Michael Gira of Swans sat down with Getintothis’ Rick Leach to chat about the approaching cataclysm of death, the impossiblity of time and whether or not he is into sport.
It seemed somehow appropriate, in an odd sort of way, that Getintothis were speaking with Michael Gira, founder and driving force behind Swans, on the very day that the Rosetta space probe was being deliberately crashed onto the surface of a comet. Not only the very same day, but it was almost to the minute that we’d arranged to speak via Skype as the probe ended its life on a comet in cold,deep space.
It was appropriate because just like the carefully and precisely calibrated destruction of Rosetta, Michael Gira had already announced some time ago that Swans, at least in their current iteration, were to be no more. A deliberate crashing of a band. One last album, The Glowing Man, a farewell tour and that would be it.
Swans would continue however, but just in a different, and as yet unknown, format. How could they not? After all, Swans and Michael Gira have been part of our musical landscape for over thirty years, ploughing a fierce and determined furrow to show an intelligence that is really like no other.
From Swans first album, Filth, released back in 1983, to this year’s The Glowing Man, Swans have dealt uncompromisingly with the three big and ever-present questions of human existence; sex, money and power, shining an unflinching light upon things that, at times, we’d all rather avoid.
In particular, their last three studio albums, The Seer from 2012, 2014’s To Be Kind and now with this years The Glowing Man, Gira and Swans have produced some of their finest work to date. This triptych of albums, while still displaying trademark qualities of ear-splitting loud music and themes and visions of unsettling behaviour, show a maturity and nuances that weren’t present in their early (although still vital) releases. These three long albums, each lasting for a couple of hours and with tracks of up to 30 minutes in length, tackle those other eternal human questions; hope and love.
We therefore settled down to ask Michael Gira a few important questions over what was envisaged to be a short chat. Where do Swans go from now on in? What are his plans for the future? And, away from Swans and music, what on earth does he do to relax?
To be honest, the prospect of interviewing Michael Gira was more than a little bit daunting. After all, this is someone who doesn’t seem to mess around and someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Swans early performances included not only playing at painfully loud volumes (something that continues to this day), but Gira gained a reputation for being directly confrontational with the audience – stepping on hands that strayed onto the stage, climbing into the crowd to lamp anyone who was headbanging, puling peoples’ hair and ensuring that air conditioning would be turned off in order to make a gig as uncomfortable as possible. Combine all this with someone who entitles a live album Public Castration Is A Good Idea, we feared that we might not be in for an easy ride.
Over the course of what turned out to be a longer than planned chat, Michael Gira was not only open and friendly, but invariably patient and honest, intelligent, thoughtful and considerate with every question we put to him. A real gentleman.
There were occasions when he appeared to be sad and even weary at the prospect of Swans (as they stand) finishing. There were long pauses while he seemed to fumble somewhat for what he felt to be the right answer. This was not Michael Gira in any way being rude or impolite, but simply considering things fully and ensuring that we understood fully what was meant.
As a measure of his politeness and before the interview started, he asked us if we minded if he switched off his video feed and conducted it simply by audio. He apologised profusely and we said it was ok. We didn’t need to see him to gain a feeling of how important Swans, music and his art are to him. However, it must be said that it was a tad surreal to conduct an interview with the disembodied voice of Michael Gira while staring at his avatar, a photograph of a mermaid. A statue of a mermaid. Not a real one. Now that would have been surreal.
From the inevitability of death to the future of Swans and experiences of the Russian people in the Second World War we covered a lot of ground. We also managed to ask him about sport and even got him to laugh. A job well done.
Getintothis: So, Michael, Filth and Cop were thirty-three years ago, yet it seems to have gone in the blink of an eye. Does it seem like a long time ago for you?
Michael Gira: “Oh, yeah, it’s incomprehensible. I don’t even remember. But of course I have memories, although they are vague, covered with a patina of suffering and age, but, I remember those things. But it seems I was like a completely different person. A completely different reality.”
Getintothis: A lot can happen although over 30 years. Did you ever imagine 30 years ago that you would be doing anything else now?
MG: “I didn’t really think about the future then. I think that was a necessary survival tactic because it wasn’t pretty. But I just worked, I guess that’s what I still do, I just work. I still have hopes for the future now but … but back then I didn’t really think about the future.
“Time for me is something that I think about a lot lately and even tomorrow or just when we started this conversation seems completely unreal to me. For example, it’s difficult trying to just pinpoint NOW. Identifying the present moment is very difficult and yet I think that’s the most crucial task one has.”
