Interview: Michael Gira
For over 30 years, Michael Gira has been summoning spires of sinister noise. He named his vehicle SWANS (‘majestic beautiful looking creatures with really ugly temperaments’), and set about building a legacy that sways and judders as it dwarfs you in a sound that is both soul uplifting and body destroying. But such a weight can weary, and in 1997 Michael laid Swans to rest after the release of the gargantuan Soundtracks for the Blind.
During the intervening decade Michael would keep his oar in with solo releases, numerous projects including Angels of Light, and his ongoing record label Young God Records - home to artists such as Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family. But the visceral lure of Swans returned, and in 2010 Michael reformed a new lineup of the band, releasing My Father will Guide me up a Rope to the Sky to both critical acclaim and new generation of admirers. A heavy touring schedule and two further albums followed, with To Be Kind peaking at a staggering number 37 on the US Billboard Charts whilst still managing to be an absolutely terrifying thing of beauty.
Prior to the 2016 release of new album The Glowing Man, Michael chatted with Collide about poverty, endorphins, Haitian revolutionaries and the transcendent nature of music itself.
I wanted to start out talking about the album ‘To Be Kind’ and in particular the Toussaint L’Ouverture pieces. They’re such a massive undertaking - I’m interested in what triggered your interest in the Haitian Revolution and what compelled you to want to document it in that kind of fashion?
Well I read a biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture and also a book called ‘All Souls Rising’, which is a historical novel set during the time of the Haitian revolution, and I just found the whole event to be spectacularly transcendent. It was so brutal and violent and iconic in terms of human potential and failure - just an orgy of human failings and possibilities. So we were playing a groove live, which didn’t have any words for yet, and I guess I was reading the book on Toussaint at the time. I just started shouted his name and eventually I developed some words that sort of pointed at the phenomenon that he was.
It is perfect fodder for a Swans piece because a lot of your work is so epic in scope and scale that it kinda constructs these great edifices and conversely great expanses in the mind’s eye of the listener. What is it that makes you return to that approach, that immensity of scale?
Ah, immensity of scale! Minds eye! (laughs). Well I could just say that the music develops organically! My mates and I have a proclivity for such things and so we pursue it.
There also seems to be almost a sense of solemnity to the mystical bent in your work - an austerity that speaks of circumstance and ceremony but then boils over into the ecstatic…
Well I like feeling good, so if it’s ecstatic that’s wonderful. I guess the ambition, as it is with many people, is to rock out! So when the guitars and all the overtones and the volume and the low end and all of that comes together in a kind of undeniable march towards heaven, then you’ve got something going and you just follow it. With us, we have structures certainly, but we’re always open to things leading elsewhere and the best times are when the music just guides you, you follow it and you discover new things.
The enormity of those live shows is well documented, do you sometimes feel like you’re pushing something Sisyphean uphill when grappling with the weight of that sound or is it something you can ride?
Oh it’s both of those things. Nothing good comes without a struggle, though. It’s a struggle to reach certain heights, but I don’t want to make it sound like some kind of recondite spiritual wisdom or something that we possess. It’s just that when the music reaches a certain point, a crescendo, it’s a beautiful thing. So you pursue it.
With the volume being such a quintessential part of your approach, has that taken its physical toll over the years?
Do you mean am I deaf? (laughs) Largely, yes! My ears are severely challenged right now. I’ve been working for months on the new album and I have an unfortunate tendency to want to listen at a very high volume to see if it's working as a total experience and so my ears suffer. Certainly playing the kind of music that we do live for so many years is challenging to my ears. Physically, just the physical activity of playing? That’s also very challenging. Our shows are routinely two, sometimes three hours long and it gets pretty exhausting, but it’s also great. If you’ve ever engaged in any kind of strenuous exercise, you know that when you reach a certain point of exhaustion something else kicks in - I guess its pheromones or something. What’s the word I’m looking for?
Endorphins, yeah! Pheromones would be fine too (laughs).
Well with the amount of sweat you generate after playing for that long you’d be generating a shitload of pheromones as well…
Yeah! But you reach this point where you get a second wind and things just open up and I enjoy it. It’s what I do.
You were working with a pretty interesting desk for The Glowing Man, right? One of only three in the world?
