Swans’ Michael Gira Talks Multidisciplinary Influences, Spiritual Inspiration and ‘Leaving Meaning’
To call Swans a band is a gross understatement. The brainchild of singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and visionary Michael Gira, the prolific outfit has taken manifold forms, in both its style and lineup, over a span of nearly four decades. Emerging from the short-lived but cutting edge No Wave scene of the ‘80s, Swans made a name for themselves shocking and awing listeners with brutal, abrasive noise, bleak, dystopian lyrics, and violently immersive live performances. Over the years, rock as catharsis began to run its course, steering the band down more melodic avenues, with blues, balladry, post-rock proclivities, and virtually everything in between making its way into the music, as well as an ongoing theme of ambivalently employed religious imagery that has remained a defining characteristic to this day.
After a brief major label stint, with more overtly pop material, Gira made the well-advised decision to take charge and maintain creative control. Subsequent releases found the various styles surveyed so far coalescing into a grand gestalt, most famously exemplified in 1995’s “The Grand Annihilator.” A couple years later, having ostensibly exhausted Swans’ creative potential, Gira dissolved the group until 2010, when an unanticipated reunion drew fervent fanfare. With a successful crowdfunding operation, Gira released four sprawling, acclaimed records with a stable lineup, itself a rarity in Swans’ ever-evolving trajectory. Following the last release, 2016’s “The Glowing Man,” Gira deemed the band as having reached its pinnacle, and disbanded it.
Now, Gira is back with a fresh cast of characters, a novel live approach, and a spectacular new album, “Leaving Meaning,” which rechannels musical and lyrical trademarks honed and accrued over the years and, as always, ventures boldly into uncharted territory. Swans has just announced a set of US tour dates, and will be bringing their legendary, ever-evolving live show to stage in the spring of 2020 with an exciting new lineup and a novel approach. Gira met with Entertainment Voice for an in-depth conversation, shedding light on such topics as his inspirations from various mediums, the processes by which the songs came together, and the philosophical underpinnings behind his enigmatic lyrics.
Your new album is titled “Leaving Meaning,” a phrase echoed in tracks like “It’s Coming It’s Real,” in which you command, “Exhale, mindless,” and “Some New Things,” with the line “Nothing can stop us from becoming nothing now.” There seems to be a theme of finding freedom by giving up the search for meaning. Expand on this idea and how it came to fascinate you.
I’m more interested in the kind of state of mind where you stare at a phrase for long enough, and it becomes an object, and its inherent, learned meaning disappears, or similarly, you stare at your face in the mirror long enough, and eventually, you don’t recognize the person at all, and you’re just a shape in the mirror. That interests me. It interests me how the mind attaches itself to chatter, to words, and to interpretation, and I would be more interested, certainly in the last ten years, say, in what is behind the personality that’s looking at things — like who is looking at the personality? Who is looking at consciousness?
How long do you have to stare in the mirror before the meaning disappears from your face?
Well these days, for me, immediately (Laughs).
Open-ended religious symbolism and references have long been a theme in your work. In “Annaline,” you sing, “Oh, the Buddha was right / And St. John of the Cross,” and on the epic “Sunfucker,” inspiration from an Aztec rite led to lines like “I worship Sunfucker.” What’s your general take on religion, spirituality, and mysticism?
Well, I’m not qualified to expostulate on such grand subjects. That’s a two-fold question. I reference Buddha and St. John on the cross, and there’s a definite parallel between Buddhists reaching for the divine and Christian mystics reaching for the divine, and that is, sort of, giving up your attachment to language, and trying to reach into something that is ineffable and ultimately unknowable, but perhaps the act of reaching is in itself the meaning. And I was drawing a parallel between that state of mind and, frankly, making love to a person whom you adore and love, and how in certain moments, in such an encounter, one might lose complete connection with who they are, what they are, while simultaneously finding it intensely.
As far as the song “Sunfucker” goes, indeed that initial image for that song was gleaned from reading a history of the Aztecs, which I didn’t finish by the way. (Laugh) It was a very scholarly kind of book, and I found it to be impenetrable after a while, but I did glean this one beautiful image form it, and that was a high priest, standing on top of a pyramid, having just cut out the heart of his sacrificial victim, and holding it up to the sun. I just thought that was a beautiful image. Religion has long interested me because it has a very pure intent in its most refined state, but like most things human, when belief systems become pedagogical, they become ways of describing how one should live adamantly, without compromise. Then it becomes a pernicious thing, just like political beliefs, or any kind of belief in group systems. I don’t bash religion at all. I think it has approached what I what view as properly as a very pure and beautiful intent. It’s just that it becomes a system of social control at a certain point, and I don’t think that’s healthy.
