SWANS: MICHAEL GIRA The X-Press Interview

Swans have gone through a fair share of personal (and personnel) upheaval since the release of acclaimed 2016 record The Glowing Man. Now returning with a new line up, a (slightly) more restrained style and yet another enormous record in the 90 minute leaving meaning, frontman and the post-rock band’s only constant member Michael Gira speaks to HARVEY RAE from Moscow, where he’s in the midst of a solo tour alongside longtime (and still occasional) bandmate Norman Westberg. They dig into the the turmoil, the tribulations and the need for change.

Let’s start by going back to the touring cycle for The Glowing Man. In November 2017, you widely publicised that Swans were playing their final shows in that format, and you were breaking up the band. What was behind the decision to dismantle Swans and rebuild it – was it personnel problems, or was it more personal?

No, no problems. It’s just that if you can imagine you’re with the same six people who are in a room together over 200 days a year, eventually they run out of things to say to each other. I don’t mean that in a personal sense – because we’re all friends – I think that musically, that that particular configuration had reached its expiration date. I think we did a very fine final tour, but to continue would have meant relying on tropes, and things that we would do that were perhaps too predictable. So we just thought it was time to disband it.

And I had this name, this brand moniker: Swans, and I thought “well how do I continue this?” So, I wrote songs on my acoustic guitar and then I gathered people who I’ve known throughout the years, whose music I admired and who I liked, personally, and decided to orchestrate the songs with those people, (most) of whom were in the previous group, but it wasn’t approached as a band, it was approached as a kind of a production. Sort of like building these songs that I had into a piece of audio cinema.

It’s still called Swans, but in construction at least it comes across as more of a solo vehicle, with crossover from your previous band Angels of Light and, to quote, “a rotating cast of contributors”. Is this the definitive iteration of Swans, where it acts as a vehicle mainly for your creativity?

I don’t know if it’s definitive because I have no idea what’s going to happen next. The next step is, of course, to tour live, but as far as the next record, I don’t have any concept of what it will be. Maybe I have a sound or a colour in my mind, but that’s about it. But as far as it being a solo thing, I don’t know, that’s a bit… I’m not really interested in that. I try to make it the work, and let the work speak. Rather than it being about Michael Gira. That’s decidedly uninteresting to me. I want to make good work and hopefully people can glean something useful and positive out of the experience of listening to the music.  

When the first single It’s Coming It’s Real arrived, it harked back to the brooding, gothic Americana of early 90s Swans, albeit I think bolstered by the confidence of the last decade’s successes. Was that intentional, to release something a little less heavy, a little different, a little more pastoral to reintroduce the band?

That song started out, in its initial phases as singing the whole thing out much more, like full on, singing. That seemed a little forced, so I dialled it backwards and kind of narrated part of the song. But I was looking for a kind of world where it should be and I happened upon this song by the amazing American gospel folk singer, Odetta. And I heard this recording, which was a live recording, that she did of the song Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and it has this gospel choir singing with her. I would highly recommend that people seek that song out. It’s just incredible. The voices are aching and sorrowful, but also they’re just angelic and lifting up to heaven. It’s just so beautiful. And I thought “Well, of course I can’t approach that!” I have no personal history with gospel music or anything, but I wanted to develop a similar atmosphere for the song. So then I opened up the chords in a certain way, that hadn’t existed before in the way that I was playing the song. And then I wanted to enlist my own choir, so I had Anna and Maria von Hausswolff sing, I don’t know how many dozens of harmonies, straight notes, build up this sort of cloud of voices around the song. And then it developed its own domain.  

I guess it seemed to be the one that diverged the most from the past direction, that kind of says that this is this now. But that’s about as far as I’m involved in (choosing the singles). It’s just one facet of a record that has a lot of different colours.  

Let’s get into your new album as a whole then, leaving meaning. How is it different to your previous records?

Well to me it’s not, because… to me, it’s the process. You have this material and then you go into the studio, and you record tracks, the basic tracks. And then it sounds great or it sounds like shit, depending on the moment; and then you struggle with how to orchestrate it and how to mix it, and present it; and then you move onto the next thing. That’s what happened here. I knew I had to leave behind certain habits that had developed in the last three or four records. So that was one way forward. Otherwise the music itself kind of dictates the direction of the way that it’s presented. 

Once I finish an album, this one included, it’s just information to me. It loses all the magic. Because I’ve worked on it so many hundreds of hours. Like, I can recite the whole record in my mind. I don’t need to play it. So it was just something that was a point in time to me now. I’m quite anxious to move onto something else. 

Can you elaborate on what you had to leave behind? 

Well, the kind of explosive, violent, downbeat… the caterwauling, the wailing clouds of sound, persistent kind of repetition of certain beats – just those kinds of things that we had developed as a group. It seemed like if I tried to peruse those, I’d be perusing a cliché. So I left those behind and then found in the music that had existed on those four records, strains that I wanted to carry forth. I usually find an element in the previous work that leads to the next work, that seems worthwhile perusing.

Also I wanted to force myself to write more words on this record, because in the last records, for the most part, words were – not of secondary importance – but they had to be simple. Because if you develop a narrative with these kinds of grandiose statements it brings it down to earth rather than allowing it to lift up. So on this record I wanted to set a context where I could, as a writer, involve more of that.  

