Interview with Michael Gira – Swans

Musical resurrections are possible, and if you do not believe it, just ask Michael Gira. After 14 years having parked the cult rock band Swans, he announced months ago in Internet that the band was alive again and ready to tour, releasing a new album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky on September 2010.

For ecstasy of old and new Scandinavian and Baltic fans, Swans will be visiting Finland playing at Klubi the 10th of May and Tavastia one day later, the 11th of May, jumping later to the other side of the Baltic Sea to play in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, the 12th of May, and FREE! Magazine had the chance to hold an exclusive interview via Skype with Michael.

I was a bit scared, having listened and watched previous interviews, of the sharp mood of Gira, but actually I must say that during most of the interview, he was in an excellent mood, only partially worsened when mentioning the damage that illegal music downloading is doing to his record label. All in all, Gira is a fascinating character that, as a true genius, just builds his own path, do things the way he wants and says things just as he feels them. Enjoy the interview!:

Thanks for attending us Michael! The first question is the same that I suppose many people around are wondering themselves. After 14 years of hiatus, why to resurrect Swans?

Well, it was a very selfish artistic decision. I had been working with this other group, Angels of Light, for all that time releasing records, and then I did not know how to proceed with that, I got all the blood out of that. Along the way, I had wanted to experience with more total sonic music again, you know, like loud volume and overtones. So I decided to start again Swans, and as soon as this happened, the flow of ideas started to come over again. I am an artist, so I have to be doing something new and challenging to myself or else I feel like I am dying, so it turned out that this band I had had for so many years was the way to move forward again. And that is what I did!

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The writing process was quite long wasn´t it? You were working on these songs for 2-3 years.

Yes, I presumed that many would be Angels of Light´s songs. But when I started thinking how to orchestrate them and record them, it was not exciting to me. As soon as I thought of them for Swans, it was a different mindset, everything opened up and I wrote a couple of songs specifically for The Swans then after that. The record you could say that it is kind of a transition between Angels of Light and going back to The Swans. It has my entire story in it, but it also has new players I started to work with again, so it added a tremendous amount to the whole process.

And actually for gathering the money to record this new record, you had the idea to sell a 1.000 copies limited edition of the album I am Insane. Did you gather enough funding to work as you wanted, or did you face constrictions?

Once I got the money after the great fans bought this special project, I started recording and of course I was over budged and I had to collect money again, hehehe! As usual the money run out and the time run out and then the record is finished because of that! Hehehe I found it difficult to stop once I got involved with the recording process and the mixing and the overdubs. All the possibilities are always endless. If I have an appetite for sound, is hard for me to say that something is finished. I would work on it forever if I would have limitless money, probably!

So you never see that the “new child” is totally ready to be born…

Of course. The way I see records now is that they are just one more stage in the whole process. It starts when I pick up my acoustic guitar and I start to play thinking about chores and songs and imaging all the people playing and how it would sound, how to make it electric, and finally becomes a song or a template for a song and I send that to my friends, and they have ideas, and we get in the studio. We start working and it changes totally again, and becomes something on its own.

And even during going on tour, there is an evolution with the songs, right?

Yeah, everything is changing. It is constantly changing, and it should. Otherwise we would just be another stupid pop band, and that is not what we are. We have a lot of new material now. I think we are going to record this summer, in July, in Berlin, a new album. As the tour is going on, we are developing new materials.

I have to be doing something new and challenging, or else I would feel like I am dying!

And what would be the direction of these future albums for Swans?

The band has been around for a long time, and it has evolved quite a lot. It is going more in the sonic direction. Less word oriented. There are some songs with words, right now I just got a song that I think it is going to be orchestrated in this “country psychedelic” way. Gentle and quiet, but other songs we have been doing are very propulsive rhythmically and very long, they go over 20 minutes and more sonic oriented. I think the new record will have a lot of variation on it, sometimes pretty and quiet, and some other times more sonic.

How has your attitude evolve through the years? Are you still the same wild young boy? For example, you still have “punch on your face” lyrics and titles for songs like “You Fucking People Make me Sick”?

Well, I have never complained about the world around. For example, that is a complicated song. It was written when I was making a big sonic piece out of loops, a kind of collage, and I went on with my acoustic guitar, playing while distractedly looking at internet, at a music website, and I started writing imaging myself as a murderer or a rapist, just stalking and killing fashionable young people wearing corporate clothing. I am not saying it is me, I was only writing from that point of view. Then, when I was singing it, I realized that I sounded like my good friend Devendra Banhart. So I called him and he accepted to sing it, so all the thing made sense.

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So you had a good relation with Banhart beforehand?

