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Michael Gira of Swans: "Nothing is a coincidence"

14 May 2014, 14:32

Love, child, reach, rise / Sight, blind, steal, light / Mind, scar, clear, fire / Clean, right, pure, kind / Sun, come, sky, tar / Mouth, sand, teeth, tongue / Cut, push, reach, inside / Feed, breathe, touch, come – Screen Shot

To the rain, to the wind, in the field / To be kind, to be kind / To be lost, in a bed touching you / To be lost, to be lost / To be found in the sound of this room… “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes… – To Be Kind

The above lyrics start and end the thirteenth studio album by Swans, the band that Michael Gira first brought to us in 1983, terrorising audiences with his confrontational brand of minimal blues, rock and noise, coupled with lyrics that could often be ugly and violent and visceral. He retired the name in 1997, only to return in 2010 re-energised and bringing with him two records that were perhaps as good as anything from Swans mark one. My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky and The Seer really are as good as Cop and Children of God – and proof that Gira hasn’t mellowed at all in the 30 years that separates new album To Be Kind from the band’s debut. Mellowed musically, at least. I chose those lyrics as they were the first thing to leap out at me…yes, ahead of the music. And that’s not to say the music isn’t wonderful, because it is. From the moment the bass and drums of opening track “Screen Shot” kicks off the record and develops into a maelstrom of guitars and repetitive chanting (something that happens often on this record), through the 30-minute glory of “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” and the almost-conventional guitar rock of “She Loves Us” to the closing title track which veers from soft atmospheres to terrifying crescendos, it’s two hours of some of the best music you’ll hear in 2014.

But the words, the words…”love” leaps out at you from the lyric sheet on a number of occasions, heck it’s even there in one of the song titles. Look at the sweet, loving address of “To Be Kind” that talks of millions of stars in your eyes…it’s lovely, isn’t it? Sure, there’s also extreme physicality that refers to fucking, scars, pushing, touching, being inside someone or something but it’s almost touching in a way…or am I just a little twisted? It’s the first thing I say to Michael Gira (who turns out to be a lovely and charming interviewee despite my preconceptions of a spit-flecked screaming maniac) after he dials me up on Skype at precisely the time arranged. Is this Swans’ love album, or is it just a coincidence?

Nothing is a coincidence. I guess it’s where as a person I exist right now.

“But there are all kinds of different love, of course,” Gira explains. “I would say “She Loves Us” is pretty much a sex love song, “To Be Kind” is a love song…that’s more of a gentle love song. I guess the first song is more kind of a ‘prayer’ love song. There’s all kinds of different ways of looking at it, but I didn’t start out writing about being in love or something – that’s just coincidental about where I am as a human being at this point.” I ask Gira if he would consider this to be his most personal record as Swans so far: “No!” is the confident response. He explains: “I don’t really; you know, my personal experiences figure into whatever I write, so does whatever book I’m reading, what movies I’m seeing, what I’m experiencing in my work, in my travels, things I’ve seen…media, movies…just whatever, y’know? I write songs and I try to make them something bigger than myself because I don’t think, per se, I’m that interesting!”

It might often be the case with Swans lyrics that they seem rather visceral and body-focused but this time around it feels enhanced on To Be Kind: breathing, touching, fucking…it’s all there but it all fits with the music. This is physical stuff, musically and lyrically – does Michael agree? “People seem to notice that,” he laughs. “I just write about what’s natural for me to write about; I’ll leave the psychoanalysis up to other people…perhaps I hate my body and I should be peeling my skin off bit by bit as we speak!” I say that I disagree, that it actually often sounds rather tender, and that fits in with where Gira is just now personally. He dismisses and disarms me with a chuckle: “Aw, aw…what’s your phone number?”

To Be Kind is big, expansive, immersive and all-consuming. It sounds alive and organic, and it’s no surprise to learn that some of the tracks came together during one of Swans’ epically long tours. Songs like “She Loves Us” and “Oxygen” were first heard in some form on the brilliant live document Not Here/Not Now, others found their way to the album by a different route but all sound like they’ve been honed and slaved over (but without losing their power and instant-ness) for an extended period. I ask Michael if that was the case, that To Be Kind is something of a labour of love: “Yes,” he confirms, “some of them I wrote on acoustic guitar and then brought them into the studio, and that was the first time we played them. Others, they developed over the course of touring for a year and a half, and they grew as I’ve mentioned in interviews – excuse me if I hate myself talking about myself all the time – out of performing live and changing things bit by bit every night, or even during shows, finding new avenues to explore within the piece and I guess they grew organically like that.” Some of the edges found on Not Here/Not Now have been polished slightly, the grooves deepened and the rhythms enhanced in the studio: “The most salient efforts like that on the record are “She Loves Us” and “Bring the Sun”,” says Gira. “Actually, “To Be Kind” as well, although I had mapped that out on acoustic guitar before the band played it. But those songs I just mentioned, they grew organically. Counter-intuitively, the song “Oxygen” was written on acoustic, the bass riff. I play guitar with my thumb, in a unique way – more like a bass and that basic riff [for the ragged “Oxygen”, the one song that really keeps its rough live edges] was written on acoustic guitar. Chris Pravdica makes it 100% better than how I play it, though!”

