Stomp and Stammer

Swans Song
Looking forward and Backward with Michael Gira

by Jeff Clark

"Harbinger of Doom Continues to Vomit in Our Face."

That's how Michael Gira dreads his future musical endeavors will be received by the ever-jaded arbiters of taste. He's being sarcastic, of course, but such a fate is, unfortunately, highly likely also. For, as the guiding master of the New York-born sonic avengers Swans, Gira was instrumental in launching a sort of grueling, grinding, pummeling guitar rock that defined the downtown New York music scene in the early 1980s. Much of it was unpleasant and numbing, and Swans - contrary to their graceful name - were the ugliest ducklings on the block. It's a reputation Gira has lugged around ever since, no matter how his sound and style evolves. Especially after Atlanta musician Jarboe joined Gira in the nucleus of the ever shifting group in 1985, their soundscapes became increasing]y ambitious and immense, still bleeding twisted gloom, but with dollops of grand beauty bursting through at the most unexpected moments.

Their newest album, Soundtracks For the Blind (Young God/Atavistic Records), is their most spacious and engaging yet. Ambient yet intense, sprawled over two CD's, Gira and Jarboe alter and mutilate sound from a staggering arsenal of sources, including Swans recordings both new and old. The cross-pollinated history becomes even more appropriate when you consider that Soundtracks... is promised to be the last Swans studio album ever. Gira is moving forward with a myriad of ambitious new projects, all of which will no doubt be discounted as just more sonic sludge by the clueless. "Whatever," shrugs Gira. "I have other plans."

I hooked up with 42-year-old Gira at Clint Steele's Ethel Studio in Atlanta, where Swans spent most of November and December rehearsing for their "farewell" tour (Jarboe and Gira moved from New York to Atlanta five years ago). Once again, Steele is touring with them as a guitarist, along with ex-members of Cop Shoot Cop and Congo Norvell. But "monomaniacal" Gira (his own description) talked to me alone in the dim studio, surrounded by the instruments and equipment they by now have already begun hauling from city to city, body to body, job to job. Gira's father had passed away a week earlier, which makes Soundtracks for the Blind all the more eerie, as the elder Gira's voice can be heard on the album, via old tapes Michael found and utilized as narrative segments. It's an intriguing sonic technique that's been used to great effect on previous Swans albums, and one that Gira admits a fascination for: "I had this idea once," he explained. "I was going to do this record of interviewing people.. It would just be them talking about their lives and I would set this sentimental music to their lives. So I would, say, title one piece 'John Smith,' and that would be John Smith talking about his life, and the music would evolve around it."

It seems like a Fine way to present Michael Gira today, in printed form, talking about his own life - before, during, and beyond the Swans. So, with titles coming from the vast Swans catalog, here goes:

Mother/Father: "[My father] was a business executive. He started an aircraft company in the early '60s with my uncle, in California [during] the big boom of aircraft industries. They made millions of dollars, and went totally broke, lost all their money. And then he worked as consultant for a big corporation. Then lost all his money, lost his eyesight. He died totally poor. He was 71. He had a pretty exceptional life. He was a great man. I really liked him. I have 12 hours of him talking about his life [on tape]. I think I'm gonna devote a whole record to him talking about his life, 'cause he was a great raconteur... [My mother] was a girl from Iowa, and went to UCLA, where she was a sorority girl, and she was a model. She was in Look magazine, as "That American Look." They had a whole spread on her, like, fixing a car, taking a shower, holding a baby...And they got married, and they had this amazing success, and then she became a tremendous alcoholic. They divorced, and we lost the house, we lost all the money, and she spent most of her life sitting in a room drinking." At this point, Gira begins to laugh heartily. "They were a pretty amazing American success story, actually."

Thug: "I was born in LA in 1954, so right around 1966 I started to take huge amounts of LSD. Well, I was fixing methadrine by the time I was 12, and secanol, and sniffing spot remover, sniffing glue, sniffing gasoline, breaking into cars, breaking into school. Stealing.

Getting arrested all the time. And by the time I was 14 I'd been arrested so many times that the police said either I would go into a juvenile detention center, or I could go live with my father. So my father came and got me."

The Other Side Of The World: "I went over to Europe with [my Father], after a short stay in South Bend, Indiana. And then I ran away, was hitchhiking around Europe, on my own, panhandling, living in squats...and after I was arrested, my father found me, and...he sort of had me work in this factory in Germany, that his second wife's aunt owned, as discipline to show me what hard life was like...And I ran away again, and I hitchhiked down through Europe, Yugoslavia, Greece, into Turkey, and I was running out of money, and I only had enough money to get a plane to Israel, where I ended up. I spent a year in Israel, in a kibbutz, working in a copper mine, panhandling, selling my blood. And I got arrested for selling hash...I turned 16 there, in jail."

The Great Annihilator: "I came back to California, took a GED, went to community college, and then went to art school...I quit about a half a semester before I got my degree. I was pretty much a straight-A student, so that was really stupid, but it was the time of punk...I started videotaping these gigs that were happening with X, The Screamers, all these early bands. The Germs... It was great, suddenly there was this violent eruption in this really kind of complacent kind of consumerist environment. Naturally, I got sucked into it. Got involved in that...[and] inevitably started a band. It was a pretty bad art-punk kind of band. The first name we had was Little Cripples."