I produced Devendra´s first 2 albums, and released 3 or 4 of his records on my label Young God Records.

And how was the experience of having your daughter collaborating there too?

Oh well, you know, she is 4.5 years old, so she did not really know what she was saying! hehehe.

You are visiting Finland soon. Have you visited here before? What are your expectations when visiting here?

Yeah, I played solo actually years ago, in Helsinki and in Tampere. I enjoyed it. The Finnish people are problematic, as you know! hehehe. They are much removed, reticent, they do not like to talk, so being American, and it was funny. Actually in the last Swans tour, this band Panasonic was opening for us. I liked them a lot, but there would be these moments when as an American you talk, and they were just dead silence. A funny story is that when we first met, they were waiting for us in Amsterdam, in the tour bus. They had been there for a couple of days, and when I arrived I just asked “Hey guys, how are you doing? Are you having fun?” and they just said “What do you mean “fun”?” Hehehe. That is my impression of Finland! It can be 50 men sitting in a bar, and they do not talk, just looking down.

Michael, this tour actually is planned to last pretty long, right, around one year and a half?

We started the tour in September last year, and looks like it is going to go till October this year, and maybe some short things after that. So we will record some material in Berlin in July and then some more material in September again. And then I will have to be working on the new album, mixing it, adding overdubs and all that. And then later, in 2012, the new album will come up and it will be a kind of a 30 year anniversary album. We are working on new material as we tour, so we almost have the whole record. In the set we are playing now, there are 2 new songs, one about 15 minutes long and one about 30 minutes long, and there is a couple of instrumental things which I think they are really good and they will be in the record. Now I am working on a couple more of acoustic songs. It will be a long album with a lot of sonic variation. Very intense, much different than the one we just did, more focused on the sonic side.

Being The Swans also a band well known for giving the best at live performances, have you thought of releasing a live album?

Yeah, we are recording every show, so for sure we will do a live album.

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Many fans must be wonder also about your relation with the ex member Jarboed. Do you keep in touch with each other? Would there be any chance of a re-encounter with the band?

No. We keep in touch somehow, but you know, Jarboed was very important for the group, but the reason she was in the group is that she was my mate. It was not that I was looking for a keyboardist or someone to sing female vocals. It was that she was there and I started to think on ways of adding more dynamics and variations. Jarboed could sing, so we had this primitive keyboard, and she was playing these chunks of sounds, and then she started to sing. She added a lot, no question about that, but once the relation ended, there was no point for that anymore. These songs do not call for any female background vocals. This is a new thing and I am moving forward. Some people are not happy she is not in it, but fuck them! I do not care. This is my work!

How was in the past, being a couple and working together?

It was always an argument! hehehe She would not be in the mixing, she would be in the studio and she would do her parts, and then she will be gone and the record would go on after that. But we fought all the time! Ask anybody who was on tour with us, it was hell! I remember once we got upstate, I think somewhere in Sweden, and in the dressing room there were all these people from the press, from big publications because Swans was flying high at that time, and I was just telling about changing a part of a song when she walked into the dressing room, and she was went “You fucking bastard!” and picked up a big bottle of wine and threw it as hard as she could to me! It smashed all over the dressing room!

Romantic, eh!

Hehehe. All the journalists left, of course! That is how touring with us was. I do not want to go back to that. I mean, she is great, but it is like two pieces of sand paper rubbing against each other.

Some people are not happy that Jarboed is not in the band anymore, but fuck them!

For you, owning your own record company Young God Records, what is your view about piracy and illegal downloading nowadays?

Well, streaming is fine for me; I have no problem with that. It is like reviewing before buying. But downloading is a total different thing. Of course I have a problem with people stealing my music. I am a bit sick with the discussion. Many young people write in my Facebook page that it helps me, but it is the opposite, it damages me incredibly, in fact I don´t know if I can carry on with my record label because of it. I have brought great musicians to wider audiences; it takes great effort, time and money. And people the just fucking take it! So I am closing down the record label!

In the eighties people recorded cassettes and sent to each other, that is a total different story than now, when it is massive. When they say, “Oh I will buy it later”, yeah right… Maybe only one out of ten persons buys it later. Then people propose that I could tour more, but then, with all the artists touring more, the market is over flooded. There are only a couple of big artists who really make good money out of it. So I don´t know what is going to happen…

Well Michael. We can see you are going to be very busy for the rest of the year touring and working on the new album. Is there anything else that you want to add for the readers?

No, just looking forward to coming to Finland and seeing you all there!

Swans Myspace:

http://www.myspace.com/swansaredead

Review of Helsinki gig at Tavastia coming soon!!!