Michael Gira On Swans' My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
, July 30th, 2010 07:39
Michael Gira has reactivated his No Wave/industrial/apocalyptic folk project SWANS for the first time in 13-years, so who better to ask than him for a track-by-track review... Listen to tracks here
No Words/No Thoughts
The Quietus says: What appears at first to be field recordings of church bells (but is actually percussion) and squealing, workshop band saws slicing through timber set the tone for what is a serious but beautiful album. A statement of labour and love.
Michael Gira says: "I think the intro to this song should have been longer. I showed cowardice here. it should have lasted 10 minutes at least, instead of the 3 1/2 minutes it is now.
Ideally this song would sound like a steady gale force wind of hydrochloric acid. The guitars should wipe your mind clean. the words state one thing, and also the opposite. sometimes all points of view seem equally true simultaneously. I wanted my voice to sound like the weightless vocals of certain very early Pink Floyd songs here, but it's hopeless with a voice as cantankerous as mine.
So now we're off on a new journey, by reigniting swans I've unlocked the trunk where I'd trapped my demon brother. Now that he's out again I am wrestling with him and am determined this time to not only kill him, but all his friends and family as well. I've enlisted my comrades Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, Thor Harris and Chris Pravdica as the primary soldiers in this quest.
Reeling The Liars In
TQ: A slightly incongruous camp fire country song which has the grotesque edge of being strangers gathered round a campfire tossing on liars (not the Australian/American post punk/tribal/noise band) in an attempt to keep warm.
MG: To me it's a simple song with a Western atmosphere. Six cowpokes are sitting around a campfire, burning liars in a pile to keep warm, trading yarns as the night wears on and the liars burn, popping and hissing... We all stand in a circle with our arms around each other and sing these backing vocals, our enemies vanquished. If there were a video for this it would look like the great recent movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
TQ: If Hell has a German bierkeller, this is the song they sing there dolefully as they slam their bone tankards together. A lurching shanty is topped off by a glistening piece of guitar work that mimics a dulcimer or zither.
MG: This song is a tribute to my old friend, the promethean, eruptive genius, JG Thirlwell [Foetus, Wiseblood]. I won't explain how the words refer to Jim specifically, but listening to his music lately gave me hope to continue working and living myself. I was really happy when we found a groove for this song, so natural. I see this groove as containing a seed of something that will continue into the next SWANS album. at this point, I'm picturing the next album having very few words (though perhaps voices) and centering around morphing grooves and the kind of sounds you have to really suffer physically in order to make happen. I'm a little sick of hearing myself talk, so I'm not sure how many words/lyrics I have left in me.
The "dulcimer" sound on this song is Bill Rieflin [Revolting Cocks, Ministry] playing several acoustic guitars, one note at a time, with a very fast right hand. Bill's a tremendous all-round musician. He played on the SWANS album The Great Annihilator. He plays everything – piano, bass, guitar, old-school synthesizer... everything. He studies guitar with robert fripp and plays drums for R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock.
I don't know how this song ended up with a vaguely gospel feel. It just came about. Christoph Hahn's buzzsaw guitar at the end is thrilling to hear – it's the sound he makes when I scream at him.
TQ: A mighty, breast beating dirge, with violins and guitars, marshalled into howling swoops as if mimicking a Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad militant hip hop jam, while Gira, in fine voice, sings to a former lover as if she were his mother.
MG: Each album I make is a series of disasters that eventually coalesce into a form that I finally feel comfortable walking away from. This song in particular was difficult in that the initial groove kept veering towards a dumb-ass rockabilly feel, but we hammered away at it and eventually it worked out.like all the other songs with the exception of ['You Fucking People Make Me Sick'], it was played throughout the course of a 12-hour recording day, and once we'd felt we reached its centre we had the engineer push "record", then we did a first series of overdubs right away.
I like the way this song sounds like a burlesque song, like a tremendously obese naked woman should be dancing around onstage doing unmentionable things. Norman Westberg's guitar here is the epitome of his sound – sweeping, bending, but open and expansive. Part of my reason for reinvigorating SWANS was just to hear Norman's guitar again at close proximity... also, it's a joy to sing such abject lyrics again. there's a kind of cauterizing hope in that.
You Fucking People Make Me Sick
TQ: The most immediately arresting song on the album, voiced by Young God associate Devendra Banhart and his own daughter. The combination of the simple, nursery rhyme melody which descends into acoustic instrumental cacophony is quite exquisite and threatening. Brass instruments howl like overpowered fighter planes swooping into battle and strings slide into lysergic chaos.
MG: This song began as just a loose collection of various unmusical sounds, loops, noises. it was meant to be a little transition piece. There was no "song" there at all, not remotely. I just followed the trail though, wherever the sounds led. they eventually elicited Christoph's amphetamine arpeggios played on his open-tuned lap steel guitar – lots of sounds were added and subtracted. Eventually I felt it needed a brief sing-songy ditty in there, so I wrote a little thing on acoustic guitar, then wrote these leering and vaguely spiteful words while perusing a few music websites. As I was singing at home, I had this nagging feeling: who did I sound like singing this song? Devendra Banhart! Ha ha! so I called him up and explained the song and I got him to sing it instead of me. Then, it didn't feel quite finished, so I had my 3 1/2 year old daughter sing on it too. then I had Grasshopper from Mercury Rev play a hundred mandolin tracks in the background. Then came the whole mass of violent acoustic sounds at the end – drums and piano played by Bill Rieflin and sliding trumpets by Brian Carpenter of Beat Circus. Though I think this song is fairly successful, this way of working is very painful and frustrating – takes forever to come to a conclusion. None of the original sounds remain on this version, with the exception of Chris's mouth harp at the beginning.
TQ: Another song written for his daughter, that reverses the sonic conceit of the previous song, with swooping and soaring strings eventually giving way to a gentle, jazz inflected hymnal.
MG: This is another song where the instrumental intro should have been much longer – maybe 10 minutes. again, I'm a wimp. but in my defense I'll say that there was a time when I had to finish this record up in order to meet a deadline for it to be released by the time the endless tour we have booked begins. So I had to wrap things up. Maybe that's good, maybe not. I would have liked to have extrapolated upon the layered e-bow parts that Norman played, incorporated horns and vocal drones until the thing really changed and morphed into a kind of endless vertiginous descent, and then finally have the little sentimental song that comes in at the end occur. Oh well! This song was inspired by watching a beautiful child wander aimlessly through a field of snow. A really corny literal translation of its structure would be that the rushing waves of sound give birth to the delicate child in the end.
TQ: A stomping, droning monster that calls to mind Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' live performances from the film Wings Of Desire.
MG: This song wrote itself. I don't know where the words come from, except that they extrapolate upon some sordid and soiled childhood memories. most lyrics to songs take me days, weeks, to write. I'm the opposite of effusive. This one had a basic shape in an hour or so. The amazing thing to me is that when I wrote this – I swear to god – I had no idea that there actually is a place called Eden Prison, in New Zealand. Apparently it's a quite horrible place. I'm looking forward to playing this song live. Inevitable, the middle section will be extended to 20 minutes until the last drop of blood and light is strangled out of its body.
TQ: A chain gang spiritual, where you can hear the creaking of the chains. A suitably funereal closer to the album.
MG: This is a love song, a devotional song. I think it's appropriate both for the words and for this being the end of the first SWANS album in 13 or 14 years, to end it a cappella. I'm toying with the idea of torturing our audience live and singing this entire song a cappella somewhere in the middle of the set.
Swans My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky is released via Young God on September 23rd. The artwork is below