Michael Gira of Swans: "Playing Live is as Close as I Get to God"
Courtesy Young Dog Records
Every photo of Michael Gira shares a set series of features: a stern grimace, a stoic, crag-like rigidity and a fiercely penetrating gaze -- a look that tunnels straight to your instincts, sets your nerves on edge. Even when a hint of a smile cracks its way across his face, the effect is chilling: angelic but cruel. Recently I spoke with Gira ahead of his band Swans' visit to Trees this Thursday. And even though I could not see Gira's expressions during our audio-only Skype conversation (instead, I was faced with his no-less-haunting avatar photo of Samuel Beckett), I couldn't shake the sense that those eyes were tracking me. The weight of Gira's presence is monstrous, even when divided by hundreds of miles of technology.
Having emerged from the New York no-wave scene in the early '80s, Gira's Swans have carved a singular trajectory. The band have evolved from an aesthetic of angular, industrial masochism into an equally uncompromising art-rock unit, marked by Gira's minimal yet vast compositional sophistication. Having recently released their 13th studio album, To Be Kind, Swans are in the midst of a tour that sees them swing through Dallas tomorrow night.
DC9 at Night: Scott Walker -- who, I think, shares a similar sort of artistic intensity with you -- once said his music is something like the aural equivalent of H.R. Giger's visual art. What do you think your head space is like when you write music?
Michael Gira: I guess it's sort of like that scene in -- is it Fantasia? -- when Bambi's [mother] is dying. [bursts into laughter]
A lot of the tracks, for the last two albums especially, have come about on the road, right? Have they kind of evolved on their own?
Yes, indeed. Particularly the song, or piece, "Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture." That sort of grew out of playing the song "The Seer," and as it concluded we started improvising and gradually this new beast occurred...It just happened organically through the need to make something happen, sort of the sense of following, surfing the wave of sound.
Would you say Swans is as much a live entity as it is a recording band
Yeah, of course, but they are two separate things entirely. When I go into the studio with the band I don't look to try to replicate what we do live. I look at the recording process as a whole different entity. And just the beginning, once you start recording a song, say you have it pretty much in form as we did [with] "Bring the Sun/ Toussaint L'Ouverture." I look at that as the beginning of the whole process; the performance. A record to me is like a film: I want to be able to subsume myself entirely in it, find all kinds of hills and valleys and places to hide and things to discover...so it should have a lot of detail, nuance and dynamics that you can't really achieve live.
I think the lyrics are, by far, the most underrated part of Swans. They're almost haiku-like.
Lyrics are problematic with Swans. I don't know if you're aware but I had this other group called Angels of Light where the lyrics took more prominence because it was more of an art-song kind of project... It was more about the singing and the songs. The problem with Swans, of course, is it's, for the most part except for some of the quiet songs we have, a sonic experience.
The lyrics inevitably take a bit of a back seat.
I liken it, in a certain way tangentially anyway, to gospel for instance. Where it's this kind of ever-ascending feeling and if you start attaching lyrics -- words that are too detailed or particularly too personal or too literally narrative -- it just brings the whole thing down. It's like pulling on the string of a balloon, pulling it down.
You've said that sometimes the id takes over and it's this kind of primal, unconscious thing. Is that specifically with the instrumental side of things?
I guess I might have said the id in an interview when I was referring to the song "Just A Little Boy," and that was in hindsight. I didn't sit down to write a song and say, "O.K. now I'm going to express the id" [laughs]. I just sort of noticed that about it, that it was pretty infantile, actually. The general ambition live is to kind of lose yourself in something bigger than yourself. And if that's considered to be infantile that's fine, but I look at it more as a kind of universal thing that people want, which is [pauses] a kind of spiritual aspiration. Or even you could liken it to a sexual act in the same way. It's like while finding yourself you're losing yourself. That's the essence of what I kind of look for in the music live.
I think with the avant garde, or something like free jazz or Captain Beefheart, people see it as strictly difficult, but really those things are trying to tap into something that appeals with absolutely no understanding. Is that infantile aspect what you're referring to with losing yourself to the music?
Yeah, but that assumes intelligence on part of the audience [laughs]. But from a selfish point of view, once the music takes on a life of its own we [the band] ourselves are lost within it, and I hope that those audience members who are inclined towards such things also come along for the ride. To me, it's as close as I get to church, to god. When it happens, you know, you can't always control when it happens, but when it does happen it's the best feeling I know of.
I understand the baby faces on To Be Kind are the work of artist Bob Biggs, can you tell me more about how that became the artwork for the new album?
He [Biggs] was an artist around L.A. during the punk time there, a conceptual artist... Anyway, these images always stuck with me, and I was hashing over the cover-art for this new album and for some reason I thought of those images... Previous to using his images, my idea for the cover was to use the areola of a woman's nipples. But I ended up gathering some photos of that and I realized, on inspection, that they're really quite hideous taken out of context [laughs]. You know, it's like pieces of a scrotum or something [laughs].
Is there a certain kind of emotional draw that the faces have that you think makes them fit especially well for To Be Kind?
MG: No...it's more the implacability of it. I think the best art is implacable. Like a Jasper Johns' target painting, those are implacable to me. There's all kinds of interpretations possible, but you can never quite nail it down. Similarly, the face of the Mona Lisa; the longer you stare at it the more incomprehensible it is.
Speaking of visual art, what non-musical influences, if any, have the biggest impact on you right now?
I'm reading about the Gulags in Soviet times. That came from reading about the Battle of Stalingrad, which came about from reading about the invasion of D-day... My father was in the second wave in Normandy. Sometimes books lead to songs. Certainly the song "Toussaint L'Ouverture" comes from reading a biography of that famous gentlemen. And the song "Kirsten Supine" arose from...watching this scene in Lars von Trier's Melancholia with Kirsten Dunce quite naked on a kind of mound of grassy rocks bathed in the light of the malevolent planet. It's a very erotic, simultaneously cosmic scene.
What elements or perspectives do you think time has brought to your approach--the way you create music?
MG: A very focused sense of desperation [laughs]. It's like climbing up the hill as it breaks away, you're on the cliff and it's crumbling, you're hanging on for dear life.
So, you think that desperation has made the content more pure...
MG: Focused. I'm just trying to learn from my experience and also trying to forge ahead and make something that seems necessary and real...to have a reason to exist.
Saint Vincent [Annie Clark] is on the new record. You've said her music isn't exactly what you would usually listen to. How did the two of you come together?
John Congleton, who recorded this album, knew [that] as always, I was on the lookout for female singers, and he mentioned that Annie was a fan, a sort of convert in the last two or three years, and so I listened to her music and saw her voice as really excellent. I called her and she agreed to do it and that was a tremendous gift on her part. She sang long drone notes for like 16 tracks [laughs]. She's a very talented musician.
How are the creative motivators different from Swans' early days to now? That is, what were the driving forces then and what are they now, and how are they different?
I don't know that they're entirely different...The impetus that's ever-present in me, and probably most artists, is always there and maybe it takes different faces. I guess I could say in the early music, particularly, that rage was a big motivator. But I don't know that it's that different now; it's not rage, but it's certainly a desire to roar, or something like that. I've been doing it for so long it's just what I do, who I am.
Swans play this Thursday, June 26, at Trees. Doors at 7 P.M., show at 8:00. Tickets start at $20.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.