When Michael Gira brought his post-punk outfit Swans back from the dead five years ago, it was amidst a bevy of nostalgia-driven cash grabs by ‘80s and ‘90s alt-rock heroes. Gira, though, was explicit about his intentions in the initial announcement: “THIS IS NOT A REUNION.” After spending thirteen years on other projects (notably the more acoustic-oriented Angels of Light), he simply felt Swans was the best name to use for the music he wanted to make going forward.
And what a rewarding return it has been. The three albums from the current incarnation (frankly among the best of their career) evade easy description or genre classification. The music is heavy but not metal, improvisatory yet never jammy, harrowing and dark but never hopeless. They feature a spectacular cast of A-list guest stars, including Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Low, and Devendra Banhart. Last year’s double-disc masterpiece To Be Kind included extensive contributions from both St. Vincent and Cold Specks.
Swans concerts are tumultuous, unpredictable affairs. Gira stands at center stage conducting his group with eye contact and hand gestures, conjuring waves of noise from his bandmates. Their shows are long and at times punishingly loud, but awash with nuance and detail. With rare exceptions, the sextet does not perform pieces from its original run, rather using the stage as a laboratory to develop and perfect new material. At least half of the music we can expect to hear this week when the group plays The Woodward is unrecorded and unreleased.
Gira spoke with me recently about the process behind To Be Kind, audience cellphone use, and the future of Swans.
Nat Tracey-Miller: We’re at the end of an incredibly successful year for Swans. What were some of your peak moments of 2014?
Michael Gira: I don’t really recollect. I’ve been on tour so much that it all blends together. It’s just a necklace, a pearl necklace of ill-formed and regrettable images. [Laughs]
NT: To Be Kind really felt like the first Swans record that really sounded like the live show. Was that pretty intentional on your part?
MG: Well, I can see how some of the material would sound like the live show particularly since it grew and was created live. Three or four of the pieces on that record grew out of live performance in that they started from just a very simple rhythm or idea even and we just started playing them in front of an audience, and gradually over the course of the tour they morphed into what became the version on the record. That’s the pieces “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’ouverture,” “She Loves Us,” and “To Be Kind.” Those were very much live songs that didn’t exist before tour and just gradually developed. Other songs on the record, though, I don’t think sound like our live show. They’re more orchestrated, they may be more delicate than we’re capable of.
NT: With those songs that you perform live prior to recording, do those come somewhat formed into tour rehearsals, or do they really grow out of playing together as a group?
MG: Varied. Some of the things I brought in something on acoustic guitar, chords and some words, maybe not finished, and in soundcheck we would start playing it. Other things, say there’s a long song that we’re vamping on at the end and it just dissolves, and that kind of fog of dissolving I would push it, as a bandleader, live with the band, and those would transform into something else. That happened with “Bring the Sun” and “Toussaint L’ouverture,” those came out of the end of the song “The Seer” from the previous album, which was being played live. I guess it’s really hard to describe how they end up coalescing in the end, but it’s just through trial and error.
But it works! I guess it gives the live performance a lot of tension, or vitality, or something, to be in that state. Our set right now is similar in that there are six pieces--and I’m not trying to be pretentious by saying “pieces,” it’s just “songs” doesn’t really apply--there’s six pieces and a little over two and a half hours of music. Four of those things are new, haven’t been recorded yet. They’ve just grown over the course of this tour.
NT: You’ve brought a really impressive cast of guest musicians in over the last three records. Do you already have artists in mind to possibly bring into the studio for these new tracks, or is that something that kind of comes together later?
MG: Oh yeah, I’m not even thinking about studio recording right now. I guess it’ll happen sometime within the year. But usually, once all the material is extant, I just sit down in my office and start thinking about orchestrations for the songs subsequent to the initial recording. And orchestrations imply personalities, people, so I’ll start calling people and thinking about who works for what piece of music.
NT: Do you feel like recording this most recent album in Texas imparted a sense of place? Do think think it would’ve sounded or felt different if you’d recorded it in New York?
MG: Only in that we wouldn’t have had unbroken attention to the material. This was a residential studio, so all we did was work all day, sleep, wake up and immediately walk across the way and go back to work. So that’s kind of a privileged situation that we were very fortunate to receive the generosity of the owner of that illustrious studio gave us an incredibly good rate so we could afford that. That’s a pretty nice situation, I haven’t experienced since the album Children of God a long time ago. But I don’t think somehow the tumbleweeds infected the music in some way.
NT: At your last Cincinnati appearance in 2013, (at the Southgate House Revival), you were visibly frustrated by people on their phones in the audience. What are your feelings on the meeting of technology and live performance?
MG: I don’t know if that’s really technology, I think it’s just bad manners. It’s strange, if you think fifteen years ago you wouldn’t see people walking down the street lost in a different dimension, at least it wouldn’t be so ubiquitous. It’s amazing in what a short amount of time this little piece of technology has completely changed society.
As far as the live performance goes, it’s that: a live performance. It bothers me, I think it’s impolite, certainly, if someone’s in the front row for someone to be experiencing it virtually or in ersatz and not actually just being there engulfing themselves in the moment, which is what live performance is all about.
NT: Is that easier to ignore at a big festival than in a club?
MG: Well you’re separated from the more there. You can’t see it past the first few rows. But I discourage it because I think it’s detrimental to the experience for everyone.
NT: Have you found it difficult to adapt Swans performances to the strict set times at major festivals?
MG: Actually no, it’s interesting. We end up playing a lot less pieces. If we have an hour, it’s two songs, basically. But we just dive in and do it, and we just adjust to the coordinates that exist. I kind of enjoy it, some large festivals, we’re granted two hours or two and a half hours, so that works out great.
One of the best performances that I can recall was in Poland at this thing called the OFF Festival, and I think we had two hours and we played two and a half and then they brought out the hooks, you know? [Laughs] But yeah, that was great. I don’t know how many people it was, it must’ve been 20,000 people, 30,000 people.
NT: Have you encountered any new, exciting artists who you weren’t familiar with before at the festivals this year?
MG: I do not partake of the meal. I do not shit where I eat. [Laughs] I just show up, play, and immediately get the hell out of Dodge.
NT: Do your bandmates stick around?
MG: Yeah, I mean, they’re actually human beings. I’m just so preoccupied and usually exhausted that my goal is to just get back to the hotel room and hide.
NT: Are you a gearhead? Do you spend much time thinking about musical equipment, or do you find what works and stick with it?
MG: The latter. I don’t care about gear at all. I just want it to work. To sound like something.
NT: You’ve been quoted in the past year as saying that “Swans is the best I can do with music at this particular moment, just as Angels of Light was previously.” Do you think that dynamic may ever shift back?
MG: Yes, probably. You know, Swans is happening right now, and we have certainly enough material for a normal-length album. Probably, we’ll develop more over the next year and record another album and do another tour. Beyond that, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But right now, it still feels vital, and I’ll continue to do it as long as it does.