Swans have returned with the first new material under that name since ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’. ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope to the Sky’ is a fine addition to their body of work, and it pretty much carries on where its predecessor left on and still manages to find new places to explore. I’ve read some good interviews with Michael Gira promoting the new album, and I though it might be idea to dust off my interview with him, which I was privileged enough to do to mark the end of Swans and the release of ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’.
This interview dates from Autumn 1996 and first appeared in Weedbus fanzine, issue 12
After fifteen years the Swans are no more. Equally at home with assaultive noise, acoustic music, big rock arrangements or most recently ambient soundscapes, the New York outfit have been one of the most fluid and challenging acts of the last decade and a half. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Swans mainstay Michael Gira as he talked about the final tour and the 2 1/2 hour album ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’. I had to begin by asking the obvious question – why put an end to Swans now?
“By the time we do this tour in support of ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’ we will have been going for 15 years which seems like a long enough time for anybody to devote to something. I suppose I could have gone on with the name Swans but over the last three or four years it has become more of a corporate logo, rather than meaning a band with a specific sound, because the sound has always been changing. Unfortunately the name is charged with negative energy and our new music has to battle with people’s pre-conceptions and indifference. I guess it has become more of a burden than a benefit, although I think that the music has grown and, especially over the last two albums, has become more interesting. If people think that it’s bashing, crashing – ugliness and doom and gloom – then they’re never going to listen to it. I have a lot of other musical things I want to be doing as soon as we finish the tour. I’m going to put Swans to bed by reorganising the back catalogue and honing it down to four double CDs – each one representing a period in our career, hopefully providing a concise view of our work.”
From what you say people seem to be stuck with a vision of Swans from 1987.
“Yeah, some are stuck on ’87, some on ’84! I’m sick of beating my head against a wall with these people. One good thing that happens is that we keep getting different waves that listen to different periods of the music, then they go back and explore other stuff. Usually they like it, sometimes they don’t, but it’s good when people make the effort.”
Swans live in 1984
At a very varied two and a half hours in length, is this final album intended to represent everything that Swans were about?
“I would say that it naturally does that. SInce I knew it was the last album as I was recording it I just wanted to do whatever I liked, and not worry about having too many songs per se. I also wanted to concentrate on things which had begun to interest me, such as soundscapes and found sounds, as well as trying to combine all the different elements. We had a huge amount of material to draw from. We had recordings made recently with the last touring line-up (including Vudi from American Music Club), I had some instrumental pieces I hadn’t used and I had crude recordings done on a hand held cassette, as well as unused tape loops from as far back as 1981. Jarboe had a collection of recordings she had made on one of the first samplers, and we had all these narrators from a wide variety of sources. We threw it all into a computer which had a Sonic Solutions system. I approached it differently to recording an album track by track – I just considered all the material on the computer as fodder, because I could crossfade and mix up to eight different things at the one time, I created a lot of new pieces that way. Sometimes I would end up with a track composed of stuff from ’81, ’85, ’90 and ’95 all playing together, so the sequencing of the album was incredibly arduous, it took me a couple of months.”
Have you always had a fascination for tape loops and found sound? I remember on ‘Love of Life’ there was this teenage girl talking about forming a band.
“That’s Jarboe! We found that from the same source where we got some of these tapes. Her father was an FBI agent and he was in the habit of tapping phones, and his family home was constantly monitored because his informants would be calling in occasionally, and whether as by-product or intent, he recorded Jarboe’s girlhood conversations with her friends and she found them all in his desk after he died. The speech on ‘I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull’ is also something from his desk, although on that one the person is obviously aware of the tape, and he’s also some kind of criminal, I don’t know what he has done though.”
You have a lot less lyrics and conventional songs as there were a few years ago. Why?
“Mainly because I’m pre-occupied with soundscapes, I wanted to explore that and have less songs. It’s a release not to have that conventional structure. What I’m going to be doing post-Swans is two different projects to fulfil my musical needs! One is going to be called the Body Lovers and that’s going to be CD length tracks – probably three full length CDs – of soundscapes that change and develop over a long time period. The other project will be called the Pleasure Seekers, and that will mainly consist of acoustic instruments with long vocal songs. I’ve done that in the past pretty successfully, although I never had the concentration or the time to devote to that kind of songwriting.”
What about playing live – do you still find that exciting?
“Our last tour was really incredible. The couple of tours before that were fairly spotty. Obviously I’m pretty excited about this last one. Some of it is going to be extremely loud and assaultive, other parts will be pretty and melancholy. After this tour I don’t ever want to do loud rock music again, I think it’s time to stop. Older songs will be arranged into soft delicate pieces and the show should open with an assaultive but swirling mass of sound that keeps changing.”
What do you think is the most important thing during the Swans history?
“Personally the most important thing was that I did it, and the most important regret was that I did it! I think I made a wrong turn about 15 years ago, hence the most important thing was that I survived!”
Over the years which parts of your work are you happiest with?
“I’m quite satisfied with most of it, 80% I’m happy with. The other 20%, when we do these CD re-issues, I’m going to throw away, so you’ll be able to work it out then! The first double CD that will come out will be ‘Children of God’ and our Skin off-shoot ‘The World Of Skin’, both in their entirety. The other re-issues will each represent a period, so we’ve got ‘Filfth’ (the debut album) and a bunch of live stuff and out-takes from the same period as a 2CD set, ‘Cop’ and ‘Greed’ will be another double CD, and then all the music from ‘The Burning World’ up to just before ‘The Great Annihilator’ will be the final double CD. There’s some songs from that period that I think were pretty big mistakes, but there’s also some great stuff which deserves to survive. ‘The Great Annihilator’ will stay as it is for a while, so that will be our entire catalogue concise and honed down, it’s all coming out on our own Young God records, as will all the future releases.”
The only Swans promo video I could find, Love of Life 1992
How big an influence do you think that Swans have had?
“I don’t know, I can’t judge it. I wish we had a bigger one and that someone really famous would cover one of our songs to get us some money! The only one I’ve ever heard who followed us who makes really really great music is Caspar Brotzmann. Rhythms obviously relate to that, but his guitar playing is so intense and so beautiful. The other groups that play heavy quasi-industrial music seem like kinda stupid to me. They miss the point, I think.”
What do you say to people who still don’t get it, after 15 years?
“I don’t care! The people who bother me are like the journalist from Select who reviewed our album in a completely dismissive way, which is fair enough, except I don’t think that he listened to the album. He says that our “sexual politics remain neanderthal” and refers to ‘All Lined Up’ where I narrate a revenge fantasy against various enemies. He says how I “equate my fear of femininity with the holocaust”. I have no idea what he’s talking about! None of the people I was plotting revenge against in that song were women and there’s no mention of a woman in that song. I think he’s just breezed through the lyric sheet and made up his own mind. I think that’s fairly despicable.”
And finally, what about the people who have stuck with you?
“Oh that’s wonderful. Since I’ve opened up recently to meeting people I realise that I actually like the people who like our music! We get fan letters from all over the world and it’s really interesting to hear from them.”
Interview by Jonathan Greer