By Andrew Lyman
Albuquerque, NM, USA
The Apostate by Swans
Swans drag behind them a 30-year history of challenging and penetrating music. They are an ordeal to listen to, something to withstand live, but there has always been a soul of compassion, perhaps even joy, in the concussions of Swans dark energies. Swans' Michael Gira, pursued projects with his Young God Records (formed to release entries from the Swans back-catalog) and the broodingly beautiful roots group Angels of Light. Swans most recent record, The Seer, released in August of 2012 on Young God, is maybe as complete a picture as they have ever painted; a pummeling nearly two hour epic of roiling physical psychedelia. To carry so much weight behind them, Swans certainly seem unburdened. They feel fit, fresh, and able – a group able to leverage an advanced understanding of their powers to produce something bewilderingly developed and complete – an indication that rock and roll may yet yield many fruits to those who choose to stick around.
STAY THIRSTY: How did it come about that Hawk and a Hacksaw got on one of your recent tours?
MICHAEL GIRA: I was actually doing a solo show in Istanbul and they were on the same bill. I saw them and was pretty stunned at how good it was - they were doing that thing where they play the soundtrack to that film, and I loved it, so I asked them to play with Swans.
Swans (credit: Jennifer Church)
STAY THIRSTY: They are pretty special and versatile too, I've seen them do some pretty fantastic kraut-rock-ish sets on some old synths, and they can play the traditional Turkish music…
MICHAEL GIRA: I admire people who can get out there with minimal means and make something happen. I got out solo with my acoustic guitar quite often and it took years to figure out how to make it effective. But it's sort of like a day job in a way. I think it works musically, it's not Swans or anything, but it's a good thing to have and be able to do. And I respect people that have figured out how to live and still make music.
STAY THIRSTY: Is that something that you enjoy as a sort of counterbalance to Swans or something that you're finding yourself increasingly drawn to?
MICHAEL GIRA: Well I'm really enjoying this tenure of Swans right now, so I've got the solo things on hold until there's a lengthy respite and then I'll do it again. They're completely different. There's much more pressure on me as a singer when I play solo, of course, and my guitar playing is just sort of an accompaniment – it's rudimentary. They really are completely different things.
STAY THIRSTY: Was there an amount of discomfort and maybe even fear coming from something that was so filling and even physical as Swans to something that is just on you?
MICHAEL GIRA: Well initially when I started, yes, it was terrifying. Largely due to my lack of traditional guitar skills, but I've managed to learn how to make something happen on a guitar in my own way and it works for what I do, so… maybe it's like a carnival act or something (laughs).
STAY THIRSTY: Talk about some of the upcoming and continuing Swans activities that you're particularly excited about.
MICHAEL GIRA: Well this album (The Seer) has been out for some months now and we've already been touring it for quite some time. It's exciting to play live because we're not just replicating the album, we're working on new material as we go so it's always in process. Half the set is unrecorded material that pretty much changes every night, but it's a way to be uncomfortable – to be at the edge of failure, which I think is a good place to be. And the sets, sort of against our will, but somewhat inevitably, have lengthened to sometimes three hours.
STAY THIRSTY: And that's a very physical three hours…
MICHAEL GIRA: It's a very grueling undertaking, and it's also incredibly gratifying when it works. For both us and the audience I think. Aside from playing the same music over for 30 minutes, it's always morphing and transforming and it kind of leads us along the path rather than the other way around. It's very much a complete experience. Physically it's very difficult, but it feels great too.
STAY THIRSTY: And then are you doing that back to back to back or are your tours pretty spaced out?
MICHAEL GIRA: Typically it's four or five weeks on, one week off, two or three weeks on, one week off, that sort of thing. We couldn't do this constantly. I recall during the last leg which was a month exactly, there were very few days off and those days off were drive days. I recall sitting in the van and realizing that I was hallucinating (laughs). I'd see like a dog in the road and it wasn't there. It's like a crucible. It's like, can you do it or not? So we're doing it.
STAY THIRSTY: And is this a new way for you? It seems there's always been a play with that chaos and chance with Swans, but does this feel like a new exercise or battle even to be engaging in?
MICHAEL GIRA: Yes! There's some parts in the set that we know where they're going to be, but coming out of one section, that's just atmospheric or something. I'll start playing something and we'll just figure out what we're doing. I kind of bark at people and try to guide them, but it's really invigorating when it works because it's so new and fresh and surprising. So it's improvisation but not like in Jazz improvisation where it's about each player sort of exhibiting their skills, it's more about all of us trying to make a sound – a big sound that we're inside of rather than us playing as individuals.
STAY THIRSTY: Do you have sets then that you would consider failures?
MICHAEL GIRA: Oh yeah. Sure. It wouldn't be real life if there weren't.
STAY THIRSTY: I would think, like you say, that's real life, and I would think those "failures" would take on an important tone in their own right.
MICHAEL GIRA: Yeah. Through the physicality and the volume of the music, although that's not meant to be an affront, but through those factors, it's sort of an all-encompassing experience the audience is sharing with us as it grows, so it's gratifying for both us and the audience and we have been getting really good responses these days. It's not at all light, but I think it's rather joyous in the end.
STAY THIRSTY: Of course there's a balance, but in terms of touring, in terms of traveling, is it more to put yourself into these new and challenging scenarios, or is it to get to places and play for people?
