Michael Gira of Swans Talks Rebooting, Larkin Grimm
For a man who openly uses the terms “maniacal” and “blind egotism” to describe the way he steered his one-of-a-kind band, Swans, through the 1980s, Michael Gira is unfailingly calm and polite over Skype in 2016. When we thank him for taking the time to speak with us, he replies, “It’s a pleasure and a privilege. I don’t take it for granted that people are interested in what we do.”
Over the course of 34-plus years (including a 13-year hiatus) and 14 studio albums, it’s safe to say that more than a few people have maintained interest. In fact, those lofty-but-overused words "influential" and "groundbreaking" don’t quite cut it when describing Swans. They’re one of those rarified musical entities — like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges or Black Sabbath — that not only helped lay the foundation for bands that have gone on to become hugely influential in their own right (like Neurosis and Godflesh), but even influenced their own contemporaries (like Sonic Youth, whose leader, Thurston Moore, was apparently an early, brief Swans collaborator) and helped create entire genres.
Swans’ latest, The Glowing Man, will be their last album to feature the band’s current lineup. With nearly two hours of music spread across three LPs / two CDs, released through Gira’s own Young God Records, he and his bandmates certainly made the most of their swansong, creating a hypnotic, compelling and often harrowing journey into the recesses of the human psyche. Our man insists that Swans will soldier on — he’s just not sure what the next iteration will look like. In the following wide-ranging conversation, Gira discusses the new album, the future of Swans and the rape accusations leveled against him earlier this year by former Young God recording artist Larkin Grimm. No matter how difficult or mundane the question, he is articulate, insightful and incomparably serene.
You’ve said that the title The Glowing Man refers to a state of mind. What is that state of mind, and is there something about it that aligns with the contents of the record?
Well, I’m loath to answer all the questions that the lyrics ask, but I would say that there’s probably a corollary that hopefully most people have experienced: Say you’re walking down the street and suddenly you just forget everything about yourself — who you are, what your mind is, your memories, your thoughts, your words ... your personality, your ego — it all just disappears for an instant and you’re suddenly engulfed in the cosmos. Or — I know it’s a cliché — you’re in the desert and you look up at the stars and you’re suddenly just swirling through space. So, that’s my answer.
Three of the album’s eight songs are over 20 minutes long; one is nearly half an hour. Did you purposely go for length, or did the songs just turn out that way?
I believe it’s the latter — just through following intuition and going where the music leads, and just having the determination to do that regardless of where it ends up. Of course, there are aesthetic decisions made along the way, but I never cut a song down in length for palatability or accessibility. It’s just a question of if the song has urgency still. If it does, it needs to keep going. If it doesn’t, then I need to cut it shorter.
There have been some exceptionally long songs on the last three Swans albums. Did you just roll with it when they started developing in that direction, or did you stop and consider the process?
I don’t think like that. I don’t have a critical edit faculty. It’s more about the experience. The longer songs, as I’ve probably laboriously and tediously mentioned in interviews, developed through playing the material live. We just follow the path. Sometimes the path veers off in another direction and suddenly there’s a new piece we’re going to develop. So, it’s through performance, intuition and commitment to make something vital happen in the moment.
Who’s “Frankie M”? That song has some particularly violent and vivid imagery in its lyrics.
He’s a person I know, but I don’t want to go into specifics. That would be indelicate and rude. But he’s someone with a tremendous intelligence who has unfortunately succumbed to the failings which are inside of all of us.
Your wife sings on “When Will I Return?” which you wrote specifically for her. I understand there’s a pretty terrible story behind the song.
Indeed. I’ve talked about that in interviews before, and you’re welcome to refer to that, but she told me she doesn’t want me to talk about it anymore because it’s very upsetting to her. In the end, a song has to stand on its own, and the backstory is really beside the point, anyway. But I wrote it as a gift to her, and it’s definitely referring to an awful experience that she had.
On the song “The World Looks Red / The World Looks Black,” you revived some old lyrics that you wrote in the '80s and were used by Sonic Youth. Were you reflecting on that time period at all when you wrote the new song?
No. I was just playing my acoustic guitar in my office, as I often do, and I had a new guitar figure that I was playing over and over. I was singing some vocal phrases, and suddenly those words came into my mind, and they worked. They were basically placeholders at first, but then I thought, “Why not just do it?” So I did. My first inclination was to have my 10-year old daughter sing them, but then I thought, no, I don’t want to subject her to that. [Laughs] So I just did it myself. But I don’t know the person who wrote those words anymore. I think they’re decent words, but they reflect a state of mind that I’m not really privy to anymore. I can inhabit them as a performer, though.
You’ve often said that you don’t recognize the person you were back in the '80s. Why do you think that is?
