Art and Instinct: Michael Gira of the Swans
Formed in New York more than 30 years ago, Swans are a seminal post-punk band providing an outlet for the primal instincts of frontman Michael Gira. Although there was a break up in 1997, the band reconvened in 2010 and has been going strong since. Gira recently phoned in from his Woodstock home to talk about touring and plans for a new album.
Take me back to the early days when the Swans formed. Did you think at the time that the group would be around for 30 years?
I didn’t think about the future then. I guess I don’t do much of that either now.
What was the music scene in New York like at the time?
It was like putting a bunch of people in a boxing ring; they just hit each other in the face. I don’t know what the music scene is like now. I’m not involved and haven’t been for decades. Swans is its own thing and has been for years.
How did that happen?
Monomania. I have a short time on earth and I want to make something as unique and urgent and compelling as possible while I’m here. I try to make good art, basically.
You went to art school, so were you inspired by visual art?
I went to art school a long time ago. I started in ’75. At the time, conceptual and performance art was in the fore. I was interested in artists like Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci. I discovered this, I guess you would call it a genre, of this art going on in Vienna at the time which was pretty extreme. That was inspirational to me. Hermann Nitsch, Rudolph Schwarzkogler and Otto Muehl were the main purveyors of this rather Dionysian spectacle. I was an assistant at a Hermann Nitsch performance in Venice, California and that had a strong influence on me. The main thing that got me into music at the time was punk rock. It seemed so much more relevant and urgent and necessary than forging some kind of art care, which was beginning to look to me like a parallel career to being a lawyer or accountant. I just wanted to make shit happen. Punk rock was the vector for that.
That’s certainly happened in the art career.
Normally, it’s quite safe and it’s a series of chess moves. It wasn’t for me, although I thought that I would be an artist from a very young age. I drew all the time and devoured books on art. Somehow my experience in art school soured me to the whole thing.
What drew you into the punk world?
I saw the Screamers and the Germs and Black Randy and the Metrosquad. Who the fuck else? Fear. When I was in art school, I had a big factory building I shared with some other artists. We put on a show with Fear, X and I can’t remember who else performed at our loft. I went to all the shows. I published a magazine that was quite an endeavor called NO. We did interviews with the typical suspects and managed to secure an interview with Alan Vega of Suicide. We had some performance art in there and some pornography. It was kind of amateur. I did two issues and my friend Bruce Kalberg, who’s now deceased, carried it on. Being the type of personality I am, I had to perform. I started a pretty bad punk rock there called the Little Cripples. We did our first show with the Bags in San Francisco and I was electrified and knew I had to do that. But the L.A. punk scene seemed kind of predictable and conformist. I had been reading what was going on in New York with the No Wave scene and Suicide, of course, and it seemed like a more interesting place to be. When I moved to New York in 1979, that whole trajectory was dying out and there wasn’t much that interested me, though I did get a chance to see James Chance and the Contortions at Max’s Kansas City. I started a band called Circus Mort. That didn’t last long. In 1981, I started Swans.
Swans had a unique sound from the start. How’d you shift from bad punk bands to cutting edge post-punk?
I don’t know. I didn’t think in those terms. I don’t think that phrase existed at the time. It was just through force of will. I wanted to cut away all the fluff of rock music. Chord changes seemed irrelevant and any kind of melody seemed irrelevant. I wanted to make it as brutal and visceral as possible. It was an elaborate scheme to give myself an excuse to scream.
Did you feel a kinship with Sonic Youth?
We were friends. I knew Kim [Gordon] in art school and she moved to New York a year earlier than I did. I ran into her in the streets somewhere. We started hanging out and Thurston [Moore] and I got on great. This was the time of the advent of English disco, basically. It was dance music and we were the opposite of that. We just banded together and did a lot of shows together and did a couple of disastrous tours together. As both of us started to get some notoriety, we kind of parted ways.
Talk about Angels of Light, which you formed in 1997.
By that point, Swans had been through a lot of different musical phases and changed considerably. It was 24 hours a day work for 15 years. It never was very remunerative and seemed like it had reached its natural conclusion, so I killed it. I wanted to do something simpler based on writing songs on acoustic guitar and then orchestrate them. I was more interested in art songs. I did that and pursued angels for 13 years. Along the way, I started my record company and worked hard on that and released Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family and was working intensely. About three years ago, I had some songs for what I presumed would be a new angles record. In the process of arranging me underwhelmed me and I wasn’t that interested. I wanted to be in side this vortex of sound again for a number of years. I decided I would take these songs and work up some new ones and start Swans again. The first one, My Father Will Guide Me on the Rope to the Sky, was more of a transitional album. The Seer is more exclusively like this version of Swans. I find it to be ecstatic to perform. Right now, it’s quite vital.
The Seer is a really mesmerizing effort. The first track “Lunacy” is so hypnotic. How do you think it fits in Swans catalogue? You’ve said it’s the culmination of Swans.
Well, that’s a little bit tongue in cheek or obvious. Everyone is the sum total of their experience at any given time. The records uses methods I’ve used on projects like Angels of Light and Swans. It’s pure soundscape. I realized everything that went into it was my sum total of a so-called musician and record producer.
Are you writing new songs?
We’re currently performing a set which is comprised almost entirely of new material that I would sketch on acoustic guitar and then bring to the band. Over the course of this touring cycle the songs have morphed to a large extent and things are constantly changing. I have a few more that will be developed in the studio. I don’t know how long the record will be. I don’t really care any more. We’re about to embark on that when this touring cycle concludes at the end of August.
How long will Swans carry on?
I don’t know. We’ll do this record and see what happens. There are lots of ways we could go. I find it kind of discouraging to think about the future too much. I just prefer to be in the moment.
2013 Tour Dates
Detroit MI – Majestic Theatre w/LOW
Chicago IL – Pitchfork Music Festival
Iowa City IA – Blue Moose Tap House
Newport KY – Southgate House
Columbus OH – The Bluestone
Cleveland OH – Beachland Ballroom
Buffalo NY – Tralf Music Hall