Michael Gira reforms cult post punk outfit Swans for live dates
Legendarily intense, abrasive band on UK tour
Nadine McBay talks to Michael Gira, of newly reformed cult post-punk outfit Swans, about upcoming gigs that will be just like sex, or a knife in the belly …
‘It’s a huge ordeal for me to undertake Swans again, but I had to remain true to myself, so I did it.’
Michael Gira, the only constant member of the legendarily intense, abrasive band, is speaking from a hot, cramped rehearsal space in Brooklyn’s fabled hipster neighbourhood, Williamsburg.
Taking a breather from refining the eight tracks of new album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to The Sky for the band’s first tour since 1997, Gira is categorical that his decision to reconfigure the band described by one prominent critic as ‘like little else on the planet before or since’ was nothing to do with retreading the past. Instead, it was an act of creative imperative.
‘I’d been working with my other band, Angels Of Light, as well as producing other people’s music and it just felt I’d reached a dead end,’ he says. ‘I had written songs but had no idea how to orchestrate them as Angels Of Light songs. A few years ago Angels Of Light had been on tour with Akron/Family and there were some sections that ended up sounding very Swans-like. It was very invigorating and I chewed on the idea for a while.’
Assembling Swans from members of Angels Of Light (the quieter, though no less vivid outfit Gira has released five albums with) he was delighted when Swans mainstay Norman Westberg agreed to rejoin. Celestial keyboardist/vocalist Jarboe, the only other Swans constant, was not asked to rejoin, however. ‘Though I’ll always love her, it didn’t make any sense to ask her,’ Gira explains. ‘It would have been more of a nostalgia thing, plus there’s just too much baggage between us.’
Swans’ first album since 1996’s excellent Soundtracks For The Blind (Godspeed You! Black Emperor arguably based their career on evocative album track ‘The Sound’), My Father … is as saturating as any Swans predecessor. Like Scott Walker’s sepulchral The Drift, it’s an album that clings like toxic treacle, from the pummelling viscera of ‘My Birth’ and the choking ‘Eden Prison’ to sinister campfire songs such as ‘Reeling The Liars In’ and the exquisitely titled ‘You Fucking People Make Me Sick’, a duet between Devendra Banhart and Gira’s own toddler-age daughter Saoirse.
The menacing piano rattle of that track’s instrumental outro will feature in this tour, the UK leg of which sees support come from hypnotic guitarist James Blackshaw (signed to Gira’s Young God label). Rather than the tracks as they appear on the album, what interests Gira is how he and the band have stretched and moulded them almost out of recognition.
‘They’ve opened out an awful lot,’ he says, noting that the set will include three songs which push the 20-minute mark.
‘It’s very physically demanding and overwhelming and exhausting, but in the end it feels pretty ecstatic. We’re like five choirs, possibly all singing different songs.’
Still, Gira assures that these gigs won’t be the sanity-threatening endurance test of Swans’ early shows, where brutally extreme volume levels regularly attracted the attention of the police.
‘It’ll be just like sex,’ Gira says, dropping his dignified restraint for a laugh.
‘You just need to relax. As long as you open yourself up to it and get completely involved with it, it’ll be wonderful.
‘Imagine someone pressing a knife into your belly; if you relax, it won’t be as bad. It shouldn’t be as painful though.’
The Arches, Glasgow, Mon 25 Oct.