There are few things I’ve experienced louder than a live performance from this band—a band that has been through a plethora of lineup changes since its genesis in 1982, and more than a handful of world tours and albums. The band is Swans, and the musical genius behind this now legendary project is a man by the name of Michael Gira, a no nonsense musician with enough life experience to be my (badass) dad. Just last month, Swans released The Glowing Man, which was announced as their last album with the current lineup. Two weeks in to this final eighteen month tour cycle with this current design of Swans, I was able to get a couple of minutes with Gira over the phone as he sat in his stale hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I don’t know who I am”
DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN AND SAID ALL YOU’VE WANTED TO WITH THIS FORMATION OF SWANS?
Oh yeah, I mean as far as working specifically with the same six people over and over, I don’t want to disparage this version at all it’s the best musical experience I’ve had for an extended time in my career. These guys are great and we have a tremendous empathy for each other’s musical possibilities. Yeah, I just think it’s time to throw a wrench in the gears.
The movement from The Seer to To Be Kind seemed like an interesting departure from what was expected, where The Glowing Man feels more like a true summation of this incarnation of Swans. Was that an intentional shift?
Well, I don’t start with an overarching concept and I don’t think I’ve ever done that. But it’s usually what material is available to me as a producer, and that’s how it comes out. But I think there is certainly a shared aesthetic between those three albums and that’s because the longer pieces were developed through playing material that was in a nascent stage and then developed through live performance over the course of a whole tour cycle, which is typically about eighteen months. So they grew from a basic kind of guitar figure and through performing them they just expanded into the kind of… I don’t know what you would call them… songs. I don’t know if you would call them songs, but the things that are recorded. So its just natural that they would sound the way they do. I guess the difference in this has more kind of softer sections and possibly more nuance. I just wanted to do the best possible job as a producer because going in I was acutely aware that this was the last effort for this iteration of a this particular group.
Is it at at all bittersweet having this phase of Swans coming to an end after this extensive tour or is it the right time?
Oh indeed, however I know and everyone knows that we’re just literally spent and exhausted. The shows are going great I think. Comments have been that it’s the best ever, which I don’t know what the fuck that means. In fact, I look at the music in a state of development, it’s just moving along the way and sometimes it gets captured by a recording. I read an interview with Bob Dylan some time ago and he said a similar thing that “it’s always about the process”, and that clicked with me. I realize that’s really where the focus should be because you’ll never have a perfect version of something and it’s really just a way to keep working and finding new ways forward. That’s what the music is and I sort of realize that’s what it’s always been. When I finish a record I look at the things on it that have become maybe predictable and the things that have possibilities for a new direction and I get rid of the former and pursue the latter.
What is the reference with the album title, The Glowing Man? the lyrical reference you use is to Joseph in that song. is he the Glowing Man?
That’s just one of the titles of one of the songs. But Joseph is a complicated personage that comes up in a lot of my songs, I think I’m done with him. I use him as a sort of a stand in… a kind of surrogate for what I’ve used for the creative process or an ineffable thing that happens to where words, thoughts, music, flows through your mind from the back of your head to where you are this kind of twitching body there that is serving as a vehicle for it to happen. And Joseph might be that alter ego or animus that provides that opportunity. In fact, people have interpreted that song in many ways that I realize the character, not me necessarily, is talking to themselves.
What is the artwork suppose to resemble?
Oh, you only saw the digital version of it, but there are several different signs or symbols…well I don’t know if they are symbols because they don’t really signify anything. But there are several different signs, one on each panel of the LP and the CD, they are printed and embossed on raw cardboard so they are like these kind of objects that you want to peel off the record basically because they are so embossed. But I came up with those images last minute because my initial concept was to use a different character from a different language. So the front would be a Chinese character, the back would be a Japanese character, the next panel would be something in Arabic or Hebrew. Something that signified burning, or glowing, or man. So I gathered all of these characters and placed them in the panels and realized it looked incredibly schmaltzy and new-agey, maybe a bit of cultural dabbling or something. In despair, I had a couple days to come up with something else so I took these drawings of which are characters or symbols in themselves and that’s how it came about.
At any point of your thirty year musical career have you reached a point of writing exhaustion or have there always been a wealth of creative juices?
