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Swans – Baptism by Fire

Have you heard about the flight of Icarus?

For some unknown reason, during the most recent performance of SWANS in Lisbon I kept thinking about Icarus and how difficult it must be to learn to control ones impulses in order to achieve the task at hand. Perhaps this analogy had something to do with the reverberation of sound or simply with the movements of Mr. Gira while on stage conducting his band mates. In any case, it will be difficult to forget this show and the sonic hurricane that kept spinning for two and a half hours of improvisation and loud discharges.

It’s undeniable that the trance-like structures of SWANS have grown to full maturity in the last decade and of this formation one could say it’s literally dissolving on stage and in real life. What can be heard of SWANS on stage these days has very little to do with what is actually in the records and that’s disorienting, unpredictable and uplifting altogether. Judging from the reaction of some people in the audience perhaps that can be a little too overwhelming but like any good form of art, it needs to push and challenge the listener into the unknown and to leave you there fumbling for answers and safe ground.

Personally, I’ve been listening to SWANS for over 15 years, so finally meeting Michael Gira – who was most cordial and amiable despite looking tired – and having a chat before entering the stage was an undeniable pleasure.

Nuno Moreira – Michael, this is not your first time in Portugal, what’s your overall image of this country? 

Michael Gira – The first time I came here I read from a book I wrote at a spoken-word festival and that must have been in 2003. It was interesting to note the economy relatively low then, and then watch Portugal grow and become more consumerist (unfortunately), but become prosperous, and then the crash happened… Very disappointing. I like the country, obviously. The people are nice and the food is good…

NM – While preparing for this interview today I read that as a young man you used to live with your father in Europe, is that correct?

MG – Indeed. That was in 1968, I guess. My father had taken me from California because I was a juvenile delinquent and my mother couldn’t control me and so the police said he had to come back and get me. They were divorced. So he came and took me first to southern Indiana where he was building a factory for a big company. He was a business executive. And then he got a job in Europe and took me with him, and then I ran away several times, and uh, ended up working in a factory in Germany for one year, because I had run away before… It’s a complicated story. I was arrested in Amsterdam and he finally came and got me and gave me an ultimatum that either I would go to this expensive school in the Swiss Alps – that he could get through his company for me – or I would work in the factory. And I chose the factory (chuckles). So I did that for about a year, working in Germany, and after that he said: “now you’re going to school, you’re my son and you’re not going to work in a factory”. So I ran away again and hitchhiked through Europe down through Greece and through Turkey. I was with some older hippies, this was in 1969, and we got to Israel. I spent one year in Israel as a vagabond, I was arrested for selling hashish and spent a total of three months in a prison there, working in some copper mines and eventually my father found me through Interpol and I went back to California.

NM – That’s quite a story! I was wondering if through those times there was a pivotal moment in your life, perhaps something that you’ve experienced that was crucial for you to understand you wanted to be a musician and express yourself through music.

MG – Well, when I was in jail in Israel I started to read a lot. Nothing else to do, and that was the first time I really read something seriously. They had a good library over there; the local hippies would leave all their books… And that got me thinking about art and literature. So when I went back to California I did a year of high-school and eventually I ended up going to art school and then… Punk rock happened! And that’s when I decided that I didn’t want a career in art – not that I wasn’t an artist – but I didn’t like the art world. To me it was way too elite and disconnected from contemporary societal screaming-issues that were going on, and are still going on. I felt Punk was a much more immediate extreme response and that’s when I started the band.

NM – If there’s something that’s very characteristic of SWANS is the mind-expanding and the trance-like structures of the sound. To me it seems almost like gospel at times. The sound being pushed to a higher sphere… Now we can see this as a kind of musical pattern for SWANS but were you always conscious of making this kind of sound?

MG – It’s both conscious and a process of discovery through live-performance. We are always in-flux, always changing, and it’s us following whatever path seems to lead towards that moment of complete dissipation of the self. And when it’s most extreme and most ascending – like you mentioned with gospel – that’s when I’m attracted to. That’s what I’ve always looked for in rock music, for the kind of over-arching epiphany of sounds. We follow that, and the material builds over the course of the tour and slowly morphs.

We start out with one thing and by the end it’s five things put together and we leave the first thing behind. That’s how all the records were made from “My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky” onward – except for the small songs I make on acoustic guitar – all are made through a process of discovery and it’s just an attempt to be in the moment and to reach some kind of higher-state. To me, music, particularly amplified electric-guitars, are very capable of that. It’s like your own in-built symphony. The sounds can be so completely engulfing, you know? So that’s what we go for, I’m drawn towards a Buddhist way of thinking about existence, but I’m not a Buddhist, I would never say I was, but the moments when time is absolute in the music, that to me is the most satisfying.

NM – I was curious if you are conscious of this SWANS-language while writing the music.

MG – The words/lyrics over the last couple of records have become more infused with… (hesitating) – I don’t want to say religion, or spirituality – more with transcendence, with serving a function of prayer almost. And that has to do through reading and life experience.

