TIME, KINDNESS, AND TRANSCENDENCE: AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL GIRA

By Christopher Nosnibor

Photo © Sebastien Sighell

Photo © Sebastien Sighell

There’s simply no escaping time. In many ways, the inexorable march of time, the constraints of time, and a pervading lack of time defines the human condition. Michael Gira is a magician who has a command over time that is not of this earth. I first made this discovery around 1989, when I was 15 or so, on picking up a copy of the Young God EP. It played at 45rpm, but sounded like the turntable had slowed to a point at which it was barely rotating. Time hung, suspended for what seemed like an eternity between each crushing drum beat, each grinding guitar chord. It was a moment that changed the course of my musical appreciation forever.

Of course, Swans’ sound has undergone numerous transitions since then, although the repetition of single, simple motifs remains at the core of many of the band’s compositions. Lyrically, Gira may be more subtle and oblique in his approach these days, but thematically, his preoccupation with the human condition – in all of its beautifully ugly and magnificently painful glory – remains. There are times, though, that sound alone can articulate so much more than words, and when Gira emits wordless howls of anguish, they resonate on some deep, primal level.

Then, of course, there are the albums that have been delivered to the world since Swans were reborn. Where Soundtracks for the Blind was vast in scope, so My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, The Seer and the latest, To Be Kind have continued and expanded in every imaginable direction. To Be Kind may have a running time of some two full hours, but its multidimensional and multifaceted qualities mean it doesn’t feel like two hours. It sucks you in, in ways that few albums could even come close to doing.

It should come as little surprise that the time I spent chatting with Michael Gira practically evaporated. I’d armed myself with an abundance of questions, but only fielded around two-thirds of them – because Michael spoke expansively and generously in response to the questions I did put forward, and in turn, his replies opened up other avenues and invited questions I hadn’t planned but that, on reflection, gave a deeper insight into the workings of the band than the ones I had.

Moreover, this spontaneous, evolutionary approach is entirely fitting to an interview with a man whose creative process is open to random elements, and whose career has taken myriad detours (at least to an outside observer) and comprises a number of different phases. It’s all about the journey.

So, twisting time, my journey ends with Michael apologising for the fact we’re out of time. A crew have just arrived on his drive ahead of a live interview. ‘If you have any other questions, or need anything else, feel free to make shit up,’ he tells me. ‘Everyone else does.’ I’m left pondering the response I might have got to the one question I really wanted to ask, but didn’t get to, and would have probably wussed out of asking even if time hadn’t been against me. It seems fitting, because the question perfectly encapsulates my experience of speaking with Michael Gira, one of the most intensely terrifying performers and recording artists on the planet, and the most easy-going and accommodating people I’ve ever interviewed. So what I didn’t ask was this: ‘Musically, Swans aren’t exactly the most accessible, inviting of bands, and on-stage it’s clear you’re intensely focused, to the extent that many would probably find your presence quite intimidating – even performing solo acoustic, there’s an intensity that doesn’t readily suggest ‘approachable’ – but in person, in interviews, you’re renowned for being quite calm and affable. How do you reconcile these facets of your personality?’

Perhaps, though, the answer reveals itself in the course of our discussion. Throughout, he’s amenable, laughs freely, and seems remarkably at ease, but it’s clear he’s a man who channels every last ounce of energy into his art.

First of all, I tell Michael that I’ve listened to the new album, To Be Kind, a few times already and have to say it’s pretty intense. While it clearly continues in the vein of My Father Will Guide Me and The Seer, there’s a clear evolution there. I understand a lot of the material was developed during the last tour. How different was the creative process for this new record from its predecessors?

“It’s all a disaster,” he tells me plainly. I’m taken aback, and chuckle nervously as I wait for Michael to expand on this. “There’s material, there are songs that we’ve done on tour, songs I have on acoustic guitar that we build up,” he says. “I have plans, aspirations, schemes, blueprints for everything and as soon as we start making sounds I just rip it up and I’m floating like a wounded little baby in a sea of sharks. And I eventually figure out how to build the thing up and put it into some sort of shape and avoid a heart attack – barely – and get out of the studio.”

So… are you pleased with it?

“Am I pleased with it?” he echoes, and I realise it is perhaps an odd – but in context, altogether necessary – question. “Uh… yeah, I mean, I guess so. It’s what I love to do. Aside from being on stage, it’s what I was made to do, shape sounds and make some sort of sonic narrative that holds together as a piece of work. It’s what I was made to do, I believe.”