MICHAEL GIRA: Oh it's about the music. Typically you don't get to see the city you're even in, for us at least, we arrive and it takes three or four hours to get through the soundcheck because there's just so much gear on stage and it's really complicated.
STAY THIRSTY: How many people are playing with Swans at this point?
Swans (credit: Jennifer Church)
MICHAEL GIRA: There's six of us on stage. Christoph uses two Fender Twins, I use an Orange head with two 4 x 12s, everybody uses a lot of gear, and it's very loud. But like I said, it's not meant to be aggressive. The type of thing we're playing doesn't sound right until it reaches a certain level and then the sustain takes over and the overtones occur and you're kind of inside the sound rather than inside the song.
STAY THIRSTY: Yeah and it gives the music a body that actually becomes a presence in the space rather than just something you're hearing.
MICHAEL GIRA: Exactly, yeah, you're inside of it. And everyone in the band wears earplugs except for myself so…
STAY THIRSTY: And you probably never have?
MICHAEL GIRA: No. I can't conceive of it – it'd be cheating or something.
STAY THIRSTY: If you're going to subject everyone else to it, you've gotta be able to take it right?
MICHAEL GIRA: That's right. Except I'm doing it every night for three hours (laughs) so at the end of the tour I feel like I've been beaten up with cement boxing gloves for months. Typically I can't hear for like a week after tour and then it gets better. I think I have very strong ears for some reason.
STAY THIRSTY: That's got to be part of the experience as well though: it takes something from you.
MICHAEL GIRA: It sure does. (laughs)
STAY THIRSTY: Obviously Swans is very active again now, but with Young God Records for a period you were finding and taking on a lot of very interesting artists. Do you have anything you particularly enjoyed about that very different mode and the curatorial aspect of Young God?
MICHAEL GIRA: Well I wasn't just choosing the artists; I was very involved in producing the music as well, and my mode is more traditional than current methods. I guess now a lot of producers are engineers as well, but I like to get involved with songs from the very beginning, what works, what doesn't, and the arrangements; then the psychology of how to get the most out of the performance and, when that's done, working on how to orchestrate things – making it into a little piece of cinema. But I guess the most gratifying experiences with that were with Devendra Banheart and Akron Family. Both of them sort of flowered really tremendously. I think Devendra was just a savant – very gifted and a quite magical person. I learned a lot from working with him.
STAY THIRSTY: And how did you get connected with him?
MICHAEL GIRA: My ex-wife was in a band and she was touring. She heard his voice when she was out having a cigarette during soundcheck. She's just an aficionado of all kinds of roots music and things and she just heard something very unique and genuine in his voice. She brought home a little CD-R and I was immediately stunned, so I contacted him and he moved to New York to be on the label.
STAY THIRSTY: An Akron Family, how did that come about?
MICHAEL GIRA: They sent me some demos. And that's the only incidence that's ever happened. Normally demos, I don't really listen to, they're just usually not very good, frankly, but they showed a lot of promise, so I called them and over a period of six months or one year I commented back and forth with them about things I heard in the music, things that sounded maybe conventional – a little light critique. Then I went to see them live in a little bar in Brooklyn that had a back room that held maybe 20 people. They were all set up – sitting down – with all their gizmos and hooking their guitars and bass and drums into all these electronic gizmos too. I was pretty taken with it; particularly their vocal harmonies which were in a nascent form back then, and I seized on that when we started producing records as something that should really be pushed because it was pretty unique. They gradually evolved into this awesome rock band.
We did a tour together where they played as The Angels of Light, my backing group, but prior to that set they opened as Akron Family. Normally on tour I can't watch the opening band for more than a song or something because I'm too preoccupied with doing my own show, but the whole tour I watched their set pretty much every night from beginning to end and was just absolutely flummoxed at how amazing they were. They were like Led Zeppelin or something; they were so powerful. They don't sound like Led Zeppelin, but it was just like witnessing the best rock band in the world. They blew Angels of Light away but they were also Angels of Light (laughs).
With the label I used what little notoriety or credibility I had to bring others up. Devendra also played with the Angels of Light. He toured with us and as himself. It was a way to get completely unknown artists in front of an audience rather than them going out and slogging and playing to ten people for two years. Both of them just really excelled at that. With each one, by the end of the tour with Angels, they were bigger than Angels.
STAY THIRSTY: Akron Family in particular, that's one of those rare instances where you got to witness this significant structural shift from something that maybe had this little allure at the beginning and morphed into this incredibly powerful group.
MICHAEL GIRA: Yeah, they're the real deal. So usually it goes that the bands get to a certain point and I can't handle it anymore, and they maybe can't handle me anymore, but I don't want to get the point of having a "real" record label in the sense of having employees and all. When a band gets to a certain point, you have to expand, but I didn't want to completely subsume myself in other people's music. Like with Devendra: he got to a certain point and then, with my blessing, he went on to bigger labels. Akron Family did the same thing.
STAY THIRSTY: Talk about the upcoming Mouth to Mouth show. [April 4, 2013 in London]
MICHAEL GIRA: That was going to be three days initially, but it became such a logistical nightmare that we just called it and said: one day. We're going to do it again, probably in the US, because it'll be easier for us – perhaps in San Francisco. I have a good ear, I think, for other people's music, so I'd like to help out bringing people to the fore and making an event happen. I would like to do it annually, but I have finite reserves of energy, so we'll see…