Elegant & Fierce: Michael Gira and the Dark Minds of Swans

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The eccentric overlord of industrial rock group Swans discusses with Jules O’Brien the band’s reformation and new album, To Be Kind


Waiting for a Skype call from Michael Gira is about as calming as standing on the edge of a sky dive. The experimental pioneer – now at the turn of his sixties – is one of the more terrifying and exquisite minds in the rock world. A mellow voice calls through: “Hello, this is Michael Gira speaking.” The calm resonance of his New York City articulation is unexpected, given the live performance grumble that pigeonholed him in the can’t-sing category of great lead singers, (not that he cares), alongside Mark E. Smith of The Fall and Sex Pistols’ John Lydon. His kindly milieu defies common preconceptions of a truculent aggressor, adopted after reading tales of his propensity to crush crowds’ stage-clung fingers under boot-clad foot. He would often dive offstage to clobber headbangers to the ground whilst caterwauling tracks with titles like ‘Raping A Slave’, tongue freshly laced in a young Madonna’s spoiling saliva.

Though that was the 80s, and Gira, then yet sour from almost five months in Israeli jail for cannabis possession when he was 15, is now the grounded founder of Young God Records, with artists like psych-folk pogonotrophist Devendra Banhart safely roosting under his milky wing. He speaks with certainty, with myriad solo work under his belt alongside four years of new Swans material – the latest album of which, To Be Kind, is arguably their best (and indisputably their most accessible) work yet. Gira is quick to point out that recorded material means next to nothing in terms of Swans – “you can’t even try to recreate whatever magical musical charge happens live” – but To Be Kind nonetheless defines the new musical approach pursued by Gira and his Swan-tourage since their reformation in 2010.

A glut of band members orbited Gira between 1982 and 1998, when Swans rose to fame through seemingly unappeasable audacity in their music and live attitude. Their music ploughed through harrowing material that slowly – largely on account of Gira’s sidekick Jarboe Devereux – became more accessible melodically. Though with time Gira tired of and disagreed with the antagonistic reputation they upheld, and the era came to a close after tenth album Soundtracks for the Blind was unveiled in 1996 and, subsequently, touring ended two years afterwards.

Gira went on to dip his foot into new territories – predominantly the lighter experimental project, Angels of Light, alongside another ever-changing roster of musicians. The music showcased a reserved side of Gira unexplored in the Swans era: Angels of Light’s tender 2001 album How I Loved You and Swans’ unsettling Soundtrack for the Blind are essentially timbric antitheses. Though through – “uh, desperation!” – Gira reformed Swans in 2010.  “Desperation, in the sense that I was in a place in my life where I’d been making music with this group Angels of Light, and it wasn’t really going anywhere aesthetically to me. There was this long history of Swans and I wanted to revivify it and try to drive it forward artistically.”

In the interest of working with a strong team, Gira gathered a lengthy list of musicians to help reboot Swans. “I needed people I wanted to spend time with, and of course people who had things to offer musically. Though I think the former had as much to do with it as the latter. We right away clicked as a group of people and that’s fortunate.” And so the current Swans line up was formed, in which guitarists Christoph Hahn and Norman Westberg, caveman-esque multi-instrumentalist/percussionist Thor Harris, bassist Christopher Pravdica, and drummer Phil Puleo accompany Gira’s bellowing voice.

“[When we first spent time together in the studio] we would play one song I’d written for 12 hours, not just playing it over and over but playing it and trying new things and transforming it until it felt like a band song, something that needed to be played by these musicians in particular. Then of course it all came together as 2010 record My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky.”  Gira seems doubtful that the line up will change any time soon: “Right now this group seems pretty fixed, and I enjoy the company of these gentlemen and they’re contributing a great deal to the sound, so for now, yeah, we together are Swans.”

Swans’ first album Filth (1983) and 2014’s six-sided tome To Be Kind are comparative to the extent that Gira delves fearlessly into stygian lyrical matter. Where he once keened candidly over gang violence, rape (even necrophilia) and horrifying murder as societal metaphors, he now sings odes to little boys who ‘just need love’, getting laughed at mockingly by demonic cackles. The lyrics and melodies have flowered, but the sepulchral tendencies of Gira’s imagination have most certainly not been quelled by time.

Though the album explores eroticism as much as it does darkness. Track ‘Kirsten Supine’, which Gira explains to be particularly important to him, alludes to a scene in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia with Kirsten Dunst, where “she’s lying naked on this copse by a river and she’s just lying there, bathed in the light of that malevolent planet.” He continues, “To me that was such an apocalyptic image, but it was also extremely erotic. It just inspired me to write words; I didn’t want to tell about the movie but words just sort of arose thinking about that scene.”

To explain the acrylic-painted baby heads pasted boldly on the front of the To Be Kind album (which many will have seen pasted all over Hong Kong), Gira divulges:  “As is my predilection – and has been since the beginning of Swans and my label Young God Records – I usually look for a central iconic image, to put in the middle of the square. This time I thought it was going to be a woman’s nipple. It was going to be embossed so it would have some tactile qualities to it. ”He laughs, “I took some photos and, err, it didn’t look good – it looked comical, which I wasn’t really inclined towards.” Gira ultimately decided on images painted by L.A.-based punk artist Bob Biggs whom he met in the 70s, whose “implacable portraits of babies” seemed perfect. He continues, “I think perhaps I thought they’d be great because they’re sort of an aggressive image – in the sense that the babies are in your face, but they defy interpretation.”

As much as most bands’ latest album reflects most accurately their status quo, Swans’ To Be Kind, according to Gira, is already dead material. “Most of our material has been played live before it’s recorded; by the time the album is finished it’s just kind of dead matter. It’s hard for me to listen back to a recording and get anything back from it, so I don’t ever listen back to my albums.” Continues Gira: “we try to remain in the present, which is not an easy undertaking actually. We’ll be recording in September this year, but the content of the new material will probably be something I’m not able to verbalise right now.”

Attempts to verbalise the aesthetics of a Swans gig is indeed an impossible task. No longer as violent as in the 80s, Gira’s aim on stage is to reach a total state of transcendence through music – achieved famously through ear-splitting volume and total immersion in slow, intense build-ups. “We listen for what’s happening between us and follow new directions as they arise. When it’s at its best, our music is transporting.  I would like people to experience the same thing that we’re experiencing. We’re kind of vehicles for something bigger than ourselves when we perform live.” Factotum Productions brought Swans to Wan Chai in January, and the audience was left utterly wide-eyed.