Michael Gira knows the value of aural dynamics. His confrontationally driven and bluntly bludgeoning anthems are often exercises in exhaustive catharsis and thunderous release. Gira is like a shaman; a baritone oracle full of dark pronouncements and thunderous wrath. From the earliest inception of Swans, Gira has revolutionized sound in beautiful and frightening ways. Seminal albums like "Filth" and "Cop" and provocatively-titled songs like "Raping a Slave" established the group as a galvanizing and intense force and, throughout the better part of the '80s, Gira and Swans flew the banner as the vanguard of what was called "No Wave." Early Swans music is characterized by menacing, battering rhythms in repetitive, creeping assault; atonal squalls of sluggish, sludge-drenched tempos that are weighted with Gira's brilliantly obsessive and often disturbingly visual lyrics.
As the '80s were winding down, Swans incorporated the counterpoint vocalization of Jarboe and a new phase began. Slight hints of a haunting, melodic smoothness crept into Gira's dense compositions, adding comparative sensations of airy lightness to their thunderous cacophony. Subsequent releases saw the band branch into quieter, dirge-like material that was funereal and elegiac. While the addition of Jarboe brought new textures to an already established soundscape, Swans were no less visceral. Live, they were a force of unmitigated power; a machine-like outfit whose incredible volume was punishing and dramatic.
They continued through most of the '90s, releasing several LPs, EPs and live recordings before disbanding in 1997. Gira formed Angels of Light after the demise of Swans and kept up with running his Young God record label. He also dabbled in writing (his first book: "The Consumer and Other Stories" was published on Henry Rollins's imprint 2.13.61 Publications) while Jarboe embarked on her own solo career, working with diverse artists like Tool's Maynard J. Keenan and Jesu's Justin Broadrick.
The newly-minted version of Swans is as blistering and vehement as the earlier incarnations. Their latest offering, "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky," is a therapeutic testament to this legendary powerhouse's ability to create mood and atmosphere while sustaining a rapacious capacity for provocation. Pummeling percussion, hypnotic droning, persuasive and derisive bending of aural soundscapes accompanies jangly and quiet acoustic numbers to create a pastiche of competitive sound. Densely layered and crafted with a madman's obsessive and articulate hand, "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky" is pure Swans. This time around, Gira has enlisted the help of original Swans member Norman Westberg and mid-period Swans guitarist Christoph Hahn. Rounding out the lineup are Phil Puleo, Chris Pravdica, and Thor Harris. Guests include Devendra Banhart and Gira's 3-1/2 year-old daughter.
The inscrutable Gira remains an intensely watchable figure. For all his sardonic brooding and vocalized sneering, the mysterious frontman is serene and cerebral, almost unexpectedly engaging and warm. The alchemy that produced these new Swans songs is evident in Gira's fascinating creative process.
"I had songs, and most of them were originally written without me realizing that I was going to re-start Swans," explains Gira. "The more I thought about doing another Angels of Light record the less interested I was. I'd been considering doing a record for a long time, so I gave these songs to the band in demo form with the idea of getting into the studio and expanding them. I had definite ideas as far as how the songs should go, but, thankfully, I have some pretty creative people to work with. But, within the context of what I want, they always surprise me. That happens a lot. And then incidental things will happen because I'll hear a sound that's recorded and it will inspire something else."
Lyrically Gira's writing has had a tendency to touch on the dark, almost perverse, side of expression. Themes of violence, depravity and a host of other not-suitable-for children motifs have always played a part in how Gira manifests himself artistically, though it is not the whole of his being.
"I don't know about the darkness thing... it doesn't really interest me. I don't even care about it. I just write what I have to write and I don't worry about how it's perceived. I don't necessarily agree with that characterization, but it doesn't really matter. I'm used to it. When I decide I'm going to write I sit down with a guitar and start playing. I come up with some chords and some details, just keep playing that over and over for days and then I'll squint and press and hope that perhaps some words will come out. After a few lines come out it starts building into a song. It all flows out and hopefully tells some kind of story.
"But I don't really sit down and try to extricate an idea before the thing evolves mechanically and becomes an idea. Often times I draw from life experience, of course, but I'll distort it. It really varies from song to song. Like the song "You Fucking People Make Me Sick". That song grew from a series of sounds that we made that were going to be an interlude on the record. But I just kept building on it, getting people to play things and add sounds and it grew and grew and it actually became a song in spite of itself. The words came while I was looking at all these terrible music websites. I was feeling a little bit carnivorous and a little bit homicidal and I had these words and I started singing them and I thought, 'Oh my God, they sound like Devendra [Banhart, who sings the aforementioned song],' and it just grew from there."
One wonders how deep Gira's anger runs these days. The man who sonically bludgeoned audiences with assault after assault full of rage and frustration is the impetus behind these songs and their inherent anger. Is he still the same rage-inspired mouthpiece?
"Not really anymore... well, yeah, I guess I am sometimes. Eh, I hate fucking people, basically, yeah. The anger is directed slightly more inwardly these days, but I'm certainly not as bad as I used to be. Most people that knew me back in the '80s would describe me as a pretty potentially violent, angry person. In those days there was an omnipresent rage. If you want to look at it as anger, that's OK. But I look at it more as running the sound to be completely overwhelming and obliterating. I look at that as a positive thing. It's the same notion that's in a religious impulse, trying to lose yourself in something. It's something to experience. I make a certain sound to be overwhelming, like a continuous crescendo. In the end, it is what it is and it's up for interpretation. It doesn't come from anger necessarily."
Constant visualization is a key element to Swans music. Off-kilter sounds inspire violently visual illusions that often play out like a movie soundtrack.
"It is definitely laid out that way. I grew up too young for hippies and too old for punk rock. Contemporaneously, I was listening to The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd's first three albums, which, to me, were total sonic worlds: statements. The kind of music you could totally lose yourself in. I spend more time thinking, tweaking, coming back and building on songs, on the idea of how to make the whole album work as a cohesive piece. I didn't sleep the whole year or so this record was being made. I was rearranging everything in my mind constantly. After the record was finished I was still thinking about how to build upon it. I made new segues and things. Not sleeping was a key factor in making this record."
|"My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky" (Credit: Beatrice Pediconi)
The overflow of material led to a companion piece titled "Look At Me Go".
"It's a companion CD that goes with the album. It's a limited, special edition that you can get through the website and at live shows. I took the raw material from the album as a starting point and looped things and went back to the 24-track stuff and took out sounds, added more sounds and made it into one long piece of music that's about 47 minutes long. It's one long, constantly-changing piece."
And, of course, there is the live aspect. Anyone who has witnessed the fervid immensity of Swans in a live setting knows to expect the unexpected. The new songs from "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky" will be heavily featured and, as usual, they will be redefined and redesigned by Gira.
"We're just going to look at these recordings as the starting point. I intend on stretching things out. Songs will be much longer and will keep building. And also we're going to do some material from the early Swans. I can't see trying to sound just like the album, so we'll take those songs and see what happens with this lineup. I don't want to just try to perform everything like it's recorded, that would just be stupid."