Michael Gira tells State he’s “just a little braindead”. He’s having a rare day off tour with Swans at his home in upstate New York, ears ringing as he tries to recharge for the short final leg of the band’s world tour, including three shows in Ireland. For 30-odd years Swans have been discussed in superlatives – the loudest, ugliest, most visceral, most antagonistic, most challenging – but Gira maintains of he and his band: “Our goal is the same: Ecstasy!”
The superlative well has all but dried up for critics gushing about Swans’ 2012 album The Seer and its subsequent tour, but Gira sums it up for us in the liner notes: “This took 30 years to make. It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” Swans’ 12th album is a two-hour tightrope of primal blues, colossal repetitive riffs, drones and lofty incantations, with passages of serene ambience that pull it back from the brink. Live, the album is a pulsating, writhing, ever-evolving entity. If The Seer on record is the embryo, chance mutations on stage send songs on divergent paths, until these new passages devour the album tracks and become new songs, awaiting the same fate.
There have been many incarnations of Swans, but Gira has been its one constant heartbeat since the band came howling out of the shadows of early 80s No Wave contemporaries like Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth in New York. Early albums Filth and Cop were brutal, industrial blueprints, Gira self-flagellating over down-tuned monotone riffs and cast iron percussion. Initial live shows were wildly confrontational, with illegal volume levels, perforated eardrums and bass-induced vomiting scored into gig veterans’ collective memory.
Through the mid-80s and 90s, pinholes of light pierced through, with Gira recruiting his eventual partner Jarboe on keyboards and vocals, initiating rudimentary melodies and religious themes, picking up traits including Gothic influences, acoustic blues, ambient textures even electronic pop flourishes. By the time of 1996’s Soundtracks For the Blind, Gira said Swans had been like “fifteen years of like being kicked up a set of stairs by some moronic gladiator”. After a gruelling tour, he killed the band off with the subsequent live album Swans Are Dead.
After the band’s implosion, Gira concentrated on solo acoustic tours and his dark Americana collective Angels of Light, releasing records on his Young Gods label, and fostering a young Devandra Banhart, whose records finally made Gira some cash. Swans had been consigned to history, myth and what-if tales, until in 2010 Gira announced on his website: “I am not insane. I am resurrecting Swans.” He recruited live cohorts and past members to record My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, laying the foundations for The Seer with its apocalyptic blues, drones, wails and transcendent church bells. The resurrected Swans’ live show tramples over the myth of Gira as antagonist, writhing on stages in squalid NYC basements to a handful of diehards and masochists. Swans are playing to their biggest crowds ever. On stage his aim now is mutual transcendence between Gira, his Co-Swans and the crowd climbing “on a ladder to God,” whatever that is. State had a recent chat with Gira from his home in upstate New York before his three Irish shows. He requested Skype audio only, but we’re guessing he was wearing his trademark white Stetson.
You’re in the final leg of The Seer tour. Does it feel like you’re finally putting the album to rest, after evolving the set to include mostly new passages?
Oh I put it to rest as soon as I finished it. Live is 90 per cent unrecorded material. I look at an album as a snapshot of where we are in time, I put everything I have into it to make a piece of art, hopefully. We started out last year touring with a few of the songs in the set then gradually developed new material and abandoned things from the past. Now we have more than enough material for a new album and I’m going to embark on that in October.
Were you surprised by the critical reception of The Seer?
Yeah, that was surprising. It was a bit off-putting in a way. It started to infect my way of thinking about us. You know, Googling yourself. It’s kind of sickening. I had to stop that. Just being into myself too much, it’s not about that. It’s nice that people get something from the music and I hope that continues.
You’ll be releasing a live album Not Here/ Not Now in a few months. How difficult is it to revisit songs that you’ve already left behind?
It’s not emotionally difficult, I’t’s just an incredibly arduous task. There’s so much material to sift through. We recorded probably 75 per cent of the shows over the last year, and the versions of some songs, say in October or November of last year, if you play them now they’re unrecognisable. So it’s just a matter of choosing what works on this live thing. I’ll be embarking on that right after the tour where we visit you, making probably a couple of thousand hand-made versions of it.
When you rebooted Swans in 2010 you were extremely angry with the idea of it being considered a nostalgia trip but you made one or two concessions, with ‘Coward’ on this tour and ‘I Crawled’ on the previous tour. Is there any reason you chose those two particular pieces?
Yeah I just felt I could sing them without feeling like an idiot. They just had an essence to them that I felt that I could still relate to. When we tour next year we may choose an old song, but it’s kinda becoming obvious that maybe there’s no room for old songs anymore (laughs).
In a Swans show, you put an increasing physical demand on yourself and the other members. Do you have any demands of the audience?
The only demand I have is that they get their fucking cell phones out of my face. You must’ve seen all these clips on YouTube right?
There have been many incarnations of Swans over the past 30 years, but the current line-up seems to be rock solid, “stellar men” in your own words. What exactly is Swans, is it you, the band, or does it happen when you play with other people?