Well, people grow. It’s a cliché, but I think Dylan said it: “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
In what way do you think you’ve changed the most since then?
A certain measure of blind egotism is necessary to make any kind of art, and that probably remains in the sense that I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have this sort of overarching need to make things. But as far as the maniacal aspect I once possessed, that probably started to disappear in the mid-'80s. It’s more about trying to find something that’s utterly electric and a positive experience. I always wanted to subsume myself in this massive sound, and I guess that impulse still remains. But the effect that I want for myself — and that I hope would translate to the audience — is a moment of bliss.
You did a lot of LSD when you were younger, and you’ve talked about it opening up what you called “a different perception of being” that has stayed with you. How do you think that perception works its way into your music or lyrics?
That’s, of course, very difficult to describe. I took LSD a lot when I was younger — I started when I was about 12, I think. I was completely unsupervised, and LSD was just around at the time. The type of acid that was available back then was very different than what was around in the '70s or '80s — it was more pure, I suppose. What it did for me — and this is terribly recondite and difficult to describe — is opened me up to the urgency of being, but not in a passive, ennui way. Everything just seemed equally important and urgent all at once. I guess that’s kind of obtuse, but it’s the best I can do.
Have you ever had an acid flashback?
[Laughs] I had them for probably a decade after my last acid trip. It’s not like suddenly you’re in the middle of a movie dream sequence, but there is a certain sensation. And if you lift your hand and move it in front of your eyes in an arc, I would find my hand trailing in steps for a few seconds after that. It’s just like watching something in stop-motion or something. I’m not sure if it’s ever left my system. But it opened me up to thinking about consciousness and existence in a way that I might not have otherwise. I certainly don’t recommend it or advise against it. It’s people’s choice to get involved in such things. But I certainly wouldn’t do it again now. I’d be horrified. [Laughs] The closest I get to that sensation now is when the music just takes us over and stops and opens up time simultaneously, and you just find yourself in the midst of something that’s elevating you.
You’ve often talked about the physicality of Swans’ shows — that you play very loudly so the listener can actually feel the music.
It’s not just about the body. It’s more about losing yourself in something. It’s a technique, in a way. The volume is not about being aggressive — I hate it when people interpret it that way. It’s more just trying to be inside the swirl. That’s the closest I could get to describing it.
Do you see it as a form of escapism?
It’s not, really. It’s bringing you directly into the moment. I’m highly interested in escaping my own mundane thoughts and memories — even my personality — but I think that’s a vehicle for being directly engaged in the moment.
Both the new album and the last Swans record, To Be Kind, were recorded in Texas. Do you think the location lent something to the recording that wouldn’t otherwise be there?
No, I don’t think any Texas dust leeched onto the tape. But it’s a great studio. It’s called Sonic Ranch, and it’s a live-in studio that’s surprisingly affordable. It’s one of the last extant places of that nature that’s within the reach of independent musicians. So, we spent a couple weeks in this little hacienda while we were recording. We rehearsed in the living room, which had nice tile floors and adobe walls, so it was kind of resonant. After we worked up the material, we immediately went into the studio and started playing. We did that for 12 hours a day before collapsing, waking up the next day, and doing it again.
What’s the significance of the image on the album cover?
[Laughs] Like most images that I find compelling, it refuses to give up its meaning. What happened was I was conceptualizing the cover art … people see it in digital panels these days, but it’s actually six panels of a foldout LP or digipak CD. I wanted an iconic image, which I’m prone to and have used since the beginning of Swans. So, I thought, why not use a character from a different language — one that uses characters instead of an alphabet, per se. I was looking at having a Chinese character on the cover denoting, say, “glowing,” or “man” or “world,” and on the next panel would be a character in Japanese, and the next panel would be in Arabic or Hebrew and so forth. So, I gathered all these loosely associated characters and had someone lay them out, and I realized it was some horrible New Age thing and thought, “Oh my god.” [Laughs] The deadline was approaching, so I just drew these images. To what they specifically refer, I cannot say. I suppose they’re twisted body parts or amalgams of different body parts, but I can’t be more specific than that because I don’t know myself.
If you could choose, what would you want listeners to get out of the new album?Oh, it’s an experience in and of itself. It’s not a pedagogical effort. [Laughs] I liken it to a sculpture by Richard Serra, for instance, where you’re not really looking at it — you’re inside the environment he creates, and you’re experiencing something directly for itself. It’s not about expressing an emotion. The sound and the performance is the emotion.
Has your mission for Swans changed over the years? Does the band mean something different to you, or do you have a different idea of what it could be?
Well, I started my first band in 1977 or 1978, and I’m not sure what the mission was then, or even when I started Swans in 1981, I think. It was basically, “Make shit happen.” [Laughs]
Earlier this year, former Young God recording artist Larkin Grimm publicly accused you of rape. You’ve denied the accusations, but where does the situation stand now?
