Interview: Swans' Michael Gira

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

In my Swans feature from last week's issue of Alive, when he wasn't being interrupted by his zany ringtone, band mastermind Michael Gira talked about how music for him is all about being caught up in the moment. That was evident Saturday at Pitchfork Music Festival when Swans conjured primal blasts of sound in the scorching Chicago heat, Gira getting his Thom Yorke on with uncouth contortions and feral growls. It was among the most powerful, elemental music experiences you'll ever encounter, and you'll have your chance Wednesday when Swans visit The Bluestone with openers Pharmakon and The Unholy Two. To prep, watch video from Pitchfork Fest and read the full text of my interview with Gira.

ALIVE: Hi, how are you?

MICHAEL GIRA: Oh, I'm still pretty wasted after our recent tour. But it's OK. It's what I do.

ALIVE: And you're about to head out on another one.

GIRA: Yeah, that's how it's been for a while now. Put out a record and tour for, I don't know, 10 months a year, then do it again.

ALIVE: When you come to Columbus, you're playing at this venue that's a converted old church, which seems like it would lend itself to a different experience than the place you guys played last time.

GIRA: Where did we play last time?

ALIVE: It was this place called Outland that was sort of a goth S&M kind of bar.

GIRA: Oh, I remember that! Backstage there were these S&M props in the dressing room. It was really odd. I didn't know that was the context of the club we were at. We were wondering about that. So it is that kind of place?

ALIVE: Well, it was. It doesn't exist anymore.

GIRA: Oh, I see. Well that's a pity. Now people can't have fun anymore.

ALIVE: Around the time The Seer came out last year, you were already doing new material. Is the live set entirely new at this point? What's going on with it now?

GIRA: I don't know, I guess it's about 85 percent new material - unrecorded material, put it that way. Some of it we've been playing since eight months, you know? But it keeps growing and developing, finding nuances. But we do, depending on the length of the set for the night, whether we play a festival or not, we do one old song called "Coward," which is from '86 I guess. It's really just chunks of sound and rhythms. That's kind of why I chose it. It's just sort of a venue to scream. And then we do one song from The Seer, that being the song "The Seer" itself.

ALIVE: Which I assume takes up a good amount of time in the set.

GIRA: Yeah, but that bleeds into a couple new things that sort of evolved by playing the song. The material just kind of grows and bleeds into other things, and that becomes new material just by playing it live. I wouldn't really call it improvisation so much as following the thread of where the sound is going, and it leads us into places we didn't expect. Some of the new songs I wrote on acoustic guitar - and then built them up with the band, of course - but other ones kind of occur by, I'll hear something someone's doing, and I'll push it, or I'll do something on guitar and people kind of join in. And then in sound checks we'll start revising it and changing it, and it becomes something entirely new. There's a song we're doing now in the set called "She Loves Us," and that's gone through probably 10 or 11 different iterations since we started doing it eight months ago. It's pretty unrecognizable from where it started. But it kind of keeps us alive, just letting the material lead us other than the opposite.

ALIVE: You mention that "it keeps you alive." I've read other interviews with you throughout the years where you constantly talk about pushing things forward. Do you feel like there is kind of a death element in settling into a pattern?

GIRA: Yeah, you know? I don't want to be some band going out just promoting their album. I want to make a true experience happen. There's nothing wrong with that. Some groups can do it well. I'm just kind of beyond all that stuff. I don't even look at an album as a finished thing anymore. It's just a picture of how things ended up at that time. Of course I work diligently on making the album as well-honed as possible, but once it's done, it's just kind of dead matter to me. I'm more interested in the moment.

ALIVE: I agree with your feeling that going through the motions of something old feels like a dead gesture, but it's interesting how the repetitiousness of a Swans song in concert feels very alive, although it's a different kind of repetition.

GIRA: Well, it's not exactly just playing the same thing over and over. It's constantly shifting. If we were playing exactly the same thing for 30 minutes, that'd be pretty awful. It's more just following the momentum. That is the guiding force. But all the sounds continually shift and change. It's really like being inside something bigger than yourself.

ALIVE: I imagine having the right people in place to make that happen is crucial to it.

GIRA: Yeah, it was very serendipitous finding this group of gentlemen. When we went to record the first post-hiatus Swans album - I don't know how many years ago; three years ago, or something? - we hadn't all played together as a group. I mean, I played with everyone except Chris the bass player before in different contexts, but we hadn't all played together as a group. So it was a bit of a throw of the dice. But it worked out perfectly. It's been really good. We seem to be committed to the same goal, which is, I suppose, I kind of ecstasy.

ALIVE: It's interesting that you describe it as ecstasy when people tend to think of it as this super-dark thing.

GIRA: Nah, f--- that. I don't care about that s---. Excuse me for swearing. I guess I'm so exhausted that my governor is turned off. But yeah, I just don't care about that stuff anymore. None of that matters to me: The record industry, how we're perceived, anything. I just want to make the music, and fortunately I've set up a situation with my own record label and our dedicated fan base that I can continue to do whatever the hell I want, and if people don't like it, tough. But as far as it being dark, such thoughts never even enter my mind.

ALIVE: Is that the way you perceive the current incarnation of Swans or just the whole history of Swans?

