The Seer Returns: An Interview with Swans' Michael Gira
Upon the release of Swans' 12th album, Michael Gira opens up about why this is not a Swans reunion album, music piracy, and what fans can expect from the upcoming tour.
“I just do whatever I want,” says Swans frontman Michael Gira, describing his recording philosophy. In conversation, the 58-year-old guitarist and songwriter is genial and refreshingly straightforward about his art. This August, he will be releasing The Seer the band's 12th studio album. Gira founded the group in 1982 and went on to release some of the most bracing music of that decade. Songs from the early albums typically featured shouted vocals over distorted bass and thunderous double drumming. Over time, the band evolved a more varied compositional approach including acoustic ballads and long-form ambient soundscapes. A decisive influence was the inclusion of Jarboe to the group (full name La Salle Devereaux) in the mid-eighties, her ethereal singing and instrumental arrangements providing a critical foil for Gira.
After a short and ill-fated term on MCA, Gira founded Young God Records in 1991 to facilitate releases by Swans. The group continued to record and tour throughout the nineties, releasing albums such as 1995’s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and 1996’s The Great Annihilator, their length and compositional ambition serving as a blueprint for a number of bands including Low, Neurosis, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor among many others. Despite the artistic success of these albums, financial failure and creative ambivalence continued to haunt Gira and the group. Citing creative and physical exhaustion and a counterproductive mythos that surrounded his music, he terminated Swans in 1997.
During the late '90s and early 2000s, Gira continued to perform and record under the moniker Angels of Light, allowing him freedom to experiment more with acoustic instruments and melodic structures. Young God Records expanded to release music by other artists, including records by Devendra Banhart, James Blackshaw, and Akron/Family. Following another creative impasse Gira resurrected Swans in 2010 and embarked upon an extensive touring and recording schedule. This energy is evident in the Swans’ new album. Clocking in at over two hours, The Seer counts as one of band’s longest and most ambitious efforts to date, featuring 18 guest musicians including Al and Mimi from Low, members of Akron/Family, Karen O. of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, and many more. The album also features vocals and sound collage from Jarboe, marking the first collaboration with Gira in fifteen years.
When I spoke with him, Gira was taking a temporary break at his home in upstate New York before assembling and rehearsing the band for a world tour in August in support of the new album. Despite or perhaps because of his long history in music, Gira is adamantly anti-nostalgic and committed to continual artistic self-reinvention. During our conversation, we spoke about recording his new album, the execrable nature of reunion tours, and the religious sensibility that guides his work.
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The Seer will be your second album since reforming the band in 2010. Could you briefly describe the process of recording the album and how it is different from your previous work?
We started recording it in Berlin when we had a little hiatus from touring. We had some material that we had integrated into our set and that we wanted to get recorded while we were still a live band. So we spent a week there recording these songs. I don’t know if you could call them songs. One is thirty minutes long; another is twenty minutes or something. We got the basic recordings done there. After a year of touring we went right back into the studio in upstate New York here. The band recorded there with me for another ten days. I spent the next five months sleeping on the couch over there doing overdubs and recording new songs that I had written on acoustic guitar, fleshing those out. We recorded some new songs that we had developed when we were on tour. So yeah, but I don’t know how they’re different.
When I listened to the album, what struck me as different were the song lengths. Was the idea to just extend musical ideas as far as they could go?
Well, yeah, that’s basically it. I just do whatever I want. When it seems right for the song to end, it ends. Things are always morphing and developing during the course of these songs but it’s not a prog-rock thing, where there are twenty changes: it’s an ongoing experience. You have to let it find its own direction.
Given as much time and resources as you need, what would a Swans album sound like? This new one is pretty ambitious as it is.
