Few artists have undergone a transition like this one. The mastermind behind SWANS, Michael Gira is a true musical chameleon. From the early days of the outfit, which moved between the noise rock and no wave scene and were angry outbursts of musical cacophony, to the more stripped back and acoustic takes of later records. Especially when looking back onto the body of work of an artist who has been highly active since the 1980s – about twenty years before I was born – the sheer amount of output can be overwhelming. So was I, I have to admit when I first started listening to SWANS. To avoid confusion for the younger crowd who might not be familiar with the band; SWANS is the name of Michael Gira’s bands consisting of a fluctuating line-up of different artists throughout the years.
So starting listening to the SWANS, where do you begin, was the first question I asked singer and songwriter behind the band, Michael Gira, when I caught him on the telephone while jet-setting across the globe. ‘Start with the newest’, he croons through the receiver with his raspy voice. The latest SWANS record Leaving Meaning will be released this week and sees Michael Gira pursue a different vision once again. I did not take Gira’s advice and started with the very early SWANS records. I was quite surprised with what I found, after I had only played a few of the more recent songs when I decided to undertake this mission. The 80s SWANS are something different. Noisy distortion, experimental rock, shamanic vocals, and hellish lyrics this is music that really goes up your spine. The frustration and anger can be felt even through my shitty laptop speakers and resonates. This is certainly not easy on the ears but really something. Michael Gira laughs about the drastic changes of musical style ‘it is probably surprising the change from the beginning to now.’
Not Dead Yet
Even though SWANS did undergo several dramatic changes not only in the constellation of musicians, Gira decided to drop the name in the early 2000s to distance himself from the noisy style associated with the band. During that time he performed with the band Angels of Light and embraced a softer side with folky and acoustic instrumentation. But unlike he stated with the 1998 album SWANS Are Dead the SWANS were not quite dead yet. ‘It reached a point where I felt I had taken it as far as it could go. Now I stepped back into the tornado of sounds that SWANS are. It turned out much more interesting and successful than I imagined.’
For seven years, the reformed SWANS group stayed together – one of the best constellations according to the singer – and put out ‘some very powerful music’. For the newest album, Gira changed the set up again and invited several musicians to participate and play on the songs he wrote, some former members joined in as well. ‘After seven years it seemed like things had reached an end and they would become predictable. So we stopped. Then, of course, I wrote some songs and gathered people who I enjoy working with to make this record.’
Walking on the edge
Throughout the three-decades of career, one thing that the SWANS never seem to become is boring. From the first record to the last, the spark and the knack for experimentation form the silver lining. Maybe not silver lining in its traditional meaning, since the music changes with every album but the urge to try new things is what makes the SWANS come together. Keeping the spark and tendency to experiment alive, Gira says ‘comes from the tremendous fear of boredom. I always want to be in a place where I am uncomfortable. Dangling off a cliff is where I seem to work the best.’
And this electric tension can be felt in each of the records no matter how different they might sound. In the 80s it were the noisy explosions, on Leaving Meaning the repetitive chants and the minimalistic yet unusual instrumentation conjure a trance-like state. Especially the longer songs, which span over ten minutes, grip the listener with their intensity. By allowing the songs to grow and to unfold over such lengths, Gira sends the listener off onto journeys through their own minds. Yet, when recording these songs he does not fall into a trance-like state but admits to the process being hard work. ‘Recording can be really draining because you have to play the same thing over and over again. You make mistakes and you have to stick to them. The whole process is exhilarating to me because it is always at the edge of failure.’
‘The studio is like juggling chaos. Only every once in a while it comes together and then it dissolves again. I enjoy the process. I don’t think I ever experience the perfect song and I am not looking for it. Having made the record has just been a good time in my life. Now I am moving on to something new.’
