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Michael Gira speaks slowly, thoughtfully, pausing often to consider his words before moving on to the next phrase. One gets the sense that he has much to consider these days. Gira’s band, Swans, has built its reputation slowly but steadily over the past 35 years, from being a relentless rule-breaker emerging from the New York no wave scene of the 1980s to a venerated art-rock group now writing its own end despite critical acclaim and a loyal fan base.
On Swans’ latest (and final) album, The Glowing Man, Gira grapples, as always, with difficult themes: doubt, agony, love, addiction, goodbyes, assault — this last particularly vexing in the face of rape allegations raised against Gira earlier this year. As Swans embarks on an 18-month post-release tour before bringing the curtain down on its current seven-person configuration, Sophie Luo spoke with Gira on farewells to the familiar, the significance of death, and obese men wearing diapers.
SL: How did you meet Okkyung Lee and decide to collaborate with her on this album and tour?
MG: I was doing a solo show in… I think it was Copenhagen. Someone asked me if I wanted her to play before me at a show, and I listened to some of her music and said ‘of course.’ Then I saw her perform and I just was really stunned. Because it’s so exceptionally unique and emotional and challenging, and it’s really like watching someone wrestle psychically with the powers inherent in their instrument. It’s very… I guess I would say kind of a spiritual act. I don’t know if she would agree with that. But to me, it appears to be so. It’s like struggling with the concept of creation, or something. It just works.
But I saw that performance and I asked her to open for us on our tour last year, and she did. And we had this one song where I thought her approach to sound worked well as an introduction to the song and so I asked her to do it [ed.: “Cloud of Unknowing”]. And actually I have her [opening] on this leg of the tour.
SL: On this tour, you’ll also be doing your first ever South American shows, which makes me wonder how reception of your tours varies around the world? Your live shows aim for transcendence and I imagine the way people from different places react to that is interesting.
MG: Well, when the show works– which isn’t always, of course, because we’re often out on a limb and don’t really know where we’re going; sometimes it fails, sometimes it works… but when it works, the response is very good. I mean, the people that come to see us aren’t coming because it’s a happening thing or a pop phenomenon. So they come [understanding] what we have to offer… and fortunately when it works, we all get a great experience from it, including us, the band.
SL: You’ve described the feeling of playing live shows as “finding yourself inside the music,” or an immersive and all-consuming experience. What other things in your life make you feel this way?
MG: I try not to talk about personal things too much, but I would say meditation certainly is a very similar struggle with consciousness. I’m drawn more to the Zen school of Buddhism than I am to the more florid aspects… I like Zen because it’s very austere and dry. That struggle with giving oneself up or of releasing [your] fears is central to the [art]. Some of the music, of course, is more rigidly structured and in those cases you just have to fall into the hope that it moves beyond itself.
SL: Speaking of Buddhism, you said the track “The Glowing Man” contains your favorite Zen koan.
SL: I would guess that it has something to do with the lyrics “What is, is what?” or the play on nothing/no-thing man, but I wanted to ask you directly.
MG: Oh yeah. Yes, of course. It’s typically mind-scrambling. The wonderful thing about Zen koans is there’s no answer. The answer is in the way that it kind of destroys your perception of who you are and what the world is. And I’ve always been drawn, actually, before my interest specifically in Buddhism or even in Christian mysticism… I’ve always been drawn to language that negates itself. Where two opposites could be equally true.
SL: Could you talk about the art for this album and your solo album I Am Not This?
MG: There’s a backstory to the art which is a little ludicrous, I suppose. I started out with a concept. There’s, I think, six panels on the Digipak CD version I designed for. And I thought I would have a character from various languages, saying the word ‘glowing’ or ‘man’, ‘world’, things like that. So I looked up various characters in Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, for characters that denoted that thought. And each [panel] was going to have one character from one language that was about the emptiness of language in the long run. But once I laid them out, I thought it looked horribly New Age, and a little bit patronizing. So there was a deadline and I just thought, “Oh, fuck, what am I gonna do now? ‘Cause I can’t live with this…” So I just made some drawings myself, which are these kind of elliptical signs. I’m not quite sure what they denote. I guess I would leave it up to the viewer to figure it out. But I made those drawings myself.
SL: You said that the track “Frankie M” is a “tribute and a best wish for a wounded soul.” Could you elaborate on the story behind that?
MG: Well, I don’t want to get too explicit about people I know. It’s not my job to talk about them in public, really, but — it’s just a friend who is a very gifted person… who is very intelligent, extremely intelligent, but a complete mess. He’s sort of in a continual process of destroying his life. And it was just a sort of wish that he would recover.
