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The Knife and the Blood That Ensues: An Interview with Swans

PopMatters speaks with Swans frontman Michael Gira about the band's "joyous" new double LP, To Be Kind, covering everything from its undulating rhythms to its original titillating cover art.
To Be Kind
Young God

“That sounds dark to you?” Michael Gira asks me as I describe my first time listening to “Screenshot”, the opening cut on the newest Swans LP, To Be Kind. I invoke the adjectives “intense” and “dark” in detailing the eight-minute song’s driving groove in D major. “I must be really fucking sick,” he muses, “because to me that just sounds joyous.”

Gira isn’t wrong, of course. All it takes is one glance at any live footage from the Swans tours beginning in 2010 to see that, even when the music reaches pulverizing, heavy climaxes, he looks like he’s having the time of his life. While the startling cover art to the band’s magnum opus The Seer — to say nothing of that album’s mysterious, brutal 30 minute title track — may give the indication that Swans is preoccupied with the grim, a closer examination of the music is required to get at (something like) the truth. “The Apostate”, the swan song of The Seer, caps off with Gira repeating, “We are blessed.”

Few people would use the word “joyous” when describing music that utilizes images of “reeling liars in” so as to “remove their faces” and “collect their skin.” But, then again, Swans has never been about capitulating to the majority and its expectations. One of the hallmark features of the group, particularly its incarnation following its 2010 “reconstitution” (not reunion), is its self-funding mechanism. To Be Kind, like The Seer and My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky before it, was funded entirely through a painstakingly handmade live recording. Not Here/Not Now, the band’s most recent live recording, also had the benefit of serving as the springboard for the two-hour To Be Kind.

“[The record] requires an active devotion to listen to it,” Gira tells me. While he maintains that Swans’ music has a more optimistic disposition than most grant it, that doesn’t mean the music is something one can throw in the car stereo for a casual drive. Tracks like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” and the earth-rumbling “She Loves Us!” demand a lot out of the listener, and not just because their lengths are, respectively, 30 and 17 minutes. Compositionally these tracks are, at this point in time, archetypal Swans, but that archetype is an invigorating engagement with rhythm and repetition. These songs ebb and flow so masterfully that by the end of a cut like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”, it’s hard to believe so much time has passed.

This works as an extension of Gira’s philosophy for the band: most of the material that will be played on the upcoming To Be Kind tour will be either heavily reworked material from the past two studio LPs or brand new songs. The music of Swans is always about the instance it happens, the moment everything comes together. Though this is a group well known for repetition, it’s also never content to repeat itself.

Unlike many musicians I have encountered, Gira is a conversationalist rather than an interviewee. He’s well-spoken, sharp, and blessedly unafraid to give me shit. When I make a passing comparison to a chord progression in “Screenshot” to a Mogwai song, he groans and says, “Jesus, now I have to blow my brains out.” He’s also hilarious; laughter dots itself extensively throughout our 35 minute discussion. (Choice quotation: when I bring up the guitar tuning in heavy metal music, he asks: “Don’t they tune it down to Q or something?”) By the end of our time, we had a fine discussion about the extensive process behind To Be Kind, compositional styles, and a very interesting — and humorous — aside about the scrapped cover art for the album.

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The word “religious” comes to my mind when I listen to the recent Swans albums. Do you think that’s a fair word to associate with the music?

As an after-the-fact description of the experience, yes. We certainly don’t sit down and say we’re going to make a religious experience. There’s a kind of commitment to the sound reaching a higher place that has a kind of parallel, though we don’t even sit down and say, “Now we’re going to reach a higher place.” The music evolves of its own accord, I guess with me directing it. I don’t ever set the goal of explicating an idea through music or art. I want to make the experience the goal itself.

The musician I envy the most when I listen to To Be Kind is the bass player. These songs are pervasively groovy. Is rhythm the starting point for these songs?