Making sounds not music
Referring to his non-existent ability to play instruments properly, Gira named this as one of the aspects allowing him complete freedom when writing songs. Loosened from the ties of traditional playing, he makes sounds rather than working in chords and bars. ‘I am still a terrible guitar player’, he laughs through the crackling receiver. ‘Most of the time, I do not know what chord I am playing. I just fiddle around until I get sounds I like and then I force them into something like songs. I don’t want to know how music is supposed to work, instead, I make sounds and I arrange sounds. If it works it does if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’
Arranging sounds has changed a lot since the 80s to now. With increasingly digital equipment, the analog instruments are often pushed aside to allow relentless repeats and reworks of a recording. ‘The computers have made a huge difference’, Gira says about his recording process. All of the songs on Leaving Meaning originated from an acoustic guitar melody, yet the artist got engineers on board to add another layer to the music. ‘It is a valuable tool. Especially to me, seeing waveforms on the screen and being able to edit them, helps conceptualize my music visually. But it is a hindrance, too because everything becomes possible and like that everything becomes impossible. There are too many choices. You have to discipline yourself and say enough is enough.’ The overwhelming amount of possibilities has gotten the best of some artists, yet Gira knew where to stop. As he jokingly answers my question regarding that skill with ‘usually when I run out of time and money.’
‘Nothing is ever finished’
These are ambiguous words to say for someone releasing music for 30 years. But about any creative person could relate to Gira, when he said that in another interview; ‘I never see art as finished.’ He elaborated, ‘it is just a picture on the way when it is recorded. I am very interested in seeing how I can make a complete fucking mess off it live.’ On stage is where the music really comes to life breaking out of its recorded scheme. ‘Some songs I still have not found my way into performing. I am looking forward to playing them with the group and to find the vein, to find where the blood flows.’
The SWANS epic live shows are famous for their unstoppable violent energy, especially back in the early days of the group. Letting out everything on stage, the artists pour their hearts and souls into the music until it takes on a life of its own. When playing live, Gira does not want to work closely to the record. Instead of sticking to the sheets, he wants to ignore it to not run in danger of replicating it. ‘I wrote the songs on acoustic guitar. With the input of a band the record will change. I want to make an experience in real time occur.’
‘When performing music and it completely takes over the players to become a life force of its own, I find that the ideal state for me to be.’
From energy loaded live shows to nihilistic titles; Leaving Meaning is the peak of the discography and towers over an impressive array of albums. In an era where everything is overloaded with meaning, whether it is someone being online without answering one’s message or the amount of likes an instagram post gets, the collapse of meaning is as scary as it is relieving. About the title Gira says; ‘I think about words a lot and the way one ascribes meaning to their lives and objects. It became more interesting to leave these meanings behind than trying to interpret them and put a value on them. If you look at your thoughts really closely they lose their meaning and become these little nervous stars in a constellation. Then you can ask where is the center of it? What is behind this thought and behind the person thinking this thought?’
The poetic depth of the title is free to many interpretations and the album artwork encourages that liberty. Contrasting the bright yellow of the plain surface merely the 14 thin letters of the title jump into the eye in bright red. The cover does not force an image onto the observer. Gira refrains purposefully from using visual cues to let the words take center stage. ‘I wanted the words to be the image; a conjunction of words that are hard to figure out.’
A return to dissonance
When looking at the state music industry is in today, two polar opposites crystalize. The ones who follow the mainstream, and the ones who want to bash the mainstream to shit with experimental cacophonic compositions. Regarding the struggles we have been facing over the last few years, from Climate Change to political instability, the return to dissonance and noise in music as an outlet for personal frustration is a likely development. Just as in the 80s the outbursts of sounds and chaos, the SWANS produced, served as a refuge from the false orderliness of the household. Michael Gira might not be very involved in contemporary music, yet he noticed the diversity of the crowds attending the gigs. Why are these kids returning so the SWANS territory?
‘The Internet has taken on the form of the entire human consciousness; it is a human brain devouring itself. All this information is in the end a swirling tornado of meaningless ones and zeros. You can draw a correlation to it with climate change. At the same time as culture is reaching this destructive point, so is the earth. We are evolving around a negative synergy.’
Exactly that seemingly hopeless feeling the impending future projects onto this generation makes music that does not obey any principle so attractive. We reflect the chaos of the surrounding world into the creative outlet of music, finding solace in the noisiness, which makes the sounds of the crazy world evolving at horrendous speed, a little easier to bear. The latest SWANS album is less of an angry outburst and more of a matured take on experimental music. Still, it mirrors the developments of the world with grime and detached lyrics. Like Gira said, he is making sounds, not music. By not following the rules we have implied for everything, he gives the modern generation growing up in these fast paced times a little musical cave to crawl into.
SWANS‘ Leaving Meaning is out October 25 via Mute Records. Don’t miss the band’s new outfit on their upcoming live dates.