Nick Soulsby On The Sacrifice And Transcendence of Swans
With Swans’ fifteenth record, leaving meaning. recently released, we went deep with the author of the definitive book on all things Michael Gira
Recently, Globe scribe Katherine Yeske Taylor picked the deeply creative brain of the ingeniously mad scientist behind Swans, Michael Gira.
In said wide-ranging interview, the iconoclastic polymath and man of groundbreaking reinventions and new trails blazed too many to crack in this space, waxed poetic about leaving meaning. (Young God/Mute), Swans’ newest magnum opus and first record since the dissolution of the group’s 2010-2017 iteration.
And leaving meaning. does, in fact, feature a cast of the usual suspects who made that ’10-’17 Swans reincarnation such an earthshaking beast (contributors include guitarist Norman Westberg, bassist Christopher Pravdica, percussionist Thor Harris, lap steelist Kristof Hahn, and many more) and its double album sprawl further cements Gira’s indelible mark in the avant-garde. A pioneering titan whose seminal catalog and live performances were integral in helping shape no wave, noise-rock and art-rock, Gira continues to cross boundaries four decades on. leaving meaning. is the sound and vision of a tunesmith and noisemaker with a wealth of original ideas well into his sixties. Not as in-your-face as 2012’s The Seer or ‘16’s The Glowing Man but no less hypnotic and arresting in it beautiful/brutal freaky folk assault, leaving meaning. is another sublime progression in the Swans arc.
With the release of the majestic leaving meaning., the Globe checked in with an authority on the subject of Gira and Swans: music writer and author, Nick Soulsby. In 2018, Soulsby offered up the definitive Swans tome to date, an oral history titled Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence (Jawbone Press), and like his previous books on Sonic Youth cofounder Thurston Moore (We Sing A New Language) and Nirvana (I Found My Friends), the British journalist is a miracle worker in thrusting the reader into the thick of the action and as a guide through the creative process. Through exhaustively detailed interviews with Gira himself, present-day Swans members and alum, fellow musicians, scenesters, writers and the like, Soulsby breathed new life into the somewhat tired oral history format with Sacrifice And Transcendence. Meticulously researched, compiled and constructed, Sacrifice And Transcendence seemingly floats through the Swans’ trajectory from its early, destitute beginnings to its rises, falls, reincarnations and rise again with aplomb. No stone is left unturned as a brutally honest Gira goes deep in tracing his lineage, detailing his family and band relationships, living in drug-addled downtown New York City, recording, touring, running his own record label, disbanding and reuniting Swans, his various other musical projects and much more.
First off, you’ve enjoyed a three-book string that started with Nirvana, went on to Thurston Moore then you found your way to Swans. Can you trace your path of how you went from a world-famous band (Nirvana) to hugely influential art-rock institutions (Thurston, Swans)?
Growing up in rural U.K., sure it’s little different to many small towns across the western world, there was a branch of Sam Goody, a Woolworth’s, eventually a small secondhand record store on a side street. Cassettes swapped hands at school and helped fill an empty head. But, really, it’s only looking back that I can see how small the musical universe often was at the time. It took work! School trip, age 13, in 1993 I pulled a tape out of an older kid’s hat he’d placed on a train seat – “Nirvana, yeah, you’ll like that,” I remember him saying. Nevermind on one side, Bleach on the other – killer. Being a fan came with some degree of an identity at an age when usually it’s easier to say what you aren’t, don’t like, than anything you’re for. Hearing In Utero, heck, if you could wrap arms ‘round the poison-pen and static moments of that album and love them then the bridge to Sonic Youth circa early Nineties wasn’t a long one. I think I borrowed Experimental Jet Set Trash And No Star from the local library. You had to mine for information then – usually other people – and without pre-existing taste that one identified with to a ride-or-die extent it was easier to just feel the music, ingest it, feel connections. The name SWANS…the inlay booklet of a Blast First SY compilation (Screaming Fields Of Sonic Love – still a great title) was laced with old gig flyers – SWANS, the name had me hooked before I knew anything about the band. I would use a manual at Sam Goody to get them to order records in for me but I have a vague memory of trying and failing to get a SWANS record quite early on. The name stayed with me until I was approaching college and found the Feel Good Now semi-official double LP in one of the record bins at the secondhand place. What a haunting and mysterious entry to a band – could it be any more perfect?