It’s actually thirty-five years. I started my first band thirty-seven years ago, actually thirty-eight years ago I started it, but we started playing thirty-seven years ago. Of course, but I’ve been feeling that way for twenty years so we’ll see what happens. I mean I will say that after this tour cycle, I’m not going to be touring quite so much. I’m not going to take it easy, but I’m going to do something more humane and physically possible. Frankly, it has been catching up with me.
Do you care how people PERCEIVE your music or have you always written for yourself and gone from there?
Oh well it’s a shared experience certainly. I’d be a narcissist if I thought otherwise. But you can’t think about the reactions of people who received the music or you start second-guessing yourself and it becomes kind of a vanity project, or more like a high school essay where you’re providing answers where actually the music should be a question. It’s a kind of dance, you know. But the live experience, when it’s working, which is not always of course, but when it is really working, it’s just as they elating for us as it is for the audience; and we’re just as much surprised as they might be by the experience. And it’s great to me when I talk to people after the shows when I go to the merch table every night and speak to people. I think it’s great to see that they get something truly positive from the music and I view it as an act of shared love myself.
YOU ARE KNOWN FOR BEING A VERY STERN NO NONSENSE TYPE OF PERSON. IS IT LIFE EXPERIENCES THAT HAVE MADE YOU THAT WAY OR IS IT THAT YOU DON’T KNOW YOURSELF AT ALL?
Well, both. I thought I was going to be a visual artist. I went to art school and I studied art and I was intensely interested in making art. I learned during that time the value of diligence and this rigorous kind of self-criticism, and also learned the value of work, of just continuing to work no matter what. So I felt that anything else beyond that is pretty much fluff. I’m not fond of the cult of personality that takes place particularly on the internet, with pop artists these days, and I’d like to diffuse that and be someone that’s an example that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m always working. And I don’t have a high opinion of myself. I just do my work and I’m happy that a certain number of people find value in it in their lives.
In your music with the way in which you use god and belief as a figure or symbol, do you have any religious affiliations?
Affiliations no, but I do have aspirations. But I am loath to speak about them specifically because I truly despise that when people in the world of popular music do that, I think it’s a sign of true vanity to think that your beliefs matter to other people or should matter. The music itself is an act of searching and increasingly has a spiritual aspect of the word spiritual is fraught with all kinds of cornball connotations but in the truest most Spartan sense, yes it does have that aspect in it.
Over thirty years of play the music you do and at the volume of your live shows how have your ears held up through all the wear and tear?
They’re fucked. Yeah. It wasn’t until the last couple years that I noticed. But I was a construction worker for quite some time, and as a result my elbows and my knees are pretty damaged, and I just view it as an occupational hazard. Because I don’t wear earplugs, I think it’s the kind of that the volume we sometimes do I feel it would be kind of be ingenuine and a bit bogus for me to wear earplugs, so I don’t. And truly, when the sound is working and it’s this kind of a swirl that you can’t control, to me the most ecstatic thing I can imagine besides true, beautiful sex. And I don’t mean fucking, but an act of love. In that, I can’t deprive myself of that in my dotage so I don’t wear earplugs. I just realize later that the ocean is roaring in my ears.
I am curious as to what you do with your free time when you are not writing or touring with Swans?
Sleep. Try to read. Try to be with my family which is incredibly important. I don’t listen to much music because it takes awhile for my ears to tamper down and be able to receive it without it just being something that is annoying.
You’ve been in North Carolina many times before. Do you have any input or thoughts on the state of NC? good or bad experiences?
No. It’s all the same to me. It’s all the same to me because we don’t have much time off in these cities and when we do have time off I use it as an opportunity to sleep. I don’t really get a true impression like a tourist.
Its been stated that this is the last album and tour with this formation of Swans. do you have any collaborators already in mind for future Swans material or do you plan to take some time off?
I’ll develop new material, and then I’ll call people I think are appropriate for the specific songs or the record. And that may include some of these guys, or that may include all of them on one song. Having a band, which is also a business for which I’m responsible for, is a huge amount of responsibility and stress right now that I just can’t take anymore. So I want to keep it more focused on what the correct arrangement is for the specific songs rather than ‘I have these six people, how do we develop the song?’ It’s going to be more about the song itself and how it gets developed that way. And that’s how I want to develop it that way from now on.