'Having a strong presence of death in your mind all the time is very healthy thing!'
26/10/2019, Danil VOLOHOV
It is quite a difficult task writing about Swans. Of course, there are always certain moments when you, as writer, can mark. Clichés and tags that characterize a certain stage of their career. Since the early 80’s Michael Gira and Swans established a new standard for experimental music. Inspired by the music of Public Image Ltd and Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans created a whole new musical standard. But they were never the same. Of course, thinking about them now you’d imagine noisy guitars, a wall of distortion and slaveship-like drum-beats. And that would be right. But with this, Michael Gira also proved that he could step outside of a certain standard. And it seems that their new album “Leaving Meaning” serves as a proof: acoustic sounds mixed with bluesy chords and certain elements they you wouldn’t expect to hear from Swans. But with all the changes it sounds very organic. As always.
In the interview for Peek-A-Boo magazine, Michael Gira told us about songwriting and artistic evolution, about “Leaving Meaning” and performing live, about his cooperation with The Necks and death.
You've always been saying that you "have a sound" in your head. If we’d speak about the current stage of your career and your upcoming album - what were the factors that influenced the sound of Swans now and your new album “Leaving Meaning” ?
The orchestrations were dictated by the songs. On this album, I had songs completely finished, written on acoustic guitar before orchestrating them.
I thought of little cinematic pictures that I’d like to make for the words and the melodies. On the last ten years of Swans with this specific group of people with whom I was working, the sound was more dictated by how we played as a band. And then I would maybe orchestrate as producer on top of that. But on this I wanted to go back towards the idea of having the specific songs finished and orchestrating them with whomever I worked with. And see how it developed from there.
There are some artists who primarily work trying to capture the atmosphere of time and space. Do you write all the time, or for you, is music a fixation or a capture of a certain moment ?
It’s very ordinary and banal! I sit down with the acoustic guitar and start playing and something happens. And then words appear. I don’t sit down with the idea: “Yes! Now I want to express anger or love!” – I just start playing and see what happens.
After years and evolution, in what ways did you change your approaches to creating music ?
Over the years ?
I could write a book on that (laughs)! Now I write on acoustic guitar. And I think about colors and space and what world these words should live in. I suppose…Some decades of working changed the whole way so much!
The opposition between creation and destruction has always been presented in your music. On second thought these are two basic concepts of our life. We were all born. We all gonna die. Just as our universe will explode and will emerge again – another big bang. But what helps you to find the balance between those two ?
Well, I would say that the bigger question is: “Am I really sure that I actually exist ?” (laughs)
One of the things that made Swans a very successful band are your incredible live-shows. Sometimes it seems that you're getting to a certain state of mind, getting to trans-state. What do you feel being on stage?
At the best times, I feel nothing. When the music is…everything. Then I’m nothing. And that’s kind of the point. Hopefully it’s the same point for the audience.
Despite your well-known sound there are some new elements you added to the music of Swans with “Leaving Meaning”. Like “Annaline” with its Italian or Spanish musical traditions sound. Or “Sunfucker” which starts following the well-known vibes of Swans and then gets to a certain bluesy point. Could you please tell me how it feels to explore something you didn’t really touch upon before ?
Well, the record…It’s like a painful surgery. It has to cut away expectations. And the process of making that happen both esthetic and very painful. It can also be very tedious and boring. So much work involved in making it! But traditionally with me, someone’s on the line, making a record. The both best and the worst points is when it’s completely collapsing and I just think it’s a complete piece of SHIT. And then I have to fight my way out of it and making it happen, nevertheless.
Like most of your works the album is a result of work with different people, musicians and individuals. Is there a certain secret, how to achieve intergrity when each person you work with brings something personal and dear to him of her?
I work with lots of musicians. And I choose the people with whom I work based not only on their musical skill. But on who they are as people. Their personalities and what they can bring to the music I’ve written as a human. Not just as musician playing a line. So it's the best instance on this record, there was a great rapport between myself and the other musicians. And we just kind of arrived at the common goal. Through working and playing songs together.
Your lyrics on the record are abstract, as always. And there are always metaphysical topics on the basis of things you speak about. In the lyrics for “Annaline” there’s a line: “Pushing us through / A window in time / Slipping into / A spiraling line” which may be regarded as a reference to a certain transitional phase. From one thing to another. So can you say that with “Leaving Meaning” you got a certain perspective on things you’d like to try later ?
Well, you just brought to mind something. I’ve always thought about this quote by conceptual artist – Bruce Nauman, where he said about feeling and what he wanted to achieve with his work. And there was that moment where you’re walking down some stairs and you think there’s another stair. And then you put your foot down and there isn’t another stair. And for a second there your expectations are completely araised. And you’re in this uncomfortable second. And that to me kind of applies to the way I think about it too. It’s like where you’re uncertain of your position…(laughs).
