Q&A: Swans' Michael Gira On "Invoking The Demon Spirit" Of Lady Gaga And Letting His Daughter Sing On A Song Called "You Fucking People Make Me Sick"

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Owen Swenson

Swans are an NYC institution that should justly get handed the same props and congratulatory pats on the proverbial back Sonic Youth has collected in perpetuity. Michael Gira, the ringleader of Swans, Angels of Light, and Young God Records, has trudged along in the city's ever-changing (for the yuppified worse) landscape—he obliterated dingy clubs with Swans' devastatingly caustic anti-rock in the '80s, bleeding dirty sex and unleashing a jackhammering caterwaul during the band's eardrum-splattering live shows.

In 1997, Gira traded in Swans' brutality for the experimentalist folkways of Angels of Light; meanwhile, his own label Young God opened its doors to Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family. During this period, Gira kept a semi-low profile with Angels of Light, frequenting the defunct LES experimental sanctuary Tonic.

But in 2010 Gira revived Swans—it's a revival, not a reunion—and spit out the chanting Americana-smeared sonic bludgeon of My Father Will Guide Me Up To A Rope in the Sky. Next week he's playing three shows in the area, including a set at the I'll Be Your Mirror festival in Asbury Park. Sound of the City spoke to Gira from his home near Woodstock (it's still New York, right?) to talk about the old days, the five-year reunion plan, and Lady Gaga.

You've been resistant to associate Swans with the word "reunion."

Well, it's not a reunion. I started Swans again but live we're doing mostly [songs] from the recent album [My Father Guided Me Up To A Rope In The Sky] we did and even newer material. It's not one of these bands that gets up and plays their old album and tries to revisit the past. I guess I'm trying to distinguish it from that notion of trying to be some kind of nostalgia thing where people get to experience "the good old days" or some shit.

To me, I started it more because I needed to do it artistically, to stay vital and feel alive and make music that is compelling for me and hopefully for my audience. So that's why I did it.

But you do perform older Swans material live.

We do one song from the olden days—that's called "I Crawled." The rest of the material now is, as the tours have progressed, we've just jettisoned anything old and just didn't seem genuine anymore—we stopped it. We played two or three songs from the recent album and then now we have two or three other songs from an album we are recording right now that when we have time when we aren't on tour.

Why call it Swans then if you are jettisoning the past, for the most part?

Swans have always being doing new music; it is Swans, it's obviously Swans. If you hear it, the first thing you know it's Swans; nobody sounds like us. But it's doing new music. It's my project; I'll call it whatever I want. I can call it "Johnny and the Dickheads" if I want. It's Swans—that's my name. We're free—I don't know if anybody's noticed it but we are free human beings and we can determine our own destiny (laughs).

Do you think if the current music you are creating now was under your own name or Angels of Light, the press and the fans wouldn't care as much?

I don't know. I'm glad that people do care. We've drawn bigger audiences than we ever have so it's been really gratifying. I am not interested in just supplying what people expect, musically. I'm not trying to challenge an audience; I don't care at all about. But I am trying to make something happen sonically that is compelling, urgent, vital and alive. And that does not entail reciting old ditties from the past.

Are you floored by the reception this incarnation of Swans has received?

Yes. It's been utterly invigorating and just tremendous. I feel like I just got a new pathway in life. Actually, I feel like I've rediscovered what I was put on Earth to do. When I stopped Swans originally, it was at a point of exhaustion and just couldn't go on. I just wanted to erase everything about it because it had been fifteen years of like being kicked up a set of stairs by some moronic gladiator or something (laughing) just kicked and kicked and kicked slowly moving up the stairs a little bit. I just got sick of enduring it. I'm sure that maybe I was the person kicking myself. So when I stopped, I just jettisoned everything about it and went to playing and writing on acoustic guitar. But after thirteen years of doing that, I felt of being in sort of a similar position where I felt I drained that way of working of any type of vitality for me and I wanted to do something else. I still write songs on acoustic guitar but it's just a rough blueprint and then we build these sonic waves on; it's not meant to be an acoustic guitar song anymore.

Was it difficult for you to get loud again and make noise?

It feels great. I wouldn't call it "noise"—I never did. To me, it's like being in church and there's five church choirs singing all at once, different songs. It's like rising up to God. It's so powerful I can't even describe it. It's a really positive experience.

Are you a religious man?

When I'm on stage making music, yes.

You are in your fifties now, right?

Uh... I was, yeah, last time I checked.


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2 comments
Ryan
Ryan

Great interview.  I love the fact that Gira continues to distance himself from all "scenes" and makes the music he wants to make, regardless of how it's perceived.  The most recent album is one of the best albums of the decade.

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