Interview: Michael Gira (Swans)

I wanted to start by saying that the new album is fantastic. I get the impression these songs are more “jammed out” and left to evolve on their own accord. Was that deliberate?

Indeed. Well I wrote the songs over the course of the last two or three years. I was experiencing severe writer’s block – it took me a long time to write these songs and there’s not even that many of them! By the time I thought I was ready to record, I was assuming it was going to be for Angels of Light and the prospect of doing that seemed less than enthralling. I had been wanting to make more all-enveloping music, and I decided to take these songs and do them as Swans. So I took these songs that were recorded on acoustic guitar – and, I suppose, intended to be recorded like the rest of the Angels of Light records, with myself recording first and people overdubbing on that – and put them in the Swans mode. That necessarily implied that they would have to expand, and in some cases change entirely, according to the kind of aesthetic one would apply to Swans.

So I sent the demos to my compatriots. They all got to know the songs and then we got together in the studio – a large, basement type room in an old factory building in Brooklyn – and we all set up next to each other in a semi-circle, and just played and played the songs for 12 hours each day. At the end of the days we had the engineer record. The songs grew according to Swans rather than Angels of Light. It was an ecstatic experience, as the sound was swirling and echoing off the stone walls. It was really wonderful.

That sounds fantastic.

Thanks. Now I’ve done this I have the germs for several ideas for the next Swans album. I’m not going to precede with finished acoustic guitar songs – I’ll have musical ideas worked out on acoustic guitar, and maybe some words, but I’m going to take them and work with the band to expand them first rather than have this template of the song. And I want to pursue some of the long instrumental sections that are on the record.

I read an article where you mentioned that you wished you’d allowed a couple of tracks on the new record to loop and loop for ten minutes at a time.

Well they wouldn’t just loop. They’d have to morph and develop, and that takes a lot of time to make thing change subtly. We didn’t have the time. Actually I was singing a vocal at 3am and then went to master that same morning – the very last day to get this record done in time for the tour. So we were completely out of time. And money!

But I’ve since taken the long instrumental tracks from this record and extended them and orchestrated them, and added all kinds of new loops and sounds and vocals. I’ve made a companion CD for the album that will be released as a special double-CD version on limited edition. It’s sort of like the Body Lovers concept where I took these blocks of sonic material and made it into something else. I rarely listen to stuff after I’ve finished with it, but I’ve been listening to this and I like it a lot. That’s kind of a gateway to where things are going to go in the future with Swans.

You’ve mentioned that you’re getting tired of hearing your own voice.

Oh yeah. Well anyone with any dignity would, wouldn’t they?

So where are the vocals going to be on the record following My Father…?

I don’t know. If I don’t have anything to say verbally – as lyrics or words – then I won’t say anything. I’ll just make the music. The problem I’ve had with writing, apart from the huge time constraints of running a label, having a new family and touring, is not wanting to repeat myself. Sometimes I’ll write something and then go “oh, I’ve already said that”. I guess what I need is a religious experience or something to wipe the slate clean!

Going back to something you said earlier. You said that the I Am Not Insane pieces were written as acoustic tracks instead of something you already had a vivid concept for. Is that right?

Well I presumed they were all going to be Angels of Light – before I compiled and released them to raise money for the Swans album. But the track “No Words / No Thoughts” – that was written specifically with the idea of it being a Swans song.

How much creative input did the other members of Swans have on this new record? Where you directing them as to where they should go, or was it openly collaborative?

Both. I directed people in the direction I think it should go but I want them to express themselves within that context, and there’s a lot of room in there for that. I worked with players that I already know – I know their personalities and how they play, and when I think about how I’m going to work out the song, I’m picturing them and not just what they’re playing. I know them well and have an idea of the emotional and musical input that they would have. So Swans is my thing, but I’m certainly not a dictator or a composer. I can’t read or write music. I have an instinct of how I want it to sound – sometimes I have a really clear notion but as soon as we start playing it completely changes. So they’ll play something and I’ll seize on it and say “Oh that’s great, expand on that please”. And then they’ll expand on it or the opposite – we’ll say “no, it doesn’t work, let’s try something else.”

I guess writing music in that style is complimentary to having to put it together rather quickly. You mentioned time constraints – do you feel as though having to work at that pace benefitted the sound of the record at all?

I think so, in this instance. We didn’t have a choice – one of our guitarists lives in Berlin, one of the drummers lives in Austin, the other is in New Jersey, I live up State…we’re all over the place. So we couldn’t really sit down and rehearse for three weeks altogether and take that much time out of our lives before we went in the studio. Besides, I think the effort of developing the songs in that amount of time would still have resulted in what we got by working on the songs for 12 hours each.

In terms of taking these songs live – you’ve mentioned that you want to drag some sections out for 20 minutes. Were you being serious when you said that?

