Finding the Image: Michael Gira Talks Swans' Creative Process

Photo: Samantha Marble

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 Glowing Man

Label: Young God
US Release Date: 2016-06-16
UK Release Date: 2016-06-16

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."

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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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