The usual way a record ends with me is a run out of time and money and that’s exactly what happened. (laughs). That’s it. That’s all that could be done. But I look at records nowadays as one image in a bigger picture. The song starts out with me fooling around on acoustic guitar -- that’s one version. I can sing many of the songs at my desk. But it changes as I start working with people -- becomes completely different, hopefully. And then in the studio and then life, that’s another version. When you do a record, it’s just one version of how that vision coalesced and got codified. But if the music’s really any good, it should sustain multiple images of itself.
Another thing I noticed about the album was that, on the longer songs, the vocals were whittled down to a chant or refrain.
The problem or the challenge with Swans music often, in the songs that are chunks of sound and rhythm basically, is that if the words allude to any kind of story beyond listening to the music, they detract from the experience. If you have a kind of grandiose sonic environment that we create sometimes, it would seem like a flea with a sword trying to stab at the clouds to talk about anything quotidian or literal. It’s more like trying to be embodied by the sound, using the phrases that work with it, adding allusions to it, rather than telling a story or complaining over it.
You had Karen O sing on one of the shorter, more lyrical tracks on the album. How did that collaboration come about?
Well, I was fiddling around writing this song [“Song for a Warrior”]. I got an email from our bass player Chris, who’s a friend of hers to check out a song she did as a benefit for Farm Aid or something [Note: It’s the Cultivate Foundation] and it was “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” And it was beautiful; her voice is beautiful. She’s not a trained singer but she has an idiosyncratic, warming voice, which I found really appealing. So I was writing this song, and it’s this kind of sentimental song. I was singing and it just seemed like I was in the way, that my voice was some kind of troll trying to be gentle to someone. I’m not Nick Drake. Let’s put it that way. And I thought, well why don’t I have her sing it? She’d probably do a better job. The song stands on its own. It’s not about me, Michael Gira, singing. In fact, I hope none of the songs are perceived that way. They’re not really about me. But with this one, I think it needed to be abstracted a bit more.
You mentioned that your songs aren’t about you. Considering the album title, The Seer, it suggests a kind of religious figure, so is there a kind of persona at work with these songs?
Every song is different and things evolve organically. I don’t start with some overarching theme. I think as we were writing that song [“The Seer”], we performed it multiple times and I was looking for a phrase. Eventually, I started singing, “I see it all, I see it all.” Then that implies the seer and really seemed to fit with the music. And the final part of that song is a series of indecencies, garbled, meant to imply some sexually untoward act.
So it’s not just a religious aspect but a scenario of voyeurism or surveillance?
I don’t know. That’s a little too heady for me (laughs). But the music, when we’re inside of it, it feels like religion. It feels like the ecstasy that one might ascribe to certain religious experiences. I don’t mean to be grandiose about that. When you’re inside of it, the music is making you rather than you making it. It’s really kind of transcendental, so naturally words allude to that kind of experience. The audience seems to feel that way as well.
The new album also has a track [“A Piece of the Sky”] where Jarboe contributes some backing vocals and a sound collage. When Swans first reformed, you dismissed the idea of collaborating with her. What changed about that situation?
We’re still in contact and I like her a lot. She has a good voice, and I was constructing this sound environment and it needed a voice, so I asked her to sing a series of notes and it worked. I have nothing against her being involved in a tangential way, but the whole notion of Swans getting back together and playing the old songs, the Michael and Jarboe ones, feels repugnant to me. That’s a reunion experience, which I’m not interested in.
I did notice on the last tour that you did play some songs off some of your early albums. Will you be doing anything like that with this coming tour in August?
I don’t think we’re going to do any old songs. There were a couple I could tolerate doing in the last tour. Of course they changed -- I wouldn’t do them otherwise. They got dropped along the way, with the exception of “I Crawled,” which had a certain animalistic quality to it that I liked playing live. But I don’t really see anything in mining old Swans material. Maybe one song, but it would have to be completely revamped.
You don’t want to just regurgitate your old material or go on some nostalgia trip.
