Swans: Just Keep Swimming 

On The Beggar, Michael Gira continues to reinvent his longtime outfit

Michael Gira (Image: Facebook)

Over its radical 40-year-long arc, Michael Gira and Swans have been a singular beast of constant reinvention.

Gira is one of the last of the OG trailblazers standing while realizing, arguably, his most vital work as he fast approaches seven decades on this mortal plane. They’ve been labeled everything from noise-rock to industrial to experimental to post-punk but forget all that noise. Swans, put bluntly, is a genre unto itself. 

That could not be more crystal-clear, as evidenced by their last two stunning offerings: leaving meaning. and this year’s The Beggar. Gira continues to reinvent the art of Swans with each passing record—no matter the membership. 

The Beggar picks up where leaving meaning. left off: the sound is unmistakably Gira and Swans but it’s remarkably forward-looking. Some may call it a kinder, gentler version of the long-running institution but Gira and his trusted, top notch group (Kristof Hahn, Larry Mullins, Dana Schechter, Christopher Pravdica, Phil Puleo and Ben Frost) combine the sonically brutal and tenderly beautiful in a way only they can. 

The Globe had the pleasure of catching up with Gira about all things Swans, The Beggar and leaving meaning and more. Catch Swans on tour now


The musicians in the current iteration of Swans have been in your orbit for a good chunk of time. What is it about the rapport that you share with Kristof Hahn, Larry Mullins, Dana Schechter, Christopher Pravdica and Phil Puleo that all converges so impeccably to realize your vision?

My “vision” changes according to the unfolding of random events found in the music that we play together. It just happens to be songs that I wrote. Always, with these wonderful souls it’s a matter of trust, trust in their good intentions and trust that our common goal is to allow the songs to become what they were destined to become. But destined NOT by me, I hasten to add. We all have to be humble enough to allow the unseen force that lives in the sound we make to take over and play us like marionettes. At its best, the music is a living entity stronger than any of us and our true job is to disappear entirely inside it.


I’ve watched clips online of recent Swans shows. You’re (mostly) seated with guitar in hand but also playing the role of conductor. Can you talk about your role as ostensible musical director and how the band takes your cues?

Already by the time we enter the studio or embark on live performances we’ve rehearsed for hundreds of hours, but not with the goal of learning how to play the music correctly or exactly, but more to learn it so thoroughly that we can forget it and let it speak for itself. Usually after a few live shows the music really starts to have a life of its own, in the sense that it’s living and marauding and mauling the air without our intervention, and as time goes on the structural conceits we developed begin to dissolve. It becomes globs or clouds of sound, like a hidden voice that was inside all of us that we collectively exhaled and is now screaming and swarming around us as we play. Beyond my duties as a singer my job then becomes that of a ringmaster and I try to guide this beast forward and upward so that it doesn’t devour us completely. I’m the guy standing on the train tracks waving his arms wildly at the fast-approaching train.


Towards the end of 2022, you embarked on a solo tour, performing some of the songs that would ultimately appear on The Beggar in stripped-down form. Can you talk about the dynamics of stripping away the volume and noise of playing live with a full band as opposed to solo guise?

I really don’t feel that I write the songs. I mean I’m aware that I sit for hours alone at my desk doing the tedious incremental work of growing them, but in the end I’m grateful that whatever force speaks through me has graced me with its presence. It’s the closest – along with performing what the songs eventually become – I ever get to God. It’s what I was put on earth to do. In any event, performing the songs solo is not a matter of stripping things away. It’s the raw state of the songs themselves, their templates, how they eventually willed themselves into existence alone with me in my cluttered office. Because they were a gift to me I owe them my full 100% commitment when I perform them either solo or with a group. Both scenarios are equally terrifying and rewarding. Solo, the performance necessarily becomes entirely about my voice and words and the guitar is just there as a context. I tend to push myself way too hard when I’m alone on stage so after a few shows I start to lose my voice and I then have to reign myself in or start cancelling shows. Playing solo is like being a bug on an anvil waiting for the hammer to come down. Better think fast! It can reach a pretty high point I guess, but with the band, as I averred earlier, the music becomes its own entity and it’s really just a matter of learning how to give up to it and get out of the way. Done properly, it’s ecstatic. It’s like we’re atomizing.