GIRA: I never thought it was dark. I mean, certainly it was intense. But I didn't set out to be dark. I mean, what a horrible thing. I mean, certain art, of course, has dark elements in it, but it's also beautiful and uplifting. So it's just - it's not pablum. I apolgize for that. [Laughter]

ALIVE: How much did having children affect the way you wrote for The Seer? The line "Your childhood is over" stuck out to me, and I know there are other references throughout the record. Do you see having children of your own affecting the way you think and how you write?

GIRA: Well, it makes me work harder. I suppose I see myself willfully regressing towards their state. Not that it's innocence because I don't like that kind of fluffy view of children, but I recall childhood as being - despite being painful in my case - being a source of unfettered imagination and magic. And I sort of worshipped that state of mind.

ALIVE: With a lyric like "Your childhood is over," is that discussing the end of that imagination and magic?

GIRA: I don't know. You know, I don't really get into parsing my lyrics in interviews anymore.

ALIVE: You're touring with Pharmakon. Did you select her?

GIRA: Of course. Yeah, of course! Yeah, Brandon from Pitchfork sent me a link, and I listened to a bunch of her sound and thought it was good. And I think she's quite young, right? So that makes it more impressive. I've never seen her perform. I'm anxious to see what it's like.

ALIVE: There's that promo photo for the record last year where you're all sitting in a pool together. Is that something you conceived? How'd that come together?

GIRA: Yeah, I art directed that like I do most things with the band. We were all staying here at my house - that's my pool - and rehearsing every day, and we needed a photo, and I got my friend Jennifer to take the photo and I art directed it.

ALIVE: Was there some kind of significance to that, or was it just, "We're hanging out at the pool. Let's take a picture at the pool"?

GIRA: [Laughter] Yeah, I don't know. We're not exactly buff, but we're human beings. And I thought it was an interesting take on the band.

ALIVE: A couple years ago, when you made the first reconstituted record, the photo was a bunch of close-ups on your faces. It seemed like a lot of emphasis on the curves and wrinkles and weatheredness of what people had been through in life or whatever. Was there a thought process behind that photo, or was it just like, "These are the guys who are Swans now"?

GIRA: I think the latter, but it was also, like many things, just a matter of circumstance. We had to have a band photo suddenly, and I asked them, just take a Photobooth-type shot of yourself, and I drew a picture of how it should be framed, and everybody sent me one. Then I manipulated it a little bit to make them all the same tonal qualities, and put it out. 'Cause I didn't want any of - I really hate rock photos, so I didn't want anything like that.

ALIVE: Well, I think you successfully avoided that. You mentioned it was serendipitous that you found this group of guys and that you all have the same goal. Did you have a sense when you were collecting these guys that they were on the same page? I guess, how was it serendipitous?

GIRA: Well, we talked a lot, of course, but you never know what the chemistry is going to be when you get together in a room, and particularly when you go on tour, which is, I guess, the great crucible. You're together all the time, lots of times in petty arduous, sweaty, stinky circumstances and long hours of tremendous boredom and close contact. But generally we have avoided slitting each other's throats and get along pretty well. And musically, everyone understands that we're making a sound, one sound. It's not about the individual player. That's the important thing.

ALIVE: Yeah. That's the worst when you get the one guy who's like, I just need to play this crazy bass part right now.

GIRA: Yeah, well that person wouldn't last long with us.

ALIVE: I know that you're very focused on Swans being a living, forward-moving thing. Yet you've produced so much music at this point. Do you ever go back and revisit it?

GIRA: Yeah, regretfully.

ALIVE: Why regretfully?

GIRA: I just can't stand most of it. I can't stand it. I have no ability to judge it or to appreciate it. It's just - if I'm listening to it on a CD or digitally, it's just ones and zeroes. That's just how it is for me. Certain things I think are OK that I've done. I'm not saying it's bad, I'm just unable to appreciate it, really.

ALIVE: So for someone like myself, who was too young to be there for the early days of Swans - I was at that show in Columbus at the S&M place, and I listened to that new record and stuff, but that was my introduction.

GIRA: That's great. That's interesting. So have you gone back and listened to the old material after that?

ALIVE: Not much yet, partially just because I've read other interviews where you've had similar thoughts about it like this. But I'd like to go back.

GIRA: I'm not saying it's not good. I'm just saying I can't listen to it.

ALIVE: Is there an entry point? Is there somewhere you direct people once they've listened to The Seer?

GIRA: I would just work your way backwards chronologically. Listen to - I guess it would be Soundtracks For the Blind and Swans Are Dead, which are the final two offerings from that era. and then if you're interested in that, then go back to the one previous, and keep doing that, and see what you think.

ALIVE: I intend to.

GIRA: You know, there's threads that move through everything that just keep - you can see how it transforms. I don't know if it's better to start at the beginning or to work your way back.

ALIVE: I guess most people, if they're jumping in now, they're probably going to work their way back.

GIRA: A lot of people have. It's encouraging to see so many young people at the shows. And I guess that's largely through the internet and just the availability of information. It attracts people who are inclined toward this kind of music. And it turns out there's more of them than I thought, which is nice.