The Sound Of Freedom: "Then I heard about this music that was going on in New York, and heard some of it. Like Glenn Branca, and the No New York record. It seemed like that was a more extreme musical environment. So I moved up there...I guess I was an angry young man," he laughs. "And plus, that music, to me, was very inspirational, as well as music like The Stooges, other more traditional rock things. Very early Pink Floyd, obviously Jimi Hendrix, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk...It just seemed appropriate, it didn't seem appropriate for me to do the same stupid punk rock chords, which is why I think this recent resurgence of punk rock is such an amazing joke. I mean, it was kind of moronic enough to begin with, let alone the second time around, with MTV stylists workin' on it."

Her Mouth Is Filled With Honey: "I think by the time we did the Young Cod EP and the Cop record, I was realizing that we had to move on somehow. And so when we did Greed and Holy Money, we started using a piano, and a voice, or we did all these multi-track kind of pompous operatic background vocals that Jarboe would do...She was a pretty dynamic person. She had these traditional musical talents, which I don't possess. Such as being able to really sing a lot of different ways, and come up with melodies and harmonies and different ideas. Which maybe I possess more now, but, it just seemed that that was a good thing to start incorporating. It was a good way to get out of this trap of this pummeling thing... But yeah, her influence, and her help in aiding me expand the sound, was very crucial. I used to deny that vehemently."

Celebrity Lifestyle: "You can trace a parallel between [Swans'] development and Sonic Youth's. Yeah, their music's always been more accessible in certain ways, more rock-oriented, or pop...but one of the things they did, which is sort of indicative of how to succeed, is they networked, and made friends and supporters all over the country...And plus, their music was good. In our case, we toured, and our music was good...but my proclivity then was toward total aggression, and if we had a promoter that didn't have everything right, I'd just scream right in his face... Thurston made allies all over the country, and I made enemies all over the country. Many of which are still haunting me to this day. And hindering me in - really - big ways. So it's a text-book case in, what's the word? Hubris."

Mind/Body/Light/Sound: "Seven or eight tracks [on Soundtracks...] we recorded with the touring band from last year. And I had a lot of tape loops that we had made, as far back as 1981...and just various non-musical sounds, and these narrative tapes and things. And since I had this idea of these opposing textures for so long, opposing moments, you know, like quiet-loud-soft-grinding, and putting those against each other in random ways, it seemed like a good idea to try and find a way to collage [it] all together in a way that made sense...I put it all in this computer at with Chris Griffin at Griffin Mastering, and just basically assembled the sound in there, bit by bit, and made all these new pieces...There's sometimes things going at that were recorded in '81 and '95 and '87, and they're all simultaneously going at once in a new piece. I liked working that way, 'cause it sort of frees you up. You don't get precious about something that was recorded already."

I Remember Who You Are: "For [the narrative sections] I couldn't just take stuff of TV, or some social comment stuff that's really corny. These are personal tapes that I feel conveys a story, or convey an atmosphere...Some of [the tapes] were from Jarboe's father's desk. He was an FBI agent. and they're surveillance tapes. Actually, the one on this album can't be a surveillance tape, 'cause the person seems to be aware he's being recorded, but he's obviously a criminal of some sort... And then one tape is of my father, talking about his blindness... And then there's another one of Jarboe's mother who's sort of sinking into Alzheimer's, talking about herself."

My Buried Child: "I knew as we were making the last album that it was going to be the end. But what caused me to decide it was that it's been 15 years of largely pointless struggles. So I think it's about time that I find out if I have a life outside of Swans or not and go on to other musical projects."

New Mind: "I have my own record label now - Young God Records - and immediately after this tour I'm gonna start on some new projects. One of which is called 'The Body Lovers," and that's going to be CD-length mixes, sort of similar to or extrapolating from the long soundtrack-like pieces on Soundtracks... And then I wanna do simultaneously, a so-called band called The Pleasure Seekers, which would follow in the direction of...the quieter, more acoustic, ambient kind of songs...After this tour I don't wanna do any more loud rock music, per se. 'Cause I've had my limit."

Live Through Me: "I'm gonna start releasing other people's music. Not rock music, by any means. No independent rock bands looking to make it in the music business...I'm probably gonna do some projects with Jarboe. There's a couple groups from Norway that I think I'm gonna include on a compilation CD...And then I might do something with Bill Rieflin, who recently left Ministry. And I don't really know what else yet. But I'm just gonna start putting out things in small amounts, and building a catalog. Just putting out music that I like to hear"

This Is Mine: "I'm going to reissue everything [the Swans released], as a set of four double CD's, very close in packaging to the new album. Raw cardboard, with an embossed gold kind of look, or silver. Each double CD will represent a certain period in our history, like 1983-'85, '85-'87, '87-'89 and '90-'94. That means the material that I want to stay available will stay available, and I'm gonna excise and get rid of the embarrassing moments, of which," he laughs, "there are unfortunately a plentiful amount."

God Loves America: "I just did this tour where I read my stories. I drove in my van around America by myself to different towns, and would read my stories. So, I had more time to see what was going on...And it was pretty depressing. It's like this ubiquitous thing. This kind of cancer growth that happens on the outskirts of a city now. They wipe out the rural area, and then there's these condominium kind of boxes, or these planned little neighborhoods now, with the obligatory one tree per house, this little cube of lawn, and it's just - to me - intensely frightening. It's like Mattel built the whole city. The people that live in those places look like people on television. I wanna drive around with a bazooka and blow these places up."

I Alcohol The Seed: "I'm pretty good at drinking. That's [a] big negative about [living in Atlanta]. Not being able to buy alcohol on Sunday. What a heinous crime."