Michael Gira, lead singer and founding member of critically acclaimed Swans, spoke to The Fountain about his reading material whilst touring, working with Okkyung Lee and how all best things stem from failure. The last album release of Swans’ current incarnation, The Glowing Man, has led the band on tour once again.
Formed more than thirty years ago, the band have explored many guises, styles and genres, with a rotating band member list, a method that works effectively for Gira and the band. Inevitably progressive, this band could never be accused of being stagnant.
The tour began with dates in North America in the summer, before hitting Europe in the autumn, which will also see them perform in Glasgow on 11th October at the Oran Mor.
TF: How have the opening dates of the tour unfolded?
MG: Oh it’s going very well. We are developing a lot of new music live and it’s keeping us in the moment and the audiences seem to receive what we are doing well, and it’s going well.
TF: So with this run of dates being something of a Swans song for the bands established line-up, are you playing material exclusively from The Glowing Man or are you tempted to resurrect some things from your earlier works?
MG: We are doing some things from The Glowing Man, and we are doing one thing from To Be Kind and the rest is new material in progress.
TF: Why have there been so many iterations of the band? And what is it about this line up that has endured?
MG: This line up has lasted the longest of any in Swans tenure, seven years now. In the past people just came and went, I guess they had other things to do. And as I changed approaches to the music maybe people felt it wasn’t appropriate any longer or maybe I felt that. And it’s just a way of working that seems to suit me actually. I think I will return to that method after this very extensive touring cycle and just do a rotating cast of contributors for each record.
TF: If you were to look back at your discography and progression in style at which period did you feel most fulfilled as an artist?
MG: Well I am always focussed on the present. I am not really qualified to value any era of the work one above the other. This iteration of the group has been incredibly fruitful in the sense that it’s kinda like the six people involved are one body playing the music. It’s very much a telepathic communication between the players. To me it is a very interesting way to work and very fulfilling.
TF: For me one of The Glowing Man’s most poignant moments is When Will I Return. You’re your wife be joining you on tour this time?
MG: Oh no, she is not a professional musician and she has a life. I wrote that song as a tribute to her and felt it was important that she sing it for personal reasons. It hopefully has resonance to other people as well. That’s why it’s there.
TF: One of the most exciting collaborators on the record is Okkyung Lee, the cellist. How did you become acquainted with her?
MG: I met Okkyung when I was doing a solo tour playing in Copenhagen and she played on the same stage, and I had the occasion to see her perform and I was so knocked out despite her ferocity and in-the-moment expressionism. Also, her command of the instrument, of course. It’s like someone struggling with their soul in real time. It’s really exceptional. So I saw her do that, and she opened for us on a tour. And after that experience there was an open section on that song, Cloud of Unknowing and I thought why not have Okkyung play, so I did.
TF: I would describe your present sound, the 2010 sound, as maximalist. How did you arrive at the conclusion that more is more?
MG: I don’t know that I did. I said that? I said that it was maximalist? That’s actually quoting from Charlemagne Palestine. He is a minimalist composer that counters the description of himself by saying its maximalist. This is just an ongoing process of discovery with this group of people. Music turns out through a joyful struggle, it turns out the way it by us grappling with the sound live and on tour.
Half of the record is an example of that, the other half of course is songs I’ve written on an acoustic guitar which we then flush out and orchestrate in the studio. The longer songs I guess you would say are a result of that struggle and it’s always a process that we play the same songs live and they are changing enormously as we play. I came to the conclusion a while ago that a finished product was kind of a fool’s errand. It was perhaps more interesting and truthful to look at the whole career even as a process of discovery.
TF: I am glad you mentioned Charlemagne Palestine. Could you ever see yourself pursuing Rhys Chatham’s grandiose arrangements? You know Swans for a hundred guitars for instance?
MG: No, I am good with sound and I guess I’m a good arranger at times but I am certainly no composer. I work in a very intuitive way with the material in hand and somehow manage to shape it as it goes. Whereas someone like Rhys is supremely conceived and that’s not entirely my thing at all. Someone with whom I feel a kinship in terms how they make their art is Francis Bacon. Obviously he is one of the prime painters of the 20th Century.
The way in which they worked was just to begin painting and then gradually this image just emerged. His entire sensibility, his education, his skill, all of that fed into how these images developed but they kind of grew through an intuitive process which was also very disciplined, but they grew through real time, which is closer to the way I work.
TF: What is significance of the characters, the pictograms on the Glowing Man’s album sleeve? What do they allude to?
MG: I know a secret language that only I developed. They came about as some good things do through failure. I had this concept for the record. Its six panels I believe. On the physical entity of the LP and the digi-pack there are six panels and, I thought I was going to use characters from, different languages, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Hebrew, alluding to glowing man, world, fire, things like that.
So I gathered these characters and placed them in the panels and I was appalled that it looked like some kind of New Age package, like Orientalism. There was the deadline and I was forced to get rid of this as it looked so stupid and to draw my own symbols, which is what I did. Chaos can breed good things.
TF: I am fascinated by your own personification of Joseph. When did he first become your conduit? Does he pre-date his homage on We Are Him?
MG: Oh yes. Well I guess he is an avatar. I started using that name in Angels of Light some time ago, I cannot remember which record, it might have been We Are Him. I think it might have been earlier.
TF: I know you are influenced by the late great David Bowie. Do you feel your own relationship with the notion of alter ego holds any similarities to his?
MG: No, I am sure I am done with Joseph now. David Bowie, Jesus, I used to obsessively listen to him. As a gleaming ray of hope in a morose of mediocrity at the time. David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, his solo stuff, Kraftwerk, all that music that was around at the time was a really wonderful yellow brick road.
TF: I understand you don’t use earplugs when you play live?
MG: Unfortunately I am not able to, it’s too disembodied. It’s my responsibility as the focal point, as the singer, to be immersed entirely in what’s happening. When it’s working it’s a truly elating and uplifting and blissful experience. It does not always work of course but when it is it is a parallel in my life and I have a responsibility to immerse myself totally in it. Otherwise it would be very strange if all the performers were wearing earplugs, the entire audience wearing earplugs, everyone experiencing this muted version of what it is. It has of course caused damage to my hearing particularly lately considering we tour so much and sometimes we play for three hours. I just look at it as an occupational hazard.
TF: After harnessing an artistic force that has spanned thirty-five years, do you have anything left to prove?
MG: Well I never set out to prove anything, I only do what I feel is absolutely necessary for me to do. I like to exist as a human being and artist, and I make the work that is urgent and required. I try to follow a path that has some honesty and truth in it.
TF: So you mentioned you are touring extensively. Do you have any material for the road? How do you kick back after an ear-shattering performance?
MG: Unfortunately I am unable to sleep or read while touring and it makes for a strange state of mind. At the moment I am reading Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. A book I read before, it’s a wonderful book which contains one of my favourite short stories ever. And I am also reading the war journals of Vasily Grossman, a Jewish Russian journalist who was at the front with the Russian troops at the Second World War, which is some pretty harrowing reading. I am also reading some Zen books.
The Glowing Man was released on 28th July and is available on double CD and deluxe triple gatefold vinyl, with a poster and digital download. In addition, there will be a double CD/DVD format, which features a Swans live performance from 2015. With a sold out gig in Islington, Swans are touring around the UK with a date in Glasgow on 11th October. For more details click here.