On to Swans and your book. Why did you feel the story of Swans needed to be told?
The general path of life is that music is a young man’s game with the vast majority of artists, post age 35-40, being endless judged against achievements that took place decades back. The Rolling Stones need not have issued a single note of music after the late seventies. No one remembers much about Prince’s music post-’95. The lucky few get to play greatest hits ad infinitum, or new music that sounds a lot like those hits. Swans, and Michael Gira, are a significant exception: a band that has never stood still on one sound for more than an album or two; that has wound up having its most significant period of critical acclaim forty years after foundation; where the musicians involved have had their most recognised achievements in their fifties-sixties. Swans were already a legend by 1997 – everyone from Kurt Cobain, to Nine Inch Nails, to Metallica has cited them as an influence – and by the 2000s they stood as one of the few bands who can claim to be the DNA for brand new sub-genres of music. Also, Swans’ rigorously independent approach to the business of music really foreshadows the reality for artists since the virtual collapse of the industry: they’re a textbook for how to hustle, grind, build that deep intimacy with an audience, create something exclusive and enduring. Add on that it’s arguable that Swans is one of few bands to have never released a bad album. In the book, Kristof Hahn says that Michael Gira is “not the guy who, at the end of his career, puts the music he has made into three stacks—‘bad’, ‘OK’, ‘amazing’—and, if he’s lucky, he has three equal stacks. He wants every record to be in the ‘amazing’ stack.” Too right! I’m fascinated by the idea of what it takes to remain creatively vital across an entire lifetime…So the best way to learn was to write the book on a band that has made it happen.
How did it play out in regard to your approaching Michael Gira that you wanted to do this book on Swans? Did you know Gira on a personal level already? Was he receptive to the idea?
I encountered Gira twice in about 2015 – phone interviews for my book on Thurston Moore (We Sing A New Language) and for a magazine interview, respectively. By the time those calls were over I knew this was someone I was comfortable and happy listening to – he’s a true raconteur! Before beginning the project, I simply emailed him and laid out what I wanted to do…And he said sure, no problem. We met briefly before Swans’ last show in Bristol, the night before the 2017 Roundhouse gig in London – I think just a chance to peer at me and check I wasn’t a total goofball, that I could be trusted to get this right. It was the strangest feeling, to have someone to whom one feels significant respect, tell you that they’re honoured you would spill this kinda sweat and time telling the tale of their work. I’ve always tried to straddle a delicate line: friendly, respectful, but without any desire to glom onto anyone or insinuate my way into their lives – I want to learn about them and respect their privacy simultaneously. It’s a balancing act but I think it’s a mark of courtesy and humanity to try to do so. People forget that other people are people too. Gira was extremely helpful in terms of putting me in contact with people or suggesting names – vital stuff on a project like this, especially given the timelines aren’t exactly lengthy.
Through all the hours you had talking to Gira, what did you learn from him that you didn’t expect?