Getintothis: Yeah, being in the moment…
MG: “Yeah, but, but that sounds actually…that’s a phrase I use too, but that’s an insufficient phrase because just to be absolutely aware of the current consciousness in the absolute present is the most daunting task one could encounter”
Getintothis: Indeed, I remember reading somewhere that there’s no present and only a past and a future?
MG: “Yeah and these things don’t even exist either so…that’s a conundrum I pose to my children actually [shouts]“show me “NOW”!” they show me the past, show me the future!”
Getintothis: Do you think it’s a thing as we get older that we inevitably think more about time itself?
MG: “I don’t know that we think about that , more than we think about the approaching cataclysm of death.
“But I think about death all the time. I don’t think about it in morose way at all. It just puts everything into focus more clearly. I helps me to really try and understand what’s urgent and crucial and true and in the present.”
Getintothis: It helps you prioritise stuff? Like you could get knocked over by a bus tomorrow?
MG: “Yes! Things happen too. It’s like putting an egg beater in your brain. In your concept of reality.”
[He pauses for a good few seconds, weighing things up.]
“For instance, my best friend.
“I was on tour last year and I got a text from someone else (telling me) my friend had had a heart attack in a pub in London and he was presumed brain dead from a lack of oxygen. I’d just talked to him a couple of days before that and…suddenly…
“He’s recovering now, sort of. His life’s forever changed but just that little bit there..[clicks fingers].. Whoops! There it goes. The sheer randomness of things.”
Getintothis: The last time I saw Swans play it was Liverpool Sound City 18 months or so ago by the banks of the river Mersey. Swans have always been tagged with this industrial label but recently it seems to me Swans are more of a band attuned to nature than industry and playing beside a river seemed appropriate. Are Swans pastoral?
MG: “Well, there are pastoral moments in the music. But I never liked the term “industrial”! I don’t think that many people who had that tag liked it either. Maybe only Throbbing Gristle liked it because they coined the phrase!
“But I have no connection with that whatsoever. I have no idea what it means, and most groups associated with that are not my cup of tea.
“For me it’s just been a process of discovery over the last, Jesus Christ, 35 years. Just discovering how to shape sound and to work with the emotions. Just to keep working and to remain surprised by work.”
Getintothis: Well that kind of makes sense and leads on because The Glowing Man seems more of a reflective piece of work than To Be Kind. In line with what you’ve said about the new iteration of Swans is that how you see things going. More reflective?
MG: “I don’t know.
“You see, I’m just an amoeba prodded by a pin on a tray under a microscope. I don’t really have an overarching concept of what I’m doing. I’m more involved in grappling with what’s there and trying it shape it into something. I have a sensibility of course; I don’t have an aesthetic per se. Well at least not a codified one. I’m just trying to shape the work that’s happening.
“The way this record (The Glowing Man) occurred, a lot of the material was developed live on tour. It started from a sort of protein version of the sonic events that gradually occurred on tour. I shaped then in sound checks and then live and then into these longer pieces that you hear on the record by rough instinct and proclivity for certain things I guess.
“And the words developed in tandem with the music through influences; through books I was reading or through experiences I had. Other songs on the record were written on acoustic guitar and orchestrated in the studio which is a different way of working entirely. But it’s really with whatever material that’s at hand that I shape into the form an album. Then I move on.
“I might reflect developments, but I don’t set out say, I’m going to be to be reflective, no.”
Getintothis: So, there isn’t a glorious 5 year plan?
MG: “No! It’s just a progression. I’m guided by instinct”
Getintothis: The music seems to evolve. Is it more of an organic process than anything else?
MG: “Yes! When I look at the whole catalogue…[he stumbles and fumbles for the right word and laughs]… I was going to say oeuvre but that’s pretentious! Um…”
Getintothis: The canon?
MG: “Yes! The DETRITUS. The flotsam and jetsam that’s been left behind! I look at it as just one long, long process. It’s one piece of work really. I’m just looking forward to what’s coming next.”
Getintothis: That’s exactly what I was going to say because for me it’s hard to imagine a time when there wouldn’t be a Swans record to look forward to. I’ve always been intensely curious as to what you’re going to come up with next.
MG: “So am I! I have no idea!
“We’ll see what happens.
“So I have a vague colour in my mind about what it’s going to be. This iteration of the band when we’re finishing touring is coming to a close and I’m going to start working with a revolving cast of people, some of which will be these guys of course (the current Swans), but once I have time I’m going to sit down and write enough material for a record. I suppose just on my acoustic guitar as I’m wont to do. And I’ll choose people who I feel are appropriate for each song and start recording and each the people I work with the nature of the material will determine the sound.
