Have We Got Some Extra Earplugs?
Michael Gira Uncages the Swans Within
It was just another beautiful late summer afternoon in Brooklyn when I wandered up to a Williamsburg street corner and greeted Michael Gira. It had been awhile since the days when we’d chat over a pint of Brooklyn Ale at the bar across the street from my old place in Park Slope. Gira used to walk his dog around Happy Hour, and between brews he’d slip outside to puff on one of the cigars he always carried.
Since then, he’d relocated upstate and started a family, but now here he was, back in New York City, rehearsing with a brand new edition of the Swans – a legendary outfit that had been out of circulation for 13 years, and now was prepping itself for a return to the stage. The lanky Gira, a congenial gent for all his vaunted intensity, shook my hand and led me back to a vending machine behind the warehouse where the band was practicing. He handed me some quarters and invited me to grab a beer, as the box was stocked with ice-cold Yuengling cans for the mere price of $1.75.
“Come on inside,” he said. “We want to play you a song.”
Sandwiched into a rehearsal space that felt about as claustrophobic as a prison cell, the six members of the Swans each had exactly enough room to stand, their backs to stacks of imposing amplifiers lining the walls. I barely squeezed in by the door when Norman Westberg made a humanitarian gesture.
“Have we got some extra earplugs?” he asked, electric guitar already crackling.
“No,” said Gira, who has been fronting some variation of this band, off and on, since 1982. He smiled, a cowboy hat lending him a touch of the desperado. “Let him suffer.” And then they all leaned into a swirling, relentless piece of music that started loud and grew exceptionally louder, an overlay of guitars, bass and percussion generating a mysterious cloud of overtones, floating above a vertiginous drone. Gira, who eschews cochlear protection himself, intoned the lyrics in a baritone a bit north of Johnny Cash as the drums crashed concussively.
The song, “Eden Prison,” belongs to a whole new repertoire that Swans have hammered into shape for its tour, bolstered by a new album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (on Gira’s independent Young God label). Even as I struggled, in vain, to shelter my ears from stabs of pain, my body warmed to the embrace of the vibrating air. Even in the din, there was something transcendental going on.
“I was done with volume, I thought,” Gira, 56, said during a rehearsal break, firing up that cigar outside a nearby bar called, in true Williamsburg hipster fashion, Bar. “But, lo and behold, fate intervened.” The songs that he finally put together for the album are richly imagined and painstakingly executed, evoking everything from campfire songs to the dissonant ritual horns of avant-garde Viennese composer Hermann Nitsch. There’s a colorful dynamic range, and darkly poetic lyrics that reach from the gutter to the stars. It’s one of the best albums Gira’s ever made, at once blasted and beatific. And, once again, it was happy hour. The pints were at hand and I punched on the voice notes function on my cel phone.
What brought you back to the Swans?
When I first ended the Swans it was a tremendous relief to leave it behind. It was 15 years of just real intense struggle. A lot of elation and joy, too, but it was really hard. I was sick of all the expectations. It seemed preposterous that I would ever do it again. But after doing all these Angels of Light records, and facing the prospect of another one – I had enough songs – I felt underwhelmed by it. I wanted to hear this kind of music again and be inside it. One way to do that is face your demons and starting going.
It sounds like a new page…
I couldn’t do some nostalgia piece. I’m reasonably intelligent so that would be to me anathema. To keep myself vital, I had to do this. I’ve been pretty gratified, touched, to see how over the course of the last 13 years the audience has actually grown. Young people discovering it. It seems to have lasted.
How did moving upstate and having kids change things?
It was one source of my writer’s block, having a kid. We have two now, but the first one was no sleep, trying to run a label, trying to raise money for this ridiculous house and all this shit. I never had time to even write. And then when I tried to write I felt like a piece of fuckin’ salami. I had nothing to say. It took me three years to write these measly songs for this album.
How would you describe the process?
Sitting down with an acoustic guitar and waiting for words to arrive from heaven. Certain songs came really easy, like the felicitiously titled “You Fucking People Make Me Sick.” Those words came right away. “Eden Prison” was really easy. But generally it was really difficult.