The mention of bass guitarist Chris Pravdica prompts me to ask Gira about the current incarnation of Swans. The line-up of Gira, Thor Harris, Phil Puleo and ‘Honorary Swan Forever’ Bill Rieflin on drums and various instruments, Christopher Hahn and Norman Westerberg on guitar, and the aforementioned Pravdica has been together since 2010, with the likes of Westerberg having been with Gira since before the band took their hiatus in 1997. So I wonder if this is the best bunch of guys Gira has played with, and how that affects the music Swans makes now: “Well of course, they figure greatly into how things sound,” he confirms. “They’re great players; I’ll start playing with them, usually with an indication of where I’d like to see things go, and they’ll play and come up with whatever the hell they want and it sounds great. Sometimes they’ll come up with something and I’ll say I don’t like it and I’ll suggest something else, or it’ll be a kernel of something they’re doing. I’m sort of the musical director, or more like juggling the chaos and trying to make that into a shape.” It definitely sounds like it’s the most coherent Swans to date - just listen to the rhythms on “A Little God In My Hands” and how the 30-plus minutes of “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” never tires or loses shape. Gira agrees: “I guess it’s the most coherent, to date. It certainly has the most longevity of any incarnation so far. I guess we’re all at a certain age where we’re clinging to the rock face of a cliff; it’s crumbling and we’re about to fall into the abyss but we’re holding on and hoping that we don’t fall too soon. “

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Special mention is given to Bill Rieflin in the credits for To Be Kind and I ask Gira why the former Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and R.E.M. drummer gets a dedicated nod of appreciation: “He is a tremendous drummer, and also right now he’s got a great gig playing with King Crimson” reveals Gira. “Bill is a very good friend of mine; he doesn’t just play drums – he plays everything basically. He is a tremendously versatile musician but he’s also a good friend so I bring him into the studio once things are in a basic state, and we just sit down and listen to the tracks.” Rieflin is something of a trouble-shooter it seems, and he has the implicit trust of his band leader: “I’ll have a suggestion or he’ll think of something and he just brings his personality into it, no matter what instrument he plays, and raises things up to a different level.” Rieflin is not the only guest on To Be Kind. Following Karen O’s appearance on The Seer, Gira’s fondness for the female voice sees St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, Cold Specks’ Al Spx, his fiancée Jennifer Church and old-school No Waver Little Annie all contribute their voices to various songs. Gira’s tender duet with Little Annie on “Some Things We Do” is the calm centre of To Be Kind – it’s barely even a duet, as Gira and Bandez’s voice become one dark whole. Gira explains that he’s old friends with Little Annie: “Oh yeah, I forget where I met Annie! I’ve known her off and on for years; she’s one of those people I see on tour. We’re not close friends but I think she’s a beautiful person and I thought her voice was very appropriate for that song.” He goes on to explain that the song required something a little more than your average trading off of lines: “As it happened, in the mixing I joined our voices so that we were one human being really, singing together. I felt it just didn’t work with a focus on an individual person, so I joined us together and made it a little more abstract. But she has lots of history in her voice.”

Gira goes on to give props to Annie Clark (“She is just a very talented musician, she came about because John Congleton works with her and recommended her, and she was a fan as it turned out and so she came to the studio and worked for a day. She sang tremendously, just perfect pitch”) and Al Spx: “She also sang tremendously; she has the potential to sing this gospel-y kind of stuff and that was very appropriate for the song “Bring the Sun”. And I also involved my fiancé, who’s not a professional singer, but is a great singer.” I say that I’d read that Gira has long wanted to work with a children’s choir (“Oh yeah!” is his emphatic response) so was having the choired female voices a way around this? “Oh, I dunno,” he says. “I like female voices! If you imagine if those were male voices, the whole thing would be fraught with his heavy-handedness. Like on “Bring the Sun”, if the mezzos were male voices that would have been really horrible I think. Somehow female voices mix with the guitars perfectly.” After years of absorbing his influence and genuflecting at the altar of his blues, Gira has also finally placed on record his love for Howlin’ Wolf with “Just A Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)”; as befits the imposing presence of the Wolf, not just in stature but in his booming voice, the track is a heavy and slow-moving blues jam, with Gira in his best crooning mode. But it turns out this wasn’t an intentional tribute: “Well it didn’t start out that way,” explains Gira, “but I realised upon singing it – which was very impromptu or improvised, I had the words, I’d just written the words – and playing the song live in the studio…I sang it live with the band in the studio, not in isolation booths - we’re all just in a room together playing, and I just realised that afterwards that the Wolf was kind of speaking through me in that song. I see a lot of him in those words too, so I made a tribute to him, formalised my hero worship of that individual.”