This one’s a particularly an epic narrative as well.

“I was telling someone the other day – and forgive me, I really hate the sound of my own voice, ‘cause I’ve been doing a lot of interviews – but I was telling someone the other day that… what the fuck was I telling them, I just forgot….?  Oh yeah, that I wish that I could just delegate and say ‘here, just make this record’ and they made it and I’d be happy with it and I didn’t have to do it myself, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.”

So do you find there’s a major discrepancy between the initial creative vision and the end product, and more to the point, are you generally happier with the outcome after it’s changed than what you started out with, or….?

“It’s never what I started out with, but I guess the trick is just to be willing to accept chance and mistakes, and then you just try to wrangle whatever’s currently happening into a shape that is gratifying. I guess that’s a better way to work, I don’t know. I always dread the next record, although that’s what I really want to do. I guess it’s like dreading sex with your dominatrix or something.”

These themes of power, of domination and subservience are embedded in Gira’s vocabulary. They don’t sound remotely forced; such an analogy is simply emblematic of the world from his perspective. Moreover, Michael has a talent for sharp turns of phrase, and is a man who can speak openly about art and spirituality without sounding in any way pretentious. I want to ask about how the members of the current live lineup have shaped the material, and try to fumble a segue of sorts: Because this album was largely developed on tour, and you could say it’s been toured before it’s been released…

“Sorry to interrupt,” Gira interjects. He shouldn’t be; this is his interview after all, and he’s keen to correct my assertion here. “I have a list of songs, so I can read through to you, if you don’t mind.”

It seems fitting an artist as exacting as Michael Gira should be so prepared, so organised, when it comes to an interview situation, and his insight into the evolution of the album, as individual tracks and as a whole, is more than welcome.

“’Screenshot’ was performed at times, but in an entirely different musical venue. The new way of playing that groove was come up with right before the record. And it’s got new words, and so that really wasn’t played live. ‘Just a Little Boy,’ again, that was played live, but completely differently: this one I like better, it has deep dynamics that I really appreciate. It didn’t have that live. ‘A Little God In My Hands’ was written right before going into the studio, so… ‘Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture’ (a segue which plays for in excess of 30 minutes, both live and in its studio form, featuring as the album’s clear centre point), those are definitive live songs, that when recorded were altered, of course, but that’s pretty much how those songs were performed live. ‘Some Things We Do,’ the beautiful string arrangement was done by Julia Kent. Of course, that was not played live. That’s the song I wrote right before going in the studio. ‘She Loves Us,’ part of that was played live. The first part of it we developed in the studio because the first part of it that we played live sounded redundant in the studio. ‘Kirsten Supine’ was written on acoustic guitar after watching the tremendous film by Lars von Trier, Melancholia, and ‘Oxygen’ was performed live, pretty much in that shape. ‘Nathalie Neal’ was performed a couple of times, but it’s significantly altered here. ‘To Be Kind’ is the general shape that it had live. Whooph! There you go! I had all that written down, rather than in my head. Believe me, there’s very little in my head.”

In truth, I find it hard to believe. Factual information, perhaps, but ideas, they’re a different matter. Gira’s head is a melting pot, a cauldron of visions, in which sounds and textures take on solid forms and solid forms vaporise into nebulous sound. Besides, there’s too much information floating and circulating for anyone to hold in their heads these days. Information overload is the enemy of a band like Swans, who demand a certain kind of focus, and whose recent albums require a certain attention span. I’ll return to this shortly but first, I’m keen to return to the process:  the current lineup – although augmented with a host of guests in the studio during the album’s recording – seems to be particularly strong. To what extent have the other band members shaped the work since Swans returned as an entity?

“They have shaped it significantly. Certainly, the Swans would sound nothing like they do right now without these guys… Y’know, I’m the commander-in-chief, the ringmaster, the impresario, the head clown, but they contribute vitally. So, I just described the process where I have an idea going into the studio, but similarly, when I meet up with these guys at the rehearsal space, once they start playing everything changes. I guide them, I guess… it’s not really the right term, it’s too avuncular. I try to be the person that gives the final shape to the thing, and if they’re doing something I don’t like, then certainly, I’ll let them know, but most often they do something that surprises and charms me, so we go with that version. And things just kind of grow organically with these guys. It’s not all so much mates in a room playing what they want, though; I’m kind of in charge, I guess.”