One of your kids is on a song.
Yeah, she sings with Devendra [Banhart] on “You Fucking People.” The reason I had Devendra is when I was singing the song I sounded like Devendra. I don’t know why. I thought, “That’s ridiculous I’ll just get Devendra.” So I called him up and he did it. I needed a little extra at the end, and my daughter was singing out in the other room. It’s kind of a cynical sucker punch for the next part, too.
I love the arrangements. The massive dynamic swings, the colors.
I’ve been making records for fuckin’ 25 years.
But it’s obvious that you want to hear a lot of different sounds.
My ear gravitates towards huge sounds but also just dynamics. When something is loud all the time it’s tedious. Also when I hear a sound I hear another sound. I hear the nuance in things. I hear the overtones and then I replicate them. There are some parts, I won’t say which, where I actually sang the overtones and some of those soaring guitar parts, and cut them back into the mix. I plan things out but once things start happening I hear new things.
How do you put the songs together, when you’re recording?
We don’t flail or jam or anything. I like to repeat parts over and over and gradually they morph and you find new voices inside the chords.
That’s the harmonic phenomena at the heart of all the stuff.
Yeah. To me it’s like going to church, when I start hearing that I feel like I’m levitating. I think Pink Floyd were probably aware of that phenomenon. Sonic Youth are. But I don’t know too many bands that think about that.
To me, this is an approach that really rises out of the early ’80s (post-minimalism, etc.)
The volume aids that. That’s why it’s necessary. It’s not some act of aggression, some shit like that. Although I like to feel it physically. It’s really cathartic. Don’t say cathartic. I hate that word.
Galvanic? That’s nice. Galvanize all the forces that are in you.
No, I don’t like caustic. Certainly in the early days, it had teeth. But really the big secret was how the music felt physically playing it and being inside it. Nothing like it. It’s like ten church choirs singing different pieces at once. Being inside this maelstrom of sound. You can get addicted to it. My friend Doug Henderson, PhD in music, explained to me once that the reason for that is – what is it you get when you exercise?
Endorphins. [Laughs]. It promotes the release of endorphins.
Loud music and heroin.
It’s like a drug.
At the beginning what gave you the bug to make that kind of noise?
It wasn’t intentional. It was intuitive. There was a lot of music I liked at the time that had an influence. I knew that I wanted to make something just utterly massive and something that would just crush your body when you played it. It wasn’t supposed to be aggressive. It was supposed to be all-consuming. Some of the music that informed it? Throbbing Gristle. The Stooges, certainly. But the Stooges, they changed chords, and I could never bring myself to change a chord. [Laughs really hard]. It seemed like a waste of time! Let’s stay here and see what happens. Glenn Branca, with whom I played a little bit. He was inspirational in the sense of his total maximum experiential potential of music. He’s a genius in my view, wanting to reach higher and higher. And not many people in this cynical overly self-critical and ironic ’80s, were willing to go out to that extent, even bringing in the dangerous word “spiritual.”
Back then, you lived in a burned-out basement?
It was burned out but the East Village was burned out, that’s for sure. It was at 6th Street and Avenue B. It was a bunker, basically, and thank God it was a bunker because everything we owned would have been stolen many times over. I had one little hatch window at the back of the rehearsal space which was the only natural light. To the detriment of my health I’m sure. It was $100 a month. It was a nice space. It was this ideal situation. [But] it was pretty dangerous. Maybe every fifth building was inhabited – legally, that is. There was machine gun fire every night. We couldn’t have made that music anywhere else. We wouldn’t have been allowed to. It was really loud outside. It went outside. There was a school across the street. They must have thought it was Satan in there. It used to be a Pentecostal Baptist church. There were pews in there when I moved in. The santeria people used to leave hexes on the door outside, maybe that was why it was never a tremendous financial success.
Little bags with chicken feet and stuff in them?
Because of you?
Yeah. I knew a local lady who was into that and she helped me out.