Michael Gira and the second life of Swans

Sjimon Gompers

Michael Gira

Photo by Phil Sharp

Some 30 years after the Swans’ hurdled forward from the maelstrom of the NYC no-wave sects, Michael Gira has both re-activated and given a new re-birth to his legendary group. With a little help from Swans vets like guitarist Norman Westberg, vocalist Jarboe, Karen O, members of Akron/Family and more; Gira has prepared the band’s most monumental album to date The Seer. On an early Monday morning we had a chance to discuss the new groove of the Swans, the paramount emphasis of the musical experience and the new grounds and roads found from rolling away the stone after a 13 year break.

How was it coming together, declaring the Swans aren’t dead and making My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky album after 13 years time?

Jesus Christ, it was like rolling the stone off the cave and sending it to heaven! It was inevitable, sure, I mean it’s been a couple years now and it’s been invigorating.

Everybody was talking about the face melting I’ll Be Your Mirror performance, was wondering how that show was for you?

I don’t know about face melting, ha ha, that’s a pretty comical term. Our shows are very intense and it’s not just volume or anything like that as some people have said but it has to do with your total experience with the music which lent a thoroughly uplifting experience for all concerned and a very positive experience for all. It was a very good show, we’re pretty much a well trained group and it was a great show.

Then with the new album Seer, 30 years to make and evoking all the places you have been to and evolved; I wanted to pick your brain on making a three decade labor of love album. I felt I had waited 30 years just to hear the 32 minute 12 second track “Seer” alone.

Well the Swans started in 1981 and there has been a lot of different facets to the music of Swans and other projects I have been involved with since then and when we started recording I just started getting involved in every possible way with putting every bit of emotional, intellectual and financial energy into this album and doing the best I could possibly do using the vocabulary that I have accrued over the years. And fortunately for me with this band that I have with 6 people, it’s not the same as previous incarnations of Swans but it is the best Swans we have head since the inception I think. Everyone is really putting in 100% and reaching for a common goal. There has been some great lineups of Swans in the past but there has always been some kind of rancor involved or conflict but that doesn’t really appear in this situation and it’s very gratifying and I hope we can keep it up for a while.

It’s a new level, operating on the baroque like on “Lunacy” it feels like you’re at a Swans mass service with that vocal choir or the bells on “Avatar” which are almost heavier than anything you would experience in church.

Well I don’t know about that, but it definitely has some kind of religious aspirations but I don’t know, there is something about amplified electric guitars that provides for a very rich experience and we’re happy to dive into the whirlpool with listeners and the audience. When it gets going it’s such an energetic force on this album and there is all kinds of crescendos start it’s like the music is playing us.

Tell us about working and collaborating with Akron/Family on the album.

Oh I love those guys, they’re on a spiritual quest to find the heart of rock, ha. And yeah there are many tracks where their vocal harmonies are like the Beach Boys, they’re so good at that.

How did the average song length become anywhere from 10, 12 minutes in length to 30 minutes plus on The Seer?

I don’t know, it just became inevitable. There is something strange that I don’t really even care about making a single, or something palatable or acceptable or delectable; I just wanted to follow where the music leads, I really had no other thoughts than that. And if it continues for 20 minutes or 30 minutes then so be it. On the record there are a couple short songs and those are the right lengths for those songs, but the ones that are long that I just how I felt necessary.

Shorter tracks like “Avenue 93 B” what about that avenue brings about the blues?

That’s the address of our rehearsal space from ’81 to the early 90s. It was a windowless bunker, a sort of fortress where we could rehearse in what was then a very dangerous environment on the lower east side there. But it has a sentimental value to me thinking about those times when we rehearsed there so we had fun coming up with this improv piece that was an encore to our sets during the last tour and after 7 minutes we would go into playing this acapella song “Little Mouths” from the last record and I wanted to record it and no recording would be complete without “Little Mouths” so I recorded another, louder acoustic song to be tacked on to the end there which is the “Daughter Brings the Water” but the reason we named it “Avenue 93 B Blues” because I kept thinking about the amateur improv about it and it’s a reference to that as well.

