A Little Drop Of Blood: Michael Gira Of Swans Interviewed

The Seer is a gargantuan colossus of a record towering over 2012. Luke Turner spoke to Michael Gira about its genesis, evolution, and the commitment required to make it

"It’s an arduous process, but in the end, great," says Michael Gira of Swans’ rehearsals for their forthcoming tour of monumental new album, The Seer. Yet, as becomes clear throughout our interview, this is no normal bash-out-the-tracks approach as you might encounter from lesser bands in the rock idiom. For Swans, writing, rehearsal, touring and recording is all part of the same ever-evolving process, dynamic and alive. "I look at the record as just one instance, which is a snapshot, though hopefully an artful one, and then it’s time to take things further after that," Gira explains. "Even the songs from The Seer that we’re doing are transformed, pretty much. I like always to be in an uncomfortable place, working on something new, and trying to just expand things as much as possible."

This essence of Swans, the sense that each time you see them play you’re witnessing the forging of the new, is something that anyone who has witnessed them since the ‘reactivation’ in 2010 will attest to. So there was the Supersonic Festival in 2010, where minute after unending minute of chimes heralded the eventual roar of ‘No Words/No Thoughts’; or at Primavera 2011, where unfettered European PA system and the intensity of Gira’s exhortations on stage sent waves of euphoria through the warm Spanish night; or a confrontational set at All Tomorrow’s Parties in New Jersey that divided and conquered… just read our review of Swans’ live album We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head or Joseph Burnett’s brilliant appraisal of their recent appearance at Poland’s OFF Festival to know that this is a band for whom blood, toil, tears and sweat is the only way of working.

That’s all well and good, of course, but an album like The Seer, which clocks in at just shy of two hours and features three tracks over the 19 minute mark would, in lesser hands, be bloated, fatuous, pompous, futile. How remarkable it is, then, that this is never so with this mighty, transcendent, beautiful record, a majestic retort to those who would argue that rock, capitulated into nostalgia, has nothing more to say, no more power to move. Listening to The Seer, watching the band live, imagining what they’re already doing next, the listener gleans a sense of the hard graft that goes into what Swans do. Indeed, it’s that physical presence of the band, their mastery not just of volume but the juxtaposition of that with moments of balm, that has so struck me in my encounters with them over recent years. It seems as good a place as any to begin a conversation with the eloquent, well-spoken Michael Gira.

I wanted to talk about the live experience, how the dynamic works and the physical interaction between the various members. That seems to come across in the power of the music. I was wondering how that had related to recording The Seer?

Michael Gira: You mean ‘do I bully the band in the studio as well’?

I wasn’t implying that there was bullying… Though is that the case?

MG: No. Well, sometimes, maybe. It’s very physically demanding to make, actually, and I can’t really say why, because I’m just holding this piece of wood with some wires on it. But one needs to really push things with the body at certain moments, though of course sometimes it’s delicate. It reaches a point where you have to go further, and I guess that requires a physical commitment. As far as how that translates in the studio, well I guess for one, two, or three songs on the album, they were played in the studio how we developed them on the last tour. Those were played live, so there is a certain physicality in them. And then the next phase begins, where I’m thinking about orchestration, and that’s more hours and hours of trial and error.

How does it all work in the studio? What is the dynamic? Is it a team?

MG: Yes and no. These guys that I’m working with, they’re the best band I’ve ever had as a whole. They’re friends and we think along the same lines, but I’m guiding the process along – although I want them to find something that surprises me, and when it does it’s great.

Why this time the decision to work with Karen O and Jarboe, to have that female presence?

MG: I don’t know that it was a conscious decision to use females, it’s just that the music required it. In case of Karen, she sings the song. That developed because I was writing a song, and as happens sometimes it was beyond my abilities as a singer. I mean I can sing that melody, but it wasn’t sounding fluid or didn’t have the proper emotion to it. I realised that I shouldn’t be singing the song. [Swans member] Chris Pravdica is friends with Yeah Yeah Yeahs and somehow her name came up. I was looking around on the net and I saw her doing this version of Willie Nelson’s ‘Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’ and I thought it was beautiful, and it occupied a similar space to ‘Song For A Warrior’ so I asked her to sing it, and was really pleased that she did. With Jarboe I knew she could do what I wanted, as a singer, she’d do a really great job, so I asked her to.

Are you more comfortable with doing the long instrumental passages that are present on The Seer?

MG: I don’t know about more comfortable, it’s just a trajectory of how things are going. It sounded totally different musically but there was a similar trajectory reached in Soundtracks For The Blind, for instance. It’s just where the music’s leading. And it is slightly propitious as it’s reaching a point where it’s not so easy for me to write words [laughs]. It’s a happy marriage.

Why do you think it is that words are harder to come by?

MG: I don’t know. It’s probably because I am so fucking busy I don’t have time to read, and reading is the nourishment for being able to write. Usually once I read a book I find things start to open up again. By the time of day arrives when I have time to read, I usually fall asleep, which I think is quite common for people who work a lot.