You once said that as an artist you work through “trial and error” and I guess it’s a primary methodology when you write experimental and abstract music. But “Leaving Meaning” doesn’t really sound so. There are not so many distorted guitars or some other elements that characterize your music….
Let me interact you and say that distorted guitars and ugly noisy sounds would be opposite of experiment at this point. It would be something that’s very expected and ordinary.
So in what way did your creative tasks and objectives differ in the case of “Leaving Meaning” ?
Well, rather than having a band of specific people played in a certain way, rather than having a sound we had as a band, in this case I had these songs. And then I had a wide variety of people, I could choose from to help orchestrate the songs. So it’s completely different way of working. It’s not how I record this band and maybe orchestrate it. It’s how do I build these songs using whatever instruments are appropriate with whatever musicians are appropriate. And so it’s much different in that way. It’s like try to make a soundtrack for each song rather then having a band playing.
What helps to figure out new ways for things to happen to implement your ideas and after all these years – is it hard for you ? I mean, when you search for something and finally you get to the destination extremely happy with it.
Well, I’m never extremely happy with it, in fact. Generally, I’m disgusted with myself at the end of the record (laughs). And can’t wait to do something new because I don’t feel I achieved what I wanted. But I guess there’s some good moments of this record. And, I think it works. But to me it’s lost. It’s blood. Because, I’m so familiar with every second of the music. That gives me a time to just moving to something else. I would say that I’m very-very honored and happy to have had all the contributors worked. Particularly, to have the group – The Necks contributed to my music. It’s just to me it’s sort of a dream come true…Do you know The Necks ?
Yes, I do.
Yeah, to me to have them playing on the record it’s just amazing…And I was very happy with what they did, of course.
You just said that you’re disgusted with the end result of your work. But what did you feel at the moment of creation and are there any favorite parts of yours on “Leaving Meaning” ?
My favorite part of the experience of making a record is when it sort of starts getting orchestrated. And we put it out loud in the speakers in the studio. And there’s four or five people standing around who contributed to the sound. And it just feels like some kind of symphony of sound going on. And you can’t believe that it’s there. It’s just amazing! And you work on it and work on it. And before you get it you know that you’d straggled a cat.
While playing live you also focus your attention on the flexibility of forms you’re working on. There is also an aspect of communication present in your work. When you are on stage you’re quite focused on each others’ individual work getting to this flow. Sometimes changing the general shape of the songs you’d written. Do you feel the same at the moment of creation ?
Well, that’s always the goal. Uncertainty.
You once said that the fear of death pushes you working forward. Is it still a strong motivator ?
Of course. I mean, having a strong presence of death in your mind all the time is a very healthy thing. Because it focuses you on the urgency of what you’re doing in each moment.
With Angels of Light, your lyrics were inspired by real people and events. Listening to the lyrics of “Leaving Meaning”, I found that among all the feelings and thoughts there’s only one reference to real-life – “The President’s mouth is a whore”. As lyricist you’re still true to yourself. But how does everything usually come to the place and where do your lyrics come from ? Or is it always a stream of consciousness ?
Oh, no! It’s not a stream of consciousness. It’s very slow process of accumulating words. They follow a trajectory. Very deliberate trajectory. But it’s not a stream of consciousness.
When I usually write something, I follow a certain “ritual” containing the things I should do…Are there any important conditions for you ?
Oh yes! It’s the same! I need a complete privacy. I can never write on tour, for instance. Never. I have to be alone in my office. And in the morning usually…It’s best to write in the morning because your mind is still connected to your dreams. So yes, these are my conditions to writing. But usually, once I find a phrase…One phrase leads slowly to another. And then a narrative develops. Phrase or image.
Do your lyrics always represent your thoughts and feelings or you’re always writing from characters’ perspective ?
Well, I’m not writing as me, Michael Gira, ever. I think that would be horribly juvenile and stupid (laughs). So I write from a point of view of a narrator. Then the narrator sings the songs. And I take on the character of that narrator performing it.
MIKE WATT(JUMPSTARTED PLOWHARDS) • In a way, the project is a total collaboration!
PAUL Q.KOLDERIE • 'There has to be a song that I feel needs to be recorded…'
NEON INSECT • A Conversation With Neon Insect
CHMCL STR8JCKT • An Interview With Chmcl Str8jckt
JAMES MCGREGOR (THE CLOCKWORKS) • 'Our dynamic is genuinely a gang scenario'
JOHN HASSALL(THE LIBERTINES,THE APRIL RAINERS) • 'I’m trying to write for everybody!'
NOTNOTICE • I Like When There Are Noise Collages In The Music
ALEXA HUNTER(DISTURBED FURNITURE) • 'Love or hate us, we are gonna kick out the jams while we still can!'
BRIAN JAMES(THE DAMNED,THE LORDS OF THE NEW CHURCH) • 'If it’s something that comes from your heart – you can do whatever you want do to!'
DAVID WM.SIMS(UNFACT,THE JESUS LIZARD,SCRATCH ACID) • 'We had a great personal chemistry within the band!'