Speaking of the people and places that have surrounded you for so long I was happy to see Jarboe still collaborating after all these years on the new album.

Oh yeah, I have been in touch with Jarboe for a while and I have had her in mind on some stuff on the record that needed some kind of choral female vocals and her voice is able to sing these notes and it has this kind of soul in it so I asked her to sing on a couple tracks but as her being involved in a deeper way I think that’s unlikely. So it’s good to have her involved again.

Yeah and like the Karen O contribution on “Song for Warrior” really showcases her vocal talent.

She has a great compassion or ache in her voice that is entirely American. Very soulful but unassuming and the song is kind of a lullaby and in a way it’s something you might hear in a Disney movie coming out of some tragic event with some kind of beautiful princess singing this song.

I was wondering too with The Seer saga with “Seer”, “Seer Returns” and that being the name of the album, “the seer sees everything”…are you the Seer?

I have no idea, that song “the Seer” is about 300 songs turned into 1 and when we do rehearsal sans soundchecks we would be coming up with new material and then after rehearsing from the soundcheck just inserting words into it and I was just saying anything that comes to mind as I’m playing and I started saying over and over “I see it all, I see it all, I see it all” and that’s how the title came about.

Fitting to from listening to the at times overwhelming and uplifting places you take the sound. I took it was, of course Michael Gira sees it all! This has been some 30 years in the making here.

None of the songs are about me. It’s a very delicate thing, you have to be very careful what words you use because the words that are too narrative or specific or descriptive I think bring the music down you know. Because if you can come up with terse, very simple, words in a song then you can bring the listener into the world without bringing them down with it being about the singer or something like that.

Then with the way that every song works on the album it’s like you’re going to the opera or something.

I’ve never gone to the opera in my life!

Me neither, but as far as how the album is structured…

For better or worse, I’m a child of the 60s and I grew up during that great era of albums you know and I look for a whole experience in an album like The Doors’ Strange Days, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! so then I just can’t put a bunch of songs together, once I start working on the arrangements and really developing the material and how it’s going to be and everybody influences everything else. A long intro might be there because it’s necessary because of what comes before it you know, it’s like having an interlude where everything informs everything else.

What’s in the future for Angels of Light?

Oh I have no idea, right now the Swans completely all consuming, I don’t have any time right now. I think we’ll probably tour for a year and I also have to keep the record company (Young God Records) together and all kinds of things like that. I don’t have time to work on any tracks yet, at the same time one of the reasons I re-activated Swans was because I was becoming a little less than enthralled with Angels of Light just with the kind of aesthetic that I developed for it and I wanted to experience something a little more sonically so I shifted into Swans and I needed some help from my great musician friends in the band I used some of the methods from Angels of Light on some songs. But as far as going back into that project that’s unlikely any time in the near future.

Regardless the new places you have taken the Swans sound, after revisiting some of the 80s albums and EPs; The Seer sounds like a series of rebirths occurring in one big long-player alone.

That’s sort of true in a way, when you finish one record and you can’t just do the same thing on the next record, some bands just do the same thing over and over. So the way to move forward would be in one record we started doing segueways into new material around Children of God and the material we started putting and segueways and instrumentals along the way became maybe more important than the songs that followed so that kind of lead to long instrumental pieces essentially occurring that’s the way the work occurs, going back into previous tropes where you were influenced, I don’t know. There are a lot of things that I’m really enjoying the groove of the music and some of the new material we’re playing live, unrecorded material, kind of centered on a very Swans like groove but it’s much different than the sound of the Swans from the past. It’s more about the groove than any kind of song structure in a sense. We’re playing about 3 songs from the new album and we’re playing the old song “Coward” as well. But the total time in a set is over 2 hours, the song “The Seer” I think is getting even longer. That grooved developed over the past year of that touring cycle and started out not really that great and we kept picking at it and finally when we recorded it we found a really good groove and now we’re getting even better at it but it just takes time, you have to be inspired to feel what’s real and what isn’t.

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