SL: “People Like Us” and “Finally, Peace” are also described as farewell songs — a farewell to what, or to whom?
MG: I suppose it’s a farewell to this seven-year trajectory that we’ve been in. People can interpret it how they want, though… but very specifically, on ‘People Like Us,’ there’s a lot of references to saying goodbye, and the band, and our relationship with the audience.
I don’t look at the lyrics as explicating any particular idea. They’re accumulations of images that point in a direction… they’re not essays. So it’s hard to pin it down and I think it does a disservice to the listener to answer all the questions that are asked in the words.
SL: In February your former collaborator Larkin Grimm published rape allegations against you, which you have since denied. Have you faced any backlash from your fans or community since those allegations were published?
MG: [pause] Somewhat, I suppose. I went on a solo tour once I had recovered psychically from the assault, which it was, on me. It’s completely untrue, by the way. But I went out and I was relieved that lots of people came up to me after the show– I go out to the merch table after each show– and were very supportive, including many women. [pause] I have a kind of statement that I make when this comes up, and I’ll just give it to you. I don’t want to seem too pat, but it’s hard for me to talk about because it was so painful and psychically terrible. It took me about 3 months to be able to form a coherent sentence, actually. So what I say is:
The accusations are absolutely false. The complete opposite of the truth, in fact. What happened was plain stupid, but it was also utterly consensual, by any possible interpretation of the word. Entirely and mutually participatory. In the end it was an awkward and thoroughly regrettable interlude between two adults. And that’s the absolute truth.
But there’s nothing I can say that’s going to convince people who believe one way or the other. And certainly there was no video camera there, although… it’s pretty sick, but I wish there was. I can’t– what can I do? I mean, people in this environment unfortunately will always believe the accuser, which is a good corrective to injustice that was done for many years, but there’s times where it’s not true, and this is one of those. It’s just been a terrible event for my family, my loved ones, for everyone.
SL: You are a father, and your daughter was featured on the song “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” on a previous album. How has having children affected your creative output?
MG: Like many life events of that nature — landmark life events– it brings you very close to the urgency of existence and the proximity of death. I think about death a lot, but I don’t think about it in some kind of morose way. I think about it as a kind of impetus to really try to open yourself up to the magic that exists in each breath. And certainly children are a great inspiration for that.
I’ve used children many times on recordings. There was a song on the album Love of Life, called “Identity”, and it was basically talking about these pretty serious existential questions. I found that if I narrated those words it sounded terribly pompous. [laughter] So I racked my brain on it: “How do I get around this? I really want to try using these kind of words in a rock song.” I thought, “Why don’t I just have a young child narrate them?” So I did, and I think it successfully defused the pomp factor.
SL: Any plans to have your daughter collaborate with you in the studio again?
MG: No. But who knows? I mean, she’s much older now. Actually, she’s 10, which is a veritable adult, so…
SL: Double digits.
MG: Yeah. She isn’t really — you know, I guess she’s proud of me but she doesn’t really relate to the music.
SL: Has anything ever happened in a live show over the years that was so unexpected that it really threw off your guard while you were playing?
MG: Well, there was the time in Paris when 10 obese and bearded gentlemen came on the stage wearing nothing but diapers and danced around. [laughter]
SL: You’re known for not being nostalgic about the past, and not trying to bring back past iterations of Swans. That being said, have you ever felt the desire to have the history and evolution of this band chronicled in any way?
MG: Well, yes. One of my projects that I’m going to undertake after this 18-month tour cycle is just that. I have a tremendous archive of images, artwork, and writing, and of course all the words and the lyrics, that I thought I would compile in a sort of chronological way…
I want to avoid writing a history of the band, which I think is a little clichéd, but in that way I could indicate the chronological progression of the thoughts and the ideas that went into making the music and– just as importantly– how it was presented visually. That’s a huge undertaking, but I want to do it because I want to put a stamp on the work. I mean, I was trained — well, not ‘trained,’ that’s a highfalutin’ word — but I went to art school and I studied art, and so I always think about how one work informs the next work. I’d like to try to draw that line more clearly in the way I described.
SL: I’m sure that whatever form it ends up taking, it’s going to be something to look forward to for your fans.
MG: Oh, one never knows. One never knows. An act of terrible self-aggrandizement, which is what I’d like to write [on] it. I’d just like to present visually and through language how [the band] developed, and how it came to the point it’s at now.
Sophie Luo is DMNDR’s newest contributor, based in NYC. She’ll be covering the second of two sold out Swans show this weekend at Bowery Ballroom & Music Hall of Williamsburg. Look out for that post and many more from Sophie!