Nowhere. It’s not true. It’s completely false. I was just realizing today, it’s like some horrible gothic fantasy wherein I’m the incubus or something. It’s just preposterous. That’s a comical word to use for something so horrible, but it’s just utterly ridiculous and false. It has no truth. I mean, certainly there was an encounter — a totally consensual encounter — but if there was a video camera there, it would completely dispel any of these preposterous accusations. All I can do is say there was certainly no coercion involved — none of the bad stuff at all.
It’s just horrifying to me that this happened. It’s been probably one of the worst events in my life. The psychological effect was terrible. It’s like someone injecting you with a mixture of gasoline and LSD simultaneously. Public shaming, or whatever they call it these days, is no joke. I’ve done some research, and innocent people kill themselves over these things — and I can see that. I’m coming to terms with it now, and it’s taken a lot of spiritual work on my part to not be angry or resentful and to try and counter it with love and compassion. That’s not an altruistic attitude — it’s really the only way. It’s the only door to go through, so that’s what I’m trying to do. It certainly had a terrible effect, but it’s dissipated. There’s nothing there. It’s not true. That’s all I can say.
Are you concerned that the situation could escalate in any way? My understanding is that she’s saying it happened in New York state, where there’s no statute of limitations on rape.
That’s her choice. There’s nothing there, so I’d just have to deal with it if it happened.
In the mid-'90s, Henry Rollins published your book of short stories and poems, The Consumer. Do you have any plans to write more in that vein?
Not in that vein, certainly, but one of my plans when this tour winds down is to try to find the mental capacity to write seriously. That will take its necessary nutrient, which is reading, and I haven’t had enough time to read in nearly a decade. [Laughs] I read often, of course, but usually I just fall asleep after 10 pages. So, I’m looking forward to setting aside time for that, feeding that section of my mind again, and trying to come up with something that has value for people. But it would not be as horrific as some of the writing was then. That was a different person. But I just read some really beautiful books by a person who really gives me hope that I could write something. Have you ever read Denis Johnson?
I’ve read Jesus’ Son and Already Dead — both fantastic books.
Yeah, I just read Jesus’ Son and Angels. I’m going to read everything by him now. I also read Tree of Smoke, which was kind of his attempt at a big, heroic novel. It was very good, but I don’t think it was as compelling as the other stuff I’ve read. He’s deceptively simple, of course. It might be a fool’s errand to think that because he’s simple I could be simple, too. But he has beautiful imagery that has this kind of hallucinatory quality. Another great writer, of course, who is impossible to aspire to being even a grain of sand next to his mountain is Cormac McCarthy.
One of the all-time greats, in my opinion.
Yes. These people are in touch with something that’s coming down from God. It’s amazingly beautiful. Another person I admire who I think has been undervalued is Hubert Selby, Jr. To me, Last Exit to Brooklyn is the least compelling of his novels. The Room is just unbelievable — and The Demon and Requiem for a Dream. They’re all just utterly astounding. The man has a Christian mystic kind of compassion for his characters that’s unparalleled.
When the new Swans album was announced, you said this would be the final studio recording from the current lineup. In other interviews, you’ve said that the decision was based on seven years of being in the same places with the same people. But was it an important musical decision as well? Is this what needs to happen in order for Swans to move forward?
Yes. However, it’s still ripe with possibility as we play on these tours that we’re engaged in. We’ll be touring for the next 16 months, so I’m interjecting changes to the music as we go and trying to keep it alive and developing so we’re not just reciting things that we’ve recorded or performed before. That’s very important to me. But as to the next direction, I just have the vaguest color in my mind — I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know if we were to continue this way, we’d all collapse. It could become habit, and habit kills possibility, so I think it’s important to shake things up. As a bandleader and record label owner and being the kind of prime mover of the thing — not to disparage anyone else — it puts me in a position of responsibility that I don’t really want anymore.
You’ve said Swans will be moving forward with a revolving cast of characters.
Some of whom may be these guys. I just don’t want “a band.” I’ll continue to make music and, whatever the material calls for, I’ll bring people in and we’ll work up a performative version of what I’ve conceived on my acoustic guitar, and make something happen with that.
Would you consider recording a Swans album that’s just you and your acoustic guitar?
I think that’s too much of a digression. I don’t know that that’s my métier, you know? I perform solo quite often, and I think I do a good job, but as far as making a full record of that … I don’t know. Maybe once the touring’s over and I have time alone I could work on it. But I don’t think I would call it Swans. Swans is about sound. It’s quite often about words, too, of course, but the blood that runs through its veins is the sonic experience.