With the release of their fourteenth full-length album, Swans are hardly surprising people each time they manage to blow people’s mind. It has been that way for some time now and for the look of things it will remain that way. We talked with Michael Gira about The Glowing Man, the unexpected trilogy, what the present looks like, and the exciting uncertainty of the future.
You’ve been releasing music, with and without Swans, for more than 30 years. In a moment where the record is like two weeks from being released, is there an excitement to see how people will react to your new work?
[pause] Yeah, I suppose so. I make it for myself, but I also make it for other people. I just hope that people available themselves to the experience.
You described The Seer as a culmination of every previous Swans’ album as well any other music you’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined, and you told me, in our last conversation, that perhaps To Be Kind was a visit to your local supermarket. So, how would you describe The Glowing Man?
I guess this one was like being on the operating table in the hospital having my liver removed.
[laughs] In a good way or in a bad way?
It was very good in that the surgeon, the nurses, and I all ate my liver afterwards.
Was it the first time, in your career with Swans, that you started working on an album without knowing it was a farewell?
No, I did that with Soundtracks for the Blind (1996) as well.
How did it feel and how it compares with the Soundtracks for the Blind?
In this instance I’m not retiring the name Swans. I’m just moving on to a different phase, a much different phase. But I don’t think it really affected making record. There’s the music to deal with, that’s the most important thing, and all of us… we knew it was the last adventure involving all of us as a band. All of us, we just focused on the music, really.
Like you say in The Glowing Man’s press release, you didn’t know where it would lead when you restarted Swans back in 2009. Was there a specific moment or period in these 7 years where you figured out or you started understanding its purpose?
Yes! That would’ve been during live performances when it reached – the music, not us – the highest possible state that I could ever imagine myself partaking in. Where the music was a living entity and we were just, very similar to the audience, experiencing simultaneously as was being created.
Was it before the release of The Seer?
Yeah, after we started touring for the first album [My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky (2010)]. At first we started those tours in pretty much a normal way, doing some songs from the record, some old songs, and then I started to feel very phony about that. It seemed like just recapitulating the past or something. So, we started just letting the music take over in and improvising, for lack of a better word… it’s not really improvising in the normal, in that people take solos and explore their instrument or something. It’s more like we found ways to allow the trajectory of the sound to take over and follow it. So, that was a revelation and is the mode we’ve been using for a lot of the material, not all of it, by performing the songs, transforming and ultimately it become new songs, which was what happened in this record. Particularly the song “The Glowing Man” itself, it grew out of performing a song called “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’ Ouverture”. I was becoming dissatisfied with playing “Toussaint L’Ouverture”. Although it was great, at one time it started to feel predictable and one night I just started doing something else, people followed, and then we went to a whole new thing and it became “The Glowing Man”.
As everyone knows at this point, The Glowing Man is the last record with this Swans’ incarnation that’s been together for seven years now. Is there a comfort, in being together in this group of people for the last seven years, that you wanted shake away, sort of speak? Perhaps welcoming a sort of uncomfortable feeling.
Yes… [pause] I guess it’s like being with a wife and the sexual adventure has disappeared. But you know, we were together – and we’ll still be together for the next 18 months – over 200 days a year, very close quarters, working constantly, and I just feel that as a group, as a band that if we were to continue we might start becoming predictable. I just think it’s important to shake it up. I’m not going to say I’m not going to work with these guys, it’s just that I’m going to have a revolving group of contributors in future records. And also, having a band, at least at this level, is a huge responsibility and I’m just too fucking exhausted to deal with it. To have a band like this and to be able to afford it is necessary to tour a lot, to pay people, and… Yeah, I can’t keep that up. So, I’m going to scale things down.
“I’m just trying to provide an experience in which one can hopefully lose themselves for a minute…”
With To Be Kind, you did cut a little bit of music and there was even a piece that didn’t make the record because you felt it made the album tedious, like it didn’t work. Did you end up cutting anything for this album?
No. This record has everything that was conceived to be on the record. I mean, there were some edits, of course, but that’s it.
“The Seer” grew into “Bring The Sun” which grew into “Toussaint L’ Ouverture”, and then there’s “The Glowing Man” that contains a section of “Bring The Sun”. Is this interconnectivity enough to call the last three albums a sort of unexpected trilogy?
I suppose so. It wasn’t conceived that way, but it’s a period of time where everything feeds of everything else and it’s just one body of work that keeps evolving.
You confessed that “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Cloud of Unknowing”, the two first songs on the album, are prayers. If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of prayers?
Lyrically, and I guess musically live too, they are involved with the act of surrendering and giving up. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what that’s giving up to but…
Certainly not life.
