Swans' Michael Gira: "My Job As An Entertainer Is To Surprise People, Not Be Some Karaoke Act"
Michael Gira: "We're creating a spectacle, an auditory one that we hope will consume you."
There are few bands that can maintain an uncompromising sound and still have a shelf life. Rising from the sordid bowels of New York's post-no wave scene, Swans, helmed by Michael Gira, have proven to be the glaring exception, creating music on their own terms, on and off, for over 30 years.
They disbanded in 1997 and reformed in 2010. Forgoing the trend of reunited bands cashing in on a greatest hits tour, Swans have been charting new sonic territory with 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, their new album, The Seer, and a live show that somehow manages to combine brutality with bliss. Taking a break from his job of rupturing consciousnesses, Gira expressed his disdain for laptop musicians and expounded upon the duties of an entertainer.
In a press release, you likened the pieces on The Seer to frames on a reel, blurring, bending, and fading. What does that mean in terms of what Swans are doing live on this tour? We are doing half the show of unrecorded material that is in a sort of nascent, coalescing state... so it is a bit of a challenge, but that is the way to proceed right now. That is what we did last tour: develop things in front of an audience. It's productive for us to be uncomfortable with the material, allowing us to reach for the true potential of music as we go, rather than deciding on something predetermined and rote beforehand.
Why do you stray away from playing songs from your records? It is not just an ethical decision; it is just what feels right physically. As soon as something becomes predictable it becomes stale to me, and that seems in-authentic. I don't think music is ever truly finished. That is apparent in our live show, where it is more about the process rather than a finished artifact.
Why were Swans rebooted as opposed to pursuing new material with your Angels of Light project? I just felt constrained with Angels of Light after doing it for so long. It is the same reason why I disbanded Swans in 1997. Plus, I wanted to experience the massive maelstrom of sound that we could generate live. I wanted to be inside that world again.
Swans seem to have garnered a new and much larger audience than in the '90s. What do you attribute to that? I think it has to do with the hiatus, also with the Internet. The people who gravitate towards this music are able to be reached more easily than in the past. Luckily, we have been able to amass an audience without being fashionable or trendy. All that is really irrelevant to me. I think people really want to experience the intensity of what we are doing with our shows. In the early days of Swans, that definitely wasn't the case. It was a struggle with the audience.
Do you feel any obligation to the fans in terms of delivering a certain experience? Absolutely. That is an obligation to myself also. It is an obligation of reaching beyond our capacity as much as possible. As far as playing old material that fans might want to hear, I don't care about that. My job as an entertainer is to surprise people, not be some karaoke act. That would be awful. That would be soul-crushing.
When people think entertainer, they might not necessarily associate it with someone making art? Well, Howlin' Wolf was an entertainer. Nina Simone was an entertainer. James Brown was an entertainer. Even Bob Dylan was an entertainer. An entertainer's responsibility is to embody their craft for the audience. An entertainer's duty, which is mine, is to set the air on fire. I have always had a distaste for "indie rock," those sort of slouching, non-committal performances. In terms of our shows, sans props, we're creating a spectacle, an auditory one that we hope will consume you.
You stated that The Seer was a culmination of 30 years of your history. Could you elaborate on that? That statement was partially facetious of course. All the experience that I have had as a producer and all the experience of us as musicians are in this record. I didn't limit it to one particular style of thing; it is just all all over the place. This record used every ounce of blood, energy and creativity in me. I put everything that I have into it. It is a culmination that sense.
On the last two albums, you've engaged with a lot of archaic instruments like dulcimers, tubular bells and bagpipes. Do Swans intentionally avoid utilizing technology? I'm not too interested in technology for its own sake. I like natural instruments, frankly, because they just sound better to me. I don't like canned sound. Particularly live, I see people playing laptops, and it sounds so phony to me, like someone playing a CD while listening to it. That's not what music is about to me. Music for me is an act of physical commitment. Your muscles, coordination, all your capacities should go into playing. Your entire range of skills and creativity should be focused in that moment. For me, that is the biggest challenge, to make something happen in that moment.
You stated that that "Our goal is the same: ecstasy!" Is that your intention before creating music? I don't think about that stuff. I don't really qualify it beforehand. I only know that I am trying to ultimately create a cinematic piece of work. Live, when things reach their peak, it really is ecstatic. I don't set out with the band and say, "Now were going to experience ecstasy." When it happens, it happens. I am imagine the Stooges felt the same way but didn't talk about it. Maybe they said something more honest like, "We want to rock!" [Chuckles]
Do you have any particular memories of touring through Texas? I've had some pretty abysmal experiences of touring through Texas; I don't think I should talk about them. I like Texas though.
Is there a future for Swans beyond The Seer? I am in this for the long haul, and I hope my friends are too. I plan on keeping it going for as long as it seems urgent and necessary.
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.