On stage you kind of ‘conduct’ the band, in a way, very visibly these days.

“Yeah, that’s a recent development. It certainly wasn’t premeditated, it just began that way. We started making these… I don’t know how you’d describe it, these sonic clouds. They of course need dynamics and so I’m guiding the dynamics, and the prevalence of one player over the other, or some parts, and by the bobbing of my head, or, you can’t see it all you see is the back of my head, or flicking my tongue in a certain way…” He laughs, and the idea that he steers the monumental sonic beast that is Swans live with such gestures may sound comical, but to witness it is to observe a musical unit that’s keenly attuned to the slightest nuances of both sound and body language. The volume may be beyond extreme, but there are still infinite subtleties in those ‘sonic clouds.’ The point is that the method works, changing the textures of the songs and bringing them along in ways that fits the performance and the material, with the songs flowing in the way that they do…

“It’s an interesting development,” Michael concurs. “I’m certainly no classical musician. I’m glad it ended up that way. It feels necessary, and it feels good, it’s almost like I’m playing these guys.”

Ah yes. From a sidelong angle, we’re gaining a different insight into the most longstanding of all of the themes in Gira’s work: control. And yes, from a certain perspective, it looks like he’s playing the band, too.

As a musician yourself, are you more instinctive than technical?

“Oh yeah. My guitar-playing is ape-like,” he replies, laughing. He’s doing himself something of a disservice here. Gira’s solo acoustic performances are something to behold. Granted, he’s no six-string virtuoso, but few musicians, regardless of technical competence, can wring so much from an instrument. It’s all in the delivery. He recounts how during his formative years, when he and Kid Congo Powers (who following stints in The Gun Club, The Cramps and The Bad Seeds would play with Angels of Light) used to hang out, they decided they “didn’t want to play so-called ‘real guitar,’ we just developed our own way of approaching the thing. And… so be it, y’know? I mean, I know some chords, I make up shapes on the guitar and change tunings, I just figure out what I think sounds good and go with that, and other people who are more schooled than I figure how to play it…”

It’s perhaps this lack of technical constraint that’s enabled Gira to create music that, in short, doesn’t sound like anyone else’s music. I suggest that it’s often the case that the musicians who’ve spent a long time being trained in the technical aspects of music and their chosen instrument are completely lacking in creativity, and any creativity they may have is often stifled by their attachment to what’s technically correct.

“It’s a limitation for sure. But limitations are good. So I just do what I do, and I try not to worry about what that implies musically, I just know I want to make an event happen and I just figure out how to do that. It’s about different sounds, not even about the guitar, just sound.”

I think sound can communicate an awful lot, and beyond words, certainly, as well.

A lot’s already been made of the album’s duration, like The Seer before it. It’s not only a huge work in itself, but the individual tracks also tend towards the long side, and it’s not an album you can dip into: it demands total immersion, a commitment of the full span in order to really be appreciated…

“I hope that I’m a crafty enough seductress that I’m able to make it not such a painful endurance test. That’s hopefully part of my skill, my job, my agenda. My portfolio is to manipulate the dynamics and oppositions in such a way that leads you through this world. So hopefully it’s not an entirely arduous experience…”

Quite the opposite is true, of course: To Be Kind is a compelling and engaging experience, and the closer the engagement the greater the reward. Even if the experience is, at times, psychologically and sonically terrifying. It does seem to be an odd contrast to the contemporary world in which we live in. In fact, To Be Kind seems to stand as the absolute antithesis of the current way media is digested, in soundbites, snippets, and 140 characters, indicative of an evolutionary reduction in attention span.

“Fuck this world, is what I say,” Gira says, nonchalantly.

Is it intentional, a rebellious thing, or simply how the music’s evolved, and that that’s where you’re at now in that it just so happens to be completely against the zeitgeist of contemporary culture? How do you reconcile this leaning toward huge musical works with the fact most people have a shorter attention span than a goldfish?

“I’m not attacking anything… it’s just what I need to hear. So if other people want to hear it, that’s great.”

It seems that a lot of people want to hear it at the moment. It seems that if anything, Swans are more popular now than ever before.