Is There Really a Mind? was a limited-edition fundraiser album comprised of demos for what would ultimately be realized as The Beggar. When you wrote those songs, was there a preconceived notion that they would be given the full-band “Swans” treatment at the end of the day?

Well as I say I write the songs alone in my room with an acoustic guitar, and these days they’re always allocated for Swans. But we started making fundraiser CDs way back in 2002 (for my group at the time, Angels of Light) as a way to raise enough money to afford going into a proper recording studio and producing the songs according to how I envision them as a producer. I have an insatiable hunger for sound, but it’s a very expensive appetite. There would never be enough money generated from record sales alone, so this model works and also, importantly, allows me to pay the musicians fairly. So we make these elaborate packages and various tiers of ways that supporters of the music can contribute to the finances of the recording. But the songs come first of course. Once I’m satisfied that they speak strongly with just my acoustic guitar and voice I record them very crudely at home, and when there’s enough for an album we make the collection available. I think it good that a simple, unadorned version of a song exists in the semi-public realm along with the more fully realized later iterations in studio albums and live performances. I’m extremely grateful that so many people find something valuable in the music, that they believe in it and are willing to help support it along the way.

Swans The Beggar, Young God Records 2023

As someone who’s consistently put out records then embarked on a rigorous touring schedule, how did the lockdowns affect your artistic and creative livelihood put forth on The Beggar? Or is this record what you were going to bang out regardless of the situation—in this case the pandemic?

It’s funny, no matter how humble you think you are or how self aware you imagine yourself to be, you eventually discover that you suffer from some degree of hubris and your nemesis needs to cut you off at the knees. Though my life had largely for four decades been write, rehearse, record, rehearse, tour and repeat, constantly, I’d always felt that I was separate and independent from others and that if it came down to it I could just write alone (either fiction or songs) and that I’d be fine with that. By the time of the third Leaving Meaning tour cancellation I was crawling out of my skin and the familiar cycle had been completely disrupted and I started to lose my mind. So I decided to write a new album, which I commenced to do slowly, and I also compiled all my words for songs from the beginning until present, as well as most of my fiction writing and journals from over the decades (which are also largely fiction) as well as some visual archives and I made a book, called The Knot. So there was a lot of interior work, which was like grinding my teeth against my consciousness. Not a bad thing I suppose, but I discovered that I do indeed need social interaction and I do intrinsically need to perform music in order to feel truly alive. So by the time I’d finished the songs for the album there was still another year or so of waiting before I was able to travel to work with my friends and musicians on the recordings. Wait, then wait some more! But there’s no complaints, really. None of my family is hungry and none died from COVID. As to COVID having an effect on the content of the record I don’t really think so, unless it confirmed for me the utterly strange and unknowable nature of existence itself and one’s inevitably mistaken presumptions about it. I usually avoid immediately topical subject matter because it dates the material and makes it an artifact rather than a living thing. There are of course great topical songs that last, such as Woody Guthrie’s songs or some of Dylan’s songs such as the Hurricane Carter song, but that’s not my strong point, so I avoid it.


“The Beggar Lover (Three)’ is a 44-minute tour de force, an album unto itself. Was the piece worked out in the studio? How much of it was improvised vs. composed? Guest Swan Ben Frost also assumes a prominent role in shaping “The Beggar Lover (Three).”

The title is a reference to an album I made at the end of the 90s called The Body Lovers (One of Three). I had intended to make a series of three in rapid succession but got sidetracked along the way. I guess about a decade later I made something called The Body Haters, which could be considered Number Two. This way of making a long piece of music by organizing/rearranging/fucking up disparate sounds grew out of the Swans album Soundtracks for the Blind. After listening to the (then) finished The Beggar album repeatedly I decided it was necessary to interject a respite from my stupid voice and words, and that one needed some relief from this old guy wheezing and whining about the vagaries of existence, so I decided to create a lengthy, mostly instrumental piece using the methods of the Body Lover project. The agenda is that any sound, previously recorded or newly made performances or random found sounds or field recordings is fair game and just through following the gnaw in my stomach otherwise known as intuition I can wrangle these elements into a seductive shape that will lead one into another world – as in Soundtracks for the Blind, a soundtrack without a film. So I took sounds and elements from previous Swans recordings, things I’d recorded around the house, and new recordings and put them all into one place. Then I tore my hair out, along with the great sound engineer Ingo Krauss, figuring out how all of it could work together as a continuous piece of music. Once the basic shape existed, we then overdubbed upon that further and then mangled it some more. The only way to know really when it was finished was when we were too exhausted to continue and ran out of time. In reference to your mention of the wonderful Ben Frost, some of the synth sounds on the piece had been previously recorded for other projects, but I did ask him specifically to send me a few minutes of something that might sound like a crazed flock of frenetic birds attacking a helpless small creature, which he dutifully did. Ben is great with synths and electronics, but he’s also a really great guitar player and contributes much in that regard throughout the last few records, by the way.