Oh it just happens to be in the studio I’ve been working in and he runs everything through it. It has really great tubes and transformers in it. It was designed and built by this famous, I think, Austrian conductor whose name is Karajan. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and is famous for working with Maria Callas. He had these three desks built and I guess they predate some of the stuff that was at Abbey Road. It’s just this kind of heavy piece of equipment that has the highest possible electronics in it and it just sounds amazing. You run something through it and it just makes it magical. It’s great.
The album was recorded in Berlin?
I did some recording there but it was primarily mixed there. We mostly recorded in Texas.
Did the immensity of those open spaces in Texas lend a particular sense of place to proceedings that you feel might have seeped into the record?
No (laughs). You know, when we’re making an album we’re not out snuggling with the cactus, we’re in the studio working, and the studio we worked at was a really wonderful studio. I don’t really see much outside of it. I spend every waking hour in the studio, basically, so the exterior environment doesn’t have much effect.
You’ve released a fair share of live albums including recent charity release ‘The Gate’. Is that maybe a continued attempt to capture the physicality of a show on tape?
Well there’s really no hope of that. The live experience, I guess with any music really, can’t be replicated. What I try to do is to achieve the kind of sonic epiphanies that we might achieve live.
When I’m in a studio, I use other means to try to make the sounds resonate more, and that has to do with orchestration and things which you can kind of replicate. But it’s so hard; to make it sound that way on tape or in a recorded medium is just almost impossible, because when you’re confronted with a big space, especially with loud amplifiers and speakers, the sound is just swirling all over the place, especially if it’s a well-tuned room. There’s music that’s happening that’s not being played, with overtones and echoes and everything affecting everything else, and to make that happen in a recording is next to impossible. But you can always strive.
You’ve engaged directly with your audience via crowdfunding when it comes to financing and preparing work. In fact, you were somewhat of a pioneer in that regard. What inspired you to take that route and what advantages do you think it brings to the creative process?
Well, as always, the main inspiration for such endeavours is absolute fear of poverty (laughs). As one would expect, making the kind of music we do, our audience is not huge. We can’t expect to spend the kind of money we spend on an album and receive any kind of remuneration or even hope to break even. The only possible thing to do is to appeal to the people who have gotten something valuable from the music.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there was a period in the 90’s where bands like yourselves and Godflesh were finding themselves on major labels briefly. By all accounts it was a thoroughly bewildering experience - how did that affect your outlook and did it perhaps precipitate the shift that led towards doing the Angels of Light stuff?
Well I carried on for quite some time after my unfortunate experience with a major label. I started my own label with which I released SWANS music for another decade or so. That was just about realising all my experiences with record labels had been unhappy, and that I just needed to do it myself and have complete control. I wanted to take responsibility for it in all ways, including financially, so I just figured out how to do it. I had some experience doing contracting and construction, so it really wasn’t that much different. You just figure out what the materials cost and what the labour costs and go from there.
Speaking of Young God, what’s happening with the label at the moment? Are there any projects we should be anticipating?
Young God Records is pretty much solely devoted to the music of SWANS now. I have no personal time to devote to other peoples' music, and the environment in the music industry doesn’t really behoove investing time and money in other people. It’s hard enough to do it just for my own music.
You’ve previously had anthologies of prose and short stories published. Do have any desire to return to that kind of medium at all, and who were your literary influences when composing these pieces?
I haven’t been able to write seriously in a very long time because I haven’t had time to do it and, since you write, you know that in order to write well you have to read a lot. You have to spend a long time each day writing. That just doesn’t exist for me right now, but I’m hoping at some point in the not too distant future to pursue writing seriously again. As far as influences, I don’t sit down and write thinking about other people’s writing, ever. I just start writing, I start hacking away and then trying to make something of it, but people who I think are exquisite writers would be Cormack McCarthy, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet.
I heard that within the last couple of years you decided to ‘get through the Bible’ as it were.
Never made it! (laughs)
What prompted that decision to tackle it?
Well it’s the crux of Western Culture! And also it has, I believe, a lot of truth in it.
Going back to the initial return of SWANS - I heard that it was while you were performing a particular segment of an Angels of Light song live that you decided to resurrect SWANS. Can you tell us a little about that moment?
It was in Paris and I was playing with my backing band Akron/Family, and we just had a moment where it was this kind of 'swaying slave ship' rhythm, and the guitars were swirling. It wasn't anywhere near as loud as SWANS, of course, but it just had this transporting kind of hypnotic effect that I realised I was craving. It took a year or maybe even two to decide I needed to reopen that door. I’m glad I did.