Michael Gira, leader of influential experimental rock band Swans, has been giving interviews for the better part of 30 years. Started in 1982, Swans, which reunited last year, won critical raves and a robust underground following for their rich, ominous sound before disbanding in 1997. Gira spent the next 13 years working with Angels of Light, the slightly brighter band he lead in the interim, while also recording and releasing work by others on his Young Gods imprint. Along the way he's had to answer a lot of questions from presumptuous young music writers, and it shows.
He picks up the phone, says hello and immediately asks if he can call back via internet talk service Skype. “This cell phone is a little uncomfortable after a half an hour of talking to it,” he explains. His answers are terse, but thoughtful. He seems interested in the interview, but he's been thinking about what Swans is for almost three decades; he knows what he wants to say. Once he gets the gist of a question, he cuts in and begins his answer. His publicist has given him a 30-minute window for this call, and it's clear that he intends to stick to it.
He weaves recurring themes into his responses. The most common thread is rejecting the notion that Swans was in anyway brought back together for nostalgia. Before the band hit the road last year, Gira insisted they sit down and record a new album. 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky is the bold and brilliant result.
“It’s not so people can come and see the old music and relive the heyday or something,” he says. “It’s a new experience, and I wanted to make that very clear.”
My Father is a remarkably smooth transition from Swan's past to its present. Reaching a creative impasse with Angels of Light, Gira took a batch of songs he'd been working on for that project and gathered up Swans to put a new spin on it. The words here are more direct than most of Gira's previous Swans songs, and they're coated in large, lumbering garage rock. Guitars writhe with arresting chaos as enormous bass lines crash to and fro amongst the melee. Surprisingly fetching elements are added throughout, often in the form of tinkling glockenspiel. Far from watering down the band's famously bleak aesthetic, these additions accentuate it, acting like a Siren's song and dragging you deep into the belly of Swans' destructive assault.
Glockenspiel chimes hypnotically at the onset of opener “No Words/No Thoughts,” but it soon gives way to a bruising combo of bass and guitar. Wind instruments shriek in terrifying bursts. Gira enters as the noise dies down, groaning out quick lines that zero in on the depravity of human existence. The glockenspiel rejoins him near the end of his verse, prickling quietly before it takes the lead as the tumult renews, buzzing about with quick, piercing notes that punch through the mix. It's a striking combination, one that seamlessly incorporates new elements without forsaking the all-consuming blasts that Swans' fans have come to expect.
“Swans doesn’t really sound like anything else,” Gira says. “So when a record comes out it’s obviously going to sound like Swans even though what that is has changed dramatically over the years.”
And it continues to change. Swans have been on the road for much of the last two years, and over that time they've begun working through new songs. Gira points out that it might be improper to call them songs as some push 30 minutes. He explains that the new music works its way through repetitive structures, growing and shifting slowly to create what he hopes is an incredibly immersive experience for his audience. He believes this version of Swans is the best one ever, and he's so passionate about it that he's releasing a double-disc live record in November.
After 13 years away, Gira says Swans is what he was put on Earth to do. This fall the band finishes its second album in less than three years, an epic that will likely span more than two and a half hours. Coupled with the band's current world tour, it's clear that Swans are back in a big way.
“It’s the closest I get to a spiritual experience,” Gira says. “I don’t pray. I’ve tried meditating, but my knees hurt so I stopped. I’m not going to be pompous about it. It’s rock music. It’s just something that happens with the overtones and the repetition and the volume of loud guitars played in a certain way that just kind of makes you levitate.”
— Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Swans, with Sir Richard Bishop
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Sept. 10 (8 p.m./9 p.m.. $18/$20. http://theorangepeel.net)