Interview: Michael Gira, Swans
This interview from 1989 marked my first published piece outside of the cotton-wool confines of University Of Glasgow publications. Such entities were only too happy to accept any writer who could work a pen and had read an album review or two in their time. Stepping outside of that, into the world of paid commissions, was quite another thing entirely. As fate would have it, I never pursued my intended career in journalism; nonetheless this piece marks the earliest successful attempt to have someone pay for my work, appearing in Scotland’s cultural listing magazine, The List.
Michael Gira was the test subject, founder and primary artistic force behind Swans, a band that emerged from New York’s No Wave scene and lived through their early years as post-punk / noise manufacturers, famed for the ear-bleeding volume of their live shows. In 1988, they flirted with an alternative – recording their only major label album, ‘The Burning World’ with renowned producer Bill Laswell (a move that Gira later acknowleged as a “mismatch”). That said, the album did introduce more acoustic instrumentation and semi-pop sensibilities, both of which informed later work.
Gira was a reluctant interview subject, and I always suspect that he was playing the role of the bored moggy, lazily pawing at me as if I were his mouse toy, gaining only a modicum of pleasure from the experience. By the end, boredom has turned to sarcasm and it was clearly time to hang up the phone.
In the seven years that Swans have existed, they have constantly deluded and delighted their swelling mass of admirers. A change in style and change in line-up would inevitably mirror a shift in allegiance to a particular label. In June of 1988, however, their most disturbing transformation took place with their interpretation of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (“Basically, a beautiful song”). Swans had ripened into a crown of elegance. Some called it beautiful, others a sell-out from their brutal noise afflictions of earlier years. A mellowing of their sound?
“I wouldn’t say it was a mellowing as such”, muses creator and vocalist Michael Gira. “We have merely jettisoned, killed and eliminated what has gone before. It’s a response to the need to live. You need to get rid of something before you can progress”.
Faced with such a deliberate diversion in style, the music press has been flaunting the word ‘accessible’ in front of its readers. In all such instances, this marked deviation can incite nothing short of a major fracas with the quota of Swans’ devotees. “There was a small faction of fans who had limited perception. They would bang their heads and shout for us to play louder. There is, however, a larger group that has been responsive to changes within the band over the last few years. We are, hopefully, going to appeal to a larger number of people and, at the same time, getting rid of the ones that we hate.”
An obvious ploy to weed out the dissidents from the disciples is Gira’s rendition of ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’, penned in 1969 by one Steve Winwood, on their latest album ‘Burning World’, their first for major label MCA. He maintains however that’s “it’s not for the merits of the artist that I choose to cover a song. It’s not because it’s a Steve Winwood song, rather it’s a good blueprint to build an atmosphere around.”
Audiences can an anticipate a more placid performance from Swans when they parade their plumage at Edinburgh’s Calton Studios this week. “Our shows are now full of pastoral ballads and uplifting crescendos. It’s an end to the bludgeoning of our previous performances. I am actually expecting the audience to levitate.” And the United Kingdom? Will it succumb to the forthcoming swan-song? “Britain’s fine with me,” says Gira. Fine? With all Gira’s flourishing of feathers, we would expect more than a monosyllabic answer. “Well, it’s the Emerald Isle,” he claims, rather reluctantly. “What more can I say?“
pic: Anne Helmond
First published in The List, July 1989