That is where they start; however, counterintuitively, many of the bass riffs are written by me on acoustic guitar. Chris [Pravdica, bassist] makes them his own, of course, and adds tremendous amounts of personality to it. But the song “Oxygen”, for instance, started as a riff that I played on acoustic guitar.

“Oxygen” was a track on one of your solo records. What made you want to bring that into the realm of Swans?

I like the words, for the most part. But it needed a more propulsive groove, so I changed the music.

Swans — “Oxygen”

On the subject of words, there are a lot of places on To Be Kind where the words are repeated so much that they become indistinguishable from, say, the notes played by the bass or the chords played by the guitar. It gets to where I don’t make a distinction between the two.

That’s like not making a distinction between the knife and the blood that ensues.

That’s quite a way to describe it. Where, then, does the lyric-writing process arrive in the Swans songwriting process?

It’s usually the words after I have a basic kind of groove thing, as with “Oxygen”. But with “A Little God in My Hands”, we recorded the music first, so I didn’t have words until later. With “Screenshot”, the words came in tandem with the groove I was writing on acoustic guitar.

I don’t mean to undersell Chris, by the way — he came up with a great bassline in “Toussaint L’Ouverture”. I should point out that there are two kinds of songs on the record, and in the way we work. There are ones that I present to the band as either a groove or a finished structure on acoustic guitar. Then there are things that grew out of performing and improvising live, which are with my guidance but are entirely band constructions. Songs in that latter category are “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” and “She Loves Us!”

“To Be Kind” I wrote on acoustic guitar, but the end I worked out with the band. I don’t want to present it like these guys are all acolytes; they have a tremendous influence on the sound of the music.

There is that noticeable shift towards lengthy, collaborative songs. On My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, for example, the songs, while epic, aren’t very long. Whereas now…

Yeah, those were all written on acoustic guitar, in that first way of writing. We convened as a band for the first time in the studio and played those songs over and over again, until we made them songs that can be played by a group of individuals as opposed to acoustic guitar songs interpreted by individuals. That was our first foray into that. By the time we did The Seer, we had been touring together for a year and a half, and several things on that album also grew out of live improvisation.

You did The Seer, which is two hours, and now To Be Kind, which is also two hours. Do you set out to make a double LP intentionally, or does it unfold as the music is being written?

I’m fortunate, I suppose, in that I’ve been making music for a long time, and correspondingly I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks. I don’t have any constraints. Another thing enabling me in that fortunate — or unfortunate — tendency is the fact I have my own record label. [laughs] So I don’t think about these things any more. I just let the music go where it’s gonna go. Fortunately, there are enough people that care about it, which makes it worthwhile. It can sustain itself.

Models for fundraising like Kickstarter have garnered some controversy. You have done these incredible, intricate live releases to fund both The Seer and now To Be Kind. Have you ever gotten any negative comments regarding that model?

I actually started doing those with Angels of Light in 2000. It just seemed natural for me to connect — since, you know, we aren’t Miley Cyrus — with those people that truly care about the music and elicit their involvement. If we just relied on record sales, we would be unable to continue.

Michael Gira sorts through handmade releases

I don’t know if there has been pushback. If there was, I’d be pissed because I work really fucking hard to supply all the extras that I do, to make sure the fans get their due, which includes writing private songs for certain people. Making these handmade CDs is not easy. I used to hand-print them myself, but now I have someone, Nicole Boitos, who does that for me. But still, there’s printing them, signing them, doing the extra drawings on them … I don’t go to the post office and fill out endless customs forms anymore, I used to do all that shit myself. In general, it’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of work. So I don’t see how anyone could fault me for trying to sustain myself and make a living doing music when the main source of income has been removed so quixotically by modern media.

Given that those handmade live releases — We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head (2012) and Not Here/Not Now (2013) — have both sold out, are you now more optimistic about people actually purchasing your music?

We still sell records, don’t get me wrong. We even still sell downloads, somewhat. The level of attention we’ve been getting since the reconstitution of the band, if that had happened 15 years ago we’d be doing very well, I’m sure. I can’t quantify what the loss of sales is, but it’s huge. It just makes things more difficult. But I’m no stranger to figuring out how to survive.