“That is true. I can’t think of another act where that’s happened. Maybe you can, but… I feel really fortunate that we were able to gather our wits together three or four years ago and not only be able to make music but make music that challenges us and our audience and also get the felicitous benefit of an audience that’s just been growing. That’s… yeah, that’s pretty encouraging.”

When the band called it a day back in 1997, Gira complained he had essentially expended every last drop of energy, heart and soul only to conclude the journey drained and financially unrewarded after 15 years. Essentially, you called it a day because you were sick of it…

“Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I loved the music – at times – but by the end I just couldn’t go on with it… so I did something else. So it’s been a godsend, and I appreciate it.”

Since Swans returned to the live circuit, you’ve demonstrated you’re very much a forward-facing band, and the statement that you released was very much concerned with making clear this wasn’t some nostalgia trip, and that the live shows would not be about greatest hits sets or focusing on past. You’ve clearly proved this over the last four years, although sets have tended to feature an old track in setlist. What’s your relationship to your older material these days, and how has it changed over time?

“Well. It’s like a woman. And you meet her and you have this most tremendous sex and you’re together for a decade or something and then you get divorced and she’s the most hideous creature you’ve ever seen. That’s the kind of relationship I have with it.” He laughs. Only Michael Gira could conceive quite such an analogy.

One thing that does strike me about To Be Kind is that it feels more extreme than the last two albums – harsher, more brutal – and in some ways it does have more in common with the band’s earlier work, which was incredibly claustrophobic.

“Oh, really?” At this, Michael actually sounds surprised (although the recent review I clocked in The Wire suggests I’m not alone in this summation). “I don’t know, there’s no way you can predict how people will receive things. I view it as more accessible and more sonically realised, and sparser in places. It has more places where you can enter. But there you go…”

It feels to me a lot angrier…

At this, Michael laughs. Maybe it’s just me being angrier and projecting / reflecting that anger through the album.

Photo © Phil Puleo

Photo © Phil Puleo

“It’s fine, whatever you get from it is what you’re supposed to get from it. I think I could say ‘mommy, I want to go poo’ and people would think I was an angry old man…”

Interesting you should raise the issue. You recently turned 60, but rather than mellowing, your recent output feels more abrasive than ever. It’s certainly not lost its edge. What is it that drives you?

“Oh, I’m just a good artist,” he says modestly. He is, of course, right. He’s a remarkable artist, and considerably more self-aware and self-critical than most: this much is clearly apparent. “I mean, that’s what artists are supposed to do, right? Surprise themselves, as well as anybody that’s interested – and not just for the sake of surprising, but you’re supposed to follow a very vague thread, is all that exists in the previous work and you move forward with that and find a new way to iterate. I don’t know, I just try to use good taste, intelligence, and a little bit of talent, and hopefully come up with something that’s compelling and even for me sometimes it’s transformative in some ways.”

I think that’s fair comment. Any artist only really achieves through pushing themselves, and testing their limits.

“And so they fucking should do. Otherwise you’re just a clown.”

For a start, it’s not art, if you’re just churning it out…

“I don’t want to disparage other people… Did you hear the recent effort by Mr Dylan, Tempest?”

I have to confess, rather awkwardly, that I have not. Awkwardly because I feel my research as a journalist has been incomplete, and because I’ve never really got on with Dylan’s work, and have purposefully steered clear of his later works.

“I believe you should!” Gira tells me. “It’s very beautiful.”

Is it?

“Yes,” Michael asserts. “It’s a little hard to listen to at first because the recording is really strange. The drums are too loud in my view, but the words… His voice is just fucked, but the words, and the way they’re sung or talked are just profoundly moving.”

I think it’s the voice that’s been the problem for me. Dylan never was a singer, but through the course of his lengthy career, it’s degenerated badly. Even his most devoted fans find his live performances difficult to endure. Still, I can’t justly criticise or even speak about an album I haven’t heard.

“Well, his stuff now, he just sounds like a brillo pad on a tonsil. But the words, you know, they’re about mortality and lust and death and just really kind of brutal, basic human emotions that one might be experiencing at his age, our age, what is he, seventy-something, probably. But it’s not morose by any means, really beautiful language. I just think it’s a wonderful record.”

It’s clearly something I need to explore. After all, age – and quality of vocal – doesn’t diminish the work of truly exceptional artists concerned with the human condition. Leonard Cohen is a fine example of an artist of considerable age and with a substantial career behind him, who’s still producing great work.

