Michael Gira, the man behind Swans, is unadorned in a way that stands in stark contrast to the layered complexity and sonic textures of the music he creates. The exhaustion of the sound, the auditory abrasion, the passage of time since the band’s formation in 1982 - all of these sit well with Gira, whose output since the band’s reunion with 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, and the masterpiece that is 2012’s The Seer is arguably more productive and relentlessly focused now than he’s ever been. Next month will see the release of To Be Kind, a two hour trek into the primal yet strangely inviting and creative mind of Gira. The album continues with along the same thread as its predecessor with a brilliant focus and expansion on Gira’s vocal stylings which find him wavering fiercely between welcoming and threatening. SfB recently spoke with Gira about the path that led him here, the problem with virtual experience and the modern age, and more in this special interview feature.
To Be Kind is the third release for Swans in just four years. Just given the scope and magnitude of what these last two records especially have had, do you see yourself as being more creative now than ever? What do you attribute that to?
Panic. [Laughs] Time is running out.
Is there a sense of urgency for you now with your creative process that there wasn’t before?
No. I mean, I’ve always had to work. I don’t really feel like I’m complete as a human unless I’m working on music or art or writing – unless I’m making things, basically. There’s always a sense of urgency. There is a sense of the window of opportunity winding down for doing something as all-inclusive and taxing on one’s physical energies as Swans.
My first question concerns your relationship to your music, Michael. Where were you when music found you, and do you see yourself in that same place of creative vulnerability even today or has that evolved somewhat?
I was certain I was a visual artist. I started drawing obsessively when I was very young, but I guess when I was in my late teens I mandated to myself that I had to do fifty drawings a day, meaning fifty sketches and not complete drawings in order to develop skills as a draft person, and then I went to art school and that sort of thing. Along the way a friend of mine would play guitar, and I’d try to sing. Now I’m talking mid-seventies or something and singing Rolling Stones songs. [Laughs] But I didn’t really consider actually doing anything seriously musically until punk rock happened. That was a decisive moment.
It wasn’t so much about the music, because the music was pretty inconsequential, but it was just the kind of chaos and anarchy and the general bile and hatred for consumer society that I thought was inspirational. While I was in art school I just made the decision where it was like in one hand here’s an art career that was increasingly becoming something professional like a lawyer or something, and then on the other hand there was something I saw as vital and relevant to the times. So I quit, and I started a band. I actually started a magazine first, but then I started a band. But it took me a long time to learn how to really make music of any consequence.
photo credit: Cool Music Central
When you think about the evolution of sound with Swans, it’s fascinating to see its beginnings as an incredibly visceral and abrasive experience to where it is now with an almost orchestral layering and multi-faceted approach to melody and rhythm. The music is still confrontational, but it’s more conversational now. What do you see as the kind of creative impetus for that transition?
If you’re not challenging yourself and your audience, you’re just kind of a non-entity both existentially and publicly, so I always feel it’s necessary to try to push things further or at least in a new direction. There’s different aspirations for the music now. I don’t really know what the early ones were except just a kind of all out, never ending rage. I suppose now there are more positive and more looking for some kind of real positive experience between us and the audience.
When you mentioned that early motivation and drive for you with punk, is that ethos still alive today? Not just with you but in general from your perspective?
It’s nothing. I mean, there hasn’t been anything since 1979. [Laughs] The style of punk is stultifying and stupid. At the time when it started it was great because it was just raw and basic, but even the initial purveyors of it like, for instance, if you take the transition from the Sex Pistols to Public Image, they kind of grew quickly weary of that. So I think for people to hang out to the style of punk is really stupid. The thing that was interesting and good about it to me was that rejection of the necessity to be some kind of virtuosic player, which, at the time, bands like Yes, Gentle Giant, and all that stuff were becoming pretty bloated and awful.