A question I’ve always wanted to ask Scott Walker is one that applies just as much to your career as well. You’ve done so many different things over the past 40 years. Is there ever a time where you think to yourself, “I want to revisit this material from ten or 20 years ago?”

No, that doesn’t interest me at all. [laughs] Not at all. I’m always looking out to make something new. When I feel like I can’t make something new, I’m done. I’m more interested in “exploring” — what a trite word that is — and keeping things off-balance. It’s about finding new ways to make sound that is compelling to me and, hopefully, other people.

One noticeable streak in your career is that you devote yourself intensely to one project for good stretches of time. For example, since Swans’ reincarnation in 2010, there haven’t been any new Angels of Light releases. Do you find that’s because your interest is so focused that there is only enough time for one project?

The way it’s worked out is that there is absolutely no time for anything else. When we started recording [My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky] in 2009, it’s been a constant pattern of recording, rehearsing, then going on tour, with no time off in between. That’s fine by me, but a side effect is that there hasn’t been any time for divergent interests.

The thing I would like to do the most right now would be to write fiction. I wrote a book once, it doesn’t matter if you know about it or not. I’d like to revisit that, with some true devotion to it, before I die. But for now, the music is all-consuming, so there’s no time for that.

You gave a wonderful interview to Pitchfork for The Seer, and in it you describe having “a healthy fear of breaking your bones.” I wonder if there was a sense of masochism when you wrote the music for To Be Kind, because it is intensely physical stuff. When I imagine going to a Swans show, I imagine getting pummeled by noise.

Well, first of all, let me gently object to the use of the word “noise.” It’s one that I’ve never approved of when applied to the music of Swans. It’s sound, certainly, and much of it is quite sonorous. I picture noise as something like Whitehouse, but nothing that really applies to us. But it is intense sound, certainly.

Whether I could continue to physically do it, I hope so. I developed this routine, a shtick, during the last series of performances where I would jump up and down while pacing across the stage. Because the beats are so slow, you could jump up in the air and land on the next beat. This is one of those kinds of ritual behaviors that develops over the course of a tour. At the end, my knees were just fucked. [laughs] I don’t know if I’ll be doing that anymore. But the music requires a kind of physical response, a physical involvement. So I guess I’ll continue to do that until I’m so feeble that I can’t do it anymore.

We’ll be playing some songs from this record on tour, but I’m more interested in either revamping or reconfiguring some of the older recent material, in addition to new songs. I’m working on a few new things right now. So I’m more interested in moving forward, though it’s hard to let go of some of these things. I really love playing “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”, but I don’t want to rely on “past hits,” so to speak.

Because many of the tracks on To Be Kind were written during the touring process, do you feel that the live versions speak more accurately as to what the songs really are?

No. I think of it as all a continuum; it’s not ever finished. The way that things like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” began, say, a year ago, is totally different than how they ended up on the record. If we perform them live, they’ll be totally different again. Many of these songs — “Screenshot” we performed in an entirely different version for a better part of the last tour, same for “Just a Little Boy” — just constantly change and evolve. I don’t ever want them to be fixed. So I don’t know that one version is better than another, really. The material is just a starting point from which to make new things happen.

“Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” is a good example of a Swans song that rides a groove for a really long time, all the while adding in counterpoint and alternating movements from other instruments. During a song like this, is it easy to know when the song is supposed to end?

That’s entirely an intuition, I really can’t tell you how. With “Kirsten Supine” on this record, there was kind of a struggle to find the end point for that. I made it much shorter at one point, but that just wasn’t satisfying. I let it play out its course, which made it all the better.

When The Seer was being released, you described it as a culmination of everything you had done for the past 30 years. Was there a similar sense of importance for To Be Kind?

There is a danger of thinking that way, but I think I successfully erased that neurosis from my mind. Once you start listening to praise or criticism too much, it can start to affect your work in a really terrible way. I think I was able to just focus on the work and totally not think about that. In fact, I expected this to be panned no matter how good it is because we got such good attention for The Seer. But I had to put that out of my mind, too, and just try to make the best record possible.

