think it would be reenacting something that’s gone. There’s no animosity, I have tremendous respect for her.
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