Michael Gira of Swans Talks Music, Process, and Insane Energy Levels

Post Author: Meredith Schneider

Swans has existed – in some form or another – since 1982. In its early inception, the music project was praised as unique avant-rock/post-punk sounds, and held that description to some extent through the band’s breakup in 1997. In 2010, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira – the founding member of, and creative force behind, Swans – decided to make the project a living, breathing work again. In that sense, Swans was reborn, and they’ve been going full throttle ever since.

Through thick and thin, Gira has been making music since before the inception of Swans. From his days as a backpacking harmonica player, to the tour Swans is currently on in celebration of their most recent work and the disbanding of the band as it currently is, Gira has held music in the most high regard. You can hear it in the music, you notice it in the excitement in his voice, and you can see it – above all else – in his insane live performance.

We got the lucky chance to catch up with Gira in a brief slow moment for him. Here it is.

How is your day going?

Oh, I have no idea. I’m comatose from having been on tour essentially for seven weeks. I just got back and I’m leaving tomorrow for somewhere else.

How do you stay alive for all of that?

Well, frankly, I don’t. I’m somehow animate while I’m onstage, otherwise I’m somewhat of a zombie. I love music, that’s why I do it.

What was the first album you heard?

The first thing that comes to mind The Seeds‘ first album. I was probably thirteen when that came out. I don’t remember who introduced it to me, it was just around and it was in the air and everywhere. I do remember an incident in my friend’s garage listening to it, sniffing gas and taking LSD. (laughing) Jim Morrison had a serious effect on me as a boy. The poetry is a little salty, but as a singer and performer, that music and the expansiveness of it and the deep places it goes to at times is just amazing to me.

That’s awesome. And did you have a defining moment when you knew music was what you wanted to pursue?

I crossed the United States a couple of times actually. I used to play my harmonica standing on the side of the road. I quite enjoyed that. Then later a friend of mine played guitar and we would sit around playing Rolling Stones songs and I’d sing. I never took that seriously because I was in art school and art was what I wanted to do. But then I went to video a punk show in 1977 or something in LA, it was a benefit for this iconic rock club called The Mask. Everyone in the LA punk scene played. It just kind of touched a nerve and I thought “this is it.” It was so riotous and immediate. I decided that I loved art, but I wasn’t a big fan of the art world or the people in it. So punk just seemed like what I needed to do. It took quite some time to develop a vocabulary for it, but that was the turning point I think.

Any crazy fan or tour stories from over the years you’d like to share?

It’s just a blur. I’ve been going full throttle for 37 years or something now. Shows have been transformative for me, particularly the last seven years with this lineup. It’s been an awakening to the positive possibilities of sound and performance.

What inspired that, and what was triggered to make your mindset change on music?

I was in this band called Angels of Light, which I started immediately after I disbanded Swans in 1998. I started that project because I was kind of sick of the huge production necessary to achieve what we wanted. I just wanted something simpler. So I started writing narrative songs on an acoustic guitar, sort of a test for me to see if I could do that. I did it for a number of years and after a while, I started to feel a call for the search of an energy provided by being inside this swirling mask of sound. Then about seven years ago I decided to do it for a number of reasons. One was because I was kind of spent with the project, Angels of Light, and running a record label – it’s exhausting – and then I also was looking at it from a financial perspective. I needed to do something where I could make a living after the crash. I saw that the writing was on the wall and I needed to do something, so I did it.

In all the years that you’ve been playing music, has there ever been an item you can’t live without – either in a performance or in studio? 

I’m kind of indifferent to equipment. I just want sound. Right now I used orange amplifiers, but I don’t really care about fetishizing equipment. I was taught how to sing from my stomach instead of from my throat, and I think that was the most revelatory experience – I think sonically – for me. I didn’t need to rip my vocal cords up while singing. I could actually project if I sang from my stomach and that has been so useful to me over the years.

There’s a wonderful force of music, which is Tibetan Ritual Music, and there’s a recording of monks from about 1972 or 1973 called “Tibetan Ritual Music” which is of monks cyclically chanting. They’re in this space where they’re projecting a pure connection with consciousness – perhaps it’s high falutin to say, but with the cosmos – and I do that as part of a meditation process. I sing just one note and try to completely occupy that one note, and that’s quite an experience.

Not to latch on to it too much, but that makes me wonder what you do to stay grounded during tour?

I don’t meditate as much as I should, I don’t read as much as I should. During tour I’m basically an ambulatory amoeba on stage. The thing that gives me the true energy to continue the music itself is when the music reaches a state when it’s playing us rather than us playing it. It can go anywhere and we follow it. It’s like an adaptive meditation and – to be very corny – it’s a very spiritual experience.

