Swans‘ Michael Gira attempts to control the maelstrom
“I’m on a cliff that is crumbling”, a dogged voice recounts from an earlier conversation. “You have to hang on as long as you can.” The doleful croak trails to crisp silence until a gentle resemblance to laughter recoils around the room.
Michael Gira, world-weary impetus behind Swans, may not have the most sanguine of mindsets, but the gristly wit is instantly discernible. As adverse and cankerous as this multifaceted musician is penned to be, it’s within this momentary aside that Gira becomes the distant humorist. Physically wrecked from incalculable tour dates and the impending release of their 13th studio album, To Be Kind, he’s still laughing – despite how fearsome it sounds.
Two years in the wake of The Seer, a monolithic sprawl of a record, Gira and his amassed gathering of instrumentalists are rehearsing set ideas for their upcoming tour. “I actually managed to listen through The Seer recently”, Gira gingerly reveals, “I was thinking about what to do on the next tour in terms of soundscapes. I like doing that, but I’m glad that we’re leaving that behind and moving more towards evidence of the band playing. This new record is more of an artifact of these gentlemen playing together.”
The looming release of To Be Kind will see the gentlemen in Swans once again rag- dolled from country to country shepherding rooms of adoring apostles through an ear- defiling, quasi-religious bulwark of sound and strain. Gira frequently loses himself to the milieu of the performance; seemingly inoculated by ‘the moment’. “I am really an aficionado of the process. I guess I like the finished product, but it’s more important for me to be in the maelstrom of things.
“Of course it can get wearisome”, Gira continues. “I think that felicitously, it’s always fraught with conflict and that benefits the music. But then again, you’re talking to someone that at 15 years old was digging ditches in the desert, worked in plastics factories for 12 hours a day, or shovelled shit from underneath a house as a plumber’s assistant.
“I’ve done all kinds of hard jobs and Swans doesn’t compare to that kind of shit.” His burnt-black jeering fails to affirm whether his current vocation is actually a blessing or a burden. “There’s a certain zen purity to those kind of jobs. But I think this is more along the lines of what I was put on Earth to do.”
And over the past three decades Gira has, under various aliases, preached this purpose. He’s prolific and, as he implies, never satisfied with conformity. “I don’t really identify with pointless existential suffering. I think Swans is a never-ending process, but that’s the point of life. To be in the moment. To me, it’s just like this ball of energy that keeps morphing into different shapes.”
"I have been an incredible asshole most of my life"
On Swans’ state of eternal evolution, Gira details his complex with change. “I’ve drawn parallels to the way I work with (Greek-American actor and director) John Cassavetes. It’s improvisational, sort of a script that’s thought up in the air halfway. I saw (Lars von Trier’s) Melancholia recently, which actually resulted in the song Kirsten Supine. I’m always open to that kind of chaos, but then I also try to work closely with others. I want their input as much as possible. Of course, I have to remain in control, that’s just the kind of person I am.”
Collaborations with the iron-handed idealist are commonplace. The Seer alone saw the likes of Karen O, Jarboe, Ben Frost and Grasshopper from Mercury Rev grace the album’s extensive credit list. Yet Gira remains the constant overseer of everything going in and out of his handicraft. To Be Kind sees the ‘core’ Swans group return, including Christoph Hahn, Thor Harris, Phil Puleo and Norman Westberg. Beyond this foundation sees Gira partner up with gifted oddities such as Little Annie, St Vincent and capable engineer John Congleton.
Also to reappear is irregular ‘seventh Swan,’ Bill Reiflin. “The person that does that the most is Bill”, Gira radiates respect. “He is an absolutely tremendous musician. He plays everything. We’re really good friends so working together is really casual. We’ll sit down after the basics are recorded. We’ll then determine a part or sound to focus on. Then Bill has this personality to make something happen. Then that usually leads me to ideas for the arrangement.
“I guess I gave him a more deserving shout out on this one. I’m very proud of my friend – he’s now playing with King Crimson. It’s like a kid’s dream come true.”
So constructing Gira’s chaos is as much premeditated as it is turbulent. But what of the misrule that gets lost forever? Gira confesses much of Swans’ improvisation is totally irretrievable “That happens all the time. You might have the chord shapes right, but something about the timing or inflection, or the way it originally contacted with the other instruments is wrong. You try and get it back, but it’s just gone.
"I think Swans is a never-ending process, but that’s the point of life. To be in the moment. To me, it’s just like this ball of energy that keeps morphing into different shapes"
“Sound is really strange that way. We improvise, but it’s not ‘wildly searching’ in some kind of Coltrane sense. It’s more finding ways of assembling this tunnel of sound. Sometimes you forget the nuances in the groove. Like, we had this great version of (To Be Kind’s opening track) Screen Shot and we just lost it completely. I don’t know what happened to it and we’ll never get it back.”
Gira’s indifference to loss is almost reassuring. Swans are a band that always look beyond the past or present. Even To Be Kind will seem like a relic to Gira before they embark on tour. “I seem to have managed to splotch together three new songs in the last couple of weeks that we’ll start rehearsing today. So there’ll be new material in the set certainly.
“The main thing to me is that it has some sense of urgency. There were some really high points in the last set we did, but for that reason I think it would be a mistake to repeat them. They’re hard to let go. Like, there’s this one passage in the set that we did, pairing Bring The Sun and Toussaint L’Overture together, which was one of my favourite pieces to perform (they form a single, 34-minute track on To Be Kind). So it’s hard to give up, but it’s kind of like a money shot in a porn video. It comes and it goes.”
It’s within this closing wisecrack that Gira’s temperament is wholly readable. Unlike the tyrannical bullhead he is perceived to be, what remains consistent is his affable bluntness. He’s a headstrong musician continually seeking his own rapturous relief from venue to venue, record after record. “I have been an incredible asshole most of my life,” he jokes, “and I’m by no means content. I realise the futility of being such a tempestuous bugger. And intolerant also. And maniacal and uncompromising to the point of stupidity. All of those things. Everything is kind of like a train that’s barrelling forward and slowing down… and now it’s melting.”