“I wish I played piano, I could write on piano. That would be interesting.”
Getintothis: It would be! Maybe that’s a way to go! With The Glowing Man it felt as it something reached a natural conclusion and that things had evolved as far as they could go…
“The last three records were a product of six people. Six people with my guidance. Basically six people with their musical abilities and how they approached the trial on hand.
“That’s reached its apex with this record and anything that’s reached its apex is a decline ..so…so….it had to end…[long pause.]”
Getintothis: So it moves on but moves on in a different way?
I sense a real feeling of weariness and sadness. Michael Gira hesitates for a very long time between each of these words.
Getintothis: As I get older I find myself increasingly listening to classical music. Do you listen any sort of music that we wouldn’t expect you to? Music that doesn’t fit with Swans?
MG: “I don’t listen to much music to be honest.
“And that’s not out of some kind of disinterest. It’s just my ears are so exhausted from touring. I mean I’ve been in the studio or touring probably… ten months of the year for the last seven years…ten, eleven months constantly. I don’t listen to much music.”
Getintothis: It would be too much like work? You need a break from work?
MG: “It’s just the ears, they’re physically tired.”
Getintothis: It’s a physiological rather than a psychological thing?
MG: “Yes. What I’m really looking forward to when this version of Swans winds down is having the time and inclination to listen to music again and get what’s vital in it to me again – to find out what’s vital in it. So, looking forward to it. See what happens.”
Getintothis: What do you do outside of the studio/tour/studio treadmill to relax? Is there anything that that we wouldn’t expect Michael Gira to do to relax? Are you into sport?
I swear I heard an ironic laugh down the line at this point. I pressed on regardless.
Getintothis: Is there anything that we wouldn’t expect Michel Gira to that’s not music? Outside of Swans?
Now he really did laugh!
MG: “Outside of Swans? Outside of Swans!
“Not doing much for the last seven years outside of Swans! That’s all there’s been for the past seven years!
“When I get a chance I read. Of course read, and see my family. That’s really it. That’s all. That’s about it”
Getintothis: Is there any dark humour in Swans?
MG: Can you give me a specific example?
Getintothis: Well, To be Kind seems so unremittingly dark and grim that maybe as a listener you see sometimes a chink of light poking through?
MG: “I don’t know. I don’t really look at that record as dark… I understand how people would interpret it that way but I just don’t feel it’s dark. I don’t know.
“Humour? I don’t know.”
Getintothis: I suppose when you’re so close to something that that’s so dark and hard and grim that you wouldn’t be doing it for so long without…?
MG: “Well, there’s songs that contain a spiritual quest, there’s songs that are a paen, is that the right word, a paen? A paen to other people. There’s love songs, there’s songs that are tributes, but I guess that’s the same as a paen?
“There‘s lots of different songs, lyrically and different attitudes that are expressed so I don’t understand the dark thing. Yes, I suppose it’s intense and it’s extreme at times. But so are the best things in life.”
Getintothis: Is dark an easy tag to hang on Swans, like industrial?
MG: “Is the composer Ligeti dark? Was Penderecki? Is he dark? Gorecki might be considered dark but he’s also incredibly elating. So, I don’t know. I have trouble with that dark thing.
“So. I’m reading a book by this Russian writer, Vasily Grossman. It’s his war diaries, not his famous novel Love and Fate which I haven’t read, but it’s the Second World War from the Russian perspective. He was what you now call embedded with the troops and it’s gruesome but it’s incredibly beautiful because it touches on a core element of humanity; human potential, suffering joy, strength, courage and for those reasons I don’t view it as dark.”
Getintothis: Of course Shostakovich wrote his 7th Symphony while working as a fire marshall during the siege of Leningrad and it was first performed with a scratch orchestra during that horrific siege and broadcast live to the Russian troops over loudspeakers. It really makes you think what people go through for art?
MG: “I’ve read a great deal about that particular era from the Russian perspective and it’s utterly fascinating to me. The courage and determination. Of course everybody suffered a great deal in that war and I look at and the courage and determination and the stamina of the Russian people – leaving aside the politics and everything -Stalin was a horrible bastard. But just their resilience and ability to withstand the crushing crucible of death and onslaught of death and terror that they encountered. It’s utterly incredible.”
As we had started talking about time, then time had caught up with us. It was, as he said, kind of inevitable. While the suffering and resilience of the Russian people in WWII may not seem at first glance, directly related to Swans, in an odd way, it’s a fairly apt metaphor for what Michael Gira has been making through his art for the past thirty years and what we, as Swans fans, have been doing as well.
- Swans play Manchester Ritz on October 9