Finding the Image: Michael Gira Talks Swans' Creative Process
Michael Gira discusses the mistake that led to a critical part of the latest Swans album, building a collective mind, and the art of Francis Bacon.
The 14 albums Michael Gira has made with Swans since 1982 provide glimpses of a seeker, an artist adding and subtracting elements to and from a larger vision that comes in brilliant flashes of light, then emerges later as something almost wholly unexpected. The music heard on The Glowing Man, the latest Swans LP, serves as a fine example of this intensity. The tracks that open the record, "Cloud of Forgetting" and "Cloud of Unknowing", form a tight, 37-minute bond with the listener.
Elements of the experimental, post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd and other assorted psychedelic delights reveal themselves across the former's comparatively slender 12 minutes. Along the way, there are touches of minimalism as channeled through the spirit of Howlin' Wolf, doses of jazz and a wicked, haunted yawp that transcends the human voice. It is unexpectedly spiritual and awe-inspiring, like standing in a medieval cathedral, aware that what ultimately endures isn't us. The latter piece is a clattering, clawing, cathartic and dramatic work, confrontational yet meditative, wholly miraculous, sure-footed, appealing and enigmatic, relentless and shocking in ways that even the most avant-garde-leaning rock music rarely dares to be.
One is reluctant to call listening to Swans a fun experience. It certainly isn't fun in the way that working one's way through a Beck or Style Council LP can be fun. Instead, a Swans album is most frequently a journey of catharsis. When presented with the idea that taking the ride with Swans through this 25-minute epic is a kind of endurance test for the psyche and the soul, the musician replies, "Now you know how we feel when we play it?"
That "we" is shifting. Earlier in 2016 Gira announced that The Glowing Man would be the final release from the current Swans lineup. It's the same group of players he's worked with since reactivating the group circa 2010 and includes Norman Westerberg and Christopher Hahn who've both worked with Gira since the 1980s. Moving on from this particular version of the band will allow more creative freedom, though the individual players might be involved in various future configurations.
The founding Swan isn't sentimental about these changes. The art will endure regardless of who happens to be along for the ride. This is music that isn't so much lasting as it is living, an idea given considerable weight when Gira discusses the rehearsal process. When we speak he is days away from taking the band on a road trek that will be met with predictably strong reviews. There will also be surprises, including an appearance from former Swans vocalist Jarboe. The music itself will also give listeners a jolt of the new as Gira is presenting new material to the band. That new material, he says, is a substantial portion of what the band has to learn.
From there, it's a matter of shaping the songs into something that feels both familiar and alien to the players. "We play these things over and over until the feel is totally ingrained," he says. "In live performance things will start to stretch out and grow. That," adds, "is what I look forward to more than anything." There is always time to include material from recent Swans records in the set but even then it's not about telling the audience what they already know. "I wouldn't want to replicate what's already been recorded," he says. "I'm interested in seeing things changing shape more than I am seeing them in their exact, current form. The main thing is to have the music in your bloodstream and have it be so instinctual that it can move forward from that point."
He adds, "The thing about this version of Swans is that it's very much one body. There's no parts that stand out. The beast shifts on its own. The highest points for us, live, are when the music's taking over and it's sort of irrelevant that we're playing it. It's playing us and the audience. That's when it's magical, which is what we strive for. It's just hacking away at things until they have an undeniable urgency to them."
He admits that the impermanent nature of Swans music has sometimes led to internal friction. "I recall that on the final Swans tour with Jarboe that she justifiably became angry with me because I was changing songs every day," Gira says. "People would learn their parts and then it was constantly changing. That," he adds, "still goes on. This group has a unanimity of purpose that I haven't experienced before. So it's been really fruitful."
Given the tendency to change the material so radically one has to wonder if there are ever moments when it feels as though the music might slip away from the band.
"Those are the best times," Gira says with a gentle laugh. "'Cloud of Unknowing' happened exactly that way. We were doing a different song and I just decided, halfway through, during a quieter part of the dynamic, that I didn't want to go into the next part. I just started playing something and we went with that. I've heard a recording of that and it's just fantastic." He continues, "Any musician will tell you that it's that moment when things suddenly come together it's the most enthralling experience. It's always just trying to keep that moment alive."
With compositions presented for the first time in the rehearsal room and morphing each night on the stage, how does a piece of music stay still long enough to be captured on tape? "There are two distinct trajectories: we take the songs that we've developed live over a period of 16-18 months before recording them -- and they've gone through hundreds of changes before that point -- we go into the studio and run through them and see how they feel under the particular circumstance of the studio and record that version," Gira says. "There might be some adjustments. Then there's a lot of orchestration and overdubs. The other trajectory is that I'll have songs written on acoustic that I'll take to the band in the studio. We'll start to develop them there." Songs such as "People Like Us" and "When Will I Return" were born in the latter fashion while "Frankie M" and "The Glowing Man" were tracked after a prolonged gestation on the road.
Neither approach is undertaken with much thought about the audience. "I can't be thinking too much about the listener when making music," Gira says. "Because then you're trying to second-guess things and before long you're pandering. We just try to make an undeniable experience happen and if people are inclined toward that sort of thing then they come. We've been very fortunate that an increasing number of people have decided that they want to experience what we have to offer."
To hear Gira discuss the evolution and refinement of a composition is not unlike hearing a sculpture or painter discuss the additions and subtractions that occur on a canvas or with metal or clay. If he doesn't draw a direct line from his days as an art student to his current musical output, he does admit an appreciation for artists such as painter Francis Bacon performance artists such as performance artist Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman whose work spanned both conceptual and performance art. Gira also holds a deep appreciation for sculptor Richard Serra, whose simple but austere works have been both the focus of adulation and controversy for over 50 years.
"The closest corollary to what I do is probably with Francis Bacon," says Gira. He points to the painter's ability to "examine the raw fact of existence" on a level that is spiritual. "He'd begin a painting -- and I suspect he had an image in mind -- he would just start painting and the act of making the art determined the final outcome. It was a process of discovery as he painted. In that way, it was similar to abstract expressionism except that Bacon used very specific images. But it was a kind of process of finding out what the image was. When our music, certainly live, works the best, it's very similar in that way."