Swans Mean Business
The RNR Globe’s exclusive chat with Michael Gira on his longtime collective’s 15th LP Leaving Meaning
Even though it’s 8:30 a.m., Swans frontman Michael Gira is impeccably articulate and polite when he calls from his home “somewhere in Pennsylvania.”
He’s up this early because he soon needs to leave for the airport – he’s flying to Latvia, the first stop on a three-week solo tour across Eastern Europe. In the midst of that, on October 25, Swans will release their 15th studio album, Leaving Meaning (Young God Records), featuring a lengthy cast of collaborators, including guitarist Kristof Hahn (Les Hommes Sauvages), drummer/keyboardist Larry Mullins (Iggy Pop; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), and bassist Yoyo Röhm. The album is receiving excellent advance reviews for its densely textured soundscapes, so it’s likely to be the latest successful installment in Gira’s remarkably prolific and musically varied career.
When Swans first emerged from New York City’s downtown scene in 1982, they were notorious for their sonic harshness, but over the ensuing decades Gira (the only constant member in the band’s ever-evolving lineup) has demonstrated a talent for writing quietly beautiful songs, as well. Throughout all of his work, though, Gira has been a singularly intense performer, crafting riveting songs that become all the more evocative thanks to his richly emotive baritone, which he can turn into a chilling snarl or a warmly gentle croon.
Here, Gira discusses how (and why) he works so hard.
AUDIO: Swans “leaving meaning.”
Your songs are often haunting, intense, and sometimes ominous. Do you know exactly how you want them to sound when you go into the studio, or do they evolve once you start to record them?
Both. First of all, I don’t set out to be ominous or anything in particular. I write a song, and it seems to have some truth in it, so I pursue it. But once I gathered enough material for this album I developed lots of notes and lots of schemes about how things should sound–the orchestration. Then, inevitably, as it happens, once I started working with actual humans, things changed completely. I’m not a schooled composer or arranger, so I just keep a color in mind. And as people play, I might guide them, or they might shock me with how great what they’re doing is and I go with that. Gradually things develop and build into a little piece of cinema that fits the song, and that’s how it works. I’m in this position of being a songwriter/singer, but also producing my own records, so I have to try to remain objective when I can, and guide the thing according to an aesthetic no matter who the idiot singer is [laughs].
You have a lot of interesting collaborators on this album.
They’re all great people, too, which is really important to me. I mean, I don’t share my deepest secrets with them all, but they are certainly people whose work I admire and whose company I enjoy. I don’t want to work with side people, or people who are just doing it for a buck. Everyone had a pure intent to serve the song, so working with all those people was wonderful. It was good to have all these disparate voices and try to corral them into what I saw as the picture the songs should reside in.
How do you know when someone’s work would mesh well with your own?
All these people, I’ve known throughout the years, and they’ve all been supportive of Swans. And I just liked them personally. So as the last configuration of Swans was dissolving, I was keeping a list of people to work with in the future. I should say that, on this album, I also incorporate the people that I worked with for the last seven years, as well, although not as a band, per se. This is more a project now, where I’ll write enough songs for an album and then I’ll gather people to play and orchestrate it.
It’s almost like a collective now.
Yeah, with an unfortunate ringmaster [laughs].
Leaving Meaning will be the 15th Swans album. That’s a lot more than most bands ever do. Why has Swans survived so long?
I’m a human being with a limited time on earth, and what I do is make work. I have to keep working and keep it interesting to me, and so I just keep working. For the most part, it’s never been a set group of three or four people, it’s kind of flexible, so I can always gather people to make the Swans of the moment.
You are so prolific – how do you stay so driven to create?
Well, I don’t really have much else I want to do with myself, so that’s what I do. But also, there’s a tremendous fear of being hungry. Because I’ve been hungry before, so I make sure that I’m always making work and always putting things out and always touring and keeping busy. But commerce is conjoined with what makes me a human being, so I’m lucky in that respect.
You are lucky, because most people don’t get to make a living at what they’re passionate about.
Yeah, I’m mindful of that, because I worked for a long time in shit jobs. I worked hard to make it happen, but yeah, it’s true.
Over the years, you’ve taken Swans through several stylistic or genre shifts. What has enabled you to be so musically adaptable?
I don’t really look at it as styles. It’s more just a trajectory. Usually what happens is, I’ll make a few albums or be with a group for a while, and then that will seem that it’s reached its end, and then I’ll take elements from that era and extend those and leave others behind, so it always provides some soil from which things can grow. But I don’t think about styles or genres, really. Never have. I just make sounds, and whatever sound is interesting me at the time, I pursue.
When Swans was first formed, you were strongly associated with the no wave scene – how do you feel about that?
