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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"

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"
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.

 

Swans, "Eden Sky"

Being older, is it hard to do a long tour where you are playing every night?

It's a guaranteed aerobic workout every night so I feel stronger than I have in years.

Did you look to your peers in your age range, say Sonic Youth, look at them and say "they can be loud in their 50s and 60s, I can do that too again?"

You're actually asking me if I looked to Sonic Youth for what I could do? Somehow I don't think so. I actually admire their tenacity but I don't look at them as role models, that's for sure.

Who do you look at as role models?

Akira Kurasowa. Cormac McCarthy. Francis Bacon. Martin Scorcese.

Musicians?

Role model musicians? Hmmm. I would say Bob Dylan but that would be preposterous.

When you were doing Swans in the '80s here in New York, Swans seemed to be detached from any type of "scene" that was happening.

Absolutely—that was very intentional.

Did you like playing on bills with certain bands and at particular clubs or you didn't care?

No, I just wanted to make music and if people wanted to come along, that's fine. The only band that I really felt a kinship with—and this is in the very early days—obviously was Sonic Youth. We were both sort of "the ugly ducklings" of the neighborhood. At the time, this fake-jazz and disco and all kinds of schmancy scenemaker kind of people were in control of New York's music scene. We were making something that was a lot different than that and we banded together because no one really cared about us and we were sort of supportive of each other. But when we both started to get attention, we gravitated apart, as well. If people would start to write about a "New York scene" or something, I'd always point out in the press at that time I wanted nothing to do with it. I make my own music; I don't want to be part of some "thing."

Swans have been tagged as a "No Wave" band over the years.

I liked No Wave but that's a historically inaccurate thing to say.

Right. Swans came after No Wave.

Exactly—both of us did, both Sonic Youth and Swans. It had nothing to do with [No Wave]. Maybe I was inspired by certain facets of it. I liked Lydia [Lunch]'s music quite a bit and Glenn Branca's music in Theoretical Girls. First of all, to make something happen you didn't require great amounts of technical ability on your instrument—and that's a punk rock thing, as well. But the thing I liked about No Wave was it did not ape the typical three-chord progressions of punk rock and it didn't sound so retro in that way and people made up their own wave of making sound and that was inspirational. But there were other groups or musicians of course that had done that. I liked a lot of Brian Eno's work and Kraftwerk—that was about sound in the early days. James Chance and the Contortions were amazing. I saw them at Max's Kansas City back in the day—tremendous.

Were there NYC clubs you liked to play with Swans in the '80s, like CBGB?

CB's was okay but I never liked the stage sound because you'd never hear yourself sing—the monitors were horrible. I don't recall where I liked to play. We played this place called The Sin Club. At the time, it was on Avenue C and 3rd Street—it was kind of a no zone, just completely drug area and really dangerous. But we played there a lot and we'd always draw big crowds there and it was a good place to play. This is way back, though. Then we started playing the bigger places.

Are you taken aback by how lucrative it is playing festivals and shows now, compared to when you were doing it in the '80s?

It's nice to be able to make living at music. But, you know, I've been making a living (at music), god, since '86, or something. It's up and downs; you can't ever let it fool you. And when you start making more money, you obviously spend a lot more money, too.

Have you always lived in New York?

I left New York in '93. I moved to Atlanta, Georgia for three years. I moved back from Atlanta to Brooklyn and I lived there from like 2000 to 2005. First I was living in Sunset Park. Actually first I was at 3rd and 3rd in Gowanus, just below Park Slope there. I built a little studio for myself to live in right above Martin Bisi's B.C Studios. I lived in that big industrial building there, where Issue Project Room is. I lived in that complex for a few years. Then, um, I got a little money because a young man named Devendra Banhart did so well and saved it all and bought a house. Now I live upstate, near Woodstock.

 

Swans, "You Fucking People Make Me Sick"

Your young daughter contributed to 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky. So she likes Swans?

No [laughs]. In fact, whenever i pick up the guitar and start singing, she comes over and puts her hand on the guitar and stops me. She actually sings on the recent album. There's a song that's called "You Fucking People Make Me Sick" and Devendra is singing on that and she comes in at the end with him.

Did you have any reservations about your child singing on a song called "You Fucking People Make Me Sick"?

Of course not. Any child with a soul knows the true meaning of that phrase!

What music does she listen to?

She listens to whatever Mommy plays her. I think she likes old-timey music quite a bit.

That's pretty cool...not like Lady Gaga or some shit like that.

Don't say Lady Gaga is shit.

I've put Lady Gaga on my daughter's iPod. She listens to her.

I don't buy it and I don't sit around listening to it. But if I come across a video, I think it's pretty fuckin' funny. I think she's quite a force. In fact, we have a new song called "The Apostate" and there's a lot of kind of repetitive chanting in the song. For some reason I was doing this and I started saying her name over and over and now she's become a part of the song. I'm singing "Lady Gaga" in the song, over and over (laughs). In a way, I'm invoking her demon spirit, praying for her to come down and fuck the demon brother inside me that is singing the song.

What kind of headspace were you in in '80s-period Swans both live and lyrically? Were you angry about stuff and music was the outlet for it?

I wouldn't say so, no. When you are in the middle of these all-consuming sounds—at least when I'm in the middle of it—it just does something to me that turns me into another person. It's a kind of psychotic, religious state or something—it's like someone speaking in tongues, you know? You just enter a place that is beyond your everyday personality. One of the goals of the music we are making now is to make that happen, make the music so all-consuming, so enveloping and so large that us and the audience can lose themselves so completely in it. It's really about that: it's like either like a feeling of peaking on LSD or like having a spiritual experience without being religious or anything. It's something that happens with these kinds of sounds that is really transcendent.

Is the lineup you have now for Swans here to stay?

For now, I hope it stays. Everybody's got lives and they end up doing other things sometimes. We've been together for a year and a half, two years, and been touring constantly for a year. We all get along great and this is a really, really good rock band. I would say one of the best—meaning, it provides really intense experiences, I'd say that.

So if one or two members of your current Swans left, you'd just replace them?

Yeah. I'm doing Swans for the next five years.

Why five?

Just an arbitrary number, thought I'd make it go for another five years. The kind of thread that the aesthetic I am carrying through now I see having the potential for several more records until it runs its course. We'll see.

And you'll continue to put out the records yourself?

Of course. There's no other way to do things anymore.

Have any of the "bigger" indie labels shown interest in Swans and reached out to you?

I've never had any luck with that. I've been on indie labels in the past and the experiences I've had were truly awful. I think I had someone send a couple of MP3s to a couple of the big indies as we were finishing up the last album. They just didn't respond, as usual. I just think I learned my lesson; I never want to reach out to another label again. They're in its own world and it's just fine. We'll just take care of it ourselves.

Do you feel like you an outsider from the indie rock realm?

Oh yeah. I don't feel any real affinity with most other rock groups. It's not like I have animosity towards them; I just don't feel a kinship. I'm not a fan of the indie rock world, put it that way.

Swans plays Music Hall of Williamsburg September 27 and 28 and the I'll Be Your Mirror Festival on October 1.

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