The latest album – The Glowing Man – is great. I hear a lot of it came from onstage improv. Do you have any anecdotes or information you’d like to share from the making of it? 

The last three records were created in two ways, one of which is more standard. That’s just like me writing songs on an acoustic guitar, bringing them into the studio, working them up with the band and various other contributors, and orchestrating to finish pieces. The other way – which is what you’re referring to – is live performance. What happens is maybe we have a riff, and we start to develop it over the course of 16 months of touring. We start playing it, and it gradually morphs into what you hear on the records. Sometimes we play a piece we are already familiar with and we start working off on a new tangent. Eventually that tangent becomes a new piece and we’ll gradually build off of that over the course of touring. That’s happening right now. Although I don’t plan on recording an album with this group of people, we’re just following where the sound goes. It’s really gratifying. It’s improvising in a way, but it’s more following the sound as a whole as if we’re all one body.

It’s a jazz thing, although jazz is more focused on individual players. There is a group called The Necks, they’re just absolutely tremendous. They get on stage and start playing, and they gradually develop this swirling mass from their instrumentals. Things you can’t even imagine come from an instrument. It’s an amazing experience. The tones come out as horns or human voices and they’re not either. The first record that comes to mind is called Sex, and you should check it out. It takes some patience because it takes awhile to develop, but play it loud in the car.

There’s also a musician who achieves a similar sonic ecstasy through repetition and gradual development of the cords that he’s playing, and that’s a person called Charlemagne Palestine. He has this piece called “Strumming Music” and it’s him playing these two arpeggios simultaneously. They gradually develop and, throughout the course of the music you hear this choir of angels that serve as an overtone that gradually take over. They become louder and more prevalent than the notes he’s playing, and it’s really beautiful.

How do you know when a song is complete?

It’s completely instinctual. When the song stalls or something and it seems correct. It’s not by any intellectual process, it’s just by feel. There’s no restrictions on length. We just edit them based on how much sense it makes.

You had this album finished by last fall. What has it been like waiting for its release, and what have you done in the meantime, maybe even just to relax?

I don’t do much relaxing. (laughing) We had it completed, I did artwork and a solo tour. Just always busy. I’m not so thrilled – or bubbling over with anticipation – for a release anymore. I look at the whole thing – particularly the last seven years – as a process. It’s just time to find some kind of instant of urgent truth in the sounds. That starts with me stringing chords on my acoustic guitar, taking it to the band to develop into something else, playing it live it develops into something else. Now we’re playing live again some songs we already recorded and some new ones. It’s always a process to find something, and it might be unattainable. But it’s a force.

You have been known to go on very extensive tours. I know you released a statement saying your tours would be shorter moving forward with your own work. What are you looking forward to about this new phase?

I will continue Swans. It’s not going to sound the same, and I’m not particularly sure how it’s going to sound. But I know that the marathon adventures in my life are over, it’s physically unsustainable. Right now I’m hanging in there and I love performing, but I can’t continue with this level of intensity. I have some vague notions that we may play art spaces as the new Swans, whatever that is. I anticipate shorter tours, I’ll gather people for the record. Some of them may be my friends in this group right now, but I don’t want a permanent band anymore. Perhaps because it’s a go-to method that can become repetitive and predictable, and I don’t want to be stuck in that.

It’s a bit frightening. But I’ve been doing this for a long time so I realize that it’s not going to kill me. Maybe it will, but so what?

Touring like this is like a process of attrition. It’s like being a runner, you reach a point when you feel like you’re about to collapse but then you get a second win and you’re suddenly superhuman. It’s all about the music, and we’re all dedicated to it. We’ve played some pretty fantastic shows in South America. As difficult, physically, as it was after 5 weeks of touring and 3 weeks of 8 hour a day rehearsals – I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attack on stage -, something kicked in and my body just kind of dissolved in the sound. It’s the most elating thing I’e experienced.

If you were a superhero, who would you be and why?

I think I would be a 300 lb. drag queen walking through the Republican convention.

What else can we expect from you coming up?

I’m looking forward to doing these performances, it’s what I live for. I’m looking forward to having more time to see my children and family, of course. I also want to resume reading a great deal and hopefully writing prose. Just having a bit of time to reflect and write music as well. I don’t know how I’ve sustained this for so long, but I’m looking forward to winding down a bit and perhaps something new will come through that process.

God bless you.


Keep up with Michael Gira and his limitless energy at Young God Records. Swans will be touring through mid-November, and you can catch them at a couple more US dates before they head to Europe. The Glowing Man is available now.