Despite the two hours listening time, To Be Kind is never a test of endurance nor do you find your attention wandering away from what’s happening. It’s brilliantly judged with a clear narrative, crescendos and quiet interludes appearing exactly when they are needed. I say to Michael that the running time seems the perfect way to capture the live experience, but he disagrees.

I don’t think there’s any hope of capturing a live experience.

“So when you make a record you do something else, and maybe elliptically it refers to the live experience or has an element of that in it…but capturing a band live in the studio is almost an oxymoron to me, y’know? So it’s more like making a record to accompany a piece of film, that’s what I’m interested in.” So the length of an album is never a consideration? “As far as the length goes, I just don’t really are anymore about any kind of constraints,” says Gira, dismissing the idea that he needs to pander to an audience. “And it’s not to be self-indulgent…I just let the music go for as long as I think that it’s urgent, and then that’s where it ends. And then at the end of the whole process of recording, I sequence it and think about how one thing relates to another…and it is an immersive experience. You’re kind of led through different worlds…if it was all the same kind of sound all the time it’d be tedious but I think I’ve done a good job in varying the textures and surfaces of things.”

It strikes me as sharing a lot with religious or gospel music; even from the way opening track “Screen Shot” builds from a skeleton of percussion to a raging hail of guitars at its close, or the way the St. Vincent-featuring “Kirsten Supine” has this kind of beautiful reverence at its centre and I say to Michael that Swans has often had this effect on me: “I’ve heard that, and I guess I feel that when we’re performing it live,” he agrees. “So there is probably that there! It kinda relates to gospel in a way – not that I’m an aficionado of gospel but it has the same aspirations. You could be repeating the same phrase to an ever-ascending crescendo and I just gravitate towards that sort of thing I suppose…wanting to disappear inside something larger than myself.” Does that disappearing inside something affect how he is as a performer on stage? “Yeah, it’s just an expression of where we are at the time. I do tend to push myself further than I probably should…but I’m not dancing round like Mick Jagger or some shit. It is physically demanding but it keeps me healthy! My aspiration in the next five years is to start writing books again…reading mostly, then writing, but a friend of mine reminded me that as soon as I stopped touring I’ll need to get on the exer-cycle otherwise I’m just gonna die right away!”

Depending on what version of the album you end up buying, you will be confronted by one of six images of toddlers from a series of paintings from the mid-70s by Bob Biggs. They are terrifying. There’s a blonde-haired child with a look of horror on its face, mid-wail (which probably wins as the most hideous) - so what possessed Gira to finally use these images, even after artist Biggs had initially refused a number of years ago? “Oh I think it’s one of the great iconic images,” he asserts. “Young God Records typically uses a strong, central iconic image and the first idea for the album artwork was, uh, nipples, frankly! Various women’s nipples, each canvas would have a different nipple….but once I started taking photos of the nipples I realised on closer inspection they were not quite that appealing. It kind of ended up looking like a medical textbook…not quite how I envisioned it! So, randomly, Bob’s images came to mind and I love those images because they’re very enigmatic and I don’t know what they’re talking about or what they have in their little minds but to me they really speak of something and it really relates to the music somewhat.”

We end on a question about touring, and I guess it also relates to what makes Gira want to keep making music this physical and visceral as he approaches his 60th birthday. He’s just back from a solo tour, and the band then head out again during May to promote the record and will be playing for two, three hours every night of their tour…so why put yourself through it, Michael? How much does it actually take out of you? He tells me one final tale to end the interview: “I was extremely exhausted [after his recent solo tour] and I went to London for press at the end,” begins Gira. “I went out for Indian food with my dear friend the night before my flight and I got food poisoning! So for the five hours before I got on the plane I was a fire-hose from both ends! And the reason I mention it is when I arrived at the airport I was like one of those old people you see in the supermarket with the walker, y’know? My rolling suitcase was the walker and I barely made it to the check-in….I could hardly move…so it takes a great deal out of me! But it’s just what I do, it’s my job; t’s like being a carpenter. As long as your elbows and joints don’t give out you can keep doing it til you’re advanced…”​

To Be Kind is out now on Young God / Mute. We gave it 10/10 last week - calling it our Album Of The Week.

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