Swans’ Michael Gira
TCD's Sahan Jayasuriya talks with Michael Gira, founder of legendary experimental music group Swans, in anticipation of their upcoming appearance at Shank Hall.
With a fantastic new album from earlier this year, legendary experimental music innovators Swans make their return to Milwaukee, performing at Shank Hall this Saturday the 22nd of September. TCD’s Sahan Jayasuriya spoke with founding member Michael Gira about their new album, their upcoming tour and of course, volume.
Sahan Jayasuriya: Swans are known for being a very loud and powerful live band, going back to your beginnings in the 80s. Was this a conscious decision upon your formation?
Michael Gira: We played loud because it just felt right. In the early days, we had two bassists, not really playing bass lines but more chunky chords in rhythm with each other, one of which was myself. We had these tape sounds on a cassette player that we’d run through a bass amplifier, just these sort of loud roars of sound. And then we had two drummers and a guitar player. We generally just had these chunks of sound, and for that to have impact, it had to be sufficiently amplified, to feel it in your body in a very physical way.
I think there’s still an element of that sort of rhythmic approach in our performances now. I just dont think that swirling aspect of the overtones and music would exist without volume. Rather than us standing there playing our songs, I’d like it to be this sort of psychedelic event that the listener feels they are inside of.
MG: I met Jamie [Stewart, Xiu Xiu founder] through Devendra Banhart years ago. We did a show together where we both played acoustic sets, and I was really struck by how dramatic and emotional his music is, even with that minimal of instrumentation. I think he’s really a visionary and I like his act, so its great to have them touring with us.
SJ: Swans broke up in 1997 and were inactive until 2010. What made you decide that you wanted to resurrect the group after that period of inactivity?
MG: After Swans I very intentionally wanted to do something that was based around acoustic guitar, voice and words rather than this big sonic experience and all the baggage that goes with that. So I started a group called Angels of Light with whom I released several albums during the interim. I also ran my label Young God, and after doing both of those for about 13 years or so, I started to feel less enamored with Angels of Light and wanted to experience the maelstrom of sound that Swans could generate again, just as kind of an antidote to the music that I had been making, but also as an excuse to move forward as an artist and discover new things. So that’s what we’ve been doing, and its opened up many new sonic possibilities, and I’m quite happy to be doing this now.
SJ: Does it feel different now than it was when you first formed?
MG: Well, its hard to say because Swans changed constantly throughout the course of the first period from ’82-’97. So I look at it as another phase of the group. I draw on some elements from the past but also try to push things forward. I think I’ve learned a lot from working with a lot of different musicians over the years, especially now with having a new set of core members in the band. We’re all friends and committed to the same goal. Although there’s friction at times, we all get along…and that was never the case in the past (laughs).
SJ: What about the live shows?
MG: The audiences are definitely larger and there’s also a much wider demographic of people coming to our shows now than there were back then. I think that has a lot to do with the internet promulgating the music as well as people who have a natural affinity for this kind of music just finding us. There’s lots of young people which is nice. People find it for the right reasons, too. Swans have never been hip or fashionable or part of any particular scene, so people come to see us for the music itself, and that’s the best of any reason.
SJ: Your new album Seer from earlier this year is great. One thing I noticed was a lot of guest musicians, which definitely caught my attention. What made you want to bring in some of these guests?
There’s a track on the album with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low. They toured with Swans sometime around ’96 or ’97 after I heard their records and thought they were just fantastic. I kept in touch with them sporadically through the years, and when I wrote the song “Lunacy” on this new record, I just for some reason naturally thought of their voices. They just have this purity to what they do. Its very unabashedly emotional or spiritual, even. Its a tremendous honor to have them contributing.
Aside from them, there’s a track with Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, whose voice just fit the song better than mine ever could. There’s a track called “A Piece of the Sky” featuring Akron/Family, who just have this great ability to harmonize and I wanted to use that on the track. And then there’s [former Swans member] Jarboe, who is obviously an important contributor on this record. I needed some single-note drone vocals but with a sense of purpose and fullness to them, and so she sang on a couple songs. Needless to say, there’s lots of contributors on this, and I was really pleased to work with them all. I draw on a lot of different musicians to help color the sounds, which is something I’ve always done. I think using people vocally in such a prominent way is a little different as far as this record goes.
SJ: I think multiple voices harmonizing with one another has a certain power that other elements of music don’t necessarily have.
Definitely. The Beach Boys come to mind. I can still listen to “Sloop John B” and get very excited. They weren’t known for their fantastic lyrical content, anyway. It was more about the arrangements and the sense of grandeur that they were able to achieve.
SJ: Absolutely. So you’ll be playing at Shank Hall here pretty soon, which is bit more intimate of a venue. Do you find that Swans’ live show works better in a larger or smaller setting?
MG: We can play anywhere, wherever’s appropriate, really. One of the best shows I’ve ever been involved in was in front of 30,000 people at this rock festival in Poland called the OFF festival. To me it was really just this sort of celestial event, it really worked out well. But we can play smaller spaces too. I think another one of our best shows was at this little pub in Melbourne, Australia. We had just played a larger concert hall and then we played there in front of about 200 people, and I just much preferred that show over the larger one. So it really just depends. I think with the larger setting, though, I don’t like to have anything extra like movie screens or a crazy light show. I just tell the person handling the lighting to slowly change the lights with the mood of the music. You think of something like that Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same, and the clips of their performance at Madison Square Garden are just them playing, no light show, nothing else, and that’s more than enough.
Swans will be taking the stage at Shank Hall this Saturday the 22nd with Xiu Xiu opening. Their show is one of TCD’s 10 Must-See Fall Concerts, the remainder of which can be viewed by clicking here. Follow Sahan Jayasuriya on Twitter @sahanicyouth.