When they first emerged in the early 1980s, Michael Gira’s group Swans made music of overwhelming power. Their first album, 1982’s Filth, lived up to its title, lurching along at what seemed like half-speed, crude guitar chords clanging and drums beating like construction equipment as Gira roared lyrics that were like mantras of nihilism and desperation, filled with imagery of rape, slavery and the worship of money, in an authoritarian baritone. There was none of the catharsis offered by punk bands, or even No Wave skronk acts—the sound of Swans was the equivalent of an endless, slow beating.
For many listeners, the group truly blossomed between 1984 and 1986, on the albums Cop, Greed and Holy Money and the Young God and A Screw EPs. This material, which has been compiled on a two-CD set, was even more crushingly heavy and lugubrious than Filth, and improved production gave it a greater physical impact. Listening to a Swans album at top volume was like having someone come to your apartment and start smashing things. And their live shows were relentlessly abusive of the audience—songs that had been five minutes long, like “Money is Flesh,” became excruciating when extended for ten or more, the guitars crashing down like concrete slabs falling from rooftops as Gira roared and the drummers pounded with an inhuman precision and the same agonizing slowness as always. The “official bootlegs” Real Love and Public Castration Is A Good Idea (which opens with a 12-minute version of “Money is Flesh”) are as important to understanding this period of Swans as the studio recordings, possibly more.
As the 1980s ended and the 1990s began, the parameters of Swans’ music began to expand. The introduction of female vocalist Jarboe to the group bifurcated its identity, as her crooned ballads (and keyboards) contrasted with Gira’s agonized bellows. Elements of Goth could be heard filtering in on 1987’s Children Of God and 1991’s White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, and other, less successful records like 1989’s The Burning World (produced by Bill Laswell and released on Uni, a division of the major label MCA). The group also began to employ acoustic instruments and delve into cover songs (Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”).
The first incarnation of the band’s final stretch, as heard on Love Of Life, The Great Annihilator and Soundtracks For The Blind, was its most sonically expansive. Combining instrumental pieces, tape loops, and genuinely sensitive songwriting, it seemed Swans had traveled as far as possible from their guttural, seething origins. At the same time, both Gira and Jarboe were occupying themselves with multiple solo and side projects. Thus, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when Gira dissolved Swans in 1997, following a farewell tour (recordings from which were later released on the double CD Swans Are Dead).
What did shock many people, following as it did several years of Gira solo performances and recordings with a new group, Angels Of Light, was the announcement that Swans were being revived. No mere nostalgia-act reunion tour, the 21st Century incarnation of the group included Angels musicians as well as former Swans, and this ensemble recorded a studio album, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, in 2009, which was released in 2010.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview which will appear in the upcoming print edition of Burning Ambulance.
Are you a lyricist first and a musician by necessity?
I don’t really draw a distinction. I take great care in my lyrics, and my music, too. Over the last several years, the usual pattern is that I have the song written on acoustic guitar, or a riff, or an idea, and I just play it incessantly till I manage to yank some phrase out of my mind, and then I start building on that. I don’t know that I’ve ever written lyrics first and then put music to it.
When you’re writing a song, how much is on the paper when you present it to the band, and how much is crafted in the studio?
Ninety percent of the time, I have a completely finished song on acoustic guitar and voice. However, with this particular lineup of Swans, I’m much more open to—in fact, I solicit it, I want it to open up and become bigger than what I’ve written. So the song I’ve got in Swans in this current time with this lineup is a template that we then work with. For instance, I took a couple of new songs to Austin when we were rehearsing for a recent tour and it took—we were rehearsing for two weeks, and it took all of two weeks to get those two songs into some kind of form that felt kind of genuine and vital and urgent. Whereas with Angels of Light, I would go in and record the acoustic guitar and voice and maybe a little bit of drums, the drummer just playing a snare to keep time, and then orchestrate onto that recording. But since with Swans I’m looking at wanting things to be much more of a total sonic experience, and then the vocals in there as part of it, but it’s not about the melodic song written on acoustic guitar…since I want to make this kind of experience happen, it takes time working with people to flesh that out and let it develop a life of its own.
How did the decision to reactivate Swans begin? Were you writing a song and realized it wasn’t an Angels of Light song, it was a Swans song? Or was it something else?
Sort of. The last Angels of Light album, it was called We Are Here, I started to get a little heavier on that. More electric, though nothing compared to Swans. Also, I was playing a show with Akron/Family as my backing group, in Italy, and there’s this point in one song where there’s just this swaying, slave-ship kind of rhythm going, over and over, with these pretty loud guitars kind of soaring along with it, and it really reminded me of Swans, and I hadn’t experienced that sensation of being inside that kind of sound in a long time. So that also kind of inspired me to start thinking about starting Swans. It was a huge mental hurdle to cross to accept that I actually wanted to start it again and do it, ’cause it was dredging up all kinds of demons from the past, ’cause the 15-year career of Swans initially was anything but smooth sailing, and coming back to that and coming back to the intensity of the music and what it opens up in myself and possibly the listener was just a huge decision, to decide I wanted to undergo that again. But I’m really glad I did, and I feel quite liberated and the most creative I’ve felt in a lot of years. It’s been really rewarding, because people really seem to get something really true from the music.
When you decided to reactivate the Swans name, did former members contact you wanting to participate?
No, no, I contacted very specific people, because they were people I could imagine spending lots of time with and also people I thought would contribute something musically as well as just their personality would contribute to it. That’s just as important to me, who the person is, as what they play and how they play. Cause what we do, we’re not just reciting a song from a record, you know. When we play things live, they’re much different than the recorded versions. And it requires a kind of close psychic commitment to get to the kind of high state that I want the music to reach. And, you know, not everybody’s up for that kind of thing. It’s very physically demanding, too.
Do you enjoy live performance more now than you did in the 1980s?
Yeah, at certain points in the ’80s I would say I liked it, but it was always a struggle. In the very beginning people hated it, and then when they started to like it, I hated them because they were coming for the wrong reasons. So I changed the music and then they hated that. There was always this kind of antagonistic relationship with the audience, except for the last tour. It was advertised as a farewell tour, so there was a lot of goodwill there. But up to that point it had always been pretty antagonistic. I don’t think Swans got an encore until three or four years before we stopped. Ever. We used to say it was because they were exhausted, they couldn’t possibly want more, but I think it was because they were just stunned or didn’t know what to say. And invariably people just left. It was very aggressive and people hadn’t heard anything like that before. It’s a different matter nowadays, but yeah, it’s where I realized – making music is obviously what I do, but performing is what I was put on earth to do.