There are some beautiful moments on the new record and your singing heartfelt. I hope I’m not taking you too literally but a song like “Michael is Done” seemingly conveys that you’re at your wit’s end. How much of your lyrics on The Beggar are inspired from an autobiographical sense?

Thank you! I’m happy to hear you find something worthwhile in the songs… Naturally at my age death becomes a preoccupation, which is as it should be. But in fact it’s been my belief for a while now that the most spiritually refined way to live would be to have death right in front of your face at all times. Not because of anything corny like it helps you focus on the important things in life, but because it would force you to attempt to pierce the veil and see what’s truly there, just on the other side of the air. But that’s hard if not impossible to do. It’s always just beyond your grasp, hiding its secrets. In a way, many of the lyrics could be viewed as an analogue to how the mind works, or at least my mind. The song “Michael is Done,” for instance, was originally titled “Julie is Done,” and it wasn’t until I used Michael instead that it made sense. What interests me is the uncrackable conundrum of language and how the intensely focused attempt to find meaning is in fact the meaning in itself, not what the words are saying per se. I’m drawn to Zen Buddhism and in particular Zen Koans for this reason. It’s like the quivering of the air between a positive and a negative pole. But anyway, I do draw from personal experience at times, but only as source material to make something else happen. It’s just data. I’m not particularly interested in conveying anything about myself. I see no reason why anyone should care about anything in my life. It’s all just fodder to use, just as writing a song after watching a particularly strong movie or book might be used as a starting point. The song The Memorious, for instance, is a direct reference to the short story Funes, the Memorious by the great writer Jorge Louis Borges.

Swans (Image: Young God Records)

You’re approaching 70-years-old. You wrote in regard to the songs that make up The Beggar: “They came relatively easily, always informed by the suspicion that these could be my last.” I know death comes up often in the lyrics to your songs but It seems like you have a lot left in the tank to offer. What is your take on the fact that in 2023, at age 70, you and Swans have persevered and survived then thrived over decades? Does it floor you or it’s not something you sit back and relish or ponder?

During the pandemic, when everything seemed impossible, there was a period where I thought, “This is it. I can’t go on. “ But now that we finished another record and we’re touring again, the blood’s moving and synapses are reconnecting and I feel younger than I have in a long while, so I’ll keep the music going so long as I’m physically capable. It is after all what God, or some other unknowable entity placed me on earth to do, so I’ll keep trying to find new ways to make the music vital and compelling in some way. I don’t really have another choice. But yes, it is incredibly rewarding to see the audiences we continue to draw, and even to see it growing, after so much struggle, and especially to meet people after the shows (I always make a point of going to the Merch table and signing things afterwards) and to hear from them briefly how the music has had meaning for them, and especially to look in their eyes and see they’re being sincere and not star-struck or some silliness like that. It’s also really great to see so many young people. I just met several 14-16 year olds at shows on the recent tour. God! That gives me courage and makes me want to dig deeper and as I say, to finally get it right. I worked innumerable dead end, physically demanding/damaging jobs up into my early thirties, and I feel very fortunate to be able to make a living doing something that actualizes me in some way. Thank You, God!


I’d think Swans can easily join the host of bands that go on tour and play entire “classic” albums from the back catalog but it seems like you wouldn’t cave to that form of blatant nostalgia. Thoughts?

Never. That’s just dumb, and I’ve always got new work to do.





Brad Cohan

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Brad Cohan

Brad Cohan is a music journalist in Brooklyn, NY.

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