“I’ve had problems with Mr Cohen for years, not with his songwriting, but with his cheesy-ass production… I mean, really great words of course, great songs, but just horrid they way they’re recorded. Horrible. But then, I can’t really assail someone of that calibre, really.”

It would be unfair. But back to Swans, age and stamina: the next tour the band are set to undertake will be the longest in their career history.

“The next tour? Yeah, it’s going to be probably 18 months, but that doesn’t mean that we’re on the road 18 months. It just means that the whole trajectory is that long. We’ll come home some times and do the things that lesser human beings do.”

How do you enjoy touring?

“I don’t enjoy it at all. I love to perform. That’s where I feel like God meant me to be, on stage, doing what I’m doing. But everything around touring, to me is just beyond reprehensible, I can’t stand it. But I do like performance, so in order to perform, I have to tour, don’t you? But we’re not exactly wealthy, so we don’t get days off in Paris, y’know… I think I did once have a day off in Paris, that was kinda nice, but we don’t get to enjoy the places we are, it’s not like this romantic seeing if the world thing, all you get to see is the van or the bus, the dressing room, then the van or the bus, and you’re driving out of town, you don’t really see anything.”

The kit you’ve got now must take an awful lot of time to set up, too…

“Oh yeah, unfortunately, yes. It takes us the lion’s share of our allotted time just setting up, and usually soundcheck is about 10 minutes.”

…so the fact it sounds great is down to chance, in a way?

“You know, in a really weird way, one of our sound people comment that we mix ourselves, because we play with a lot of dynamics and the parts are worked out that if you stand just in front of the stage without any amplification that’s how it’s supposed to sound. Which is what I do, actually, I set up the band in a half-circle around me so that I’m getting the sound, the whole sound, and it works out that way. But like how bluegrass bands perform, they just have one or maybe two microphones and they move back and forth from the microphone… It’s sort of a steroid revision of that.”

What is the sound actually like on stage? Out front, as you’re probably well aware, it’s stupendously loud. This is, of course, an understatement of galactic proportion.

“It is loud, certainly, on stage. It feels great, that’s why I do it. It’s elevating.”

And do you get a sense of power for wont of a better word?

“I get a sense of lifting up to the sky,” Michael enthuses. “…some a sort of a quasi… I don’t know, quasi’s not a good word, a sort of spiritual feeling from it. I’m not trying to be heavy about this, but it feels like a real sense of elation, of transcendence.”

That’s a word I also had in mind. In the early years, the volume was obviously very much about power; the infliction of pain, and making the band heard – audiences have a habit of talking over bands, even the ones they like and have paid good money to see. There was also a sense that the band were trying to get out of their skins by physically tearing it off. Nowadays, it seems the impression the volume serves a rather different purpose, and is more about creating a sound that is all-encompassing, immersive, transcendental and uplifting.

“Those aspirations are just different sides of the same coin,” Gira theorises. “It’s like the penitent Christians self-flagellating themselves, they probably reach a kind of ecstasy… People do that, they reach a kind of ecstasy. Maybe it’s something as banal and quotidian as endorphins being released. I think the goal is ecstasy, both in that and, say, if you compare us to gospel music…”

Whatever the reputation of the band, no-one goes to see Swans perform live to have a bad time. The occasions I myself have seen Swans have been truly phenomenal. People leave the venue on another plane and the volume is an integral part of that.

It’s at this point that a crew who will be conducting a live interview roll their van up on Gira’s drive and he has to go and let them in so they can set up their equipment in preparation for this. It’s at this moment the gruelling nature of the promotional cycle is thrown into the sharpest relief, and in context, Michael’s geniality is even more remarkable. Of course, I have a heap of questions left unasked, but then, I’ve also posed a slew of unscripted expostulations his way. But there’s no need to ‘make shit up.’ It all boils down to Michael Gira’s commitment to his art. Perhaps it’s what keeps him sane. Perhaps it is as simple as him being a regular, decent guy who dispels his bile through his art. But one thing is for certain: To Be Kind is truly a monster album, a monument in every way, and an album of an extremely rare intensity. The forthcoming live dates promise to be nothing short of earth-shattering, and right now, Swans are at the absolute peak of their power.

For more information and to purchase To Be Kind, please visit: http://younggodrecords.com

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