Michael Gira appears this weekend at the Oriental Theater. (Photo: Carlos Melgoza)
Gira discusses SWANS and more, before an upcoming gig with Wovenhand, The Howling Hex, March 24 at the Oriental Theater
When I discovered SWANS at a 1986 punk show at the Eagle’s Lodge (they played cuts from their then-current LP “Greed,” with two bombastic drummers, thundering bass and bulldozing guitar, Jarboe screaming and Michael Gira – barefoot, shirtless, drenched and suffocating himself with a mic chord and self-loathing howls of terror – or pain – or disgust) it was one of the shows that changed my life, and cemented my lifelong involvement in the interpretation of music – especially live music. And it wasn’t just because I was one of two people that I know actually enjoyed the show (my date being the other – and we still talk about that day).
It was because I knew I’d seen something musically that, in my young 20-year-old mind, made no sense. In the context of destroying buildings with sonic explosions, or of torture, or of avalanches of rock and mud tearing through entire villages – sure, in that context what I’d experienced made sense. But not as music. My body, though, felt otherwise, and that gut feeling has remained with me since then.
“It’s like a monk vomiting, somewhere off in the distant Himalayas.”
– Michael Gira, describing his and SWANS unique sound
Fast forward 26 years, and SWANS remains one of the most intriguing and influential musical artforms in my life. And they’ve gone through a world of evolution – from that aggressive, sonically crushing noise in the ’80s, through a terrifyingly beautiful and complex oeuvre of sonic sculpture as the ’90s progressed, to a recently reformed, fully formed and mature modern prometheus the likes of which would likely make Mary Shelley quiver with delight upon discovering – so complete a match for something so human, so man-made, horrifyingly misshapen – and perfectly sublime.
Suffice to say that, if you haven’t seen or experienced SWANS – even on record – do it. The visionary leader behind the seminal noise and eardrum-crunching band, Michael Gira (pronounced gear-AH, I now know), is beginning a tour of the western side of the US and Europe, and is stopping here at our beloved Oriental Theater this Saturday night, March 24th, for a solo opening spot to “warm up” for David Eugene Edwards’ local behemoth Wovenhand, and featuring The Howling Hex.
It’s a pairing not destined to happen again – to miss it would be a huge mistake. Gira was gracious enough to take some time to talk with me about SWANS, his views on illegal downloading, his music, David Eugene Edwards and more. Read on to see what we talked about….
Michael Gira, from Angels of Light, is planning to revivify his earliest project, the seminal noise band Swans, this fall. (Photo: Anne Helmond)
Michael Gira, founder of Young God Records and vocalist/visionary frontman for Angels of Light, used to live a somewhat louder existence. An existence replete with just as much musical and lyrical beauty as the Angels’ output of over the past decade, but one that was also terrifyingly violent, brutal, hostile and swathed in a noise that had not been heard before, and has (so far) not been heard again since it was silenced with the death of his first band, Swans.
And Gira has announced what was constantly up to now only seen as an impossibility: he’s decided to reactivate the legendary band, and will release a new collection of songs (tentatively) in the fall of 2010. Plans for touring are also reportedly in the works.
If you remember hearing the music of Swans in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, they’ve likely influenced, in some way, every other band you heard after them. If you were lucky enough to see the band live, chances are that the sonic barrage, and the often disturbing images it provoked in both the players and the audiences are still scorched into you, and likely will be for a long time to come. Gira and Swans toured the U.S. and Europe extensively in the ‘80s and ‘90s, after their genesis in the same New York “No Wave” scene that spawned bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (which included a young Lydia Lunch), Suicide and Sonic Youth. Their shows presented a constantly evolving noise, sometimes overloud, sometimes perfectly quiet, but always both beautiful and destructive, to audiences that seemed polarized (to say the least) in their opinions of it.
My first experience came when the band toured around the 1986 album “Greed.” Most of what I remember is the physical, palpable quality of the repetitive and explosive beat coming from two furious drummers behind a howling, shirtless and sweating Gira, screaming about the worthlessness of all of us and our condition, throat wrapped tightly with his microphone chord. The lineup then included Norman Westberg on guitar, Algis Kizys on bass, Jarboe on vocals and two drummers, and the show was the most abrasive expression of minimalist rock I’d ever seen – and also the loudest. People left the show either hating what they’d seen, or misunderstanding, or completely transfixed (as I did). From then on, the rock game, for me anyway, was irreparably changed.
An early photo of Gira onstage with Swans, amidst the beautiful cacophony. (Photo: Wim Van De Hulst
By the time Swans disbanded in 1997, their sound had evolved to include some of the most beautiful and haunting music in rock. They would swing from long, droning acoustic numbers with Jarboe’s signature low and guttural vocals juxtaposed perfectly against Gira’s, to near-apocalyptic bombardments, overwhelmingly coarse – even caustic – and yet never failing to maintain an seemingly uncontrollable beauty. 1996’s “Soundtracks for the Blind,” combining beautiful arrangements of found spoken-word recordings, soft acoustic symphonies and some extraordinarily loud and heavy constructions, became a resplendent example of the band’s climax, and was also their final studio output.
“I’m talking about my own experience of the music (though I’d hope people in the audiences along the way might have experienced a similar episode). When I ask myself if I believe in God, I start to say NO, but then I remember that sensation, and I’m not so sure.”
Until now, that is. In an email sent to Young God Newsletter subscribers, as well as on the label’s website, Gira announced this week his intentions to re-focus on Swans as a new project, and to put Angels of Light on hold as he met this latest challenge. As he explains on Young God Records’ site:
“ . . . there was a point a few years ago . . . on tour with Angels Of Light, with Akron/Family serving as the backing band. It was during the song The Provider. Seth’s guitar was sustaining one open chord (very loudly), rising to a peak, then crashing down again in a rhythm that could have been the equivalent of a deep and soulful act of copulation. The whole band swayed with this arc. Really was like riding waves of sound. I thought right then, “You know, Michael, Swans wasn’t so bad after all…” . Ha ha! It brought back – in a flood – memories, or maybe not memories, more a tangible re-emersion in the sensation of Swans music rushing through my body in waves, lifting me up towards what, I can only assume, will be my only experience of heaven. It’s difficult – and probably pointless – to try to describe this experience. It’s ecstatic, I suppose – a force of simultaneous self negation and rebirth.
Gira, circa 1995. (Photo: Michael Moynihan)
Really, I probably only experienced this a handful of times to such an extreme extent during the entire 15 year history of Swans. All the elements have to align perfectly, and you can’t force it, though you might constantly strive for it. I don’t mean to be too lofty here, but it’s a fact. I’m talking about my own experience of the music (though I’d hope people in the audiences along the way might have experienced a similar episode). When I ask myself if I believe in God, I start to say NO, but then I remember that sensation, and I’m not so sure. So I want more of that, before my body breaks down to such an extent that it won’t be possible any more. So I’m doing it.”
In order to raise funds to offset the cost of touring, production, distribution, etc., he has made a limited edition CD/DVD (1,000 copies) of possible songs/demos/outtakes from the future Swans record, available for order online. The new Swans disc is also available for presale, as well as some signed originals from Gira himself.
For a taste of what may be in store, have a look at this video, also available on Young God Records, and on the DVD.