No, it’s more to do with trying to find a contact with something bigger than yourself, which is where the music, at times and not always, involves. It’s like I say, when the music reaches this kind of stage where it’s an undeniable wave that’s moving forward, you just have to decide to just let it take you. That’s a corollary to pursue of a state of consciousness, which I aspire to.
Would it be fair to say that giving up to reach something higher is what you’ve been doing with Swans, in the great scale of things?
Probably. I think that anybody that experiences music in a deep way, just music, is involved in that process.
I was thinking… if you go listen to Swans’ early records…
No, thank you.
[laughs] They’re extremely aggressive, extremely bleak, sometimes fuckin’ depressive… I mean, nowadays it can also be aggressive at times – there are some moments on this new album that can prove it – but there seems to be hope, seems to have a lot of love involved.
It’s always searching, yes, and it’s always giving, which is where the word love comes in. But I disagree with the word “aggressive”. I would say it’s more sort of all-encompassing because aggression implies that you’re attacking, which I’m definitely not doing. I’m just trying to provide an experience in which one can hopefully lose themselves for a minute.
Listening to this album, I felt that there was a gospel music feel with the chants and everything, a great sense of spirituality – perhaps more than any other Swans’ album. Do you feel comfortable with this association or do you even think it’s fair?
Yeah, there’s a similarity in gospel music that just quite literally is always trying to take you higher. Lyrically, it’s quite beautiful in the sense that the words don’t interfere with that music or inspiration. They are signposts leading you on. For instance, if I were to write words in the bigger songs – I mean, there’s obviously quieter songs on this record too – that were personal or confessional, it would ruin the music. It’s always a matter of finding phrases that fit with the music, but don’t make it smaller.
“The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black” uses some words you wrote back in 1982 or so that Sonic Youth used for their song “The World Looks Red” for their debut album Confusion Is Sex (1983). People often have a hard time remembering what they did last week… how the hell did you still remember those words that you had written more than 30 years ago?
I didn’t remember them all, but I was just playing my guitar in my office and I didn’t have words for this music… I have no idea, I just started singing those words. You know, I had recently reconnected with Thurston [Moore] and that might have had something to do with why that song was in my mind. I guess they were good words. [laughs]
There’s a line on that song that goes “The weight of my body is too much to bear.” Do you still feel that way?
Oh yeah, but it’s not a confessional song. It’s just describing a state of mind. At that time my state of mind was utterly paranoid [laughs] and verging on insane. I don’t who that person is anymore, but I still feel that psychic picture.
“… having a band, at least at this level, is a huge responsibility and I’m just too fucking exhausted to deal with it”
You named the last track of the last album with the current Swans’ incarnation “Finally Peace”. I’m curious to know… was that the last track written and recorded for the album?
Things were recorded all in bits and pieces. You go into the studio and you record the basic tracks, then you go back and do overdubs – in the case of these songs there are hundreds of overdubs. So, they all worked in tandem, together. But that song was one of the last for the record, yeah.
Why did you decide to call it “Finally Peace?”
Well, I guess is describing the state of mind of the song. That’s what it points to.
I thought you were referencing to this seven-year period.
Well, I guess you could look at that way too. Although I’m not that self-referential. I don’t think that Swans per se is an interesting topic for a song. A song should be a standalone experience for people – it’s not about me, or my friends, or the band. It’s a song and it should have a wide appeal or interest to people.
Could you please talk about and explain the meaning behind that sort of symbol in the cover art?
It’s a drawing I did. I did all those drawings. The initial concept for the artwork for the album was to have a symbol from different languages of “glowing”, “man”, or “fire”, “exploding”… different kinds of phrases. The cover would have been a Chinese character, the back cover would have been a Japanese character, and another one would have been Arabic, and so on. I researched those characters and I began to realize that it seemed really new age to do this [laughs] and it looked corny. So, at the last minute I thought, “Oh fuck, what am I going to do?”, and so I just drew my own symbols. I was struck later realizing that they sort of reminded that they sort of reminded me of [Francisco] Goya’s The Disasters of War series where body parts are hanging from the trees. [laughs] Pretty much every album has an icon.
The last three albums hit the two-hour mark (more or less). I guess you’re still unsure what the Swans’ future will look like, but do you consider working with a time limitation or the organic nature in Swans’ music is too good and satisfactory to be putted aside?
I just think the music will determine that. That’s what it does now. It’s not intentional to make things long and I didn’t set out to make things long. Intrinsically, it seems like that’s how it has to be. There’s no reason to cut things. The only reason to cut things is if it’s not interesting. I only cut things if it’s not interesting anymore.