Interview with Michael Gira from Swans
Swans are one of these those bands you just can’t put labels on. Their mixture of post-punk, No Wave, noise rock and something so specific and unique – like the human soul – and their ever-changing and evolving nature can classify then them with only one word – Swans. And as the band’s frontman Michael Swans explains: “Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures… with really ugly temperaments.”
Martina Dechevska speaks with Michael Gira before he hits New York City with shows supporting the band’s highly acclaimed 2012 album The Seer, which features vocals from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, members of Akron/Family, Ben Frost, Grasshopper from Mercury Rev and former Swans member Jarboe. Swans are playing in Music Hall of Williamsburg on February 6th with Marissa Nadler opening, whilst on February 7th they’ll share the stage with Devendra Banhart.
What will you remember about 2012, and what do you expect from 2013?
My memory is less than acute as I pretty much live in the present, but I suppose I’m gonna remember 2012 with some of the best performances of our career and the recording of The Seer. As for the next year, we’re touring a lot. We’re about to go to Australia and Japan in couple weeks, after that we go to Europe for another month, then we’re doing some more touring in the States… All this seems to keep growing. We’re also working on new music right now – we have that set that we’re playing – it’s new material and it’s evolving every night and that’s exciting…
Can you tell me something more about the new music you’re making?
We’re in this mode when we start with really basic material and play it in front of an audience and let it develop – that way it has a sense of urgency about it and grows as a band. Rather than me writing a completely finished song and having a band at add their parts, it becomes kind of a group effort. It’s a very “fail or succeed” situation in front of an audience and it works generally. That’s how half of the new album The Seer was made: the longer songs were developed in front of the audience during the last cycle of touring over the course of the year. It’s a nice way to work because the things are always right on the brink of falling apart, but when they work – they really succeed very well.
Except developing compositions through live performances, what other inspirations you had behind what else inspired The Seer?
That’s hard to say. The music itself is the inspiration – we started making sounds and that forced it into a final shape. It’s not like trying to make music to explain an idea or elucidate a thought. The music is the thought so it’s not a narrative, really. There are words there, of course, and they are important to me but I don’t really like to talk about them too specifically.
How did Karen O end up singing Song of a Warrior?
I was singing it myself when I wrote the song and I wasn’t satisfied with my voice. I’m also a producer so hopefully I’m objective enough to know when someone’s vocal or someone’s instrument doesn’t work, and I realized that my voice was wrong for this song. It seemed to me that it should be a woman singing. Swans’ bass player Chris Pravdica is friends with Yeah Yeah Yeahs and suggested her. I listened to her solo work and I thought that she had a very beautiful, tender, kind of compassionate voice that fit perfectly with the words for the song, which are sort of country lullaby and were written to my six and a half years old daughter.
In that line of conversation, which of the new bands do you like?
I don’t really go out much, so usually it’s just people that I come across whilst on tour. There is this great group that we played with recently. It’s called A Hawk and a Hacksaw, have you heard them? They use a lot of acoustic instruments and they make these this Central-Asian/Turkish influenced music, but they’re Americans – they live in New Mexico… They’re really great. I also think Sir Richard Bishop is tremendous; he’s been touring with us for quite some time.
Can you tell me something about the artwork of for The Seer?
My very good friend Simon Henwood is a painter, amongst other things, and he had this contemporary sketch of a cat’s head in a more rudimentary form. I’ve seen it around his house for years and I liked it. He paints in this kind of Renaissance style now when he uses lots of blazes and makes it ultra-vivid so I asked him to do a version of this sketch in that style. Then he did it but he inserted my teeth in there, so on the cover – those are my teeth. Then I asked him to do the other images…
How did you choose The Seer as a name for the longest composition of on the album and for the whole album itself?
The Seer is one of these songs that developed live and I was singing whatever phrases came to mind for quite some time. Eventually I just settled on “I see it all, I see it all, I see it all” and that seemed to fit being inside this huge sound, the character experiencing this revelation. So The Seer is what these words became as just one phrase.
What should we expect from your coming shows?
It’s a very extreme, but joyous experience and it’s a very big sound, in which we all have a chance to live for two and a half to three hours.
Will Jarboe perform with you on stage?
Should we expect a wild and violent show or one more on the calm side?
You can never predict that, but I kind of doubt it will be violent – I think I left those days behind me a while ago…
Which singers inspired your voice and a manner of singing?
When I started the band I suppose singers that I admired – I don’t know about inspire, because I didn’t ever want to be like someone else – would’ve been Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown and conversely David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
What kind of music were you listening to growing up?
I was born in 1954 so in the 60s I was listening to what everybody else was back then: The Mothers of Invention, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Rolling Stones, The Beatles, music like that… psychedelic rock music, really.
So how did you start making darker music, if I can call classify it like that?
I just make music according to my own imagination and what comes out is what it is. I don’t attempt to make a particular style. I want to make something that’s totally unique and has an inner power that’s undeniable. That’s always been the guide.
Has the S&M scene ever been an inspiration for you?
No… at one time I was kind of obsessed with the worker-boss relationship and I kind of correlated it with S&M because it seemed to me like S&M in a way; working for a job that you despise seemed to me a form of slavery, of a self-imposed one, I’m sure. I tried to use that as a method of talking about that structure, but as far as being explicitly about S&M – no. It’s prone to being corny or clichéd.
What is Michael Gira reading right now?
I’m half through a biography of Toussaint Louverture, who was the liberator of the slaves in Haiti in the late 1700s. He’s basically the person that freed the slaves in the first successful slave revolt and it’s was a very interesting topic. I’ve written this song called All Souls Rising, after a book with the same title about Haiti. This is always a subject I kind of come back to – it’s such a monumental event, such a bloody and gruel cruel revolution. On all sides it seems to reveal everything about human nature… I’m also reading a novel by Jack London called The Seawolf, which is a tale with a great yarn.
Talking about slaves, have you seen the new Tarantino movie Django Unchained?
No, I haven’t seen it yet – I’m looking forward to seeing it.
What about your favorite painters?
Probably my all time favorite painter is Francis Bacon.
Can you pick one Swans song as your most emblematic one?
That’s impossible to do because so many atmospheres and approaches to make a sound have been employed in 30 years of Swans history. There’s been quiet acoustic songs, very long cinematic songs, brutal blunt raw expressionist songs… all kinds of music has taken place and I can’t choose one – or not one fits.
Do you have your own favorite?
I don’t listen to the music, I’m sorry. Once the song is done, it’s sort of dead to me. For me, it’s more about the process and constantly trying to reinvent things and remain as much alive as possible.
Photo: Young God Records
Watch Swans’ Song of a Warrior feat. Karen O here:
Watch Swans’ The Seer here:
Watch the official video for New Mind (1987) here: