Chris Mitchell on the end of Michael Gira’s intense, undefinable and deafeningly loud musical outfit SWANS
The history of music is littered with the debris of those who paid dearly for being different. From the Stooges through to Suicide and the Birthday Party, there are countless individuals and outfits who have, in retrospect, redefined the shape of music and yet been critically reviled or simply ignored during their own time. It’s a classic storyline, part of the mythos of rock’n’roll – that the culture vultures have to wait until such explosions of creative rage and violent self-expression have self-immolated themselves before they dare go near the still-smouldering corpse. Only death makes such music safe for consumption.
On March 15 this year at London’s tiny LA2 venue, such a death occurred. Michael Gira, for 15 years a self confessed dictator over an ever changing line-up of musicians, finally brought about the end of Swans. Ironically, the spectre of death which hung over the Swans’ final, funereal tour as it crossed from America to Europe drew huge audiences, even as Gira spoke in interviews of the indifference his music had faced during the last decade and a half. As is usual, only when we realise what we’re losing do we understand its value.
Gira is not a defeated, bitter individual, however. The death of Swans has been for him something of a relief – the shedding of 15 years of misconceptions and wornout reputations. Like all great bands, Gira hates Swans being categorised, not so much out of petulance as frustration with the refusal of critics to understand that a band can be more than one-dimensional.
Ever since Swans emerged from New York in the early Eighties, they defied description. Albums like “Cop” and “Filth” were works of unremitting cerebral and sonic violence which still remain unparalleled, combining the incessant industrial harshness of drum machines with stomach churning bass and howled vocals. Managing to make it from beginning to end of one of these early records is a voyage you won’t easily forget. Bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails wouldn’t even feature on the early Swans’ Richter scale. The track titles alone – “Time Is Money (Bastard)”, “Greed”, “A Screw” – reflect Gira’s state of mind at the time. “I was a hard-assed, people-hating motherfucker in the early days,” he said recently in an interview with Silencer. “I mean I was a pretty violent and aggressive, disturbed person, so I guess I made music reflected that, but also what I wanted from the experience of music was much more extreme. I wanted the music to destroy my body.”
That intensity of thought is what has always separated Swans from the rest of the record-producing world. Given the depths of emotional extremes which their early records explored not just lyrically but physically, it seems utterly fatuous to call Swans a rock’n’roll band. Rock’n’roll is traditionally feel-good music, whereas for a time Swans were the ultimate feel-bad experience. Attending their live performances was a health risk, threatening broken limbs and burst ear drums, and causing various cities’ police across the globe to literally pull the plug on them, such was their decibel measurement. Swans live were the ultimate catharsis, where the audience would enjoy being sonically pummelled into a bloody daze and pay for the pleasure too.
While this all made good copy for journalists, Gira’s reasons for producing such music often went un-noticed, lost in the on stage spectacle of abasement. As if aware that his voice was being lost amongst the noise, Gira effected a massive shift in the Swans musical direction with the 1987 album Children Of God. With the arrival of his new partner and collaborator Jarboe, Gira had finally met someone of his own strength who made Swans spread their wings, albeit schitzophrenically. The whole album is drenched in religious iconography, inspired by Gira watching American TV evangelists like Jimmy Swaggert who he considered “great rock’n’roll performers”. But while thematically Gira’s concerns remained the same – death, love, God, sex, shame, lust, pain – sonically Children Of God combined the noise terror of tracks like “Beautiful Child” with Jarboe’s haunting oboe-backed ballads “In My Garden” and “Blackmail”. The result was a uniquely unsettling album which went against the grain of everything Swans fans had come to expect.
That a radical change was happening to Swans was acknowledged at the end of their live album “Feel Good Now”, recorded during the Children Of God tour. After the final track has played out, you hear Gira’s voice saying “This is a record of a time now gone. Good bye and good luck”. It’s a strange and touching inclusion, as if Gira was mindful that many Swans devotees would neither understand or enjoy the band’s new direction and that this was the parting of the ways.
Before the emergence of the next Swans album The Burning World, Gira and Jarboe produced two albums under the name Skin. “Blood, Women, Roses” featured Jarboe’s voice scattered over a collection of diseased torch songs, while “Shame, Humility Revenge” saw Gira move towards narrative lyric writing for the first time, instead of his previous collage approach inspired by the brute power of advertising slogans. Both albums reflect Gira and Jarboe at the height of their powers, generating an otherworldly atmosphere through sound textures and patterns where their voices and their stark yet beautiful words could finally be heard. Both were classic 3am-on-your-own albums – songs which made the world feel a little less cold.
By comparison, the Swans next album was a positive riot of colour. “The Burning World”saw Gira and Jarboe completely embrace acoustic guitars and even a cover version of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home. The fact that it was their own release on a major label (MCA) caused cries of “sell-out” and Gira has recently admitted to feeling ambivalent about this period, although after hearing tracks like “God Damn The Sun” it’s difficult to see how anyone thought Swans were somehow making a deliberate bid for heavy rotation on MTV. Now that all rights to the music have reverted to his ownership, Gira plans to reissue an edited version of The Burning World along with numerous tracks that weren’t allowed onto the original album.
But it was from this point that Swans became impossible to define. Already thrown by their transformation from sonic terrorists to subversive acoustic tunesmiths, many people didn’t know what to expect next. Instead of building a fanbase, Gira had seemingly wilfully destroyed it with his restless experimentation. Reviewers continually harked back to their early days in order to find something about the band they could understand. Meanwhile, Swans continued to produce masterworks on the same epic scale as Children Of God into the Nineties, refining and redefining their sound each time. Love Of Life, White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity, The Great Annihilator – with each album Swans became more isolated from everybody else, pursuing their own unique vision. The final Swans album, Soundtracks For The Blind, almost entirely eschewed song structures in favour of sprawling ambient montages of voices and music. Assembled mainly on computer, it’s as if the technology has finally caught up with the vision of what Gira and Jarboe wanted to do with the Skin project 10 years ago, generating an atmosphere and a space for their words rather than being tied into The Song.
It’s easy to see why Gira considers the Swans moniker an albatross around his neck – during their 15 years of recording, the name Swans seemed to define nothing except who Swans *were* rather than what they had become – it’s a virtually useless term of reference. Seeing as Gira is only interested in producing what he considers worthwhile – to the point of physical collapse and financial ruin – using the same name to try and embrace his wildly differing output makes little sense anymore. Already he is at work under a new name The Pleasure Seekers, which promises an all-acoustic intimacy reminiscent of Vic Chesnutt, while there is also the Body Lovers project which will generate CD length ambient tracks. Hearing Gira discuss his current listening choices indicates his restless eclecticism: “Everything from Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Pink Floyd and Nico to more recent stuff like Low, Lambchop, Panasonic, Gastr del Sol . . . I tend to like stuff that’s sonically interesting but has some kind of emotional intensity to it. In the van I’ll listen to Hank Williams . . . Howlin’ Wolf is a constant favorite of mine. Big influence on early Swans. I’ve also been listening to a lot of stuff from Table of the Elements, this experimental label that’s been releasing stuff by Tony Conrad, Faust, Keiji Haino . . . and that new Vic Chestnutt album is pretty great, too.”
Despite his unhidden joy at their demise, Gira is undoubtedly proud of Swans. Their website (www.swans.pair.com) carries detailed information about the series of re-releases currently planned of Swans material, which he is intending to edit and add to. Even in death, Gira doesn’t play by the rules – while Swans may be gone, he refuses to merely reissue each album untouched. They remain in flux, perpetually changing – a fitting testament to a band which always took the risk of refusing to remain static.