That’s OK. Well, that was previous to us, actually. But those bands that were associated with no wave, like Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus, The Contortions – they were all kind of imploding by the time that I started Swans. Certainly, the approach to that kind of visceral, raw sound was a big influence. But yeah, that scene had died out, and Sonic Youth and Swans stuck together and formed our own little bastion and made something new happen. But definitely, it came out of that, as an influence. It’s like having the punk attitude toward making something happen with limited to nonexistent musical skills, but not sounding like the three chord punk rock thing. That stuff’s great, but it has nothing to do with me. I had no interest in [playing] that.
Earlier you seemed to disagree about your songs sometimes seeming ominous, but it does seem like your lyrics are often quite dark…
I write what I feel is authentic for me to write about at any given moment. People seem to think it’s dark sometimes, but I don’t know. For me, music encompasses all kinds of human emotions. I write loves songs, I write revenge songs, I write spiritual songs – I write all kinds of material. So I just pursue what’s occupying me at the time. Sometimes I’ll write songs after reading a book or watching a movie. It’s just whatever interests me, really. And musicians that might interest me – John Cale or Nico, say – is that dark? I don’t know. I guess it just has a lot of nuance and depth to it. There’s people who care seriously about what kind of value the work can have and how it can affect others deeply. After I reconfigured Swans in 2010, we’ve been really fortunate that the audience grew way beyond expectations, and I guess that meant that people wanted something that had some passion and reality in it. So I think the people that come to the music, come to it because they want what it can provide. It’s certainly not trendy or stylish.
You recorded this album in Berlin – was that because many of your collaborators live there?
Yeah. We made the songs happen in a basic form in Berlin, and then I gathered several [other] musicians [there], as well. But I also traveled around a bit. I went to Iceland to work with Ben Frost [guitars, synthesizers], who lives there. I also went to Albuquerque, and Brooklyn. Then I went back to Berlin and mixed. I spent a lot of time in Berlin this year. It’s growing on me. I didn’t like it after the Wall came down, but now I’m liking it more.
Do you find that the place you’re working in affects the way a song will come out?
No. Once I’m in a studio it’s just like being in a church. The experience is what’s important, and I like to be sequestered from whatever is outside.
Now you live in Pennsylvania, but for a long time, you lived in New York City…
I don’t recognize New York anymore. I still like certain things about it, of course. I don’t miss the bad old days, that’s for sure. But the sense of neighborhoods and small shops and affordability are gone. When I moved there in ’79, I got a space on Sixth Street and Avenue B that I had to gut and rebuild myself. It was the back of a storefront, with no windows. Just a bunker, basically, but I rebuilt it into something habitable. The rent was one hundred bucks a month! [laughs]
That was a pretty dangerous area at that time.
Sure was, yeah. There’s lots of books about it now. There’s an interesting book that you could look up about the neighborhood where I lived, by an ex-detective, a narcotics guy, it’s called Alphabet City [It’s actually called Alphaville: 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York City’s Lower East Side, by Mike Codella] and it’s all about the heroin, and the shift to crack, which really made things chaotic. But yeah, the crime was pretty intense. There was a sweet spot there in the late ‘80s, I thought, where the crime was down and there were a few galleries opening, and it seemed a little less dangerous and it was a nice mix. Then it shifted to become what it is now, which I don’t like as much.
What made you want to move to New York City in the first place? [Gira was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, but lived in a number of places before coming to New York.]
The first word that came to mind when you said that was “Suicide.” [He laughs, amused at the perplexity this statement causes.] The band! Suicide and [the movie] Taxi Driver. Plus, there was just so much going on there at the time, artistically and musically, that it just seemed like the obvious place to move if you wanted to make something real happen.
You’re about to play some interesting places all across Eastern Europe in the coming days…
Eastern European audiences are unbridled in their enthusiasm. When it comes to the music they’re have this open state of mind for it and accept it and they’re really enthusiastic. They’re not so jaundiced as audiences in, say, New York or Los Angeles. It feels great [as a performer], like you’re transmitting.
After the album comes out, will you do full Swans shows to support it?
Yes, we start in Europe in April, I think. We’ll do a month there, then a month in the States in May or something like that. [After this interview, Gira’s label announced that the dates will be late April through mid-May for the European tour, with U.S. dates soon to be announced.] It’s a different grouping of people than the last version of Swans. It will be much different, the way the music is performed.
AUDIO: Swans “The Hanging Man” (Official Audio)
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3 thoughts on “Swans Mean Business”
Exciting to read about the new album! Saw them a few years ago with different members so now my curiosity is up! Great interview.
Thanks for the good job, Katherine.
Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it!