For decades, Bob Dylan has been upsetting audience members all over the world by performing versions of his songs that scarcely resemble the original recordings. You wouldn’t commonly group Dylan together with art-rock lifers Swans, but this refusal to conduct a live re-enactment of what happened in the studio is an attribute shared by both artists.
“The main thing is we’re trying to make something urgent and undeniable happen in the moment,” says Swans frontman and creative force, Michael Gira. “I can’t relate to the old material, because it just seems phony to me. I can do a little bit of it and try to change it so it feels urgent. But mainly it’s trying to ape what you’ve done in the past and it just seems inauthentic to me.”
This disinclination to look back characterises Swans’ recent career resurgence. After a 13-year break, Gira and his five band-mates returned in 2010 with a new LP, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky. The comeback was solidified two years later with an even more expansive, and universally celebrated album, The Seer. Then – perpetuating this stretch of unprecedented productivity – in May this year Swans unveiled their 13th LP, To Be Kind.
This is an impressive turnover by anyone’s standards, let alone a band whose songs are works of detailed intensity that regularly tread past the 15-minute mark.
“There’s a lot of work involved,” says Gira, “but what is the alternative – to sit around and eat vegie burgers all day? You have a really short time on Earth and I think it’s a person’s duty – if they’re capable and they’re not being oppressed by Syria or something – to try to fulfil their potential.
“The agenda was to make something unexpected happen and to push music as far as it could go in whatever direction it wanted; to be uncomfortable and elated simultaneously and to not compromise at all.”
Indeed, in a career that dates back to the early ‘80s, Gira’s been a uniquely uncompromising artist. Over the years he’s faced plenty of denigrating scrutiny – “In the early days of Swans’ career the response was pretty much negative or scathing,” – but that hasn’t impeded his questing aesthetic. Thus, shunning the formula for polite applause in a live setting is an inextricable aspect of his artistry.
“The band probably loathes me because every soundcheck is revising,” he chuckles. “We are trying to be inside of an experience that audiences can participate in and hopefully they will get a lot of positive energy from it, but we’re not trying to play music they recognise. We’re just trying to make something happen in the moment.
“I look at it as kind of jumping into a maelstrom and you’re whipped about haplessly and at the end you’re spit out. I don’t know if you feel better or worse at the end, but the experience was worthwhile.”
Further evidence of Swans’ fundamental aversion to industry norms lies in the fact that the majority of tracks from To Be Kind actually appeared on last year’s live album Not Here/Not Now. With Gira’s forward-looking ethos in mind, it’s hardly surprising to hear that the band’s latest set lists largely consist of brand new compositions.
“We do a couple of songs from To Be Kind and we do one song from The Seer and that’s pretty much it. The songs that we’re doing from To Be Kind, even, are changing completely. I don’t want to be a travelling advertisement for a record. I’d rather move onto something else. I realise that’s probably an ill-advised career move, but it’s just what we do.”
Yes, Swans are basically a commercially-minded manager’s worst nightmare. Taking into account both the all-consuming two-hour commitment demanded by Swans records and the band’s expectation-thwarting live shows, it’s fair to say that they directly oppose contemporary culture’s emphasis on snippets and predictability. Yet, much to Gira’s bemusement, the group’s fanbase is positively blossoming right now.
“There’s an alarming amount of people at our shows and they seem to be getting something genuine from the music,” he says. “It just goes to show you that there are people on earth who are not internet zombies. There’s a lot of people that want something true. There’s a lot of people that want something that’s challenging and real; they want the sweat, or they want the reality of things.”
For an artist to consistently convey a sensation of reality, the siren song of complacency must be resolutely ignored. Comprising dynamic extremes and sometimes uncomfortable physicality, To Be Kind reveals that Gira’s ardent creative hunger puts Swans in contact with a sublime energy force.
“It’s almost like at many moments the music is playing us and it’s forcing us into a new direction,” he says. “The goal is always ecstasy but you can’t sit down and write a song and say, ‘Now I want ecstasy’. It’s just there once you reach a certain unspoken understanding of an intuitive connection with the musicians you’re working with. It’s this beast, like an octopus or something, that’s playing all these instruments. The music is the beast and we’re just the fingers.”