The new version of “Amnesia” is an overhaul of the track from 1992’s “Love of Life,” with only the lyrics unchanged. Bleak, dystopian songs have been ubiquitous in the last couple years, and this song seems to fit the trend, with lyrics like “There’s no room left here for the strong / And everything human’s necessarily wrong.” What led you to excavate and reimagine this song now, and how does the new musical treatment change its meaning?
Well, I hope the musical treatment changes the meaning entirely. It puts it in a new context. But I was just searching for things to play live solo with my acoustic guitar, which I do, a couple years ago, and I happened on that song, and certainly, playing it with any kind of resemblance to the way it was initially recorded on “Love of Life” would make no sense whatsoever, so I decided to transpose it onto a new piece of music. I find that the words have some resonance, and I’m not quite sure what I was saying at every moment, but I think that that’s a good thing, and I think the images are valid and provocative, which is always good, but it’s certainly not a tract or any kind of political statement. It’s just more like a camera looking at the current media environment in which we live and the kind of society we live in, and just looking at various aspects of that.
Your music is filled with poetic lyrics and evocative soundscapes that create a uniquely vivid, visceral experience. You’ve recently mentioned such inspirations as J.G. Ballard’s short stories and the films of Nicholas Winding Refn. What are some other examples of works in mediums other than music that made their way into specific aspects of this album?
Well, “Cathedrals of Heaven,” that image was in a short story by J.G. Ballard. I just managed to get through, recently, his entire collection of short stories I love them. I don’t know, what can you say about J.G. Ballard? He’s so prescient in his take on how technology affects consciousness that I just recommend everybody read him. Another author I suppose that had some effect — throughout my life, I’ve revisited this author, and here’s one where I’m not sure I’m ever pronouncing it correctly — is Jorge Luis Borges. I carry a copy of his collected stories with me usually when I tour, and delve into them, and I just find that they’re the most gratifying fictions possible, and there are some images that leak into the songs which I gleaned from him, but I don’t think I’ll point them out for you. (Laughs) I think an astute observer might find them, but I’ll leave that to other people to find.
I’ve often drawn inspiration from books or movies. I love great art movies, and from other music, and I also write from the point of view of personal memories — not so much personal experience. I’m not really interested in writing about myself.
When you say “memories” rather than “experience,” do you mean isolated snapshots in memory?
Yeah. I’ll use experience, but I don’t recall if I’ve ever really written from the point of view of “This is me, Michael Gira, saying what I have to say. I’m more presenting a situation, and then I inhabit that situation as a singer. It’s like if you look at Nina Simone, for instance, who, to me, is a god, she would take songs from a wide variety of people. She wrote some of her own songs, but not that many, but she inhabits the material entirely, and she’s utterly unapologetic and completely convincing as a performer. She inhabits the words. I try to create words for myself to sing that I can also do that with, but singing about myself or my opinion or, god forbid, my pain or anger or something would just seem, to me, kind of self-indulgent, so I don’t usually do that. Choose your favorite pop star nowadays, it’s all about them, and I think that’s kind of gross. If you look at Leonard Cohen, for instance, he wrote fantastic songs, but when he sings them, I don’t get the sense that Leonard Cohen is talking about his specific life. He’s created a work that anybody can fall into.
As one of the only bands to emerge from the ‘80s No Wave scene and persist for a staggering three and ahalf decades, you’ve taken on numerous disparate musical forms over the years. The new album combines bits from various eras — the abrasive textures of the early work, the ambient explorations of the mid years, etc. What guided your musical direction on this record?
Oh, as always, intuition. I’ve learned to trust, unashamedly, my intuition. I’ll have a series of songs, and then I follow these inchoate kind of vague shapes that are in my mind of how it should sound, and then I’ll gather musicians, and that interjects a whole new factor into the proceedings, and then I kind of mold that, according to developing intuition of how it should sound. It’s all based on intuition, really. Sometimes there’s a color. I won’t say a specific color because it’s not really like that, but there’s just a kind of preverbal sense of how things should be, and I’ll just look for that and follow that.
On a related note about abstract influences, “My Phantom Limb” is a dramatic, mind-bending climax to an already intense album, and appears to be the latest iterance of the cryptic entity channeled through you, whom you call Joseph, and have often referred to before. Such bizarre abstraction begs for elaboration, so please provide some.