Looking back at Swans records like Greed, Holy Money, Time Is Money, you seemed to be commenting on the effects money and capitalism had on us on individuals – do you feel your lyricism now is more inward-looking, or personal?

MG: I’d just run that subject matter dry, and you can’t just keep writing about the same thing all the time. I don’t know if I was critiquing capitalism, maybe in a way, from a personal point of view, because I was right involved in doing work I despised, and I thought about how one ends up in the circumstance. It’s horrible, because you have this discrete amount of time on earth and you end up doing things you hate in order to consume things that you don’t need. Those songs were based on that notion, but after a while you lose interest in writing about them.

The subject matter now comes randomly. There are two different narrative lines in Swans work usually now: for the gentle, more song-orientated material there’s some kind of narrative. For the – I just came up with this word and I can’t believe I’m going to use it – for the more anthemic songs, you need phrases that aren’t based on the narrator, it has to be as big as the sound. If it’s too specific, or has too much of me singing about a subject, then it makes the music smaller, so it’s always a struggle to find words that I can use. They have to have meaning, but they can’t be telling a story.

When you reactivated the group, did you envisage a future beyond My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky? Did you think you’d be here with a record as big in scope as The Seer?

MG: I couldn’t really foresee what the next record would be like, but the decision to reactivate it was based on a desire to find new ways to work, not to reactivate it to be this nostalgia act playing our old songs. I hoped that there would be more music in it, but one never knows, one has the terrible fear of drying up completely. But this is what I’m doing now, Swans, it’s not just a little project I did for a little while just to cash in or something.

That’s been one of the really positive aspects to see as Swans’ audience, the refusal to accept nostalgia as a reason for continuing

MG: It’s personal necessity for me, creatively that is, I had to do it. It’s opened up a lot of different things. I guess it incorporates a lot of tropes, for want of a better word, from the past, but it expands beyond that, I hope.

In the announcement of The Seer you said “It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” That’s a very bold statement. What makes The Seer that record?

MG: Well, just that. It incorporates every kind of way I’ve worked, that I can remember anyway, not that I can remember much these days. It just uses all the different kind of approaches to sound and arrangement and songs that I have been involved in. I guess that’s not a bold statement because it’s inevitable that you’d draw on your experience.

It’s a statement of fact.

MG: Yes.

And would that same statement therefore apply to what comes next?

MG: There’s a nascent germ of an idea for the next record, but I have no idea what it’ll be, so it’s hard to say. I know that we’re pursuing these fractured grooves a lot more, so I have a feeling that it’s going to involve a lot of that. But you’ll see when we play live. One of them is tender in a way. I don’t know. I don’t really have any control over anything. I’m just a little speck of dust floating in a glass of water.

Do some of the track titles (say ‘The Seer’, ‘The Seer Returns’, ‘The Apostate’) imply a narrative? Not meaning a concept record…

MG: If you’re a writer and you’re writing on a page, everything on that page informs everything else on that page. So when I’m working on a song I’m also thinking about other songs, how that’s going to relate, and building dynamics into things. That’s real technical, but I’m always looking at how if I have this section here, that’s extremely violent or heavy, then what do I need elsewhere to counterbalance that? That’s how I think.

You need the light and the dark, the contrast…

MG: Yes. Which is why I get annoyed as people paint Swans as this dark, angry music, because it really isn’t. Sometimes it could be interpreted that way, but it’s certainly not the case as a whole.

I wanted to talk about that. It’s a very joyous experience to go to see Swans live.

MG: I’m glad you get that. I don’t know. People are used to pretty anaemic music these days. Not that ours is an antidote or anything, but I like music that involves commitment and intensity, but also provides joy. I get tremendous joy from listening to Howlin’ Wolf for instance, it’s blues but it’s really uplifting. I’d hope that we achieve something along those lines. To me, the live show is a total experience and it’s always leading somewhere. I don’t know what the destination is… oblivion, I suppose.

Joyous oblivion…

MG: …it’s as close as I get to religion.

I was brought up in a Methodist, non-conformist church background, and listening to Swans triggers something very similar to those hymns and the power of preaching.

MG: That’s great. I don’t know how conscious it is to reach that particular state of mind, but that’s my favourite thing that occurs in music. You could say the album Ummagumma [Pink Floyd], I listened to that album recently for the first time in 20 years, though it’s always in my mind, and it sends chills up my spine, the live part of it. But then you have that in the Stooges, also, where it just reaches this epiphany. That’s really the essence and the potential of amplified music, and I’ve certainly experienced it with Glenn Branca, say. It’s beyond the physicality of music, in his case anyway, it has the sensation that you’re describing, really full and constantly ascending choral music has that sense. If you have 50 voices singing very loud in a church and they suddenly stop, then that instant where it’s resonating, that to me is really beautiful.

Is there an element to performance that you consider a ritual element?