It’s a half hour shorter than your last three records, which I have to admit I find relieving. It’s also gradually more tuneful as the record progresses, and to that end I thought Some New Things must be quite pivotal for you in the back half with lyrics referencing other recent Swans albums like: “there’s a kneeling, glowing man, there’s a rope, reaching up, to a sky”. And then I realised it’s not actually on the vinyl version…

When I made the record it was not for vinyl or digital, and in the end, the choice to not include something on vinyl was just a matter of what fit on the sides. So that song just didn’t work that way. But, I guess it’s pivotal, in a way. For me to make that judgement isn’t really my place.  

There’s an inspiring list of collaborators on board and even an Australian connection with The Necks, various Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds alumni, and Ben Frost involved. How did those connections come to be, and can we be optimistic there’s a chance we’ll see you in Perth and Australia, where you barely ever tour, with this release? People are crying out for it I think…

Oh that’s nice to hear. I don’t know. I’ve seen the tour itinerary and they do not include Australia, yet. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen. As far as where the people are from, that’s entirely random. I mean I just, for instance The Necks, I just think they are tremendous. They should be considered a national treasure, as far as I’m concerned…

They are…

Good! So to have them on my record is like a kid writing a demo and having the Beatles approach him and saying they want to perform it. So, it was really great. And Ben (Frost), I’ve known throughout the last decade. We played shows together. I think he’s a fine gentleman and a really good composer and electronic musician. He did a soundtrack to this television series, Dark. He also composes for orchestras. He’s made various soundtracks using orchestras. He’s a formidable musician. And a nice guy too, which is why I wanted to work with him. And so he was on the list, as well as everybody else. I made a list towards the end of the last Swans episode, of people I wanted to work with, and Ben was up there. So once basic tracks were recorded I went to visit him in Iceland and he contributed tremendously.  

You’ve had a pretty memorable decade, career-wise at least. I’m sure even you couldn’t have imagined this reformation of Swans in 2010 would have been as successful as it’s been (Swans were previously active between 1982 and 1997). Starting with The Seer in 2012, and its title track in particular, you started recording and producing records in a different way – they’ve all been double albums since then, and more and more frequently they’ve contained these hulking half hour exorcisms of songs, perhaps reflecting your live shows…

The last three albums, just to correct you, were triple albums, and this is a brief double album (both laugh). But the length of that material was dictated by us performing it live. I don’t know how you would describe it, but it was like us jumping into a river and it led us into unknown territory. So as we would perform it, new things would occur, new nuances, and we’d follow those, leave the old ones behind and hence we would have new material. So things kind of developed organically. As I said, this material was written in a different way, that it was composed from beginning to end on acoustic guitar, and then orchestrated upon. So it’s different.

Some of the songs were so long, it necessitated fading them down at the end of a side and then fading them up on the next side (laughs). 

I’m not sure if you went into writing leaving meaning with a theme in mind, but looking back do you see a thread running through it?

Well it’s certainly not a concept album or anything like that. I would just say that lately I find myself preoccupied with the notion of dissolving. Of being unable to determine where my consciousness begins and where a sort of greater consciousness intrudes. At having no ability to determine what’s real and what isn’t, and being continually – as I have been for years – astonished at the fact that I even fucking exist. 

Dissolving… Is that an age thing? 

No. I would say it’s kind of an urge. There’s a couple of analogies: one might be that you’re in the midst of a symphony and you are so in tune with the music that you lose all sense of yourself. Simultaneously you’re hyper-aware of your own existence. That same state might be reached in the act of making love to someone that you’re absolutely in love with. It’s this kind of selfless act wherein you both are reaffirming yourselves, but simultaneously losing contact with who you are and kind of in touch with a universal stream running through yourselves. So, that’s more what I’m talking about.  

To say the least, it’s been a tumultuous time for you personally since the release of The Glowing Man (Gira was accused of rape, however he strenuously denied it and it was never proven). Like it or not people will read whatever they can into the new songs – particularly with latest single The Hanging Man it’s hard to ignore lyrics like “Force my legs apart” and “These stars reveal the lie”. Swans sounds like a cathartic band at the best of times, but how did those accusations inform the lyrics, especially?

That was a horrific moment in my life, it’s surreal to me and I hope that it has not infected my art because that would be a debasement. But, you know, I’m a human being, so perhaps it has. That song, The Hanging Man, has nothing to do with that event. Again, that was talking… its like when words hang in front of you – I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at a word or even looked at your own face long enough – and it just becomes this vibrating thing that is unreal but real at the same time. It’s like if you look at your face in the mirror long enough, eventually it disappears. That’s kind of the state of mind I’m pointing towards in any of those words.  

Final question: I go back and forth between The Seer and To Be Kind as my favourite Swans album, with a soft spot for Children of God and a couple the other older ones. You’ve got a decorated history dating back to the 80s that you no doubt look back on from time to time doing reissues. New album aside, what’s your favourite Swans album?

The next one (laughs). Like I say, the music for me, it’s more of the process that interests me. It’s the struggle and the elation that happens in making something and once it’s made, I’m more interested in moving onto the next one. It’s how I’ve always been.