I actually like some Yes now in retrospect. [Laughs] But just the immediacy and iconography involved in punk was really great, too, and the use of media. But that’s all irrelevant now, because those times are gone, so the only thing really interesting about it to me is just the ability of someone to get up and do something themselves and refuse to be cowed by obstacles or indifference. With us I don’t think about punk at all. I don’t care about it. I haven’t for years. I’m in my own world and the music we make as a band is in its own world, really.
There is that value that Swans has always placed in the band’s relationship to the audience. How has that relationship changed and where did you see that kind of conversation with the audience come from?
I guess the music is more inclusive now, potentially, although it was always an experience between us and the audience, though one probably fraught with rancor. [Laughs] Nowadays it’s that we’re all in it together, reaching for the same place. And I’m talking about a live experience, of course. I view a recorded album as having only a tangential relationship to the live experience.
photo credit: Wilton Barnhardt
Going back to your personal life, you turned sixteen in jail if my research is correct.
I think that’s it. [Laughs] I’m not even sure myself.
The time since has no doubt seen your experiences shape who you are and, consequently, the art you create. What value do you place on experience as a crucial creative asset? Do you see that component to your creative process differently now than you did then when you first began creating music?
Yeah, I guess. It still affects the art. Since the beginning, and I guess maybe it has to do with the art school training, but I’ve taken personal experience and changed it or used it as a partial element in what I’m building, and what I’m making. I don’t view my own personal experience as being inherently interesting or valuable to anybody else. It just serves as kind of an impetus for work. My personal experience could be a book I’ve read, a movie I’ve seen, sex I’ve had, or a moment of spiritual revelation. It could be all kinds of things, and then the work is a different matter. You try to make something out of it. The work is never really an explication of anything, either. It’s more of an end in itself.
Just given the scope and magnitude of what Swans has done even with the last two records, I’m curious as to what you’ve personally seen evolve or change the most with your creative process in your career thus far?
Hm. That’s gonna require some cogitation. [Laughs] That’s a good question. I guess learning to be fearless and just understanding that life is very short, and there are no boundaries except what you impose on yourself. That kind of realization has informed the music and the work. I guess that’s the best way I can answer that. [Laughs]
Just in talking about relationships to music, do you see the simulated connectivity that social media has given us over the last few years as a potential threat to what we value when it comes to authentic connectivity and, by proxy, the creative impulses brought on by genuine experience and relationships? A lot of what you and Swans place importance on seems to contrast that virtual interaction in many ways. Do you see that as a potential threat or obstacle to how we view or even create art in the future?
Well, that’s been a subject that’s interested me for decades – the propensity for us in modern consumer, hence advertising in media inundated society, to experience things secondhand or in ersatz or virtually. In fact, in art school in 1978 or maybe it was 1977, after having gone to these video games where you would shoot these pistols at a movie, I thought that was the perfect metaphor for modern existence – this kind of completely ersatz involvement and experience. I designed, or quasi-designed, this mask that would feed them video images into the mask, and it would cover your eyes completely.
The idea was that one would wear this rubber suit, and they would immerse themselves in body temperature liquid, and they would just live completely in the images that occurred in this mask. Somehow – I didn’t know how scientifically, of course – their response to the images would be part of it, and there would be this continuous false experience, or not false because it is real, but this just purely virtual experience. So I wrote that, and it’s in my sketchbook still. I thought that was part of how we live, really. I wrote a story in the early nineties or maybe it was the late eighties called “The Sex Machine,” and that’s thinking about that also.
It’s from arriving in New York in the early eighties and going to Times Square, and there were these arenas or areas you could go to where you would go into a booth, the window would go up, and there would be a woman there. You were supposed to masturbate and have this sex with her, but I thought it was really interesting that it was completely abstract. [Laughs] There was a human being there, but it was completely unreal, and the booth was set up in sort of a circle, and men would be around it, and the women couldn’t see the men, but the men could see the women. I thought that was really odd. In the middle sometimes in this particular place, they would have sex there on the bed in the middle, and you would all watch that, too. I just thought what a perfect kind of illustration of how we live these days.
Do you see that voyeurism that’s so entrenched in our culture at present as a potential impediment to experience?
