Q&A: Michael Gira on new Swans, performing solo and creativity

Photo: Enriko Boettcher

You’d have a tough time finding anyone who plays heavy music that hasn’t listened to or learned something from Swans. Henry Rollins mentioned “Cop” in one of his earliest spoken word bits. Napalm Death cites the band as a huge influence, particularly on the albums released in the 21st century. My Dying Bride covered a Swans track. The band and its frontman Michael Gira have inspired three-plus generations of music now, and don’t appear to be slowing down. “I have a sound in my head,” Gira says of new Swans music that could appear as early as March of next year. Gira was in the midst of a highly successful run with the last incarnation of the band — including the critically-praised albums The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man — when he decided to wind down Swans in late 2017. He has since been busy writing new music, which he played as part of a solo tour this fall, as well as finishing a self-released book of prose The Egg, his first since the cult classic The Consumer. Decibel talked to the perennial iconoclast this fall about his solo tour, what’s next for Swans and surviving Trump America.  

What are some of the challenges when you go to from playing live shows with a band to playing an acoustic set?
They are completely different. But it’s not like I am going to only acoustic music—I am continuing Swans. I’m going to go back to what I did in the ’80s and collaborate with people from around the world. The songs will be written on acoustic guitar and then finished with various musicians rather than a set band. As far as performing solo goes, it’s like being an ant on an anvil with a hammer coming at you. You have to be in charge and be in possession of it absolutely. Every little insecurity is evident. When I initially stopped Swans in 1997, I had already been writing many songs on acoustic guitar. I was sick of the volume. I had never performed solo at that time, and it was exciting for me after playing this big, sonic music. I’m not sure what the sonic approach will be for the new Swans music, but I have songs, and I have musicians for the next pass.

When you play acoustic, there is a hyperawareness of self. You can hear your mistakes.
And in my case, they are quite numerous. But I like doing it. The thing about the last version of Swans is that it was so overwhelming that the sound played us. It became this sound that led us to new territories for seven years, and it was exhilarating. But it reached an apex, and a decline was imminent.

Can you tap into the same things when you perform solo?
Oh, for sure. Look at some of my idols like Nina Simone; when she played alone on the piano it was utterly transporting. It was fantastic. You need to be open to the fingers of God reaching inside your brain.

Was it difficult when you first started to try to get into that mindset?
It was terrifying, and I was awful at it. But that was the only avenue open to me so I did. I’m not an accomplished player, but I know how to do what I do. Tonight will be all new songs for the next album with one old one at the end. I try to inhabit songs and hope I succeed.

As you’ve moved along have you ever want to get more deeply into theory?
I’m not interested—I actually don’t want to know (laughs). I obviously know most of the chords I play and when I’m with other musicians we talk about (music) in terms of colors or sounds or “just move up the neck and play this.” On a record, I usually get a few instruments recorded and then I hear female voices or horns or strings or percussion. I just follow the path with intuition.

That’s one thing I loved about The Seer... it’s absolutely fearless in its exploration of one or two chords.
Well, we might stay on one or two chords, but the sound around it is always shifting, sometimes slowly. It’s not like an adventure in mono repetition. The music is still going somewhere and building and changing. On the last three records, in particular, I didn’t put any constraints on lengths. I just thought if it felt good to play it then an open-minded listener could fall into it.

When you are writing a song, say something like “Mother Of The World,” does it start with a riff or a fragment or a piece?
That was written on acoustic guitar. The bass player took it and made it much better. We then wondered how far we could milk it. I don’t see any reason to leave a groove when it’s happening. I don’t think intellectually when I am in the process of making music—it’s about intuition. I want (other musicians) to be able to express themselves within the aesthetic constraints of what we are doing. It can be frustrating for more skilled musicians to work with me because I can’t explain things in musical terms or don’t even know what I want until I hear it played. They exercise a great amount of patience with me. Some songs like “People Like Us”  were finished with chords and vocals and we arranged it together. But other pieces on the last three albums usually just started with improvising on stage. We became so connected that these pieces grew out of live performance.

At this stage of your life, what excites you about music and the creative process?
It’s always the discovery of something you didn’t expect. If it turns out how I envisioned it wouldn’t be interesting. It’s more interesting when someone makes a mistake or does something by accident, and it becomes part of the arrangement. I don’t want to judge the career of Swans, but this last iteration felt like the most connected group ever.

In the past few years, we’ve entered a dark period of global history. You lived through the ’80s and Reagan. What are your thoughts about where we are as a culture?
I’m not a politician or philosopher, but I will say that the rise of Donald Trump is an appalling moment in world history, particularly at such a pivotal moment with climate change. The level of discourse has become moronic. I’m astounded to hear the president talk. The most disquieting thing in culture is the colonization of our minds by the media and the Internet, and it’s happening faster and faster. I’m not any different. I get addicted to it and try to make a point to read. I’ve been obsessed with how consumer capitalism is shaping our minds and how it almost mixes up your sexuality with consuming and working in a job you hate to buy things you don’t need. It’s been happening for a while, but it’s cataclysmic now. And it feeds the cycle of consumption, which then uses more resources. It all leads to this apocalyptic state. It’s a struggle to get my daughter off of an iPhone when she should be reading and drawing. There’s been a major anthropological change.

Do you ever think about what your journey would have been like if this media was around when you were younger?
Honestly, I have no idea. But it feels like things now move so fast that they are coming to a head.

There are two books out now — your latest book of stories The Egg, and an oral history of Swans by Nick Soulsby.
I had a few stories written when Swans was still going and finished a few after. I want to write a history of Swans and have it be partially fictional and partially true, some of it biographical and some of it made up. I don’t know if I can do that. (The oral history) made me want to commit suicide. I’m not depicted as a saint in there, for sure. I was a tempestuous individual, and I don’t think I am as much anymore. It was disquieting some of the opinions of me. I have a lot of regrets. I do like Nick Soulsby, who compiled the book. I kind of wish he had written a book rather than just the oral history but I’m glad it’s there. There’s also a documentary being made so there’s been a lot of looking back which is something I’m generally not comfortable doing.

You’ve always seemed to be more about what’s ahead.
That might be because I have such a terrible memory from drinking so much for so many years. We were fortunate that when we restarted Swans the zeitgeist was there and people were just as interested in new music as the old songs. We were eventually able to stop playing the old songs and let the music gestate and metastasize on its own.