When Decibel met with Swans founder/visionary Michael Gira in San Francisco last fall before a solo show he said new Swans music was coming after a three-year gap. A year later he’s lived up to the promise with the double album Leaving Meaning.
“Leaving Meaning is the first Swans album to be released since I dissolved the lineup of musicians that constituted Swans from 2010 – 2017,” Gira says. “Swans is now comprised of a revolving cast of musicians, selected for both their musical and personal character, chosen according to what I intuit best suits the atmosphere in which I’d like to see the songs I’ve written presented. In collaboration with me, the musicians, through their personality, skill, and taste, contribute greatly to the arrangement of the material.”
We are beyond excited to stream Leaving Meaning in advance of its October 25 release. Like the entirety of the Swans catalog, it is in some ways pointless to try to describe it. At this point in his career, Gira is as much conductor as songwriter, using every musician at his disposal to realize and ultimately present a personal vision. Swans is one of the few bands where lengths usually reserved for motion pictures aren’t tolerated but anticipated.
Leaving Meaning can be purchased in multiple formats from Young God Records. While listening, check out a new Q&A with Gira below about how the album came together and what’s next for Swans.
After you decided to put Swans on hiatus was it always your plan to bring it back? Or was there an impetus to getting new collaborators and writing new music?
The first time I ended Swans in 1998 I was finished. I didn’t think I’d do this kind of music ever again and I started Angels Of Light. Once I had done that forever I started to crave these overwhelming sonic experiences again. I just thought I’d start Swans again, who the hell cares? (laughs). It had much more success than I imagined. Maybe the time was right. We had about a seven-year period where we had this fixed group of musicians. It was the first time ever I had a group and it was a fantastic experience. That reached a conclusion and we just didn’t feel like we were moving beyond where we were. I ended it and decided to revert to how I did things in the 1990s which was to orchestrate songs and perform them with a different lineup of musicians each time. I wanted to work on my ideas but also use the tremendous input of the other musicians.
I was going through the list of collaborators and there are some new faces but there are some Gira staples like Norman Westberg. How did you decide who was right for this album?
The first thing I had to do was get things on tape. I went to Berlin and worked with (symphonic percussionist) Larry Mullins and he was just great. I also worked with Kristof Hahn, who was a guitarist in the last incarnation of Swans and Yoyo Röhm, my bass player. We sat down and played some of the basic tracks and arrangments. After that, we slowly orchestrated it and had a lot of back-and-forths about the music. There was a lot of playing and improvising to orchestration I had put together.
One of the interesting things about streaming music is you will get listeners who have heard every piece of Swans music and others who know nothing about the band. How could each group of listeners approach the album?
I don’t know. I think that’s something for a publicist to comment on. I have no preconceptions about how anyone should approach music except that I hope it’s a positive experience in the end. That’s all I can say. I don’t write music in order to please anyone and I’m still sometimes shocked when people get something valuable out of it.
Will the touring lineup be composed of musicians who played on Leaving Meaning or other musicians?
There will be an official announcement about this but there will be six people sitting down on stage playing these long, involved clouds of sound. The songs used as a basis will be from this record and some will be new. There might be a few older ones but I kind of doubt it.
You’ve never liked playing older material but instead creating something new.
Yeah, I’m not really into advertising and it seems like that’s what it is when you play the older songs. I would much rather play something in the moment.
How did you feel when you listened to the record?
There were moments of elation and moments when I had my head in my hands feeling like a complete failure. I am never really pleased with the results. I don’t know if that means I’m not good enough or I’m overly critical. I can listen to some of the songs and like them and other songs and only hear what I should have done better.