To Be Kind Album Art

The album art for To Be Kind is such a funny thing to look at when compared to the intensity of some of the songs.

There’s a story behind that. First of all, one needs to be aware that the beige you see behind the baby is a representation of the actual packaging, which will be raw cardboard. It’s not really the art with the beige there; it’s just to indicate that it’s cardboard. Those baby images are going to be imprinted, embossed, and double-varnished on this raw cardboard, so they’ll be like little jewels sticking out on this rough surface.

I didn’t have the babies in mind when making the record. My first thought, which is similar to the way I just described the babies on the cardboard, is that it was going to be nipples. [laughs] Very fat women’s nipples — not fat women, fat nipples. [laughs] Just the nipple, nothing around it, with maybe the money shot in the middle. I had some friends take pictures of some nipples and realized on closer inspection how fuckin’ ugly they are. I didn’t want these ugly body parts on my cover. [laughs]

Then I remembered that years ago I had seen these images of these babies. They really stuck with me. There’s a person I knew, not really a friend, in Los Angeles during the late 70’s named Bob Biggs. Bob was a conceptual artist and painter. He had done this series of baby heads that you see on the album cover, though he did them on black paper with pastel. I wanted to use them on one of the first Swans albums, but he refused. I asked him ten years later, and he refused. But when I asked him this time, he agreed. Bob’s backstory is that he’s an artist, but he’s also the founder of Slash Records, which he ran until its demise.

I like those babies because, to me, they’re these really hot signifiers. You can’t really figure out what the fuck they’re saying. There’s a tension in that I enjoy.

It’s funny because the record is called To Be Kind, yet the baby I have on my cover looks like he’s in anguish.

Well, that’s the normal state for babies. I have two young children. It doesn’t really connote anything that they’re crying, it’s just what babies do.

“A Little God in My Hands”

Going back to the discussion of the original cover art for the album, that would have been funny not just on its own terms but because when juxtaposed with the very intense music it produces a bizarre effect. How seriously do you take yourself when coming up with these images?

Very seriously. If you look at our back catalog, I’ve art directed everything from the beginning. The way that an image vibrates in relation to the music is incredibly important. With the babies, the tension created between “What the fuck do these images mean?” and “Here’s this sound” — I like that a lot. I guess I’m very good at branding the band, to use a regrettable term. It’s part of the whole world of how the music works.

Unfortunately, in these days, in digital-land, all you get is this little postage stamp. The physical product is really important to me, too, which is why we spare no expense on how our albums are presented.

Do you think Swans has benefited from the recent resurgence in demand for vinyl?

Well, I’m not an audiophile. If I concentrate really hard, I guess I can hear the difference in the warmth, but I don’t really concern myself with that. I record it, and then put it out in different formats. I’m a bit itinerant right now, so I don’t currently possess a record player [laughs] I’m having someone else check out the test pressings of the album right now.

But as far as financial implications, I don’t know. It’s all a wash, as I’ve said. But I do like the size and physicality of vinyl, for sure. But I was also perfectly happy when CDs came out. Maybe I just have terrible ears; in fact, that’s likely. But between vinyl and a well-produced CD, I wasn’t able to discern that much difference.

The way Swans works with the various “motions” of music theory — similar, oblique, contrary — reminds me a lot of our great minimalist composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. Is there any influence from those types of musicians there?

John Adams and Philip Glass are, to me, the pop versions of those kinds of composers. I’m really interested in Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Riley, in particular, I think is wonderful. I saw Glass in 1977, which was the first time he came to Los Angeles, even before Einstein on the Beach. My girlfriend at the time was an arts fundraiser/organizer, and she got a grant to bring Glass out there. It was a great musical experience, for sure. I guess I liked Einstein on the Beach, though I wasn’t very fond of the libretto. The words seem kind of inconsequential and annoying. But Riley is, to me, far more interesting.