Well, actually I started off writing that song thinking about — I can’t be too specific without being gauche here, but a friend of mine who’s dying, not really a close friend, but someone I’ve known for years, whom I greatly admire. It was sort of an homage to that person, and then the lyrics took on a character of their own, and they kind of left that initial impetus behind. I realized later on that there’s this bit where I’m singing, “Such and such is sacred, such and such is sacred,” that that relates back to a poem that I haven’t read in decades, which is Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl,” (laughs) where he says, “Such and such is holy,” you know, and in this kind of pantheistic, Witman-esque way, ascribes holiness to the most debased and the most divine things. That’s the kind of perception I have about reality often, that it’s all so incredibly intense and magical that it’s just hard to even come to grips with — or maybe it’s inadvisable to do so.
And about this “Joseph?”
Uh… fuck that dude, man.
“Some New Things” contains the lyrics “There’s a kneeling Glowing Man / There’s a rope reaching up / To a sky, to a lie,” referencing your previous albums “The Glowing Man” and “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.” How exactly does the new record connect to these other two?
Oh I don’t know, that song is a list. I’ve written recently, last ten years anyway, list songs where I just name things. It’s like having the open camera, and whatever comes in is what gets written on the page. It has no narrative thread. It’s just listing things that came into my mind, and those are things that came into my mind.
“The Nub” is an especially ethereal track, with vocals from enigmatic performance artist Baby Dee, with whom you’ve toured previously. How did this collaboration come together, and what was the process like?
Oh well, I feel a bit hackneyed because I’ve told this story, but it’s a true story, so I guess I can tell it again. I was just sitting at my desk with my acoustic guitar, playing that riff that you hear as the basis of that song, and as usual, I was bereft for words, and I was just daydreaming as I played, and suddenly, I had this image of Dee floating in space, adorned only in diapers, and she was kind of floating in the stars, and the stars became nipples, and she was sucking the milk from the stars. And so I viewed her as this cosmic entity, and this beautiful, cosmic angel, I suppose, which is perhaps how I view her in reality, (laughs) and then the words just kind of wrote themselves, and I thought, “Oh my god, here’s a song about Baby Dee. You’re written as a portrait or just as my strange take on that person.” So I thought, “Well, I’ll just ask her to sing it,” and I was delighted that she agreed to do so. And the tableau of that song, the sonic tableau, is provided by the Necks, the great Australian improvisational trio, and it’s further orchestrated upon by myself and others. That’s one of the two songs on the record on which the Necks, again heroes to me, play.
Swans have released an incredible number of live albums, with one following nearly every studio release during a certain interval. How has “Leaving Meaning” translated to the live stage, and will it see a live recording of its own?
Well, I don’t know how successful it’s going to be, so I don’t know that we’ll record it, but we’ll see. Live, the instrumentation and approach is going to be completely different than the last ten years’ work. I love the group that I disbanded in 2017. That, to me, was the high point, probably the highest point of musical performance that I’ll ever have, or that any of us will ever have. It was just an amazing experience to work with those gentlemen, and we created something far beyond our own capacities, I believe. But like all collaborations, it can become predictable, and you start relying on tropes, and I just felt that after a while, it was not going to be fruitful anymore, and that we’d start imitating ourselves if we didn’t disband that particular group, so I did, and made this record.
Now, as far as the next live configuration goes, that will be myself playing acoustic guitar and electric guitar, singing. The glorious Ben Frost, who is a great composer, arranger, and electronic musician, he’ll play synthesizer, electric guitar, and Mellotron. And then, Dana Schechter, with whom I’ve worked in Angels of Light before, and she played on a song on this record, she’ll be playing bass, and also some lap steel and some loops. And Christopher Pravdica, who played bass in the last configuration of Swans, will play bass as well, and make sounds, and play some keyboards. Christoph Hahn will be playing lap steel loops and electric guitar. And Phil Puleo will be playing drums and some keyboards and various other things. And we’ll all be sitting. That doesn’t mean we’ll be passive, but we’ll all be sitting, and we’ll be generating hopefully long envelopes of slowly evolving sound, devoid of the kind of explosions that one might have associated with the past lineup. But we’ll see where it leads, and I’m looking forward to it. We will take, I’m sure, many songs from this new album as a basis, but I don’t think we’re going to — well, I certainly hope — we’re not going to stick to the arrangement, or worse, copy the arrangement from the record. I’m more interested in just using the songs as a template that this group can use to find its own voice.