MG: Well I don’t know about ritual, that gives a lot of implications that it doesn’t deserve, but there are certain routines, heheh, a comedy act might have… there are ways of doing things to push things forward. As tours progress I develop a sort of shtick in each song, things I do physically between songs, it all becomes like a play developing, and you constantly look for ways to move and emote and feel the music, to get as much out of it as you can as the tour progresses.

I read an interview from 1987 where you said "I am, obviously, an entertainer". Do you still stand by that?

MG: Well yeah. I’m inside of it, and I’m experiencing it just like the audience is, I’m not up there doing it by rote or reciting some lines, I’m totally committed to it, and I want them to feel that as well. But in the end, I’m in the entertainment industry, and I’m happy for that. I respect great performers – like if you consider Nina Simone for instance, she was absolutely transcendent and reached the highest point possible. I think that’s a very honourable thing. Or looking into classical entertainment, someone like Frank Sinatra, I really admire that, and I admire people in blues and rock music who have that kind of commitment. It’s not that it’s false, it’s real, and the more you’re able to lose yourself in that role, so to speak, the more real it becomes to me.

Do you feel that people have become afraid of music that requires commitment?

MG: I don’t want to be judgemental – I might be in person but in an interview it’s not really polite – but a lot of bands, they’re just putting on the clothes, or even if you extend that to the music, they’re just wearing the music. You can sense that it’s not an urgent necessity for them, it’s more a career move, and I don’t have much respect for that. But when I see someone who’s really inside of it, and just expressing everything they have to give, it’s really touching. Do you know Caspar Brötzmann’s music? I saw him playing at a festival recently and I was overwhelmed, it was so good, just so good. I was down in the front row, screaming like a fanboy. I think he was looking at me ‘Michael! Go away!’ I’m always like that when I like something. There are people that give that level of commitment still.

Perhaps you can look at it another way and say that with music being so accessible now, it’s surprising that people haven’t come round to the idea that Swans aren’t antagonistic. Their minds would be opened up by technological progress.

MG: I don’t know. The people that have an affinity for this sort of thing seem to be discovering it. The audience is growing, it’s bigger than it ever has been. I guess that’s due to the internet. One distressing aspect to that is if I look on YouTube for ‘Swans’ I see all these different shows and it sounds terrible, and people think they’ve seen it if they look at it like that. Maybe they come then to the show with expectations, or with a prefigured notion of what it’s going to be, and I think that’s a little sad. But it’s inevitable and I’m not complaining. In the old days every concert was a special, unique experience, and now they’ve gleaned it from YouTube. It’s equally distressing to look out into the audience and see this sea of cell phones held up [laughs].

When you see something immersive as Swans you want to be inside that music. From an audience point of view the bright screens blinking back at you are really frustrating, it pops the bubble.

MG: It’s really surreal and very disjunctive. The person that’s doing that, they’re experiencing the ersatz version as well as partially what’s there at the same time, and I don’t think they’re able to get the experience because of that. I stop shows sometimes. I’ve started putting up notices saying it’s not allowed, because people aren’t paying attention. It’s strange. I guess it’s just a facet of the modern world. I wonder if people do that when they’re having sex.

Well they do, there’s tonnes of it online.

MG: You mean people are having sex and each are looking at the cell phones of themselves having sex?

From certain things I’ve seen. I wonder if people do it when they go to see the Pope give an address?

MG: I wonder what it would be like if you witnessed your own murder that way…

In a previous interview with the Quietus you discussed how difficult it was being in Swans. With the bigger audience you mention, has that changed, or is it still a struggle?

MG: I seem to be destined for the sisyphean role. I don’t know why. It’s probably something from my childhood, but things never seem to get easier. There’s a lot more audience and hence a lot more money, but it all goes away, and I don’t know where it goes. I’m just privileged to be able to do that thing I love while experiencing this brief tenure on earth. I work very hard for that privilege, but still I recognise it as a privilege. Having worked for many years on jobs that didn’t fulfil me at all, that I hated, it’s rewarding to be able to do something that maximises my capacity as a human being.

Do you think if it stopped being a sisyphean task then it would in some way be more difficult?

MG: Maybe that’s a part of the equation. Maybe I need that in order to make good work.

You need something to push against.

MG: Yes. I constantly set up these situations, in the studio or with the band, these monumental tasks that are really difficult to achieve. It might be self-defeating in a way, but it’s how I seem to thrive. In the studio there will be way too many overdubs, just because I keep hearing more sounds, everything that I put on tape, or these days on the computer and on tape, inspires more sounds. It could just keep going and going and eventually I have to go ‘ARGH’, just scream and try to sort it all out, and make something coherent. That’s a point I like to reach, when it’s so on the brink of complete failure that I have to put on the boxing gloves and beat it to death to make it into a form.

Perhaps for us as listeners that’s where the element of joy comes from, because we can hear that and sense it, that you’ve beaten it with the boxing gloves and pushed the stone a bit further up the hill.

MG: I guess that’s it. It’s a simplistic analogy because there’s some gentle things going on as well… but there’s a little drop of blood going on in all of them, I suppose.

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