There’s two songs on the last records that are both inspired by the same book which is called The Cloud of Unknowing, written by a 13th century English monk teaching is acolyte the proper way to reach union with god. It’s not didactic Catholicism it’s about the transcendence stuff, like St. John of the Cross might have written. About trying to reach connection with god. They call it god, I don’t know if I do.

NM – What is so fascinating with SWANS in the last years is precisely this kind of inner universe of the band, of these records, of the live performances; it all seems so much like an alchemical process in some way.

MG – There’s a great book by Aldous Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy which was very inspirational to me about two or three years ago in which he, in a very academic way, but very searching way too, talks about the similarities between Christian mysticism and Buddhism, Hinduism and even some Islam.

The aspiration seems to be to just dissolve… I was just reading in my Zen book this morning about loosing the duality of mind. To be able to apprehend the moment in its entirety is kind of the perfect way to be, it’s almost impossible.

NM – In terms of composing and coming up with lyrics, do you keep a notebook with you or do you have any writing habits?

MG – I write notes on the computer constantly, but words come very slowly to me these days. I think it’s because I’ve written so much that when I start to write it just sounds like something I would write, and that’s not acceptable… I have to find a phrase that I think it’s true and then slowly build on that. But I write everyday on my journal and often times after reading a book I’ll come up with a phrase that will just lead to many other things. And of course I write from memories and experiences too, the trick with music like this is to find the words that don’t lessen the music. It’s like we’ve mentioned with gospel, it needs to lift the music up and to find the right phrases to do that is very difficult.

NM – That makes me think that reaching for that specific feeling of being lost in the sound must be very difficult to achieve every night.

MG – Sure it is. But we try! This group has been playing together for seven years now so we are very much focused together in our thinking and our feelings. I’m always the kind of policeman looking at everybody. Being the band leader I’m always trying to push everybody and myself at the same time.

NM – So I gather it must be difficult as well to conduct a group of persons with varied personalities and specifically trying to explain in words what you’re trying to achieve through sound, which seems so difficult to put into words really…

MG – Well, you end up not talking about the content but rather about form. Because the form is actually the content. You can’t just say: now we have to dissolve. You just try to make the sound happen and that speaks for itself.

NM – Do you remember the times when you started to work with this group of musicians?

MG – I’ve known these guys for decades so it was easy to work with them. When we started we weren’t fully formed, it was only what became the next three records. It was only when we started performing that we realized the power of this kind of incremental and improvisation that we do where things grow slowly in a performance, and then in the next performance we talk about what happened the night before and then we push that, and gradually, throughout the course of a year and a half tour, the material has completely evolved into something else and gives us a new record.

NM – Is it difficult for you (as an artist) to be doing this and at the same time looking at the future and what you want to do next?

MG – I’m not looking at the future right now because I don’t want to take away from this… So I’m just trying to finish this tour in the best way that I know how and then in November when I wake up I’ll start working on what’s next. I have some concepts but nothing in specific.

NM – Is there any activity you do outside of music that contributes to the music you do.

MG – I would say reading and movies mostly. And meditating. And loving my wife – to be polite. (chuckles).

NM – There’s a SWANS documentary on the making (Where Does a Body End?). What can you tell us about it and what’s your involvement in it?

MG – I’ve been giving Marco’s some feedback but I don’t want to be the director about my own documentary so I suggested people he could talk to. I’ve seen some of it, it looks okay but I don’t know how it’s going to be… I just did a series of long 3-hour interviews with a journalist, the all band and other people who have known SWANS did that as well… I hope that it’s not a typical rock documentary, so we’ll see!

NM – About the aesthetic side of the band, specifically the cover artworks, I’ve always been intrigued by how eclectic and different they look.

MG – Almost exclusively each record has an icon on the cover. That was something I’ve decided back in 1982, to just use icons. It’s a sign that would both indicate what the record is about but also confuse what the record is about, so it creates a tension. I don’t want the cover artwork to answer the questions, I want it to make more questions, that’s when it’s best. The most important thing is the question, always.

NM – Before entering the stage, is there any preparation you go through, do you warm up your voice?

MG – Yes, I warm up my voice a bit but I don’t do much else… We hug each other before we play (chuckles).

NM – Before we go, is there anything you want to unveil about what’s next for SWANS and for yourself?

MG – I get that question a lot now, but I’m not sure. Lets say: I want it to sound like a full symphony playing inside a church and it stops. The moment after it stops is what I want it to sound like but I don’t know if I’ll achieve that.

Nuno Moreira was born in Lisbon and develops activity independently as art director and photographer. Studied cinema and specialised in editorial design and post-production, with special focus on book and music design. He worked for several years as a designer and then as teacher in the areas of Graphic Arts, Design and Audiovisuals in several schools and institutions. Nuno collaborates sporadically with Umbigo since 2005.

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