Yes. Well, I don’t know how much time we have on stage, but I could see certain songs lasting 20 minutes.

And will it sound as it does on the record? How will it translate?

Well I use the recorded songs themselves as a starting point for live performance, and then it builds from there. I think it’s ridiculous for us to try and sound like the record. It doesn’t make any sense. I think a lot of uncreative people do that. I think a song works best when it takes on a life of its own. On tour in particular, the songs change and change as we go – the sections will grow longer and new things will start happening. They’ll be very different and much more realised by the end of the tour.

Is that in reference to all of your projects?

Yeah. I like that. I usually set up a very specific setlist during the course of rehearsals. And we stick exactly to that setlist, but it grows. It’s sort of like an actor in a play. If they learn how to express themselves within the context of that play, it gets better every night. Of course there’s a lot of improvisation that will go on, and stretching things…I like being in an uncomfortable place within the music as much as possible, and stretching beyond what I’m capable of doing.

So by the end of the tour, the songs will be far from how they started out?

I believe so. This tour is going to be quite extensive. We’ve got the United States, the UK, France, Holland, other places in northern Europe, Australia…the whole tour is going to last about 18 months I think.

Perhaps this is an obvious question. I’m guessing your live set will consist entirely of the new album – you don’t plan to revisit old material, right?

Oh, no – I want to play some older Swans material and see what we can make of it. Particularly some things from Cop, Filth and Greed/Holy Money. I don’t want it to sound like it did then – it might sound even more intense than it did then, I don’t know. But for instance – the song “Your Property” from Cop, which I think has a really great groove, and I want to take that as a basis and see what happens with it. Paradoxically I identify more with the very early material than I do with mid-period/later Swans.

Well I’d say that there’s a real intensity to the new material, but it’s an organic intensity that comes from how hard the instrument is hit or played. It’s more about the player than a case of simply whacking up the gain on the amp.

That’s a very good observation, as I really hated it when people would concentrate on the “volume” aspect of Swans as though that was some big deal. It has been loud – very loud at times – but that’s to get the music to overwhelm you, to feel it physically, to subsume you. But it’s not just about some dumbass metal person turning up to 15 on their amp. It’s kind of a spiritual aspiration. It’s wanting the music to atomise your body – to take each molecule and just explode it. It’s looking for an ecstatic experience, and not about some dumb “heavy music” thing.

There’s one track that comes to mind when you refer to being enveloped by the music and the intensity of it – “You Fucking People Make Me Sick”. Whoever is playing the piano during the latter part of the track is simply battering it.

That’s Bill Rieflin. He’s also playing the drums there. The song was starting to take shape and it needed something at the end. And I said “why don’t you try: count eight, then smashing the piano as hard as you can, count 12, space, then smashing the piano as hard as you can, count 20, space, smashing the piano as hard as you can”… just these random increments. And being an incredibly skilled drummer he was able to count all that out in his head. It came out really good.

I think you can hear him faintly in the background – is that him counting between each hit?

Yes. Well on this remix thing I took that stuff, and inevitably I took out the spaces, so it’s just got five minutes of it going “rurrblarurbla!”, with horns on top and things – it’s pretty intense. But the way that song developed…you know that’s Devendra Banhart singing, right? Well it was supposed to be a little transitional piece on the record, with some loops and scraping sounds someone had made, and that Jew’s harp that introduces the song was in there somewhere. And then I just had more people expand on it, and I’d add in more loops and sounds, and then eventually I just realised that it needed a song. So I wrote a song on acoustic guitar and sang it, and then I realised that I sounded like Devendra so I got him to sing it. Then I had my daughter sing on it too.

How did it work with your daughter singing over the track?

My wife coached her. She wouldn’t co-operate with me.

Do you have a favourite track on the new album? Is there one that you’re particularly proud of?

Well I don’t know about proud. I’m never proud of the music – to me it’s just somewhere to move on from, and it’s always a relief when I see that there’s a germ there that will lead to somewhere else. But the songs that I think are most successful are “Eden Prison”…although that’s almost like Led Zeppelin or something, that song. But the first song, “No Words/No Thoughts”…I think it’s tremendous, I just wish I had more time to mix it. I won’t go into how I think I failed as a producer on that one.

I’ll be honest with you – when I first got I Am Not Insane, that was the one track that didn’t click for me as an acoustic piece. I imagine that’s because you already had an idea of how it would sound as Swans prior to recording it.

Right. It probably sounds different to me as could hear the chords in a different way to you.

There’s a section on that track after your vocal first comes in, where it rises up and there’s a flurry of something over the top…

Piano. Again, that’s Bill Rieflin. It’s a piano played with two point fingers, played really fast like a drum and then vari-speeded on the tape machine. I probably shouldn’t be giving away these secrets, but that’s what it is!

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