Oh yeah, it’s in fucking everything. For instance, I’m playing a show and seeing dozens of glowing cellphones facing up at me. It means that those people are experiencing the show right then in ersatz. They’re unable to just be there and experience it. It’s really frustrating, and it’s strange. A concert, at least of our intensity, is supposed to be a unique, one time experience, and they’re already recording it and living it as if it was virtual. That’s really frustrating. I played a show in Paris recently, a solo show. I was plodding along with my song, and right there in the front row, which was only two feet in front of me, was this guy on his cellphone.
And I don’t know if he was looking at me or videoing it or just on his cellphone, but I was just singing thinking ‘OK, I’ll just ignore it,’ and finally I just thought ‘How repulsively rude,’ so I stopped the song and said ‘Hey, hey, hey!’ He looked up with this sort of sneer on his face, and I said ‘Get out! Get out! Get out! Stand up and leave!’ I screamed at him, and he and his girlfriend finally stood up and harrumphed out. [Laughs]
I just thought what a strange change in culture to think that that’s OK to do. It’s really distressing. I see my children, I have young children, and they’re always wanting to watch TV or be on the computer. It’s inevitable, but I’m sure that at their age – in fact, I asked a neuroscientist, a woman I know, they don’t know for sure, but it seems that that kind of interaction at a young age is physically changing the way brains develop. So I suppose there’ll be a Videodrome kind of change in our culture. [Laughs]
So Cronenberg called it back in ’83.
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
When discussing value, especially as it pertains to that perspective of art and the artist, what do you see as the most crucial or invaluable component of your music and your creative process and why that specifically?
I enjoy the process. The end result is incredibly important to me, obviously. I work and labor intensely on a record for months – half a year, usually, probably more just conceiving it, and then gathering the funds, and building it and everything. I’ve realized over the last like five years that the most enthralling aspect of it is the process because it’s never finished. Nothing is ever finished. I like it that way now. You finish a record, but then the songs or song or piece or whatever it is that we’re working on instantly will change into something else, and it’s just this energy that’s taking shape as we move along through time. And I like it that way.
And that, to me at least, goes back to that previous discussion concerning our culture of immediacy and the loss of appreciation for the actual process. It’s hard to place importance on that when everything in art and music often at least feels driven by results.
You’re right. People want things instantly. If you look on YouTube you see how many versions of us live there are that has nothing to do with us live or me solo live. The sound has absolutely nothing to do with it, and it’s just this little postage stamp simulation of what the experience was when it was filmed. But that’s what people want, and they think they’ve figured out the band or whatever artist they’re looking at that way, or maybe they’re looking at art that way. I mean, imagine looking at a Van Eyck on your computer. [Laughs] But it’s just the way we live now. I mean, even weapon systems are like that. A cousin of mine is a developer for virtual weapons systems, and that to me is a really bizarre concept because the consequences are dire, right? [Laughs] It’s just the experience in that abstract way again.
photo credit: Marco Micceri
Obviously the live experience of Swans is fairly well known, and you guys have several tour dates coming up. What goes into that for the band on a practical level?
We have to get the mojo back. I’ve been working all along, but the band has not been working as Swans since we finished recording together in mid-October, I think. It takes a while, so we have three weeks of rehearsals every day, and hopefully we’ll get it back by the end of that. Usually by halfway through a tour, we’re a pretty organic six-headed entity. There’s a set kinda like the universe. It expands and contracts. It grows organically. It usually doesn’t contract. [Laughs] Each night it gets more and more worked out and also more open at the same time. It always changes. That’s been a kind of revelation as far as I was saying about looking at things as never finished, and that’s how it works.
What are you most hopeful about in terms of the future not just for Swans but for yourself personally?
[Laughs] I think hope is an overvalued item. I think it’s more trying to be in the moment that’s important. I’m not pessimistic or cynical at all, but I think hope is a little bit delusional. I think it’s just important to be in the moment and keep an open mind.
Thanks to Michael for his time.