I have to stay challenged. I have to be challenged and be uncomfortable and to be moving the music forward in ways that are unexpected, both for myself and for the audience. That’s what it’s all about when you’re trying to make good work. So I think the idea of putting together the band and playing our hits, which we never had, of course. it just sounds like a clown act -- it sounds really stupid. I just want to move the work forward. Hopefully people will come along for the ride, which is sort of the way it’s always been.
I understand that one of the reasons that you disbanded Swans was frustration at being pigeonholed as being this dark, nihilistic band. Have those preconceptions fallen away?
That wasn’t the only reason why I terminated the band. It was also sheer exhaustion, having done it for fifteen years with not much reward, to be frank. Also, there were problems with the massive undertaking of just gathering all the musicians in the studio. I had been working every day for 15 years on it. I just wanted to revert to something simpler, more basic, which is what I did. I started Swans again for the same reason. Angels of Light was becoming uninteresting to me. I wanted to experience being inside the sound again and see how I could take that in different directions.
And you find that playing in Swans now is energizing rather than exhausting?
Oh yeah. And as far as preconceptions about the band, I guess it’s inevitable when you make something that is forceful and unapologetic that it gets qualified in a certain way. Buzzwords come out that are really hard to get rid of.
Will you be playing any brand new material on your upcoming tour?
Yeah, we’ll be playing unrecorded stuff. I don’t think we’ll be playing any material from the last album. But we’ll see. We haven’t started rehearsing yet. On Monday, actually.
Recently, you also released a limited edition collection of fiction that you had writing during the early '90s. What were the reasons for revising those stories that had been lying around for awhile?
The reasons for that were twofold: I was just going through my desktop, shuffling things around, when I came across these unpublished stories. I realized that with some work that it would be readable, anyway. I don’t know how valuable they are to the world. So I decided to combine them with a few stories from The Consumer [a collection released in 1996 by Henry Rollins’ company 2.13.61 Publications], which is out of print now, and I thought that they deserved to be read by people who are interested. The other reason was that I needed some money.
So the limited edition releases your solo acoustic albums and now with these stories, those arose out of necessity?
I don’t see that stuff as containing some big artistic statement. I think they’re an intimate thing for people who are already interested in the music. I do my best with them, of course, having at least a bit of integrity left. You have to figure out how to survive. As a musician, it’s not easy, as you can imagine. I do whatever’s necessary. I don’t have any other skills in life. I just have to figure out ways to keep going.
You’ve been pretty outspoken about how piracy has been a detriment to your career. Other musicians and independent label people have often been hesitant to speak about how that’s hurt them.
Well, I don't want to belabor the subject. The way how I see it is that your work and you make something through tremendous investment and you deserve to be compensated for that work by the people who use it in their lives. The analogy that I’ve drawn in the past is that if someone were a finish carpenter or a cabinet maker or a furniture maker and they spent months and months making a series of a hundred, handmade chairs and they invested in the materials, they have to pay rent and buy the materials to make those chairs and years of learning their fine skills and they put them in a warehouse to be shipped to a few stores or something and someone comes in and says, “Oh, I’ll have those.” And they take them. It’s the same thing. It’s exactly the same thing. It's -- what’s the word I’m looking for --an amoral view of what musicians make, this view that music should be free. Well, it costs money to make music. My friend James Toss, from Wooden Wand, makes the analogy: would someone say, at a Black Flag gig, come out and start stealing their CDs, I don’t think so.
So do you see yourself as a craftsman that makes something rather than something conceptual or just aesthetic?
Well, yeah, it’s physical in the sense of sound waves, organized sound. It is physical, something that I and my cohorts labored extensively on, trying to make the best possible thing. I worked for years in construction. Maybe that’s where I get the ethos from actually having to work hard physically for a very long time and knowing the value of labor. So I’m someone who works in sound.
That’s one of the unifying things in Swans music, I think, is that physicality of the sounds.
It’s a pretty typical human thing. You want to lose yourself in something greater than yourself and that’s expressed in lots of different ways.