Darker glow: An interview with Michael Gira of Swans
By Kyle Eagle
on Thu, Jun 30, 2016 at 6:11 AM
Image via Young God Records and nriko.com
Swans are well into their third decade, with a large discography behind them, but there's a 13-year caesura in there. Led by sole founding member Michael Gira, the band has put out new work every two years since their re-start in 2010, with lots of EPs and fan-favorite sundries in between. The music they've created during this period is some of their most fascinating and vibrant, if not some of the most astounding music around today. (Sadly, Gira has announced elsewhere that The Glowing Man, released June 17, will be the last with this lineup – though he made no direct reference to dissolving the group in our interview with him.)
The Glowing Man is no doubt a Swans album imprinted with the DNA of Michael Gira, but with new energy and a mastery of his style – bold, melodic, triumphant, dark and gorgeous. At nearly two hours in length, it sweeps through the listener's imagination like a tempest, balanced with the calm of the eye of the storm. It's a multi-chambered head of music rendered somewhere between the starkness of a Walker Evans photo and the paintings of Robert Williams and Hieronymous Bosch. The music within is epic – a beautiful symphony of cacophony – and yet it's the soundtrack to somewhere barren and harsh. Upon first listen I lay down with my eyes closed and was immediately afloat in a flashback a la Altered States, imagining everything minuscule and on uneasy footing as the surface swelled and pulsed like the forehead of a person well into the intense emotional state of a creative high, all crescendo and release. Veins undulate under the surface sporadically, like tremors. Sweat streams, cools and then streaks. Then the whole process starts again.
Watching some of their recent performances, one sees a band with skin in the game, in complete control of and surrender to their craft. This version of the band is heavy with eclectic talent – Bill Rieflin and Thor Harris return, as well as a new addition to the Swans fold, cellist Okkyung Lee – and the nine members in total hail from an astounding and disparate array of musical backgrounds. Traces of Cecil Taylor, King Crimson, Ministry, John Zorn, R.E.M., Vijay Ayer, Shearwater, Laurie Anderson, Cop Shoot Cop, Wadada Leo Smith, Foetus and other arbiters of industrial, folk, jazz, prog and the avant-garde can all be heard on The Glowing Man.
Michael Gira took a moment early one morning right before the album's release to speak to Orlando Weekly about the album and shine a little light on Glowing Man.
Orlando Weekly: What's the backstory for this new album? Its sources of inspiration?
Michael Gira: It was born out of tunes or improvisations from rehearsals and playing live. A riff or maybe a sudden change would emerge from a longform improvisation and we'd build upon it from there.
With the band you have that's no surprise, when considering the amount of talent that can be called upon.
That's true. Bill and Thor, as in the past few records, play and bring to life a lot of the sonic possibilities.
Every two years since 2010 there's been a new release, very consistent. You and the band seem driven and inspired. Does Glowing Man fit in as cycle? Sonically, there's a connective tissue.
Oh definitely, this is the last of this period. It's certainly the natural part, another chapter of what was started in 2010.
What can we expect form this upcoming tour? All recent material? Any revisits to the past? Solo material?
Definitely focusing on this new record and the music. It's a real culmination of these last few years. So yes and no – maybe (laughs). As for the ancient past (Swans pre-2010), no, this is a different band and direction.
You're known for that, not retreading the past and relying on past glory – essential to growth – but does that ever frustrate the Swans fanbase? The rank and file?
No, I think it's something they appreciate. The "rank and file" know that about our approach to music and it's why they listen and continue to do so. Our music is the kind that lends itself to that attitude.
I'd like to talk about the business – as label owner (Young God Records), you've done well with some of your signings, certainly proving to have an eye for unique and original talent. Besides Akron/Family, your label brought us Devendra Banhart and Larkin Grimm, to name a few. What's it take to get on Young God? And what's your production style – do you follow the artists' vision? Make a 50-50 compromise? Do you put your own stamp on them?
There certainly has to be something that is real, something that is organically original that makes the effort to share them with the world worthwhile. Producing – sometimes it's easier than others. I try to let the artist craft their music as they've envisioned it; sometimes it's been harder than others. Sometimes I have to put in what I think would best fit and serve the recording process and finish the project.
Roger Daltrey recently remarked that he doesn't know how musicians can make a living anymore due to the way royalties are handled in the current age of music. Dave Grohl has made similar remarks as well. Young God is as old as the Swans, how do you do it?
I'm familiar with those arguments and I don't know either. It's true that it's not very promising for the next generation of musicians to be able to make a stake in the world and make a living doing it, which you should be able to if you're serious enough about it and work hard at it. I can only speak from my experience and say that the Swans have always had a very personal connection with our fans. There's an invested feeling there. Certainly bringing out new artists has helped spread the word and create interest. After this conversation I'm spending the next 10 hours personalizing recordings that we're selling on tour.
With that, the interview concludes, and those last lines resonate strongly – it's the little details that are enduring, that make for worthwhile and continued listening.