Probably the latter. It is a Swans song if I’m writing it. I’m obviously the ‘boss’, so to speak, in the sense that I dictate, and focus and guide things. The musicians that I’m working with right now are superb, in terms of their commitment to the sound and their willingness to go further and further.
Speaking of commitment, you seem to really value hard graft above all else.
Yeah sure. That’s the only way you get something good. Even if someone is doing completely free improv, that’s the product of years of commitment to their instrument and to music. I’m not a big fan of namby-pamby posing rock music or pop music. I like it when it seems like people are doing what they are absolutely compelled to do at that moment. I just saw this really good young band, Savages, have you heard of them? She’s really a fantastic singer and their immersion in what they’re doing at the moment is really impressive, and I think they have a lot of potential.
What about on tour, travelling with the band, who decides on the music, if there is any?
Usually there’s no music. It hurts because my ears are so stressed in my audio world. I don’t wear earplugs. It takes me 16 hours to recover from the show, so I usually don’t like music in the van. Every once in a while some creeps in. We just did a whole stint of listening to Nina Simone for a time. That was really nice.
You’re often lumped in with your New York No Wave contemporaries, but you seem to be inspired more by old blues and soul, and you often share YouTube tracks on Facebook from the likes of Muddy Waters and Nina Simone.
Not stylistically, but just for that total experience, yes. If you listen to Nina Simone, no one occupies a song as compellingly as she does. It’s sometimes heartbreaking, a whole wealth of emotions in a couple of phrases. I just posted on my Facebook this song ‘Sinner Man’ that she does. It’s a journey, and she was a tremendous band leader too. She was a titan of music, she was incredible. Howling Wolf was a band leader too, he was a big inspiration to me. I guess people who just rise above their circumstance, they’re obviously avatars, that’s what I gravitate towards. I like Fela Kuti a lot, James Brown.
Swans’ gentler songs seem to have a first-person narrative while tracks with these huge vistas of sound rely on sweeping phrases and repetition. The new song ‘Toussaint Louverture’ [leader of the 18th century Haitian revolution] is a different beast as it pinpoints a specific character. Were you inspired by his particular story or is it a general call to arms?
I was inspired by him, he’s an incredibly pivotal figure in the history of the world. Having read this great novel called All Souls Rising, and then recently a biography of Toussaint, I just was inspired. I don’t try to make a narrative about his life, it’s more like images that fit with that period of history. It’s incredibly violent and bloody, atavistic and in a way, metaphysical.
It seems to be brought to life by your flailing stage possession, slitting your throat and forearms, wild-eyed.
I may be worried that I’m being possessed by some voodoo spirit (laughs). Cutting my own throat, that’s just a reference to the violence of the revolution. Some of the images are absolutely horrific if you read the story. But that’s nothing unique to that particular era. People are awful and bloody, in general. I don’t think I’m anti-war. That’s like saying you’re anti-air… it’s always there..
When you play live the six members are locked together and it seems you’re conducting.
Well I am conducting the band usually, working on the dynamics and hearing something in a moment and trying to get someone to push what they’re doing. Or in a song like ‘Toussaint Louverture’, controlling the waves of sound, because that’s really what that song is, it’s not really a song, per se. It’s just controlling the dynamics and really pushing them. The whole thing is to get the music to play us, not us to play it.
Is it more gratifying to see larger crowds these days?
Yes, that’s good. And the largeness is of course relative. Also, the demographic is very mixed. It’s not just old guys in black T-shirts, although some places it is, strangely. Some cities that’s what shows up, but I guess in metropolitan areas it’s a great mix of young people, females, males, older people, and that’s gratifying.
Is it still a struggle?
It’s always a struggle. Partially an internal struggle, trying to reach the states that we attempt. It’s very hard work, it’s exhausting, but it’s also very ecstatic at times. It’s good work to have.
You often invoke religion in your music, with references to Jesus and God. Is this shorthand for a spiritual or transcendent aim for your music?
I’m certainly not a traditionally religious person, but I find my spiritual practice to be music, and it’s the closest I come to God. I don’t know about the typical conception of God, but I find it to be the most cosmic experience. Aside from really beautiful sex, it’s the most spiritual enterprise that I’m involved in.
You maintain that your quest is “spread light and joy through the world”. Why do you think a lot of people assume Swans are this dark monolithic monster?
I don’t know, just because it doesn’t sound like most other shit. I guess it has an intensity to it that people aren’t used to, or that they immediately relegate to a certain genre or attitude. But to me it really is joyous. It’s not lightweight, but it is joyous.
Swans were Dead before. When will you know that Swans really have finished?
One way I’ll know is when I physically can’t do it anymore, and another way might be when I feel like I’ve run the rag dry. I don’t feel I’m at that point yet, but who knows…
Swans play Belfast Limelight on Wednesday, Dublin Button Factory on Thursday and Cork Cyprus Avenue on Friday.