CMJ, May 1997

The Final Sacrifice
M. Gira retires Swans

by Jordon N. Mamone

"$250.000!" spits Michael Gira. "Christ! You could almost have my penis for that!"

Swans' mastermind and founder has made it known that he's seriously put that price on hacking off his right pinkie. "[I] could get a patron," he explains. "He or she could have it and put it in aspic and put it on their mantelpiece, and then I would live." With the same sort of severing conviction. Gira has also an decided to terminate Swans after 15 or uncompromising years.

"I found that the name itself has become a sort of hindrance, because people have preconceptions about it and it's just hard to break free from," he says, smoking a cigar backstage at Irving Plaza, just before the band's last N.Y.C. show. "Also, just mentally, I think it's a nice way to trick myself into going into new terrain."

Swans' career-long devotion to extremity is legendary. Over the course of ten studio albums and a slew of EPs, singles, live records and "official bootlegs," they've developed from a slow, rhythmically potent noise-rock band into a slow, rhythmically potent avant-rock singularity equally capable of lush, stunning power and dark, semi-acoustic dirges.

"I always looked at music as something that would overwhelm or wash over you," notes Gira. "I still do quiet acoustic songs as well as loud and abrasive songs, and I've learned over the years not to draw any distinction between the two."

Gira's voice and vision have been assaultingly loud and painfully clear despite Swans' constant personnel shifts since the band's 1982 inception. Early Swans was a lumbering beast spewing feedback, tape-loop noise and brutal rhythms while Gira roared or mono-toned themes of cruelty, power, submission, sex, God and money. He accounts for the early work's seismic crush: "I just picked the most bludgeoning, simplistic beats I could imagine and just hammered them into the ground."

Swans' hammering grew and changed with every record, most significantly when Gira's longtime co-conspirator Jarboe joined. "We started to work with the studio more," he explains, "[to] let textures begin and use more dynamics."

This carried over to the 1987 milestone Children Of God, but also to a long rut, bottoming out with, the slick, flat major-label debut Burnilzg World, from 1989. Marred, by commercial and artistic failure, it's the only Swans release that doesn't sound like a Swans release. "I was forced to have an outside, producer," recalls Gira. "The record was just thrown out there with no intentions to sell it... I ended up owing huge amounts of money to lawyers, to everybody." He laughs self-effacingly. "All in all. it was certainly edifying."

Following that debacle, Gira formed Young God Records to self-release Swans records. By 1995. Gira and Jarboe had triumphed with the return-to-form Great Annihilator and an astounding tour. The breakup announcement and last 1 year's monolithic Soundtracks For The Blind followed. The last Swans studio album delves into ambient music, mixing songs and collages of loops, taped voices, live musicians and noises. "The segues that we've done on albums became more important to me than the songs themselves," says Gira. Some of the voices are from the tape archives of Jarboe's late father, an FBI agent.

When he's through touring, Gira will work on the Body Lovers, a project similar to Soundtracks' instrumentals and a new band, the Pleasure Seekers. Jarboe also plans to continue with her solo career.

All of the above, as well as a selective repackaging of Swans' back catalogue, will be released on Young God. And the imminent release of a final Swans double live CD makes the band's legacy anything but dead. Gira may end up keeping his pinkie.