I forget where I heard this, but apparently the Greeks felt writing was an inferior art to speaking because speaking was a more direct path between the human psyche and the external world. I’m always saddened that words on a page have a weight – but are often voided of some of the friendly emotions. I spent so much of each call with Gira, with Jarboe, with most of the people in the book, laughing and chuckling. With Gira’s stories in the book, if it sounds macabre or darkly-hued, he was usually laughing. I think it changes the complexion of a line, of a tale – there’s a peace with delving into his past. A few years ago I interviewed an artist called Chris Gollon, an incredible figure. His explanations of his work would wrap together so many themes, travels, intellectual concepts, images, references to other art or literature – I’d never heard someone express the idea that a single canvas could be this sprawling testimony to vast swathes of life. Gira did the same thing. There was a point when he was describing a particular song – this happened a few times – and 15-20 minutes later we had journeyed through memories, a torrent of literature, his intellectual reckoning with the era in which he was writing…That enthralled me. One of the big evils of the current age is people want simple and singular answers to life when life, by its very nature, is many things wrapped up in each second – there are few, if any X=Y answers outside of math.
VIDEO: Swans Live at Koko in London 10/28/10
Let’s talk about your own personal experiences with the music of Swans. You mentioned in the book about attending a Swans concert that had an incredible effect on you. Can you talk about that show and what about it made it so special? I’m assuming you’ve seen Swans live many times. When was your first time seeing Swans live?
I used to have a remarkable knack of only getting into a band as they were on the point of closing, going on hiatus, vanishing. So, in actual fact, the first time I saw Swans as 2010 at Koko in London. I did see Angels Of Light at the Borderline in 1999, however, a tiny little back street club in London with Gira sat on the stage with a whisky by his foot – I bought a hand-decorated Angels t-shirt that I used to display in a glass frame but now it stays rolled up in my cupboard of precious memories. That Swans show though…Wow. No joke: it’s the best gig I’ve ever attended. Koko is an old theatre opened in 1900 and has multiple floors including – most people don’t realise – a little side-stairwell that lets you out on something like the fourth or fifth level where you have a near perfect view down onto the stage with no obstructions, crowds or distractions. Why the best gig? Imagine the tension and suspense that comes in a strong movie – that’s how the gig played out. I couldn’t look away because it was impossible to tell what would happen next. No gimmick stage-effects, it was all about the stagecraft, the ability to weave a spell through performance, timing and sound. I’d never seen a band drilled to the point that six individuals could stop, start, spin on a dime – where everything might rise to the most furious din I’d ever heard then cut to silence and Gira singing a brief blues. They played “Sex God Sex” that night and the music died away until it was Gira alone screaming for Jesus Christ himself to descend – it went on so long it became eerie, so much force in the words, nothing parodic or humorous, just this genuine incantation and demand for the son of God to make himself known. The visual impact of Thor Harris and Phil Puleo whaling away at the twin percussion/drums set up at the back of the stage was quite the spectacle. Then the looks of sheer concentration – and even a touch of pain – on each individuals’ face, seeing people hurt to make THAT sound in that particular moment…How often do you see a band drive themselves to an edge just to make that note more urgent or to squeeze every last drop out of a sound? The passion, the instrumental skill, the composition and arrangements, the fact it was a performance not just a musical recital, everything that happened on stage had been thought of and considered in order to make the most complete musical experience I’ve ever witnessed.
Can you point to a defining moment of the evolution of the Swans aesthetic? They’ve covered so much ground sound-wise over the years and I was wondering if you think there was a record (or moment) of theirs that you think brought everything together.
I think the critical moment in Swans development is the arrival of Jarboe. I think she made it OK for Gira to expand his musical palette, to learn fresh ways of doing things, to avoid repetition – I don’t think there’d be a Swans in 2017 if she hadn’t arrived and provided this moment of clarity. The best music, for me, my favourite music, is nothing to do with a particular instrument or genre – it’s about emotional communication. Swans, from the mid-eighties onward, became a band where anything could happen so long as it resulted in a moment that was sublime. The Swans of recent years were very much about dynamics – that loud is louder if it’s sandwiched between moments of relative quiet; that quiet can be piercingly intense too – but that approach wasn’t there from day one. Early Swans was a relentless peak, but Swans broke away from a dead-end path meaning it could become an entity that shape-shifted and found new peaks.
VIDEO: Nick Soulsby reads from Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence
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